Salty songs and hearty harmonies: 10 years of The Exmouth Shanty Men

PUBLISHED: 07:00 23 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:18 26 September 2017

The Exmouth Shanty Men circa 2007.

The Exmouth Shanty Men circa 2007.

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The Exmouth Shanty Men singing group has been raising charity cash for 10 years. We take a look back over that time.

The Exmouth Shanty Men celebrated their tenth anniversary with a special cruise on the Exe in May 2017. Former members - including Martin John Nicholls (front left) - rejoined Derek Brooks (front right) and the crew for a memorable evening of song. Picture: Paul Strange.The Exmouth Shanty Men celebrated their tenth anniversary with a special cruise on the Exe in May 2017. Former members - including Martin John Nicholls (front left) - rejoined Derek Brooks (front right) and the crew for a memorable evening of song. Picture: Paul Strange.

The first stirrings of The Exmouth Shanty Men could be heard in 2006.

That’s when John Wokersien –the then Exmouth town clerk – and Martin John Nicholls –the then Exmouth Festival co-ordinator – were discussing the town’s maritime heritage and felt it needed to be celebrated.

English folk music is rich in sea shanties – the work songs sung by sailors in the 19th century.

Preserving those songs and fundraising for charity, especially Exmouth RNLI, became the group’s unique selling point.

The Exmouth Shanty Men perform at Falmouth in 2015.The Exmouth Shanty Men perform at Falmouth in 2015.

“If you can quaff ale and bellow, then join us,” ran a recruiting advert, posted around the town. Public rehearsals were held at The Beacon Vaults pub, and an early recruit was folk singer Derek Brooks.

“The Beacon Vaults worked well for us,” he said.

“We had the space, and Joe Public would come in and watch us and forgive us for the fact that we were stopping halfway through because it was a rehearsal and not a performance. And because you were getting feedback, you could know if it was going well or not.”

After a few rehearsals, the group first performed in public at The Bamboo Chinese restaurant in February 2007.

The Exmouth Shanty Men and Woman - Helen Highwater (Heather Redding) - in France in 2011.The Exmouth Shanty Men and Woman - Helen Highwater (Heather Redding) - in France in 2011.

“It was a bit of a jolly,” said Derek.

“Former crew member Jonno had a motto when we started: ‘Set the standards low and fail to maintain them’.”

From there, the group flourished, dressing in period costume for its first official performance – at the 2007 Exmouth Festival – and developing a series of comedic characters, each with his own shanty or two.

Derek became ship’s cook ‘Sam Minella’; John Wokersien was ship’s bosun ‘Curly Quill’; Tony Day was ‘Wayne the anchorman’; and Martin John Nicholls was ‘Seymour Cleavage’.

The first official performance by The Exmouth Shanty Men at the 2007 Exmouth Festival.The first official performance by The Exmouth Shanty Men at the 2007 Exmouth Festival.

“Martin was a consummate performer and a great front man because you needed that cohesion, that central figure that was used to being on stage,” said Derek.

“Most of our skills were learned back in school, in plays or singing in the choir and not as stage performers which Martin had done, so he was ideal as a front man.

“He had some great ideas about costume, props, staging, and presenting the songs.”

That year the group recorded and released its first CD, Rolling Home, with all funds going to the Exmouth RNLI.

The Exmouth Shanty Men's latest CD, Ten Years Before The Mast, celebrates the group's tenth anniversary.The Exmouth Shanty Men's latest CD, Ten Years Before The Mast, celebrates the group's tenth anniversary.

“We will always have a charitable aspect to us because we’re not trying to make a living out of it,” added Derek. “It’s just for the fun of it.”

As the group developed, they started to travel around the UK and then abroad – to Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, Poland and Ireland.

“We are musical ambassadors for the town,” said Derek.

“We’ve got that name in our name – The Exmouth Shanty Men – and are duty-bound to represent the town and publicise it wherever we go.”

By 2013, Martin John Nicholls had moved on to other projects, and Derek had taken over the helm. Others had also come and gone, including Jeff Lewis, Chris White and Olley Davey.

There was also great sadness with the loss of early founding members Garth Gibson, John Nettleton and Ben Redding. The group performed at each of their funerals.

A decade on, The Exmouth Shanty Men have released a new CD – Ten Years Before The Mast.

Over the years the group has raised thousands of pounds for charity. The fundraising continues on September 29,

when the group is supporting Steve Knightley at Exmouth’s Ocean, raising funds for Exmouth RNLI.

And the future?

“There’s a great deal of friendship within the group, and that’s going to carry us along for the next ten years,” said Derek.

“We wouldn’t be taking on new recruits if we thought that another 10 years, and it would be the end. There’s more to be done, without a doubt.”

Ten Years Before The Mast is available for £10 from www.exmouthshantymen.com.

Steve Knightley and The Exmouth Shanty Men are performing at Exmouth Ocean at 7.30pm on Friday, September 29. Tickets are £19 (under 16, £10), available from www.exmouthshantymen.com/tickets.php

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