Famous ballad's link with Weston cottage

Weston has no ancient, stately homes. While the hamlet of Ashcombe got a mention in Domesday Book, the old manor farmhouse associated with it until comparatively modern times crumbled into ruin

Weston has no ancient, stately homes. While the hamlet of Ashcombe got a mention in Domesday Book, the old manor farmhouse associated with it until comparatively modern times crumbled into ruin, and the site off Manor Road is now covered by housing. Two hundred years ago Weston was no more than a few cottages scattered around the Parish Church, with a cluster of squatter-like shacks among the sand dunes.Weston's oldest surviving dwelling forms part of the Old Rectory, now incorporated into Glebe House just below the Parish Church. Across the way in Grove Park is Grove House, which also has old origins, the first house there having been built as a summer residence for the Smyth-Pigotts, who purchased the manor of Weston in 1696. Completing a trio of old Weston dwellings is the fragment of Leeves Cottage on the sea front, which has Weston's one remaining thatched roof. Leeves Cottage is particularly interesting for its associations with the Rev William Leeves, who was for nearly 50 years Rector of Wrington, and who achieved fame as a composer of the music of a once famous ballad, Auld Robin Gray.The memorial to him in the porch of Wrington church reads:"In memory of the Reverend William Leeves, who was for nearly fifty years Rector of this parish. His sincere piety, and the mild and conscientious tenor of his life, secured him the respect of his parishioners, and their regret at his loss; whilst the surviving family remembers him as the good Father, Husband, and Master. Music was his delight, and one of his compositions was the well-known air of Auld Robin Gray. Surrounded by his children, he died in peace and thankfulness humbly confiding in the merits of his Redeemer, on the morning of Whit Sunday, May 25th, 1828, in the 80th year of his age."Leeves, the son of Henry Leeves, of Kensington, was born in 1748. He became an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards in 1769, and was promoted lieutenant three years later.In 1779 he decided to take Holy Orders, and in the same year, at the age of 30, became Rector of Wrington. We do not know in what year he built his cottage by the sea at Weston, but if the old Rectory and Glebe House are not reckoned private residences in the ordinary sense, Leeves Cottage must have been the first gentleman's home built here.It was built on the site of a curious, primitive hut made of pebbles, rock, and mud by a squatter named Light, who came from the Locking area. This hut, in which Light lived for several years, merely had a hole for a door, and there were no windows. All the materials that went into the place had been gathered on the beach,The original Leeves Cottage must have been a commodious, charming place. All that remains today is the extreme eastern end with the high-pitched roof. Formerly the cottage extended over the site of the present restaurant and the adjoining Victoria hotel.The property was approached from a gate on the east side. Its windows were jasmine-draped, and the walls were covered with ivy and other creepers. There were spacious lawns dotted with flowerbeds, and a rockery.For several years after Leeve's death in 1826 the cottage remained unaltered, but as Weston began to rise as a seaside resort and land values increased, parts of it were pulled down some time before 1853, and some of the stones were used in building nearby houses.The picture we get of Leeves is that of a very saintly clergyman, who was also not only a composer but an outstanding performer on the cello, good singer and a poet. It is said of him that he "had a bass voice of surpassing power and depth which, in leading the singing, filled the beautiful Wrington church as with the deep rich mellow notes of an organ."Among Leeves' poems is one that describes 'The Sighing Rock', a shore facing Birnbeck Island near the Kewstoke toll gate. It was destroyed some years ago in a landslip. At certain stages of the tide a sighing noise emerged from it and it was generally known as 'the Boiling Kettle'.In his poem, Leeves puts the theory that the sighing rock "o'erflowing with briny tears" is a youth turned to stone. These were his verses:On Somerset's delightful coast,Where Bristol Channel flows,Nature a ledge of rock can boast, Which scarce a rival knows. Here once a fated youth repair'dHis doleful tale to sigh;The precipice he wildly dared,Nor deemed his end so nigh.When thus the Genius of the shoreAddressed the mournful youth:-"Thy pains are ended; thou no moreShalt urge thy slighted moan,That wasted form shall turn to stoneWhich pain nor torment knows.The village swains resorting here,These rugged cliffs to dare,Deep hollow sighs shall fill with fearLest they, too, brave the fair.Thy briny tears shall bubbling rise,In rocky cavern pent,An emblem of o'erflowing eyesFrom time in love misspent."May youthful lovers warning takeFrom this disastrous tale,Lest their own misery they makeWhen lost engagements fail!Let nymphs beware! - a stony heartMay swains to stone transform;And swains act well the lover's part.Such frigid hearts to warm.Leeves composed the music to famous ballad Auld Robin Gray about 1770 while he was still an officer in the Foot Guards and living at Richmond. The verses were written by Lady Anne Lindsay, daughter of the Earl of Balcarras. They were sent to Leeves by a friend, the Hon Mrs Byron. He liked them and set them to music.At the time he did not bother to have the song published. Copies were passed around to friends and the song was sung in public. It became very popular. There was no copyright protection for composers in those days and private publishers got hold of Leeves' song and printed and sold vast numbers.The lovely singer, Kitty Stephens, did more than anyone to make Auld Robin Gray famous. It is a sentimental song and Kitty used to reduce audiences to tears with it. It tells of the Scottish lass Jeany, who was courted by young Jamie. Jamie decided to go to sea to make his fortune and then come back and marry her.While he was gone his girlfriend's family was reduced to desperate circumstances. Her father broke his arm and could not work. Their cow was stolen, and the mother became ill. Their good friend in this crisis was Auld Robin Gray, who came courting the girl and supported them all:"My father could nae work my mither could nae spin,I toil'd day and night, but their bread I could nae win;Auld Robin maintains 'em baith, and wi' tears in his e'e.Said, Jeany, for their sakes, O marry me."Then came the news that Jamie's ship was wrecked, and he was presumed drowned. Jeany married Auld Robin Gray, butI had nae been a wife but weeks only fourWhen sitting sae mournfully at my ain door,I saw my Jamie's wraith - for I could nae think it he,Till he said, "I'm come home, love, to marry thee!"Sair, sair did we greet, and mickle did we say;We took but ae kiss, and we tore ourselves away.I wish that I were dead! - but I'm nae like to dee;Ah! Why was I born to cry,'wae is me?'I gang like a ghaist, and I care nae to spin;I dare nae think of Jamie, for that would be a sin:-Sae I'll do my best a gude wife to be,For Auld Robin Gray is kind to me.Kitty Stephens, who made this song so much her own, was the daughter of a carver and gilder who became one of the most celebrated English sopranos of her day. After appearing at many festivals she was at Covent Garden for nine years.Her voice was said to be pure soprano, rich, full, powerful and of extensive compass.Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and other critics of the day raved about her, and Talford described her as sending forth such a stream of delicious sound as he had never previously heard from human lips. One day at his Wrington Rectory Leeves received a letter from Kitty. She said she wished to meet the composer of the song with which she was so famously linked. One can picture the scene in the drawing room of Wrington Rectory. Leeves would surely have wanted to hear Kitty sing Auld Robin Gray. As a brilliant 'cellist he no doubt accompanied her performance.During Leeves' lifetime there arose a controversy over the authorship of the ballad. He suggestion that the air to Auld Robin Gray is a very old Scottish one and that Leeves did not write it arose from the fact that he did not establish his claim to authorship until many years after the song had become popular. He had his work at Wrington, and sought neither fame nor money. It is obvious that one of such saintly character would not lay claim to being the author of music he had not composed.There is an interesting file on the controversy, including "Leeves' Exhibits", in Weston Museum. These exhibits even include the lithographic plates off which Leeves' own edition of the song was printed. The original manuscript, in Leeves' writing, is in the British Museum.It is clear from letters and quotations in the memorial book that the Rev William Leeves was a faithful priest and greatly loved.He died on Whit Sunday, 1828, two years after his wife. As death came to him he was voicing expressions of thankfulness to God, and his end was of the resigned, happy character he had wished in lines written on his 78th birthday:Three score and eighteen birthdays have gone by, My glass is quite run out, yet here am I!I've lived to witness the expiring breath Of her whose lot was bound with mine till death;Whose virtues blest me in this frail abode,And now have wafted her to rest with God.May all my earthly days, like osiers, bendTo the soft breezes which my soul befriend;And as the dew revives the fading flow'rs,May heavn'ly influence cheer my fleeting hours:So cheer that all dear of death may cease, And I may say, when call'd,"Lord I depart in peace."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on December 30, 1966

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