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William 'Billy' Frederick Cooper (1883-1964)












Billy Cooper was born on 15th December 1883 in East London.

Shortly after his birth the family moved back to Hingham, which had been his father’s birthplace and home. He had his first dulcimer by the age of ten, and as a young adolescent, palled up with two other local lads who played music, Jack Bunn and Walter Baldwin. This trio were part of pre-war black-face minstrel troupe and remained musical friends all their lives. As a young man he also hooked up with a travelling show for a while; Billy Bennington remembered it as a ‘menagerie’ and said Billy Cooper could earn 5/- a week playing outside the tent to attract audiences in.

His father was a bootmaker but Billy took a different route in life, going into the ironmonger’s business by 1911, when he lived for a while in Bury St Edmunds, where in 1908 he had married Emma Robinson. During this period in Bury St Edmunds, he travelled around playing fiddle for dances accompanied by his sister-in-law on piano (probably Mary Robinson) and then in 1915 he joined the Suffolk Regiment, managing to keep on playing music, becoming corporal in charge of the fife-and-drum band and playing the dulcimer for army church services. After the war he worked in Norwich for a while and lodged with Billy Bennington’s parents in Barford. By the 1930s, he was back in Hingham, running a greengrocer’s shop, which he continued for many more years - although Billy Bennington always said he never knew him do a proper day’s work! He also ran a chip van, which was pulled by a donkey!

Billy learned to play from his father, Frederick Cooper who led the Hingham and Watton Band and played both dulcimer and concertina. Billy did not read music but was renowned for having a very large repertoire of music including dance tunes and popular songs, though by the 1960s he commented that he did not know too much of the ‘new stuff’. He was very adept at tuning and could retune to match a piano or other instrument in a matter of a few minutes. He played with sticks for the faster tunes for stepdancing and so on, but plucked the strings with his fingernails and thumb to play chords for accompanying sing songs.

In his later years he would often spend a week or so at a time with friends and relatives in Wells-next-the-Sea and
Docking – these holidays seem to have revolved around playing music in the pubs  particularly the Ship in Wells, which closed in 1967. He was also on the radio programme Scan in 1959, on Anglia TV in 1960 and 1962, and won a talent competition at Yarmouth Winter Gardens in 1961.

   The Ship, Wells-next-the-sea

Original Eight Ringers c1920c1987


According to his daughter Flora, he would go in to the Eight Ringers every day of the week to play, with Daisy Girling accompanying on the piano: ‘All we knew about him was the dulcimer … that was his life.’




Hingham, Eight Ringers. The original pub (right) was demolished

for road widening and rebuilt on the site.


In 1959, Billy was introduced to Mervyn Plunkett, who had already met up with fiddler Walter Bulwer from Shipdham. Mervyn, together with Reg Hall, had played with traditional musicians in Sussex in an informal band and it was decided to do the same – and record it- with Billy, Walter and his wife Daisy on piano. Several recording sessions took place in 1960 and again in 1962. Publishing the recordings was a fraught process, with tapes going missing, then a limited edition of 99 albums was released in 1965 and eventually, in 1976, the seminal album ‘English Country Music’ was released, which had a huge influence on a new generation of musicians interested in finding their English musical roots.

Russell Wortley, who was involved in the recording sessions, corresponded with Billy Cooper and his wife between 1960  and 1963 and it is clear that Billy relished their friendship, in particular the challenge of finding dulcimers for people, restoring and tuning them, and he was always interested in any sort of ‘dulcie’, whatever state it was in.

Billy died at the age of 80 on 19th January 1964 and so never saw the recordings published.


Reg Hall's notes from:  TSCD607 'English Country Music'


Chris Holderness's article on Billy Cooper:  http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/cooper.htm



Billy Cooper was recorded by Russell Wortley, Sam Steele, Mervyn Plunkett, Paul Carter and Bill Leader - 1959 to 1962.


Billy Cooper recordings


Billy Cooper's Dulcimer

                                         A dulcimer owned by Billy Copper which is now in the keeping of Ray Keeler ( Billy's grandson)






Click on a thumbnail to see a larger picture


Photo descriptions & sources

Main photos:

Billy Cooper & Harry Ball c.1914 (from Billy Bennington)

Hingham Minstrels 1905 (Hingham History Centre)

1. Billy Cooper (EDP via Ray Keeler)

2. Billy Cooper (EDP )

3. Billy Cooper (Topic Records)

4. Billy Cooper & Jack Bunn with John Youngman (David Kettlewell)

5. Billy Cooper, Jack Youngman (singing) Jack Bunn (guitar) (via Des Miller)


6. Billy Cooper & Walter Bulwer (via Chris Holderness)

7. Billy Cooper & Walter Bulwer (via Chris Holderness)

8. Billy Cooper (via Chris Holderness)

9. Billy Cooper (Topic Records)

10. Hingham Silver Band (Billy Cooper: front row left)


Second main photos:

Billy Cooper's dulcimer  (EDP)

Billy Cooper's dulcimer owned by Ray Keeler  (JH)


a. Billy Cooper's dulcimer bag (David Kettlewell)

b. Billy Cooper's dulcimer owned by Ray Keeler (John Howson)

c. Billy Cooper's dulcimer owned by Ray Keeler (John Howson)



d. Billy Cooper's dulcimer owned by Ray Keeler (John Howson)

e. Billy Cooper's dulcimer owned by Ray Keeler (John Howson)

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