The Shrimp King tells the story of Bert and Harry Busby of New Bradwell, two characters who featured in The Jovial Priest (1982). This show celebrated the life and times of the town’s most eccentric priest, Father Newman ‘Joey’ Guest, who arrived in 1908, and was vicar of St James for nearly 40 years by the time he died in 1946.
The corner of Canal Hill, where it met Newport Road, was known as Busby’s Corner: Bert and Harry Busby sold cockles, mussels, oysters, shrimps, winkles and whelks from their cart. The cart also doubled up as a corpse-carrier for when suicides or drunks were retrieved from the canal...
My father Bert Busby is by his cart (above). Harry Busby is with the barmaid…
Before the First War they came round the streets on horse and cart, swinging a brass bell. My father was very sedate compared with his brother, who remained a bachelor. When they went off to sell at the fairs there was always a row because Harry and the others would get drunk. Father was always on the straight and narrow which was just as well as he had to drive the horse back. And ten to one the candle in the lamp would blow out! When people committed suicide or drank too much in the Black Horse or the New Inn and fell into the canal the police engaged my father to get the body out. He had to place ice on the corpse. Afterwards he had to burn his cart, otherwise no-one would buy his fish again. What made the Busbys was the way they set out the fish. The dishes decorated with parsley were marvellous on the cart. The shellfish arrived live, mainly from Yarmouth.
(Edna Peart, LAMK 1985)
J Cunningham ingeniously incorporated many of these details into his song and used the melody of Stantonbury Village in the minor key. As Roy Nevitt, who directed many of the community documentary musical plays at Stantonbury, says of him:
‘J Cunningham is one of the most brilliant, prolific and reliable song-writers… His unmistakeable style, original and full of surprises and delights, readily adapted to the needs of the plays.’
Images and interview extract from LAMK archive.
The song is featured on the Living Archive Band’s album All That’s Changed Vol 2 (LAMK)