James Hill (c1810-1853)
James Hill was called the “Paganini” of hornpipe players.
Despite a short and seemingly turbulent life he was the foremost fiddler and composer on Tyneside during the mid-nineteenth century. Many of his tunes have withstood the test of time and are still regarded as classics of the traditional fiddlers’ repertoire.
Details of Hill’s life are at best sketchy as he was from that shadowy strata of society whose activites were not usually reported in the newspapers of the day. The records that do exist show that he was a musician who was born in Scotland. The best current circumstantial evidence suggests that he may have been born at Dalmellington in 1810, the son of a weaver who subsequently moved to Tyneside.
He married Sarah Hunter from County Durham. The only child they had was born three months after the fiddler had died. Court records show that Hill was pursued for insolvency on a couple of occasions and as a result of this would likely have been in prison until his debts had been paid. He also tried his hand at being a publican in Newcastle at the White Swan, Sandgate and the Ship Launch, Ouseburn. The court records also show that Hill lived at a number of different lodgings in run down parts of Gateshead and Newcastle. Census records show that he was living at Bottle Bank, Gateshead in 1841 in the household of William Hunter, who was most likely his father-in-law, at the Hawk public house which was subsequently immortalised in a tune of that name. In 1851 he was living on the other side of the River Tyne in Newcastle.
He died of consumption in 1853 at the age of 42 and was buried at St. Ann’s Church on City Road to the east of the Quayside in Newcastle.
Newcastle and Gateshead were places of rapid growth with industrialisaton and the coming of railways resulting in a melting pot of immigrants from the surrounding countryside, Ireland and Scotland. There was a thriving music scene and it would appear that the hornpipe became the form of tune which became most popular.
There evolved the “Newcastle” style of hornpipe which became formalised in Wm. Honeyman’s “The Strathspey, Reel and Hornpipe Tutor”.
Some idea of the Tyneside music scene can be gleaned from the eyewitness accounts of Richard Thornton :
“About this time (c.1848) I remember my father taking me to Newcastle to hear the various fiddlers who were considered clever and who could be seen and heard on Saturdays by calling on them in their beershops and ordering a beer and requesting the proprietor to play any tune you fancied, which he would do after you had waited your turn.
Such was the demand that it took a considerable time before you got what you wanted unless you had ordered beer. There were fourteen such places at that time in Newcastle, and the miners would visit them all to form an opinion as to who was the best fiddler. They did a roaring trade on Saturdays.
Our first call, I remember, was to hear Jimmy Hill who was located at the Hawk on the Bottle Bank, Gateshead. Jimmy wrote several very fine hornpipes, the Hawk, the High Level and many more and he was the daddy of them all at hornpipe playing. He did not live long poor fellow.
Bobby Stephenson, of the Lord Nelson, in Pilgrim Street, we found in his usual elevated chair ready and willing to oblige. Bobby Spoor we next called on and enjoyed.
Our next call was to hear little Watson Derbyshire whose parents kept a house in Sandgate. He became a very fine violinist and finished his career, if I mistake not, as conductor of the Tyne Theatre.”
Hill’s compositions, which are mainly hornpipes, appear in a number of North Eastern manuscripts and other printed sources, the main ones being the Wm. Hall Lister manuscript and Köhlers’ Violin Repository of Dance Music.
Some tunes appear to have become associated with Hill even though they could not have been composed by him, but were most likely part of his repertoire. In this respect, there is no known manuscript of Hill’s music in his own hand therefore there is no absolute certainty of his authorship of many tunes.
Nevertheless, the music that survives remains a fitting tribute to the mid-nineteenth century Tyneside music scene.
St. Ann's Church, City Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, the last resting place of James Hill.
A six foot high fiddle commemorating James Hill is the work of Peter Coates.
It was unveiled in 2006 and can be found on Hill's old stamping ground, Bottle Bank, Gateshead where it rests against a retaining wall of the Tyne Bridge.