Sunday, 12 July 2015

Forest Green

FOREST GREEN is the name of the tune sung (in the UK, at least) to O little town of Bethlehem. Since this is the carol from which I have taken the title for my book (and this blog) I thought I should look into it.

The tune is a folk-song called The Ploughboy's Dream, which Ralph Vaughan Williams 'collected' in 1903. Vaughan Williams noted that the singer from whom he learnt this song, Mr Garman of Forest Green, was a native of Sussex but living in Surrey.

Thanks to Mr Simon Coombs of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, I have learnt that RVW collected this song at a place called Broadmoor in Surrey, and that he also heard songs sung by one Isaac Longhurst on the same occasion. Here's a map showing Broadmoor:

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I have tried to find out some more about Mr Garman of Forest Green. Vaughan Williams estimated his age to be about 60. By consulting the census records I have discovered the following:

There is only one adult Mr Garman recorded in the 1901 census in the Dorking area whose birthplace was in Sussex: Henry Garman, born in 1830 (which means he was in fact 73 when he sang The Ploughboy's Dream at Broadmoor). The only trouble is, I have yet to find any evidence that Henry Garman lived at Forest Green. In the censuses of 1871, 1881 and 1891 he is living at Sheep Green (sometimes spelt Ship Green), which is to the north of Jayes Park, about here:

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It's not far from Forest Green (about a mile) but I don't think anyone living there would claim to be a resident of Forest Green. In 1901 he was living in Stane Street, Ockley: again, not far from Forest Green, but not actually in it.

Isaac Longhurst, the other singer whom RVW heard on that occasion in 1903, was living in Forest Green at the time of the 1901 census, when he was aged 68. Among the inhabitants of Broadmoor at that time was a Frederick Longhurst (aged 41 in 1901). Frederick was not Isaac's son as far as I can see, but I would be surprised if there was no family connection. I also guess that Vaughan Williams' visit in 1903 was to the house of Frederick Longhurst.

So to sum up:
  • If the Mr Garman who sang The Ploughboy's dream to RVW in 1903 was indeed a native of Sussex who lived in Surrey, it was probably Henry Garman, born 1830.
  • This Henry Garman was not living in Forest Green at the time of any of the censuses 1871 to 1901 (though he did live in the same general area).
  • Isaac Longhurst, who also sang to RVW on the same occasion, was a resident of Forest Green.
  • Frederick Longhurst lived at Broadmoor, where Mr Garman sang The Ploughboy's Dream to RVW. I have yet to discover how Frederick and Isaac were related.
My tentative - very tentative - conclusion is that when Vaughan Williams referred to 'Mr Garman of Forest Green' he was making a mistake, mixing up Garman and Longhurst. So perhaps we should be singing the carol to a tune called SHEEP GREEN? It fits in with the shepherd theme!

Any insights would be welcome.


  1. I'm sure your conclusion is quite right - RVW's writing is seriously bad, more of an approximation of meaning than an actual script, so he could well have 'approximated' the two men into the one when he recalled hearing them sing.

  2. In the US, we use a different tune, ST. LOUIS, for "O Little Town of Bethlehem", but FOREST GREEN isn't unknown for it, and is used for a number of different hymns; I see it used mainly for "I Sing th'Almighty Power of God", for example.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think in the UK it would feel really strange to sing FOREST GREEN to any other words. There's more about both FOREST GREEN and ST LOUIS in my book, available on

  3. I love Forest Green; St. Louis is too ordinary in comparison. I am so glad in my parish they use the Forest Green tune more frequently than the St. Louis tune. I was so happy when they sang I Sing The Almighty Power of God this past Sunday. I hope to play it on the organ someday. Forest Green is the best hymn tune ever, in my opinion.