Jimmy Dyer, ‘a Carlisle Gentleman’ - Background (Carlisle)

Photos of the statue of Jimmy Dyer, by Judith Bluck (1986). Author’s photo.

For centuries, street performers have filled our streets with music. Few, though, found fame like Carlisle’s itinerant fiddler, Jimmy Dyer.

From brass bands to street singers, music has long filled Cumbrian towns. Market days and holidays always attracted performers, and their songs often carried the news of the day. That was certainly true in the case of Carlisle’s famous itinerant fiddler, Jimmy Dyer (1841–1903). He wrote pieces for particular occasions and supplemented his income by selling postcards and ballads.

Dyer plied his trade all around northern Cumbria 150 years ago. With his fiddle, whiskery face and shabby clothes, he was a familiar figure everywhere from Longtown to Penrith and from Cockermouth to Brampton. What is more, he was loved by town and country folks alike. Farmers often traded him hot meals for a bit of fireside entertainment, and he found similar hospitality among West Cumbria’s mining communities. Evidently, Jimmy was adept at singing for his supper, and as the years passed his reputation grew. In time, he began to style himself as the ‘Cumberland Bard’.

Dyer wasn’t the first to lay claim to that title. The poet Robert Anderson (1770–1833) had done so decades earlier, and there are other parallels between the two men’s lives.[1] Both came from Carlisle and from working families. Both, moreover, had to make their own way in the world. Anderson’s parents were already old when he was born. His mother died when he was a boy, and he left school at ten to support his aging father. Dyer’s mother died when he was two, and he was orphaned when his father, who was a foundry worker, followed her in 1857.[2]

Dyer was just sixteen at the time and he decided to go to sea. The Crimean War had just ended, but the Royal Navy was still looking for able bodies, and Dyer felt he had a thing or two to offer. For all his strength and spirit, though, Dyer didn’t get on well in the Navy. His mess mates abused him, and he apparently ‘blundered’ in his duties. So, after a single voyage, he returned to his native city, where he began to earn a living as an itinerant singer and ballad seller.

That was a recognised role back then, especially in the border region. Pedlars travelled from door to door in those days. Beggars did, too, and Dyer played the part of both tramp and tinker. In the census, his occupation is variously given as ‘poet’ or ‘musician’, and to judge from the newspapers, hardly a fair or race day passed without him. 

As early as 1865, the Carlisle Journal referred to Dyer as our ‘famed local Paganini’.[3] That comparison was comic, but it wasn’t entirely amiss. Dyer was no virtuoso, but he took naturally to the violin. He had picked up the instrument on a whim while tramping around with a volunteer band, and he found he had a knack for it. By all accounts, his playing was more proficient than refined, but that suited the songs he sang.

Those songs included traditional folk tunes, of course, but they also included original ballads composed about notable individuals and incidents. Some of Dyer’s songs still survive. You’ll find copies in the Carlisle Library, including ‘Lines of the Awful Murder near Annan’ and ‘A New Song on the volunteer Review’. 

A lot of Dyer’s songs combined self-praise and wit, and both are evident in the lines he wrote about himself

If you don’t know who I am,/ Look in my face and see,

For I’m the most respected man /In all this country.

I’m noted for my poetry; /When e’er folk see me out,

They touch their caps respectfully,/And this is what they shout: 

“Here’s Jimmy Dyer,/The man we all admire,

Here’s Jimmy Dyer,/Of him we never tire;

He plays his fiddle in the street/He does the best he can:

We all are highly fond of him/He’s a Carlisle Gentleman.”[4]

Dyer died in poverty in 1903, and he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. Memory of him has lived on, though, and nearly 80 years after his death, he was honoured with a statue that still graces the north end of the Lanes Shopping Centre in Carlisle. That’s a good place to visit to be reminded of the man, but if you’re looking for his spirit, you would do well to wander along your local high street and listen out for a fiddler striking up a tune.

Text by Christopher Donaldson 

 To find out more about the history of Carlisle township, click here

[1] For an authoritative consideration of Dyer and Anderson, see Sue Allen, ‘Folk Song in Cumbria: A Distinctive Regional Repertoire’, unpublished PhD thesis, Lancaster University, 2016.

[2] These particulars, and much of what else is known of Dyer’s life, depends on the account he provided in The Life and Times of Jimmy Dyer, Narrated by Himself (Carlisle, 1870).

[3] ‘Whitsun Hirings’, Carlisle Journal, 9 June 1865, 9. 

[4] Qt. in Sue Mycock, ‘Jimmy Dyer – The Human Christmas Box’, English Dance and Song, 44.3 (1982), 2–3.