How I Acquired My Crabb

By Roger Digby, 2001

I moved to Islington in 1973 and by '74 found myself living 100 yards from Crabb's shop. I had a battered old Lachenal and was looking for something better. In those days there were two main sources of concertinas in that part of London, the Salvation Army in Judd St. at Kings Cross and the shelves at the back of Crabb's entrance lobby. The Salvation Army had a large instrument section but their concertinas tended to be duets with the occasional English. Crabb's selection was variable and usually contained some eccentricities. I remember a duet with the buttons arranged as a piano keyboard! I had visited Crabb a couple of times and by the summer of 74 I had about £100 saved and decided to go looking for a better instrument. I was already playing with the Angel Morris Men five of whom soon became the first stable line-up of 'Flowers and Frolics', (the other was Bob King on banjo who couldn't dance the Morris to save his life, but loved the tune sessions in the bar after practice). My Lachenal wasn't up to this sort of work.

I walked into Crabb's shop at the end of a Friday afternoon. I hardly knew Neville in those days, but it was clear he was in a foul mood. I asked if he had any Anglos for sale; he had already told me that he occasionally got a Jeffries through his hands and this was what I was hoping to acquire. He was very abrupt and virtually threw a new anglo at me demanding, "£180 + VAT, take it or leave it. If you don't want it I'll sell it by tonight to the first buyer." He was very angry!

£180 + VAT (10% in those days) = £198 and I was earning £1800 a year, so this was quite a bit more than I intended or had, but I could see that the instrument was every bit as good as Neville was saying. I explained that I didn't have that money etc. etc. and would get back to him. He repeated that it would go to the first buyer and so on.

I phoned my father and he agreed to send me a cheque. I'd just been through 5 years of University without ever asking for money so I think he knew how urgent the need was! This, however, would not arrive until the following week. I was already a regular in the 'Empress of Russia' public house, where we were to move the Islington Folk club some years later and build up a legendary venue, and I was on good terms with Aubrey Meredith, the landlord, (and incidentally a fundamental contributor to the club's success when it moved there). He offered to lend me the missing £100 until the cheque arrived and so the deal was done with Neville first thing next morning.

Shortly after this, 'Flowers' (you always leave out the second part in rhyming slang) took over the residency at the Islington Club, then at the 'Florence', and one evening I was approached by a stranger with a huge barrel of a chest and a game leg who asked to look at the Anglo claiming it looked like his. He demanded to hear the alternative A draw on the first button of the middle row. After he played it to me over and over he convinced me that it didn't sound completely freely and was perhaps very slightly wheezy (though no-one would ever have noticed) and that, he stated, was why he had refused to buy the instrument. And so the story emerged.

This stranger was Paul Davies who slowly became a good friend until his recent death. He was always travelling the country, indeed the world, busking and searching out instruments, primarily flutes and concertinas, but had not yet started doing anything more than minor restoration work. He therefore went regularly to Neville getting him to repair instruments for him which he then either kept or sold on. One day Neville had said, 'Why don't you let me make you a new one instead of messing around with all these repairs?' 'Because you can't make one as good as Jeffries.' replied Paul. 'Yes I can.' 'Prove it.' 'Alright I will.' You can imagine!

Paul laid out the most demanding criteria. A 39 button Jeffries copy, C/G, with raised ends, seven fold bellows, Swedish steel reeds, riveted action and everything the very best; and so it was made.

At this point I tend to go over to the version of the story that Neville later told me, namely that Paul was reluctant to part with the cash for a new instrument which he had been to some extent coerced into ordering and therefore kept finding small faults, all of which Neville duly rectified. Eventually Paul criticised the A draw and Neville lost his temper. He told Paul that this was the best concertina Crabb had ever made and either he took it there and then or never returned. Paul stormed out and they didn't speak again for many, many years. Five minutes later I turned up looking for an Anglo!

Neville told me that this was one of four raised ended Jeffries copies he was making. One, I think, for a doctor, one for the States; one, I think, for Australia. My serial number is 18445 and the other three would be adjacent.

After this, Neville and I became better friends and a while later Anglia TV's 'Bygones' programme prepared a feature on the Crabb family. Neville asked if I would play the part of a punter discussing an instrument with him and this I did during one lunch break! The producer asked if a knew a pub nearby! What a question. The Windsor Castle across the road had an Irish landlord who was a bad melodeon player but always welcomed a session and a lock-in in his back room, so the next day I returned to play out the programme's credits in the pub.

This was the only time I met Harry, Neville's dad, and I still didn't know the full story of my Anglo, but had always assumed, because it was such a good one, that it had been made by the old man. To be honest, the firm (i.e Neville) was producing some pretty mediocre stuff as its basic instrument in those days and this was the reason that I believed mine must be one of Harry's. Also there for the filming was an old chap who had worked with Harry many years before and he asked me if I had a Crabb. 'Yes,' I replied 'One of Harry's.' 'No,' said Neville 'It's one of mine.' At this point meaningful looks were exchanged saying, 'You know which concertina we're talking about, don't you?' Later the old chap took me aside and told me a bit more of the story. Harry had said to him, 'I can retire happy now I've seen my Neville make that concertina.' So it really is a Crabb masterpiece.

There's even a postscript to the story. Some weeks after the recording I visited my uncle in Earl Soham in Suffolk (the area covered by Anglia TV) and I phoned up Oscar Woods (one of my musical heroes and the man whose one-row melodeon playing epitomised English Country Music) to see if he fancied a tune. We agreed to meet in the 'Hare and Hounds' in Framlingham. I don't know what the pub is like now but then it was a small public bar, flag-stoned floor, benches either side of the fireplace and one table and chairs. Oscar was always late, everywhere. The landlord and a pal were sitting either side of the fire and I got my beer and sat at the table. After about five hours the other customer asked, 'What you got in that box then bo-oy?' I answered. Hours later: 'Why you here then bo-oy?' I explained I was meeting Oscar Woods. This got them going. 'Oscar's coming here tonight?' By the time Oscar eventually arrived word had spread round the village and the small room was filling up. The original customer asked if I had seen the TV programme about the concertina. 'No,' I replied truthfully, but Oscar had seen it. ' He was in it,' he declared. The combination of Oscar's friendship and TV celebrity combined to make me a welcome guest in their company on this and subsequent occasions. By the end of the evening there were three step dancers all going at once and a really great session.

Over the years a number of other concertinas have passed through my hands, and I still have quite a few, all Jeffries. One of them, my other C/G, is an absolute beauty (with 7 fold bellows, by Neville, to my specifications!) and that gets more use than the Crabb, but the Crabb was my first quality instrument and I'll not be parting from it.