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The Copper Archive

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Sketch of Bob Copper

Sketch of Bob Copper by Julliet Pannet 1994


The Copper Archive was donated by the Copper family to the University of Sussex in April 2005. The archive documents the life of Bob Copper, the patriarch of the famous singing family from Rottingdean and includes songs both written down and recorded, book drafts, sketches, photographs and correspondence.

The Copper Family’s roots in Rottingdean go back several generations and their singing style of unaccompanied harmonies has been passed down through the family to the present day. Originally kept alive in the oral tradition, the songs were first written down in 1897 by Kate Lee, one of the founders of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, having heard James ‘Brasser’ Copper and his younger brother Tom singing their old songs in the Black Horse in Rottingdean. Thanks to the devotion of Brasser’s son Jim and his son Bob, these songs have been preserved and are still lovingly sung by the Copper family today. Bob’s devotion to singing is evident throughout the collection. As well as the main collection of songs in section five there are notes about songs interleaved in a lot of the boxes, either jotted down on scraps of paper or within correspondence to numerous individuals.

The archive dates back to the early part of the 20th century with a small amount of material relating to Bob’s father Jim. This material contains notes about farm life and a small collection of songs written down by him. The archive documents the early career of Bob Copper as a policeman and his military service in the 1930s. The 1950s saw the Copper family shoot to fame when the BBC made a programme on the life of Jim. This coincided with Bob’s purchase of the Central Club with his wife Jean which allowed him to spend more of his time performing and promoting the family songs. The BBC also recorded Jim and Bob singing some of their songs. Bob was later asked by the BBC to collect songs from Sussex and Hampshire and recordings of these songs are in the archive.

Bob began a career as an author when the first of his books A Song for Every Season was published in 1971. The drafts of this and his other four books are kept in section four along with unpublished works including Bob’s memoirs provisionally titled Downhill all the Way. Bob’s books reflect his love of the old English country life and how he believed this has been withered away by urbanisation and an influx of tourism. There is a small section dedicated to Bob’s home village of Rottingdean and the County of Sussex where his love of old English country life is demonstrated.

Bob continued to give live concerts with the rest of the family until his death in 2004. His performance notes, scripts and set lists are a highlight of the archive. The family tradition of singing songs shows no sign of ending as the Copper family still appear in concert today. Bob’s children and grandchildren have taken up the tradition where he left off. The archive captures the development of the Copper Family songs and Bob’s dedication to maintaining their continued enjoyment.

Adam Harwood
April 2007






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