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The Lincolnshire bagpipe

The extinction and revival of the Lincolnshire bagpipe

Published : 12 September 2018


The extinction and revival of the Lincolnshire bagpipe

The reed pipe as a musical instrument has been around since at least 3000 years BC. The addition of the bag came later, whoever had the idea of attaching a bag of air to the pipe is unknown, but the Hittites who lived in what is now Turkey had bagpipes around 1000BC, and the ancient Egyptians also knew of the bagpipe. The bagpipe was known to the ancient Greeks and then the Romans. The Romans definitely introduced the bagpipe into Europe during the time of the Roman Empire, but some sources claim that the bagpipe arrived in Britain before the Romans did. After the Roman Empire in the west collapsed, the bagpipe remained and became a popular instrument throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.

Too many words, skip to the end.

The first written evidence of bagpipes being played in Britain comes from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, where it says of the Miller, "A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.". Shakespeare actually mentions the Lincolnshire bagpipe by name, in Henry IV Part 1, where Falstaff says, "'Sblood, I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugged bear.", to which the Prince responds, "Or an old lion, or a lover's lute.", and Falstaff, agreeing says, "Yea, or the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe.".

No actual bagpipe from antiquity has survived into the modern era, but pictures and carvings abound. English churches and cathedrals are full of bagpipe carvings, showing that the bagpipe was a popular instrument in England during earlier times. King Henry VIII is reported to have had several sets of bagpipes, but their popularity began to wane after Henry and the Pope fell out, possibly because the bagpipe was regarded as a catholic instrument. This didn't stop the later British Empire from spreading the bagpipe internationally. Commonwealth countries and foreign militaries looking to emulate the British Army are all very keen on the Scottish version of the bagpipe, even though there are well over a hundred different types and styles of bagpipe to choose from.

A bronze statuette of a Roman soldier playing the bagpipes.

A bronze statuette of a Roman soldier playing the bagpipes.

The last known player of the Lincolnshire bagpipe was a man called John Hunsley who lived on Manton Warren during the 19th century, and died around 1850. A gentleman by the name of Canon Peter Binall wrote an article about John Hunsley, which was published in Folklore magazine in 1941.


A traditional account of a noted local character in north Lincolnshire, which I heard about twenty-five years ago, is of some interest, as it seems to have features in common with the Fenland tale of Hickathrift. I was only a boy when I heard the following details, but I think I have recollected them correctly. My informant was the late Dr. C. F. George, of Kirton in Lindsey, who was then about eighty years old, and told the story as it was recounted to him by patients whom he had visited when he was a young man. This means that the narrative (if it can be called such) was current about seventy-five years ago. It concerns a certain John Hunsley, a farmer at the northern end of the parish of Manton, five miles south-west of Brigg, in the Manley wapentake of Lindsey. He is said to have lived in a two-storey, red brick house, lately used as four farm cottages but now unoccupied, which goes by the name of Middle Manton. Here he held riotous parties at which the guests removed their shoes and always danced until the brick-dust came through to the soles of their feet, to the accompaniment of their host’s bagpipes. Incidentally, he is said to have been the last man to play this ancient Lincolnshire instrument, to which Shakespeare twice alludes, and I was told how, once a year, he rode up to Edinburgh on a white pony to have his pipes tuned.

He was a man of great physical strength, and is reputed to have jealously guarded rights over Manton Warren, which he had acquired, somewhat discreditably, by failure to pay his rent to the Dalison family over a long period of years. On one occasion he encountered a trespasser, who was accompanied by a large black dog. Seizing the dog fore and aft, Hunsley broke its back across his knee and then turned to the man and announced that he would receive the same treatment if he appeared there again. As a boxer and wrestler, he only once met his match, and that was when he found a Gypsy encamped on the warren, who refused to be turned off because his wife was lying ill in the tent. After a right set-to John Hunsley was floored, but when he had scrambled to his feet he shook the Gypsy by the hand, and said, As you are the only man who has ever knocked me down, you can come and camp here as often as you like. The only other detail which I can remember is that this queer man had some (I think two) equally peculiar daughters, who used to ride wild ponies bare-back with their hair streaming in the wind.

Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).

Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).

Though there is probably some foundation of fact in the story of John Hunsley, I fancy that a good deal of some ancient legend has, as is often the case, been fathered on him. The Hunsley family came to Manton from the neighbouring village of Scawby in the middle of the eighteenth century, and a John who had been churchwarden in 1813 was buried at Manton in 1851, aged 85. He had six children baptised there, and I believe that the last of his direct descendants was a Miss Hunsley, who married a solicitor in Boston and died a little over thirty years ago. --Peter B. G. Binnall, Folklore (1941, Vol. 52, pp. 72-74).


John Addison, a bagpipe maker from South Somercotes, was commissioned by the Lincolnshire Heritage Trust in 1988, to research historic bagpipes in Lincolnshire and to recreate a Lincolnshire bagpipe based on what he learned. In 1989, Mr Addison recreated a Lincolnshire bagpipe using a carving from Branston Church and the stone carving from Moorby Church, (pictured).

Limestone relief carving of a bagpiper and three dancers.

Limestone relief carving of a bagpiper and three dancers.

Allister Garrod of the City of Lincoln Waites band has undertaken a review of the research conducted by John Addison and concluded that a new researcher consulting the many other carvings and images of bagpipes in various locations within Lincolnshire, may well reach a different solution to the search for a Lincolnshire bagpipe. Allister Garrod playing two tunes - Lebens Distonys and Quand Hiver on the Lincolnshire bagpipe made by John Addison in 1989, as the conclusion to his research into bagpipes in Lincolnshire (commissioned by the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire).

TL;DR - Conclusion.

John Addison is reported to have said, "I am a maker of bagpipes (Northumbrian, Irish, Scots and French) and I am a native of, and work in, Lincolnshire. Had I been alive 250 years ago and pursuing the same occupation, what would present day historians have made of it? Though I am not a maker of Lincolnshire bagpipes I am a Lincolnshire bagpipe maker. Along these lines, I have been asked to make a set of Lincolnshire pipes, which I finally agreed to do. I used the Branston Church carving and the Moorby stone to guide my work, and was aided by computer enhancement of the original photograph of the Moorby stone carving.".

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