Hylda Sims, 1932-2020: ‘She lit up the stage’

Hylda Sims playing guitar
Hylda Sims. Photo courtesy of Romilly Quay

‘A white-headed woman, sitting on the edge of time’

Hylda Sims was a musician and performer, a poet and a novelist, a teacher and event promoter often all at the same time as well as being a single mother of two daughters. When I first heard Hylda perform at Tooting Folk Club with the City Ramblers Revival I was struck by the strong, clear, feisty voice with which she delivered her songs and poems. This was not what I was expecting from a petite, white-haired older woman. But then I don’t suppose Hylda ever did what was expected.

‘An alternative person all my life’

Hylda’s life was never going to be ordinary. Her parents, having “both been married to other people”, had run off together and so Hylda was born in Manchester in 1932.

The family travelled around the country in a caravan built by her father, an itinerant market trader and lifelong communist, who sold herbal medicines.

Later – a relief to her mother, “not exactly a closet bourgeoise [but] a good businesswoman” – they settled in Norwich, where she started a fish company.

Having read AS Neill’s writings, her parents sent her to his residential progressive school, Summerhill, “where they don’t ever say no”.

Music played an important part in Hylda’s school life, having piano lesson and singing classes, harmonising songs from “a big book of international folk songs”. Ivor Cutler, the poet, who taught at Summerhill for a while, gave Hylda her first guitar and showed her some chords “and it went on from there”. Summerhill school, which still exists, is the setting for Hylda’s novel Inspecting the Island (2000).

In the 1970s Hylda co-founded and lived at Lifespan, an alternative communal living collective in South Yorkshire. At her London home, Hylda continued to welcome many musicians and poets needing a place to stay or some encouragement and support.

‘A mixture of folk and skiffle and all sorts’

Hylda, in her late teens and living in London, joined the leftwing London Youth Choir, alongside such people as Leon Rosselson and Shirley Collins, and became involved in the growing folk music scene. The choir was connected with people such as Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd, performing at gigs and leftwing events, so that “fairly soon I had a repertoire of songs and used to sing them around, here and there, in the streets sometimes”.

By the time the skiffle craze hit in the 50s Hylda was already performing in a band, the City Ramblers Skiffle Group, with her partner, Russell Quaye. Having first performed outside Waterloo station, they then ran a club, Studio Skiffle, at their studio flat in Kensington.

When the landlord objected they moved to the Princess Louise in Holborn where they put on weekly music events, performing themselves and hosting people such as Lloyd and Nancy Whiskey.

At one point the City Ramblers toured in Germany and Denmark, travelling in an old ambulance, being promoted by a variety of eccentric and unreliable agents, sometimes abandoned with no gigs and no money.

But out of this came their first recording, made for Storyville in Copenhagen, which was reissued a few years ago. They toured in the UK playing variety shows, “which was quite funny” but not a whole lot of fun. They appeared on Six-Five Special on television.

The band also toured with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. In the summer of 1957 they attended a youth festival in Moscow where their performance was filmed and can be seen on YouTube.

Returning to London they found that skiffle had really taken off, with Lonnie Donegan having a No 1 single in July. The City Ramblers felt they had “nearly missed the boat” and in hindsight then made a bad choice of record companies who “were looking for groups they could exploit”.

When the Skiffle Cellar, which they ran from 1957 to 1959, opened in Greek Street, the City Ramblers gigged there three times a week. “Everybody and his mother who was associated with the skiffle scene played there … and quite a number of folkies as well.”

Hylda described the music scene at the time. “There was folk, there was skiffle, there was trad jazz, there was bebop coming up and all of them slagged each other off, although secretly I think we all quite liked rock’n’roll.”

Billy Bragg interviewed Hylda for his 2017 book, Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World, and Hylda appeared in the accompanying BBC4 documentary, Rock Island Line.

It is significant that Hylda was one of very few women to be actively part of this scene.

By the early 60s, with the skiffle craze and her marriage over, the City Ramblers disbanded. Hylda returned to her folk repertoire, employed as a minstrel at the Elizabethan Room restaurant in South Kensington. This provided her with a regular income for the best part of 20 years.

Hylda took part in tours to France and Italy for Elizabethan feasts as well as to Canada and New York, arriving there just as Beatlemania hit.

Martin Carthy, among other folkies, also did stints at the Elizabethan Room. Hylda claimed the credit for introducing Carthy to Dave Swarbrick, with whom she had “been a bit of an item”.

‘Whenever I’ve got really skint I’ve done some teaching’

As a mature student, Hylda completed a BA and an MSc in Russian studies at Hull University and the London School of Economics respectively. She lived in Spain for a year, teaching English as a foreign language, and set up her own English language school on her return to London.

Her “most rewarding and challenging work” though was working for the Inner London Education Authority at the Individual Tuition Centre in Peckham.

This was provision for students who did not attend school for various reasons – exclusion, phobia, pregnancy – challenging but rewarding work which gave her a real insight into the lives of young people in the area which, along with her own education, she later drew on in her writing.

Hylda was passionate about the positive impact that this “sensible way of teaching” could have on the lives of the young people.

‘I think this is a song. Simon thinks it is a poem’

Hylda had always written but only really performed her own work in recent years. She took a playwriting course at Morley College, attended Arvon writing retreats and took a poetry course at Goldsmiths College.

Already running a music and poetry event at the Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich Village, Hylda was invited to co-run a poetry and jazz event for the Poetry Society which later became Hylda’s own event, Fourth Friday. The last of these was in November 2019.

In the last two decades Hylda published three novels and two volumes of poetry and co-edited a collection of poetry to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Brockwell Lido.

Always interested in local community events and campaigns, she wrote a song in support of the community purchase of the Ivy House pub in Nunhead, “bought by the people, owned by the people”, and a poem for the campaign to reinstate Peckham Lido.

There was even a haiku – “more a sum than a poem” – in support of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour party was not really leftwing enough for Hylda but she had become an active member.

In response to a request to take part in a skiffle concert about a decade ago, Hylda revived the City Ramblers as City Ramblers Revival with Simon Prager and Kevin Stenson. Together they have performed at many events including The Goose is Out!, Bermondsey Folk Festival and Herne Hill Festival to name but a few.

More recently Hylda ran Bards and Beats, a monthly evening at the Ivy House, again booking musicians and poets, always encouraging voices from the floor and new performers. Simon Prager says of Hylda: “She lit up a stage. Even four weeks before she died she performed at the Ivy House. She was very weak but came to life as soon as she got on stage.”

The January Bards and Beats, held just three days after she died, was a great night. Hylda had of course already booked it all so the only thing missing was her.

However, her presence was very much felt, just as much as she was and will be missed.

Hylda Sims, born 3 April 1932; died 13 January 2020. Many thanks to Keith Woods of Tales from the Woods for the quotes from his interview with Hylda, available at www.tftw.org.uk (February 2017). Other quotes are from Hylda’s writing and YouTube clips

This article appeared in Folk London 306, April-May 2020