Gerry Milne, 1951-2021: singer, songwriter and club stalwart

Gerry Milne playing squeezebox by the river
Gerry Milne, left, performing with his fellow Shanty Crew member Dave West, centre. Photo: David Diamond

I first met Gerry Milne, who has died aged 69, in the 1970s when we were involved with the Earls of Essex and East Saxon Swordsmen dance sides and the musicians who played for them and the ceilidhs at the Stratford Folk Club in east London. Others around were Dave Roberts, Dick Miles and Dave Surman. I was with Manor Morris at the time – great fun.

Later, Gerry joined the Chris Roche Shanty Crew, who sang on heritage ships including the Cutty Sark, at Limehouse Basin, Greenwich, Tower Bridge and museums, collecting for charity and the Maritime Trust.

Gerry qualified as a chemist and spent some time in the Volunteer Navy Reserve, which he enjoyed. He told me he steered minesweepers sometimes.

Dave Bryant was a singer in the shanty crew and Gerry and Dave formed a group, Foxtail, with concertina and guitar. They played in a multitude of pubs and clubs and at Inland Waterways gatherings. At one of these they were given a narrowboat called Foxtail to run round the canal for a week free, taking three others with them.

By that time, Dave Bryant and I were running Folk London magazine. Gerry and Chris Roche became involved and put in a lot of work printing and collating, and Gerry was involved in the distribution for a long time. He wrote many songs, most of which appeared in the pages of Folk London, and I still retain most of them.

Gerry sang and ran singarounds at Sidmouth Festival in the New Tavern and also sang in the Middle Bar. He was always very much in demand for his fine concertina playing and large collection of songs.

At Wareham Festival he met Heather Dyer, and they lived together for many years. They were still friends after they had parted company and kept in touch until he died.

Gerry Milne with his official songbook
Gerry being presented with a collection of his songs as an award for the seventh of his eight years of unbroken attendance at Brickfolk

Gerry was a stalwart of Sharp’s Folk Club as a singer, musician and MC and also spent a lot of time at other clubs including the Capital in the West End. He also did a great deal of busking and was a favourite with his music hall songs and shanties.

When the monthly Brickfolk singaround started 10 years ago in Putney, Gerry was there and attended every session for eight years, earning an annual 100% attendance, brick-themed award and certificate, which he accepted with his typical wry smile. He rapidly became adopted as the session’s unofficial mascot; singing would be held back if his bus was delayed.

Gerry’s voice and breathing had been changing for some time, as people at both Sharp’s and Brickfolk had noticed and worried about. As his health deteriorated the unthinkable happened and Gerry missed a session. Finally, early in 2020, just before the pandemic put a stop to all communal singing, he was admitted to West Middlesex hospital struggling to breathe.

A cancerous growth was diagnosed in his throat, and unfortunately it had already spread widely. He had radiotherapy to shrink but not remove the growth. He contracted Covid very early in the pandemic but was not going to let that hold him back – he wanted to get back to his own flat.

With his characteristic determination he joined in the Zoom sessions, once even from his hospital bed, and mastered singing with his tracheostomy tube in place.

Early in 2021 he was readmitted to West Middlesex, having developed pneumonia and collapsed in his flat. When he was discharged he struggled and found getting around more difficult but managed to meet up with his ex-partner Heather for a weekly cuppa from their favourite cafe.

He was admitted to Princess Alice hospice in Esher in May, where he had excellent care. His brother Mike and sister-in-law Gloria visited him regularly, playing music for him while he tapped along with his foot when he liked the track they played; music was with him to the end. Mike and Gloria were with him as he peacefully passed away.

He will be much missed by all at Brickfolk and many a song will be sung in his memory.

Sadly I have lost one of my oldest and best friends. Thank you for all the pleasure you gave us.

Gerry Francis Milne, born 29 October 1951; died 29 May 2021. Kathy Dent also contributed to this article, which appeared in Folk London 314, August-September 2021