Spare Hands are Hull’s foremost (some would say only!) maritime folk band.

They are: Bill Sowerby, Les Ward, Steve Gardham, Tom Gaynard and Andy Buckton.

The history of the band…

The Yorkshire Garland Group was formed in 2006 for the promotion of Yorkshire folk song in and around the county. (See Having successfully put in two lottery bids to promote folk song activities in the county and set up the website, a third bid was proposed in about 2009 with the aim of establishing various local projects around the county related to folk music and dance. Unfortunately this bid was not successful. The Hull project was proposed to produce recordings of appropriate heritage songs to be played as background to exhibits in Hull Maritime Museum.

Prior to this, along with professional Sheffield-based singer Robin Garside, at the invitation of museum director Arthur Credland, Steve had been asked to sing chanties and sea songs in the Maritime Museum and had been involved in this for a couple of years. When Arthur retired, his successor, Robin Diaper, asked Steve if he could provide some backing tracks of whaling songs for the exhibits in the whaling gallery. This request and the need for a Hull-based Yorkshire Garland project determined Steve to bring together a group of local musicians and singers to this end.

Bill Sowerby, singer and multi-instrumentalist, was already part of the Yorkshire Garland Group and he immediately agreed to be part of the new band. Mick McGarry (who died in March 2023) and Les Ward were already heavily involved in the organisation of the Hull Sea Fever Festival and readily agreed to join. This was to be the quartet that produced the first album, of whaling songs, Where the Whalefish Blow, in 2014. When bookings began to come in the group needed a name and, though various ones were proposed, at the time there was much mention in the local media about the trawlermen not receiving proper severance and benefit due to their casual status as spare hands. In addition the format of the group was to be fairly loose in that any combination of the performers could and did go out to do bookings under the name, so Spare Hands was seen as an ideal name for the band.

The first album sold really well and the group soon added a fifth member, whistle player and singer Tom Gaynard, and embarked on a second album consisting of songs of the trawling industry. It is worth mentioning that all five members had been stalwarts of the Hull folk scene going back to the 1960s. Local singer Linda Kelly had already written a whole series of songs based around the experiences of her trawlerman husband, John, which Mick already had in his repertoire, and there were other great fishing songs by the likes of Mike Waterson, John Conolly and Keith Gay, which were supplemented by Bill and Steve’s writing.

The album, simply titled Spare Hands, again sold really well, so the group soon embarked on a third album, this time songs of the local waterways. Steve’s wife’s uncle, Gezz Overington, had written many songs about the Aire and Calder Navigation and the Tom Pudding system, so three of these were included, along with some traditional songs, several written by Steve, as well as some tunes composed by Bill and our good friend Dave Hill who played accordion on the album. The album was titled A Dead Bod: Songs of the Humber Waterways. At the time the preservation of the large painting of A Dead Bod by Len (Pongo) Rood had just been promoted by Burnsy on Radio Humberside, so Steve wrote the song The Ballad of Dead Bod telling the story of the famous Humber marker.

Soon after this popular album was produced, the band expanded once again, bringing new younger blood in with the addition of local singer/guitarist and event promoter Andy Buckton. Andy was already heavily involved in the Hull Folk and Maritime Festival and jumped at the chance to join. Another strong voice was a welcome addition.

For a couple of years now the group have been working on a fourth album of locally based songs, but the current pandemic has put that on hold until they can get together to polish up the tracks. The new album will have more of an east Hull theme with songs about Reckitts Girls and Hedon Road Gaol, as half our group are from east Hull.

All of the members of the band have an association with local maritime and waterways in other ways than the music. Mick sailed on Barracloughs keels before going to sea with the Wilson Line ships, and remained involved locally with GMB union matters. When the city council stopped running the Sea Fever festival, Mick was one of the main movers in keeping a maritime festival going with very limited funding.

When Steve retired from teaching he joined his father-in-law Goff Sherburn and brother-in-law Chris Sherburn as a volunteer at the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, helping to restore and run the Tom Pudding tug Wheldale, which they took to London for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012. He also helped Chris to restore the Humber keel Southcliffe back to sail and eventually qualified with a day skipper’s ticket.

Bill and Tom have involved themselves in trips on various river and canal craft and Bill was on the keel Sobriety in 2012 skippered by Chris when a force 8 blew up on the Humber and they had to take shelter in the marina. Bill and Tom’s tune The Sobriety of the Humber on the last album is a classic, based on the perils of that trip.

Les, a retired council officer, is the group’s fount of all knowledge on naval history and is famous for running singarounds in the area. He adds plenty of variety with his harmonies and swaps about between electronic melodeon, bouzouki and harmonicas.

Andy is a mobile crane operator, working in and around the Hull area and often works on the docks, and he has family history in the trawling and waterways industries. He is also a stalwart at running local folk events, being a trustee of the charity Folk in Hull and helping to organise and run the Hull Folk and Maritime Festival.

Spare Hands, along with Hull Folk Collective and a few others, are members of Hull Chanty Crew, a loose collective who regularly perform at maritime events and run workshops on the history of maritime songs and chanties.

Spare Hands are proud to support and act in association with: