My friend, Hylda Sims, the skiffle singer, poet, songwriter and activist, has died aged 87, after a short illness.
Hylda was a strong presence on the 1950s music scene in London and with her husband, Russell Quaye, ran the City Ramblers Skiffle Group. The couple also started the Skiffle Cellar in Soho. The club ran seven nights a week and everyone on the skiffle, folk and blues scene played there, including visiting American artists such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Born in Manchester, to Winifred Law and Thomas Sims, who were market traders, Hylda was one of the first generation of students to attend AS Neill’s progressive Summerhill school in Suffolk, where lessons were optional and children made the rules. She had a lifelong interest in finding alternative ways of living. In the 1970s, she founded and lived in Lifespan, a community in South Yorkshire housed in a village of abandoned railway workers’ cottages.
Hylda gained a BA in Russian studies from Hull University and a master’s from the London School of Economics. She made a living as a resident “Elizabethan minstrel” in the Elizabethan Room at the Gore Hotel in Kensington, London (where she performed with Martin Carthy). She also taught English as a foreign language and worked as a teacher of children excluded from school.
Hylda published three novels, Inspecting the Island (2000), Waterloo Roses (2013) and Peckham in Person (2014), and two poetry collections, Sayling the Babel (2006) and Reaching Peckham (2009). She was a regular contributor to Poetry News, and ran a monthly poetry and music event, Fourth Friday, at the Poetry Society’s cafe in Covent Garden.
A great fan of the Guardian cryptic crossword, she set an annual crossword herself, which was much enjoyed by her friends and family.
In later years she brought back the City Ramblers, with Simon Prager, Doc Stenson, John Pilgrim and others, as the City Ramblers Revival. Hylda was an intelligent and humorous performer and songwriter. Active until the end, she was singing in the Ivy House pub only a few weeks ago.
Billy Bragg interviewed Hylda for his 2017 book Roots, Radicals and Rockers and last year she appeared on his BBC4 programme about the skiffle craze, Rock Island Line: The Song That Made Britain Rock.
Hylda and Russell (whose real name was Quay - he added an e to his surname for the stage), who married in 1957, had two daughters, Vivienne and Romilly. The brief marriage ended in divorce.
She is survived by Romilly, her stepson, Simon, four grandchildren, Lily, Wilfe, Rufus and Remus, and her great-grandson, Sid. Vivienne predeceased her.