Rogues, Thieves and Harlots

Philip Freeman (fiddle, guitar); Claire Weston (flute, penny whistle); Pete Damsell (fiddle, mandolin); Louise Williams (fiddle); Pam Knight ( clog dance, traditional Morris); Caitlin Williams (trad. Morris).



PF: We want to share with you this evening an insight into how some of our ancestors lived and, through their songs and music, get a flavour of how they saw things.

Life could be hard in the past. No National Health Service, no benefits for the unemployed. If you were starving the parish were supposed to look after you, but it was only your own parish that had that responsibility. If you found yourself fallen on hard times elsewhere you would more likely be bundled into a neighbouring parish than given help. In the big cities there was often no help at all. In eighteenth century London babies were literally left to die in the street.

PD: There were periods of prosperity, however, and wars such as the twenty-year struggle against the French at the beginning of the 19th century could boost the economy. But it was almost always followed by a slump, causing real hardship.

  1. Hard Times of Old England PD

CW: Life was sometimes only made bearable by drink. Even though Gin was cheap – drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, clean straw for nothing – as the slogan went in Hogarth’s Gin Shop print – it still cost money you might not have. There’s an old story reported from several places in the eighteenth century about a man who goes to a gin shop with a stone bottle and asks for a quart of gin. The gin is poured into the bottle, but when the landlady tells him the price he says it’s too much and he won’t pay. All right, then, she says, I’ll have my gin back. He pours the quart back out of the bottle and goes on his way.

What the woman doesn’t know is that the bottle already had a quart of water in it, so she’s only getting back half of her gin, the man making off with the rest.

  1. Young Collins/Enrico

LW: Life was made bearable by dancing as well as drinking. Those tunes were Young Collins, an English morris tune, and the second one so widespread that it crops up under different names such as the Enrico and Waterloo Fair. It was collected by Thomas Hardy among many others.

PF: Sometimes the only way to keep alive at all was by the use of your wits. Young men often made a living by thieving and assault, young women might use other means. Lecherous young men thought young maidens were fair game, though such maidens weren’t always what they seemed.

This next song is called white copper alley. If you mix copper with zinc and nickel you get an alloy that looks like silver. But isn’t. The heroine of this song also isn’t quite what she seems at first.

3. White Copper Alley PF followed by Tripping Upstairs

CW: That tune is appropriately enough called Tripping Upstairs. Thieving of any kind could be dangerous, as the penalties were high. In fact there were a large number of crimes for which you could be hanged.

Murder and arson are perhaps not surprising in carrying the death penalty, but you could also be hanged for stealing horses or sheep. Dick Turpin was a famous horse thief. We’ll talk about him later.

Cutting down trees could be a capital offence as could destroying turnpike roads, or you could be hanged for stealing from a shipwreck.

The same fate awaited you for stealing from a rabbit warren or being out at night with a blackened face. An unmarried mother concealing a stillborn child was guilty of a capital crime but then so was wrecking a fishpond!

LW: And if you were found guilty of stealing goods worth more than a shilling – say about £50 in today’s money – that too was a hanging offence. To get round this Juries often undervalued the goods that had been stolen.

  1. Three Jolly Sneaksmen PF/PD

PD: Since the American, and later the Australian, colonies needed people to work the land, hanging was often commuted to transportation. One of the most famous cases was the Tolpuddle martyrs. George Loveless and five of his fellow workers in a small village in Dorset had a hard time of making ends meet. With increased mechanisation that meagre pay was then cut further. They swore an oath to work together to improve their lot.

They were betrayed by an informer and sent for trial, where several members of the jury were magistrates and the foreman was brother-in-law to the Home Secretary.

PF: The judge said that even if they hadn’t actually broke the law it was necessary to deter others from doing the same. George Loveless quotes the judge as saying the sentences was “not for anything that we had done, or, as he could prove, we intended to do, but for an example to others, and he considered it his duty to pass the sentence of seven years transportation”

PD: The trial had been so obviously fixed that there was an outcry. A petition of 800,00 signatures was collected. The men were eventually pardoned, but not until they had served three years, and endured the long sea voyage to Australia and back. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were sent to New South Wales but the majority of convicts were sent to Tasmania, the old name for which was Van Dieman’s Land.

  1. Van Dieman’s Land

CW: All of this has to be seen against the general lack of law and order. There was no police force until 1829, and then only in London. In 1835 local government in England was reformed and boroughs were compelled to form their own police forces. In 1839 counties were permitted but not compelled to form police forces for rural areas. (It was made compulsory in 1856).

Before that the magistrates swore in special constables -a bit like the posse in a western – but they were as likely to be on the villain’s side as the magistrate’s.

Protest about working conditions was rough and ready, often violent, and carried out anonymously and in disguise. We had Rebecca’s daughters in Wales men dressed as women with their faces blacked tearing down toll gates. In the north of England it was machine-breaking often under the banner of King Ludd – which is where we get the name Luddites. Ned Ludd was said to have been one of the first men to break the new stocking frames, though he probably never existed. In Wiltshire violence was done in the name of Captain Swing and it was the threshing machines that were smashed.

LW: Perhaps what is surprising is the restraint shown by people like the Tolpuddle Martyrs. George Loveless said “if we have violated any law it was not done intentionally. We have injured no man’s reputation, character, person or property, we were uniting together to preserve ourselves our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation”. In Wroughton, Wiltshire, their protest against cuts to the Poor Law took the form of “smoking pipes in the cemetery.” Clearly dangerous men!

So next let’s imagine the burly men of south wales dressing up in women’s clothes blacking their faces, and going off to wreck a toll gate, humming a pretty Welsh tune as they went. Something like Pant Corlan.

  1. Pant Corlan

PD: One of the swindles carried out by mine owners and mill owners – which made them bigger rogues than any of the men the magistrates convicted – was Trucking or the Tommy shop. Instead of being paid in coin men were given token to exchange at the boss’s shop. The goods there were often of poor quality and usually overpriced. You might know the phrase Tommy Rot, meaning useless or worthless, it came to be used for the goods sold in the Tommy shops.

Some Railway contractors made so much profit from the shops that they would tender a very low price for building a line, sometimes just enough to meet the cost of materials, since they were confident of making enough money out of their workers.

It’s worth mentioning in this context that Robert Owen of Newtown was a very honourable exception. At his mills in New Lanark, just outside Glasgow, the goods were such good value that people from the city travelled to the shop, a distance of almost thirty miles.

PF: If men were at the mercy of the factory owner, even more were sailors at the mercy of the captain. The Captain’s word was law, floggings were common, and cabin boys were the lowest of the low. This song is probably based upon a true case that was heard at Kings Lynn in Norfolk in 1857, though similar songs were in circulation fifty years earlier. Perhaps it just sometimes happened. The story also inspired a poem by George Crabbe that eventually became the basis of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

  1. Captain’s Apprentice PF

LW: Next we’ll play you something quite different. It’s a tune that dates from the 17th century at least. It’s called Childgrove and was published by John Playford in The English Dancing Master in 1651, the first collection of country dances we have.

8.  Childgrove

PD: That’s the sort of tune that the upper strata of society would be listening to, wearing fine clothes, dancing in brightly lit assembly rooms, and treating themselves to expensive food and drink while the poor starved in the streets. No wonder the lower orders felt hard done by.

In such a harsh world it was understandable that those who got away with thieving should be romanticised, though as in all good morality tales the wrongdoer must come to a sticky end.

CW: We’ve all heard the story of Turpin’s thrilling ride from London to York on Black Bess, galloping a distance of 200 miles through the night. Unfortunately, it’s completely untrue, and was made up by a Victorian novelist.

He was in fact a member of a gang that started out deer poaching, and such poaching was why being in the forest with a blackened face was a hanging offence. Turpin then moved on to housebreaking, again working in a gang. The gang broke up after several of them had been captured and it was then he turned to highway robbery.

Turpin moved to the East Riding of Yorkshire where he posed as a horse dealer. His problems started when he shot another man’s game cock. When the man protested, he threatened to shoot him as well. His behaviour, including giving the false name John Palmer, made the local magistrates suspicious. Eventually they discovered he had stolen several horses. He was sent to trial where he was condemned to death.

LW: It was common for highwaymen to want to make a good show at their execution and Turpin was no exception. He bought a new frock coat and shoes to be hanged in, and on the day before his execution hired five mourners for three pounds and ten shillings, probably £500 at today’s prices.
The popular imagination turned these highwaymen with their flamboyant ways into heroes of the poor people’s struggle, much as tales of Robin Hood had done in centuries before. This song captures that feeling. It’s also a warning to be careful about who you confide in.

9.  Turpin Hero PF

PF: On 7 April 1739, followed by his mourners, Turpin was taken through York by open cart to the edge of the city. He “behav’d himself with amazing assurance”, and “bow’d to the spectators as he passed”. York had no permanent hangman, and it was the custom to pardon a prisoner on condition that he acted as executioner. On this occasion, the pardoned man was a fellow highwayman, Thomas Hadfield. A contemporary account says “Turpin behaved in an undaunted manner; as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right leg tremble, he spoke a few words to the topsman, then threw himself off, and expir’d in five minutes.”

The short drop method of hanging meant that those executed were killed by slow strangulation, and Turpin was left hanging until late afternoon before being cut down.

PD: We’ll play you another couple of tunes and then we’ll have break. In the second half we’ll introduce you to some more unsavoury characters. The first tune is called Constant Billy and the second is Black Joak.

  1. Constant Billy/Black Joak



LW: Welcome back to our cheerful tales of death and dishonesty. The songs and tunes we’ve been sharing with you were passed from one person to another, often a new song being set to an old tune, a bit like you’d make a new dress out some old fabric. The poor rarely threw anything away. They couldn’t afford to.

All sorts of things were grist to the mill. The sound of clogs tapping on the cobbles provided another way of making a celebration out of very little indeed and led to distinctive regional styles of dancing.

11.  Copperpipe Polka (Louise on fiddle, Pete back up fiddle, Pam & Caitlin on feet)

PD: For the general public an execution was a good day out with high spirits and holiday atmosphere. We don’t know how many people were at Turpin’s execution, but Dickens went to a hanging some hundred years later along with 30,000 others.

CW: Somewhere around the end of the 18th century the waltz was invented. Horror of horrors it involved pressing your body against your partner unlike the existing ballroom dances . For some reason it became very popular.

This waltz is a tune that used to be played by Michael Turner, for 50 years clerk and sexton of a small parish in West Sussex, for village dances. He lived from 1796 to 1885. This was found in a tunebook in which he wrote down the music he played. The tune comes originally from a suite of dances by Mozart.

  1. Michael Turner’s Waltz

PD: In reality the life of thieving was sordid and grubby. Our next song is about Jack Hall who was sold to a chimney sweep by his parents for one guinea. In later life he became a pickpocket, a housebreaker, and stole from shops. He either used a hook on a stick to drag things out of the shop window, or a length of whalebone with bird lime on its end which he dipped into the shop’s cash box so the coins stuck to it and he fished them out.

PF: One night he went with two associates to break into the house of a baker. They tied up the journeyman and apprentice who were also living on the premises and then Jack stood guard while his accomplices went up to the bedroom where they tied up the baker and his wife.

Finding not so much as they expected, they ungagged the old man to try and get him to confess where he kept his money; but they got nothing out of him. Jack, wondering what was taking so long, then came upstairs. He took in his arms the old man’s granddaughter, about six years old, and lying in a trundle bed, and said: “Damn me, if I won’t bake the child presently in a pie, and eat it, if the old rogue will not be civil.”

This threat scared the old man and he fetched a chest from under his bed and gave them what was in it, which was about eighty pounds. The criminals were soon tracked down, however, and all three were hanged at Tyburn in 1707. Tyburn tree, as the gallows was called, stood where Marble Arch now stands.

  1. Jack Hall PD, others on chorus

LW: That song comes from a broadsheet, songs that were written to be sold at the foot of the scaffold. It’s an example of the popular theme of the ‘Highwayman’s Good Night’ a sort of recap of his life and times and a chance to say farewell. We saw with Dick Turpin how they liked to make a good showing on the scaffold. The crowd loved it.

Public hanging was abolished in 1868 partly because of the rowdiness of crowds, the petty crimes that came with such large gatherings of people, that then the encouragement of criminals by allowing them to make a good end in public,

Not all of those with blacked up faces were villains, it could be a way of disguising yourself when you went begging. There are plenty of morris sides who blacked up, such as the Shropshire Bedlams of Bishop’s Castle and Seven Champions from Norfolk. That seems to be dying out now, as people are confusing it with the Black & White Minstrels, and see it as racially motivated. Nothing could be further from the truth. So this is what you might hear at any of the festive times of the year – Easter, Christmas or perhaps the Feast of Corpus Christi which is when the Mystery Plays were performed.

PF: I looked up when Corpus Christi is, and it’s the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. So I looked that up and found it is the first Sunday after Pentecost. Which apparently is 50 days after Easter.

  1. Lads a Bunchum/Molly Oxford

PD: And here’s another one of those ‘Good Night’ ballads. This mentions Ned Fielding, who created the Bow Street Runners, the forerunners of the police, and who were often as rough as the criminals they chased, they had to be.

And in fact the police continued to be a rough lot for a long time. The old song if you want to know the time ask a policeman, wasn’t referring to how helpful they were, but the fact that they were in the habit of stealing watches from drunks.

  1. Adieu, Adieu PD

LW: As the 19th century wore on it became less fashionable to attend executions. Dickens attended several hangings and even attended a guillotining in Rome. But he belongs to the earlier Victorian period before it became more sober with the death of Prince Albert in 1861. That resulted in a new moral climate, captured in the Hymns Ancient & Modern that came out that year.

CW: But we shouldn’t think of the nineteenth as exclusively full of crime and punishment. There was plenty of gaiety and good times, too. One expression of that was a new style of tune from Europe that became highly fashionable. Invented by a girl in Bohemia in the 1830s, a decade later the Polka was the ballroom craze of Europe, and Polkas seemed to find their way into every village fiddler’s tunebook.

  1. Fred Pigeon’s Number 1 /The Tartar/Father’s Polka

PF: If you weren’t executed or transported you might end up doing hard labour. The next song is a vivid evocation of life on the treadmill. Like many of the tasks, such as stone-breaking and picking oakum, the monotony of it all was the point, meant to crush the spirit. When there protests about its use the authorities said that it did no physical harm to the men, in fact men gained weight on the treadmill. Mind you, they also mentioned that they occasionally fell into the treadmill and were crushed to death.

  1. Gaol Song PD

LW: A lot of what we have done is from the perspective of the men, and we see the world through their eyes. But there is a fair sprinkling of songs where the rogues come off worse, or where a young woman outwits a would be seducer. A sort of counterpart to the White Copper Alley we did earlier, this seduction happens outside in the open air rather than a sordid inn. The tune may be familiar, as Vaughan Williams used it in his Fantasia on Greensleeves.

  1. Lovely Joan PF/ Idbury Hill

PD: That was a morris tune from the south of England, called Idbury Hill. Idbury Hill itself is an Iron Age fort.

CW: Since making a living could be hard and thieving could end on the gallows you might instead decide to join up, though that wouldn’t necessarily save you from Rogues, Thieves or Harlots. This song is particularly scornful of the recruiting sergeant, the butt of many tales during the long Napoleonic wars.

  1. The White Cockade PD/PF/LW

PF: So perhaps we don’t have as hard time of it as our ancestors. Thanks to the Llandinam Local History Group for organising this evening. Thanks to Claire, Louise Pete all trustees of TASC, and Louise’s daughter Caitlin. I’m Philip and all the money paid tonight is going to the Air Ambulance which Claire volunteers for.

Thank you for listening and we’ll finish with a set of dance tunes to evoke the merriment people still had in between the violence, crime, cheating and lying. Some things never change. They’re another couple of polkas.

  1. Rose Tree/Jenny Lind