This Ain't A Love Song

I’ll sing you a song about two lovers,
Who from Lichfield town they came, 
The young man’s name was William Taylor,
The lady’s name was Sarah Gray

So begins one version of the ballad ‘Bold William Taylor’ in which William leaves Lichfield to go and fight a war.  Sarah doesn’t get on well with her parents and so decides she too will become a soldier in order to be reunited with her true love. She disguises herself as a sailor but after suffering a wardrobe malfunction aboard the ship she is working on, it becomes apparent to the captain of the ship that she is in fact a woman. Understandably curious, the Captain wants to know what she’s doing on board his ship and Sarah explains that she’s there looking for her lover. The Captain gives her the devastating news that William Taylor has gone off and married a rich young lady but tells her that if she rises before the break of day she’ll find him out walking with his new wife. Sarah does just that and, on spying the happy couple together, calls for a sword and pistol and shoots William dead. In this version, the Captain is so impressed he puts Sarah in command of the ship and all his men. All’s fair in love and war? There’s a great performance of the song by Jim Moray here on YouTube.

As I’m quickly discovering, establishing the origins of folk songs and ballads is nigh on impossible. It seems this may have originated in Lincolnshire but why Lichfield was chosen as the home town of the unhappy couple is a mystery and to confuse matters further, in some versions, Lichfield isn’t mentioned at all. Of course, I wanted to know if there were any more songs or ballads that mentioned Lichfield. I found that the Bodleian Library has a huge, searchable archive of over 30,000 broadside ballads. According to them, ‘Broadside ballads were popular songs, sold for a penny or half-penny in the streets of towns and villages around Britain between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. These songs were performed in taverns, homes, or fairs — wherever a group of people gathered to discuss the day’s events or to tell tales of heroes and villains’.  I was really pleased to find that the collection includes several political ballads relating to Lichfield elections in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Apparently, these broadside ballads didn’t have their own music, but came with a suggestion of a well known tune that they could be sung to. I’m reading them with an image in my head of people stood around in the Ye Olde City’s pubs and taverns rowdily joining in with lines like,

With the help of Dick Dyott
We’ll keep ’em all quiet
And soon cool their Courage, and Fire:
If I give up this place
May I ne’er show my face
Till I’m hang’d by my Toes on the Spire

The above lines come from a sheet dated 1799 (it has the year handwritten on it). However, this can’t be right as on the same page is the story of Sarah Westwood, a Lichfield woman was executed for murdering her husband, a nailer from Burntwood, in January 1844. If you want to read the full story of the case it’s well documented elsewhere, especially as Sarah was the last woman to be executed at Stafford Gaol. The inclusion of scandals and sensations such as this, along with the songs have led to many describing them as the tabloids of their day. You can search the Broadside Ballad archive yourself here.

King's Head

As I’ve said before, we often focus on the visual changes of places, but the sounds change as well. I’m thinking that with its mixture of traditional songs, contemporary folk songs, drinking songs, ballads, humour, monologues and poems, the Folk Singaround at the King’s Head looks like a great way to get an idea of what our pubs may once have sounded like and hope to get down there for one of the sessions soon.

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6 thoughts on “This Ain't A Love Song

  1. As far as I remember said unfortunate victim of the poisoning is buried in Christchurch graveyard. Kate, how much do you know about the St Matthews Asylum and the little church yard in Princes Park? There are 7 war graves of WW1 soldiers in it and given the WW1 centenary would love to know more about them (and Princes Park as well).

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    • Thanks! I must go over & take a look. I’m particularly I interested in the nailers that used to live in that area. Brownhills Bob did a lot on St Matthews here http://brownhillsbob.com/2011/07/23/6035/ By coincidence we had a Lichfield Discovered committee meeting last night & John brought along an old button from one of the wardens’ uniforms! Might be worth getting in touch with the Burntwood Family History group – they are doing a lottery funded project on WW1 where they are researching the names on the graves & memorials in the area.

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      • Thanks, Kate. Unfortunately the grave is unmarked, but there is the grave of a Polish soldier in the graveyard. He was a dragoon, not a pilot, so I am not sure how he ended up in Christchurch. Funnily enough a man with the same name as him, right down to spelling, became a naturalised British citizen in 1948 and was a jeweller in Bloxwich. Thankyou for the link to the Burntwood group. Will contact them as I live very close by and have occasionally popped flowers on the graves. I do know the burial ground itself was the principal one for the St Matthews structure (a former employee at the hospital has told me some ghost stories about the place).

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    • I found out some more via the Burntwood Heritage Trail book – the burial ground was consecrated in 1867 & used for the burial of paupers from the asylum, with some graves having up to 6 bodies. In all over 3,000 men & women buried here. After 1956, the patients were buried at Christ Church. There was a mortuary chapel on the site too, demolished in the late 1960s. During WW1 soldiers were admitted to St Matthews for shellshock. Nine are buried there with war grave headstones looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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      • Ooo, thank you for the reply. I had no idea about the nailers stones, so will have to try and find them. Over 3000?! I had heard several hundred and that was more than enough. All that is left now is the small strip of land opposite Princes Park. I have photos of 8 of the WW1 soldiers headstones (one was in the Veterinary Corps).

        Judging by the photos on today’s entry you were pretty close to my place of residence- bit of a head spin to see them on the site.

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