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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Votes for Lichfield Women

Last night the Document programme on Radio 4 focused on an 1843 poll book for the election of an assistant overseer in St Chad’s parish, found at Lichfield Record Office. The book revealed that unmarried or widowed women from a range of backgrounds, including servants and paupers, were able to vote in this election, and the programme explores the significance of this in the story of voting rights for women.

The 1843 poll book in Lichfield provides evidence of women voting 26 years before the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act  and seventy five years before the Representation of the People Act in 1918.

For those who missed it, the half hour programme is now available on iPlayer here 

Thanks to Susan Ward, who spotted the programme (and also has her own Staffordshire based history blog here)

Halfpenny For Your Thoughts

There’s a saying ‘It’s what is on the inside that counts…’, and it’s rather appropriate for describing Frank Halfpenny Hall, a plain and unassuming building half way up George Lane. The hall is home to the wonderful Abacus Pre-School, and inside is a place full of colour and music, imagination and laughter.

Frank Halfpenny Hall, George Lane, Lichfield

People have many fond memories of the hall. Responses to requests for information on  the Lichfield Facebook group show that this is a building that’s been an important part of the community over the years. People talked about attending Sunday school there, still having the ‘Peter and Jane Go to School’ book from their last day at playgroup, eating school dinners there when at St Chad’s school and regular jumble sales being hosted. It was even the venue for one woman’s wedding reception!

The hall is named after Frank Halfpenny, a Labour councillor, who I believe went on to become Lichfield’s first Labour mayor in 1965. He was the Sheriff of Lichfield, when war broke out in 1939 and the photograph below shows him maintaining the tradition of the Sheriff’s ride that September, accompanied by just one other rider.

Frank Halfpenny ensuring the tradition of the Sheriff’s Ride is maintained. Photograph used with thanks to Annette Rubery http://www.annetterubery.co.uk/

Cllr Halfpenny bought the hall and in 1958, donated it to the Lichfield and Tamworth Constituency Labour Party. I’ve been told that the hall was used as the Labour Party HQ during the two general elections of 1974 (in May the Conservative Party held the Lichfield and Tamworth seat but lost it to Labour in the October election later that year). It had originally been built as a Primitive Methodist Chapel in 1848 and a map from 1884 shows it had 130 seats for the congregation. It the 1930s, it was used by the Salvation Army.

Sources:

Lichfield: Town government’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield(1990), pp. 73-87

Lichfield: Roman Catholicism and Protestant nonconformity’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 155-159

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichfield_and_Tamworth_(UK_Parliament_constituency)