> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > The Oxford Tragedy
> Peter Bellamy > Songs > The Prentice Boy
> Shirley Collins > Songs > The Oxford Girl
> The Albion Country Band > Songs > Hanged I Shall Be
> Waterson:Carthy > Songs > The Oxford Girl
> John Kirkpatrick > Songs > Ickfield Town

Hanged I Shall Be / The Oxford Tragedy / The Oxford/Wexford Girl /
Ekefield/Ickfield/Wexford Town / The Butcher Boy / The Prentice Boy

[ Roud 263 ; Laws P35 ; G/D 2:200 ; Ballad Index LP35 ; Full English HAM/2/8/20 ; trad.]

E.J. Moeran collected the grim murder ballad Hanged I Shall Be in October 1921 from ‘Shepherd’ Taylor of Hickling, Norfolk. Roy Palmer published it in 1979 in his Everyman's Book of English Country Songs.

A.L. Lloyd sang this ballad as The Oxford Tragedy in 1956 on his Riverside LP English Street Songs. He was accompanied by Alf Edwards on concertina. All tracks from this album were included in 2008 on his Fellside compilation Ten Thousand Miles Away. He commented in his sleeve notes:

Perhaps this is the most important of all murder ballads carried across England by the street singers. At least, a vast number of pieces of ballad journalism have taken it for a pattern during the last two and a half centuries. The original comes from a broadside from the end of the 17th Century called The Wittam Miller (Wittam is a village near Oxford). Most of the 19th Century stall-ballad publishers printed a version of this form favourite, which was probably the parent ballad to the American murder ballads The Knoxville Girl and Florella.

Norfolk singer Harry Cox sang it with the title Ekefield Town in a recording made by Mervyn Plunkett on June 12, 1960. It was included in 2000 on his Topic Records 2 CD anthology, The Bonny Labouring Boy. Steve Roud commented in the liner notes:

Quite widely collected in Britain by Cecil Sharp and his contemporaries, and in the repertoire of several well known post-war singers such as Cecilia Costello, Jeannie Robertson, and Phoebe Smith, this song was even more well-known in North America, where dozens of versions (under such titles as The Wexford Girl or The Lexington Miller) have been noted and published. As pointed out by Laws (American Balladry from British Broadsides, 1957), in a chapter on “ballad recomposition”, the original text appeared in the mid-18th century as The Berkshire Tragedy or The Wittam Miller, and has since undergone not simply the vagaries of oral tradition, but deliberate re-composition, apparently on more than one occasion. Comparing Harry's with the Original, his is severely truncated and avoids the wordiness of 18th century texts, but it includes many of the most telling details, such as the stake from the hedge, and the dragging by the hair. Nevertheless, the omission of the original motif of pregnancy leaves the murder motiveless in Harry's version, which heightens either the song's stark horror, or the sordidness, according to the listener's own viewpoint.

Jeannie Robertson of Aberdeen sang The Butcher Boy, in a recording made at her home in 1955, on her 1956 Riverside album Songs of a Scots Tinker Lady. Hamish Henderson commented in the sleeve notes:

This murder ballad, with its uneasy psychological undertones, is sometimes known as The Murder of Sweet Mary Anne. It appears to derive from a 17th century broadside in which the murdering lover is a miller. In the United States, the ballad is best known as The Lexington Murder or The Knoxville Girl, and has undoubtedly been the inspiration for several other murder ballads. In the form sung here, it is still very popular in Scotland.

Another recording of her made by Alan Lomax in 1953 can be found on the anthology Fair Game and Foul (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 7; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970). The booklet noted:

This very familiar ballad, parallel to (if not a remake of) The Cruel Ship's Captain, might be called the classic British murder ballad, in the same sense that Omie Wise or Pretty Polly are the central ballads of the Southern American tradition. In most English variants, the murder weapon is a stick cut from a hedgerow, as in Harry Cox's version about Ekefield Town

As we're a-walking and a-talking
Of things that grew around,
I took a stick from out of the hedge
And knocked that fair maid down.

Perhaps the most dramatic verses occur in a version recorded from a gypsy woman in Suffolk:

It was about three weeks afterwards
When that pretty fair maid were found
Come floating down by her own mother's door
On, near Oxford Town.

Enoch Kent sang The Butcher Boy in 1962 as title track of his Topic EP The Butcher Boy and Other Ballads. All tracks from this EP were reissued in 1965 as part of the Topic LP Bonny Lass Come O'er the Burn. Norman Buchan commented in the sleeve notes:

Though Francis James Child characterised the broadside ballads as ‘veritable dungheaps’ he conceded the occasional ‘moderate jewel’. This one, ennobled by a splendid tune, is a good deal more than that. It contains little of the conventional trappings of the professional product—no last dying speech, no explanation for the murder, usually pregnancy, no ‘take warning by me’. Indeed it shows much of the bare economy of story line of our classical ballads and is obviously moulded by a community in which the great tradition was still very much alive. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that Enoch learned it from perhaps the greatest living expression of that tradition, Jeannie Robertson.

Sarah Porter sang Down By the Deep River Side in 1965 at The Three Cups, Punnetts Town. This recording made by Brian Matthews was included in 2001 on the Musical Tradition anthology of songs from Sussex country pubs, Just Another Saturday Night. The album's booklet commented:

Although this song looks like a version of The Oxford Girl, I'm told that it's actually a version of Floating Down the Tide (Roud 1414) which is derived from a quite different ballad. I'm sure the distinction would be lost on most of its singers.

Both songs are very widespread with a total of 240 entries in Roud—the earliest of which is dated 1796—though considerably more than half of them are from the USA and Canada. In England, at least, they are now very much the preserve of Travellers.

They go by a bewildering array of different names: The Berkshire/Worcester Tragedy, The Bloody/Cruel Miller, The Butcher/'Prentice/Miller/Collier Boy, Poor Nell, Johnny McDowell, The Lexington Murder … And then there's the staggering range of place names: Boston, Camden, Coleraine, Ekefield, Expert, Export, Knoxville, Lexington, London, Noel, Oxford, Shreveport, Waco, Waterford, Waxford, Waxweed, Waxwell, Wexford, Wexport … all relating to the Girl, Town or City of the action.

What this tells us, I think, is that these are songs which—perhaps more than any others—have the ability of sounding like a story you already know. It's the stuff of Urban Legend—songs of which the older singers would so often claim, “My father knew the people involved!” It's pretty dispiriting to realise that the murder of a pregnant girl by the man who made her so, was a commonplace.

I still think that Sarah Porter's song is of the Oxford Girl family as the girl gets murdered and doesn't drown herself.

Peter Bellamy sang this ballad in 1969 with the title The Prentice Boy on his second LP, Fair England's Shore. He also sang it on November 17, 1968 at the Young Tradition concert at Oberlin College, Ohio, that was released in 2013 on their Fledg'ling CD Oberlin 1968. He commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

The Prentice Boy is just one form of what must be one of the most widely-spread song plots in the world. This version comes from Norfolk, and has been collected under this title several times in that country; but listen to any version of The Oxford Tragedy or The Butcher Boy—or any of the American Omie Wise / Pretty Polly songs, and you find the same story. Perhaps it was always happening!

Shirley Collins sang this both tender and cruel murder ballad unaccompanied in 1970 on her and her sister Dolly's album Love, Death & the Lady. She commented in the album's notes:

From the singing of the fine Suffolk singer Phoebe Smith—a woman of great presence, whose stately, dignified style affected me quite profoundly. I am always struck by the tenderness underlying this murder ballad, which strangely doesn't seem inappropriate.

Phoebe Smith's own version titled The Wexport Girl was recorded by Paul Carter and Frank Purslow in her home in Melton, Woodbridge, Suffolk, in 1969 and was included a year later on her Topic LP Once I Had a True Love.

Martin Carthy sang this song with the title Hanged I Shall Be on the Albion Country Band's album Battle of the Field. This album which was recorded in 1973 but wasn't published before 1976. A May 1973 live recording for the BBC appeared on The Albion Band: The BBC Sessions, released in 1998 after only a 25 year wait!

Mary Ann Haynes of Brighton, Sussex, sang Wexford Town in a recording made by Mike Yates in between 1972 and 1975 on the 1976 Topic album Green Grow the Laurels: Country Singers from the South.

Ray Fisher learned The Butcher Boy from the singing of Jeannie Robertson and sang it in 1999 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth.

Norma Watersons sang The Oxford Girl a much more straightforward murder story in 2005 on Waterson:Carthy's fifth album, Fishes & Fine Yellow Sand. Martin Carthy commented in the album notes:

With Liza's lead we sort of made up the melody for The Oxford Girl for Norma so sing from bits and pieces and personally I think that the result is rather good. In some sets of the song the words, towards the end, portray a full scale vision of the fires of hell at his bed foot, but it loses nothing by being ever so slightly more subdued.

John Kirkpatrick re-introduced the girl's pregnancy to the story, renamed the song to Ickfield Town, and sang it in 2005 on Song Links 2: A Celebration of English Traditional Songs and Their American Variants. Sheila Kay Adams sang the corresponding American variant, Knoxville Town. The sleeve notes commented:

This song, most commonly known as The Oxford Girl or The Cruel or Bloody Miller, tells in the first person the story of a young man who murders his sweetheart. In some versions, the girl is pregnant, and the story is often tenderly told—“I gently knocked her down” and “I took her down to the river's edge and gently throwed her in”. And generally the man shows remorse, or is it just a ploy to save himself from the gallows?

John Kirkpatrick calls his version Ickfield Town, and it's based on a version (Ekefield Town) from Harry Cox (born 1885) of Catfield, Norfolk. One of the greatest of the English traditional singers, farm worker Harry had a large and fine repertoire of songs, which he sang in his natural Norfolk dialect with a great deal of grace and beauty. John has added further words from two remarkable gypsy women, Phoebe Smith and Cecilia Costello.

Jackie Oates and James Dumbelton sang The Butcher's Boy in 2009 on her album Hyperboreans. She commented in her liner notes:

Learnt from the singing of Elizabeth Stewart via a compilation of Scottish songs put together by Alasdair Roberts. Of all the murder ballads that I've come across, I have found this the most graphic and yet the most compelling.

Jon Boden sang The Prentice Boy as the September 1, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. This video shows Jon and The Remnant Kings performing The Prentice Boy at the A Folk Song A Day Midsummer Concert at Cecil Sharp House, London, on June 23, 2011:

Ewan McLennan sang Butcher's Boy in 2012 on his Fellside CD The Last Bird to Sing. He commented in his liner notes:

I've never usually been drawn to murder ballads; but on hearing the brilliant version of this song by Enoch Kent I was drawn to this broadside. What came before our story here and what the motivation was remains a mystery.

Lyrics

Shirley Collins sings The Oxford GirlWaterson:Carthy sing The Oxford Girl

My parents said you catered me,
while learning they did give.
They bound me to apprentice,
A miller for to be.

I fell in love with an Oxford girl
She had a dark and a roving eye.
But I feel too ashamed for to marry her,
A-being so young a maid.

Then I fell in love with an Oxford girl
With a dark and roving eye.
And I promised her I would marry her
If she with me would lie.

I courted her for six long months
A little now and then
Till I thought it a shame to marry her,
Me being so young a man.

I went up to her father's house
About twelve o'clock one night,
Asking her if she's take a walk
Through the fields and meadows gay.

And I asked her for to take a walk
Down by some shady grove
And there we walked and we talked of love
And we set a wedding day.

I took her by the lily-white hand
And I kissed her cheek and chin,
But I had no thoughts of murdering her
Nor in no evil way.

I catched a stick from out the hedge
And I gently knocked her down,
And blood from that poor innocent girl
Came a-trinkling to the ground

But I pulled a little stick from off the hedge
And struck her to the ground
Until the blood of that innocent
Lay trickling all around

Down on her bended knees she'd fall
And tearfully she'd cry,
“Oh Jimmy dear, don't you murder me,
For I'm too young to die.”

I catched fast hold of her curly, curly locks
And I dragged her through the fields,
Until we came to a deep riverside
Where I gently flung her in.

So I went unto my master's house
About the hour of night.
And my master rose and he let me in
By the striking of a light.

Look out, she go, look out, she floats,
She's a-drowning on the tide,
And instead of her having a watery grave
She should have been my bride.

Well he asked of me and he questioned me,
“What stains your hands and clothes?”
Well I quickly made for to answer,
“Just the bleeding of my nose.”

No rest nor peace that night I find,
I do in torment lie.
For the murder of my own true love
Now I am condemned to die.

Harry Cox sings Ekefield Town

As I was fast bound 'prentice boy, I was bound unto a mill,
And I served my master truly for seven years and more,
Till I took up a-courting with the girl with the rolling eye,
And I promised that girl I'd marry her if she would be my bride.

So I went up to her parents' house about the hour of eight,
But little did her parents think that it should be her fate.
I asked her if she'd take a walk through the fields and meadows gay,
And there we told the tales of love and fixed the wedding day.

As we were walking and talking of the different things around,
I drew a large stick from the hedge and knocked that fair maid down.
Down on her bending knees she fell and so loud for mercy cried,
“Oh, come spare the life of a innocent girl, for I am not fit to die.”

Then I took her by the curly locks and I dragged her on the ground
Until I came to the riverside that flowed through Ekefield town.
It ran both long and narrow; it ran both deep and wide,
And there I plunged this pretty fair maid that should have been my bride.

So when I went home to my parents' house about ten o'clock that night.
My mother she jumped out of bed all for to light the light.
She asked me and she questioned me, “Oh, what stains your hands and clothes?”
And the answer I gave back to her, “I've been bleeding at the nose.”

So no rest, no rest, all that long night; no rest, no rest, could I find.
The fire and the brimstone around my head did shine,
And it was about two days after this fair young maid was found,
A-floating by the riverside that flowed through Ekefield town.

Now the judges and the jurymen on me they did agree,
For murdering of this pretty fair maid so hanged I shall be.
Oh hanged, oh hanged, oh hanged I shall be,
For murdering of this pretty fair maid, so hanged I shall be.

Peter Bellamy sings The Prentice Boy

As I was fast bound 'prentice boy, I was bound unto a mill,
And I served my master truly for seven years or more,
Till I took up a-courting with that girl with the rolling eye,
And I promised I would marry her if she would be my bride.

So I went round to her parents' house, it being the hour of eight,
And little did her parents think that it would be her fate.
And I asked her for to walk with me through the fields and meadows gay,
And there we told our tales of love and fixed the wedding day.

As we were a-walking and a-talking of these different things around,
I pulled a large stick from the hedge and I knocked this fair maid down.
Down on her bended knees she fell and loud for mercy cried,
“Oh, have pity on an innocent girl, I am not fit to die.”

But I grabbed her by the curly locks and I dragged her on the ground
And I dragged her to the river Brigg that run through Ekefield town.
It ran both deep and narrow; it ran both swift and wide,
And there I plunged the pretty fair maid that should have been my bride.

So I went back to my parents' house about ten o'clock that night.
And my mother she jumped out of bed all for to light the light.
She asked me and she questioned me, “What stains your hands and clothes?”
And the answer I gave back to her, “I've been bleeding at my nose.”

But no rest, no rest, all that long night; no rest, no rest, could I find.
For the fire and the brimstone around my head did shine,
And it was about two days afterwards this pretty fair maid was found,
A-floating by the riverbank that flowed through Ekefield town.

So the judges and the jurymen on me they did agree,
For a-murdering of this pretty fair maid a-hanged I will be.
Oh hanged, oh hanged, oh hanged I will be,
For a-murdering of this pretty fair maid a-hanged I will be

The Albion Country Band's Hanged I Shall Be

Now as I was bound apprentice, I was 'prentice to the mill,
And I served my master truly for more than seven year.
Until I took up to courting with a lass with that rolling eye
And I promised that I'd marry her in the month of sweet July.
And as we went out a-walking through the fields and the meadows gay,
Oh it's there we told our tales of love and we fixed our wedding day.

And as we were walking and talking of the things that grew around
Oh I took a stick all out of the hedge and I knocked that pretty maid down
Down on her bended knees she fell and loud for mercy cry,
“Oh spare the life of an innocent girl for I'm not prepared to die.”
But I took her by her curly locks and I dragged her on the ground
And I throwed her into the riverhead that flows to Ekefield town,
That flows so far to the distance, that flows so deep and wide,
Oh it's there I threw this pretty fair maid that should have been my bride.

Now I went home to my parents' house, it being late at night.
Mother she got out of bed all for to light the light.
Oh she asked me and she questioned me, “What stains your hands and clothes?”
And the answer I gave back to her, “I've been bleeding at my nose.”
No rest, no rest all that long night, no rest there could I find
For there's sparks of fire and brimstone around my head did shine.

And it was about three days after that this pretty fair maid was found,
Floating by the riverhead that flows to Ekefield town.
That flows so far to the distance, that flows so deep and wide.
Oh it's there they found this pretty fair maid that should have been my bride.
Oh the judges and the jurymen all on me they did agree
For a-murdering of this pretty fair maid oh hanged I shall be.

John Kirkpatrick sings Ickfield Town

O as I was fast bound 'prentice boy, I was 'prentice to a mill,
And I served my master truly and never thought no ill,
Till I took up a-courting with a girl with a rolling eye,
Oh her beauty bright was my delight, she being so young and shy.

Well I promised I would marry her, and her I did beguile.
Oh I kissed her and I courted her until she proved with child;
Then I asked her if she'd take a walk through the fields and meadows gay,
So that I might tell her tales of love, and fix our wedding day.

And as we were walking and talking all the different things around,
Oh I drew a stick from out the hedge and knocked this fair maid down.
Down on her bended knees she fell, so loud for mercy cried,
“Oh, come spare the life of a innocent girl, for I am not fit to die.”

I took her by the curly locks and I dragged her on the ground
I dragged her to the riverside that flows through Ickfield town.
Oh it runs both long and narrow; it runs both deep and wide,
And there I plunged this pretty fair maid that should have been my bride.

And then I went home to my parents' house, it being so late at night.
Oh my mother she jumped out of bed all for to light the light.
She asked me and she questioned me, “Oh, what stains your hands and clothes?”
And the answer I gave back to her, “I've been bleeding at the nose.”

No rest, no rest that live long night; no rest, no rest could I find.
The fire and the brimstone around my head did shine.
Look how she goes, look how she flows, a-floating on the tide;
Instead of having a watery grave she should have been my bride.

But it was about two days after, this fair young maid was found,
A-floating by the riverside that flows through Ickfield town.
Oh the judges and the jurymen on me they did agree,
For murdering of this pretty fair maid so hanged I shall be.
Oh hanged, oh hanged, oh hanged I shall be,
For murdering of this pretty fair maid, so hanged I shall be.

Jeannie Robertson sings The Butcher Boy

His parents gave him good learning,
Good learning they gave unto him,
For they sent him to a butcher's shop
For a butcher boy to be.

It was there that he met with a fair young maid
With dark and a rolling eye,
And he promised for to marry her
On the month of sweet July.

For he went up to her mother's house
Between the hour of eight and nine,
And he asked her for to walk with him
Down by the foaming brine.

But they walked it east and they walked it west
And they walked it all alone,
Till he pulled a knife from out of his breast
And he stabbed her to the ground.

She fell upon her bended knees
And for mercy she did cry,
“Owen Barry, dear, don't murder me
For I'm not prepared to die.”

But he took her by the lily-white hand
And he dragged her to the brim,
And with a mighty boundward push
He pushed her body in.

He went home till his own mother's house
Between the hour of twelve and one,
But little did his mother think
What her only son had done.

He asked her for a handkerchief
To die around his head,
And he asked her for a candle-light
For to show him up to bed.

But no sleep, no rest, could this young man get,
No rest he could not find,
For he thought he saw the flames of hell
Approaching his bedside.

But the murder it was soon found out
And the gallows was his doom.
For the murder of sweet Mary Anne
That leis where the roses bloom.

Acknowledgements and Links

See also the Mudcat Cafè thread Lyr Req: The Butcher Boy .

The Albion Country Band lyrics were copied from the Ashley Hutchings songbook, A Little Music.