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The Suffolk Tragedy / Maria Marten

[ Roud 18814 ; Ballad Index RcMariaM ; MusTrad MT316 ; Bodleian Roud 18814 ; trad.]

Freda Palmer sang Maria Marten to Mike Yates at her home in Witney, Oxfordshire on 15 October 1972. This recording was released in 1976 on the Topic album of countryside songs from Southern England recorded by Mike Yates, When Sheepshearing’s Done, and was also included in 1998 on the Topic anthology O’er His Grave the Grass Grew Green (The Voice of the People Volume 3), and in 2018 on Freda Palmer’s Musical Traditions anthology Leafield Lass. Mike Yates and Rod Stradling commented in the latter’s booklet:

Broadside printers always welcomed a popular theme to increase their sales and, as one Victorian pedlar put it, “There’s nothing beats a stunning good murder”. Maria Marten’s death, in 1827, was a boon to the printers. Maria had left Polstead in Suffolk with William Corder, whom she intended to marry in order to avoid a possible bastardy charge. She was never seen alive again, and following a series of prophetic dreams by her mother, her body was found, buried in The Red Barn, Polstead. Corder was arrested, found guilty of Maria’s murder, and hanged outside Bury St Edmunds jail on 11 August 1828.

Maria Marten, the “innocent nymph of her native village”, became something of a cult figure on broadsides and in melodramas such as Murder in the Red Barn, so much so that her three illegitimate children—to different fathers—and her possible criminal activities with Corder became overshadowed by the myth that grew up around her death. Indeed, research now suggests that her mother’s ‘supernatural dreams’ were motivated not so much by psychic phenomena as by her own criminal knowledge and probable association with Corder. Maria Marten was published as a ‘dying speech’ by the printer James Catnach of Seven Dials.

Freda Palmer’s tune is a version of that usually found with the ballad Dives and Lazarus, but far more interesting is the fact that this is almost the only collection of this particular ballad—Roud 18814—as opposed to the ‘usual’ one—Roud 215. As a broadside, with only three known printings, it had 24 verses, and was titled The Suffolk Tragedy. It was collected once in Hampshire with just three verses, and twice in Australia with three and four verses—so Freda’s ten verses were quite a find. This is a quite exceptionally rare song.

Given the popularity of the Roud 215 version; 77 entries including 6 sound recordings, it’s surprising to find only 8 Roud entries for this one, and just one other sound recording, that by Sally Sloane in Australia (Larrikin LRF 136).

Sally Sloane (1894-1982) from Lithgow, New South Wales, Australia, sang The Red Barn in a field recording collected by John Meredith that was included in 1983 on her posthumous Larrikin anthology A Garland For Sally.

Lisa Knapp sang Maria Marten on her 2018 EP The Summer Draws Near (A Branch of May Chapter Two). She noted:

A grisly and unfortunately true story, the ‘Red Barn Murder’ took place in 1827 in Polstead, Suffolk After a somewhat tumultuous relationship Maria and William planned to elope to Ipswich. They arranged to meet at a local landmark but Maria was never seen again. Maria’s mother was said to have had dreams that her daughter’s body was buried under the barn which is where it was indeed found 11 months later. William Corder was brought to trial, found guilty, and hung at Bury St Edmunds in 1828. This version is from the singing of Freda Palmer recorded by Mike Yates at her home in Witney, Oxfordshire in 1972.


Freda Palmer sings Maria Marten

In eighteen hundred and twenty seven
On the ninth day of June,
Maria was dressed all in men’s clothes
And her mother unto her did say:

“Oh daughter, why dost thou disguise thyself?
Pray tell it unto me
For I’m sure some harm or other
May happen unto thee.”

“Oh mother, I’m going to the Red Barn
To meet my William dear.
His friends won’t know me as I am
Nor when I shall get there.

“I will put on my wedding gown
And we will haste away,
To Ruislip tomorrow at six
All for our wedding day.”

She straightway went to the Red Barn
And never more was seen,
’Til eleven months was over
Her mother she dreamt a dream.

Three nights she dreamt the very same dream,
Then unto her husband did say;
“I will of thee rise instantly
And with thee take thy spade.

“Thy neighbour with his pickaxe
Shall bear thee company,
To the far corner of Red Barn
My daughter there you’ll find.”

They straightway went to the Red Barn
To the place where they’d been told,
And with their spade and pickaxe
They’ve razed the floor and mould.

And when they’d dug seven inches deep
The body there they found,
Tied in a sack and lying dead
With many a ghastly wound.

This damsel caused many young men
To court her as you’ll find
’Til at length upon a farmer’s son
This damsel fixed her mind.