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The Blind Beggar's Daughter of Bethnal Green

[ Roud 132 ; Laws N27 ; G/D 5:1061 ; Ballad Index LN27 ; trad.]

Thomas Moran of Drumrahool, near Mohill, Co. Leitrim, sang The Blind Beggar's Daughter in December 1954 to Seamus Ennis. This recording was included in 2012 Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23).

Ewan MacColl sang The Blind Beggar's Daughter of Bethnal Green in 1957 on the Riverside anthology Great British Ballads Not Included in the Child Collection. Kenneth F. Goldstein commented in the album's booklet:

The earliest known version of this ballad appeared in Percy's manuscript. Percy, however, thought little enough of it in itself, for he combined it with parts of another ballad to make the lengthy and exceedingly boring ballad which he included in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The original manuscript version may be seen in Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript, edited by J.W. Hales and F.W. Furnivall, London, 1867-1868.

The ballad appeared in several early collections and was very popular in England; it has been found there rather frequently in oral tradition and is still widely sung. It has been reported several times in North America from widely separated areas. Most versions in the New World appear to have been learned from printed sources—most likely from 19th century songsters such as the Nafis and Cornish Forget-Me-Not Songster (1830-1850).

The version MacColl sings was learned in fragmentary form from James Stewart, street singer from Dundee, and collated with stanzas from various printed texts.

Jim O'Connor sang The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green in 1966 on the Critic Group's Argo anthology of London songs, A Merry Progress to London.

Paddy Reilly of Tipperary sang The Blind Beggar to Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in between 1973 and 1983. This recording was included in 1986 on the VWML cassette Early in the Month of Spring and in 2003 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs of Irish travellers in England, From Puck to Appleby. Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie commented in the anthology's booklet:

The Rarest Ballad that Ever was Seen of the Blind Beggar of Bednall Green appeared as a broadside in 1672, was entered in the Stationers’ Register of London three years later and was still being sold as a street ballad in Ireland in the 1950s. Mikeen McCarthy named it as one of the songs he sold around the fairs and markets of Kerry up to that time.

According to Bishop Percy and the estimable John Timbs, this ballad was written during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). In the Reliques of Ancient Poetry, Percy gives it in two parts, 67 verses in all, the story contained in the above coming at the end of part one. Timbs quotes 16 verses, most of them from Percy’s second part, which relates the uprising of the barons against Henry III and the death of their leader, Sir Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester in the battle of Evesham (1265). His son Henry “Was felled by a blow he received in the fight, A blow that forever deprived him of sight”; and lay on the battlefield among the dead until found by “a baron’s faire daughter”. She carried him from the field, nursed him, married him and became the mother of “lovely Bessie”.

This explains the wealth of Bessie’s father, who adopted the disguise of a beggar to avoid discovery by his enemies.

The BBC recorded it in Co Leitrim in the 1950s and more recently it turned up in Inishowen, Co Donegal. It was popular among the Travellers we recorded; we heard it from four singers. We also got it from Martin Howley of Fanore, Co Clare.

When Mikeen McCarthy sang it for us he was camped just off Whitechapel Road, East London, within walking distance of The Blind Beggar public house, once notorious for its connections with the gangsters, Ronnie and Reggie Kray.

Ref: Reliques of Ancient Poetry, Thomas Percy, 1765; Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, John Timbs, Frank Warne & Co (undated).

Lyrics

Ewan MacColl sings The Blind Beggar's Daughter of Bethnal Green Paddy Reilly sings The Blind Beggar

It's of an old beggar who long lost his sight,
And had a fair daughter, most peasant and bright;
To seek out her fortune, whate'er it may be,
This suit it was to pretty Bessie.

Oh, there once been an old man who a long time was blind,
He reared one only daughter of a low degree.

This maid she was handsome, of beauty most bright,
And clad in grey russet and late in the night
From father and mother alone parted she,
Who sighed and lamented for pretty Bessie.

She travelled till she come to Stratford-at-Bow,
Then she knew not wither or which way to go;
At at the King's Arms entertained was she,
So fair and well favoured was pretty Bessie.

The young men of Stratford in her had her joy;
She showed herself courteous but never too coy,
And at their commandment still she would be,
So fair and so comely way pretty Bessie.

Then one of heir suitors, a gallant young knight,
And he come unto her disguised in the night;
The second, a gentleman of high degree,
Who wooed for the favours of pretty Bessie.

And the first came to court her was a captain from sea,
He courted lovely Betsy by night and by day,
“For my life, gold or silver, I would give it all to thee,
If you tell me your father, my bonny Betsy.”

Oh, the next came for to court her was a captain so grand,
He courted lovely Betsy by night and by day,
“For my life, gold or silver, wouldn’t I give it all to thee,
If you tell me your father, my bonny Betsy.”

A merchant of London, whose wealth was not small,
Was then the third suitor, and proper withal;
Her master's own son, the fourth man he must be,
Who swore he would die for pretty Bessie.

Oh, the next came for to court her was a squire so grand,
For he courted lovely Betsy by night and by day,
“For my life, gold or silver, wouldn’t I give it all to thee,
If you tell me your father, my bonny Betsy.”

Then Bessie addressed them and thus she did say,
“My father and mother I mean to obey;
First get their goodwill and be faithful to me,
And you shall enjoy your pretty Bessie.”

“My father,” she told them, “is easily seen;
The silly blind beggar of Bethnal Green,
That daily sits begging for charity;
He is the kind father of pretty Bessie.”

“For my father is an old man who a long time was blind,
His marks and his tokens to you I will give,
He was led by a dog, a chain and a bell.”

“Nay, nay,” quoth the merchant, “thou art not for me.”
“So,”quoth the innholder, “my wife she'll not be.”
“I loathe,” said the gentleman, “a beggar's degree,
Therefore, now farewell, my dear pretty Bessie.”

“For roll on,” says th’ould captain, “it is her I won’t take.”
“Roll on,” says th’ould merchant, “it is her I will forsake.”
“Oh, roll on,” says the squire, “and let all beggars agree,
Will you roll in my arms, my bonny Betsy?”

“Why then,” said the knight, “for better or worse,
I weigh not my true love by the weight of her purse,
And beauty is beauty in every degree;
Then welcome to me, my pretty Bessie.”

Then up spoke the beggar, “Although I be poor,
My Bessie is welcome to come at my door,
Though she not be decked in velvet and pearl,
Yet I will drop angels with thee for my girl.”

With that, an angel he dropped on the ground,
And dropped, in angels, full three thousand pounds;
And oftentimes it did prove most plain,
For the gentleman's one the beggar dropped twain.

Oh, the squire he left down his ten thousand pound,
'Til he came to his farm, his tillage and his ground,
For the poor old blind beggar left down his ten thousand more.

Thus was the fair Bessie matched to a knight,
And made a great lady in other's despight;
A fairer lady there never was seen
Than the blind beggar's daughter of Bethnal Green.