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Van Diemen's Land / The Gallant Poachers

[ Roud 519 ; Laws L18 ; G/D 2:252 ; AFS 91 ; Ballad Index LL18 ; Bodleian Roud 519 ; Wiltshire 934 ; trad.]

This is a ballad about poachers deported to Van Diemen's Land (today Tasmania), which was named after Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies (1636-1645). On many albums the song title is misspelled as Van Dieman's Land.

Another ballad, Henry the Poacher (Roud 221; “Come all you wild and wicked youths …”), is sometimes called Van Diemen's Land too, e.g. Walter Pardon's version mentioned below.

Jimmy McBeath of Elgin, Moray, sang Van Diemen's Land in a BBC recording from autumn 1951 that was included ten years later on the anthology Fair Game and Foul (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 7; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Robert Cinnamond sang Van Diemen's Land in a recording made by Sean O'Boyle, probably in Co. Antrim, in August 1955. It was included in 1975 on his Topic album of traditional ballads and songs from Ulster, You Rambling Boys of Pleasure. Proinsias Ó Conluain noted:

This transportation ballad dating to the beginning of the 19th century has the usual local variations in the names of principals and places. Where in the English versions the “gallant poachers” are usually “poor Tom Brown from Nottingham, Jack Williams and poor Joe”, in Robert Cinnamond’s version they are “young Brown from Armagh town, Pat Martin and poor Jones”—a settler Englishman, an Irishman and an impoverished Welshman? The lady who was transported “for the playing of the game” is Jean Somers and not Peg Brophy from Nenagh town (as in Ó Lochlainn’s Irish Street Ballads)—but you play the game of variations your way as you listen.

Ewan MacColl sang Van Diemen's Land in 1956 on his, A.L. Lloyd's and Harry H. Corbett's album The Singing Sailor. This recording was reissued on their albums Singing Sailors (Wattle Records), Off to Sea Once More (Stinson Records), and Convicts and Currency Lads (Wattle Records, Australia). His version is very similar to the one printed by Stan Hugill in bis book Shanties from the Seven Seas. Hugill commented on it and a later song:

Still in the realms of convict ships and transportation, we have next the old forebitter often used as a capstan song, The Banks of Newf'n'land. Its convict connection is the fact that it was really a parody of an older forebitter, itself originally a shore ballad called Van Diemen's Land, a song often sung in Liverpool and as a forebitter often heard in Liverpool ships. A note attached to the record The Singing Sailor states that “Versions can still be heard in Scotland and Ireland, but it is in Liverpool and Salford (Lancs.) that the song lives most vigorously”. It tells of the sufferings of poachers transported to Van Diemen's Land. Here it is […] (from T.W. Jones of Liverpool).

Brian Mooney sang Van Diemen's Land in 1963 on his, Martyn Wyndham-Read's and David Lumsden's Australian album Moreton Bay. Martyn Wyndham-Read returned to this song on his 1992 Fellside CD Mussels on a Tree.

The Exiles sang Van Diemen's Land in 1966 on their Topic album Freedom, Come All Ye.

John Faulkner sang Van Diemen's Land in 1968 on the Critics Group's Argo album of English folk songs and broadsides, Waterloo:Peterloo.

Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band sang Van Diemen's Land on their 1971 album No Roses. She commented in the sleeve notes:

A 19th century transportation ballad. We had a lengthy discussion about the verse

We had a female comrade, Sue Summers was her name
and she was given sentence for a-selling our game.

Some people say it was “a-playing of the game” and that she was a prostitute, and that's why she'd been convicted. But people were transported for as trivial an offense as stealing a silver spoon or a piece of bread, and it seemed to me more poignant and more appropriate that Sue Summers was transported with the poachers because she had in fact sold their game.

Swan Arcade sang Van Diemen's Land in 1976 on their album Matchless.

Gay & Terry Woods sang this song in 1976 on their album Renowned, and Steeleye Span did it in 2004 on their album They Called Her Babylon. Ken Nicol commented in the latter album's sleeve notes:

An adaption of the song also known as The Gallant Poachers.

What was once Van Diemen's Land is now known as Tasmania. It was founded in 1803, and from 1804 to 1853 thousands of convicts were transported to the island. It was originally named “Anthoonij van Diemenslandt” in honour of Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of India for the Dutch East India Company, who sent Abel Tasman out on his voyage of discovery in 1642. It was changed in 1856 to honour Tasman himself, the first European to discover the island, and possibly also to remove the association with the severe penal colony that the original name evoked.

Betsy Renals sang Van Diemen's Land in 1978 at the age of 78. This recording made by Pete Coe was included in 2003 on her and her sisters CD of songs from Cornish Travellers, Catch Me If You Can. Mike Yates commented in the liner notes:

The background to this song has been researched by Roy Palmer, who tells us that in 1828, “it was enacted that if three men were found in a wood and one of them carried a gun or bludgeon, all were liable to be transported for fourteen years,” and it would seem that the broadside text (first printed c. 1830) was issued partly as a warning to young men who might be tempted into a life of poaching. Van Diemen’s Land was an early term for the island of Tasmania, and British convicts were transported there from 1804 until 1852.

The Bushwackers Band sang Van Diemen's Land in 1979 on their Australian album Bushfire.

Louis Killen sang Van Diemen's Land on his 1993 CD A Bonny Bunch.

Martin Long sang Van Diemen's Land in 1994 on his CD The Climbing Boy.

Hughie Jones sang Van Diemen's Land in 1999 on his Fellside CD Seascape.

Sandra Kerr, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan sang Van Diemen's Land in 1999 on their Fellside CD Scalene.

Cyril Tawney sang Van Diemen's Land on his posthumous 2007 anthology The Song Goes On. I do not know when and where this song had been recorded.

Gordon Jackson sang Van Diemen's Land on his 2011 album It's Cold by the Door. He noted:

The air for this song may be found in Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy (1707) under the name Gilderoy. This air has been used for several songs, including Dives and Lazarus, The Murder of Maria Marten, Claudy Banks and The Star of the County Down. The jig is The Blarney Pilgrim, found in O'Neill's great 1907 collection.

Steve Roud included Van Diemen's Land in 2012 in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Brian Peters sang it a year later on the accompanying Fellside CD The Liberty to Choose.

Arthur Knevett sang Van Diemen's Land on his 2016 CD Simply Traditional. He commented in his liner notes:

The classic song of transportation of the crime of poaching. In Robert Hughes book The Fatal Shore (which takes its title from a line in the song) he states that very few people were transported for poaching. This is true, but in many cases poachers were transported for crimes of violence when confronted by gamekeepers and the records therefore disguise the fact that poaching was the real reason for the conviction.

Keith Kendrick sang Bonny Kate on his and Sylvia Needham's 2018 WildGoose CD Shine On. He noted:

Another visit from my first solo album, still an all-time favourite of mine.


Stan Hugill's Van Diemen's Land

Ye rambling boys of Liverpool, I'll have ye to beware,
'Tis when ye go a-hunting wid yer dog, yer gun, yer snarea,
Watch out for the game-keepers, keep your dog at your command
Just think on all them hardships, goin' to Van Diemen's Land.

We had two Irish lads on board, Mickey Murphy an' Paddy Malone,
And they were both the stoutest friends that ever a man could own.
But the gamekeeper he'd caught them, and from ol' England's strand
They were seven years transported for to plough Van Diemen's Land.

We had on board a lady fair, Bridget Reilly wuz her name,
An' she wuz sent from Liverpool for a-playin' of the game.
Our captain fell in love wid her and he married her out of hand,
And she gave us all good usage, boys, goin' to Van Diemen's Land.

The moment that we landed there, upon that fatal shore,
The planters they inspected us, some fifty score or more,
Then they marched us off like hosses, an' they sold us out of hand,
They yoked us to the plough, me boys, for to plough Van Diemen's Land.

As I lay in me bunk one night, a dreamin' all alone,
I dreamt I wuz in Liverpool, 'way back in Marybone,
Wid me own true love beside me, an' a jug o' ale in me hand
Then awoke so broken-hearted, lyin' on Van Diemen's Land.

Shirley Collins sings Van Diemen's Land

Note: The second and third verse of Shirley Collins' version appear in Walter Pardon's too, and her last verse is the chorus of the Steeleye Span version.

Come all you gallant poachers that ramble void of care
That walk out on a moonlight night with your dog, your gun and snare
The harmless hare and pheasant you have at your command
Not thinking of your last career out on Van Diemen's Land

Me and five more went out one night into Squire Duncan's park
To see if we could catch some game, the night it being dark
But to our great misfortune we got dropped on with speed
And they took us off to Warwick gaol which made our hearts to bleed

Then at Warwick assizes at the bar we did appear
And like Job we stood with patience our sentence for to hear
But being old offenders it made our case go hard
And for fourteen long and cruel years we were all sent on board

We had a female comrade, Sue Summers was her name,
And she was given sentence for a-selling of our game.
But the captain fell in love with her and he married her out of hand
And she proved true and kind to us going to Van Diemen's Land.

As I lay on the deck last night a-dreaming of my home
I dreamed I was in Harbouree, the fields and woods among
With my true love beside me and a jug of ale in hand
But I woke quite broken-hearted out in Van Diemen's Land.

So come all you gallant poachers, give ear unto my song
It is a bit of good advice although it be not long
Lay by your dog and snare, to you I do speak plain
If you knew the hardships we endure, you'd never poach again.

Betsy Renals sings Van Diemen's Land

Me and five more went out one night,
All in Squire Daniel’s park;
For to catch some game it was our intent,
But a night it did prove dark;
And we were apprehended there by speed,
And brought back to Northampton Gaol.

And there tonight till our trials come on,
And our bodies to be sold;
And we were sent for fourteen years,
Across to Van Diemen’s Land.

We were nine long months and better boys,
A-ploughing the raging sea;
No port nor harbour did we draw nigh,
Nor no place could we seem;
Only the dark and the deep blue sea all round,
And above is our blue sky.

We had no shoes nor stockings on,
Nor scarce any clothes to wear;
Only lindsey drawers and leather [clogs?]
And our head and feet went bare.

Steeleye Span sing Van Diemen's Land

I am a girl from England, Susan Summers is me name
For fourteen years transported was for taking of some game
As for us wretched females, we never see a man
Though there's twenty to one woman on Van Diemen's Land.

There's poor Tom Brown from Nottingham, Jack Williams and poor Joe
They were all daring poachers as the country well does know
At night they were trappended by the keepers out of hand
For fourteen years transported to Van Diemen's Land.

When we set sail from England, we landed in the bay
We had rotten straw for bedding, we dare not to say nay
Our cots were fenced with wire, we slumber when we can
To drive away the wolves upon Van Diemen's Land.

Come all you gallant poachers, give ear unto me song
It is a bit of good advice although it is not long
Lay by your dog and snare, to you I do speak plain
If you knew the hardships, you'd never poach again

The first day we landed upon that fatal shore
The planters they came flocking round, twenty score and more
They dragged the men like horses and sold them out of hand
And yoked 'em to the plough all on Van Diemen's Land.

Sometimes when I'm sleeping, I have a pleasant dream
With me dear one I'm sitting down by some pearling stream
With me friends telling stories around me they all stand
But I wake up broken hearted on Van Diemen's Land.


God bless our families, likewise that happy shore
That isle of sweet contentment that we shall see no more
For a planter's bought me freedom, he's married me out of hand
Good usage then I'll give him on Van Diemen's Land.


See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Add: Van Diemen's Land for a discussion of both Roud 221 and Roud 519.