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Poor Murdered Woman

[ Roud 1064 ; Ballad Index LEBC070 ; trad.]

This is a true story, the actual events of which were reported in The Times on Tuesday January 14, 1834:

SUPPOSED MURDER—While the Surrey Union Fox Hounds (which are under the direction of H. Combe, Esq.) were out hunting on Saturday last, on Leatherhead Common, a most extraordinary and horrid circumstance occurred which at present is involved in great mystery. About 12 o'clock in the day, as the huntsman (Kitt) was beating about for a fox, the hounds suddenly made a dead set at a clump of bushes on the common. As no fox made his appearance, the huntsman whipped the hounds off, but they still returned to the bushes and smelling all round, would not leave. Supposing there was a fox which would not break cover, the huntsman &c., beat the bushes and in so doing, to their astonishment and horror, they discovered the body of a woman in a state of decomposition, so much so, that on attempting to remove it it was found to be impracticable. A person was placed to watch the remains, and information was sent to Dr. Evans of Leatherhead, who promptly attended. On examining the head, a severe wound was found, and from the general appearance of the body it is supposed to have lain there several months. It was placed in a shell and removed to the Royal Oak, on the common, where a coroner's inquest is summoned to assemble this day (Monday). Various rumours are afloat, some stating the unfortunate woman was the wife of a travelling tinker.

Poor Murdered Woman was published by Lucy Broadwood in her collection English Traditional Songs and Carols, London, Boosey, 1908. She got it from Rev. Charles J. Shebbeare who collected it in 1897 from Mr. Forster of Milford, and she noted:

This fine Dorian tune was noted in 1897 by the Rev. Charles J. Shebbeare at Milford, Surrey, from the singing of a young labourer, with whom it was a favourite song. Mr. Foster wrote out the doggerel words, and had heard that they described a real event. Through the kindness of the Vicar of Leatherhead, the Rev. E.J. Nash (who questioned Mr. Lisney, a parishioner of 87, in Feb. 1908), the ballad has proved to be an accurate account of the finding and burial (Jan. 15, 1834) of “a woman-name unknown-found in the common field,” as the parish Registers give it. Mr. Lisney, who remembered the events perfectly, said that the author of the ballad was Mr. Fairs, a brickmaker of Leatherhead Common. The Milford labourer's version of names, “Yankee” for “Hankey,” and “John Sinn” for “John Simms” of the Royal Oak Inn, are in Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol. I, p. 186. His obscure line in verse 5 has here been altered to something probably more like the original, for “the poor woman's head had been broken with a stick.” The Milford singer gave it: “Some old or some violence came into their heads.” This song is only one of many proofs that “ballets” are made by local, untaught bards, and that they are transmitted, and survive, long after the events which they record have ceased to be a reality to the singer.

Martin Carthy sang Poor Murdered Woman on his 1968 album with Dave Swarbrick, But Two Came By, and reissued on the compilation albums This Is... Martin Carthy and A Collection. Martin Carthy commented in his original album's sleeve notes:

The Poor Murdered Woman Laid on the Cold Ground is a fairly short and simple song which describes what I can only describe as a non-event, but it is the kind of song to which I am attracted, as having a lot more underneath it than is at first obvious. No one know who this woman is, nor where she comes from, but everyone nonetheless is stirred to action.

Shirley Collins sang Poor Murdered Woman in 1971 on her album with the Albion Country Band, No Roses. This recording was also included on the Shirley Collins anthology Within Sound. Two live recordings by Shirley and Dolly Collins are also known, one, recorded in Dublin in 1978 is on the CD Harking Back, the other was recorded at the Folk Festival Sidmouth in 1979 and can be found on Snapshots. The song was printed in Ashley Hutchings' songbook A Little Music with the comment:

This ballad refers to an actual event—the finding if an unknown murdered woman, who was buried at Leatherhead, Surrey on 15th January, 1834. The words were written by a brickmaker of Leatherhead Common named Mr Fairs, according to Iolo A. Williams in his book English Folk-Song and Dance, first published in 1935. Mr Williams cites it as an example of “a song of very poor poetical quality,” and he may have a point if one is to judge it solely by academic standards. However, there is much more to it than that. Its obvious values are as a social document and as a direct statement of concern by one member of the community for another. Buried a little, perhaps, is the same feeling of desolation one gets from a Thomas Hardy tragedy—the particular melancholy one experiences when wandering through a country churchyard reading inscriptions on neglected tombstones.

Jackie Oates sang Poor Murdered Woman in 2011 on her CD Saturnine; and Olivia Chaney sang it in the same year on the Woodbine & Ivy Band's eponymous album, The Woodbine & Ivy Band.

Fi Fraser recorded Poor Murdered Woman with The Old Fashioned on their 2016 No Masters CD Strawberry Leaves. She commented:

Collected by Lucy Broadwood, this song comes form the singing of Shirley Collins. It reads like a news story.

Lyrics

Martin Carthy sings Poor Murdered Woman

It was Yankee the Squire as I've heard them tell
He went out a-hunting all on one fine day
He went out a-hunting but nothing he found
But a poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground

About eight o'clock, boys, our dogs they throwed off
And off to the Common and that was the spot
They tried all the bushes but nothing they found
But a poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground

They whipped their dogs off and they kept them away
For I do think it is proper that she should have fair play
They tried all the bushes but nothing they found
But a poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground

They mounted their horses and they rode off the ground
They rode to the village and alarmed it all around
“It is late in the evening, I am sorry to say,
She cannot be removed until the next day.”

The next Sunday morning about eight o'clock
Some hundreds of people to the spot they did flock
For to see that poor creature it would make your hearts bleed
Some cold-hearted violence came into their heads

She was took off the Common and down to some inn
And the man that has kept it his name is John Simms
The Coroner was sent for and the jury they joined
And soon they concluded and they settled their mind

A coffin was brought and in it she was laid
And took to the churchyard in fair Leatherhead
No father, no mother, nor no friend at all
Came to see the poor creature put under the mould

Shirley Collins sings Poor Murdered Woman

It was Hankey the Squire as I've heard men say
Who rode out a-hunting on one Saturday
They hunted all day, but nothing they found
But a poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground

About eight o'clock, boys, our dogs they throwed off
On Leatherhead Common, and that was the spot
They tried all the bushes but nothing they found
But a poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground

They whipped their dogs off and they kept them away
For I do think it proper she should have fair play
They tried all the bushes but nothing they found
But a poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground

They mounted their horses and they rode off the ground
They rode to the village and alarmed it all around
“It is late in the evening, I'm sorry to say,
She cannot be removed until the next day.”

The next Sunday morning about eight o'clock
Some hundreds of people to the spot they did flock
For to see that poor creature, your hearts would have bled
Some cold and some violence came into their heads

She was took off the Common and down to some inn
And the man that has kept it, his name is John Simms.
The Coroner was sent for and the jury they joined
And soon they concluded and settled their mind.

Her coffin was brought, in it she was laid
And took to the churchyard that is called Leatherhead.
No father, no mother, nor no friend I'm told
Came to see the poor creature laid under the mould.

So now I'll conclude and I'll finish my song
And those that have done it shall find themselves wrong.
For the last day of Judgement the trumpet shall sound
And their souls not in Heaven, I'm afraid, won't be found.

Acknowledgements and Links

Martin Carthy's version transcribed by Garry Gillard. Shirley Collins's version was taken from Ashley Hutchings' songbook A Little Music. Thanks to Ed Pellow for the note from The Times.

See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Add: Poor Murdered Woman.