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The Whitby Lad / Boston Burglar
> Louis Killen > Songs > The Boston Burglar
Botany Bay / The Whitby Lad / The Boston Burglar
; Master title: Botany Bay
; Laws L16
; G/D 2:260
; Henry H691
; Ballad Index
; MusTrad MT222
; Mudcat 100659
A Touch on the Times Down Yorkshire Lanes One Hundred English Folksongs Sam Henry’s Songs of the People Songs of the Midlands Travellers’ Songs From England and Scotland
Fiddlin’ John Carson sang The Boston Burglar in a recording made on 24 June 1925 that was included in 2015 on the anthology of British songs in the USA, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.
Jean Elvin sang The Boston Smuggler to Séamus Ennis at Turriff, Aberdeenshire, in 16 July 1952. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology of ballads sung by British and Irish Traditional Singers, Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23).
Hedy West sang Boston Burglar in 1964 on her Vanguard album Hedy West Volume 2. She noted:
Boston Burglar is a commonly known folk song in the south-eastern mountains. This version is from Lillie Mulkey West, my grandmother, who learned the song 60-odd years ago from her uncle, Joe Mulkey.
The Mulkey family lived in Gilmer County, Georgia, on Turkey Creek in the Cartecay community at the foot of Burnt Mountain. They were lean-living farmers, descended mostly from Scotch-Irish immigrants of the 17th and 18th centuries who had settled the steep, tough land in the south-eastern US Appalachian range, the homeland of the Cherokee Indians. In some cases the settlers intermarried with the Cherokee; in all cases they settled down on his land, and introduced him to their system of property ownership.
The Mulkeys all remained in the mountains until 1884 when Kimsey Mulkey (my great-grandfather) and his family piled into a covered wagon and headed for Texas. They stayed for two weeks, didn’t like it, turned around, and headed back to Gilmer County and the Georgia mountains.
My father has told me about the Saturday night gatherings held regularly when he was a child in Gilmer. Everyone had particular songs he would sing. It was Rufe Morris’ family who sang Boston Burglar, along with Moses Smote the Water and Hush Up, Boys. The Morrises played no instruments, so all their songs were unaccompanied. Whether this was by choice or necessity is uncertain, for Rufe Morris was too poor to afford musical instruments.
The Watersons sang The Whitby Lad in 1966 on their album A Yorkshire Garland. Like most of the tracks from this LP, it was re-released in 1994 on their CD Early Days. Both this track and a live recording from the South Street Seaport, New York on 5 July 1978 (with Martin Carthy singing lead) were included in 2004 on the Watersons’ 4 CD anthology Mighty River of Song. A.L. Lloyd noted on the original album:
A big family of highwaymen and poacher songs interbred with a family of transportation songs to produce a large number of offspring all resembling each other closely. A central feature of them all is the lamentation of the aged parents. The Whitby Lad was collected from Mr. W. F. Verril of Staithes some sixty years ago by R. A. Gatty. In other versions the young transportee comes from other parts and sails down other rivers than the Humber. On the face of it the song is modest enough but it has exercised a powerful interest on singers and hearers alike and versions of it quickly became common in Scotland, Ireland and America (where it still flourishes under such titles as The Boston Burglar and The Jail at Morgantown).
Eric Mann sang Whitby Lad in 1969 at the Folk Union One club at the Blue Bell in Hull. This recording appeared in the same year on the privately issued album Blue Bell Folk Sing.
Jimmy McBeath sang The Boston Smuggler in a 1971 recording made by Peter Hall. It was released in 1978 on his Topic album Bound to Be a Row. Peter Hall noted:
The widespread Boston Burglar has been known in this version in Aberdeenshire for the past hundred years.
Jumbo Brightwell sang Botany Bay in a recording made by Keith Summers in 1971-77 that was included in 2006 on the Veteran anthology of traditional folk songs, music hall songs, and tunes from Suffolk, Good Hearted Fellows. Mike Yates noted:
When Botany Bay was ‘discovered’ in 1770 by Captain James Cook (not forgetting that the local Aboriginals had been there long before Cook arrived!) it was a shallow inlet some five miles to the south of Sydney, New South Wales. Cook named it after the abundance of new plants that were discovered there and in 1787 it was chosen as the site of a penal settlement. In fact, it proved unsatisfactory and the settlement moved to Sydney Cove, although the name, Botany Bay, soon became synonymous with all the Australian convict settlements. Early Victorian broadside printers (such as Pitts and Batchelor, both of London) called the piece The Transport, which begins with the line, “Come all young men of learning, a warning take by me”. It has been suggested by Roy Palmer that such songs were designed to warn people about the severe punishments that then existed for the crime of poaching. Later printers (Such of London and Forth of Hull, for example) called the song Botany Bay and many collectors have found the song, not only in England, but in America and Canada as well. Cecil Sharp collected six versions.
Jumbo Brightwell’s lusty performance is sung to a widely known tune which is related to the one employed by the late Sam Larner, of Winterton in Norfolk, for his song The Dolphin.
Charlie Whiting sang The Boston Burglar in a recording made by Keith Summers in 1971-77 that was included in 2006 on Good Hearted Fellows too. Mike Yates noted:
The Boston Burglar would seem to be an Americanised version of the British song Botany Bay. “The Boston Burglar. Sung by Dan MacCarthy” was copyrighted in 1881 by H.J. Wehman (New York) and published by him as both a broadside (no. 480) and in The Vocalists’s Favorite Songster of 1885. Gavin Greig noted three versions of the song in Scotland, and commented that, “the song has got quite naturalised in this country”. The Irish collector Sam Henry also noted the song from a singer in Coleraine and it may be that Charlie Whiting’s version comes from the recording made in 1940 by the Irish singer Delia Murphy, a recording that was once played frequently on the radio in England. (Delia’s recording can now be heard on the CD From Galway to Dublin Rounder CD1087)
The Clancy Brothers with Louis Killen recorded The Boston Burglar for their 1972 album Save the Land.
Jane Turriff of Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, sang The Boston Burglar in 1996 on her Springthyme album Singin Is Ma Life.
Nova Baker and Elsie Vanover sang I Was Born and Raised in Covington to Mark Wilson at Pound, Virginia, on 9 August 1996. This recording was included in 2007 on the Musical Traditions anthology of folk songs of the Upper South, Meeting’s a Pleasure Volume 2. Mark Wilson noted:
Most often called The Boston Burglar, this song represents a straightforward Americanisation of an early nineteen century broadside, The Transports or Botany Bay (of which we witnessed a snatch in the headnote to I was Born and Raised in Covington). Folk Songs of the Catskills credits the American recasting to Michael J Fitzgerald, although the song appears under a variety of accreditations in nineteen century songsters. As such, the song became very popular in both Britain and America, often reconfigured to suit local circumstances. Roscoe Holcomb also localises its setting to Covington, Kentucky (SF 40144).
Bill Jones sang Botany Bay on the 2001 Topic/BBC anthology The Folk Awards.
Kevin Mitchell sang The Boston Burglar on his and Ellen Mitchell’s 2001 Musical Traditions anthology Have a Drop Mair. He and Rod Stradling noted:
Kevin: A very popular song sung all over Ireland; it was recorded by various singers in the late 1940s and ’50s.
Indeed, it has spread all over the English-speaking world, although, inevitably, half of Roud’s 148 examples are from the USA. Sharp had it from five singers in England, and both Elizabeth Cronin and Margaret Barry sang it in Ireland. Not a single one of the 20 known sound recordings is available on CD.
Pete Coe sang Boston Burglar in 2004 on his CD In Paper Houses. He noted:
This repentant villain has confused me for years. Was he from Boston, Lincs, or Boston Mass.? Was he transported to Charleston, West Virginia (or South Carolina) or was he shipped out of Charlestown, Cornwall?
[Note: The repentant villain was from Boston, Mass., and he wasn’t transported but jailed in Charlestown State Prison in Boston which was in use from 1805 to 1955.]
James Keelaghan sang The Boston Burglar in 2006 on his Fellside album A Few Simple Verses.
Norma Waterson sang Boston Burglar in 2010 on her and Eliza’s Topic CD Gift. A live recording from the Union Chapel in November 2010 was released in the following year on the DVD and CD The Gift Band Live on Tour. And Eliza Carthy and Tim Eriksen recorded Whitby Lad (Botany Bay) on their 2015 album Bottle. Eliza noted on the first album:
Boston Burglar comes from two sources: Delia Murphy and Dominic Behan. Mam has some great stories about Dominic, but she isn’t sharing out of respect to everyone involved …
Recently the gift of a CD of Delia Murphy from Bob Davenport brought the memories of the whole thing flooding back. She was loved by Mam’s Grandma who loved The Spinning Wheel, the closest thing you got to a “hit” in the fifties. The Dominic Behan connection comes from being on tour with the Watersons in the sixties, it was one of his favourite songs.
Gavin Davenport sang The Bone Orchard in 2013 on his Haystack album The Bone Orchard.
Simpson·Cutting·Kerr sang Boston Smuggler on the bonus CD of their 2015 Topic album Murmurs.
Pilgrims’ Way sang this song as Boston City in 2016 on their Fellside CD Red Diesel. They noted:
Breaking the law leads to 21 years gainful employment for a young layabout. We’re grateful to the Department of Work and Pensions for their interpretation of this salutary tale.
Damien O’Kane sang Boston City on his 2017 CD Avenging & Bright. He noted:
I got this song, also known as The Boston Burglar, from a book called Irish Street Ballads collected by Colm Ó Lochlainn. A slightly different version can be found in Sam Henry’s Songs of the People and his source is William Devine from Coleraine! It was quite a popular song in the 60’s and 70’s among the Irish and British folk singers and there are indeed quite a few different versions. Charlestown, as mentioned in the song, is where there was a State Prison in Boston, Massachusetts. It closed in 1955.
Kelly Oliver sang Botany Bay as the title track of her 2018 CD Botany Bay. She noted:
Collected by Lucy Broadwood in Hertfordshire.
The very sad but true story of convicts sent from England and Ireland to Botany Bay in Australia, sometimes for as little as stealing a handkerchief, never to return home.
Sam Lee and Notes Inégales sang Botany Bay / Bad Company in 2018 on their CD Van Diemen’s Land.
Fay Hield sang Whitby Bay in a 2021 video about Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire. This is part of a video series Songs of England which explores traditional songs and their connections to historic places. It was commissioned by English Heritage and the Nest Collective.
The Watersons sing The Whitby Lad
Come all ye bold and ye rambling boys and a warning take by me
For I’d have you quit night walking and shun bad company
Chorus (after each verse):
(For it’s:) Son oh son what have you done?
You’re bound for Botany Bay
I was born and bred in Whitby town and raised most honestly
Till I became a roving blade which proved my destiny
Well I broke into some lady’s house about the hour of three
And two peelers stood behind the door and they soon had an hold on me
It was at the quarters sessions that the judge to me did say
Well the jury’s found you guilty you’re bound for Botany Bay
Well I’ve seen me aged father there a-trembling at the bar
Likewise me dear old mother a-tearing her white hair
It was on the 28th of June from England we made way
And as we come down the Humber well we heard them sailors say
New chorus (after each verse):
(Well it’s:) Boys oh boys there are no joys
Down there in Botany Bay
Oh there is a lass in Whitby town and the girl that I love full well
And it’s if I had me liberty along with her I’d dwell
Jumbo Brightwell sings Botany Bay
Come all you young fellows take warning by me
And never go midnight walking and shun bad company.
And never go midnight walking or else you will rue the day
While you will get transported and sent to Botany Bay.
My character was taken and I was taken too,
My parents tried to clear me but nothing could they do.
It was at the Old Bailey sessions where the judge unto me did say,
“Why the jury have found you guilty, young man, you must go to Botany Bay.”
To see my aged father as he stood at the bar,
Likewise my poor old mother a-tearing of her hair.
A-tearing of her old grey locks, why she unto me did say
“Why, oh son, oh son, what have you done to be sent to Botany Bay?”
A-sailing down the river on the fourteenth day of May,
There goes the ship of clever young men, they’re sorry, so they say.
There goes the ship of clever young men, they are sorry I heard them say.
It is for some crime that they’ve done in their time and they’re sent to Botany Bay.
Now there is a girl in London, a girl I love so well,
And if ever I gain my liberty, along with her I’ll dwell.
If ever I gain my liberty, it’s along with her I’ll dwell,
And I will shun bad company and be true to my love as well.
Charlie Whiting sings Boston Burglar
I was bred and born in Boston, a place you all know well,
Brought up by honest parents and the truth to you I’ll tell.
Brought up by honest parents and the truth I’ll not deny
But I became a roving young lad at the age of twenty three.
My character got broken and I got lodged in jail.
My father tried all he could in vain to get me out on bail.
But the jury found me guilty and the sentence then was passed.
I was bound for seven long weary years in a place called Charlie’s Town.
I saw my dear old mother a-tearing of her hair,
The tearing of those old grey locks, so the tears come rolling down.
The tearing of those old grey locks, so the tears come rolling down,
“My son, my son, what have you done to be bound for Charlie’s Town?”
I stepped on board an east going train on a cold September’s morn
And every station we passed by, you could hear the old bells call
“Here comes that Boston Burglar, away away he’s bound,
He’s bound for seven long weary years in a place called Charlie’s Town.”
Nova Baker and Elsie Vanover sing I Was Born and Raised in Covington
I was borned and raised in Covington, a place you all know well
Brought up by honest parents, the truth to you I’ll tell.
Brought up by honest parents, raised up most tenderly
’Til I became a burglar at the age of twenty-three.
And then I was arrested, placed in a county jail
My friends and relations standing around trying to get me out on bail.
Up stepped my old aged father, a-pleading at the bar
Likewise my old gray headed mother, came a-tearing down her hair.
Came a-tearing down her old gray locks, the tears came twinkling down
Saying, “Son, oh son, what have you done that you’re bound for Frankfort town?”
The jury found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
The judge pronounced my sentence: “Ten years in Frankfort town.”
They put me on that eastbound train one cold December day
And every station I passed by, I heard those people say
“There goes a noted burglar, bound down in iron so strong
For some great crime or other, he’s bound for Frankfort town.”
These hills and valleys I’ll see no more for years and years and years
I turned right around with a broken heart, my poor eyes were filled with tears
Come all of you young boys that’s got your liberty
It’s wrote upon the prison walls, “Don’t break the laws of man.”
For if you do, I’m sure that you will be like me someday
A-working for your hash, my boy, in the penitentiary.
Kevin Mitchell sings The Boston Burglar
I was born and reared in Boston, a place you all know well,
Brought up by honest parents, the truth to you I’ll tell.
Brought up by honest parents and reared most tenderly,
’Til I became a sporty youth at the age of twenty three.
My character was taken and I was sent to jail;
My friends and parents did their best to get me out on bail.
But the jury found me guilty and the clerk he wrote it down,
“For the breaking of the Union Bank you are sent to Charlestown.”
I can see my aged father a-standing at the bar,
Likewise my own dear mother was tearing out her hair,
Tearing out her old grey locks as the tears came tumbling down,
“My son, my son, what have you done, to be sent to Charlestown?”
I put my foot on an eastgoing train one cold December day,
In every station I passed by you could hear the people say,
“There goes the Boston Burglar, in iron chains he is bound.
For the breaking of the Union Bank he is sent to Charlestown”.
Now you that has your liberty, pray keep it if you can
And don’t go wand’ring out at night, breaking laws of God and man.
For if you do, you’ll surely rue and you’ll find yourself like me
A-serving up your twenty years in the penitentiary.
Norma Waterson sings Boston Burglar
I was born and bred in Boston, a place you all know well,
Brought up by honest parents and the truth to you I’ll tell.
Brought up by honest parents and reared most tenderly
Till I became a sporting blade at the age of twenty-three.
My character was broken and I was sent to gaol;
My friends and parents did their best to get me out on bail.
The jury found me guilty and the judge he wrote it down:
“For the breaking of the Union Bank you were sent to Charlestown.”
I could see my dear old father a-standing at the bar,
Also me dear old mother, she’s a-tearing her grey hair.
She’s a-tearing of her old grey locks and the tears come trickling down,
“Son, oh son what have you done to be sent to Charlestown?”
I set my foot on an eastbound train one cold December day,
And every station I passed by I could hear the people say:
“There goes that Boston Burglar, in iron chains he is bound;
For the breaking of the Union Bank he is sent to Charlestown.”
There’s a girl in Boston City, boys, a girl I know quite well;
If I get my liberty it’s with her I will dwell.
If ever I get my liberty rough company I will shun,
Likewise a-walking of the streets and a-drinking of the rum.
Now you that have your liberty pray keep it if you can,
And don’t go in night rambling or you’ll break the laws of man.
And if you do, you’re sure to rue and you find yourself like me,
A-sentenced down to twenty-one years of penal severity.
Garry Gillard transcribed The Whitby Lad from the singing of the Watersons.