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The Gallows Child (1820)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Nine-year old boy is condemned to death for stealing six handkerchiefs from an Oxford Street shop. Shopkeeper had paid five shillings each for them.

The Broadside
This tale comes from a composite sheet giving the results of six cases heard at The Old Bailey on February 17, 1820. Five of the six trials ended with a death sentence. The Gallows Child is my own name for the sheet's untitled Copy of Verses.

The Ballad
Pray give attention to this tale,
Of woe and misery,
To draw forth tears it will not fail,
From every mother's eye,
In Newgate's dismal cells we're told,
In bitter grief doth lie,
A little boy of nine years old,
Who is condemned to die.

When he was sentenced at the bar,
The court was drowned in tears,
To see a child so young cut off,
Still in his infant years,
His father wept, his mother tore,
Her hair in agony,
A heart of stone would melt to hear,
How bitter she did cry.

Be warned my little children dear,
By this poor boy's downfall,
Keep from dishonest courses clear,
And God will bless you all,
Oh think how this poor wretched boy,
Laments his woeful fate,
Locked in a cell: he has no joy,
How dreadful is his state.

The Facts
The prose account alongside the verses explains how Charles Elliott, 9, had stolen six handkerchiefs from Martha Blakeman's Oxford Street shop on February 8, 1820.

His defence was that they'd been stolen by another boy, who dropped them as he fled

His defence was that they'd actually been stolen by another boy, who'd dropped them as he fled. Charles claimed he'd merely picked the handkerchiefs up after the other boy dropped them, but the jury didn't believe him. They returned a guilty verdict, and Justice Richardson pronounced a sentence of death.
The Old Bailey's transcript confirms all these details, just as the broadsheet reports them. Blakeman testified that she'd been in her back parlour behind the shop when she saw a boy run out of the shop's front door. She came through to investigate, noticed six handkerchiefs were missing, and gave chase.
PC Timothy Rickman, who'd happened to be nearby, heard Blakeman shouting “Stop thief”, grabbed Charles and found the handkerchiefs in his hat. “I heard the cry and saw a little boy about my size going along,” Charles said in his own defence. “He dropped the handkerchiefs. I told him he had dropped them. He said 'Never mind, keep them', and I put them in my hat.”

There's no record of anyone called Charles Elliott being hanged in 1820, so his sentence was almost certainly commuted to transportation. He'd most likely have been sent to Australia.
“Death sentences were certainly routinely passed on 7-13 year olds, but equally routinely commuted,” Richard Clark says on his Capital Punishment UK website. “Girls were typically hanged only for the most serious crimes, whereas teenage boys were executed for a wide range of felonies.”
Clark's site lists 51 confirmed cases of teenagers - 38 boys and 13 girls - hanged here in the 19th Century. The youngest was 14-year-old John Bell, executed at Maidstone in August 1831 for the murder of 13-year-old Richard Taylor. He killed Taylor for the nine shillings the younger boy had just collected from the parish to help feed his disabled father.
“Bell was probably the youngest person to be hanged in the 19th Century,” Clark writes. “In 1833, a boy of nine was sentenced to death at Maidstone Assizes for housebreaking, but was reprieved after public agitation.”

To hear The Hammond School singing Gallows Child, visit the Tindeck music hosting page here.

* The Trials of all the Prisoners at The Old Bailey (printer unknown, 1820).
* Old Bailey Transcripts
* Capital Punishment UK (

Songs menu: A feast of facts and all the lyrics

The menu below lists a few of my favourite ballads from the British Library's collection and elsewhere. Click on any title to find the full lyrics and my account of the case that inspired them. And, if you haven't already read it, do take a look at my background essay describing the London industry which produced these songs.

Part One (April 2010)

Mary Arnold, The Female Monster

The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs

Mrs Dyer, The Old Baby-Farmer

The Gallows Child

Part Two (June 2010)

The Life and Trial of Palmer

The Silent Grove

The Liverpool Lodger

The Unnatural Murder

Part Three (Oct 2010)

Murder at Westmill

Streams of Crimson Blood

The Murdered Maid

Cruel Lizzie Vickers

Part Four (Feb 2011)

Jones and Harwood

The Sister and the Serpent

Jealous Annie

The Foreigner's Downfall

Bonus songs

The Tyburn Jig

Corkery's Farewell

The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If you'd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 ballads' public domain lyrics to your own music and record yourself singing and playing it?
   Any music you write would remain your own property, of course, as would the recording itself, and I'll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   There's no money in this for anyone - least of all me - but I think it's a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and I'll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen song's page here.

2) Post the recording online at your own site or the hosting service of your choice. Let me know where it can be found, and I'll add a link telling people where to go. Please remember that some hosting sites allow access to members only.

3) Film yourself performing the song, and post the video to YouTube. Once again, I'd be delighted to add a link here telling people where to find it.

4) Write your own song from scratch, based on the true story that inspired one of the ballads, then follow whichever of the above options suits you.

   Check PlanetSlade Music for a taste of what I have in mind. I spent all of 2012 recruiting contributors for this little project, and I've now accumulated at least one new recording of each of the 16 original ballads I selected. You can find links to all this audio on the PlanetSlade page above, or hear the whole "album" in the Soundcloud set here.
   The styles people have chosen range all the way from unaccompanied traditional folk singing via acoustic guitar ballads to full-on rock workouts with a whole band.
   Contributors so far include Sean Breadin of Rapunzel & Sedayne, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Fred Smith, Tim Radford, Big Al Whittle and South County.
   Three continents are represented in all, and at least one of the songs has already made it into the contributing band's live set. None of the tracks have achieved a commercial release yet, but I dare say a couple will make that leap eventually.
   We've already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please don't feel you're too late to make your own contribution.
   I'm all for people adding second, third or even fourth interpretations of a single song, using as many different musical genres as we can muster. Many, many thanks to all those who've already taken part.
   You can reach me with any questions here