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The Silent Grove (1838)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Young man gets his girlfriend pregnant, then kills both her and the baby to avoid responsibility. One of many Bloody Miller/ Berkshire Tragedy variants - a combination of which eventually became Knoxville Girl.

The Broadside
The Silent Grove is my name for this untitled ballad, printed by W Johnson in Reading. The prose account accompanying the ballad dates the killing to May 1838, and ends with Thompson being sent to Reading Gaol to await trial at the next assizes.

The Ballad
Come all you wicked young men,
Give ear unto this tale,
It's of a dreadful murder,
The truth I will reveal,
Near Twyford Town in Berkshire,
This shocking deed was done,
The very thought of such a deed,
Would melt a heart of stone.

'Twas of young Henry Thompson,
A young man brisk and gay,
Likewise one Mary Stevenson,
Fair as the rose of May,
This young man and this maiden,
Did close together dwell,
And soon in love with this fair maid,
Young faithless Henry fell.

It was this young man's study,
Her heart for to beguile,
And soon to her misfortune,
By him she proved with child,
She being eight months gone with child,
These words to him did say,
'Henry, my dearest Henry,
When is our wedding day?'

He said 'My dearest Mary,
My joy and heart's delight,
The bans they shall be put up,
And all things shall be right.'
She said 'I think you slight your love,
And think no more of me,
But still you know the father of,
My baby you must be.'

It was upon last Wednesday night,
When he to her did say,
'Meet me tomorrow evening,
Just at the close of day,
And at the bottom of Longrove,
'Tis there we will agree,
Upon the day, dear Mary,
When you shall marry me.'

Then in the silent grove they met,
Where many an hour they passed,
But little did poor Mary think,
That night would be her last,
He from his pocket drew a knife,
It was both long and sharp,
He seized her breast and plunged it,
So deep into her heart.

All in the midst of fatal pain,
And sad extremity,
This damsel was delivered of,
Her murderer's baby,
He cut her lovely infant's throat,
As on the ground it lay,
Then left them bleeding in the grove,
A shocking sight to see.

Then to his mother's nearby house,
He went without delay,
'Oh tell me, dearest mother,
Has Mary been this way?
For I have searched all round for her,
And her I cannot find,
I fear some harm has come to her,
Which sadly grieves my mind.'

As near unto his mother,
This young man he did draw,
A quantity of crimson blood,
Upon his clothes she saw,
She said 'My dearest Henry,
My dear, my only child,
I fear you've murdered Mary,
The damsel you beguiled.'

And then before his mother,
On bended knees he fell,
He said 'The deed which I have done,
The truth to you I'll tell,
I've murdered dearest Mary,
Her tender babe also,
I know not where to wander,
Nor whither I should go'.

Now taken is the young man,
And bound in prison strong,
He knows that he must take his trial,
And that will not be long,
So all you men be constant,
Unto to the girl you love,
And then you may expect to find,
A blessing from above.

The Facts
Twyford is only about 28 miles from Wytham in Oxfordshire, where 1744's The Berkshire Tragedy sets its own very similar tale. Both songs describe a young man who knocks up his girlfriend, takes her out for a private walk to discuss their wedding arrangements, murders her, and is then discovered with blood on his clothes.

The Silent Grove may point to a 'missing link' between the US and UK versions

As we've seen elsewhere, it's songs like The Berkshire Tragedy and 1685's The Bloody Miller which eventually gave us Knoxville Girl. There were many, many variations on the true-life tale inspiring these songs, and it was frequently re-written and re-dated for a new audience. The Silent Grove - as I've called it - sticks pretty close to the template, but omits the other songs' trademark nosebleed.
There's no record of anyone called Henry Thompson being hanged in England in either 1838 or 1839, and I've found no trace of a murder victim called Mary Stevenson either. If anyone was going to be hanged for their crimes, you'd think a baby-killer would qualify, but it's possible that Thompson committed suicide in his cell or succumbed to disease before he could be executed.
Given the lack of any independent evidence supporting the song's account, the close proximity of Twyford to Wytham, the similarity with The Berkshire's Tragedy's plot and the extra little sensationalist touch of slitting the baby's throat, I think The Silent Grove is probably just one more example of spivish balladeers recycling a popular old song so they could sell it all over again. Whether they made up Henry and Mary's names from scratch, or imported them from another real murder is something I can't answer.

It's interesting that The Silent Grove has the killer confronted by his mother, rather than the servant which most other English versions of the song use.
The mother generally appears in American versions of the song, where its US audience of subsistence farmers would have found the servant an unimaginable luxury. If The Silent Grove's composer was working from an earlier English ballad with Mum present, then it's evidence of an intriguing "missing link" between The Berkshire Tragedy and Knoxville Girl - a song which sets its tale in England but uses the American cast.
On the other hand, we know that early versions of Knoxville Girl using the killer's mother had already started to surface by 1838, and may have made their way back across the Atlantic to England. It's perfectly possible that The Silent Grove's composer was influenced by these, and that this is a case of the American song feeding back into history and changing its British "parent".

To hear Sean Breadin, of Rapunzel & Sedayne, performing The Silent Grove, visit his Fiddlesangs site here.

* The Silent Grove, printed by W. Johnson of Reading (1838)
* Capital Punishment UK
* Reading Gaol by Reading Town, by Peter Southerton (publisher unknown, 1993).

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