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Pretty Polly: continued

 
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Murder Ballads
Secret London
Miscellany

"It does sound as if the captain wished to settle the matter as soon as possible, while at the same time conceding that the ship will probably have to sail before a verdict can be reached," Fowler says. "On these somewhat tenuous grounds, I conclude that the affair of the ghost was reported to the captain by Charles Stewart at about the time of the fleet's scheduled departure from Spithead (April 7), and that the eventual breakdown and confession of the carpenter came at some future time."
The Bedford reached the Gulf of Finland at the end of June and anchored at Naissaar Island off the coast of Estonia. The fleet's job there was simply to park somewhere in the Russians' field of vision and stay put for a bit, radiating a quiet sense of British naval power by its presence alone. The more gung-ho Russian commanders were keen to engage the British fleet, but Vice-Admiral Thomas Gordon - who'd defected to Russia's navy in 1714 - persuaded them this would be suicide. After three months in the Baltic, the Admiralty felt Britain's point had been made so the fleet set off back to Portsmouth.
No actual fighting had proved necessary during this expedition, but the voyage home presented some genuine danger. On September 22, the Bedford had reached a point about 150 miles west south-west of Nargen Island - placing her smack in the middle of the Baltic Sea - when storms struck the ship. These storms tore up the Baltic for three days and, as The Weekly Journal later reported, sank no fewer than 17 ships there. It was, The Newcastle Courant adds, "a long and stormy passage".(15, 16)
"At half past 10pm, HF topsail," Hook's log entry for September 22 begins. "At 6am, set fore topsail; broke one of our main shrouds HM topsail. At 8 fixed him again and set main topsail. At 10 saw some breakers bearing NNE 6 or 7 miles; fired a gun being a sign of danger, and tacked."

'There can be no doubt that the captain considered his ship to be in grave danger'

I asked Admiralty Librarian Jennifer Wraight to translate this log entry into landlubbers' English for me, and she explained that the first section means Hook was hauling in sails on his fore mast and main mast respectively. "Making adjustments to the sails is normally a reaction to weather conditions," she went on. 'In stormy conditions, you would normally reduce the amount of sail a ship is carrying, which would be consistent with the entry you have.
"The shrouds are not sails, but part of the rigging: they provide lateral support for the masts. One of the main shrouds breaking would suggest that the mast was under strain. Taking in the main topsail would have reduced strain on the mast while the broken shroud was being repaired."
There was a second threat too, because the breakers Hook sighted told him there was shallow water and rocks near the ship. Wraight believes these rocks carried more potential danger for the Bedford than the weather alone, adding that they would have been all the more difficult to avoid when storms were cutting both visibility and the ship's capacity to manoeuvre. "Tacking - changing direction - would be eminently sensible," she said. "He's taking the ship away from hazard."
Fowler gives Hook credit for his calm, unemotional language in the log entry, but adds: "There can be no doubt that, on 22 September, the captain of the Bedford considered his ship to be in grave danger. Three days later, John Billson, carpenter, died."
Fowler's theory here is that Billson, still tormented by the fear of supernatural revenge, had by now fallen prey to some unknown illness too. "If, as the ballad suggests, there was a concern on the part of the captain and crew over the possible presence of a murderer on board, the foul weather and the sighting of breakers perilously nigh may well have prompted some of them to begin looking for their Jonah," he says.
Perhaps some of the Bedford's men even threatened to throw Billson overboard, just as those described in William Glen had done to their own jinx. Faced with intolerable stress from both his own guilty conscience and the ill-will of everyone around him, it would be small wonder if the carpenter once again began to fancy he could see Molly's ghost. In a man already weakened by illness, the fits these visions produced could well have proved the final straw. "The death of John Billson provides us with a fourth fact related in The Gosport Tragedy," Fowler says. "Namely, that the carpenter of the Bedford died on board ship."
Fowler calls his whole scenario for The Gosport Tragedy's tale a "hypothetical reconstruction", and I think he'd accept that Billson's death is the point where it becomes most speculative of all. The only thing we know for certain is that Billson died at 9:00am on September 25, 1726. Hook's log entry for that day is his usual long list of times and headings, punctuated by just six words on Billson's death. "At 3am wove to the southward," he writes, "at 6 wove again and stood westward, at 9 John Billson carpenter died, at past tacked westward." (17)
Hook's log entry also tells us that September 25 began with mild winds and fair weather, continuing with clear skies later in the day. That was the first calm morning the Bedford had seen after three days of terrible storms and, if the crew really had blamed Billson for causing these, it must have seemed equally obvious that his imminent death was ending them.
Fowler argues that the ballad's need to concertina all these events together conceals just how much patience Molly's spectre had been prepared to show. "She gets her revenge by alerting the ship's crew and the captain, but is not made a liar by the tardy demise of her victim," he writes.
Hook's terse account of Billson's demise in the ship's log looks callous to modern eyes, but he'd have been well-accustomed to his men dying of various illnesses on board. Fowler has collected figures showing the Bedford lost about 40 of its 486 men to illness during its seven-month Baltic mission. Seven died on the return voyage to Portsmouth alone - including Billson himself - and another five in Gosport Hospital as soon as they reached shore.
We have no official cause of death for Billson, but Fowler thinks it was probably scurvy that did for him. This disease killed more British sailors than enemy action did in the 18th century, and it was not until 1747 that James Lind proved it could be prevented simply by adding citrus fruits to the sailors' very restricted diet. This practice was not adopted by the British Navy until the 1790s, and not fully understood even then.
In his 2005 essay Scurvy: The Sailors' Nightmare, Grant Sebastian Nell describes its final stage as: "a terrible fever which left men raving and ranting before they died". Once again, this does seem to match the ballad's description: "Raving distracted he died in the night". (18, 19)
When I put the scurvy theory to Wraight, however, she was distinctly sceptical. "There are many reasons why Billson may have died, but no apparent reason to assume scurvy," she told me. "It would not normally have been too difficult to obtain supplies of fresh food while serving in the Baltic." In this particular case - as Wraight also pointed out - the Bedford was on a relatively cushy mission, and within easy reach of land throughout the summer. We know Hook's men visited Nargen Island regularly enough, because he set up a tent hospital there to handle the Bedford's sick.
We can't rule out the possibility that Billson died as a result of some random accident on board the storm-tossed Bedford, or even that he had his throat slit by superstitious crewmates. There's no record of any official investigation following his death, however, so some form of illness remains the most likely explanation. Whether it was scurvy or not is a different matter.
The Bedford was over 900 miles from Portsmouth when its carpenter died, about 15 miles from the nearest land, and with over a month of her voyage home remaining. Wondering if there was any point in trying to track down Billson's burial records, I asked Wraight how the ship would have handled his body in a case like this.
"Someone who died on board would have been given a perfectly conventional burial in the nearest available cemetery if this was feasible," she replied. "If the ship was out at sea and this was not practicable, then the corpse would normally have been sewn up in a weighted hammock and buried at sea with due ceremony. [...] Billson would definitely be more likely to be buried at sea than brought home. Sharing a ship with a decomposing body is not pleasant, nor conducive to health and morale. Cases like Nelson's where they did attempt it, are very rare and they didn't find it easy then."

Polly's gift: 'A rage that's so blissfully pure'

One of the singers I talked to for this piece was Katie Jane Garside, who's sung Pretty Polly with both Queenadreena and her new band Ruby Throat. I'm running our short interview in full here.

PlanetSlade: What was it about the song that first made you want to sing it?
Katie Jane Garside: "Pretty Polly sought me out. She settled in for the night: many nights. We are cut from the same piece of cloth, so she is very comfortable stitched down with me. I am a more than willing canvas - I have a friend."

PS: How does it feel to sing Pretty Polly on stage? Is it gruelling? Liberating? Or just one more exercise in telling a story?
KJG: "She excites me. She pulls me down right into the primal - even primordial - heat ... combustion. I feel this song at the base of my spine: a singer's song. She takes over and shows you how it's done, a glorious fucking song."

PS: Do you feel you're "channelling" the characters as you sing it, or that you're telling the tale as a neutral witness?
KJG: "Perhaps it's the other way round - the song channels me. I've always been greatly lacking in a sense of self, but somehow this song brings me up against something I seem to have lost. Polly saved me: she was screaming and sign-posting."

PS: Do you sing the song from a single point of view, or move from one character's mind to the next as it progresses?
KJG: "Hopefully, I am not present to be able to answer this question."

PS: Is Pretty Polly a different song when a woman sings it? If so, how?
KJG: "The rape, ransack and murder implied in the question transmute into a splitting seed. Horrors and broken bodies become innumerable seedlings: there is life.
    "Some nights, the song comes with a rage so blissfully pure my mouth is 100 miles wide, crashing through forests, armies and deserts."

PS: How did Queenadreena's audiences react to the song when they saw it played live?
KJG: "I see wild-eyed horses breakdancing in slow-motion."

PS: Is the song still a part of your life now that Queenadreena's no longer gigging?
KJG: "As long as Polly wants me, I am hers."

When I asked that last question, I didn't yet know that Katie Jane was also singing Pretty Polly with her new band. See page 3 for more details.