Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

Pretty Polly: continued

Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
View as single page
Murder Ballads
Secret London

Most likely, John Billson's body ended up at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. His victim on the other hand, as the ballad tells it, was eventually buried in Gosport churchyard. Molly's parents must have been relieved to lay their lost daughter to rest in sacred ground at last, and Fowler thinks it's Charles Stewart who made that possible.

As soon as the Bedford's carpenter has breathed his last, The Gosport Tragedy leaps forward in time again to deal with Molly's burial. The two verses involved, you'll recall, go like this:

No-one but this wretch did see this sad sight,
Then, raving distract'd, he died in the night,
As soon as her parents these tidings did hear,
They fought for the body of their daughter dear.

Near a place called Southampton, in a valley so deep,
The body was found, while many did weep,
At the fall of the damsel and her daughter dear,
In Gosport churchyard, they buried her there.

In fact, it looks as if just over a month must have passed between the second and third lines of this extract. Fowler assumes that Billson confessed all about his crime in the day or two before he died on September 25, but no-one on the Bedford would have had the chance to reach the girl's parents until the ship docked again in Portsmouth harbour on November 4. The ballad's wording therefore implies that her body remained undiscovered in its shallow grave for at least nine months. As the Bedford returned to English waters, all the girl's family could have known was that "Molly" had gone missing around February 1, and that no-one had heard from her since.
Returning to the Bedford's pay and muster books, Fowler discovered a series of new marks against Stewart's name running from November 18, 1726, until April 12 the following year. These, he says, are "a series of check marks indicating a legitimate absence from the ship - that is, he is not being paid on board during this period, but neither is he a runaway". We can rule out Stewart's press-gang duties as a reason for this because the Bedford was set to remain in Portsmouth for the next five months, and would not leave Britain again until May 1727.
Instead, Fowler suggests, Hook picked Stewart as someone he could trust with a different task: find the girl's parents, tell them what happened to their daughter and pass on whatever information Billson had volunteered to help locate her body. "I assume that the captain decided no legal action needed to be taken since, before the ship returned to port, the confessed murderer was himself dead," Fowler writes. "Nevertheless, I think it would be in character for Hook to take responsibility for seeing to it that the carpenter's confession was communicated to the murdered girl's parents."

The ballad implies that the murdered girl's remains lay undiscovered for at least nine months

The Bedford remained in Portsmouth harbour until February 28, 1727, and then sailed back to the anchorage at Spithead, where she spent the next week. On April 9, she left Spithead for a new mooring at the Nore, where the mouth of the Thames meets the North Sea. Stewart rejoined the ship there on April 12, and a week later the marks against his name change again to indicate "paid on board". They remain that way for the rest of the year. That gives him a spell of five months on-shore, during which he seems to have both contacted the girl's parents and told his story to the London print-shop owner who produced the Roxburghe Gosport.
Neither The Gosport Tragedy nor the Navy's records give us any clue to Molly's real identity - even that Christian name is a fiction, remember - which scuppers any possibility of finding her grave. We do know that Gosport's parish church back in 1726 was St Mary's at Alverstoke, though, so that's almost certainly the place the ballad has in mind when it mentions "Gosport churchyard". If Stewart really did manage to trace the girl's parents and give them enough information to find her remains where the killer had dumped them, that would have allowed them to rebury her at St Mary's, just as the Roxburghe Gosport says.
Reverend Ted Goodyer looks after St Mary's today. "We do indeed have a number of gravestones dating back to the early part of the 18th century," he told me. "Holy Trinity Church in Gosport was built in 1695, and did have a churchyard which has now been flattened, so the records of that church may also be helpful." (20)
Fowler searched the burial records, gravestone inscriptions and church wardens' accounts at both St Mary's and Holy Trinity, as well as the era's inquest files, but found nothing of any use. It occurred to me that he may not have thought to look for a "truculenter occisa" (violent death) note like the one that tipped me off in my own Knoxville Girl investigation, but I've now been through St Mary's 1726 and 1727 burial records for myself, and no such note exists.
Surviving newspapers from the 1720s are few and far between, but both Fowler and I have searched those available and turned up nothing that's relevant. If there ever was a real murder behind The Gosport Tragedy, then the ballad itself seems to be our only record of it. But even if the tale's based in nothing more substantive than the Bedford's prevailing gossip, there's good reason to think Stewart had a role in transmitting it to the wider world.
Stewart's progress from Gosport to the Nore during his time away from the Bedford would logically have taken him through London, and perhaps to one of the many seamen's inns there he'd have known there from his work with the Navy's press-gangs. These joints were known as "rondys" - short for "rendezvous" - and there were a couple of big ones near the Bow Churchyard print shop where the Roxburghe Gosport was produced.
"The oldest rendezvous was at St Katherine's Stairs on Tower Hill, the neighbourhood being frequented by seamen because of the proximity of the Navy Office where pay tickets were cashed," Christopher Lloyd writes in his book The British Seaman 1200 – 1860. "A convenient tavern there was The Two Dutch Skippers. Other well-known places in London were the White Swan in King Street, Westminster, and the Cock & Runner in Bow Street." Inns like these kept a "press room" on the premises - essentially a jail cell where men the press gangs had already rounded-up could be safely locked away before being taken to the ship.
We know from Henry Plomer's dictionary of 18th century printers that the Bow Churchyard shop was operated by a man called John Cluer from 1726 till 1728, which puts him in charge there when Stewart passed through London. Fowler suggests that Cluer may have frequented pubs like the Cock & Runner hoping to gather material for future ballads, and that Charles Stewart found him there one night on just such an expedition.
That would certainly explain why Stewart is the only man given his real name in the song, why that name is spelt out in full, and why he's described in such flattering terms ("a man of courage so bold"). Cluer would have been keen to keep such a useful source of material happy, either because he needed more than one interview to get the Gosport story down in full or because he hoped other lucrative yarns might follow. (21)
Just how much of that is true, we'll never know. Someone must have provided the bridge that transformed The Gosport Tragedy from a sailors' oral tale to a printed ballad, though, and the details above make Stewart a very tempting candidate. "He is my choice as the mariner who held a London publisher with his glittering eye," Fowler says, "telling an intriguing story of love, death and the supernatural, which was then turned into one of the most popular broadside ballads of the last 250 years". (22)

'It's like some kind of forced confession'

I also sent some questions to Muleskinner Jones, whose own version of Pretty Polly appears on his 2001 EP Terrible Stories.
    His answers got stranded in cyberspace for 12 months, but eventually reached me in February 2013. I'm adding them as a Late Bonus Interview here.

PlanetSlade: What attracted you to the song in the first place?
Muleskinner Jones: "Mainly the over-the-top 'gothic' nature of the piece. It's a very Roger Corman / Hammer Horror type of scenario. Very visually rich. I also like the droney nature of the tune, it's pretty much just one chord. This gives it a haunting incantation-like quality.
    "I'd wager the tune was a major influence on The Violent Femmes' awesome Country Death Song, which was the tune that got me into murder ballads and country/acoustic music in a general way back in the mid-eighties."

PS: Was there a particular recording which first sparked your interest in the song?
MJ: "The Stanley Brothers' version on Long Journey Home from 1972. It was quite a shock when I first heard it - I wasn't expecting that type of content and the first few verses of the Stanley Brothers' version play out like it might be some kind of love song.
   "Ralph Stanley's voice is just perfect for it. I think it's pretty hardcore actually: the banjo switching between drone and stinging icepick runs and a voice that sounds like it could shatter glass, or belong to a 1,000-year old insane preacher."

PS: If you had to pick just one recording of Pretty Polly, which would you choose?
MJ: "It would be extremely difficult to choose between The Stanley Brothers' one and Dock Boggs' version. Dock Boggs would win out for pure weirdness!
   "They both have that droney, timeless, spectral quality that I love. Dock Boggs seems to be rushing through it as if he's guilty about singing it, like some kind of forced confession."

PS: Do you feel you're inhabiting the characters as you sing it?
MJ: "I sing the song predominantly from the POV of the murderer who I imagine to be drunk and pretty much beyond redemption. I don't view my version as particularly serious: it's a kind of camp Victorian gothic melodrama. The few lines that Polly speaks I guess I try and sing from her perspective."

PS: Pretty Polly is often used as a children's song. Why do you think that is?
MJ: "Children do tend to enjoy this type of stuff. My kids (from about 7 and 9) loved that Decemberists LP The Hazards Of Love. I was a bit worried that they might find the contents of The Rake's Song (about a father who does in his children in various ways) rather disturbing, but they loved it.
   "There's a song called Little Dead Riding Hood on my new LP which contains the line 'Howled out loud at the moon / as the worms crawled cross her skin'. That freaked my daughter out more than any murder ballad."

PS: Anything else you'd like to say about Pretty Polly?
MJ: "When I was researching my version I listened to a lot of the Max Hunter recordings. That site is a treasure trove of cool stuff."

Find out more about Muleskinner Jones at his own website here. His new album, A Dying Man Can Sure Sing The Blues, is out now.