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Peter’s Private Army

[Martin Graebe]

Martin Graebe wrote Peter’s Private Army in 1972 and he and Shan (Cowan) Graebe sang it in 2005 on their WildGoose album Parallel Strands. Martin noted in his songbook Jack in the Green and Other Heroes (PDF document):

At one point in my career my interest in historical oddities and my professional life as a developer of new food products came together when I was working on Ambrosia ‘Traditional Rice Pudding’. In establishing the background for that product I used information on the retail market in milk products in the middle of the last century from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. This book also gave me the ideas for a couple of songs, one of which was Peter’s Private Army. Mayhew interviewed both legitimate tradesmen and the less honest with equal enthusiasm. One of his shadier interviewees described ‘The Shallow Lurk’—the confidence trick in which the participants dressed up to pretend they were ex soldiers or sailors in order to elicit sympathetic small change. If all the ‘sailors’ who claimed to have served on the Victory at Trafalgar had actually done so the ship would have sunk under their weight before leaving harbour.

Johnny Collins & Company sang Peter’s Private Army in 1975 on their Traditional Sound Recordings album Johnny’s Private Army.

Barry Skinner sang Peter’s Private Army in 1975 on his album Abroad As I Was Working.

Danny Spooner and Duncan Brown sang Peter’s Private Army, with a spoken prelude written by Danny, on their 2016 CD of songs of the working life, Labour and Toil. The album’s liner notes commented:

This song by Martin Graebe was written in 1972 after reading an account of beggars in Victorian times pretending to be ex-soldiers or sailors to lend respectability to their appeal. These ‘Turnpike Sailors’ and ‘Street Campaigners’ were very rarely what they pretended to be—but after knowing Peter and his band for several years the relater of the account was inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt!


Lyrics with sheet music can also be found in Martin Graebe’s Songbook.

Martin Graebe’s Peter’s Private Army

Now people come and gather round,
Though our coats are ragged and our faces brown.
You see we are no common band
At the call of our country we all did stand.

Chorus (after each verse):
Tip-a-tap tip, hop and skip
It’s Peter’s Private Army

Number one is Peter Dunn,
His arm blown away by a big French gun.
It’s him our little band does lead
With the money bag tied to his sleeve.

And number two is Peg-leg Hugh,
His dancing done since Waterloo.
With his fiddle tucked beneath his chin
He’ll wave his stump to keep the time.

And number three is Blind Jack Bree,
Lost both his eyes in the King’s navy.
But still his squeeze-box he can play
And the notes roll out like an ocean wave.

And number four is Harry Taw,
Caught a bullet in the throat in the Peninsula.
But he’s wind enough on his fife to toot,
He can say as much as we although his voice is mute.

And number five is Mad Jim Ives,
We sometimes wonder if he’s dead or alive.
But when he hears the fiddle thrum
He’ll beat like hell on his pigskin drum.

And now we’re marching off again,
You can hear us fading down the lane.
And we hope that you’ve been kind to us
’Cos we’ve given much for you in the foreign wars.