> Folk Music > Songs > The Private Still

The Private Still

[ Roud 2342 ; Henry H103 ; Ballad Index HHH103 ; Bodleian Roud 2342 ; Mudcat 169548 ; trad.]

A Book of British Ballads Sam Henry’s Songs of the People

The Private Still is from Sam Henry’s Songs of the People, collected from Daniel Moore in c. 1885.

Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer sang The Private Still on their 2013 CD Red House. They noted:

Another song from Ireland. In this case, it’s a classic case of “ordinary man gets the better of ‘the man in authority’ through quick wit”. There’s a lot of entertaining build-up to the punch line—but listen carefully or you’ll miss it.

For the record, ‘gauger’ is an exciseman (who would use a gauge to calculate the proof of the alcohol) who was, therefore, not especially liked by the general public. ‘Flat’ is not Cockney rhyming slang—it’s actually the opposite of ‘sharp’—as in ‘not the sharpest tool in the box’ (and therefore flat). Words again from Roy Palmer’s excellent A Book of British Ballads.

And Roy Palmer commented in his book:

The exercise of superior wit is a perennial theme of folktale and ballad. Here the unpopular gauger (exciseman) is outwitted.

This video shows Jonny Dyer and Sazouki performing The Private Still in 2012:


A gauger once in Dublin town, the time that I was there,
He fancied that a private still was being wrought somewhere;
He met me out one morning, p’rhaps he fancied that I knew,
“Oh never mind,” he said, “Pat, how do you do?”

Chorus (after each verse):
With my fol-ol-dtha-di-do, fol-ol-dtha-dee.

“I’m pretty well, your honour, but allow me for to say,
I don’t know you at all.” Said he, “Perhaps you may.
I’m going to find a something out, assist me if you will,
Here’s fifty pounds if you can tell where there’s a private still.”

“Give me the fifty pounds,” said I, “I’ faith I surely can.
I’ll keep my word, you may depend, as I’m an Irishman.”
The fifty pounds he then paid down, I pocketed the fee;
“Now button up your coat,” said I, “and come along with me.”

Along the road we quickly walked for miles full half a score,
When by his gait ’twas evident his feet were getting sore.
“How far have we to go?” says he, “for I am getting tired.”
“Let’s hire a jaunting car,” says I, so then a car we hired.

As soon as we were on the car, said he, “Now tell me, Pat,
Where is that blessed private still? Don’t take me for a flat.’
“A flat, your honour? No,” said I, “but hear me if you will,
And I at once will let you know where there’s a private still.”

“In half a minute now,” said I, “the barrack’s close at hand
And if you look right through the gate you see and hear the band;
And when the band’s done playing, you will see the soldiers drill.”
“Oh, never mind the soldiers, Pat, but where’s the private still?”

“In just a second now,” said I, “I’ll point him out to you.
See! There he is, that fat old chap, standing between them two.”
“What is that you say?” said he. Said I, “My brother Bill;
They won’t make him a corporal, so he’s a private still!”

The gauger swore and tore his hair to get his money back.
But I jumped onto the car myself and bolted in a crack.
And as he walks along the road, though sore against his will,
The people shout, “Exciseman, have you got the private still?”