The Collier Lass / Polly Parker
[ Roud V7863 ; trad.]
Frankie Armstrong sang The Collier Lass in 1975 on her Topic album Songs and Ballads. A.L. Lloyd noted:
John Harkness, of 121 Church Street, Preston, published a broadside of this in the early 1850s. It's a touching portrait of the kind of women and girls who worked in the coal-pits. Some writers present them as a coarse and brutalised lot, but their songs, and their testimony to the various Commissions of Enquiry of the time, show otherwise. Frankie Armstrong admires the quiet dignity of this song, and suggests that—though different in timbre—it has something of the strength of the songs of Molly Jackson and other women ballad-makers of the American coalfields in the inter-War period. The broadside didn't specify a tune, so one has been fitted by A.L.Lloyd.
Pat Knowles sang The Collier Lass on Tom Shepley's Band's 1978 Traditional Sound Recordings album How Do You Do?. They noted:
Our first song tells of the appalling conditions of a girl working in the Lancashire mines. Despite the degradation of her work, she keeps her self-respect and hopes for the marriage which can rescue her from the mine. A published version can be found in Roy Palmer's excellent book, Poverty Knock.
Pat Ryan sang Polly Parker in 1983 on her Traditional Sound Recordings album Moving On.
Kathryn Roberts sang Polly Parker in 1993 on the CD of six South Yorkshire musicians, Intuition.
Sandra Kerr sang Polly Parker the Collier Lass in 2012 on Sisters Unlimited's CD No Change of Heart. Their noted:
Though there are many songs of complaint about miners' lives, this 19th century broadside ballad printed by Harkness, Preston (sung to a traditional tune) is quite rare in that it focuses on the suffering of women down the mine.
The Halliard sang Collier Lass in 2005 on their CD Broadside Songs.
Peter and Barbara Snape sang Collier Lass (or Polly Parker) in 2019 on their CD All in the Song. Barbara Snape noted:
Sometimes known as he Worsley Lass and from the Harkness (Preston) collection of ballads. The tune for this version was used by Mike Harding and is The Deserter. Polly Parker is a well-known song and can be found in Roy Palmer’s Poverty Knock book.
George Sansome sang Collier Lass in 2020 on his eponymous album George Sansome. He noted:
I came across this in Roy Palmer’s 1974 book Poverty Knock. I was instantly drawn to the song as it offers a depiction of mining life from an alternative perspective. Young women and girls working in mines don’t seem to feature in many widely performed songs, however in reality they were as integral a part of mining as men and had to endure the same harsh conditions.
Alongside the risk of death from such hazards as methane gas and choke-damp (carbon dioxide which caused suffocation), these women and girls also had to work alongside large groups of men who often worked naked, and who would frequently physically assault them. Henry Garforth writes: “There is no restraint whatever in a coal-pit from the extremest grossness.”
This song’s narrator seems hopeful at finding a way out of this grim employment, potentially through marriage. I particularly like the fact that while she has her eye on a specific young collier lad, she doesn’t seem at all worried if he feels differently and instead places her trust in her friends and robust “plenty more fish in the sea” attitude.
Frankie Armstrong sings The Collier Lass
My name's Polly Parker, I come o'er from Worsley,
My mother and father work down the coal-mine.
Our family is large, we have got seven children,
So I am obliged to work down the same mine.
And as this is my fortune I know you'll feel sorry
That in such employment my days I must pass.
But I keep up my spirits, I sing and look cheerful,
Although I am but a poor collier lass.
By the greatest of dangers each day I'm surrounded
I hang in the air by a rope or a chain.
The mine may give in, I may be killed or wounded
Or perish by damp or the fire of a flame.
But what would you do if it weren't for our labours
In greatest starvation your days you would pass,
For we would provide you with life's greatest blessing
So do not despise a poor collier lass.
All the day long you may say we are buried,
Deprived of the light and the warmth of the sun.
And often at night from our beds we are hurried,
The water is in and barefoot we run.
And though we go ragged and black are our faces,
As kind and as free as the best we'll be found.
And our hearts are more wide than your lords' in high places
Although we're poor colliers that work underground.
I'm now growing up fast, somehow or another,
There's a young collier lad runs strange in my mind.
And in spite of the talking of father and mother,
I think I should marry if he is inclined.
But should he prove surly and will not befriend me,
Another and better chance may come to pass,
And my friends here I know to him will recommend me
And I'll be no longer a poor collier lass.