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> Shirley Collins > Songs > Murder of Maria Marten

Murder of Maria Marten / Murder in the Red Barn

[ Roud 215 ; Ballad Index BdTMoMM ; Bodleian Roud 215 ; Wiltshire Roud 215 ; trad.]

Joseph Taylor sang a fragment of Murder of Maria Martin on Unto Brigg Fair, from a cylinder recorded in 1908 by Percy Grainger. The LP sleeve notes commented:

Of the gallows-final-confessions type of street literature, surprisingly few of the many thousands of different stories have appealed sufficiently to have warranted continuity in the form of folk song. Of these few, by far the most popular has been Catnach's tale of the infamous Red Barn murderer, William Corder. Almost without exception, when one encounters a singer who has the song or a previously collected set in ms. form then the tune is that old favourite, Dives and Lazarus / Star of the County Down though in two styles: either the full four line tune or a variant of just the last two lines. Other versions are HCSL, FSJ No. 7, and the sheet by Catnach which was copied by Plant of Nottingham amongst others. Hindley would have us believe that old Jemmy Catnach printed enough copies of this sheet to allow one in four of the population to possess one! John Pitts printed another song concerning the same events but on this occasion was very much overshadowed by his arch rival.

Shirley Collins recorded a much longer version with the Albion Country Band on their album No Roses. This was reissued a lot of times, e.g. on her anthologies A Favourite Garland and Within Sound, on the Ashley Hutchings retrospective Burning Bright: The Ashley Hutchings Story, and on several other compilations. She commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

This was Ashley's choice. The tune is of the Dives and Lazarus family, one of the great melodies of the British tradition (listen to Vaughan Williams's Dives and Lazarus or Star of the County Down by Van Morrison for two examples). The Red Barn Murder has fascinated people ever since it happened last century, and Ashley's treatment of it is equally intriguing. His device of breaking the ballad up in this rather extraordinary way, and the inspired sound effect of the cart crunching on the gravel at the hanging give it a chilling edge.

Derek & Dorothy Elliott sang Maria Marten in 1972 on their eponymous Trailer album Derek & Dorothy Elliott.

The Broadside from Grimsby sang Maria Marten in 1973 on their Topic album The Moon Shone Bright.

John Goodluck sang The Murder of Maria Marten in 1974 on his Traditional Sound Recordings album The Suffolk Miracle.

Billy List of Brundish, Suffolk, sang Maria Marten to Keith Summers in 1977. This was included in 2006 on the Veteran anthology of Summers recordings, Good Hearted Fellows. Mike Yates noted:

Broadside printers always welcomed a popular theme to increase their sales and, as one Victorian pedlar put it, “There's nothing beats a stunning good murder”. Maria Marten's death, in 1827, was a boon to the printers. Maria had left Polstead in Suffolk with William Corder, whom she intended to marry in order to avoid a bastardy charge. She was never seen alive again, and following a series of prophetic dreams by her mother, her body was found, buried in The Red Barn, Polstead. Corder was arrested, found guilty of Maria's murder, and hanged outside Bury St Edmunds gaol on August 11, 1828.

Maria Marten, the ‘innocent nymph of her native village’, became something of a cult figure on broadsides and in melodramas such as Murder in the Red Barn, so much so that her three illegitimate children—to different fathers—and her possible criminal activities with Corder became overshadowed by the myth that grew up around her death. Indeed, research now suggests that her mother's ‘supernatural dreams’ were motivated not so much by psychic phenomena as by her own criminal knowledge and probable association with Corder. Maria Marten was published as a ‘dying speech’ by the printer James Catnach of Seven Dials and versions of the song have turned up later throughout England and, on occasions, from singers in Australia and Tristan da Cunha.

Unlike most singers, who use a tune related to the carol Dives and Lazarus (also known as The Star of the County Down), Billy sings his version of the song to the tune that is usually associated with the song The Banks of the Sweet Dundee.

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman sang The Red Barn in 2003 on their album 2..

Maddie Southorn sang The Murder of Maria Marten in 2005 on her Fellside CD The Pilgrim Soul.

Ted Kemp and Laura Smyth sang Murder in the Red Barn on their 2017 CD The Poacher's Fate. They noted:

Based on the tragic murder of Maria Marten which took place in Polstead, Suffolk, this song is one of the most popular murder ballads in the English tradition. The story acquired a supernatural twist which made it a sensation at the time, inspiring songs, plays, and a delightful range of Staffordshire pottery. Some of these souvenir items can be seen at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, along with the court proceedings bound in William Corder's skin. This unusual version was notated by Cecil Sharp from John East at the workhouse in Great Dunmow, Essex, in 1912.

This video shows them at Bromham Mill on November 18, 2017:

False Lights sang Murder in the Red Barn on their 2018 CD Harmonograph. They commented:

Joseph Taylor sang a fragment of this ballad on the wax cylinders recorded in 1908. The story is of a real murder in Polstead, Suffolk, in 1827. A death mask of [the murderer] William Corder and an account of the case bound in his tanned skin are on display in Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds. Sam [Carter] set it to two tunes by renowned 19th century shapenote composer William Walker, the verse from 129 Heavenly Armor and the chorus from 146 Hallelujah as they appear in the 1991 Denson Revision of The Sacred Harp.

Lucy Ward sings Maria Martin on her forthcoming album Pretty Warnings.

Lyrics

Joseph Taylor sings Murder of Maria Marten Shirley Collins sings Murder of Maria Marten

“If you'll meet me at the Red Barn
As sure as I have life
I will take you to Ipswich Town
And there make you my wife.”

“If you'll meet me at the Red Barn
As sure as I have life
I will take you to Ipswich Town
And there make you my wife.”

This lad went home and fetched his gun,
His pick-axe and his spade.
He went unto the Red Barn
And there he dug her grave.

He straight went home and fetched his gun,
His pick-axe and his spade.
He went unto the Red Barn
And there he dug her grave.

Come all you thoughtless young men,
A warning take by me
To think on my unhappy fate
To be hanged upon a tree.

My name is William Corder,
To you I do declare
I courted Maria Marten,
Most beautiful and fair.

I promised I would marry her
Upon a certain day;
Instead of that I was resolved
To take her life away.

I went unto her father's house
The eighteenth day of May
And said, “My dear Maria,
We will fix a wedding day.”

With her heart so light she thought no harm
To meet her love did go.
He murdered her all in the barn
And he laid her body low.

With her heart so light she thought no harm
To meet me she did go.
I murdered her all in the barn
And laid her body low.

After the horrid deed was done
She laid there in her gore
Her bleeding, mangled body lay
Beneath the Red Barn floor.

Now all things being silent
Her spirit could not rest.
She appeared unto her mother
Who'd suckled her at her breast.

For many a long month or more
Her mind being sore oppressed,
Neither at night nor yet by day
Could she take any rest.

Her mother's mind being so disturbed
She dreamed it three nights o'er,
Her daughter she lay murdered
Beneath the Red Barn floor.

She sent the father to the Barn
Where he the ground did thrust
And there he found his daughter
Lay mingling with the dust

My trial was hard, I could not stand,
Most woeful was the sight
When her dear bones was brought to prove
Which pierced my heart quite.

Her aged father standing by,
Likewise his loving wife,
And in her grief her hair she tore
She scarcely could keep life.

Adieu adieu, my loving friends,
My glass is almost run.
On Monday next will be my last
When I am to be hung.

So all young men who do pass by
With pity look on me
For murdering of that young girl
I was hung upon a tree.

Ted Kemp and Laura Smyth sings Murder in the Red Barn

Come all you thoughtless young men,
A warning take by me,
And think of my unhappy fate
To be hanged upon a tree.

My name is William Corder,
The truth I do declare:
I courted Maria Marten,
Both beautiful and fair.

I promised that I'd marry her
All on one certain day,
Instead of that I was resolved
To take her life away.

I went unto her father's house
The eighteenth day of May,
Saying, “Come, my dearest Maria,
Let us fix our wedding day.

“If you'll meet me at the Red Barn,
As sure as I have life,
I'll take you down to Ipswich town
And there make you my wife.”

I straight went home and fetched my gun,
My pickaxe and my spade.
I went unto the Red Barn
And there I dug a grave.

With heart so light she thought no harm,
To meet me she did go.
I murdered her all in the barn
And I laid her body low.

Now all things being silent,
She could not take no rest
But appeared at her mother's house,
That had suckled her at her breast.

Her mother dreamed a dreadful dream,
She dreamed it three nights o'er,
She dreamed her dearest Maria
Lay beneath the Red Barn floor.

They sent her father to the barn
And in the ground he thrust,
And there he saw his daughter dear
All a-mingling with the dust.

Adieu, adieu, remember me,
My glass is almost run.
For early in the morning
I am sentenced to be hung.

So all young men that do pass by
With pity look on me,
For the murder of Maria Marten
I was hanged upon a tree.

Billy List sings Maria Marten

My name is William Corder, to you I do declare,
I courted Maria Marten so beautiful and fair.
I promised that I’d marry her upon a certain day,
Instead of that I was resolved to take her life away.

I went unto her father’s house on the eighteenth day of May,
Said, “Come, my dear Maria, we’ll fix the wedding day.
If you’ll meet me at the red barn, as sure as I have life,
I’ll take you down to Ipswich Town and there make you my wife.”

Her mother’s mind was so disturbed, she dreamt three nights o’er
That her dear daughter lay murdered beneath that red barn floor.
She sent three men into the barn and under the floor they thrust
And there they found her daughter dear laying mingling with the dust.

Adieu adieu my loving friend, my race is almost run,
On Monday next will be the day when I am to be hung.
So all young friends that do pass by with pity look on me.
My sentence passed, I die at last, to be hung upon a tree.
Spoken: To be hung upon a tree, yeah?

Acknowledgements and Links

Joseph Taylor's version transcribed by Garry Gillard. Shirley Collin's version was copied from the Ashley Hutchings songbook A Little Music.

For more information on the various ballad versions on this topic see Tom Pettitt's paper The Maria Marten Case (PDF).