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The Sheffield Apprentice

[ Roud 399 ; Master title: The Sheffield Apprentice ; Laws O39 ; G/D 5:998 ; Henry H31 ; TYG 71 ; Ballad Index LO39 ; VWML CJS2/10/4575 , CJS2/9/3196 ; Bodleian Roud 399 ; Mudcat 171053 ; trad.]

Joseph Leaning sang the broadside song The Sheffield Apprentice on a cylinder recording made by Percy Grainger in 1908. This recording was published in 1972 on the Leader album Unto Brigg Fair. The sleeve notes commented:

This song appears to have been issued more especially by printers out of London and this is unusual. Another strange thing is that very many Anglo-American versions have been collected but in comparison to other broadsides of its type, few English sets. Once again one is directed to Laws’ index for the American sources but the following British variants have been noted: CTBA, GNE, OBSB, SMSI, FSJ Nos. 4, 8 and broadsides by W, CM, RN, RB, JB, WB and S.

Ewan MacColl sang The Sheffield Apprentice in 1952 on a 78rpm Topic record. He also sang it, and Peggy Seeger sang I Was Brought Up in Cornwall in 1957 on their Riverside album Matching Songs of the British Isles and America.

This ballad was a favourite with 19th century British broadside scriveners, and versions of it were printed for popular consumption by Such, Pitts, Catnach and other ballad presses. The hero’s faithfulness to his love, which inspires the revenge of his rejected mistress, is in the finest tradition of the romantic ballad, undoubtedly one of the reasons for the high esteem in which it is held by English country singers. British and American texts show remarkably little change, though sung to a great variety of tunes. MacColl’s version was learned from the singing of the great English traditional singer, Harry Cox, of Dorset. Miss Seeger’s version is essentially the one collected by Cecil Sharp in 1918 from the singing of Mrs. Mary Gibson of Marion, North Carolina [VWML CJS2/10/4575] .

I don’t know of a recording of Harry Cox singing this, though, and it isn’t listed in the Roud index either.

Eddie Butcher of Magilligan, Co. Derry, sang In Connaught I Was Reared in July 1966 to Hugh Shields. This recording was included on the 3 CD set that accompanied Shields’ 2011 book on Eddie Butcher, All the Days of His Life.

Hedy West sang The Sheffield Apprentice in 1967 on her Topic LP Ballads. She or A.L. Lloyd commented in the liner notes:

A rich lady falls in love with a servant. But he is in love with her maid, and refuses to renounce his sweetheart. The rich lady frames him as a thief and brings him to his execution. Fielding used the plot in his novel Joseph Andrews, and ever since it has been a standby of popular literature. The nineteenth century broadside and song-book press reprinted the song over and over again, and it spread the length and breadth of the British Isles and the United States. Versions of it still turn up not uncommonly in tradition. The set sung here is a combination of two versions collected by Cecil Sharp in North Carolina some half-a-century ago. Variants of the tune have carried a score of texts including The State of Arkansas, the outlaw ballad Cole Younger, and the song of the murdered mine-workers’ union organiser, Harry Simms.

Louis Killen recorded The Sheffield Apprentice in 1968 for his 1973 LP Sea Chanteys.

Joe Stead sang Sheffield Apprentice in 1986 on his Greenwich Village LP A Baker’s Score.

Andy Turner sang The Sheffield Apprentice on his 1990 cassette Love, Death and the Cossack and as the 14 June 2014 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week. He commented in his album’s liner notes:

The tune of The Sheffield Apprentice was recorded by Percy Grainger from Joseph Leaning of Barton-on-Humber in 1908. I sing a rather more concise set of words from a Scottish version, printed in MacColl and Seeger’s Singing Island.

Debra Cowan sang an American variant of this song with the title In the Town of Oxford—collected by Helen Hartness Flanders in September 1931 from Mrs. Ralph Harrington, Bennington, Vermont—in 2005 on her CD of songs from the Flanders Collection, Dad’s Dinner Pail. She noted:

I first heard a version of this song performed by the wonderful New England singer and songwriter, Lui Collins. Mrs. Flanders writes, “The doleful character of this British ballad is increased by the mournfulness of the tune.”

Jon Boden sang Sheffield Apprentice “at a Vaughan Williams night at Cecil Sharp House a few years ago” in 2008:

He returned to it for the 1 February 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day; this time accompanying himself on guitar.

Martin Simpson sang The Sheffield Apprentice in 2011 on his Topic album Purpose+Grace. He also sang it on the 2017 Appalachian ballad tradition anthology Big Bend Killing. He noted on his album:

In 1969, Hedy West, the Georgia born singer, banjo player and guitarist, came to the Scunthorpe Folk Club and utterly inspired me. That night I bought from her a copy of her Topic LP Ballads, which is on my turntable as I write. The original autographed copy is very worn, so I play a second copy. This record has been one of my favourites for forty years, and I learned The Sheffield Apprentice from there. On Hedy’s version she sings the opening line “I was brought up in Cornwall”, which was sung to Cecil Sharp by Mary Gibson [in] Marion County, North Carolina in 1918 [VWML CJS2/10/4575] . Mary Gibson famously said that she liked Sharp because he was “so nice and common”.

Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer sang The Sheffield Apprentice in 2013 on their CD Red House. They noted:

This song probably comes from Sheffield (really?). However, there are near identical versions in many parts of the British Isles and North America and it’s hard to tell which came first. Poor fella, he leaves home, goes a bit further than he thought, gets head hunted by a pushy woman and is then hanged for not fancying her. Seems a bit harsh to be honest.

Lyrics collected from Roy Palmer’s A Book of British Ballads.

Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll sang The Cornwall Apprentice in 2014 on their WildGoose CD A Handful of Sky. They commented in their liner notes:

This traditional song, also known as the Sheffield Apprentice, caught Nick’s ear when he heard a version by American singer and banjo player Hedy West. It is a cautionary tale of the perils of moving to “that London!”


Joseph Leaning sings The Sheffield Apprentice

I was brought up in Sheffield but not of high degree,
My parents dotted on me having no child but me.
(Soon as) I rode in plenty, just as my fancy went
Why I was bound apprentice and all my joys were spent.

I did not like my master, he did not use me well.
I made a resolution not long with him to dwell,
I wrote unto my parents, told them I’d run away
And steered my course to London on that unhappy day.

When I arrived in London, bold Verity met me there.
Offered to me great wages to serve her for a year,
And then by her fine speeches she had deluded me
And I went to live in Holland which proved my destiny.

I had not been in Holland, not years two or three,
Before my lovely mist-er-ess she grew so fond of me,
“My gold and my silver, my houses and my land,
If you will consent to marry with me, they’re all at your command.”

I answer-ed my mist-er-ess, “I cannot wed you for
I’ve lat-e-ly promised marriage and I’ve made a solemn oath
To wed with none but Molly, the lovely chambermaid,
And so pray you excuse me madam, she has my heart betrayed.”

She flew into a passion and from me she did go.
Swore she would be revenged on me for answering her so.

Then as I walked the garden just by the dawn of day,
I spied my lovely mist-er-ess viewing her flowers gay,
A ring from off her finger, and as I pass-ed by
Then she slipped it into my pocket and for it I must die.

(She) swore that I had robbed her and hurried I was brought
Before a grave old justice then to answer for my fault;
A long time I pleaded innocent but it was all in vain,
Why she swore point blank against me, she left me in the gaol.

Soon at the last assizes, where I was brought and tried,
The judge he gave me sentence, upon me then he passed,
From thence to execution they brought me to the tree,
And so Godly was my mist-er-ess, for she has ruined me.

Come all you good people that come my fate to see,
Why don’t you laugh at my downfall but come and pity me,
Come all you good people that caused my fate to seal
Oh don’t laugh at my downfall but come and pity me.

Debra Cowan sings In the Town of Oxford

My tender parents brought me up
Provided for me well
And in the town of Oxford
Employed me in the mill

I did not like my master
He did not use me well
I formed a resolution
Not long with him to dwell

Unbeknowing to my parents
I vowed I’d run away
I steered my course for Holland
And cursed be that day!

As on my way to Holland
A lady met me there
She offered me great wages
To drive her coach one year

Unbeknowing to my promises
At length I did agree
To drive her coach to Holland
Which proved my destiny

I had not been in Holland
But scarce two months or three
When my unworthy mistress
Became very fond of me

She said her gold and silver
Her houses and her land
If I’d consent to marry her
Would be at my command

Excuse me, dearest mistress
I must now tell you bold
I have already promised
And took a salamo

To wed with charming Sally
Your handsome chambermaid
Excuse me now, dear mistress
My heart she has betrayed

And early the next morning
Just at the break of day
I saw my unworthy mistress
A-viewing the flowers gay

A ring from her forefinger
Just as I was passing by
She dropped it in my pocket
And for the same I die

Long time I did feel guiltless
But that was all in vain
They swore so hard against me
That I was sent to jail

From jail to execution
They dragged me to a tree
Come all that stands around me
My cruel fate you see

Don’t glory in my downfall
But pray do pity me
They wrapped a rope around my neck
And hung me from that tree

Farewell, my tender parents
I bid this world adieu
Farewell, my charming Sally
I died for love, nor you


Joseph Leaning’s verses were copied from the liner notes of Unto Brigg Fair.