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The Whitby Lad / Botany Bay / The Boston Burglar

[ Roud 261 ; Laws L16 ; G/D 2:260 ; Henry H691 , H202 ; Ballad Index LL16 ; Bodleian Roud 261 ; Wiltshire 129 , 736 ; trad.]

The Watersons sang The Whitby Lad in 1966 on their album A Yorkshire Garland. Like most of the tracks from this LP, it was re-released in 1994 on the CD Early Days. Both this track and a live recording from the South Street Seaport, New York on 5 July 1978 (with Martin Carthy singing lead) were included in 2004 on the Watersons' 4 CD anthology Mighty River of Song. A.L. Lloyd commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

A big family of highwaymen and poacher songs interbred with a family of transportation songs to produce a large number of offspring all resembling each other closely. A central feature of them all is the lamentation of the aged parents. The Whitby Lad was collected from Mr. W. F. Verril of Staithes some sixty years ago by R. A. Gatty. In other versions the young transportee comes from other parts and sails down other rivers than the Humber. On the face of it the song is modest enough but it has exercised a powerful interest on singers and hearers alike and versions of it quickly became common in Scotland, Ireland and America (where it still flourishes under such titles as The Boston Burglar and The Jail at Morgantown).

Jumbo Brightwell sang Botany Bay in a recording made by Keith Summers in 1971-77 that was included in 2006 on the Veteran anthology Good Hearted Fellows: Traditional Folk Songs, Music Hall Songs, and Tunes from Suffolk. Mike Yates commented in the liner notes:

When Botany Bay was ‘discovered’ in 1770 by Captain James Cook (not forgetting that the local Aboriginals had been there long before Cook arrived!) it was a shallow inlet some five miles to the south of Sydney, New South Wales. Cook named it after the abundance of new plants that were discovered there and in 1787 it was chosen as the site of a penal settlement. In fact, it proved unsatisfactory and the settlement moved to Sydney Cove, although the name, Botany Bay, soon became synonymous with all the Australian convict settlements. Early Victorian broadside printers (such as Pitts and Batchelor, both of London) called the piece The Transport, which begins with the line, “Come all young men of learning, a warning take by me”. It has been suggested by Roy Palmer that such songs were designed to warn people about the severe punishments that then existed for the crime of poaching. Later printers (Such of London and Forth of Hull, for example) called the song Botany Bay and many collectors have found the song, not only in England, but in America and Canada as well. Cecil Sharp collected six versions.

Jumbo Brightwell's lusty performance is sung to a widely known tune which is related to the one employed by the late Sam Larner, of Winterton in Norfolk, for his song The Dolphin.

Charlie Whiting sang The Boston Burglar in a recording made by Keith Summers in 1971-77 that was included in 2006 on Good Hearted Fellows too. Mike Yates commented in the liner notes:

The Boston Burglar would seem to be an Americanised version of the British song Botany Bay. “The Boston Burglar. Sung by Dan MacCarthy” was copyrighted in 1881 by H.J. Wehman (New York) and published by him as both a broadside (no. 480) and in The Vocalists's Favorite Songster of 1885. Gavin Greig noted three versions of the song in Scotland, and commented that, “the song has got quite naturalised in this country”. The Irish collector Sam Henry also noted the song from a singer in Coleraine and it may be that Charlie Whiting's version comes from the recording made in 1940 by the Irish singer Delia Murphy, a recording that was once played frequently on the radio in England. (Delia's recording can now be heard on the CD From Galway to Dublin Rounder CD1087)

The Clancy Brothers with Louis Killen recorded The Boston Burglar in 1972 for their album Save the Land.

Pete Coe sang Boston Burglar in 2004 on his CD In Paper Houses. He commented in his liner notes:

This repentant villain has confused me for years. Was he from Boston, Lincs, or Boston Mass.? Was he transported to Charleston, West Virginia (or South Carolina) or was he shipped out of Charlestown, Cornwall?

[Note: The repentant villain was from Boston, Mass., and he wasn't transported but jailed in Charlestown State Prison in Boston which was in use from 1805 to 1955.]

Norma Waterson sang Boston Burglar in 2010 on her and Eliza's Topic CD Gift. A live recording from the Union Chapel in November 2010 was released in the following year on the DVD and CD The Gift Band Live on Tour. Eliza Carthy commented in the original album's liner notes:

Boston Burglar comes from two sources: Delia Murphy and Dominic Behan. Mam has some great stories about Dominic, but she isn't sharing out of respect to everyone involved …

Recently the gift of a CD of Delia Murphy from Bob Davenport brought the memories of the whole thing flooding back. She was loved by Mam's Grandma who loved The Spinning Wheel, the closest thing you got to a “hit” in the fifties. The Dominic Behan connection comes from being on tour with the Watersons in the sixties, it was one of his favourite songs.

Pilgrims' Way sang this song as Boston City in 2016 on their Fellside CD Red Diesel. They commented in their liner notes:

Breaking the law leads to 21 years gainful employment for a young layabout. We're grateful to the Department of Work and Pensions for their interpretation of this salutary tale.

Damien O'Kane sang Boston City on his 2017 CD Avenging & Bright. He noted:

Also known as The Boston Burglar, I got this song from a book called Irish Street Ballads collected by Colm O Lochlainn. A slightly different version can be found in Sam Henry's Songs of the People and his source is William Devine from Coleraine! It was quite a popular song in the 60's and 70's among the Irish and British folk singers and there are indeed quite a few different versions. Charlestown, as mentioned in the song, is where there was a State Prison in Boston, Massachusetts. It closed in 1955.

Kelly Oliver sang Botany Bay as the title track of her 2018 CD Botany Bay. She noted:

Collected by Lucy Broadwood in Hertfordshire.

The very sad but true story of convicts sent from England and Ireland to Botany Bay in Australia, sometimes for as little as stealing a handkerchief, never to return home.


The Watersons sing The Whitby Lad

Come all ye bold and ye rambling boys and a warning take by me
For I'd have you quit night walking and shun bad company

Chorus (after each verse):
(For it's:) Son oh son what have you done?
You're bound for Botany Bay

I was born and bred in Whitby town and raised most honestly
Till I became a roving blade which proved my destiny

Well I broke into some lady's house about the hour of three
And two peelers stood behind the door and they soon had an hold on me

It was at the quarters sessions that the judge to me did say
Well the jury's found you guilty you're bound for Botany Bay

Well I've seen me aged father there a-trembling at the bar
Likewise me dear old mother a-tearing her white hair

It was on the 28th of June from England we made way
And as we come down the Humber well we heard them sailors say

New chorus (after each verse):
(Well it's:) Boys oh boys there are no joys
Down there in Botany Bay

Oh there is a lass in Whitby town and the girl that I love full well
And it's if I had me liberty along with her I'd dwell

Jumbo Brightwell sings Botany Bay

Come all you young fellows take warning by me
And never go midnight walking and shun bad company.
And never go midnight walking or else you will rue the day
While you will get transported and sent to Botany Bay.

My character was taken and I was taken too,
My parents tried to clear me but nothing could they do.
It was at the Old Bailey sessions where the judge unto me did say,
“Why the jury have found you guilty, young man, you must go to Botany Bay.”

To see my aged father as he stood at the bar,
Likewise my poor old mother a-tearing of her hair.
A-tearing of her old grey locks, why she unto me did say
“Why, oh son, oh son, what have you done to be sent to Botany Bay?”

A-sailing down the river on the fourteenth day of May,
There goes the ship of clever young men, they’re sorry, so they say.
There goes the ship of clever young men, they are sorry I heard them say.
It is for some crime that they’ve done in their time and they’re sent to Botany Bay.

Now there is a girl in London, a girl I love so well,
And if ever I gain my liberty, along with her I’ll dwell.
If ever I gain my liberty, it’s along with her I’ll dwell,
And I will shun bad company and be true to my love as well.

Charlie Whiting sings Boston Burglar

I was bred and born in Boston, a place you all know well,
Brought up by honest parents and the truth to you I’ll tell.
Brought up by honest parents and the truth I’ll not deny
But I became a roving young lad at the age of twenty three.

My character got broken and I got lodged in jail.
My father tried all he could in vain to get me out on bail.
But the jury found me guilty and the sentence then was passed.
I was bound for seven long weary years in a place called Charlie’s Town.

I saw my dear old mother a-tearing of her hair,
The tearing of those old grey locks, so the tears come rolling down.
The tearing of those old grey locks, so the tears come rolling down,
“My son, my son, what have you done to be bound for Charlie’s Town?”

I stepped on board an east going train on a cold September’s morn
And every station we passed by, you could hear the old bells call
“Here comes that Boston Burglar, away away he’s bound,
He’s bound for seven long weary years in a place called Charlie’s Town.”

Norma Waterson sings Boston Burglar

I was born and bred in Boston, a place you all know well,
Brought up by honest parents and the truth to you I'll tell.
Brought up by honest parents and reared most tenderly
Till I became a sporting blade at the age of twenty-three.

My character was broken and I was sent to gaol;
My friends and parents did their best to get me out on bail.
The jury found me guilty and the judge he wrote it down:
“For the breaking of the Union Bank you were sent to Charlestown.”

I could see my dear old father a-standing at the bar,
Also me dear old mother, she's a-tearing her grey hair.
She's a-tearing of her old grey locks and the tears come trickling down,
“Son, oh son what have you done to be sent to Charlestown?”

I set my foot on an eastbound train one cold December day,
And every station I passed by I could hear the people say:
“There goes that Boston Burglar, in iron chains he is bound;
For the breaking of the Union Bank he is sent to Charlestown.”

There's a girl in Boston City, boys, a girl I know quite well;
If I get my liberty it's with her I will dwell.
If ever I get my liberty rough company I will shun,
Likewise a-walking of the streets and a-drinking of the rum.

Now you that have your liberty pray keep it if you can,
And don't go in night rambling or you'll break the laws of man.
And if you do, you're sure to rue and you find yourself like me,
A-sentenced down to twenty-one years of penal severity.

Links and Acknowledgements

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: Boston Burglar.

Garry Gillard transcribed The Whitby Lad from the singing of the Watersons.