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> John Kirkpatrick > Songs > The Convict’s Lamentation

Moreton Bay / The Convict’s Lamentation

[ Roud 2537 ; AFS 62 ; Ballad Index FaE038 ; VWML RVW2/4/14 ; DT MORETONB ; Mudcat 5598 ; trad.]

Martyn Wyndham-Read sang Moreton Bay in 1963 as the title track of his, Brian Mooney’s and David Lumsden’s Australian album Moreton Bay, in a Melbourne Town Hall live recording on the 1964 album Australian Folk Night, in 1970 on his Trailer album Ned Kelly and That Gang, and in 1986 on his Greenwich Village album Across the Line.

Crows sang Moreton Bay in 1981 on their eponymous Dingle’s album Crows.

John Kirkpatrick sang The Convict’s Lamentation, and Dave de Hugard sang Moreton Bay in 2003 on the Fellside anthology celebrating English traditional songs and their Australians variants, Song Links. The album’s booklet commented on the English variant:

This is a song that would repay study by a folklorist-historian, a study much longer than the little that can be offered here. The song presumably originated in Australia, shortly after the killing of Patrick Logan, first superintendent of the convict establishment on the banks of the Brisbane River in south-eastern Queensland. Soon after the first penal station was established at Port Jackson (on a site which is now more or less the centre of the city of Sydney), other penal stations were established for recalcitrant prisoners. Emu Plains is now a western suburb of Sydney, Toongabbie and Castle Hill north-eastern suburbs. Port Macquarie is a flourishing town on the lower north coast of New South Wales, whilst Norfolk Island—perhaps the most notorious of all for brutal treatment of convicts—lies off the coast of New South Wales. A version written possibly by an Irishman, presumably a convict, seems to have become well known soon after the killing of Logan. The bushranger Ned Kelly quoted from it in the rambling document called the Jerilderie letter, which he dictated in 1879.

The tunes used for Australian versions and the one used for the present English version all belong to the same tune cluster (also used for some versions of the widespread weaver’s song called The Calton Weaver; this song has been recorded in England but is better known in Scotland and Ireland). No version of the Australian song, Moreton Bay, seems to have made it back to Ireland, so it is rather curious that Ralph Vaughan Williams should have recorded the present English version from the shoemaker and prolific source of folk songs, Henry Burstow, in 1903 [VWML RVW2/4/14] . Burstow (1826-1916) was a major source singer with a repertoire of some 420 songs. Ralph Vaughan Williams noted 33 from him and Mr Burstow also gave songs to Lucy Broadwood and W.H. Gill.

Vaughan Williams did not publish the song during his lifetime. It was published by Roy Palmer in 1983 [in Bushes and Briars], with some lines borrowed from a version published by the Australian scholar Hugh Anderson. John Kirkpatrick has added a few changes of his own.

and on the Australian variant:

Much of the background concerning this song has been noted in connection with the English version, The Convict’s Lamentation. A version of the song put together by John Manifold, and published as one of his Bandicoot Ballad Broadsides, mentioned earlier, became much favoured by singers of the folk song revival in Australia. Manifold explained in his book Who Wrote the Ballads? that he had heard fragments of the text from a number of friends, who all used some version of the tune used for the Irish song Youghal Harbour. When he put the fragments of text together he found that his completed text looked much like one published much earlier in a book by Jack Bradshaw, the self-styled “last of the bushrangers”. He might have added that the form of the tune he used was practically identical to the skeletal tune for Youghal Harbour printed by Colm Ó Lochlainn in his first collection of Irish Street Ballads.

Manifold’s text (and Bradshaw’s) clearly imply that the song refers to an Irishman transported to Australia as a convict with unnecessary brutality:

I am a native of Erin’s island, and banished now from my native shore;
They tore me from my aged parents and from the maiden whom I do adore.

The version used here was recorded from Simon McDonald, who had learnt it from an uncle, a railway worker. Dave de Hugard has introduced minor changes.

McDonald’s text is rather more like that of The Convict’s Lamentation.

“On the ship Columbus I was sent circular sailing”:
This makes perhaps more sense than the corresponding phrase in The Convict’s Lamentation. The reference is probably to the discovery that the voyage from the British Isles to the Australian colonies could be speeded by sailing along the arc of a great circle route in seas south of both Africa and Australia. If so, the reference is anachronistic.
“Every day iron chains I wore”:
transported convicts were not always loaded down with iron chains; but recalcitrant prisoners were sometimes set to heavy work, such as road making, wearing chains on wrists and ankles.
“This back with flogging was lacerated”:
Australian historians are at present engaged in a bitter (and for the most part unenlightening) argument over the amount of Aboriginal blood that was spilt by the white invaders of Australia. But there is no disagreement about the brutal and frequent flogging of transported convicts.
“Until a native laying there in ambush”:
by the 1820s, “native” was already being used to refer to Australian-born whites as well as Aborigines. Some versions of Moreton Bay in fact in this line refer to “a native black”. It has been suggested that the Aborigines were egged on by the convicts to spear Logan. But he had been on a surveying expedition at the time of his killing, and it is possible that the killing was prompted by fear that the survey presaged further white expansion into territory as yet under Aboriginal control.

Danny Spooner sang The Convict’s Lamentation in 2003 at the 24th Annual Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport. He noted:

The version here was collected by Vaughan Williams, and I got it from the singing of John Kirkpatrick. The tune is Youghal Harbour. However, the words originated in Australia and are believed to be the work of an Irish convict Frank MacNamara, alias Frank Goddard, alias ‘Frank the Poet’. Moreton Bay was the old name for what is now Brisbane and was a secondary penal station where very harsh conditions prevailed, and Captain Patrick Logan was the second commandant. He explored and developed the area, but was speared to death by aborigines on 17 October 1830 while exploring the Upper Brisbane River. The famous Australian bushsinger Ned Kelly referred to the penal station and the English Laws treatment of the Irish in his famous Jerilderie Letter.

James Delarre and Saul Rose sang Moreton Bay on their 2015 CD Cabin Fever.

Melrose Quartet sang The Convict’s Lamentation on their 2023 album Make the World Anew. They noted:

A magnificent song learned from John Kirkpatrick, who recorded this English version of the classic Australian song Moreton Bay for the Song Links double album in 2003. The melody was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Henry Burstow in 1903 [VWML RVW2/4/14] .


John Kirkpatrick sings The Convict’s Lamentation

Oh I was born in the land called England,
Now transported from my native shore,
And like Columbus in his circle sailing
Left behind the girl that I adore.

Through bounding billows that were loudly raging
Like a mariner bold my course did steer;
Bound to Bermuda, my destination,
Till at length that harbour did appear.

There we joined hands in congratulation
For safe arrival from the briny waves;
But I soon found out I was mistaken
For I was transported to Moreton Bay.

There every morning as the day was dawning
To trace from Heaven that falling dew,
Up we all started at a moment’s warning
Our daily labour to renew.

As I walked out one summer’s morning
I paid no need to where I took my way;
I paid no heed to where I wandered,
By Brisbane water I chanced to stray.

In silent solitude and meditation
As I stood watching of the flowing tide,
I spied a convict, he was loud complaining,
The tears of anguish down his cheeks did glide.

Saying, “I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie,
In Norfolk Island and Emu Plains,
In Castle Hill, likewise Toongabbie,
In all these places I have worked in chains.

“But in all those places of condemnation,
Each penal station in New South Wales,
To Moreton Bay I can find no equal,
Excessive tyranny each day prevails.

“Now I am bereft of all consolation
Yet hope of liberty for me remains;
I am behoved in tribulation,
Infused with misery by wearing chains.

“Yet I have once more for to cross the ocean
And leave this station called Moreton Bay,
Where many a man through downright starvation
Now lies mouldering all in his clay.

“Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan’s yoke,
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did give our tyrant his mortal stroke.

“Now fellow prisoners, be exhilarated,
Your former sufferings though bear in mind.
𝄆 Where from bondage you are extracted
You will leave those tyrants far behind.” 𝄇

Dave de Hugard sings Moreton Bay

I am a native of the land of Erin,
I was early banished from my native shore.
On the ship Columbus I was sent sailing,
Leaving behind the girl I adore.

O’er the wild, wild ocean so loudly raging,
Like bold sea mariners our course did steer,
I was bound for Sydney my destination
And every day iron chains I wore.

Well when I arrived it was Port Jackson
And I thought my days might happy be,
But how greatly was I mistaken,
I was taken prisoner to Moreton Bay.

Well there’s Castle Hill and there’s cursed Toongabbie,
And there’s Norfolk Island, there’s Emu Plains,
Oh Moreton Bay, you have no equal,
Excessive tyranny each day prevails.

For three long years I’ve been beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore.
This back with flogging is lacerated
And ofttimes painted with crimson gore.

Like the Egyptians and the ancient Hebrews
We’ve been oppressèd under Logan’s yoke,
Until a native laying there in ambush
He give this tyrant his mortal stroke.

My fellow prisoners, be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find,
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former suffering shall fade from mind.