The Gaol Song


Jon says, “I’m told this is a quite well known song but I only came across it last year as the first track on Sam Sweeney and Hannah James’s brilliant first duo album. I’m not aware of any other English folk songs that describe life inside, although writing this I am reminded of The Auld Triangle, which I should probaby record at some point.”

Bert Lloyd and Martin Carthy also make the point about the comparative scarcity of prison songs in the English tradition too as you’ll see here at Mainly Norfolk. I’ll add the bleakly humorous Durham Gaol (Dorham Jail) from the pen of the pitman-poet, Tommy Armstrong to be found on Megson’s excellent Smoke Of Home. Martin has recorded this several times over and there’s next to no difference between his and Bert’s versions, although both would have taken it from The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs, being collected by Henry Hammond in Dorset. This seems to have a first-hand knowledge about it, although I have read that prisoners on the treadmill were frequently observed and jeered at by crowds of onlookers, so others would have known what the prisoners’ lives were like. The appearance of the word ‘skilly,’ however, (also found in Durham Gaol), a sort of porridge and meat concoction, which is described as “sometimes thick and sometimes thin” is possibly telling in its detail. Just while we are at it, the treadmill was used right into the early C20th, having been introduced in Britain in 1817, designed by Sir William Cubitt, in response to the inactivity of prisoners. I’ve also read somewhere that the time spent on one would equate to an 11,000ft climb every day. Hard labour indeed. In some cases, as with the similar but flat treadwheel and the hand crank, the effort was entirely unproductive, as prevailing labour trends simply couldn’t accommodate prisoners working at the expense of others. Anyway, here’s hoping our man has learnt his lesson!! And thanks to Hannah and Sam, there’s a nice bonus for you too.

Hannah James & Sam Sweeney Bonus track


17 Responses to “The Gaol Song”

  1. Reinhard says:

    On the Topic LP & CD “Tommy Armstrong of Tyneside: Songs By the Great Balladeer of the Coalfields” Tom Gilfellon and Louis Killen sing Durham Gaol too.

  2. Neil says:

    There’s also the various versions of the (non-trad)song ‘Norwich Gaol’ on the original Bellamy and Silver aniversary versions of ‘The Transports’ by Martin Winsor and Chris Sugden(aka Sid Kipper) respectively which are both great songs(the Sugden/Kipper version edges it if you ask me).

  3. Susan Churchman says:

    I first heard this tune on Ashley Hutchings’ 2001 Topic recording “Street Cries”, where it is adapted to modern times (not much adaptation required!) by John Tams, Coope, Boyes and Simpson.

    The theories of Jeremy Bentham and others promoted the idea that offenders would benefit from pointless hard labour and that their being on public view would reinforce the moral standards of the rest of the community. Oscar Wilde’s experience in Reading Gaol demonstrates this approach to the psychological reformation of offenders. It makes transportation to Australia look like a definite improvement in penal practice!

  4. Maureen Musson says:

    Oysterband recorded this on their CD Pearls from the Oysters.

  5. Dick Ansell says:

    I first heard this song. last year, on Coope, Boyes and Simpson’s “As if..” CD sung together, as one of a pair with The Slaves Lament (Robert Burns). A fine double!! It is good to hear both tracks offered today.

  6. Jan says:

    Nice one! I like the combination of jaunty tune with far-from-jaunty subject matter in this song. I know it from the singing of Barry Skinner back in the eighties.

    Jon is right about the scarcity of gaol songs in the tradition, but I’d like to add this to the written songs others have mentioned, from Broadside, so I’m not sure if the writer was John Connolly or Bill Meek:-

    Coldbath Fields

    O Coldbath Fields, you place of condemnation
    For nine long years I’ve known your cheerless cells
    Paid for my sin with pain and deprivation
    To Coldbath Fields now my blest, my curst farewell

    In Coldbath Fields upon my foul cot lying
    With body numb from punishment full sore
    Through troubled nights beset with dreams of dying
    I’d wake to pray that day would break no more

    O Coldbath Fields, I’ve worked upon your treadwheel
    And ground the wind eight weary hours a day
    Upon your cranks I’ve turned until the room reeled
    And heard the sand clocks drip my life away

    In Coldbath Fields I learned the silent system
    Where tortured eyes speak for tongues that are not free
    And souls cried out, till God forebore to listen
    And turned his back upon such tyranny

    O Coldbath Fields, could you be shown to Satan
    He’d see the torment prisoners undergo
    And learn from man, inhuman ways of making
    His Hell aplace of greater grief and woe
    O Coldbath Fields!

  7. Jan says:

    I’ve done a bit of searching, and I believe Bill Meek was the writer.

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    Another one I actually know and like! Yeh! Great rendition, Jon.

    I have it on John Tams’ ‘Definitive Collection’ CD – at least the same tune under the title ‘Doing Time To Fit Your Crime’ which is credited as from Ashley Hutchings’ ‘Street Cries’ mentioned by Susan above. The tune certainly resonates with me and especially Hannah James’ & Sam Sweeney’s accompanied version.

  9. Mike New says:

    Another one for the collection to go along side my vinyl copy of Steeleye’s (Storm Force Ten 1977, later CD copy!) version with MC at the helm in full flow! Nice one Jon.


  10. Marjorie Jones says:

    I too have this on vinyl by Steeleye Span.

    Two more gaol songs, although not so much about the routine of life inside, but the prisoner’s feelings on being inside. There’s back in Durham Gaol, written and recorded by Jez Lowe, on The Old Durham Road (also in my collection on vinyl), and Twenty-One Years in Dartmoor, sung by Martin Carthy with Waterson Carthy on Fishes and Fine Yellow Sand. This one is recorded on on modern technology (it’s a relatively recent discovery!).

    I’d be interested to hear Jon’s interpretation of the latter (and the former if he is so inclined)

  11. Jesse dziedzic says:

    That’s an all around well thought out post!!

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  13. Diana says:

    Two completely different versions although I prefer Jon’s as it seems more in keeping with the theme of the song. Hard labour on a treadmill sounds particularly grim and so does the food!

  14. Peter Walsh says:

    If anyone enjoys Hannah and Sam’s version I can recommend their Catches and Glees CD which, as Jon reports, has this as track one. They verify that it was collected by Henry Hammond from William Davy of Beaminster, Dorset. Thanks to Ted o’ R for making a present of this CD to me!

  15. Jane Ramsden says:

    Just love it…

  16. Jane Ramsden says:

    Still love it…!

  17. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    You do the should expect to do the time and all it entails.
    Bearing in mind that life OUTSIDE the gaol was pretty harsh as well.
    The comment that a day on the treadmill equates to an 11,000 ft climb……….well…….a ploughman was expected to do an acre a day and that equates to an 11 mile walk on a ploughed field(.an acre=22ydsx220yds and each furrow 9″ apart)and just a horse to talk to!

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