Australian Folk Songs

songs | books | records | articles | glossary | links | search | responses | home

Horae Catnachianae. -- A Dissertation on Ballads (1839)

Launceston Advertiser

Under the above title in Fraser's Magazine for April last, we find an amusing chapter ; being a commentary on the Ballads of the day, or, as the writer facetiously terms them, "the fugitive poetry of the year 1839."

After referring to the pictures of low life, by Boz--of the ways of cut-throats, burglars, women of bad life, Jew old-clothesmen, &c, in Oliver Twist, and other tales of the day, the writer gives it as his opinion that " descriptions of the low have seldom been successfully per- formed by amateurs ;" and that the penny newspapers, and the ballads of ancient and modern authors,-- " the poetry of a nation"-- are far belter guides for the polite reader who wishes to cultivate " this branch of knowledge." The writer tells us that he bought the bundle of ballads, destined " to afford these new lights," at the celebrated ballad establishment of Mr. Catnach (Catnach himself having long since retired with a fortune) who is described as "the representative of the popular poetical taste ;" the favorite songs in his collection, giving a clue to the habits, opinions, likings and dislikings of the nation. The writer, assuming the character of a reviewer, proceeds--

We have songs in praise of poachers, smugglers, and other evaders of the law. These characters have long been popular, from the daring which forms a part of their profession, and from their tricks upon landlords, excisemen, soldiers, and policemen, who are the natural tyrants of the poor, and whom they lampoon as boys do the school-master who flogs them. Against policemen, especially, the London ballad-writers (and, indeed, the graver political organs of the working men in general) direct a word of satire. We have several instances of this popular feeling regarding the policemen in the songs before us. Thus, for instance, in a general satire, entitled, " Wonderful Times and Things very extraordinary," after alluding to the " sailor dwelling in Windsor, 'tis true upon my life, who never would be satisfied till he had a German wife," the poet attacks Sir John Key, the Duke of Wellington, as "a soldier who at Waterloo run mad," and Dom Miguel and Dom Pedro, "who has had a glorious row." Having thus disposed of political matters, the bard turns to private satire, and the first object of his malice is a policeman :

" A policeman, I.----. letter K, 249,
In the Mile-end Road, good lack-a-day, has play'd some tricks so fine ;
While the butcher for a moment from his window turn'd his back,
The policeman collar'd a piece of beef, like tit fal la ra whack.

The butcher saw him take the beef, which grieved him full sore.
So without any more to do he kick'd him from the door;
They took his trousers, coat, and boots, and order'd him the sack,
So the commissioner depriv'd him of his tit fal la ra whack."

Of the words, " Tit fal la ra whack," (says the Reviewer) which forms the burden of this song, the meaning is somewhat dubious. They are applied indiscriminately to a piece of beef, to a policeman's commission, to the cry which his grace tbe Duke of Wellington uttered on being deprived of twelve inches of his nose, and constitute, indeed, the chief point or the song. Another adventure of a policeman follows ; and afterwards we come to the following smart satire upon the consumers of gin :

An old woman liv'd in Greenwich town, that wore a soldier's coat.
And to swallow gin she long'd to have the railroads in her throat :
As she was coming from Horn Fair, she thought to have a lark
She swallon'd twenty wooden legs, and bolted Greenwich Park.
So to conclude my ditty, and for to make an end,
They say we shall no tales pay, then off we'll quickly send
The rogues that did for taxes call to the d-- in a pack ;
They may take their books and toddle off, like tit fal la ra whack."

Many ballads follow; some supposed to be written from prison, others from Botany Bay ; and one from the gallows foot, entitled The Cruel Miller.

... A very sad account of Van Diemen's Land is given by a lady residing in that country, Sarah Collins by name. [Surely, if the description given by the erring Sarah, be the "opinion of the nation," the fears that transportation had ceased to appear a punishment, must have been groundless. The following ballad could never have been perused by the Committee of the House of Commons, on Secondary Punishment.-- ED. L. A.]-- She says :

" They chain us two by two, and whip and lash along,
They cut off our provisions if we do the least thing wrong,
They march us in the burning sun, until our feet are sore,
So hard's our lot now we are got upon Van Diemen's shore.

We labour hard from morn to night, until our bones do ache.
Then every one, they must obey, their mouldy beds must make ;
We often wish, when we lay down, we ne'er may rise no more.
To meet our savage governors upon Van Diemen's shore.

Every night when I lay down, I wash my straw with tears,
While wind upon that horrid shore do whistle in our ears
Those dreadful beasts upon that land around our cots do roar ;
Most dismal is our doom upon Van Diemen's shore.

Come all young men and maidens, do bad company forsake,
If tongue can tell our overthrow, it would make your heart to ache ;
You girls, I pray, be ruled by me, your wicked ways give o'er,
For fear, like us, you spend your days upon Van Diemen's shore."

Miss Collins states that highway robbery was the cause of her visit to Van Diemen's Land; where she was less lucky than the " London 'Prentice-Boy," who appears, from his own account, to be not uncomfortably established in that colony. " Sin," he says, " did him decoy," as it had done George Barnwell, in the shape of a lady, who persuaded him to rob his master. One or more Newgate songs are to be found in our collection, but we shall not trouble the reader with any further extracts from them, for they are very similar in style to those from which we have quoted. And having disposed of the humble satirical, we come to the strain of

" The Pleasing Wife and Satisfied Husband.

" You married people high and low come listen to my song,
I'll shew to you economy, and not detain you long;
In ------ lived a tradesman who wished to see things right,
And to account last Monday morn he call'd his lovely wife.

Who quickly told him in a crack which way the money goes.

When to his wife he called account, as you may well suppose,
My dear, says he, come tell me how and where my money goes ?
Every week I give you one pound one, we have but children three,
And for my wages every week I very little see.

Well, now says she, if you must know, you shall with good intent ;
Now first we pay a half-a-crown, every week for rent,
Three and sixpence every week for bread, and for butter, sugar, and tea,
Two and two-pence I lay out as you may plainly see.

There is tenpence every week for coals, and sixpence wood and coke.
Threepence needles, pins, and thread, and sixpence-ha'penny soap,
Three and sixpence every week for meat, three shillings potatoes and greens,
And then there's threepence-halfpenny, every week for milk or cream.

Well, now says he, we'll reckon up which way the money's gone.
Seventeen and just three-halfpence, where's the rest of one pound one ;
There's three and ninepence-halfpenny left as you perhaps will knows.
So pray inform me where the rest of my week's wages goes?

Every morning for your breakfast I for you must something make,
And once or twice a week you know you have a pound of steak;
That will average one and sixpence more, but that is not enough,
You have nine-pence for tobacco, and threepence ha'-penny snuff.

Well, that's just two and eightpence more, and if you do your-best,
It will puzzle you to tell me how and where goes all the rest,
Nineteen and fivepence-halfpenny I just reckon up that's gone,
Then there's one and sixpence-halfpenny remains of one pound one.

Says she you take me very close, you must confess you do,
There's threepence-halfpenny every week for soda, starch and blue,
A pint of beer I fetch you every day, you see which way its gone,
Now reckon up and see what's left, out of your one pound one.

Twenty shillings and elevenpence is the exact amount,
Well now, says she, since you have called me to a strict account,
There's just one single penny left out of your one pound one
So where does matches, candles, and all other things come from ?

Well now, says he, I'm satisfied, you're right and I'm content.
But I could not imagine how and where the money went ;
Scarce one man out of fifty the house expenses knows,
But I at last am satisfied which way the money goes."

Now, O ye great, who have such a wondrous curiosity concerning the manners of low life, was there ever a better description of a humble menage than that contained in the above poem ? Do you suppose that Bulwer's thieves' den, Ainsworth's account of the dwelling place of Mr. Sheppard, Dickens's terrific portrait of the abode of Mr. Kenwigs, can by any means make you so completely acquainted with the thoughts, jokes, habits, expenses, and feelings of poverty, as you can be by perusing the simple ballad of the Pleasing Wife and Satisfied Husband?

" We can fancy, that after an interval of a couple of thousand years, or so, when some future historian shall describe the politics and the manners of this time,-- we can fancy, we say, that he would put pen to paper in the following way: --

" We find, in the remarkable volumes of Fraser, a ballad, entitled 'The Pleasing Wife and the Satisfied Husband.' Let us give a brief description of the stanzas :

"I. 'A tradesman is desirous to know what are the usual expenses of his establishment, and to that end interrogates his wife.
" 2. ' Madame, he says, I give you weekly one pound one (a pound avoirdupois was equal to twenty shillings sterling). I have three children only ; and I complain that my money disappears with a celerity that at once excites my curiosity and raises my alarm. May I beg for a satisfactory account of the sums that you hebdomadally disburse ?
" Chorus.-- 'She gives him a satisfactory account of the sums that she hebdomadally, &c.
" 3. 'She begins. The most necessary article of com- fort is shelter; and two and sixpence, an eighth of the whole sum, is appropriated to that purpose. Bread, surely, is the next requisite : no less than three shillings and sixpence are spent in its purchase. Sugar, butter, tea (articles about which see the controversies in the 'Philosophical Transactions'), cost no less than two and twopence weekly. And the chorus recommences :
" ' She gives him a satisfactory account of the sums that she hebdomadally, &c.
" 4. 'Coals, wood, needles, thread, amount in all to nineteenpence. And we find a curious entry for soap, 6½d. ; surely, a large sum at a period when it was the pride of the people to be called the Great Unwashed Potatoes and greens, three shillings; meal, three and sixpence.
" Chorus --' She gives him, &c.
" 5,6,7. ' The rest of the sum is punctually accounted for, down to a single penny, one two hundred and fortieth part of the pound avoirdupois. And without this the wife says, ' Where does matches, caudles, and other things come from?' It is evident that so small a sum can, at the very utmost, be sufficient for purchases go numerous. The song ends, as before, with the
" Chorus.-- She gives him, &c.''


From the Launceston Advertiser Thursday 21 November 1839 p. 2S.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory