Leeds In Songs

A few weeks ago, I put in a few voices of Leeds through the centuries. Collecting them was a very satisfying experience. But something I realised was that there seem to be very few references to Leeds in folk songs and broadside ballads.

A trip to the Family and History Library at Leeds Central Library took me into the broadside ballads collected by Frank Kidson, one of folk music’s towering figures and collector and analyst (even if I initially just wanted to know who printed ballads locally). It also brought a few items that relate to Leeds, although it’s doubtful that any of them were ever really sung, let alone, handed down.

Broadside ballads were the single of their day, printed up quickly, each sheet sold for a penny. They commemorated everything – visits, disasters, executions – or sometimes nothing. But they can be a treasure trove.

This, for instance, concerns Queen Victoria’s visit to Leeds in 1858 to open the new Town Hall. What was the tune? We’ll never know at this distance, but it would be a common one that almost everybody would already know.

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The Meeting of the Leeds Town Clocks is an absurd delight, but it also tells us where all these clocks were in Leeds – helpful information for any historian. Many people would not have owned watches of any kind, so public clocks were vital. From around 1860, it’s a wonderful artefact.

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Equally ludicrous is On Leeds Becoming a Sea Port Town. Quite what prompted it, I don’t know, but the line “From the Exhibition” makes it likely that it was published just after the Great Exhibition in 1851, held in London, and possibly a bit of a satire on all the rage for the new and different.

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The Leeds Tragedy is a very lengthy piece, set in a former time, one of those mock-Medieval fantasies. Quite probably, different version circulated in other parts of the country, with the name of different towns plugged in. It certainly deals with a knotty topic – a brother’s non-brotherly love for his sister.

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The election song for John Barran shows a different facet of the ballad as political advertising. Supposedly from the early 1900s, it indicates broadsides were still in vogue, and must have been effective as party political broadcasting – like newspapers, they were the mass media of the age.

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This ballad doesn’t come from Kidson’s collection, but it’s worth including (I used it in Voices of Leeds, but no apologies for bringing it back). Used to raise funds for the widow and surviving child, it’s the charity single of its day, and possibly a rare example of a broadside not published solely for profit.

When William Snowden’s keel boat, the Edward & William, capsized at Whitton Sands in 1885, only one man seemed to survive. But his wife and three children remained trapped in a pocket of air on the boat, and were freed after seventeen hours. Two of the children died on board. Mrs. Snowden and one child survived. A ballad was written and sold in Leeds to raise money for them.

The Keel to Leeds returning from Grimsby we are told,
In charge of Chaptain Snowden a sailor young & bold.
And in the vessel down below his sleeping children lay,
And two with him to sleep in death upon the coming day.

Soon come the shock, the keel overturned the husband’s spirits fled,
His gallant heart’s ceased beating he is numbered with the dead.
The mother clutched her little ones that slept so peacefully,
And tried, so hard to save them but alas twas not to be…

The water rose about her and higher still it came
The little arms are around her neck and she calls each one by name.
But when the water sunk again she knew one spirit fled,
And called her little Lizzies name but ah! her child was dead…

At last they hear her knocking and willing hands contrive
To save the mother and the only one she’s left alive.
What tongue can tell her feelings or who shall know her grief,
Pray God in all her mercy send her stricken heart relief.

Finally, a song that Kidson collected and published in his Leeds Mercury column in 1887, one which had probably been around Leeds for quite a while – the Lees Wassail, sung by groups who went door to door at Christmas, much as carol singers did not too long ago. It’s obviously a variant on God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, and though Leeds isn’t mentioned, this was sung locally. Many areas had their own carols (which are still very much alive around Sheffield).

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day
For it is the Christmas time,
And we travel far and near;
So God bless you and send you
A happy new year.

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.
For it is the Christmas time…

God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also,
And all the little children
That round the table go.
For it is the Christmas time…

Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring;
Let him bring us a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.
For it is the Christmas time…

We’ve got a little purse
Made of stretching leather skin;
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.
For it is the Christmas time…

For the musically inclined, the tune is here.

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