The Singing Judge, the Poacher and the Stroud Fringe
The beak asked me: 'Why do you poach?’ before he sent me down to the Horsley House of Correction.
'Why, Eliza Butler, must you not only disgrace your obligation of necessary deference as a humble village labourer, but also disgrace your sex? What in Heaven's name possessed you, in order for you to be apprehended in the fields on Lord Deuce’s estate?
'Well, your honour, I replied, ‘It's like this. I was born in Bristol in 1798, but never knew my father. Not because I was base born, but because he was press ganged and killed at sea fighting for His Majesty.
My mother was born a gypsy, sir, and took me with her to return to her family. We travelled the Stroudwater valleys and hills, sir, and then I got work as a spinner, sir, when I was 12.
I first went poaching, sir, when the Corn Laws came in. The price of bread went so high that we had no money for anything else. So I went into the fields, sir, with my grand father and he taught me how to roam the land, follow the hidden ways, the forgotten tracks and sequestered brooks.
And so it continued, sir, until I fell in with some Stroudwater weavers in an alehouse. They told me that the Corn Laws were doing more than just making bread costly; they were, in fact, they said, designed to line the pockets of the rich with the wages of the poor. Where is the justice in that, they said. And with their masters reducing their wages, they said, they had to fight back.
So I joined them in their bid to have a union, sir, and learned how to riot as well as poach in a gang. We wandered the margins of the cultivated fields, sir, sometimes making rough musick as we went along. We called ourselves ‘The Stroud Fringe’, sir, living as we did, on the periphery of accustomed normality.
My grand father was pleased with my occupations, sir. He would drink ale with any poacher or rioting weaver. He has just died, sir, but his last words to me are still clear: 'Damn Enclosure! Damn these blasted hedges and fences! Damn the rich, Damn the landlords! Damn the masters! Damn the Game Laws. Damn the Vagrancy Act! Damn transportation! Damn the government! Long live Captain Swing! Huzza for the Stroud Fringe!'
Then he gently breathed his last.
That is the background, sir.
Now to the more precise circumstances involved in my apprehension -
Sir, when the wind picks up of an autumn afternoon, and the turning leaves start to fall; when the last blackberries start to wither, and when the last harvest has been gathered and the acorns lie thick on the ground, it's then when the first frost is around the corner and the hunter's moon is in the sky. Why, sir, that to me is the call of nature.
Added to which, I was starving, sir, and if I can take game on the turnpike, then why not in the fields, sir?'
'Guilty, as found. Defendant sentenced to three months hard labour in the Horsley House of Correction.'
‘Sir’, I said, ‘One last thing, I’ll sing you a song as they take me down.’ And I did:
“You ram-bling girls of Stroud-Wat-er, I’ll have you to be-ware,
When you go a-hunt-ing with your song, your dog, your beer,
Look out for the gamekeep-ers, be-ware your app-re-hen-sion,
Or you’ll end up in ill-fated Horsley House’d Correction.”
And what do you think happened next?
The beak opened his mouth and sang back to me!
‘Think yourself lucky, Eliza Butler. Thirty years ago, you would have sung this:
“Come all you wild and wicked youths wherever you may be,
I pray you give attention and listen unto me,
The fate of us poor transports as you shall understand,
The hardships we do undergo upon Van Diemen’s Land.”’