Every county has a version of this ballad. The version on which this story is based was sung by John Morgan at the Pitch, Dilwyn, Herefordshire in October 1905, when it was noted down by R. Hughes Rowlands and included in Ella Mary Leather’s “The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire” published seven years later, number 22 in her list of folk songs.
It’s of a pretty ploughboy was ploughing on the plain. In those days plough persons did not sit in nice warm tractor cabs listening to Radio 2 and eating hobnobs while they worked. They had to keep a straight furrow using their own strength against the heavy wooden plough and the cussedness of horses. It was not a very nice job, but then, very few jobs on a farm were, but it was a skilled job and a man could take pride in his skill and his value to the community.
Too often he had to plough in cold rain, only some old sacking doing a poor job of keeping him dry, but sometimes the sun would be shining and he could take his shirt off and feel the warmth on his back.
Billy Mallon had been the sort of child that made the old ladies of the village coo over him. A round sun tanned face and long blonde hair, he became accustomed to receiving little titbits from them when they visited his mother. He grew up into a handsome, strapping lad, helped by the demands of his profession. Soon he became aware that he was turning the heads of the younger maids of the villages around. But this did not make him big-headed or cruel. His pleasure was to be good at his trade, ploughing, which he had been taught by his father, the sweat tang of the horses, the feel of the red Herefordshire clay against the mouldboard of his iron shod worm turner.
He was a calm man and horses felt safe with him. He had to keep all his mind on the task but he was also aware that Mary Wilton, the daughter of the farmer for whom he worked, was paying more attention to him than she should be. When he came to collect his team in the early morning, when farmer’s daughters have every right to be still abed, she would be in the yard pretending to be carrying out some task. In the day he might catch some sight of her watching him from on top of the hill or hidden in the withies. At dusk, dead tired, he still had the strength to find his heart racing when he caught sight of her looking out of her window.
Soon it got to the stage when he was looking out for her as much as she was looking out for him. For Mary the early summer had never been so bright. It was a hot late summer’s day when she came to him, under the pretext of bringing him some bread and cheese and a small barrel of cider. He had been ploughing in the hay aftermath after the sheep had finished with it and his team and he were taking a breather under the shade of some trees.
As she approached he was terribly conscious that he had his shirt off and he could suddenly feel every heavy breath of wind on his back. He blushed and he could see that she was blushing also, although her eyes were demurely downcast. “I thought you might like some bait, to help you keep going.”
“Thank you.” Their hands touched as she handed over the basket and their eyes met and both knew that no one else would do for them. She walked away quickly but both spent the rest of the day and that night thinking about the other and hoping the other was thinking of them.
So it continued for a while. Before long it was continuing in an altogether more serious state of affairs. There was nothing especially out of the ordinary for a farmer’s daughter to bring sustenance to the ploughman but a few folk were noticing that it was happening a little more often than was necessary.
Billy was a conscientious lad and he had the idea that his employer would not be too happy with the state of affairs. Old farmer Wilton was noted in the parish for his uncertain temper. “Mary, my love,” he said one day, “If your parents ever find out about us there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Don’t worry about them.” replied Mary, with the innocence of someone who had not seen much of the world. “I’ll just drop hints into the conversation about you and what a fine person you are. They’ll come round.”
It was Mrs Wilton who first got wind of what was going on, from the idle chatter of the dairymaid. She kept an eye on her daughter and an ear to her dinner conversation, put the two together and came up with a much bigger number than she was happy with.
So she told her husband. He exploded. “The traitor! I’ll set the press gang on him!”
Now it was not as easy as we now think to get someone press ganged. A sailing ship was the most complex piece of machinery then in existence and a captain had no wish to have someone on board who might pull the wrong rope during a tricky manoeuvre, especially if fighting the French at that particular moment, so press gangs tended to operate around sea ports. Also joining the navy was not the unpleasant prospect we think it. Life on board a ship was not markedly worse than for a poor person on shore. You could be pretty sure of regular meals and rum. In addition there was the prospect of prize money from captured ships. Many’s the old sailor who funded a comfortable retirement thanks to a couple of hours of excitement. Of course you could also get your head knocked off by a cannon ball.
It was that last result that farmer Wilton was hoping for and, for a respected member of the locality, there were ways and means. The impress was a useful way for magistrates to get petty criminals out of the district. He went to see his friend and magistrate, William Myers, and informed him that he regretfully suspected his ploughman, a good worker but wayward, of poaching. Mr Myers took his role as magistrate seriously. He saw it as, not so much upholding the law, but preventing any change in the status quo. He was more than happy to deal severely with anyone who threatened it. Then it was easy to find a couple of toughs from Leominster who waylaid Billy on his way home and dragged him before the magistrate, together with a thoughtfully provided pheasant.
Old Farmer Wilton congratulated himself on a job well done, but his horse team never ploughed so well with any other ploughman. Even the earth seemed to miss Billy, the crops never grew so well after and he had earned the undying hatred of his daughter.
A sensible girl might have put it all down to experience and go looking for the curate as a way of assuaging her sadness but Mary was not sensible in that sense. But she was sensible enough to dry her eyes and pretend that the world was going on much as it had before, although she felt as though it was coming to an end. After a week of this and just as her parents were congratulating themselves for their good judgement, she went to her bedroom at the usual hour but, instead of getting into her nightgown, she dressed in her best travelling clothes. She waited until the house was quiet and then crept down, timing her footsteps to the steady beat of the grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs, to hide her steps on creaking floorboards, to the chest where her father kept his gold. With the help of her pocket knife it took only a moment to open it and she felt no compunction in putting every last sovereign into her reticule and then going out into the night in search of her jolly sailor bold.
Her plan was to set out for Portsmouth. She had heard it was a naval port and was sure that if she only could get there she would find Billy. But the world was bigger than she had thought and she was lonelier, listening to the voice in her head that told her everything was hopeless until that was replaced by the strangeness of the darkness and the certainty that ever monster of her childhood was close behind her back.
She had set out walking but dawn having found here still within the fields she knew, she accepted a lift from a carter, who reliably informed her that her destination was many days away. In town she decided to invest some of her father’s money in a coach ride, but there proved to be no direct routes to Portsmouth and she settled for one to Bath. She was pleased by how quickly it rattled along, taking no interest in the strange fields and new sights outside the coach window.
It was at a coaching inn in Bath, full of tobacco and the smell of strange beer and bodies, that her eyes fell on a young man wearing white canvas trousers, silver buckled shoes, a short jacket with large brass buttons and a checked shirt, all of which marked him out as a seaman. Before her courage failed her she went up to him and asked, “Did you meet my pretty ploughboy, by name Billy Mallon, who has just been taken to the sea?”
He smiled at her with that special sailor smile and said, “Pretty maid, will you ride?” At this point the story can go one of two ways. Folk songs are full of sailors who show young women not what they were expecting and more than they bargained for. But this young man had been well brought up by his mother.
On the coach down to Portsmouth, she paying for an inside berth rather outside in the weather that he had been expecting, the sailor explained that, the fleet being quite numerous, he was not acquainted with this Billy Mallon personally. However he did know that H.M.S. Weymouth, under the command of Captain John Somerset, was taking men prior to leaving for the East Indies and any new recruits were very likely to end up there.
When the coach dropped them off at the harbour front at Portsmouth the sailor was able to point out the Weymouth, a fourth rate, standing off shore. Mary was horrified to see how far out to sea it was. How was she going to get to Billy? But the sailor smiled and said that her best bet was to seek out the captain and explain her predicament. Since captains tended not to spend all their time on the ship when it was in port they had a good chance of finding Captain Somerset in one of the many high class establishments that senior officers tended to frequent.
Peering through the window of the third such establishment they came to, the sailor was able to point out the surprisingly young figure of John Somerset sitting alone at a table and contemplating a large glass of wine. “This is as far as I can go with you miss. Captains don’t like being interrupted at their deliberations by common seamen but pretty young ladies are often another matter.”
Mary thanked him profusely for all his help and reached into her reticule and gave him five guineas for his trouble. The sailor thanked her with equal professions of gratitude and went to re-distribute the money among the many taverns and young ladies of the town. He was not that well brought up. Did he leave thinking she had any chance of success? He did not.
Mary might be quite innocent in the ways of the world but her mother had taught her enough about social niceties to know that farmer’s daughters were not expected to talk to naval captain’s, especially when they were at dinner. But this was an emergency. Without taking time to think she walked into the inn, the smells of roasting beef and thick gravy almost making her retch and itself breaking a pretty major taboo. Determinedly she went up to the captain, who looked up, surprised. “You have my pretty ploughboy, Billy Mallon, in your ship. He doesn’t want to be there nor do I want him going off to the wars to be slain.
She reached into her reticule and pulled out a great shower of golden guineas and dropped them on the table. Most denizens of the inn had already been watching her progress in shock but those few who had not now turned at the sound of so much coin.
“Here’s hundred bright guineas for you if you release him and, if that is not enough, I have twice as much more that you can have, only that you leave me the lad I adore.”
Now, again, the story could take several different turnings. However, John Somerset was a honest man not riddled with the greed that affected so many of His Majesty’s officers, who preferred prize money over protecting their country’s interests, seeing war as a means of making money by other means. He was noted in the Service for the care of his men and had the lowest rate of desertion in the fleet. For a hundred guineas he could obtain quite a few experienced seamen at the cost of a man who could well be a liability. It was a bargain that could not be ignored. As he would when he was about to face a French frigate he weighed up his options and decided that it was a bargain worth taking.
A message was sent to bring Billy ashore. While waiting Captain Somerset engaged Mary in conversation and, after their discussion, was not afraid to voice the opinion that, had he a ship load of Marys, resolute and bold, he would be a very successful commander indeed.
When Billy was brought in Mary could not resist it but threw her arms around his neck as she had often imagined but feared would never do again. Mary thought the bells of Portsmouth were ringing out for her and Billy. Cynics might note that the bell-ringers of the town normally practised at this time, but Mary knew better.
So they set off into the world to start a new life together. Were they successful? Well, they did have Billy’s strength, Mary’s resourcefulness and the matter of two hundred guineas in Mary’s reticule. With that they had as good a chance as any.
“And blessed be the day when all true lovers meet, And their sorrows are all at an end. This last cruel war called many lads away, And their true lovers they never saw no more.” So sang John Morgan in 1905, singing of a war one hundred years away, little knowing that, a decade later, an even more cruel war would call many lads away, to the heat of Gallipoli, the trenches of the Somme and the mud of Passchendaele. So we listen to it now, a hundred years later, not knowing what our own era holds.