A version of this article was published in English Dance and Song Volume 65 part 4
Published here by permission of the current editor, Derek Schofield

The Bloody Miller

Roud 263, Laws P35

A significant number of ballads found in oral tradition can be shown to have existed in various printed forms since the 17th century, some even earlier.  Here we present a series of ballads that have employed the same set of motifs since the late 17th century.

What appears to be the earliest ballad in the series The Bloody Miller was printed by P Brooksby in Pye Corner, London, in around 1683 (The Pepys Ballads, volume 2, p156).  It is subtitled, Being a true and just account of one Francis Cooper of Hocstow near Shrewsbury, who was a Millers Servant, and kept company with one Anne Nicols for the space of two years, who then proved to be with child by him, and being urged by her father to marry her he most wickedly and barbarously murdered her, as you shall hear by the sequel.  Tune Alack for my Love I dye.  The 14 six-line stanzas tell the story relatively succinctly.  The important facts that continue as motifs in the other ballads are: a miller's servant seduces a local girl and she becomes pregnant.  When her parents try to persuade him to marry her he lures her to a secluded place and murders her.  When accused of the murder blood runs from his nose, or he claims the blood on his clothes and hands is from a nosebleed, and he finally admits his crime and is hung.  The whole is in the first person in the style of the Dying Confession of the repentant murderer so popular in Britain for many centuries, and indeed continued in other English-speaking parts of the world.

Although The Bloody Miller and the next ballad have a lot of points in common and one must have influenced the composition of the other, they both appear to narrate two separate real events, the first one set near Shrewsbury and the other near Oxford.  Another main difference is that in The Bloody Miller the 'bleeding of the nose' motif occurs immediately following his judgment in court,

But when I saw for this my fate
       just judgment on me past,
The blood in court ran from my nose
       yea, ran exceeding fast.
whereas in The Berkshire Tragedy or The Wittam Miller, our next ballad (The Roxburghe Ballads, Ballad Society, volume 8, p.629), the murderer uses the bleeding of his nose to account for having blood on his clothes and hands when questioned by his suspicious manservant:
"How came you by that blood upon,
Your trembling hands and cloaths?"
I presently to him reply'd
"By bleeding at the nose."
This 22-stanza ballad goes into much greater detail.  Stanza 2:
My tender parents brought me up,
Provided for me well,
And in the town of Wittam then,
They plac'd me in a mill.
By chance upon an Oxford lass
I cast a wanton eye,
And promis'd I would marry her
If she would with me lie.
The lass asks him to marry her and her mother also tries to persuade him, at which he plots to kill the girl.  A month before Christmas he asks her to walk abroad to discuss wedding plans, then lures her 'into a private place'.  Another difference is that he then takes a stick out of a hedge to kill her, drags her body by the hair and throws her into the river.  He then returns to his mill covered in blood to be met by his manservant as described above.  He is apprehended the next day and her sister accuses him of the murder.  Proclaiming his innocence he accuses her mother of sending her away and even offers 5 guineas reward for finding the body.  Her body comes floating by her father's door at Henley Ferry the day before the assizes and he is again taken in and examined.  After his manservant testifies against him the jury find him guilty and he is sent to Reading Gaol.  He continues to deny his guilt until his relatives persuade him to confess.  The ballad is rounded off in true Dying Confession style with warning to others to avoid the evils of lust, and a plea for clemency from his maker.

This version continued to be printed from the mid-18th century right into the first half of the 19th century and typically Catnach's version (St Bride's Printing Library, ref.S194) is entitled Discovery of an Extraordinary Murder committed by a Respectable Miller of Wittam in Berkshire Upon the body of his sweetheart in December last - as though it had just happened, whereas I estimate this printing at around 1825.  The preamble places her father's house at Hensey Ferry and in the ballad itself it becomes Hindley Ferry.  This ballad has some lines and the tune in common with a similar ballad The Oxfordshire Tragedy, a contemporary ballad, although here the blood motif is in the form of a damask rose which grows above the girl's grave and blossoms through the winter.

The next remaking of the ballad seems to be the one which has given rise to all of the oral versions found in Britain and some of those found in America; the American broadside version being based on the 18th century version.  Although it takes whole lines from the standard Berkshire Tragedy it is a summary of the 22 stanzas reduced to 9 stanzas, and there are some significant alterations such as instead of arriving home and being questioned by his servant, the roles are reversed, and he is questioned by his master.  The two main reasons usually given for such reduction are public taste, i.e. a preference for shorter ballads, and the printers' change from the lengthy broadsheet format to the more convenient single slips for easier street sale.  Although there were plenty of printings of this version there are sufficient textual differences between different printings to suggest that some at least had been taken from oral tradition, not least the range of different titles, The Cruel Miller (Pitts), False-Hearted Miller (Swindells), The Bloody Miller (Fordyce).  Interestingly in this version the murderer has reverted back to being a servant as in the first ballad.

Here is Pitts' single-slip version (Madden Collection, London Printers 2, VWML microfilm 75, item 891).

The Cruel Miller

My parents educated me, good learning gave to me,
They bound me apprentice to a miller with whom I did agree,
Till I fell courting a pretty lass with a black and a rolling eye,
I promised for to marry her if she with me would lie.

I courted her for six long months a little now and then,
I was ashamed to marry her being so young a man,
Till at length she proved with child by me and thus to me did say,
Ah Johnny do but marry me or else for love I die.

I went unto her sister's house at 8 o' clock at night,
And little did this fair one know I owed her any spite,
I asked her if she would take a walk thro' the meadows gay,
And there we'd sit and talk awhile upon our wedding day.

I took a stick out of the hedge and hit her on the crown,
The blood from this young innocent came trickling on the ground,
She on her bended knees did fall and aloud for mercy cried,
Saying Johnny dear don't murder me for I am big with child.

I took her by her yellow locks and dragged her to the ground,
And we came to the river's side where I threw her body down,
With blood from this young innocent my hands and feet were dyed,
And if you'd seen her in her bloom she might have been my bride.

I went unto my master's house at 10 o' clock at night,
My master getting out of bed and striking of a light,
He asked me and questioned me what dyed my hands and clothes.
I made a fit answer I'd been bleeding at the nose.

I then took up a candle to light myself to bed,
And all that blessed long night my own true love lay dead,
And all that blessed long night no rest at all could find,
For the burning flames of torment all round my eyes did shine.

In two or three days after this fair maid she was miss'd,
I was taken on suspicion and into prison cast,
Her sister prosecuted me for my own awful doubt,
Her sister prosecuted me for taking of her out.

In two or three days after this fair maid she was found,
Came floating by her mother's door near to Wexford town,*
The judge and the jury they quickly did agree,
For the murder of my true love that hanged I must be.

* Fordyce's version gives Wrexham town.

The Lexington Miller, the early 19th century broadside version of eleven-and-a-half stanzas printed in Boston, USA, (Leach, The Ballad Book, 1955, p.786, Harvard University copy) has the murderer being met by his servant, unlike the British version where it is his master.  Numerous oral versions derive from this Boston broadside which could easily have been inspired by a real event in America despite its textual closeness to British broadsides.  Some of the American versions have the murder weapon becoming a fence stake pulled out of the ground, and it is his mother who finds the blood on his clothes.  But some American oral versions show the influence of earlier British versions not found in the American broadside, for example, a Missouri version has the murderer being persuaded by the devil to take away her life, which comes directly from the 18th century version.

British oral versions can be found in the EFDSS Journals, the Greig-Duncan Collection, Frank Purslow's The Wanton Seed, Peter Kennedy's Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland and Sharp's collections under such titles as The Prentice Boy, The Oxford Girl, The Butcher Boy, The Wexford Murder and Hanged I must be.

An interesting twist is that some British oral versions are obviously derived from Irish versions, usually those in which Oxford has developed into Wexford.  Fred Hamer collected a version from Paddy Church of Bedfordshire (Garners Gay, EFDS Publications,1967, p.40) who had learnt his version from fellow emigrants to Canada in 1900.  Could there have been an Irish broadside version?  Very likely.

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services  Updated: 20.9.05