The history of the world-famous song Widdicombe Fair has been well covered by Todd Gray in his excellent book Uncle Tom Cobley and All, therefore I don't propose to add anything to this, nor conjecture how the song came to be written. In my opinion it is clear from the evidence presented in the book that it was probably written in the early nineteenth century by someone living in the vicinity of Dartmoor and that subsequent versions discovered in neighbouring counties and even further afield derive from a Devon original. That the famous version first published by the Reverend Baring Gould in Songs of the West in 1891 is not the original is clear, and local historians have established that there were versions prior to 1850 when Widecombe Fair was set up. As to the fairly consistent set of personnel mentioned in the song, though current research has not identified any of them beyond doubt, it is clear they are all common names in the Devon area.
Gray has identified ten stanzas found in earlier Devon and Cornwall versions but for the purposes of this article the famous version sent by William Collier to Baring Gould in 1888 and published by him will suffice.
Tom Pearse, Tom Pearse lend me your grey mare,
All along, down along, out along, lee,
For I want for to go to Widdecombe Fair
Wi' Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawk, old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.
And when shall I see again my grey mare?
By Friday soon, or Saturday noon.
Then Friday came, and Saturday noon,
But Tom Pearse's old mare had not trotted home.
So Tom Pearse he got up to the top o' the hill,
And he seed his old mare down a-making her will.
So Tom Pearse's old mare, her took sick and died,
And Tom he sat down on a stone, and he cried.
But this isn't the end o' this shocking affair,
Nor, though they be dead, of the horrid career
Of Bill etc.
When the wind whistles cold on the moor of a night,
Tom Pearse's old mare doth appear ghastly white.
And all the long night he heard skirling and groans,
From Tom Pearse's old mare in her rattling bones.
The stanzas relevant to this article are 1, 4 and 5 of the above, i.e., those that mention a grey mare going to a named local fair, the mare at the top of a hill making her will, and the mare dying and owner crying. These three elements are found in a widespread traditional song The Old Grey Mare, Roud 5418, ODNR 276, which can be traced back at least to before 1559. The oldest version I've seen comes from a manuscript written in the reign of Henry VIII, held in the British Library and published in J O Halliwell's The Nursery Rhymes of England.
We make no spare of John Hunke's mare;
And now I think she will die;
He thought it good to put her in the wood,
To seek where she might lie dry;
If the mare should chance to fale,
Then the crownes would for her sale. 1
Whilst the only element in this very early version that corresponds with Widdicombe Fair is the death of a mare, it will become plain through examining much later versions that the two are still related.
Halliwell published another version that he dated to 1810 in his The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. He took this version from Gammer Gurton's Garland.
John Cook had a little grey mare,
He , haw, hum!
Her back stood up and her bones were bare,
He, haw, hum!
John Cook was riding up Shooter's Bank,
And there his nag did kick and prank.
John Cook was riding up Shooter's Hill,
His mare fell down and she made her will.
The bridle and saddle he laid on the shelf,
If you want any more you may sing it yourself. 2
Again no mention of a fair but it does have the hill/will stanza. Whilst there are probably other Shooter's Hills around the country it is quite likely the famous one in London that is intended. Many of our older folk songs originated in London unsurprisingly, as that was the centre of the entertainment industry and where the great bulk of printers and publishers were based.. The last stanza here is a very old commonplace used ad nauseam in numerous similar simple ditties.
The earliest mention of a fair in the numerous later versions comes from Hethersett in Norfolk as sung by Sam Self in about 1840, and printed in East Anglian Notes and Queries for 1887. Note, we still have the surname Cook.
THE OLD GREY MARE
Robin Cook's wife she had a grey mere,
Hum humhum hum hum hum.
If you had but ha' seen her, o lauk you'd stare
Singing faldedal fiddledal, hy dum dum.
This old mare she had a sore beck--
And on her beck, I hull't an old seck. (hull't = threw)
She want for to go to Frumpletie Fair,
A'though she warn't fitten to shew herself there.
I'll give the ould mere some corn i' the fan,
I'll warren she'll travel as fast as she can.
I'll give the ould mere some corn i' the sieve,
And hope and God husband the ould mere may live.
This ould mere she chanc'd for to die,
And dade as a nit i' the roardway she lie.
All the dogs in the town spok' for a bon',
All but the parson's doghe stai'd at hom.
I'll lay the bridle up o' the shelf--
If you want any more you must sing it yourself. 3
The sixth stanza seems to also be the earliest in mentioning the actual death of the mare, so here we have two of the main elements under discussion, the desire to travel to a fair and the death of the mare, with the hill/will stanza first appearing in the 1810 version.
The song was definitely sung in North Devon in at least 2 versions. The first occurs in Baring Gould's own collection though he appears not to have noticed the connection between this and Widdecombe Fair. In the manuscripts it simply says 'From N. Devon' so we don't have a more precise source but 1890s seems to be a likely period for it.
Johnny Grayman had a grey mare, fol-de-lol, lol-de-lol, fol-de-lol-lay,
Her bones were high, her flesh was bare, fol-de-lol, lol-de-lol, fol-de-lol-li-do,
And as this mare was going up Oat Hill, fol-de-lol, fol-de-lol, fol-de-lol-lay,
Down she fell and made up her will, fol-de-lol, lol-de-lol-li-do.
Her hide was sent for the tanner's use,
And her four legs made two pair of boots,
Her bridle and saddle were put on the shelf,
And if you want any more, you must sing it yourself. 9
It is quite close to the 1810 version above.
Again there is no mention of a fair as in the following, but both have the hill/will stanza. This one can be found in Lucy Broadwood's Collection but it was collected by E. T. Wedmore at West Down in North Devon in 1899 as sung by the Reverend W Chorley Loveband.
John Brown's Grey Mare
John Brown had an old grey mare, whoa, whoa, whoa-oa-oa-hoa,
And she'd got a tail wi'out any hair. (whistled refrain)
As she was going down Mole Hill (at South Molton)
The poor old creater her made her will.
All the dogs in Molton town
Were invited to dine on Sunday morn.
All except Mr. Mangers old Grange,
And she was kept home to be struck in with the mange.
Mr. Bawdon's old dog saved her a bone,
Or the poor old creater wouldn't ha' none.
He put it upon a buttery shelf,
If you want any more you must sing it yourself. 8
What we have is a simple country ditty that appears to have existed way back in the sixteenth century which must have been well-known in the nineteenth, but only a few versions were noted down by the first wave of English song collectors from about 1880 to 1920. Percy Grainger recorded the following version from Joseph Leaning at Brigg, Lincolnshire, in 1906. Again there is no fair but the hill/will stanza is present.
The Old Mare
Oh, there was an old man and he had an old mare,
Mm! Mm! Mm!
Oh, there was an old man and he had an old mare,
Why she was fat and her ribs were bare,
Rye fal the dal lair-a-lee.
Oh, this old mare got stuck in a bog,
And they couldn't get her out with the old shepherd dog.
The old man ran with his corn in a sieve,
To get the old mare out alive.
The old woman ran with her treacle and spoon,
To get the old mare out by noon.
They got this old mare upo' Black Scorp Hill,
And there she died and made her will.
The old shepherd bitch shall pick my bones,
But she shall let my tail alone.
Now my mistress she shall have my skin,
To wrap herself up when she stays in. 4
There are elements in stanza 4 of intrusion from The Carrion Crow, and in the last two stanzas from Poor Old Horse.
The stanza that tells of the mare dying and includes a line about the owner crying is not common in later versions though most at least hint in some way that the mare dies. However, a version Owd Johnny Walker from Cumbria reprinted in The Mike Harding Collection at p64 has the following as the fifth and final stanza.
Now when Johnny Walker's mare she died
He cried and cried and cried and cried,
And cried and cried and cried and cried
Till he drowned 'imself in t'water. 20
Collectors who started recording songs in the second revival after World War II found it quite common in farming communities. The geographical spread in England is quite telling. The song was found in all three Yorkshire ridings in numerous versions, plus Cumbria, Cheshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Gloucestershire and Devon. To demonstrate the great diversity among versions I give here a North Yorkshire version which differs greatly from the Lincolnshire version above.
Owd Dickie Thompson he had a grey mare,
He took her away to Sedgefield Fair,
He browt her back, oh, yes he did,
Because he hadn't a farthing bid.
Singing titi-fa-lerie, fire up Mary,
Up to the jigs of Sedgefield Fair.
Now he turned her away into Wragby Wood,
He thowt owd mare might do some good;
But she ran her owd head right into a tree;
Gor, dang! Says Dick, t'owd mare'll dee.
Now he browt some hay all in a scuttle;
Her poor owd belly began to ruttle.
He browt her some corn all in a sieve;
Gor, dang, says Dick, t'owd mare'll live.
Now he took her away into t'field to ploo,
To see what his owd mare would do;
But at ivvery end she let a great fart;
Gor, dang, says Dick, we'll ploo till dark.
Now all his sheep got into his fog,
And he sent away home for t'black and white dog;
And at ivvery end he gave a great shout,
Was, Get away by 'em and fetch 'em out.
Then all his hens got into his corn,
And he swore he would shoot 'em as sure as he's born;
So he got his owd gun and he squinted and squared,
But he missed t'owd hens and shot his grey mare. 19
Recorded by Dave Hillery from Jacky Beeforth of Wragby in 1974.
Not of particular relevance here but the song appears to have become hybridised with versions of Brian O'Lynn, particularly in Yorkshire, possibly due to three factors,; both songs are very early, they share a stanza very common in both songs to the extent it is not clear which had it first. This example is from The North Country Chorister from 1802. (third stanza of 9)
Tommy Linn has a mare of the gray,
Lam'd of all four as I've heard say,
It has the farcy all over the skin,
It's a running yade, says Tommy Linn.
Similarly from a Stephenson of Gateshead broadside (third stanza of 9)
Brian O'Lynn he had an old mare,
Her legs were long and her sides they were bare,
Away he rode through thick and through thin,
I'm going a courting says Bryan O'Lynn.
This can be compared with the first stanza of the Joseph Leaning version from Lincolnshire.
The third factor is that both songs have versions that share the ubiquitous Richard of Taunton Dean tune and sometimes employ a variant of that song's chorus. (See the Jacky Beeforth version).
As one would expect, where in most versions the fair is named, it is a real local one to where the song was collected; and where it can be ascertained, the name of the mare's owner is a real local person, which is another similarity to the Widdecombe Fair ecotype. Where the name of the wood is given, into which the mare is turned to try and cure her, this is also an actual local feature, likewise the name of the hill where the mare writes her will.
The song also migrated to the United States where it morphed once again into a very different song. In fact some versions would not be recognisable as the same song were it not for interim versions like the following from the Journal of American Folklore No 26, p123. It was recorded in East Tennessee in 1906 from 'mountain whites'
The Old Grey Mare.
Ole Turkey Buzzard come a-flyin' a-by, x3
Says, Ole man, yore mare's gon die.
Ef she dies, I'll tan her skin;
Ef she don't, by doggies, I'll ride her agin.
She got so pore I couldn't ride;
Bones stuck up right throo her hide.
Then I hooked'r to the plough;
Swore, by doggies, she didn't know how.
Then I skinned some pawpaw lines,
Swore, by doggies, she'd take her time.
Then I turned'r down the creek,
For her to hunt some grass to eat.
Then I follered down the track;
Found'r in a mud-hole flat of'r back.
Then I felt so dev'lish stout,
Grabbed'r by the tail and pulled'r out.
Then I thought it weren't no sin;
Took out my knife and began to skin.
Versions have been reported from Tennessee (4), North Carolina (2), Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia.
It is possible if somewhat unlikely due to the comparative timeframes, that Widdecombe Fair influenced later versions but the more likely reality is that the Devon song was partly inspired by The Old Grey Mare.
The following table shows the relevant personal and place names in each English version and where each version was collected. It is interesting to note that in no version of The Old Grey Mare do the Fair and Hill stanzas both occur but they do in Widdecombe Fair.
|Name of Fair
|Name of Hill
|Robin Cook's wife
|Old Jack Akrun
|Old Dame Hook
|Old John Blythe
|Old Peter Walker
|Old John Wallis
|Old John Hagitt
|Owd Ben Newton
|Old Sam Naxey
|Owd Dickie Thompson
|Owd Johnny Walker