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History, Customs and Legend in Song








Charles Wells & Josephine Grimbley (1999)

This song tells the story of Charles Wells who, in 1876, gave up a promising sea career to marry his sweetheart, Josephine Grimbley, whose father insisted that his daughter would not marry a man who would be away at sea for most of their married life. When he returned to Bedford he set up the brewery that still bears his name. It is the largest family run brewery business in the country. This is the only local story I’ve obtained from the back of a beer bottle! It was printed on the rear label of Josephine Grimbley’s Ale produced by Charles Wells Brewery in 1999.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 51




John Bunyan (2002)

Perhaps Bedfordshire’s greatest son, John Bunyan was born in 1628 and lived at Elstow. After a mis-spent youth he became a Christian preacher and for his faith, he spent 12 years in Bedford Gaol from 1660. His best known literary work is the allegorical tale, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has since been translated into over 200 languages and features many characters including Christian, Faithful, Hopeful and Valiant-for-Truth.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 29



Bedford / Elstow

The B&MK (2008)

The B&MK is a salute to the proposed Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway. First proposed in 1811 and costed by famous canal engineer, John Rennie, the canal was never built and its preferred course was taken by the Bedford to Bletchley railway line. The project resurfaced in the 1990s. It is hope to be completed sometime between 2020 and 2030.

See their website at where the words of this song are reproduced on their ‘Supporters’ page together with a link to the sound file.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 42




Bedford / Aspley Guise / Ridgmont /

Kempston /

Lidlington /

Marston Moretaine / Wootton /



Man of Clay (2004)

B.J. Harfield Forder from Hampshire together with George & Arthur Keeble and Halley Stewart, all from Peterborough, founded the first Fletton brickworks in Bedfordshire in 1897 at Wootton Pillinge and Elstow. George and Arthur Keeble had already been involved in Fletton brickmaking in Peterborough and Halley Stewart was the prospective Liberal party candidate for the town. Stewart became the chairman and guiding force in the limited company that Forders became in 1900. By merging their assets and interests, the “London Brick Company and Forders Limited” was formed in 1923 and Stewart began work on his new “Garden Village” for his employees at Wootton Pillinge, which he renamed Stewartby. The song symbolically personifies the Fletton clay in much the same way as barley is personified in the traditional song John Barleycorn and this song relies heavily upon that traditional song for its form and content.




Elstow /



A Working Boatie Man (1986)

The Grand Union Canal at Leighton Buzzard and Linslade provided a good transport route for the town’s sand production for glass making in the Midlands and building in London. The song tells the story of canal life from the point of view of a canal worker or ‘boatie’ transporting sand from Leighton Buzzard. This song features in Life & Times’ canal show Where The Working Boats Went.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 38




Leighton Buzzard

Old Granny Smoke-a-Pipe (1986)

Granny Smoke-a-Pipe was a Leighton Buzzard character who reputedly lived to the age of 103, dying in 1930. She was well known in the town, going from door to door, selling her needles, pins, haberdashery and tuppenny packets of snuff – the largest size which could be sold without incurring tax! She always looked rather unkempt, invariably wore black high-button boots and was usually seen smoking her clay pipe. She had six in all and when one became blocked she would bury it in the garden and retrieve the one which had been there the longest. The action of the soil on the pipe cleaned it out.




Sand (2009)

Sand has been quarried around Leighton Buzzard for many years. The ‘dobbers’ were the men who worked in the sand, shovelling day after day to excavate it from enormous holes in the earth to be used in processes like building, glass-making and filtering. At the end of the day, the dobbers might try to clean themselves up by removing as much sand as they could from their clothing before walking home but inevitably, the sand got in everywhere: ears, mouths, hair, pockets and shoes. Their wives would always have a major job to shake out excess sand from clothes that were about to be washed. This song is part of a commission for the Greensand Trust’s Sands Of Time oral history project.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 59




Dobbing (2010)

Dobbers are workers in the sand pits around Leighton Buzzard. The song outlines the many types of sand to be found locally and names some of the pits where it has been dug over the years. It also describes the typical dobber’s ‘uniform’ and highlights the poor pay that they received for shovelling many tons of sand by hand. This song is part of a commission for the Greensand Trust’s Sands Of Time oral history project.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 48




Katherine’s Cross (2001)

In the 18th century a cross was erected in Ampthill Park on the site where Ampthill Castle once stood. This was the place where Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, was sent whilst her divorce was being contrived. The words of the song are those written by Sir Horace Walpole and which appear at the base of the cross.


Song Printed in The Fuddler Issue 28

Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 34




Queen Catherine (1999)

The marriage of Catherine of Aragon to Henry VIII was preceded by her marriage to his brother, Arthur, who died of consumption. Her marriage to Henry was annulled at Dunstable and she was kept a virtual prisoner in Ampthill Castle before being sent to Kimbolton where she spent the last years of her life. The song tells her story.




Ampthill / Dunstable

Dunstable Downs Midsummer’s Day Song (2001)

In Worthington G. Smith’s book Dunstable, Its History and Surroundings, published in 1904, local history sits alongside the area’s many myths, legends and customs. One such custom was to build enormous bonfires on the Downs which were lit at dusk on Midsummer’s Day and burned late into the night.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 17





Dun The Robber (1988)

It is claimed that Dun was the man who gave his name to the town of Dunstable – think ‘horses’! There are two versions of the legend and one of them is recorded in a poem written in the Church Register in 1600 by the curate, John Willis. The other appears as the story in this song and both are mentioned in Worthington G. Smith’s book Dunstable, Its History and Surroundings published in 1904. Joyce Godber, in her book, History of Bedfordshire, suggests that there may be some basis in fact for the existence of Dun.




The Robber, Dun (2003)

This song is the second version of the story of Dun, the man who is claimed to have given Dunstable its name. The beginning of the story is essentially the same as that in the song mentioned above but King Henry I’s involvement comes in the form of an attempt to test the man’s honesty by attaching his gold ring to a pile (pole) using an iron staple (Dun… staple… got there yet?) and leaving it for anyone to dare to steal. Dun takes the bait but is tracked down to his mother’s house in what is now Houghton Regis. The pile and staple feature on Dunstable’s coat of arms. My thanks to Worthington G. Smith’s book Dunstable, Its History and Surroundings (published in 1904) for this story.




Eleanor Cross (2002)

Queen Eleanor of Castille, wife of Edward I, died in Harby near Lincoln on November 28th, 1290 and the distraught King had her body transported back to Westminster where she was buried. A procession of coaches draped in black and pulled by horses in black harness made its way south during the cold, wet days of the winter. The journey took 13 days and wherever the coffin stopped overnight, Edward ordered that a cross was to be erected – Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St. Albans, Waltham Cross and, in London, at Westcheap and Charing. Some crosses still survive, (Hardingtone, near Northampton – beside the present day A43, Waltham Cross & Geddington, Northants) but others have disappeared over the years. The one in Dunstable, for example, was unfortunately destroyed by Cromwell’s troops in 1643. The original Charing Cross was destroyed by the Puritans in 1647 as was that at Westcheap (now called Cheapside). This song is appropriately modal and dirge-like.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 32




The Markyate Highwayman (1981)

Lady Katherine Ferrers (or de Ferrers), locked in an unhappy marriage, took to robbing on the highway in Hertfordshire, South Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Her story was made into two films both entitled ‘The Wicked Lady’. The Highwayman Hotel at the southern end of Dunstable is named after this local character. Ferrars Junior School in Lewsey Road, Luton, is also named in her memory as her family owned the land in this area.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 28





The Village Lock-Up (2008)

Harrold & Clophill both have village lock-ups on the green (Silsoe’s is tucked away on a side-road towards Flitton and Greenfield) and these were the inspiration for this song. The lock-up was a small lockable cell in which petty criminals were housed for the night to cool off. Most crimes dealt with in this way were minor offences although some would have seen inmates facing court the following day. Common incumbents would have been drunks and brawlers.



Harrold / Clophill /


The Ghost of Lady de Grey (1999)

Lady Elizabeth de Grey was the daughter of the owner of Wrest House, a country mansion in Silsoe. Her father took a dim view of his daughter’s elopement with a humble coachman from The George Inn. In a hasty escape she fell from a carriage and drowned in a lake. Her ghost returned to The George where her happiest times had been. There are still stories of ghostly appearances at the hotel which still stands in the village. This song is also sung by Carolyn Robson and is recorded on her CD Dawn Chorus, Reiver Records RVRCD03. You can hear the song at her website.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 39





Easter Song (1984)

On Easter Eve, the Saturday following Good Friday, it is said that in Houghton Regis, small stone sepulchres were built in the churchyards and men were paid to watch over them by night. At dusk, boys would go around the parishes with black flags and torches singing, ‘We fasted in the light for this is the night’.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 12




Houghton Regis

The Statty Fair (1992)

The statute fair in Luton was the inspiration for this song. The fair was held around harvest time on Market Hill, where the French Market is sited today when it visits the town. At the fair, men were hired for work on the land and girls were hired to go into service. In later days the original significance of the fair died out and the event was taken over by the funfairs we still see today. Eventually the full connection with the original fairs was completely lost when the date was changed to spring.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 23




Straw Plait (1982)

Straw plait is the main constituent of straw hats for which Luton is famous. In the 18th century the finest quality plait in the world came from Leghorn in the Italian province of Tuscany. During the French wars the supplies of this plait were cut off and the local plaiters upgraded from making wholestraw plait to producing split-straw plait which copied the Leghorn styles and Luton became the centre of the world’s straw plait industry. In the 19th century plait dealers began to import cheap Chinese plait and to compete, local plaiters had to take a cut in wages from 6s 3d to 1s 10½d. The song is from a plaiter’s point of view at this time. A ‘score’ is 20 yards of plait. This song was played on BBC Radio 2’s Album Time and Round Midnight.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 16





Tell Old Charlie Irons (1982)

Charles Irons was Luton’s Town crier at the beginning of the 20th century and he held the post until his death in 1940. He was also the town’s official bill poster and keeper of the pound. The phrase ‘Tell Charlie Irons’ was used in the town to indicate that someone was broadcasting information which was better kept secret. Major Payne, who appears briefly in the song, was not a major at all but invariably appeared around the town in military uniform and offered passers-by a prune from a paper bag which he carried with him!


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 8





Blocker’s Seaside (1983)

In the early 20th century it became more common for people to have a day out by the sea each year. Blockers, who worked in the local hat industry, could not afford this and instead they took a day out at Leagrave Marsh, the source of the River Lea, a few miles out of Luton at the time. This excursion earned the place the name of ‘Blocker’s Seaside’.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 7





Let’s Go To The Grand (1984)

The Grand Theatre was opened in Luton’s Waller Street in 1898 by Lily Langtry and spent its early days presenting music hall and variety theatre acts to the townspeople. There were also early showings of silent films. It finally closed its doors in 1957 after a period of rather less wholesome entertainment and the building was converted into a supermarket before being demolished to make way for the Arndale Shopping Centre. A regular performer at The Grand around 1915 was a gentleman who travelled the country with an 8-ton cathedral organ and he was billed as Max Erard and His Big Organ.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 11





The Scots Of The Davis Gas Stove Company (1983)

This song tells the story of racial discrimination in the early 20th century. The Davis Gas Stove Company moved from Falkirk to Luton in 1907 bringing most of their workforce with them. They moved into an area off Dallow Road which came to be known as the ‘Scotch Colony’ and gossip was rife about all the strange things that were supposed to go on there.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issues 9 and 36





Rough Music (1999)

Rough Music – or charivari – is a cacophonous and not usually rhythmic noise played on old dustbins, tin cans, oil drums etc. and is used to accompany a number of events around the world. It is said to ward off evil spirits and is often used at weddings in some cultures. In Luton at the beginning of the 20th century it was used to drive out unsavoury characters whom, it was felt, brought shame on the neighbourhood by their unwholesome way of making a living!





Have You Got A Shilling For The Gas? (2007)

This is a song about living on a Luton estate in the 1960s and the things that happened there. The title relates to a common practice amongst householders of sending their urchins from door to door with two grubby sixpences (remember them?) and asking for a shilling in exchange to feed their coin-slot gas meter! Many people seemed incapable of planning ahead and saving them when they got them in the change from their shopping. The song refers to ‘The Dump’ which was a bit of wasteland set aside for many years for a road development, finally built in the late 1970s. The ground was used to dispose of unwanted items and was probably infested with rats but this didn’t stop it being a very popular place for the local children to play! A bit of an oddity, this song owes more to the influence of the likes of George Formby than to the tradition! Turned out nice again…




Brickmaking (1983)

Small Bedfordshire brickworks used to make bricks for the locality using the top layers of brown Oxford clay or ‘callow’. In the late 19th century vast deposits of consistent quality clay were found 40 feet below ground firstly at Peterborough and then in Mid-Bedfordshire. The brickworks which emerged meant the death knell for all the small works. The larger companies eventually combined to form The London Brick Company, the largest anywhere in the world. This song highlights the brickworkers’ plight at the time when the small works were closing. ‘Greys’ are plum coloured bricks used extensively in South Bedfordshire during the Victorian period. Something of a ‘greatest hit’, this song was used in a Berkshire Education history package; by BBC Schools Radio’s Singing Together in the 1990s; and in 2008 in BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 14





Luton / Stopsley / Kensworth / Caddington / Husborne Crawley / Wootton / Stewartby

Fuller’s Earth (1999)

Fuller’s Earth was used for ‘fulling’, a process in the woollen industry. It is also used for a binding agent in casting sand for foundry use and in the cosmetics industry. Jealously guarded fuller’s earth mines were dug 50 feet down through sand as a way to beat poverty in Aspley Guise in the 19th century. Secret locations and unsafe ground meant that rescue was almost impossible after roof cave-ins, leaving skeletons to be found during open-cast mining in the 20th century.




Aspley Guise

More Time, Gentlemen, Please (2006)

This song came about from a snippet in the 2003 CamRA Bedfordshire Beer Guide, Beer in Beds. According to the guide, The Weathercock at Aspley Guise/Woburn Sands used to have the Beds/Bucks county boundary running right through the middle of it, giving its two bars different licensing hours! I don’t know if the story is true but it makes an excellent one to use for a song!


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issues 47 & 54




The Kempston Poachers (2000)

Once of a respectable family, the Lilley brothers, like so many others at the time, were victims of the recession in farming in the 1820s. Starvation forced them into poaching to keep their families alive but they were caught in Bromham Wood. The gamekeeper gave evidence in court that they had tried to murder him although there was little to substantiate his claims. The brothers were hanged at Bedford Gaol but even commentators at the time felt that justice had been rather severe.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 30




Flitwick Chalybeate Water (1998)

Henry Stevens, one time bird stuffer, came to Flitwick in the 1880s and set about bottling and selling the water which sprang to the surface on Flitwick Moor (now an area of special scientific interest). Claiming it to have health-giving properties, he finally got his product mentioned in The Lancet in 1900, extolling its efficacy. He died shortly afterwards and the company was taken over by R Whites (of lemonade fame) who ran the works until 1938 when it finally closed. This song is a Music Hall style lampoon of the product.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issues 37 & 44




The Life & Times Of Henry Claydon, Highwayman (1999)

Henry Claydon used The Swan Inn at Flitwick (now a private house) as a hideout in the 17th century and robbed on the Watling Street together with his compatriots, William King and Cornelius Fullham. Whilst Fullham was held in Newgate Prison he gave the names of his colleagues and they were hanged in London. What happened to Fullham is unknown.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 5





Jump With The Devil (2001)

Local legend says that whilst villagers did not observe the Sabbath, the Devil tried to steal the church tower but dropped it in the churchyard a short distance from the church where it still stands today. Another story tells of the Devil seeing a man playing leapfrog in a field on the Sabbath. Seizing his chance, the Devil jumped upon his back and dragged him off through the opening ground to Hell. A stone called ‘The Devil’s Toenail’ marks the spot of ‘The Devil’s Jumps’. Both stories are combined in this song.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 33




Marston Moretaine

Marston Vale (2001)

In 2001, The Marston Vale Community Forest celebrated its 10th anniversary and this song was written to commemorate the event. It celebrates the vision and execution of a project which is restoring an industrially scarred landscape to an area of natural beauty for the enjoyment of the local and wider community and as a habitat for wild flora and fauna.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 22





Bedfordshire Ale (1983)

A song celebrating some of the old names of Bedfordshire brewing and some of the pubs that have disappeared from the county in the last couple of centuries.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 10




Bedford / Luton / Dunstable / Biggleswade

The Ivel Navigation (2000)

The River Ivel was ‘canalised’ between Tempsford & Biggleswade in the early 19th century during a period of ‘canal mania’. The new waterway brought coal and timber from coastal ports. An extension was built to Shefford just in time to meet competition with the railways, ensuring a short working life. The proposed Hitchin extension was never built. The song satirises the canal obsession of the time. This song features in Life & Times’ canal show Where The Working Boats Went.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 13



Biggleswade / Tempsford / Clifton / Shefford

To The Memory Of An Unknown Female (1992)

In 1821 an unidentified young girl was found murdered in Blackgrove Wood, near Tilsworth. No-one was brought to justice although several people thought they knew who had committed the crime. By public subscription she was buried in the churchyard and her gravestone still bears the inscription which forms the words of this song.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 45




Tilsworth May Song (1989) – words anon.

In Luton Museum there are the words to a number of May songs collected from around the county. Most are little more than a few lines and none have tunes printed with them. This traditional celebration of May Day had enough verses to allow it to be turned back into a song.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 20




The Far Wastes of Van Diemen’s Land (2001)

This is the story of James & Francis Hulatt, Robert & George Costin, Benjamin Parsons and Dickens Prigmore, all of the Felmersham/Pavenham area. Convicted of sheep stealing, Robert Costin & James Hulatt were transported to Van Diemen’s Land in April 1825. Some months later Prigmore turned King’s Evidence and Francis Hulatt, Benjamin Parsons and George Costin were charged with the same sheep stealing offence and transported to Van Diemen’s Land in August of that year. Prigmore, the man apparently behind the affair, walked free to rejoin his family. There is a strange tradition whereby the words of transportation songs are generally and incongruously fitted to cheery tunes with merry choruses. This song is no exception.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 21



Felmersham / Pavenham

The Witch Of Conger Hill (1994)

This song tells of an old custom in Toddington. It is said that if you venture up onto Conger Hill on Shrove Tuesday and put your ear to the ground you will hear an old woman or witch frying her pancakes. The custom persisted into at least the 1970s when school children were taken up onto the hill to listen. The practice ceased with the introduction of the National Curriculum! The tune of this song is used for a dance by The Outside Capering Crew who featured on the CD Grandson of Morris On.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 19




The Toddington Tour (1996)


On an evening in late July each year local Morris sides meet and dance at each of Toddington’s eight pubs in turn, starting and finishing at The Sow & Pigs where the evening finishes with music, dancing and singing in the bar, and this song has become part of the tradition. To join the revelry see the Redbornstoke Morris website for details of when this happens (see Links page) Apparently, on a pub crawl of Toddington, having a pint in each of the pubs was known as ‘The Toddington Gallon’.  Since the closure of The Nag’s Head, the tour now includes just the seven remaining pubs.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 24




The Toddington Gallon (2013)

A challenge in the village of Toddington was ‘The Toddington Gallon’, to attempt to visit and drink a pint in each of the eight pubs before going to the toilet! Whether anyone actually achieved this, I have no idea. The order of pubs visited was probably chosen as part of each competitor’s strategy. The route here is the same circular one as used in The Toddington Tour (see above). The pubs have been through many changes over the years and the descriptions here do not reflect one specific point in time. In the late 1990s or early 2000s, The Nag’s Head closed. In 2011 the Sow & Pigs and The Red Lion closed. The Bedford Arms served its last pint in early 2012. Does this mean the end for the challenge? The song stoically suggests otherwise!




Plough Monday Song (2000)


On the first normal working day for agricultural workers after Christmas, ploughboys with blackened faces paraded a mock plough around local pubs, singing, begging for money and accompanied by dancers. An ancient tradition, it was continued by the ploughboys of Thurleigh, Bedfordshire into the 20th century. Ampthill, Bedfordshire’s Redbornstoke Morris have revived a version of this tradition with dancing and a Mummers play which they perform at The Cross Keys, Pulloxhill, where this song is usually sung as part of the tradition. To join the revelry see the Redbornstoke Morris website for details of when this happens (see Links page)


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 15



Pulloxhill / Greenfield / Thurleigh

The Last Hoffmans (2009)

The Hoffman kilns worked on a rotative process. Once alight, they would continue to burn until the kiln ceased production. Although the song suggests the kilns had burned for 100 years (as some may have done), the last four surviving Hoffman kilns at Stewartby were built in the early 1960s. The end of an era came with the closure of the works in February 2008 after around 130 years’ production, and the pungent smell of the brick-kilns will no more be experienced in Bedfordshire. In some ways this is a blessing but in others, it is sad to see this way of life come to an end.





The Pits That Scar The Land (2002)

There are a number of issues in this song. In Britain we curse about the pollution caused by large industries but when the industry dies out we mourn its passing and often erect a monument in the form of an industrial museum to commemorate its existence! The brickworks in central Bedfordshire have largely come and gone and the majority of the air pollution with them. At the time of writing the song, only seven tall chimneys stood where there was once a forest of them. Another three were demolished in April 2007, leaving a final four, of which only three are attached to working kilns. We are also left with a large number of enormous pits from which the clay was extracted for 100 years and more. Some of the pits have been used for landfill, often with waste from London – a fair exchange for the bricks sent there from the local brickfields? – and others have been largely reclaimed by nature and turned, by man, into enormous lakes for recreation purposes. Certainly the view across these areas is now much improved. Another aspect of the passing of such industries is that over the generations, large communities of hard-working individuals – many in the brickworks were of Italian descent – have been built up only to be dispersed, never to return, when the works closed.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 35




Stewartby / Brogborough

Holes and Homes (2002)

The enormous ground workings, factory buildings and kilns of the west mid-Beds. brickworks rendered that part of the county an eyesore from the end of the 19th century. This music-hall style song is effectively the reverse perception of ‘If It Wasn’t For The Houses In Between’. The situation here is witnessed through the eyes of Bedfordshire people at the time when they saw large parts of their county being exported! Another possible title for this song was ‘The Holey Ground’.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 27





Bedfordshire Brickmakers (2007)

Centuries of brickmaking came to an end in February 2008 with the closure of Hanson Brick’s Stewartby plant. This song celebrates that with a naming of several of the county’s brickmakers over the years and the types of clay that they used. Stewartby will no longer manufacture bricks due to problems conforming with government emissions targets but is now to become the company’s administration headquarters. The Fletton brick industry has had an enormous effect on the county over the years economically and physically. Prior to the existence of the enormous world-record-sized works in west Bedfordshire, the companies extracting and making bricks from the gault clay in the east of the county were the largest in the area.




Stewartby / Arlesey / Ridgmont / Sandy / Bedford / Luton  / Kempston Hardwick / Elstow


The Riseley Lads’ Wager (2003)

A local story tells of a young man who was proud of his physique. When a 200lb sack of corn fell from a cart in the village, friends bet Joe Smith 6d that he couldn’t carry it ¼ of a mile up to the mill and deliver it to the miller himself. Joe took on the bet and carried the sack to the mill. The miller welcomed him and, expecting Joe to leave the sack for the hoist, jokingly remarked that he needed it on the top floor of the mill. Joe obligingly and unflinchingly climbed the 22 steep steps to the topmost floor and deposited the sack heavily on the floor, shaking the mill’s foundations in the process. He claimed his 6d and then spent it at a local hostelry, buying drinks for his friends. The old post mill in the story was demolished after it was hit by lightning in 1946.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 25




The Bridge Down The Meadow (2003)

In a field near Gravenhurst is a small bridge that spans the River Hit (formerly known as the River Clarke and Campton Brook). Beside the bridge stands an old pollarded ash tree and it was here that village children used to play up to at least the 1920s and 1930s. In those days there was less requirement for supervision so as to ensure the children’s safety and they would often stay there for most of the day in summer. The bridge holds great sentimental value for the villagers who, on seeing its slow decay over the years, decided to campaign for the bridge’s restoration and it was reopened in its restored state in early October 2003. The bridge is now known as Cow Bridge and this song was commissioned to be sung on the reopening day at the bridge site.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 26




Robin Hood of Hexton or The Pegsdon Siege (2005)

In 1811, a group of poachers led by a desperate man known as The Robin Hood of Hexton, set out to hunt in woodlands near Pegsdon, Bedfordshire; a hamlet which sits within a small peninsula that stretches into Hertfordshire between Barton and Hitchin. When they had completed their day’s work, they decided to visit the local inn but they were followed by a group of Bow Street Runners and when they arrived, the men shut themselves in, refusing to give themselves up. The Bow Street Runners waited patiently outside until it was clear that the men would stay inside for as long as they could, whereupon the Runners stacked bales of straw beside the pub’s walls and set fire to them, allowing smoke to creep into the building. The choking men knew they had to leave the building and were immediately arrested for their crime. The landlord appealed for leniency, using the phrase, Live and Let Live. The phrase became associated with the event and the building and the pub still bears the name to this day. Hexton is a small village not far from Pegsdon, just over the Hertfordshire border.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issues 40 & 49




Lime Burning (2007)

Lime Burning has been a common industry around the country. Wherever there is chalk or limestone, there has probably been lime burning. The south of the county has a wealth of chalk hidden beneath the soil and it is here, in Totternhoe, that Bedfordshire’s last lime works is still operating. In former days, before modern health and safety regulations, the job was done outside in all weathers and the dust from the burnt lime, which was quicklime, was very caustic. It burnt the skin and if it got into the eyes it could cause blindness. With added water, the lime became slaked lime which could be used for building mortar and for spreading on the land but was prone to catching fire if the quicklime began to slake during transport. The Enclosure Acts ensured that enormous amounts of lime were required, keeping the kilns burning constantly. The lime burner’s ‘shed’ in the song is a rather generous description of the roofed awning that hung over the entrance to some lime kilns.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 46




Admiral Byng (2007)

The song tells the story of Admiral John Byng and his part in the naval battle to relieve the French blockade of Minorca at the beginning of the Seven Years’ War in May 1756. His failure to drive away the French, due to the enemy’s superior firepower and his fleet of antiquated British ships, resulted in him being used as a scapegoat for the failures of the government who did not supply him with the ships and equipment he requested. He was apparently tried by a rigged jury who sentenced him to death and he was executed by firing squad on the deck of HMS Monarch on March 14th 1757. According to a Greenwich pensioner in the early 1800s, he bravely met his fate and is buried in the family vault at Southill Church. At the time Voltaire wrote in his novel Candide that the execution was an example ‘to encourage the rest’.


A group of locals have started a petition to have Byng pardoned posthumously to mark the 250th anniversary of his death. Apparently an opera, a play and a ballet are also in the making. A commemorative bottled beer is produced by Banks & Taylor of Shefford and this is available exclusively in Southill Post Office. Byng’s descendants are involved in the current campaign.

There are several broadsides on the subject of Byng’s fate but it appears that the anti-Byng feeling whipped up at the time means that they generally are not favourable to him. This new song takes the view that he was poorly treated as many - but unfortunately not enough - people at the time felt. It, too, marks the 250th anniversary of his death.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 41 & 50




The Unsuccessful Recruiting (2001)

There are a number of military recruitment songs within the tradition. In general, as these ‘establishment’ songs were intended as a way of convincing potential soldiers and sailors that there was a good life ahead serving the reigning monarch, the recruiting sergeant achieved his goal of persuading men to enlist for the army or navy.  Often the alternative to enlisting was being press-ganged in any case. In this traditional idiom song the tables are turned as the recruiting officer tries unsuccessfully to persuade a strong-willed Wixamtree farmer to enlist. All the reasons given for joining (much the same as in any other recruiting song) are answered sharply with good reasons against.



Wixamtree Hundred

The Bonelace Weaver (1984)

Lace weaving was common across Bedfordshire. Some claim it was introduced by Catherine of Aragon during her stay at Ampthill Castle but there is apparently little or no real evidence to support this story. The trade was, of course, susceptible to the fickleness of fashion which, together with machine manufacture, saw the end of the tradition of home lace making. The term ‘Bonelace’ was coined because the first pins used in lacemaking were made of animal bone. Ampthill’s Ladies’ Morris side commemorate this local cottage industry in their name, Bedfordshire Lace.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issues 18, 43 & 53



The County

The Bedfordshire Clanger (1986)

This local delicacy is similar in concept to the Cornish pasty but goes one stage further. The pasty gives a complete meal in one package but contains only the first course! The Bedfordshire Clanger is a suet based pastry with meat at one end and jam at the other and was the original ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’. Great care would have to be exercised when meeting the join between the two courses! In recent years, Gunns bakery of Biggleswade and Sandy have produced a take-away snack version of the clanger with pork and apple and this culinary delicacy was celebrated in a television programme with Rick Stein in 2002. Towards the end of 2006 it was also reported in a national newspaper supplement that the clanger is one of our country’s most endangered regional foods. This song features in a Life & Times school show as an item about regional recipes and hopefully it will bring it to the attention of the new generation of children so that their curiosity may be aroused enough to see a revival in its fortunes. This song is also now used in a short film entitled ‘The Bedfordshire Clanger’ by Five Feet Films of Dunstable, Beds. See




Sailor’s Lament (1992)

This song started out as an attempt to try and write a fictional story about Bedfordshire and the sea! Although some traditional sea songs - with no obvious local connections - have been collected in Bedfordshire, this is a fairly unlikely idea, which is exactly why I wanted to write it. Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction and it turned out that this story was actually very similar to the true story now retold in the song Charles Wells & Josephine Grimbley but at the time Sailor’s Lament was written I had not heard the story of Charles Wells.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 6




Christmas 1914 (2006)

Whilst watching a BBC TV programme in 2005 about ‘The Last Tommy’ - the remaining survivors who fought in the First World War - they related the story of the Christmas Truce in 1914 when the soldiers climbed out of the trenches, exchanged gifts of chocolate, whisky, tobacco & cigars and even played football in no-man’s-land using makeshift balls made of string, cardboard boxes etc. What struck me as particularly interesting was that the narrator told us that the Germans beat the Bedfordshire Regiment 2-1 which immediately brought a well-known story of the time right home to the county. A song had to follow but it took its time in emerging. The result is something that sounds rather as though it belongs in the music halls of the time with a light-hearted look at the peaceful interval between hostilities but still has some pointed statements to make. Click here for a website where you will find some fascinating eye-witness accounts of the Christmas Truce from those who were there at the time. The last ex-soldier to have taken part in the truce, and the oldest man in Scotland, died early in 2006 at the age of 109. This song was accepted into the collection of London’s Imperial War Museum.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 55




We Used To Plait Straw Here As Well (2007)

There are many industries that have come and gone from Bedfordshire; some large, some small. Some still hang on by the tiniest of threads. Despite coming right up to date, this song celebrates many of the things for which county used to be famous and mourns their passing in a light-hearted style akin to that of the Music Hall. The industries of old Bedfordshire celebrated include the brickworks; brewing; aircraft, airship, car, lorry, domestic appliance, lace and hat manufacturing as well as probably the earliest case of bottling water for sale. The county was also home to W H Allen who made the engines for the ill-fated Titanic. Quite why Bedfordshire should be producing ship engines is difficult to imagine! The refrain should be sung almost as an afterthought following the verse.


Song Printed in Bedfordshire County Life Magazine Issue 57





Recorded on Charivari  (Life & Times)

Wixamtree WIX 051 (2001)




Recorded on Strawplait & Bonelace  (Life & Times)

Fellside FE043 (1985)

Recorded on Where The Working Boats Went  (Life & Times)

Wixamtree WIX 052 (2009)





Recorded on Marston Vale  (Life & Times with the choir of Marston Vale Middle School, Stewartby, Beds.)

Community Project CD (2009)








The Stories Behind Shropshire Iron









Abraham Darby (1982)

Abraham Darby arrived in Coalbrookdale in 1708 and founded the Coalbrookdale Company in 1709 using a rebuilt furnace which had been left derelict by its previous owner. From the beginning he used coke as a fuel and revolutionised the iron industry, paving the way for what we now know as the Industrial Revolution.




The Simple Life of a Quaker (1985)

The Darby family were Quakers, members of the Society of Friends, a strict religious sect founded by George Fox in the 17th century. At that time Quakers lived very strict lives based around work, and pleasure was gained through being industrious and doing something well rather than by spending time in an ‘unprofitable’ manner.




Success to All These Learned Men (1985)

The ingenuity of the Darby and Reynolds families kept Coalbrookdale at the centre of world innovation for many years. Abraham Darby II set up new systems to improve efficiency in his ironworks. William Reynolds was considered to be one of the most able of the ironmasters of 18th century Shropshire.




Lament For Darby (1985)

Abraham Darby II died in March 1763 and was buried in the Quaker burial ground overlooking Coalbrookdale. A more peaceful spot amidst the hustle and bustle of the dale would have been difficult to find.




Boys of Bedlam (1984)

The Madeley Wood furnaces, or Bedlam Furnaces as they were known, were built right on the banks of the Severn in 1757 by the Madeley Wood Company. Major flooding could have caused a massive explosion if the water had been allowed to reach the furnaces, The Great Flood of 1795 being their greatest test.




John Wilkinson (1981) – words anon.

John Wilkinson was one of the most successful of all the ironmasters, owning ironworks all over the country. He was also one of the most colourful of characters and it appears that most of his contemporaries did not share the same view of him that is expressed in this song!




A Furnaceman’s Life (1986)

People were attracted to working in Coalbrookdale by the comparatively high wages for the time and workers’ housing provided by the Darbys. A grain shortage spawned food riots in 1756 by a group called ‘The Levellers’  and the Darbys then bought local farms and mills to maintain local stocks of food. They even bought a public house! John Wilkinson paid his workers in tokens, exchangeable for goods in his company’s shops.




The Bridge of Iron (1983)

The Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale, the world’s first, was cast in 1779. The first ribs were put in place on July 2nd of that year and the bridge was fully opened to traffic in 1781. People came from all over the country to see it and The Tontine Hotel was built to accommodate visitors. The partnership building the bridge included the unlikely alliance of Abraham Darby III and John Wilkinson. This song was sung at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in 1999 by John Kirkpatrick.




Colebrook Dale (1981)

Coalbrookdale is a strange mixture of industry and rural landscape. The images in this song are inspired by the painting Coalbrookdale by Night by P. J. de Loutherbourg, 1801. This much-reproduced, dramatic picture of the Bedlam Furnaces was used for the cover of the LP Shropshire Iron. The original hangs in the Science Museum in London. This is the only song ever to have been printed in Joe Smith’s Midlands Folk Diary and it also appeared in the NWFFC Newsletter.




The Pride of Englishmen (1985)

By the 19th century all the technological advancements achieved in Coalbrookdale had been surpassed by other purpose-built ironworks around the country. Though no longer the finest works in the country, the company could look with pride at all the new ironworks which could not have existed without the ingenuity of the Darby and Reynolds families.





All above Shropshire songs recorded on Shropshire Iron

(Life & Times) Fellside FE071 (1989)







The Stories Behind

Where The Working Boats Went




The Canals






Narrowboat Silhouette

The Duke of Bridgewater (2008)

Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, owned large estates in Lancashire and, following a broken engagement with Elizabeth Gunning, he buried himself in his work, employing millwright, James Brindley, to engineer the first canal of the Industrial Revolution between Worsley, Manchester and Salford in 1759. The canal reached Manchester in 1764 and halved the price of coal to the blossoming industry of the time.




Lock Keepers of the Waterways (2008)

The lock keepers were invaluable on the canals. Their main job was maintenance of the locks and the surrounding canal but they were sometimes called on to collect tolls; look after reservoirs and pumps; and police their areas of the canal for drunken boaters and thieves. Sometimes they assisted in the passage of boats but were not paid for this. Accounts often seem to suggest they were cheerful characters, happy to pass the time of day with passing boatmen.

All the lock keepers in the song were genuine people from the latter part of the 19th century.




Roses & Castles (2008)

No-one quite knows why the traditional painting on narrowboats always seems to include roses and castles. This song offers one possible explanation. It is said that the boatmen painted the things they saw along the canals but similar traditional scenes are to be found on boats in Holland, Germany & Scandinavia and as far away as Turkey and Bangladesh. There have also been suggested parallels with Romany art.




The Row Between The Boaters (2008)

Different types of narrowboat have been used on the canals as technology has progressed. Some early wooden, horse-drawn boats, however, were still being used at the end of the canals’ commercial use in the 20th century. Steam driven boats were never very popular because of the cargo space lost to the large engine. Diesel boats – many with the popular Swedish Bolinder single-cylinder engine – were the common form of canal transport in its later days.


baccering – letting the horse work alone, pulling the boat         

butty – an unpowered cargo boat towed behind the main boat




Until The Cut Runs Dry (2008)

There are canals all over Britain that have been left abandoned when they could not compete with the railways. Some lasted well into the 20th century before finally succumbing; the 1950s being the time when canals seemed to be most likely to fade away entirely into history. In Bedfordshire, The Ivel Navigation is an example of such a lost canal. This song is as much about derelict canals today as those that could be seen in the 1950s.




Where The Working Boats Went (2008)

After a history of conveying cargoes and then decline in the 1950s which almost saw the complete abandonment of the canal system, today Britain’s canals are mainly used for leisure although some cargoes are still carried. With congested roads and concerns over pollution, we may yet see a renaissance in our canals with cargoes once more being carried in places where it is suitable to do so.




The Boatmen’s Strike (2013)

On August 13th 1923 the boatmen working for Fellows, Morton & Clayton went on strike over a proposed 6.5% cut in their meagre wages due to competition from the railways. The Grand Junction and Oxford Canals at Braunston were blockaded and Ernest Bevin, Harry Gosling and Sam Brooks of the fledgling TGWU administered the strike which went on for 14 weeks and won at least some concession on the original swingeing cuts proposed. The company never made a loss in its history, including during this time, until the year it finally closed. This song was written for a 90th anniversary commemoration event beside the canal at Braunston.




Recorded on Where The Working Boats Went  (Life & Times)

Wixamtree WIX 052 (2009)




Find the above canal songs at



·       On a canal theme, see also THE B&MK,           A WORKING BOATIE MAN and THE IVEL NAVIGATION in the section above on Bedfordshire songs.









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                            Graeme Meek