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The Blind Beggar
(Laws N27; Roud 132)
Martin Howley
Fanore, north west Clare
Recorded in singer's home, July 1976

Carroll Mackenzie Collection




Martin Howley

Oh there was a blind beggar in Bethelem’s [Bethnal’s] Green.
He had but one daughter, she was comely to be seen.
She was comely, well featured in every degree,
And the name that they use call her was Bonny Betsy.

It was early one morning as Betsy arose,
She says: ‘Father and mother, I now must get clothes.
To seek out my fortune where ever it be.
And the east and west is granted to bonny Betsy.’

Sure as Betsy was walking along the highway,
She met with an angel whom those words to her did say:
‘It’s in the king’s palace your entertainment shall be,
And it’s happy’s the man that get bonny Betsy.’

And the first that came to court Betsy was a merchant so fair.
He came to court her as she [he] declared:
‘My gold and my jewels I’ll give into thee,
If you grant me your favour my bonny Betsy.’

And the next that came to court Betsy was a squire so bright.
He came for to court her late at night.
‘My gold and my jewels I’ll give into thee,
If you marry me, my bonny Betsy.’

And the next who came to court Betsy was a captain so fair.
He came for to court her as she [he] declared:
‘Those ships that sail over I’ll give into thee,
If you tell me your father, my bonny Betsy.’

‘Oh my father is a poor man, he’s easily known.
He is a blind beggar from Bethelem’s [Bethnal’s] town.
His marks and his tokens and to you I shall tell,
He is led by a dog with a chain and a bell.’

‘Hold-on,’ said the merchant, ‘For I will not have.’
‘Yes, yes said the squire, and I will not take.’
‘Hold on,’ said the captain, ‘Let the beggarman agree,
And you’re welcome to me, my bonny Betsy.’

Oh then, here spoke the beggar abroad at the door:
‘Not slight, not my daughter although she is poor.
She is not interested in jewel or in pearls,
But I’ll have spangles put on her, my bonny brown girl.’

Oh then up comes the captain with ten thousand pounds,
Up comes the beggar with ten thousand more.
Up comes the captain with the end of his store,
And up comes the beggar with ten thousand more.

And when they were married and well settled down,
He gave her twenty guineas to buy her a gown.
The tenderest creature that ever was seen,
As the beggarman’s daughter from Bethelem’s [Bethnal’s] Green.

“’The Rarest Ballad that Ever was Seen of the Blind Beggar of Bednall Gree’ appeared as a broadside in 1672, was entered in the Stationers' Register of London three years later and was still being sold as a street ballad in Ireland in the 1940s. Cahersiveen Traveller Mikeen McCarthy named it as one of the songs he sold around the fairs and markets of Kerry up to that time – he described it as the oldest ballad he knew. The BBC recorded the song in Co Leitrim in the 1950s and more recently it turned up in Inishowen, Co Donegal. It was very popular among the Travellers we recorded; we heard it from four singers. When Mikeen McCarthy sang it for us he was camped just off Whitechapel Road, East London, within walking distance of The Blind Beggar public house, once notorious for its connections with the East London gangsters, The Kray Twins. The pub still bore the sign of a blind man being led by a dog.

According to Bishop Percy and the estimable John Timbs, this ballad was written during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). In the ‘Reliques of Ancient Poetry’, Percy gives it in two parts, 67 verses in all, the story contained in this version coming at the end of part one. Timbs quotes 16 verses, most of them from Percy's second part, which relates the uprising of the barons against Henry III and the death of their leader, Sir Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester in the battle of Evesham (1265). His son Henry 'Was felled by a blow he received in the fight, A blow that forever deprived him of sight'; and lay on the battlefield among the dead until found by 'a baron's faire daughter'. She carried him from the field, nursed him, married him and became the mother of 'lovely Bessie'. This explains the wealth of Bessie's father, who adopted the disguise of a beggar to avoid discovery by his enemies. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) mentions dining at the Bind Beggar’s house in his diaries
."

Reference:
Reliques of Ancient Poetry, Thomas Percy, 1765.
Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, John Timbs, Frank Warne & Co (undated)
Jim Carroll


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