Last updated on October 9, 2020
The brutal murder of Mary Ashford scandalised the nation in the early 1800s. By the 1840s/50s, the incident had found its way into song – in this case a murder ballad published by broadside printers, Jackson & Son (late, J. Russell), in Moor Street, Birmingham. This blog post is about how the song came to my attention and how I ended up recording it with Katherine Priddy.
In 2018, I released my album of Midlands songs, Midlife. Shortly after its release, I received an email from Pam Bishop, the composer of the melody to “The Brave Dudley Boys” and a key figure in the revival of folk music in Birmingham during the 60s and beyond. During my subsequent album tour, I performed in Birmingham and took the chance to visit Pam at her home in Kings Heath. There, she shared with me a large part of her collection of Birmingham-related folk library, and also mentioned that she’d been in touch with the widow of Roy Palmer, a folk song collector and scholar who specialised in traditional songs from Birmingham and the Midlands.
At her suggestion, I contacted Mrs Palmer, who said she had some of her husband’s work to share with me. The following week, I received a sheath of songs in the post, all of which came from 19th century Birmingham. 30 songs were included – a minuscule fraction of what Roy estimated came out of Birmingham during that period.
“In 1800,” he writes in the introduction, “there were no ballad printers in [Birmingham]; nor were there any in 1885. Yet between those dates, some 40 printers came and went, and produced literally millions of ballads. Some were in business for a short time only, and issued only a handful of titles. Others, such as Wood, Russell, Bloomer or Pratt, worked for anything from 10 to 40 years, and issued as many as 200 titles or more.”
Some of the songs in Roy’s sheath were titles I’d seen included in his published books, or perhaps in other books dealing with the old songs of the Midlands. But one or two were entirely new to me (if not to people who spend their days scouring The Bodleian Collection).
It seems that Roy’s reason for collating this smattering of songs had to do with his work at the City of Birmingham Education Department, as he writes, “It is hoped that the examples of street ballads given will lead students to the various collections of further material.” Put together in 1979, I can’t say how well his students lived up to his hopes at the time, but over 40 years later I found myself willingly directed down several fascinating rabbit holes. Thanks, Mr Palmer.
Discovering Mary Ashford
As will aways be the case with a collection of songs put together by someone else, not every piece gripped me. I can’t say I’ve ever shared the fascination for boxing songs (depicting legendary boxing matches) that turn up in several books by Roy Palmer and his contemporaries. Likewise, “A New Song On The Opening Of The Birmingham And Liverpool Railway”, while undoubtedly useful as a historical document, seems a little too trainspotter for me to get emotionally involved with. My apologies to any trainspotters reading this. I mean no harm.
I’ve always been attracted to songs that depict the foibles and eccentricities of everyday people, whether in traditional songs or elsewhere. Ray Davies, Morrissey (in his heyday), Paul McCartney, Damon Albarn – these are the people that I grew up listening to and obsessing over. I suppose I’m attracted to songwriters that deal in a kind of portraiture or reportage, and that spills over into my interest in traditional songs and broadside ballads, too. I’m drawn to songs like “The Trial Of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act“, “Colin’s Ghost” or “John Hobbs” for their depictions of the slightly ridiculous, faulty human behaviour that shows no sign of diminishing.
In the case of Mary Ashford (or “Mary Ashford’s Tragedy” [Roud V9975] to give it its full title), it’s the reportage that lured me in. I remember being told, quite early on, that folk songs could be seen as a form of news transmission, and the ballad of Mary Ashford certainly seems to fit with that description. Despite being sung from the perspective of the wronged ghost, it’s as much a newspaper article as it is a song. And, while several of Roy’s lengthy ballads held little attraction, this one leapt from the page in a way that had me wrapt.
“Mary Ashford’s Tragedy” is 13 verses long, but each one is vital to the story. I found no reason, and felt no need, to edit it down from the original text. While many broadsides are often dismissed as doggerel, I have a feeling this particular songwriter must’ve been having a good day when “Mary Ashford’s Tragedy” offered itself up as subject matter. Take, for example, the middle section of the following verse. It is positively eerie.
To the fields then with him I with innocence went,
Where his flatt’ry did all prove in vain.
While the moon herself shrouds
Behind the black clouds
And the screechowl did scream
A most ominous theme,
But I left him to go home again.
Similarly, this verse is simply dripping with vengeful, otherworldly venom…
Exterpate the wretch, if the laws won’t revenge
And him from society spurn;
May remorse gnaw his soul,
And his time quickly roll;
Till, without a reprieve,
Hell doth him receive;
And no human breast for him mourn.
Recording a song with no tune
As Roy Palmer notes in the introduction to this short collection, at least half the songs he included had no known tunes. This is often the case with broadside ballads: you may get a line printed somewhere on the page that says, “To be sung to the tune of such and such”… but that, of course, requires that you know said tune in order to progress. In some cases, the recommended tune may be lost in the mists of time, so you’re ultimately left wondering what else can be done.
A good example of this would be “The Sausage Man“, which I’ve recorded a new version of as the B-side to “Mary Ashford’s Tragedy” (let’s call it light relief). It took some time to track the melody down, but – with the help of Pam Bishop – we got there in the end, and so the song could be performed using most of the tune the songwriter originally intended.
In the case of “Mary Ashford’s Tragedy”, no tune was recommended, and so I decided to write one. It didn’t take me long. It’s a simple enough melody, my intention being to let the lyrics do the talking. No need to distract from the real substance here.
Katherine Priddy as Mary Ashford’s ghost
A far more difficult decision was how to approach the song, given the subject matter. In the past, I’ve happily sung songs that come from the female perspective, but they’re usually the likes of “Colin’s Ghost” – silly trifles that don’t really matter either way. However, the tale of Mary Ashford and her shocking demise felt wrong coming directly from me. This is a brutal murder ballad sung by the ghost of a young woman who was raped and drowned at the hands of a man who ultimately got away with it. This felt like a song that needed singing, but had to be performed delicately by the right person.
At the beginning of lockdown, I recorded one of those “COVID Collaborations” with Katherine Priddy, Lukas Drinkwater and Jon Nice. Our version of Nick Drake’s “Northern Sky” was an absolute pleasure to record, and for a brief period we toyed with doing an album’s worth of Nick Drake covers. It wasn’t to be, but it meant that we all became comfortable working with each other. (A further collaboration with Lukas Drinkwater will come out in the next few months.)
Since Katherine and I are both from the same neck of the woods (approximately 5 miles from each other in South Birmingham), it made sense that she might be interested in taking on the voice of Mary Ashford for the recording I was making. And sure enough, she jumped at the chance, originally recording her vocal to a very simple guitar line in May. I think she got quite into the research side of things, too, telling me that she spent some considerable time reading up on the history. It’s quite something to be singing the words to a song that may not have been sung in over 160 years, but it becomes even more powerful when you find yourself giving voice to a woman so severely wronged and largely forgotten.
I can’t thank Katherine enough for the work she did on this recording. While I wrote the tune, the performance is all hers. Those exquisite ornamentations, as well as the anger and pain that you can hear in her lines… that’s all Katherine Priddy. In fact, my original plan had been to keep the song as a simple vocal and acoustic guitar piece, but on hearing what Katherine recorded, I knew I had to turn things up a notch. I’ve been tinkering ever since – 4 months of gradual production. I could’ve kept going, but at some point you have to know when to stop. And so the ballad of Mary Ashford sees the light of day this week, 203 years after her murder.
Mary Ashford: A little history
You could look at the Wikipedia page on the case of Mary Ashford, but Roy Palmer’s notes tell the tale succinctly enough. And since we’re in debt to Roy and Mrs Palmer for my knowledge of this tale in the first place, I’ll let him explain it to you.
“Early in the morning of 27th May, 1817, the body of a young woman was found in a pool off Pen’s Mill Lane, Erdington, [Birmingham]. Mary Ashford, for that was the name of the victim, had been raped and strangled. She had attended a dance at Tyburn House (which still exists, though it is now a private residence), and had spent much of the time in the company of Abraham Thornton, a farmer’s son from Castle Bromwich. Thornton had accompanied her to Erdington after the dance, and footprints near the fatal pool were found to match his. He was arrested and tried, but acquitted largely on doubts over times: apparently some people still did not adhere to standard time. He was nevertheless widely thought to be guilty, and public opinion forced him to emigrate to America, where he died in about 1860.”
Roy Palmer goes on to point out that a number of ballads dealing with Mary Ashford’s tragedy have survived, in which her ghost gives, “what purport to be the true facts of the case”.
An interesting side note: when Abraham Thornton was acquitted, Mary Ashford’s brother, William, launched an appeal. Thornton was rearrested and subsequently claimed the right to “Trial by Battle”, meaning that the two would fight to the death and let the fates decide. “Trial by Battle” had not been used in the British legal system for centuries, but, amazingly, the judge ruled that its use be permitted in this case. William Ashford declined, and Abraham Thornton was once again acquitted. A mere two years later, “Trial by Battle” was abolished, meaning that had Thornton got his way, this case would’ve been the last to have been settled in that way.
While Mary Ashford did not get the justice her ghost felt she deserved, Thornton did indeed find himself, “from society spurned”. Attempting to sail from Liverpool to New York, his notoriety was such that his fellow passengers demanded he be put ashore. He eventually found his way to the States, leaving Liverpool on September 30th, 1818. As Roy Palmer noted above, he is thought to have died in Baltimore in 1830, having married and fathered children.
And so, it is with some bitterness that I end on a note about the final resting place of Mary Ashford herself. As if to underline the fact that some things never change, this young woman was buried under a murder stone that appears to place the blame for her demise firmly at her own door, for having “incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement, without proper protection”. You’ll find her grave in the Holy Trinity Churchyard, Sutton Coldfield, should you wish to pay your respects.
Mary Ashford’s Tragedy – Lyrics
Mary Ashford’s grim ghost proclaims the sad tale
“I’m ravish’d and murdered,” she cries
“Tho’ it can’t be denied
Yet will no friend weep
And must justice still sleep
Must my cause then be never more tried?”
“I was a pure virgin, young blooming and gay.
Went blithely with health to a dance
Where a villain stood by
And on me cast an eye
Resolved to try
To debauch me or die
With flat’ry and smiles did advance”
“To the fields then with him I with innocence went
Where his flat’ry did all prove in vain
While the moon herself shrouds
Behind the black clouds
And the screech-owl did scream
A most ominous theme
But I left him to go home again”
“With an innocent heart I went tripping along
It was morn, yet looked gloomy around
Tho’ the month is was May
Yet no lark on the spray
Nor from the green bushes
Nor linnets, nor thrushes
Did send fourth as usual a sound”
“My path it lay near to an old blasted oak
From when seem’d to issue a groan
When from near the tree
The villain seized me
I struggled with screams
Cold sweat ran in streams
And I made the fields ring with my moan”
“I struggled and got myself free from his hold
And ran o’er the rough plowed ground
But my running was vain
For he caught me again
I sorely did cry
None to help me was nigh
So his lewdness my heart-strings did wound”
“He effected his will while I fell in a swoon
But I arose from the ground
I vowed that he
Should hang on a tree
For ravishing me
To no bribe would agree
So he threw me right into the pond”
“I breathed cold water instead of sweet air
‘Til my soul from my body did part
Now by heaven I’m urged
‘Til my sins are all purged
To hover beside
The pond where I died
Then to glory flew with a pure heart”
“All of you that have breasts, that have feelings for me
Pray pity my poor murdered fate
See my blood on the ground
How it’s scattered around
See the footsteps I made
My fate to evade
And revenge the dire cause I relate”
“Exterpate the wretch, if the laws won’t revenge
And him from society spurn
May remorse gnaw his soul
And his time quickly roll
‘Til without a reprieve
Hell doth him receive
And no human breast for him mourn”
“Now all you young virgins that bloom as I bloom’d
Keep at home in your proper employ
Ne’er in dancing delight
Nor to be out at night
Nor in the fields roam
With a stranger from home
Lest you meet a fate wretched as I”
“And I beg for my sake that you’ll visit the pond
Once a year, dressed in mourning array
In the fine month of May
Drop a tear and then say
Mary Ashford died here
By a villain severe
Who could not her virtue betray”
“If a stone as a shrine should be raised in my name
And a verse put my mem’ry to keep
Let the words by but short
Only this to import
Mary Ashford lies here
Whose fate was severe
Was ravished and murdered – laws sleep”
Oh my goodness! Jon, what a discovery! Am very moved by the story; the way you’ve set it to music, and the hauntingly beautiful way Katherine Priddy sings Mary’s words.
I think it’s breath-taking. Thanks for finding this story and for creating the music that communicates it so well. Agree about the poetry of the way the story’s written. Seems to me you’ve uncovered something so special and powerful. I think it’s unforgettable. Thankyou.
Thanks Carol. Kind words indeed.
Very lovely Jon – great tune and arrangement which seems simple but holds the attention and melds with Katherine’s super interpretation of the story.
Thanks Rob! Glad you enjoyed it.
Thank you for putting this tragic story to such a beautiful song. My husband is a descendant of Mary’s and her story was always known about in their family but deserves to never be forgotten.
Thank you so much for letting me know. It’s incredibly moving when I hear things like this.