As promised, here’s some background to ‘The Trial of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act’. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly as much info here as there was for ‘Holly Ho’ (click here to confront that juggernaut), or even as much as ‘Who Hung the Monkey?’. Still, it’s a great song from a great story, and it’s worth a look. Get yourself comfy, have a listen and then read on.

When I finished the recording and initial promotion for my Brummie album, MidlifeI didn’t really have many ideas for what to do next. As I mentioned in my recent blogpost for ‘Holly Ho’, I went back to Roy Palmer’s ‘Songs of the Midlands‘ again, just to see what I might’ve overlooked, and I did the same with Jon Raven’s ‘Urban & Industrial Songs of the Black Country and Birmingham‘.

The latter is a more involved, academic tome, and as such isn’t a particularly browse-friendly source of songs. Many of them are also vast in terms of verses and density. ‘The Wednesbury Cocking’ is one such example. 13 verses eight lines a piece, one of which contains the word ‘beshet’ to describe a particularly messy accident involving a large man and his undergarments. Let’s not go there.

However, what I love about Raven’s book is the wealth of wonderfully named songs it contains. Boy, did our ancestors like a lengthy, very specific title. There are some corkers in there, including, ‘A New Song on the Opening of the Birmingham and Liverpool Railway’, ‘Lines on the Great Fight Between Tom Sayers Champion of England and Bob Brettle of Birmingham’, and the unforgettable, ‘New Song Upon the Gallant Fight Which Took Place on Tuesday May 12 1846 Between Paddy Gill and Norley For £500’.

All of these deserve to be recorded one day. Consider that a threat.

In early February, one such title tempted me further. ‘The Trial of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act.’ Such a serious-sounding beast. I was just about to skip it entirely when a verse caught my eye.

Then Bill he says to me “it’s hard,
Though it’s not the fine I so regard
But with these new laws we’re at a pass
Where a man can’t chastise his own ass

Now, this one sounded too good to be true. Such rhyming skills! I made a coffee, stuck the heater on in the office and got down to work.

The Trial of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act – some history

The story of Bill Burn (a true story, I might add) has been dealt with in a couple of artistic ways, which would suggest that it caught the public’s imagination back in the 1820s. Since we’re some 200 years on from then, however, it might be worth a quick recap.

The song opens to find the narrator, a rather supercilious, persistent character, happening across Bill Burn, a veg-stall holder, hitting his donkey in the street. Not the nicest thing to do to one’s donkey, I grant you, but probably not worth the efforts that the narrator goes to in the subsequent verses.

He begins by haranguing Bill until his heckles are up, and then continuing to do so even when Bill retaliates with violence. A punch-up ensues and the police arrive, which should be the end of things… but this narrator likes to have the last word. He continues to do so throughout a court scene, in which the donkey is brought in to testify, and continues mercilessly right up until the point that Bill gets his comeuppance. In short, the narrator is a dick.

Jon Raven doesn’t say a huge amount about the song’s origins, other than that it was a broadside published in Dudley by G. Walters at some point in the 1820s. He gives us a little context, however, explaining that Martin’s Act (officially “An Act to prevent the cruel and improper Treatment of Cattle”) was a law passed in 1822 following the work of Richard Martin (known in the press and to the public as ‘Humanity Dick’), an animal-rights-campaigning MP who wished to bring an end to cruelty against cattle. The bill is now seen as a forerunner to the Cruelty to Animals Act.

In 1827, six Dudley men were tried under Martin’s Act for beating a bull (possibly bull-baiting). They were subsequently acquitted – bulls had somehow been overlooked on Richard Martin’s list of cattle to be protected, and were so considered fair game.

Martin’s Act led also to the world’s first known conviction for animal cruelty, and it’s this story that ‘Bill Burn’, both the song and the painting at the top of this page, deal with. Richard Martin brought the prosecution against Bill Burn, who did indeed bring his donkey to court. Does this mean that the narrator in the song is intended to be Martin himself? It’s not clear. It would certainly add to the satire if Humanity Dick was found beating men in the street in retaliation for their mistreatment of donkeys.

The Trial of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act – the melody

Unfortunately, I was unable to find the melody intended for the song, and while Jon Raven commonly suggests an alternative in such cases, here there was nothing. I don’t really consider myself a tunesmith, but the song was simply too good to leave in the book, so I pulled something together.

This meant adjusting the lines slightly to give the song a chorus and to make sure it scanned pleasingly enough. I’ve tried to keep it as intact as possible. I hope you don’t mind.

The Trial of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act – the lyrics

If I had a donkey that wouldn’t go
Do you think I’d wallop him no, no, no!
By gentle means I’d try you see
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty
If all had been like me in fact
There’d be no occasion for Martin’s Act
To prevent dumb animals from being whacked
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty 

Now why I mentioned this, this morn
I see’d that this here chap, Bill Burn
As he was out crying out carrots and greens
He’s walloping his animal with all his means
Walloping his animal with all his means
He’s hit him over the head and thighs
Which brought the tears into my eyes
At last my blood began to rise
And so I says to he… 

If I had a donkey that wouldn’t go
Do you think I’d wallop him no, no, no!
By gentle means I’d try you see
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty 

Then Bill he said to me perhaps
You’re one of these ‘ere Martin’s chaps
Always seeking an occasion
For to lay some information
For to lay some information
But this I stoutly did deny
So Bill he up and blacked my eye
And I replied as I let fly
I just hates all cruelty
I just hates all cruelty 

If I had a donkey that wouldn’t go
Do you think I’d wallop him no, no, no!
By gentle means I’d try you see
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty 

As Bill and I we broke the peace
Up comes to us the new police
Who marched us off as sure as fate
Afore the sitting magistrate
There to see the magistrate
I told his worship all the spree
And so to prove my veracity
I begged as how he’d the animal see
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty 

If I had a donkey that wouldn’t go
Do you think I’d wallop him no, no, no!
By gentle means I’d try you see
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty 

Bill’s donkey then was brought to court
Which caused, of course, a deal of sport
He cocked his ears and dropped his jaws
As though he was ready to plead his cause
For was ready to please his cause
I proved I’d been uncommonly kind
And his worship and I were of a mind
The donkey got a verdict and Bill got fined
That’s what comes of cruelty
That’s what comes of cruelty 

Then Bill he says to me “it’s hard,
Though it’s not the fine I so regard
But with these new laws we’re at a pass
Where a man can’t chastise his own ass
No man can chastise his own ass
His worship, silent, shut the book
And Billy off his donkey took
Although he gave me such a look
And so I said to he… 

If I had a donkey that wouldn’t go
Do you think I’d wallop him no, no, no!
By gentle means I’d try you see
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty
Why? ‘Cause I hates all cruelty