A song from a Littleport man
A local song illustrated by Year 4 pupils
At their performance on 26th November 2013 the pupils of years 4, 5 and 6 at Millfield Primary School sang a very scary song which was written down in September 1911 from the singing of Yarrow Gill, a Littleport man. Mr Gill, a farm labourer, had fallen on hard times during his later life and in his 70s had gone to live at Ely Union. The Union was another name for the workhouse. The building is still there in Ely, at Tower Court, but is now converted into privately owned flats. Yarrow Gill, along with several other inmates was visited by Cecil Sharp, to whom he sang many songs.
One of the most important songs from a folklorist’s point of view was False Lamkin. This is a very long song which describes a burglary which culminates in the murder of the wife and baby of the householder.
Mary Humphreys, who taught them the song, asked the pupils of Year 4 to draw the characters. You can see some of their work alongside this article.
The Story of the Song
Lamkin creeps into the house when the Lord has gone on a visit to London and persuades the Lady of the house to come down to the nursery by stabbing one of her babies with a silver pin. He demands the youngest daughter, Bessie, as a ransom for the life of the Lady and says that she will be made to catch her own heart’s blood in a silver basin. Fortunately for Bessie she is able to raise the alarm and her father rides to the rescue, but not soon enough for his Lady or the baby. False Lamkin gets his just desserts by being hung on the gallows and then burnt.
The Folklore of the Ballad
We may wonder why such a horrific deed was done, and in particular why some of the more ritualistic elements of the killing occurred. Lamkin’s fate is also puzzling, until we realise that witches were very much feared in earlier times. Death by burning was a common sentence for a witch in the Middle Ages. It may even have been considered a sensible course of action to destroy the body of a witch by burning after hanging in case the witch came back to haunt the living. Stabbing with a silver pin then catching the blood of an innocent in a silver bowl and using it to bathe in was thought to be a cure for leprosy in times gone by. Leprosy was a very common disease in earlier centuries. There is a very well preserved Leper Chapel in Barnwell, Cambridge .
The original notation of the False Lamkin song can be found in Cecil Sharp’s notebooks which are held in Clare College Library, Cambridge. There is a digitised image available from the Full English Website of the EFDSS here.
There is a printable version of the song at the end of this article.