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Who Killed Cock Robin?

British Folk Songs of Crime and Punishment

An entertaining and enlightening compendium at the intersection of two great British folk traditions: song and encounters with the law.
At the heart of traditional songs rest the concerns of ordinary people. And folk throughout the centuries have found themselves entangled with the law: abiding by it, breaking it, and being caught and punished by it. Who Killed Cock Robin? is an anthology of just such songs compiled by one of Britain’s most senior judges, Stephen Sedley, and best-loved folk singers, Martin Carthy. The songs collected here are drawn from manuscripts, broadsides, and oral tradition. They are grouped according to the various categories of crime and punishment, from Poaching to the Gallows. Each section contains a historical introduction, and every song is presented with a melody, lyrics, and an illuminating commentary that explores its origins and sources. Together, they present unique, sometimes comic, often tragic, and always colorful insight into the past, while preserving an important body of song for future generations.

216 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2021

Music: General Music

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"Who Killed Cock Robin? explores the origins and history of ancient ballads dealing with the wilder sides of life. . . . There are some constants—such as murder, theft, and prison—between the ancient and the modern songs, but Who Killed Cock Robin? deals with other issues, including the gallows, piracy, poaching, and incest, that are less likely to appear today, when drug smuggling and bank robbery feature regularly."

Duncan Campbell | Observer

"On the face of it, Sedley and Carthy are an unlikely pair of literary collaborators. But together they have written an unusual book which combines deftly their respective areas of expertise. Who Killed Cock Robin? is an examination of how the themes of crime and punishment were treated in traditional folk music in Britain. . . . In this book, they illuminate the unique nature of folk music itself. . . . What Sedley and Carthy have produced is not just a musical compendium. It is a bridge to our past."

Prospect Magazine

"This delightfully annotated and thoroughly researched collection is a must for anyone interested in the political and sociocultural roots of British folk music."

Library Journal

"At the heart of the folk songs which have found a new popularity of late, rest the concerns of ordinary people who have found themselves entangled with the law. . . . They are grouped according to various categories of crime and punishment, from Poaching to The Gallows; and accompanied by illuminating commentaries." 


"Who Killed Cock Robin? is a book about the indigenous music of the British Isles. Even more specifically it concerns music pertaining to crime and punishment. . . . This book touches on art, history, and sociology, showing us the importance of popular music goes beyond entertainment per se. Whilst acknowledging that it has a niche appeal, it is something that hopefully should appeal to a broader market than the one it is ostensibly aimed at. In short, it is rather charming and deserves a wide audience."

Magonia Review of Books

"And that’s the book all over, pushing the reader (or singer, for they are songs, after all) to the edge of despair with one ballad, and then laughing their head off with another. And sometimes, both at once. Try reading the printed version of ‘The Cruel Mother’ while listening to the Clancy Brothers’ live recording of the same song, ‘Wella Wallia,’ and you’ll understand. As for the rest of the book—yes, your average folk fiends will find a few favorites that didn’t make it into these pages, but they’ll come across a few that are new to them, as well. But really, you don’t need to care a hoot for folk to get the most out of Who Killed Cock Robin? The crime shelves on your bookcase have just been given a new cellmate."


"Apart from selecting and securing a number of popular songs dealing with crime and punishment for posterity, the volume indirectly touches on current debates of criminology and penology by offering a historical perspective on often very harsh, severe, and arbitrary law enforcement. Yet it also touches on the interdependence of legal culture and the organization of society."

Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

"‘Sedley’s historical-legal overview provides a robust summary of the legal mechanisms confronting (and entrapping) many of those who sang these songs as well as the songs’ characters. The legal observations are often delightful. . . . Sedley is abetted by one of the justly best-loved figures of the folk revival scene, Martin Carthy. Carthy has always taken a thoughtful and serious-minded approach to traditional song. . . . The combination of these authors contributes greatly to the highly usable and charming collection of songs they have collated."


"What will be of real interest to our readers are the succinct, but always stimulating, commentaries on both the topic, and on the songs selected to illustrate the topic. . . . This book is highly recommended."

Commonwealth Judicial Journal

"Sedley and Carthy argue that at the heart of traditional songs rest the concerns of ordinary people and that folk throughout the centuries have found themselves entangled with the law: abiding by it, breaking it, and being caught and punished by it. The songs in their anthology are drawn from manuscripts, broadsides, and oral tradition and are grouped by categories of crime and punishment—from poaching to the gallows. Each section contains a historical introduction and commentary that explores each song’s origins."

Law and Social Inquiry

“At last, a simple, reader-friendly book on the cause-effect relationship between the CRIMES of the UPPER classes (documented in court and prison records, history books, the lives lost via law, scaffolds, transportation, et al.) and the ‘crimes’ of the ‘lower’ classes (as documented in folk songs and ballads). The savagery of our toxic system of governance, the endless, pitiless theft of the property and rights of the public are kept in the public memory in the only unassailable form: the oral tradition. A trustworthy, authoritative, edifying. and highly enjoyable read. Put it into school curricula.”

Peggy Seeger, folk singer, musician, songwriter, activist, and author of "First Time Ever"

“A rich and rewarding journey through the law—and lore—of song and balladry. With such outstanding authors/compilers it’s no surprise whatsoever but their understanding, respect, and regard for their source material mean that expertise and scholarship never swamp but only enhance and enlighten the reading experience. As well as opening my eyes to some previously unknown examples of legal chicanery or barely believable repressive legislation and practice, every page made me want to sing these songs and ballads of the wronged and the ruthless, the cruel and cunning and the good, the bad—and the lovely. What a great delight of a book.”

Willy Russell, author of "Educating Rita" and "Blood Brothers"



The protection of private property has for centuries been both a central purpose of the law and a source of popular anger and defiance. Trespass on private land was always a civil wrong; but neither Parliament nor the judges were able to make it a crime, because foxhunting unavoidably involved mass trespass by horses, hounds and hunters over whatever land the fox fled across. Nor were landowners generally able to claim ownership of the game on their land, since birds and beasts did not recognize estate boundaries. So it was by devising the crime of trespassing in search of game (foxes were classed as vermin) that landowners were able to distinguish between their friends and their foes and to have the latter trapped, gaoled, transported and sometimes even executed.

The rural population, restricted to taking what they could from commons eroded by centuries of enclosure (the fencing of previously open-access manorial heath and woodland), regarded the appropriation of game by landowners both as a violation of their natural rights and as a challenge to their courage and ingenuity. The nineteenth-century Leicestershire poacher James Hawker, in his memoirs, veers engagingly between the need to feed his family and the pleasure of outwitting the gamekeepers. But what to country folk was a group of lads going out on a moonlit night to take some game for the pot had by the eighteenth century become, to landowners and their MPs, an epidemic of armed gangs ready to violate property rights and fight gamekeepers to the death (as in ‘The Oakham Poachers’).

The so-called Black Act of 1723 (which remained in force until 1827) responded by making it a capital felony to walk out at night armed and disguised, typically by blackening faces – hence its nickname. In addition to creating some fifty other capital felonies, it allowed trials to take place in any county in order to minimize the risk of sympathetic local juries. Over thirty more game laws were added in the course of the eighteenth century, but poaching continued unabated, sometimes becoming a local industry. Porters on the stagecoaches were bribed to carry poached game to London alongside the squire’s gifts of game to family and friends. If the poached game became high, the porters would switch the labels.

Fanny Burney in 1789 recorded the gentry’s fear that the game laws and church tithes could cause revolution to spread across the Channel. The Shooting Directory for 1804 actually described the underlying purpose of the game laws as ‘the prevention of popular insurrection and resistance to the Government by disarming the bulk of the people’.

Landowners were not always innocent victims. It was not uncommon for them to let game birds and deer feed on their tenants’ crops until dawn, when gamekeepers would drive them back into the squire’s close, having first set angled spears at the boundary to impale any dogs which tried to follow (as in ‘Thornymoor Woods’). Tenant farmers or smallholders, by contrast, were not entitled to take game straying on to their own land, for since the 1670 Game Act only the lords of manors, heirs to titles or estates, or owners of land producing £100 or more a year in income had been allowed to take game at all. Selling game for the table was forbidden.

Within the manorial estate, saw-toothed mantraps might be set. Another practice, not banned until 1861, was to set spring guns – firearms fixed in position and discharged by tripwires. Poachers responded by tracing the tripwires and re-setting the guns against the keepers. Taking deer (which were classed separately from game and were the landowner’s property while on his estate) was a crime of a higher order, as the older ballads record, routinely carrying the death penalty.

The rural population sometimes showed a smart grasp of the laws that prioritized prosecutions and required fines to be paid over to informers. In the Cannock Chase area, for example, a poacher who knew he had been spotted would get a collaborator to lay an information – a charge – against him, thereby blocking the keeper or landowner from doing so. On conviction, the fine imposed by the JP was required by law to go to the informant, who would hand it back to the poacher in return for a drink.

The songs in this section display a corresponding mixture of caution, penitence and bravado. They link up with transportation ballads, because by the early nineteenth century seven or fourteen years’ transportation had become the standard penalty for poaching. Following the repeal of the Black Act, a succession of laws brought in less draconic penalties, partly at least in recognition of the reluctance of juries to convict: the Night Poaching Act of 1828 set a maximum term of seven years’ imprisonment (or fourteen years for offenders armed with guns), and the Poaching Prevention Act of 1862 allowed fines to be imposed on suspiciously equipped individuals. It is probable that this legal downscaling accounts for the transition from the sense of doom in the older poaching ballads like ‘Johnnie of Cockerslee’ to the levity with which the risk of being caught is treated in more recent songs like ‘Shooting Goschen’s Cocks Up’.

Johnnie of Cockerslee

Johnnie rose in a May morning
Called for water to wash his hands
Says, ‘Loose to me my good grey dogs
That lie bound in iron bands
That lie bound in iron bands.

‘Ye’ll busk, ye’ll busk my noble dogs
Ye’ll busk and mak them bound
For I’m awa to the Broadspear Hill
To ding the dun deer down.’

When Johnnie’s mither heard of this
Her hands with dule she wrang
Saying, ‘Johnnie for my benison
To the greenwood dinna gang

‘Enough ye hae o’ the gude wheat-bread
And enough o’ the blude-red wine
Sae Johnnie for nae venison
I pray ye stir from hame.’

But Johnnie has buskit his good bend-bow
And his arrows one by one
And he’s awa to the Broadspear Hill
To ding the dun deer down

He’s lookit east, he’s lookit west
And a little below the sun
And there he’s spied the dun deer lain
Aneath a bush of broom

Johnnie shot, the dun deer lapt
He had wounded her in the side
And atween the wan water and the wood
His hounds they laid her pride

They ate sae mickle of the venison
And drank sae mickle of the blood
That Johnnie and his twa grey hounds
Fell asleep as if they were dead

Then it’s by there cam a stane-auld man
And an ill death may he die
And he’s awa to the foresters
As fast as he can flee

What news, what news, ye stane-auld man
What news bring you to me?
Nae news, nae news, ye foresters
But what my eyes did see

As I cam down by Durisdeer
And down amang the scroggs
The bonniest chiel that e’er I saw
Lay sleeping amang his dogs

The sark that was upon his back
Was of the cambric fine
The doublet that was over it
Was of the Lincoln twine

Then out and spak the first forester
The heid man o’ them a’
‘If this be Johnnie of Cockerslee
Nae nearer will we draw.’

But it’s out and spak the sixth forester
His sister’s son was he
‘If this be Johnnie of Cockerslee
We soon shall gar him die.’

He’s set his back against an aik
His foot against a stane
And he has slain the foresters
Has killed them a’ but ane

He’s brak three ribs in that ane’s side
And brak his collar bane
And laid him twa-fold o’er his steed
To carry the tidings hame

They’ve made them rods o’ the hazel bush
And ithers o’ the slae-thorn tree
And mony, mony were the men
At the hunting o’ Johnnie

Now Johnnie’s good bend-bow is broke
And his great grey dogs are slain
And his body lies in Durisdeer
And his hunting it is done.

The village of Durisdeer is in Dumfries, to the south of the Lowther Hills. Local tradition at one time associated a ruined tower near Lochmaben, known as Cockiesfield, with a renowned freebooter known as John Cock.

This version of one of the great border ballads ends in Johnnie’s death; but the narrative is sometimes configured so that, in place of the four final stanzas given here, it ends heroically:

Johnnie’s killed the six o’ them
And the seventh he’s wounded sair
And he’s swung his leg o’er his horse’s back
And swore that he would hunt mair.

The present text is collated from Kinloch’s manuscript, printed by Child, and Scott’s Minstrelsy (a source requiring some caution). The tune, printed by Bronson, is from the Duncan manuscript, taken down from Alexander Mackay of Alford, who had learned it circa 1860.

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