Saturday, 5 May 2018


Battle at Chitral

I might have found an important new source singer... but it's too late to know!


My second ever blog post (in July 2015) was called From Chart to Charleston  click here to read it

It was about the song 'I Wish There Was No Prisons'. This time I'd like to return to the song but from an entirely different angle.
As well as writing a Blog post about it I had previously posted a You Tube video. It might be a good idea if you looked at that as well before going any further... click here to listen

 'Prisons' is a folk song from Kent. All the accepted sources will tell you that the only time it was collected in the tradition was from George Spicer, a farm worker from Kent who later moved to East Sussex. It can be found on a Topic LP of his songs – 'Blackberry Fold'. I recorded the song for a CD of Kentish folk songs mainly because it was a jaunty piece of nonsense. The only other person who has recorded it, as far as I know, is the East Yorkshire singer and pleasure boat man Jim Eldon who credits George Spicer as his source.

I was therefore, very surprised to get an email, out of the blue, from a man called David Rogers, asking about the song. He'd heard my version and immediately recognised it as a song his granddad used to sing! This is what he said:

Ernest James Rogers in uniform
Hi Pete, Hope I can get some help with my query, here goes.
I grew up with my great-grandfather and great-grandmother in Sussex from age 18 months. Ernest James Rogers lived in Kent for much of his life, moving to Sussex when he was in his 50's (I believe). He served in the army (Buffs Regiment) in the Boer War, in Northern Ireland in the Risings, and in WW1 - all over the place until he was invalided out on medical grounds. He was an inveterate story-teller and song-singer, and had a good voice. Among those I can recall was the ’Oakum Picking song’. However, having researched the title I find that the only versions I am able to find differ quite markedly from the one he, and I later, sang. I appreciate that my memory may not be all that it was, but these are the words I recall.

"I wish there were no prisons, I do, don't you?
'Cause Oakum Picking gives me such a licking,
When I go in for a little bit of nicking,
With me hands, with me dukes,
With me dukes and dirty maulers."

(which isn’t, actually, very different to George’s or mine…)

Ernest and Helen Mary Rogers
He (Ernest) and his wife lived in Whitstable immediately prior to moving to Sussex. He had a Shoe-makers Shop (hand-made boots and shoes); she was manager (and possibly proprietor) of a General Store in the town.
Ernie's family were Kentish people, in the main farm labourers or tenant farmers. At one point he worked in the Asylum at Chartham as a mortuary attendant as well as a 'water-boy' in his earlier life. I guess all these types of employment would have left him open to a wide range of occupational songs. Indeed, I was told-off many times for singing various of his army songs in the presence of my Gt Grandmother, who was a truly Victorian lady, who had trained as, and worked as, a school teacher in her younger years.
I wonder if you are able to advise whether you know of any other versions of the Oakum Picking song; and/or if you've ever heard the version I related?

In further correspondence David went on to tell me more about his very complicated family and, in particular, Ernest:
“Some years ago I had begun to write as much about my childhood with Ernest James and Helen Mary (his wife) as I could recall, believing them (at that stage) to be my grandfather and grandmother. We all lived in what amounted to a tin-roofed, wooden bungalow which Ernie and his sons had built in a 3 acre plot of woodland in rural Sussex...
The longer I live, the more I respect him, both as a man and a tutor/teacher. Never having known a father, he became, I guess, my father figure. Indeed I recall calling him Dad quite often. He never complained nor did he try to stop me using that title.
I learned the interest and keenness that I began to acquire (from 18 months or so) throughout my childhood and up to his death when I was 16'ish from him. There seemed never to be a job he wouldn't have an attempt at, even though he readily admitted he might know very little about it.
While I cannot quite remember all the steps and stages he demonstrated in making shoes, for example, much of it still sticks in memory, and my love of working with leather, wood and metal certainly either came directly from him, or from (some of the) genes passed down the Mulligan line (his father).

Left: a 'crossing the line' (equator) party.

David’s father was a Canadian soldier who had a relationship with an English girl and, when David was born, admitted that he was already married in Canada.

“My father dabbled in repairing and selling motor vehicles before he joined the RCEME and was posted to England as Captain Mulligan, where he met my mother. She was in the army too as an NCO. As was the case for many, they fell in love, she became pregnant by him. When I was born and he saw and held me, he apparently admitted that he was married back in Canada, wanted to take me back with him, but my mother gave him his marching orders, and the rest as is said, is history.

Because of illegitimacy on his mother’s side in a previous generation it turned out that David’s aunt was actually his granny and his grandparents were in fact his great-grandparents… (I said it was complicated!) This is why Ernest is so much older than one would have expected. As well as I Wish There Was No Prisons/The Oakum Picking Song Ernest had other songs one of which is a mystery:

Battle for Chitral Fort

“...since I wrote to you (and received your response) I have spent a lot of time trying to recall all of the songs that Ernest James (my great-grandfather) used to sing, and I, as a child sang along with him, or at least tried. Thus far I haven't been terribly successful.
One phrase from a song, or perhaps it was a poem, or piece of prose, has returned. The words which came back to me were "And we all went up to Chitral (pronounced ChittEral) for to hear the cannons roar!"
Then later came additional words from the same piece, something like: "and while the lads were doing their stuff, Lord Chinnery was in dock!"
“Chitral is on the north-west frontier of India, in the mountains. Ernie had been (as he often said) "In India" though apparently not in the Indian Army as some of the family had believed, but with British forces.
He regularly spoke about enlisting under false papers, about the Boer War, about being in Ireland during
 the 'Risings',and before being invalided out of the army, fighting in France in WW1. Ypres, Verdun and other names of battles and places were mentioned in relation to where he had supposedly been fighting.
Whether the reason for his 'being unfit for service' is related to a gassing and related breathing difficulties he later suffered, or the trench-foot which he had graphically described Ernie was an inveterate 'story-teller' and Oh how I wish I had listened more carefully when I was a toddler and as I grew up. I daresay there are many, like me, who wish the same!

Part of one tall tale which I do remember related to when he was serving in India, the British troops being on one side of a substantial river, and the 'enemy' on the other.
Apparently, there was plenty of fruit growing on the opposite side of the watercourse, and none on theirs. Thus, Ernie and a mate swam across under the cover of darkness, avoiding the sentries in the enemy camp, managed to collect a couple of sackfuls of fruit and make their way back without discovery. Whether this was true, or even had any grain of veracity in it remains a mystery!

Like David I have been unable to trace the Chitral song. Chitral was an important campaign in the Afghan Wars (1895) and much has been written about it but no-one seems to know the song/poem. (Do you?)

So Ernest James Rogers seems to have been pretty much a contemporary of George Spicer living in much the same area (north-east Kent) and sharing at least one song—I Wish There Was No Prisons. George admitted to not remembering where he learned the song and regretted that he had never got the rest of it. Wouldn’t it be great if his source was Ernest!

“It would certainly be interesting to see if the use of any of Ernie's snatches of songs /prose /poetry might jog any memories and elicit any kind of response from anyone else out there in the wilderness, wouldn't it?
I'd be happy for you to mention names, and if any responses came back, to provide them with my email address if requested.”

So if anyone out there knows any more about the Chitral song, about Ernest James Rogers or anything else relevant please get in touch and I’ll pass it on to David.

 Pete Castle web site:  click here 

         Pete on You Tube: click here

Tuesday, 27 March 2018


“A female all the while, A female all the while,

To think myself a drummer,  Yet a female all the while.”


Gender equality, gender fluidity, choice of the image you project, being who you want to be, being true to your self… all ideas which are very ‘now’. A generation ago ‘that kind of thing’ was not talked about, where it went on it was behind closed doors and people pretended not to know.
A very historically innacurate picture of Boudica!

In recent years the military have made a big thing about equality and recruiting women and the roles they play in the armed forces have changed. For reasons I can’t understand women want to join the army, navy and air force. (Come to that I can’t understand why a man would want to join up either!) There have always been female warriors, mythical or real—think of the Amazons in mythology—and a few real women have made a name for themselves whist leading armies—Boudica, Joan of Arc… but, on the whole, war has always been considered a male preserve with the women waiting to pick up the pieces.

Even in the last few hundred years if women wanted to take on any role other than ‘wife and mother’ they often felt they had to assume a male identity—think of authors like George Elliot.  Until the middle of the 20th century  a woman had to give up her job in teaching or the Civil Service when she married.  It was even more difficult if they wanted to do anything active or adventurous. Then they had to take on, not just a masculine name, but mens’ clothing and persona as well, in other words pretend to be a man. This goes way back in history. An early example would be the Chinese legend/folk tale of Hua Mulan who took her father’s place in the army because he was old and sick. After distinguishing herself as a warrior for 12 years her comrades were astonished to discover that she was actually a woman! 

Hua Mulan from a painting on silk

Much closer to home there were women soldiers in British and European armies in the 18th and 19th centuries and ‘the female soldier’ or ‘the female sailor’  is a common motif in folk songs. I don’t sing either of those but I do  ‘The Female Servingman’ and ‘The Female Smuggler’ 
LINK to     The Female Smuggler

In the songs she meets with various fates. In some, possibly the more ancient ones, she is thrown overboard when they discover her secret as it was considered bad luck to have women aboard a ship; in some her shipmates discover the secret but keep it quiet; in others it is the captain who finds out and takes advantage of the situation himself!

Sometimes, of course, her secret is safe:

Here is The Handsome Cabin Boy sung by Bert Lloyd. 
Click:   The Handsome Cabin Boy

Most of these stories might just be fantasy or wishful thinking but there were actual, historical examples of women joining up as men,  the most famous of these is probably Hannah Snell. In the mid-1700s she served for two years in the Royal Marines and fought in Europe and India. She was wounded several times, once in the groin, and rather than let the regimental surgeon discover her sex she allowed some local women to remove the musket ball. (She later had two children so they must have done a reasonable job!)
After leaving the army she made a living as a performer on the stage demonstrating drill with her musket. Sadly, she died in Bedlam. 


 An even more romantic tale is the story of Anne Bonny, the Female Pirate. The telling here is from an article Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine, which I edit.   

A contemporary image of Anne Bonny
William Cormac was a lawyer in Cork. He had a wife but he loved his servant woman, Mary Brennan, much more and they had a daughter called Anne. In order to be together William and Mary ran away to London. They dressed Anne as a boy and called her Andy as a way of helping their disguise but his wife's family tracked them down so they fled to America and settled in Carolina. William bought a plantation and did well in America but Mary died when Anne was just 12 years old. Anne was bold and beautiful with flaming red hair and a fiery temper to match. When she was 13 she stabbed a servant girl with a table knife.

Soon Anne married a small-time pirate named James Bonny. Anne was disinherited by her father and they went to a pirate stronghold in the Bahamas where he became an informer for the governor.

While frequenting the inns and taverns of the Nassau harbourside Anne met and fell in love with Calico Jack Rackham who was a far more serious pirate than James Bonny. They went off together on his sloop ‘Revenge’ and over the next few years she divorced James Bonny, married Calico Jack and had a son who they left in Cuba.

Calico Jack was pretty successful and Anne Bonny, dressed in men’s clothing, played her part. She was her husband’s second in command, fought alongside the other pirates and was as fierce as any.   

Then they captured a ship bound to the West Indies from Holland. On board was a handsome, young soldier called Mark Read. He had already had an eventful life fighting with the British forces allied with the Dutch against the French. He willingly joined the pirates and became a valued member of the crew.

 Anne Bonny, in her male guise, and Mark Read felt an attraction that was more than just friendship so, one day, Anne took Mark aside and revealed that ‘he’ was really a woman whereupon Mark revealed that he also was a woman named Mary Read! She had fought in the British army as a man, had then married a Flemish  soldier, and on his death had once again put on men’s clothing and set sail to the West Indies. Because Calico Jack was becoming suspicious and jealous of their friendship he too was let into the secret, and the three ‘men’ continued to lead their pirate crew until they were surprised and captured whilst holding a drunken party.

Jack was hanged but it was discovered that both women were pregnant so they were able to ‘plead the belly’ and their execution was delayed until after their babies were born. Mary Read died of fever in prison but Anne Bonny’s fate is unknown. She disappeared from the records so we don’t know whether she was she hanged, or if she escaped from prison or if her father paid  her ransom, or one of many other possibilities...

Visit Pete's web site:

There are a lot more videos on his You Tube channel: Pete on You Tube

And you might be interested in Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine which he edits: Facts & Fiction