14 September 2017


Justice in Georgian England

For many years I’ve enjoyed singing a song called Fanny Blair which was collected in Somerset by Cecil Sharp in the early years of the 20th century. Bert Lloyd sang a powerful version of it and I recorded it on my 1999 CD ‘Mearcstapa’. It is a song which you cannot sing casually. I only do it if I feel the mood and the audience are right. The subject matter is difficult and some people disagree with it, some even find the song offensive—although I don’t think they would if they stopped to think more about it and the times it comes from. However, if you don’t feel upset by it at all then you aren’t listening carefully enough!

The song is set, probably, in the early 1800s although it isn’t time-specific. That means it coincides nicely with Winston Graham’s  Poldark books. When I started to think about the two together and they each cast a light upon the other.

Those of you in the UK will know that the recent Poldark TV series was hugely successful and will continue next year. I enjoyed it until I started reading the books. There is far more in the books than on the TV. That’s understandable when you consider there are twelve longish books written in two batches over a period of nearly 50 years. As well as telling a good story they are also remarkably well researched and are historically and socially accurate. They tell the story of the Poldark family—small scale gentry whose income is derived mainly from tin and copper mines in Cornwall. They are set about 20 years either side of 1800.

(The current (Aug 2017) issue of Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine, which I edit, has a nice piece about the music in the series by Mike O’Connor who was an adviser.)

Fanny Blair tells the story of Henry Higgins of Branfield who is suddenly pulled from his bed one Sunday morning and taken off to prison accused of raping an 11 year old girl (Fanny Blair) although he says:  ‘I never had dealings with her in my time/so now I’m condemned for another man’s crime.’

Higgins, whose occupation is not specified but is obviously a simple working man, has only his own word as his defence. A ‘Jackie McNeal of Newcastle’ could, apparently, prove his innocence but he has mysteriously disappeared! 

Higgins is brought to trial—a trial that is somehow orchestrated or influenced by Squire Vernon. At the trial Fanny Blair is stood upon ‘a green table’ to give her testimony—a thing which accentuates her youth and innocence,  and ‘The lies that she swore to I’m ashamed for to tell, But the judge he spoke up quick saying, ‘You’ve told it to us well.’ 
So, no witnesses, no evidence gathering, no cross examination or defence for Higgins, just Fanny’s story which is cut off quickly by the judge.

Higgins is, of course, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

The final verse of the song is the one with which people have the greatest difficulty and I can understand why:

On the day that young Higgins was condemned for to die/The people rose up with a murmuring cry, saying/“Well catch her, we’ll crop her, she’s a perjuring little whore/Young Higgins is innocent, of that we’re very sure.” 

We are all, sadly, aware of the outcries against child molesters and paedophiles which have happened in recent times so for the local populace to come out in defence of Higgins and call Fanny a ‘perjuring little whore’ is something we find shocking. At the end of WW2 shaving the heads of women who had collaborated with the Nazis in France was a shocking enough form of assault and degradation but to threaten that on an 11 year old girl is almost beyond belief.

Fanny is only the scapegoat though. The anger is really aimed at the ‘justice’ system and the individuals who sit and condemn their fellow men. It is a broken system which, although called ‘justice’, is definitely not that.

At which point we will return to Poldark:

The picture the Poldark books paint is of the huge disparity in wealth and lifestyle between the classes of Georgian England (a gap we are rapidly approaching again in 2017!) is almost unbelievable. Those in power live a life of comfort with every benefit of civilisation which was available at the time while the ‘ordinary people’ just about manage to keep themselves alive—and not always that.

Many of the houses of the well-to-do of that period survive today and are much sought after. With the addition of electricity and plumbing they make beautiful houses. I personally love their style and would live in one if I could afford it! The worker’s houses, however, were not much superior to animal sheds—just one or two rooms, a ladder to the upper floor if there was one, an earth floor and no glass in the windows!

Money and position also bring power, and society at that time was built on a rigid system of class and manners. The higher up the social scale you were the more you were at liberty to do almost anything and get away with it—as long as you didn’t upset someone who was your equal or better, of course, in which case you might be either ostracised or have to fight a duel.

Justice was dispensed almost on a whim by the local landowners who got themselves elected to Parliament or made JPs in order, very often, to protect their own interests and to line their own pockets even further.
This is illustrated by the difference in attitude of Ross Poldark and George Warleggan. The former is happy to live a quiet life and does not want to take on the responsibility although he eventually gives in to persuasion, the latter wheedles his way into becoming a JP.
So, if often happened that a lawbreaker, perhaps a poacher or petty thief—would find himself being judged and sentenced by the very person he had offended against. The Gentleman was literally, accuser, judge, jury and (almost) executioner! This was the situation in which Henry Higgins found himself. He was the victim of a ‘broken’ system. Fanny Blair was probably assaulted by someone but was it by Henry Higgins or was he a convenient scapegoat? If a member of the gentry was guilty of a crime against a little girl (Squire Vernon?) he was in a perfect position to offer her family a bribe, have an innocent, powerless man accused of the crime, and get his ‘mates’ on the bench to pass a guilty sentence about which no-one could do anything.
No wonder the populace rose ‘with a murmuring cry’!

A reviewer of the CD captured the situation perfectly:

PETE CASTLE: MEARCSTAPA : It's been a while since I listened to traditional folk and I'd forgotten how wickedly dry and unsentimental these songs can be. The revelation on this album is "FANNY BLAIR", a lean, angry piece of early 19th century tabloid journalism which deals with the case of a young man hanged for raping a child. The balladeer takes the side of the accused and threatens vigilante justice on the "perjuring little whore" who sent him to the gallows. It's fearsome and troubling and Castle ends it with a series of isolated chords that sound like question marks. Was Henry Higgins really innocent? How do his protestations weigh against the vivid image of the eleven year Fanny stood on a table to deliver her damning testimony to the court? It's a mighty piece of work, as timeless as the Oresteia and as up to date as this Sunday's News of the World.                         [Tony Grist]

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