British forces formed part of a military alliance which drove Napoleon’s French out of Egypt in 1801, and I imagine this song dates from that period. But in fact British soldiers fought many more campaigns in Egypt and Sudan over the next century and a half, so it’s a song which would not have lost its currency. And of course, on Remembrance Sunday, it is worth remarking that British troops continue to fight – and die – in a variety of “sandy desert places” to this day.
I first came across this song in the late seventies, in Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl’s book, The Singing Island, although it was several years before I learned it properly. It’s a version from Betsy Henry, of Auchterarder in Pethshire – actually, MacColl’s mother. I have anglicised it slightly, although that didn’t amount to much more than substituting “England” for “Scotland” in the last verse.
I learned ‘There Was Four-and-Twenty Strangers’ from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s Travellers’ songs from England and Scotland, where it is given as ‘The Hop-Pickers’ Tragedy’. They recorded the song from the traveller Nelson Ridley, in a municipal caravan-site at Harlow New Town, Essex.
Their notes say
The event described here occurred on 20th October 1853, when a horse-drawn brake carrying a party of hop-pickers plunged over Hartlake Bridge into the River Medway. The memorial in Hadlow graveyard says that thirty people, including several Travellers, were drowned.
They also say that the singer, Nelson Ridley, was born in Wineham, Kent, and travelled mainly in Kent and Surrey. At least, I think it says “Wineham” – I can’t actually read my handwriting – but if so, that would mean he was born in West Sussex. Not having the book to hand, I can’t check.
It would seem that the story has survived in folk memory, amongst travellers at least, and the song has been recorded from a number of travellers with Kentish connections – you can hear versions by Jasper Smith and Ambrose Cooper at http://www.bbc.co.uk/kent/voices/hartlake/song.shtml
(hint: these sound files are in Real Audio format – but if you don’t want Real Player taking over your computer, download the free Real Alternative which plays them just as well)
That BBC Kent site appears to have been prompted by a memorial service held at St Mary’s Church, Hadlow on the 19th October 2003 – the 150th anniversary of the accident.
By contrast, ‘The Irish hop-pole puller’ is a comic piece which I learned from George Spicer (born in Liitle Chart, just outside my home town of Ashford, Kent). As I recall, he had it from Pop Maynard, who had indeed worked as hop-pole puller. You can hear Pop singing it on the British Library website- although he dissolves in a coughing fit before he can get to the conclusion. Hunton, mentioned in the song, is between Maidstone and Paddock Wood, very much in a hop-growing area. I’ve never been to Hunton, however from what I can see on the web, “The Bull” was in East Street, but is no longer a pub.
I have a feeling that my friend Adrian will tell me I sing this all wrong (he has done so in the past!). But since he freely admits he never finds time to visit this blog, I might just get away with it.