I learned this from All Buttoned Up, the first LP on Topic Records by the Cock and Bull Band – apologies, the Hemlock Cock and Bull Band – where it was sung by drummer John Maxwell.
It seems to have been particularly popular (or at least, most frequently collected) in Oxfordshire: Peter Kennedy recorded a version from Arthur Smith of Swinbrook in 1952, Francis Collinson had the song from Bob Arnold (of Archers fame) at Burford in 1946, Mike Yates recorded it from Freda Palmer of Witney in 19767, and John Howson recorded the Bampton morris dancer Francis Shergold singing it in 1987.
Francis’ version was included on the Veteran CD It was on a market day Volume 2, and his words can be found at www.veteran.co.uk/vt7cd_words.htm#Needlecases. I don’t have a copy of All Buttoned Up to hand, but I seem to remember that the sleevenotes referred to Alfred Williams as the source of the song. Be that as it may, looking at those lyrics, I think it highly likely that John Maxwell had learned the song from Francis Shergold.
Alfred Williams did collect a version from Eli Dawes of Southropp in Gloucestershire, and the song was recorded in the same village, some 40 years later, from a singer by the name of Jimmie Maunders in 1957. Apart from that the only other version listed in the Roud Index – and the only one not from the Cotswolds – was printed in Kidson & Moffat’s English Peasant Songs (1929).
Having recently quoted Henry Mayhew on the subject of poor frozen-out gardeners I thought I would see what he had to say about sellers of needlecases. There are a number of references; the following unflattering description comes from London labour and the London poor : a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work (Volume 1) – Mayhew is here actually quoting the views of “an educated gentleman (who has been before alluded to in this work), and as he had been driven to live among the class he describes, and to support himself by street-selling, his remarks have of course all the weight due to personal experience, as well as to close observation”:
I come now to the third class of patterers, — those who, whatever their early pursuits and pleasures, have manifested a predilection for vagrancy, and neither can nor will settle to any ordinary calling. There is now on the streets a man scarcely thirty years old, conspicuous by the misfortune of a sabre-wound on the cheek. He is a native of the Isle of Man. His father was a captain in the Buff’s, and himself a commissioned officer at seventeen. He left the army, designing to marry and open a boarding- school. The young lady to whom he was betrothed died, and that event might affect his mind ; at any rate, he has had 38 situations in a dozen years, and will not keep one a week. He has a mortal antipathy to good clothes, and will not keep them one hour. He sells anything — chiefly needle-cases. He ‘patters’ very little in a main drag (public street); but in the little private streets he preaches an outline of his life, and makes no secret of his wandering propensity. His aged mother, who still lives, pays his lodgings in Old Pye-street.