I learned this from the Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs. It was collected in 1907 from a Mr Kemp, at Elstead in Surrey. The collector was Walter Ford, who was one of the early members of the Folk Song Society, and served on the committee. He wrote Lucy Broadwood’s obituary in the 1929 Journal; Dorothy De Val, in her In Search of Song: The Life and Times of Lucy Broadwood describes Ford as “a long-time members of the Society and a singer in the tradition of Plunket Greene, as well as a contemporary of Sharp at Cambridge.”
Mr Kemp was described by Ford as “an agricultural labourer, aged about 75”. But he may have knocked a decade and a half off the singer’s age: according to Classic English Folk Songs, the only likely candidate to be found in the 1901 census for Elstead is the 86-year old George Kemp.
The song is quite rare – the only other known version appears to be one which Ewan MacColl collected from the gipsy singer, Nelson Ridley. If the deserter did come from the West of Kent, that probably means he was deserting from the The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment; the soldiers who apprehend him, meanwhile, were from the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot (later the Norfolk Regiment).
You can find a 1990 recording of this song on my album Love, Death and the Cossack.
The Deserter from Kent