I learned this song in the early 1980s from Caroline Jackson-Houlston, with whom I used to sing it. The song was collected by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, from Sam Fone, a Dartmoor miner from Mary Tavy, Devon, in 1893. I always had it in my mind that Caroline had got the song from The English Folksinger by Sam Richards and Trish Stubbs, but actually the words we sang are not those given in the book, so I think perhaps Caroline had at least some of the verses from Baring-Gould’s Garland of Country Song (1895), where the opening line is “In the meadow one morning when pearly with dew”. Fone, on the other hand, appears to have sung “It was down in the meadows where violets are blue / I saw pretty Polly a-milking her cow”.
The notes in that book say “It is not untypical of a certain class of song from the time of the American Wars of Independence”. Which could perhaps be read as “we think it sounds like a song from that period but have no evidence to back this theory up”. However a contribution by Mick Pearce to this Mudcat thread points out that the song can be found in A Sailor’s songbag : an American rebel in an English prison, 1777-1779 so clearly the song was in circulation at that time (the book, edited by George Carey, presents songs from a MS assembled by an American prisoner of war – possibly named Timothy Connor – held by the British in Forton Prison). Roy Palmer, in his book The Rambling Soldier, comments that
The reference to Flanders may indicate the Seven Years’ War or the campaign of 1793. John Wardroper reports that the legend, ‘Oh, I wish that the wars were all over’, appeared on popular prints in England in the early 1780s, during the American War, showing a ragged family amid a scene of ruin (Kings, Lords and Wicked Libellers, John Murray, 1973, p.85).
Actually, like the slightly later ‘The Banks of the Nile’, the sentiments expressed in the song are timeless. Unfortunately, the intervening 200-odd years give no cause for optimism in wishing that the wars will ever be over.
I wish that the wars were all over