Many folk ballads can be found more often on old broadsides than they can in the oral tradition, but not so with this well-known ballad. It has been collected in many parts of England, Scotland and North America in the oral tradition, but there are very few surviving broadsides of it. Under the title Stow Brow it was printed by Forth of Hull, Ross of Newcastle and Harkness of Preston, in the north of England.
Stoup Brow is a hill overlooking Robin Hood's Bay on the North Yorkshire coast and the ballad undoubtedly tells of a real event. In The Journal of the Folk-Song Society number 13 (1909) Lucy Broadwood refers to a version sung by Bill Moat, a Whitby fisherman, in 1907. He claimed the event was recorded on a tombstone in the old disused churchyard at Robin Hood's Bay but even then the inscription was almost illegible. Having made several fruitless journeys to 'Bay' to try to date the event and put names to the characters, hopefully someone will eventually unearth the details.
Whilst studying this ballad it seems to be a suitable place to finally lay to rest the myth that this ballad is in some way derived from or even related to the 17th century song Captain Digby's Farewell which did evolve into The Lover's Lament for her Sailor and was burlesqued into Ah, My Love's Dead eventually giving rise to the song I Never Will Marry. Cecil sharp seems to have sowed the seed of this particular myth in the aforementioned journal, 'Compare the words with those of 'The Drowned Lover' in Songs of the West (Baring Gould) number 32.' Both songs have at times employed the title The Drowned Lover which may have helped the confusion. Later scholars, notably Malcolm Laws in American Balladry from British Broadsides, 1957, p149, state that Stow Brow is actually derived from Captain Digby's Farewell which is totally unfounded. The only thing the two pieces have in common is their subject matter, that of a drowned sailor being washed up on the sands and discovered by his true love. Digby's Farewell is in fact a lament and Stow Brow is a typical narrative journalistic broadside ballad of the late 18th/early 19th century. If another possibility is true, ie. the ballad is pure fiction, then it is possible the content was inspired by Digby's Farewell.
Ironically, a manuscript collection of ballads set down by a young girl of Robin Hood's Bay in 1877, presumably her repertoire, has both pieces in tandem, Stow Brow first, as though they were one continuous song.
Recently a new twist to the saga has arisen in the emergence of a southern English broadside version which claims the lady was rich and lived near Portland. Collard of Bristol, Williams of Portsea (Madden Collection 22, Country Printers 7, VWML microfilm No 89, item 373), and Pitts of London (Madden Collection , London Printers 2, VWML microfilm No75, item 679) printed this version c1830. Both Bristol and Portsea are about 70 miles from Portland. The probability is that a relatively local printer, perhaps Collard or Williams, adapted the existing Stow Brow ballad to fit local geographical circumstances (The first line would be enough to arouse local interest and get an audience listening), and then Pitts obtained a copy and reprinted it. This would presume that buyers on the south coast would not have heard of Robin Hood's Bay.
Another possibility is that the southern broadside is correct and that the girl was indeed from Portland. Seafaring families from the south and east coasts did intermarry, if not frequently. Although there was naturally a lot of intermarriage between Bay families in earlier centuries its seamen did travel the world and many of them became renowned sailors. If she was indeed rich and he 'of fame and renown' then their story would have appeared in Yorkshire newspapers of the time and from newspaper article to broadside ballad is a very short step.
The rest of the southern version pretty much follows the standard northern version with a little shunting of lines into different stanzas. If those first two lines are part of the original story then they certainly add to the intrigue.
Having recently been able to identify the background details of other traditional ballads of the same period it would be pleasing to lay this particular ghost to rest as well. A trip to Northallerton Public Record Office where Bay records are kept is on the cards when time and finances allow.
|Robin Hood's Bay, or The Unfortunate Lovers|
It's of a rich lady liv'd near Portland town,|
Was courted by a sailor of fame and renown.
He promised to marry her when he did return,
But mark well what hard fortune all on him did frown.
As they were a sailing to their great surprise,
A most dismal storm from the windward did rise.
The winds and the waves and the billows did roar,
Which toss'd these poor sailors all on a lee shore.
And when his true love the sad news she did hear,
She fell wringing of her tender hands and tearing her hair.
Adieu to all pleasures, my joys are all fled.
Her grave shall be instead of her marriage bed.
As she was walking down by Robin Hood's bay,
She was wringing of her tender hands, and thus she did say,
Crying O cruel waves that wash'd my love on shore,
That I might behold his sweet features once more.
As she was walking along the sea side,
A drowned young sailor she chanc'd for to spy,
And when she came to him he put her to a stand.
She knew it was her true love by the mark on his hand.
She hugg'd him and kiss'd him a thousand times o'er,
As her own true love lay dead on the shore,
Quite frantic with grief she fell by his side,
And clasping her lover this damsel she died.
In Robin Hood's Church this young couple were laid,
And for a remembrance a stone at their head.
Come all you young lovers, as you do pass by,
See this loving young couple how happy they lye.