Enthusiasms No 57|
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
In my article on Norfolk printers1, there was mention of motives given for murder, the four previous and continuing favourites in ballads surveyed during the series being those of jealousy, monetary greed, drunken-ness and the influence of Satan. In the case of John Stratford, however - hanged in 1829 - he, 'with tears', declared that:
I attribute my downfall primarily to reading the AGE of REASON, and the recent work of Carlile (sic); and the secondary cause is my illicit connection with that abandoned woman Briggs.2It was thought worthwhile just to eke out detail a little here, although the 'illicit connection' is clear enough.
The Age of Reason was Tom Paine's book. Paine was born in Thetford in 1737 and died in New York City in 1809 after a lifetime as pamphleteer, revolutionary, radical intellectual and deist, befriended by the French and elected to the National Assembly (although he spoke no French) principally because his ideas chimed in with and, indeed, spearheaded many of those current in what is now looked on as the Age of Enlightenment. He found particular favour in America, advocating independence from Britain and thus supporting the American War of Independence; then fell foul of the French, in particular Robespierre, was arrested and then released in 1794. He went on to publish The Age of Reason which, with deism as its underlying impulse, took issue with contemporary Christian doctrine. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson invited Paine back to America.
There are, of course, many more aspects to his very full life but his two books, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, have perhaps most continued to exercise influence. The first was critical of monarchies and moribund social institutions; and the British government, because of it, put Paine on trial for sedition. The second attacked organised religion - the Bible and the Testament, Paine thought, being 'impositions on the world'. Clearly, Paine went against most known orthodoxy at a time when many were fearful of the implications of any attack and when the dismemberment of the French monarchy provided a great, far-reaching example of the power of the people, whatever the subsequent disillusionment under the dictatorship of Napoleon.
It is not surprising, then, that in our particular ballad, a view was implied that marked John Stratford as a possible troublemaker and provided a convenient excuse for his actions in murdering his victim, John Burgess, through poison - one does wonder if this was Stratford's own view, or one imposed on him by the combined efforts of various authorities such as the prison chaplain. His 'illicit connection' with 'that abandoned woman Briggs' could well have encouraged jealousy.
Of Carlile, born in Axminster to a shoemaker, the reason to refer back to the spelling of the name is because it might have been thought that the person in question was Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist (1795-1881), who himself published work on the French revolution - but not until 1836 - and was influential in the realms of nineteenth century grappling with scientific and cultural changes. Our Carlile, though (1790-1843), was an agitator for the establishment of universal suffrage and of freedom of the press and a committed atheist. His interest in the more harsh aspects of economic and social deprivation sparked his political awakening. But, more particularly, Carlile walked the streets of London selling pamphlets which included Paine's The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, produced in parts. He was inevitably arrested and held without trial. Evidently undeterred, Carlile went on to distribute the radical journal The Black Dwarf and later Sherwin's Political Register at a time when the suspension of habeus corpus meant that he daily risked imprisonment. He appeared as a speaker at Peterloo - got away - but then found himself in Dorchester prison for blasphemous libel and sedition through publishing material that could encourage people to revolution.
Throughout the rest of his life, Carlile existed on the edge or inside the same kinds of political and social reformist endeavours and was again arrested and jailed. He fell into extreme poverty before he died.
John Stratford, then, may well have been seen as some kind of potential agitator whatever the circumstances of the murder he committed. Our ballad is quite clear in its reference, spurious or not. One might suspect the printer of having no opinions one way or the other except for the opportunity given for commercial enterprise. The allusions, though, remain unique in the body of murder and execution balladry studied.
Roly Brown - 18.4.07
Oradour sur Vayres, France
2. The quotation, as reminder, is from one of two printings on the Stratford case from Robert Lane in Norwich.
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