Robbing On The Highway

from by James Bell

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I found this in the Bodleian Library archives, under the title ‘The Female Robber’. This seemed a little unspecific, and so I retitled it ‘Robbing On The Highway’. Judging by the typeface and the absence of long ‘s’s I would guess it was published around the year 1820 (though that is a total guess), and judging by its mini-preface I would guess it was based on a real person and actual events. Here’s what it says:

"Written on Miss Hughes, a Gentlewoman of Bath, who robbed Mr Witcomb of the Boar’s head in Bristol, of Two hundred Guinea Bills, Notes, and a Twenty-pound Bank of England."

The print (which I got from the online archive) is very hard to read, and I suspect I copied some of the words wrong. But hey, that’s the Tradition, right? And I’m too scared to go in and check. I also left out the last verse(s?), which I think suggest she married the judge. Which is a great ending but I felt the song was long enough as it is, so I leave that for someone else.

One of the little things that I found takes a bit of adjusting to with these old songs is the use of the word ‘gay’ as meaning carefree rather than homosexual (it seems to have been one of the most common words in the language). But I often find that the double-meaning tends to give the story a little extra depth. For example, it makes me wonder, was Miss Hughes ‘cursed in love’ because a boyfriend got her pregnant? Or did she ‘dare not go home’ because her lover was female? I like to think the latter...

The tune is given as “Derry Down”, which I took to mean the song ‘The Three Ravens’ (first published 1611, but probably much older), which seems to fit these words.


Kind gentlemen all pray listen awhile,
(With a down a down, hey down hey down,)
I'll sing you a song shall make you smile,
(With a down)
It's of a young lady both valiant and gay,
Who went out a robbing upon the highway.
(With a down, derry derry derry down down.)

Dressed in man's apparel Miss Hughes she set out,
Well mounted on horseback without fear or doubt,
With two loaded pistols she then rode away,
As bold as a lion to seek for her prey.

She had not rode long ere she met with a prize,
Which caused her courage and valour to rise,
She loved to have money, although a bad plan
And presently met with a rich gentleman.

She rode up to Mr Witcomb and bid him to stand;
With a pistol presented in her right hand:
“Do get your money and without strife,
Or in but a moment I'll take your sweet life.”

He pulled out his pocket-book seeing her so bold,
With two hundred and twenty in bills, notes and gold
"Here take this all, my good fellow" says he,
"Only spare my life," "I will sir," said she.

She put into her pocket, a glorious sight
Then rode up with speed and bid him good night
Overjoyed with her prize and with a light heart,
It proved for her but an unlucky start.

She was quickly pursued and taken at last
When once more this lady in prison was cast
She was tried in Lent Assizes and pardoned from death
On account of her parents and her noble high birth.

Though her father's a gentleman each they do say
But his daughter like others has wandered astray,
Being cursed in love caused her to roam
And drove her to distress and dare not go home.

This last robbery committed just made up a score
She took from the rich and gave it to the poor
Left like to Nevison [famous highwayman] - she thought it a good deed,
By giving to those whom she found were in need.

We'll give her applause though she should not act so
It was a wrong attempt for a lady to show,
Upon the highway to seek her bread,
By frightening a gentleman almost to dead.


from Joy & Jealousy, released November 5, 2013
Traditional arranged by James Bell.



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James Bell Oxford, UK

Recording artist. Singer. Guitarist. Songwriter. Producer. Performer of traditional English music. Not interested in being famous. Very interested in making good music. Prone to stubbornly ignore the advice of friends in the pursuit of a singular and unique artistic vision, only to admit in a couple of years that, yeah, okay, that particular thing didn’t really work. ... more

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