Van Diemen’s Land

Come, all you gallant poachers
That ramble free from care
That walk out of a moonlight night
With your dog your gun and snare
Where the lusty hare and pheasant
You have at your command
Not thinking that your last career
Is on Van Diemen’s Land

There was poor Tom Brown from Nottingham
Jack Williams, and poor Joe
Were three as daring poachers
As the country well does know
At night they were trepanned
By the keepers hid in sand
And for fourteen years transported were
Unto Van Diemen’s Land

Oh when that we were landed
Upon that fatal shore
The planters they came flocking round
Full twenty score or more
They ranked us up like horses
And sold us out of hand
They yoked us to the plough my boys
To plough Van Diemen’s Land

Come all you gallant poachers
Give ear unto my song
It is a bit of good advice
Although it is not long
Lay by your dog and snare
To you I do speak plain
If you knew the hardships we endure
You ne’er would poach again

‘So strong was official feeling against poachers in the decades after Waterloo, that in 1828 it was enacted that if three men were found in a wood after dark, and one of them carried a gun or a bludgeon, all were liable to be transported for fourteen years.’ Roy Palmer (1979) Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs.

This is a song well known in tradition, particularly in England and Ireland. Versions are often localised, suggesting this one comes from the English midlands. I sung this from memory, and managed to sing ‘lusty hare and pheasant’ instead of the more common ‘lofty hare and pheasant’, although, come to think of it, there’s no reason why hares should be particularly lofty.

Van Diemen’s Land has been found sung to several tunes, in different modes and with different time signatures, but all related. AL Lloyd, in Folk Song in England (first published in 1967) gives tunes for John Barleycorn and The Murder of Maria Marten that bear some resemblance to the tune I use here. Most famously, perhaps, this tune is often used for the Irish song, The Star of the County Down, although that lyric was written by Cathal McGarvey (or Garvey) (1866-1927). It seems that the tune is a variant of the Scots song Gilderoy, first published in Musick for Allan Ramsay’s Collection of Scots songs (c1726).

Bert Lloyd (see above) didn’t much care for the song, or at least for its authenticity as a first-hand account:

‘Who made the song? Assuredly it was no transported convict; the piece is too stylized, to conventionalized to have been conceived by one who had ever walked the chain-gang shuffle … It is a pot poet’s confection, based on hearsay, aimed with accuracy at a broad market of downtrodden people ready to take to their heart any touching song of injustice and hard treatment.’

On the other hand, I like it.



The Jones Boys play highly accomplished traditional music from Ireland, England, Scotland, Brittany, Sweden, Bulgaria …

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