If you please, do draw near, it’s the truth I declare,
It was of an old farmer in Herefordshire;
He’d a fair Yorkshire boy who acted as man
To manage his business, his name they called John.
To me fol-the-dol-lero-li-day.
One morning quite early he called up his man,
And when he came to him, as we understand,
He said, ‘Take this cow to Hereford Fair;
She is in good order, I can well her spare.’
Away went the boy with his whip in his hand
And soon reached the fair as you’ll all understand.
Well, in a short time he met with three men
And sold one his cow for six pounds ten.
They went to an alehouse in order to drink;
It was there that the farmer paid the boy down his chink.
The boy to the landlady then he did say,
‘Oh, what shall I do with this money, I pray?’
‘I will sew it within thy coat-lining,’ said she,
‘For fear on the road there a robber should be.’
Close by sat a highwayman drinking his wine;
Thought he to himself, ‘That money is mine.’
The boy took his leave and he homeward did go,
And the highwayman soon followed after also.
He soon overtook him upon the highway,
And, ‘Well overtaken, young man,’ he did say.
‘Will you get up behind me?’ the highwayman said.
‘How far are you going?’ replied the lad.
‘Well, it’s three or four miles for what I do know.’
So he jumped up behind and away they did go.
They rode till they came to a very dark lane;
The highwayman says, ‘Now I’ll tell you quite plain,
Deliver up your money without noise or strife,
Or else I shall certainly take your sweet life.’
The boy soon found out there could be no dispute,
So he quickly alighted without fear or doubt;
He tore his coat linings, the money took out,
And among the long grasses he strewed it about.
The highwayman then he jumped down off his horse,
But little he thought that it was for his loss.
And before he could find any money, they say,
The boy jumped on horseback and rode fast away.
The highwayman shouted and begged him to stay;
The boy wouldn’t hear him, but kept on his way,
And to his old master the boy he did bring
Horse, saddle and bridle, a very fine thing.
The master he laughed while his sides he did hold
And said, ‘For a boy thou hast been very bold.
Now as for the villain, thou hast served him right
And hast put upon him a real Yorkshire bite.’
They searched in the saddle bags and quickly they told
Two-hundred pounds in silver and gold
And two brace of pistols; the boy he did vow,
‘I think, good master, I’ve well sold the cow!’
This is a traditional song about Yorkshire.
This broadside ballad is one of a trio with almost identical plots, all three very popular in Yorkshire in the early nineteenth century. In The Crafty Farmer/Saddle to Rags (Roud 2640) it is the farmer himself who outwits the highwayman; in 'The Highwayman Outwitted/The Cheshire Farmer’s Daughter/The Maid of Rygate (Roud 2638)' it is the farmer’s daughter, and in our ballad here it is the farmer’s male servant/ploughboy, John/Dan who does the deed. In all three the intended victim outwits the highwayman by riding off on his horse with all of his ill-gotten gain while the robber is picking up the victim’s relatively meagre earnings.
In the earliest printed version of c.1782 from a garland of four ballads, reprinted in Logan’s A Pedlar’s Pack of Ballads and Songs, 1869, p131, the ballad is titled as above. The term ‘bite’ used as a synonym for ‘trick’ was in common use in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but was obsolete by 1890. It was proverbially a ‘Yorkshire Bite’ as Yorkshiremen were renowned for their astute business dealings and if you got the worst of a business deal you had had ‘a Yorkshire Bite laid upon you’. ‘Bite’ was used as a noun to mean the actual act, a verb (as in the proverb ‘Once bitten, twice shy’) and was colloquially applied as a noun synonymous with Yorkshireman by the 1850s.
Although printed by Pitts and Such in London (two printers whose collective output spanned almost the whole of the nineteenth century) and Pratt of Birmingham, it was much more widely printed in the north of England by nearly all of the well-known broadside printers of the early nineteenth century. Its more common title is The Crafty Ploughboy. The earlier printers set the story in Hertfordshire but the majority of broadside versions set the story in Herefordshire which confusion could easily be put down to poor printing being misinterpreted rather than deliberate relocation. A few actually set it in Yorkshire, but in all versions the boy is from Yorkshire.
Although by the twentieth century the ballad’s popularity had waned, as one would expect it turns up in oral tradition all over the English-speaking world, particularly in North America, and even though I haven’t seen any Scottish broadsides the Greig-Duncan Collection of North-East Scotland contains nine versions (See Vol.2, p278).
Bill’s version is based on that collected by R A A Gatty from Mr Sanderson of Braithwell, south of Doncaster, in October 1907. (The Gatty Collection is held in the Birmingham Reference Library with copies in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, London NW) Though the doggerel verse is poor and the tune rather awkward we include it because of its one-time popularity, and if nothing else the story is a good one. Our thanks go to Bill for learning and singing it for us at short notice. The tune appears to be a variant of that usually associated with the well-known song Cruising Round Yarmouth.