Today in London musical history, 1707: Jack Hall hung for burglary at Tyburn… But he Gets Immortalised in Song

‘Up the ladder I did grope,
That’s No Joke, That’s No Joke’

(From the popular song ‘Jack Hall’ later ‘Sam Hall’)

“Sam Hall’ is an old English folk song which prior to the mid-nineteenth century was called ‘Jack Hall’, remembering a burglar and thief who was hanged in 1707.

Jack or John Hall was born of poor parents who lived in a court off Grays Inn Road, London, who sold him for a guinea at the age of seven to be a ‘climbing boy’. Such boys and girls were sent to climb up inside chimneys to clean them. Young Jack Hall very sensibly soon ran away from this horrible occupation, and started to make a living as a pickpocket. Later he turned to housebreaking, for which he was whipped in 1692 and sentenced to death in 1700. He was reprieved, then released, but returned to crime and was re-arrested in 1702 for stealing luggage from a stagecoach. This got him branded on the cheek and imprisoned for two years.

Finally, after he was captured in the act of burgling a house in Stepney, he was hanged at Tyburn, on 17 December 1707.

In the style of the time, Jack’s exploits made him a celebrity, half folk hero and half folk-devil. Like many another petty (and not so petty) crim through the centuries, his story was quickly marketed and sold, in the form of cheap ballads and longer ‘confession’. There were sold in the streets and pubs, often whipped out fast enough to be flogged at the hanging of the condemned.

Jack’s actual criminal career was nothing madly special, but a canny songwriter turned his tale into a catchy song, which became hugely popular and lasted through the centuries, to be still sung today. Jack Hall’s defiance in face of the rope in the ballad made him the archetype of the condemned man who ‘died game’.

Did he sing at his execution? “the said Sam being a rogue of the deepest dye, who growled blasphemous staves, over the back of a chair, on the eve of his execution.”

The ballad Jack Hall was probably written around the time of his death, but in broadsides and passed down orally, the song survived for centuries. It was reprinted as a broadside in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, mutating, altering, as folks songs tend to do, producing different versions.

In the 1840s music hall singer W. G. Ross altered the song, changing the name to Sam Hall in the process. [Ross used to be a popular singer of the long descriptive songs of that day — some of his songs took half-an-hour to execute and detailed the entire plot of a novel or a drama.]

On 10 March 1848 Percival Leigh noted the following account of an evenings entertainment in an early Music Hall:

‘After that, to supper at the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane, wherein was much Company, great and small, and did call for Kidneys and Stout, then a small glass of Aqua-vitae and water, and thereto a Cigar.  While we supped, the Singers did entertain us with Glees and comical Ditties; but oh, to hear with how little wit the young sparks about town were tickled!  But the thing that did most take me was to see and hear one Ross sing the song of Sam Hall the chimney-sweep, going to be hanged: for he had begrimed his muzzle to look unshaven, and in rusty black clothes, with a battered old Hat on his crown and a short Pipe in his mouth, did sit upon the platform, leaning over the back of a chair: so making believe that he was on his way to Tyburn.  And then he did sing to a dismal Psalm-tune, how that his name was Sam Hall and that he had been a great Thief, and was now about to pay for all with his life; and thereupon he swore an Oath, which did make me somewhat shiver, though divers laughed at it.  Then, in so many verses, how his Master had badly taught him and now he must hang for it: how he should ride up Holborn Hill in a Cart, and the Sheriffs would come and preach to him, and after them would come the Hangman; and at the end of each verse he did repeat his Oath.  Last of all, how that he should go up to the Gallows; and desired the Prayers of his Audience, and ended by cursing them all round.  Methinks it had been a Sermon to a Rogue to hear him, and I wish it may have done good to some of the Company.  Yet was his cursing very horrible, albeit to not a few it seemed a high Joke; but I do doubt that they understood the song.’

WG Ross performs As Sam Hall

WG Ross made his fortune singing this song, becoming a huge attraction in early Music Halls all over England.

The main difference between different versions of ‘Sam Hall’ is between the more mournful and simpler number, and a generally longer and more defiant song, in which the singer Damns all those who condemned him, those watching him die, and the hearers. Perhaps the less angry and more subdued version originated in the more moralistic Victorian era, when penitent crims were more the fashion, not unbowed and abusive rebels.

The British melody of the song was taken from the song “Captain Kidd”, aka “Robert Kidd”, written shortly after the execution of William Kidd in 1701, but this also appeared to be based on the tune “Ye Jacobites by Name” (Roud # 5517), whereas the version more common in the USA (“My name it is Sam Hall, T’is Sam Hall…”) is a variant of the tune to “Frog Went A-Courting”

An example of the more defiant version

Oh my name is Sam Hall, Sam Hall
Oh my name is Sam Hall
And I hate you one and all
You’re a gang of muckers all
Damn your eyes.

Oh, I killed a man they said, so they said
Yes, I killed a man they said
For I cracked him on the head
And left him there for dead
Damn his eyes.

So they put me in the quad, in the quad
Yes, they put me in the quad
With a chain and iron rod
And they left me there, by God
Damn their eyes.

And the parson he did come, he did come
And the parson he did come
And he looked so ******* glum
With his talk of Kingdom Come
Damn his eyes.

And the sheriff he came too, he came too
And the sheriff he came too
With his boys all dressed in blue
They’re a gang o’ muckers too
Damn their eyes.

So it’s up the rope ye go, up ye go
So it’s up the rope ye go
With your friends all down below
Saying “Sam, I told you so”
Damn their eyes.

Saw my Nellie in the crowd, in the crowd,…
She was looking stooped and bowed,
So I hollered, right out loud,
“Hey, Nellie, ain’t you proud?
God damn your eyes.”

So this’ll be my knell, be my knell
So this’ll be my knell
Hope God damns you all to hell
An I hope you sizzle well
Damn your eyes.

And now I goes upstairs, goes upstairs
And now I goes upstairs
Here’s an end to all my cares
So tip up all your prayers
Damn your eyes.

The more subdued version:

Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep, chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall and I’ve robbed both great and small
And my neck will pay for all when I die, when I die
And my neck will pay for all when I die

I have twenty pounds in store, that’s not all, that’s not all
I have twenty pounds in store, that’s not all
I have twenty pounds in store and I’ll rob for twenty more
For the rich must help the poor, so must I, so must I
For the rich must help the poor, so must I

Oh I went up Holborn Hill in a cart, in a cart
Oh I went up Holborn Hill in a cart
Oh I went up Holborn Hill, where I stopped to make my will
Saying the best of friends must part, so must I, so must I
Saying the best of friends must part, so must I

Up the ladder I did grope, that’s no joke, that’s no joke
Up the ladder I did grope, that’s no joke
Up the ladder I did grope and the hangman pulled the rope
And ne’er a word I spoke, tumbling down, tumbling down
And ne’er a word I spoke tumbling down

Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep, chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep
Oh my name it is Sam Hall and I’ve robbed both great and small
And my neck will pay for all when I die, when I die
And my neck will pay for all when I die

The third verse of the song recounts travelling in the condemned cart up Holborn Hill, the steep hill up the side of the Fleet River valley, from the old Holborn Bridge (before the Holborn Viaduct was built).

This was a central section for the ritual journey from Newgate Prison to the hanging tree at Tyburn, as today’s Marble Arch. Holborn Hill was known as ‘the Heavy Hill’ – going up the  Heavy Hill became slang for being hung (joining a teeming rich list of terms for this punishment, a nexus of eighteenth century life.)

The song migrated to Ireland, and an Irish version was sung, where instead of Holborn Hill, the singer recounts being taken to ‘Coote Hill’ –  Cootehill in County Cavan – to die.

From England and Ireland, ‘Sam Hall’ crossed the Atlantic, and produced US versions… Black folk singer Josh White, country legend Tex Ritter, and later Johnny Cash, sang this version:

Well, my name, it is Sam Hall, Sam Hall
Yes, my name, it is Sam Hall, it is Sam Hall
My name it is Sam Hall, and I hate you, one and all
And I hate you, one and all
Damn your eyes!

I killed a man, they said, so they said
I killed a man, they said, so they said
I killed a man, they said, and I smashed in his head
And I left him layin’ dead
Damn his eyes!

But a swinging I must go, I must go
A swinging I must go, I must go
A swinging I must go while you critters down below
Yell up: “Sam, I told you so”
Well, damn your eyes!

I saw Molly in the crowd, in the crowd
I saw Molly in the crowd, in the crowd
I saw Molly in the crowd, and I hollered, right out loud
“Hey there, Molly, ain’t you proud?
Damn your eyes!”

Then the Sherriff, he came, too, he came, too
Ah, yeah, the Sherriff, he came, too, he came, too
The Sherriff, he came, too, and he said “Sam, how are you?”
And I said, “Well, Sherriff, how are you?
Damn your eyes!”

My name is Samuel, Samuel
My name is Samuel, Samuel
My name is Samuel, and I’ll see you all in hell
And I’ll see you all in hell
Damn your eyes!

Tex Ritter’s howlingly excellent version (1935)

Here’s another version, sung by Richard Thompson with a fun call and response

And a personal fave – a version by the mighty Frank Tovey (Fad Gadget)

 

‘The parson he did come
And he looked so fucking glum,
And he talked of Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come,
He can stick it it up his bum,
Damn his Eyes!’

 

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There’s a hugely comprehensive examination of the evolution of the song song and the tune in Bertrand Bronson’s Samuel Hall’s Family Tree (California Folklore Quarterly, I (1) 1942) where he relates he English tune to the same tune as “Stand up now, Diggers All” written by the True Levellers at St George’s Hill… possibly by Gerard Winstanley himself. But the tune goes back even further, to the fifteenth century…

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Just a couple of Jack’s arrests:

“John Hall , of the Parish of Stepny , was indicted upon three Indictments; the first, for that he the 7th Day of December last, feloniously did steal 10 Holland-shirts, 12 Neckcloths, 3 Pair of Sleeves, 3 Pair of Thread-Stockings, and other Goods, the Goods of a Person unknown ; the second, for that he at the same Time and Place, feloniously did steal a Hair Portmanto-Trunk, a silk Night-Gown, a silver Watch, 5 Guineas, and divers other Goods of John Edwards ; the third, for Stealing at the same Time, a Hair-Trunk, a Parchment Deed in writing, a Perriwig, and 5 Guineas, and other Goods of Gilbert Cale . It appeared by the Evidence, that the Goods were put in the Trunks, and sent to the Bristol-Coach, at the 3 Cups in Bread-street, and the Coach going out early in the Morning, the Coach-man stopt in St. Giles’s to call for 2 Passengers, that he was to take in, and in the mean while he was gone, the Prisoner, with 2 more, took the Trunks, and put them into a Hackney-Coach, and carried them to Ratclif High-way, where they stopt at an Alehouse, and 2 of them went their ways, and left the Prisoner with the Goods; but the Man of the House mistrusting they were stole, gave notice to the Headborough, who sent his Beadle before, and the Prisoner seeing the Beadle come, ordered the Coach to drive down Old Gravel-lane, which he did, and stopt at another Ale-house, where the Headborough seized him, and the Goods: At first he said, That they were his Masters, but at last confest the whole matter. He denied it all at his Tryal, saying, He met some of his Ship’s Crew, in the Morning, in Monmouth-street, who gave him a Pint of Brandy, which intoxicated him; and said, that if he would go with them to Wapping, they would treat him; but this being but a feigned Excuse, for he could not prove it, the Jury found him guilty of the 2 last Indictments; and there being no Evidence to the first, he was acquitted of that.”

(Newgate Calendar, 15th Jan 1703)

An account of the crime that got Jack stretched:

“John Hall, Richard Low, Stephen Bunch.
Theft: burglary.
10th December 1707

Guilty
Sentence
Death

John Hall , Richard Low and Stephen Bunch , were all three Indicted for breaking open the dwelling House of Captain John Guyon of the Parish of Stepney , between the Hours of one and two at Night, on the 25th November last, and taking from thence a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup, the Goods of the said John Guyon . The first Witness was Madam Guyon, who depos’d, That on the 25th of November, about one or two a Clock at Night, she heard a noise of Thieves in the House, and got up and alarm’d the Neighbours; that on a sudden three Men rush’d into the Room, two Men came up to her, and said, Damn you, deliver your Mony; and gave her a blow on the Face, and bid her go to Bed, That she repl’d, that she had no Mony there, but what she had was in the next Room; upon their going to which Room she lockd the Door upon them, Being ask’d, whether she knew any of them? Reply’d, That the Person that struck her was a tall Man, much of the Stature of Low, but she could not swear to any of their Faces; she viewing them by no light than that of the Moon. The Maid’s Evidence was much the same with her Mistress, except in this particular, That Hall holding a Pistol at her Breast, and a Candle in his Hand, gave her the perfect knowledge of his Countenance, so that she swore positively against Hall.

Another considerable piece of Evidence, was that of one Briggs, a Boy of eleven Years Old, at the Green Man near Billingsgate, who depos’d, That six Men came to his Father’s House, about four a Clock in the Morning, and being near, had the opportunity to see and hear what pass’d, which was after this manner, (Viz.) That one of them pull’d a Dram Cup out of his Pocket; and another, out of a Handkerchief, took a Wast-coat trim’d with Silver-Thread, and Buttons, with three Head-dresses, with Knotts, which agreed exactly, with those that the Prosecutor lost. That he heard Bunch say, We have made a pretty good Hand on’t too Night; and Hall reply’d, that he hop’d they should make a better Hand on’t to Morrow Night. Being ask’d, how he could distinguish one from another? reply’d, that when they spoke aloud, they call’d one another Brother Stitch, but when they spoke softly, they call’d one another by their proper Names. That before they went away, they made an Appointment to meet at the Three Fighting-Cocks in Bun-hill Fields, between Five and Six a Clock that Night; and this Evidence acquainting his Father with it, he suspecting them to be ill Persons, acquainting some stout Men with it, they engag’d to go to the place to take them, but not finding them in the House, as they came away they met them going thither; in their pursuit, the Prisoners fir’d several Pistols at them, but at last they apprehended them.

Low took the Fact upon himself, to excuse the other two: But the Evidence being very clear, and the Prisoners Old Offenders, the Jury found them all Guilty of the Indictment.

[Death. See summary.]”

(Newgate Calendar, 10th Dec 1707)

Read a copyright free version of a supposed (unlikely, really) autobiography of Jack Hall, published in 1708, titled Memoirs of the Right Villanous Jack Hall.

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