54  An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel an Apprentice in Lon-/don, who was undone by a Strumpet [Pepys 2.158-59]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwell

Bodies - clothing Bodies - looks/physique Bodies - nourishment Crime - immorality Crime - murder Crime - outlaws Crime - robbery/theft Death - execution Death - result of immorality Economy - money Economy - trade Emotions - despair Emotions - excitement Emotions - greed Emotions - longing Employment - apprenticeship/service Employment - prostitution Gender - femininity Gender - masculinity Gender - sex Morality - general Morality - romantic/sexual Morality - social/economic Places - English Places - European Places - travel/transport Recreation - alcohol Recreation - food Violence - interpersonal Violence - punitive

Song History

An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel[l] occupied an important place in English culture from the 1620s until the middle of the nineteenth century. The broadsides of the seventeenth century were later joined by slip songs, and several songbooks included the ballad (see Percy and Ritson). After 1700, single-sheet editions were printed not only in London but also in several other British cities. In the eighteenth century, the ballad also generated longer versions of the story in chapbooks and plays (see Related texts), and there is little doubt that George Barnwell was a household name.

His tragedy may even have spawned a kind of ‘dark tourism’ at Ludlow in Shropshire, supposedly the home of the unfortunate uncle whom George murdered. A guide to the town, published in 1812, described ‘Huck’s Barn’ as ‘the far-famed residence of the uncle of George Barnwell’. Visitors might also have been interested in ‘Barnwell’s Green’, where George lay in wait for his ill-fated relative, and a local wood ‘in which he perpetrated the horrid murder’.

In the early twentieth century, a version of the ballad was also noted as a folksong. The collector, Alfred Williams, transcribed the text from a man named ‘Wassail’ Harvey in Cricklade (Wiltshire). Williams published it in 1923, noting that ‘Georgie Barnell’ was ‘well-known around the Cotswolds and the Thames generally’. The editor’s use of ‘was’ perhaps implied that the song was finally fading out.

The folksong was closely related to a rewritten version of the ballad that was published regularly in the nineteenth century, steadily replacing the original. This version shortened the previous song dramatically, preserving only the core of the story. It also re-cast most of the words, introducing a humorous, even parodic, tone that had no place in the seventeenth-century song. The authors attempted an English dialect of some sort, the main feature of which was the rendering of almost every initial ‘w’ as a ‘v’ (so ‘wicked’ and ‘wishful’ become ‘vicked’ and ‘vishful’). A jolly refrain, beginning ‘fol de riddle’, was also introduced, and Mistress Milwood was referred to twice as a ‘naughty dicky bird’.

Intriguingly, the folksong that Williams found in Cricklade omitted every single one of these humorous features, despite sticking closely to the text of the broadside in other respects. It is as if the singers and listeners of Wiltshire had voted to restore the ballad about Barnwell to its original sobriety.

The popularity of the ballad in the seventeenth century is interesting because, to most modern minds, it is exceptionally long and, particularly in part two, the singer has to work hard to fit the opening lines of several of the verses to the tune. The ballad also lacks the additional interest usually provided by a woodcut. No seventeenth-century edition included a picture, perhaps because no publisher wanted to take the risk of reducing the lengthy text in order to make room for one on the page. Despite these apparent shortcomings, this was a ballad that evidently moved people (see also Related texts). In 1731, George Lillo referred to it as a song ‘Which, for a century of rolling years,/ Has fill’d a thousand eyes with tears’.

It seems likely that the ballad’s appeal resided partly in its effectiveness as a ‘coming of age’ tale. Early modern moralists taught that youth was ‘the choosing time’, during which young people faced good and bad options in a phase of life marked uniquely by malleability, volatility and vulnerability. Barnwell chooses the wrong path, lured along it by Milwood’s womanly wiles. She is clearly aware of George’s transitional state and refers to him both as a child and a man. Knowingly, she commands the former while seducing and flattering the latter. At the outset, George is taking on new responsibilities for his master but, in doing so, he exposes himself to dangers that he is not yet equipped to confront. Mesmerised by Milwood, George encapsulates his position: ‘Her words bewitcht my childishness’. So impressionable was he that the sight and sound of Milwood crying ‘wrought a sudden change’ in him and set him on the track to tragedy.

Like many other ballads, this one can be considered a conduct book in musical miniature. The opening line – ‘All youths of fair England' – identifies the main intended audience, and the later history of the tale (see Related texts) indicates that it was targeted very purposefully at the young, especially apprentices. In nineteenth-century London, a Chamberlain of the city liked to tell the story to new apprentices and ‘quote some lines of the ballad, as a warning’ (Mackay). Crucially, however, the ballad was distinguished from a conduct book by an engrossing narrative that enabled readers and listeners to experience vicariously George’s sexual awakening and acts of rebellion before sharing less happily in the consequences. Powerful urges were first aroused and then doused.

It is equally clear that the ballad-makers’ powerful and misogynistic representation of Sarah Milwood must also have been part of the song’s appeal. The combination of her deceit, her manipulative talent, her domineering disposition, her evil intent, her sex appeal and her emotional coldness may have ‘bewitched’ consumers almost as successfully as it did George. Most chillingly, she responds to George’s plan to murder his uncle with the amoral question, ‘why should you not’? She was, in short, the very antithesis of the wise adult counsellor.

There are other points for discussion too. The closing reference to George’s eventual hanging in ‘Polonia’ (Poland) is, for example, a little perplexing. It was dropped from most later versions of the tale (see Related texts) but it may conceivably indicate that the original ballad had some relation to an actual case. Otherwise, it was a curious inclusion.

The manner in which the ballad-makers sometimes slip between use of the first and third persons in their narrative is also interesting (this was a common feature of early-modern ballads): ‘Ten pounds, nor ten times ten/ shall make my love decay,/ Then from his Bag into her lap,/ he cast ten pound straightway’. This was presumably more an instinctive habit of the ballad-making mind than a purposeful attempt to affect listeners but it perhaps has the effect of reinforcing the impression of an identity in transition and in crisis. Comparing different editions of the song, we can see that some of the inconsistencies of subject-position were adjusted from one version to the next, though they were never eradicated.

Other differences between editions were mainly small alterations of language, though one or two feel more significant. The individuals who prepared an edition in the 1670s, for example, changed the line in which Sarah Milwood is first mentioned from ‘I did a woman meet’ to ‘I did a wanton meet’ (another interesting slippage). This change was preserved in subsequent versions, including our featured edition.


Anon, A description of the town of Ludlow (Ludlow, 1812), p. 126.

Broadside ballads from the Bodleian Libraries: http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/ 

English Broadside Ballad Archive: https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/

English Short Title Catalogue.

Paul Griffiths, Youth and authority. Formative experiences in England 1560-1640 (Oxford, 1996).

George Lillo, The London merchant: Or, The history of George Barnwell. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury Lane by His Majesty’s servants (1731), Prologue.

Charles Mackay (ed.), A collection of songs & ballads relative to the London prentices and trades (1891), p. 35.

Madden Collection, Garlands, vol. 2, nos. 341-44, Cambridge University Library.

Una McIlvenna, ‘The Rich Merchant Man, or, What the punishment of greed sounded like in early modern English ballads’, Huntington Library Quarterly 79.2 (2016), pp. 279-99.

Thomas Percy, Reliques of ancient English poetry, 3 vols. (1765), vol. 3, pp. 225-40.

Joseph Ritson, A select collection of English songs 3 vols. (1783), vol. 2, pp. 255-72.

Hyder E. Rollins, An analytical index to the ballad-entries (1557-1709) in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (1924; Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1967), nos. 956-57.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library: https://www.vwml.org/ (Roud nos. V7925 and 546).

Alfred Williams, Folk songs of the upper Thames (1923), pp. 232-33.

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Featured Tune History

To the tune of ‘The Merchant’ (standard name: The rich merchant man)

The purpose of this section is to provide brief notes on the melody followed by detailed evidence relating to  its career, paying particular attention to the ‘echoes’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was nominated for the singing of more than one ballad. In the list presented in the ‘Songs and Summaries’ section below, we have endeavoured to include as many of the black-letter ballads that used the tune as possible, under any of its variant names. Titles from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type (these are also in colour when there is a link to the relevant ballad page on the website). It should be noted that it is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).  In most cases, we list the earliest surviving edition of a ballad, though in many instances there may have been earlier versions, now lost.

Versions and variations

This tune was usually known as ‘The Rich Merchant [Man]’ or ‘The Merchant [of Emden]’ and more rarely as ‘The Kentish Miracle’ or ‘George Barnwel’. It was clearly very well known and was cited on many ballads, but it was rarely if ever written down during the seventeenth century. The same was true of ‘Chevy Chase’, another immensely successful tune, and it is intriguing that the two melodies also share a tendency towards tonal indeterminacy and a feeling of circularity that was created by avoidance of the apparent key note in the final cadence.

Simpson read these signals as evidence that the ‘The Rich Merchant Man’ was ‘of popular cast’, and perhaps for this reason it does not seem to have appealed to the period’s most sophisticated composers. In fact, the earliest written versions of the tune date from the early eighteenth century, and our recording is based on the music provided in Wit and Mirth (1707). Here, it appears with a bawdy text entitled ‘The Merchant and the Fiddler’s Wife’, a song that had been published in broadside form in c. 1680, set ‘To a Pleasant Northen [sic] Tune’. The song opened with lines that directly referenced those at the beginning of A most sweet Song of an English Merchant:

A Rich Merchant man [‘there was’ added in some editions]/ That was both grave and wise [A most sweet Song]

It was a Rich Merchant man,/ That had both ship and all [The Merchant-man and the Fidlers wife]

Despite the significant thematic differences between the two unfolding narratives (see below), it seems certain that they were intended for the same tune.

Echoes (an overview)

The tune derived its primary title from Thomas Deloney’s Most sweet Song of an English Merchant. Most of the songs that subsequently named the melody, however, abandoned the tense but ultimately buoyant romance of the original and tied its music instead to texts that were heavily moral and religious. Editions of A most sweet Song continued to be published throughout the period of this transition, and the shifting associations of the tune must have altered the ‘feel’ of the old song somewhat.

There was, however, a link between the two themes in the fact that the original ballad and many of those that followed highlighted an execution. In A most sweet Song, the condemned merchant’s death never actually happens because the delightful maidens of Emden intervene to save him. In later ballads, the executions are all too real: in An excellent Ballad of George Barnwel, for example, both the morally feeble apprentice and the ‘strumpet’ who corrupts him end up on the gallows.

Thus, the same tune animated good men who escaped the gallows and bad men (and women) who did not. The message delivered by several of these guilty types was that others should learn from their wicked examples and learn to avoid sin (see, for example, THE Unfaithful Servant, who is in several ways a female version of the more famous Barnwel).

This theme had close links with another series of ballads that warned more generally of the sins of society and urged immediate repentance (Englands Warning-Piece). Other songs used the same tune to describe providential wonders – miraculous showers of wheat, extraordinary tales of large families surviving for weeks on single loaves of bread, and so on – and these may have suggested that, despite the doom and gloom of the calls for repentance, the tune still allowed for light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps, therefore, this melody came to convey a curious combination of hope and despair as it sounded and re-sounded across the decades.

There is one very striking outlier, entitled The Merchant-man and the Fidlers wife, published around 1680. This is a coarse and supposedly humorous ballad about two men who gamble on the chastity of a woman, and it is so far out of line with the subject matter of the other listed songs that the composer’s choice must be considered part of his comic strategy.

Some of these songs were connected with one another not just by their shared tune but by inter-textual referencing, though the links do not appear to have been as frequent as those found among the songs set, for example, to ‘Flying fame’. A most sweet song deploys the distinctive device of repeating the fourth line as the fifth line in its opening verses, and the same tactic is used in The wofull Lamentation of William Purcas. The long refrains that call for repentance in Christs tears over Jerusalem, Englands Warning-Piece and A Warning-Piece for all Wicked Livers are also strongly reminscent of one another.

And the textual links between A new Ballad, shewing the great misery sustained by a poore man in Essex and A true sence of Sorrow: OR THE Poor York-shire-Man protected by Providence are so extensive that the latter has to be considered a re-vamping of the former. Interestingly, references to the Devil are removed, meaning that the tall man in black who appears in both ballads is Satan himself in the first song but a benevolent gentleman in the second. The tune, because of the curious route it had travelled through the seventeenth century, could handle both possibilities.

[See 'Postscript', below, for additional notes on the melody].

Songs and Summaries

A most sweet Song of an English Merchant, borne at Chichester... To an excellent new Tune (registered 1594; Francis Coules, 1624-56). Roxburghe 1.104-05; EBBA 30069. Crime – murder; Death – execution, unlawful killing; Gender – courtship, femininity, masculinity, sexual violence; Emotions – love, hope, anxiety, excitement, joy; Bodies – clothing, looks/physique; Violence – interpersonal; Religion – charity, sin/repentance; Places – English, European, travel/transport; Recreation – weddings. An English merchant is condemned to death in Emden after killing a man in a fight, but the local women – universally besotted – intervene to save him.

A new Ballad, shewing the great misery sustained by a poore man in Essex, his Wife and Children... To the tune of, The rich Merchant man (H. Gosson, 1601-40). Roxburghe 1.286-87; EBBA 30202. Religion – angels/devils, Christ/God, charity, Bible; Family – pregnancy/childbirth, children/parents; Gender – marriage; Morality – social/economic; Economy – hardship/prosperity, money, household; Society – rich/poor, neighbours; Emotions – despair, hope; Bodies – nourishment, health/sickness; Environment – flowers/trees; Places – English. A poor man, desperate to find food for his children and pregnant wife, is approached by the Devil in human form, but somehow goodness eventually prevails.

The fearefull Judgement of almighty god, shewed upon two sonnes who most unnaturallye murthered their naturall father. TO THE TUNE OF The Marchant of Emden or Crimson Velvet (no printed copy but it was copied out by hand, c. 1603-16). Shirburn Ballads, XXXIX. Family – children/parents, siblings, inheritance; Crime – murder; Death – unlawful killing, execution; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Morality – familial; Recreation – games/sports; Religion – divine intervention, sin/repentance; ,News – international, sensational; Places – European; Emotions – hatred, despair, greed; Employment – professions. The terrible tale of two sons from Amsterdam, who brutally murder their father but are quickly brought to justice through a combination of divine intervention, remorse and legal process.

The Cucking of a Scould. To the tune of, The Merchant of Emden (G. P., 1609-32?).  Pepys 1.454; EBBA 20029.  Crime – antisocial, punishment; Gender – femininity; Morality – social/economic; Violence – punitive; Emotions – anger.  A detailed description of the behaviour and punishment of a seventeen-year old scold.

The Arrainement condemnation and execution of the gran[d cutpurse] John Selman... To the tune of a rich Marchant man [issued with The Captaine Cut-purse] (imprint missing, 1612?).  Pepys, Loose Ballads; EBBA 20057.  Crime – robbery, punishment; Death – execution, result of immorality; Morality – social/economic; Religion – church, sin/repentance; Recreation – alcohol, games, good fellowship.  Two songs - one autobiographical and one in a narrator’s voice – that both describe the wicked thieving ways of John Selman, whose worst crime was to cut a purse during a church service in the King’s Chapel on Christmas Day.

The wofull Lamentation of William Purcas... To the tune of, The rich Merchant (Francis Coules, 1624-80). Roxburghe 1.444-45; EBBA 30299. Family – children/parents; Recreation – alcohol; Morality – familial; Crime – murder; Violence interpersonal, domestic; Death – execution, result of immorality; Religion – angels/devils, body/soul, heaven/hell; Emotions – anger, anxiety, guilt, horror, shame; Bodies – injury; Gender – masculinity; Places – English. This presents the repentant words of a young man who faces execution for murdering his mother because she warned him of the dangers of drunkenness.

Englands Warning-Piece; OR, A Caviet for Wicked Sinners to remember their latter end. To the Tune of the Rich Merchant Man (R. Burton, 1640-79). Wood E 25(127); Religion – body/soul, Christ/God, sin/repentance, charity; Morality – general; Recreation – alchohol; Death – godly end; Emotions – anxiety, frustration; Family – children/parents, siblings; Gender – sex. This condemns the multiple sins that afflict contemporary society, and urges repentance upon all.

Strange Newes from Brotherton in Yorke-shire... To the Tune of The rich Merchant-man (John Hammond, 1642-51). Manchester Central Library, Blackletter Ballads 2.39; EBBA 36213. News - sensational, domestic; Religion - divine intervention, faith, sin/repentance; Environment - crops, weather, wonders; Morality - general; Emotions - wonder; Places - English, European; Economy - hardship/prosperity; Politics - civil war, domestic. This reports on wheat falling from the sky in Yorkshire, connecting it with other recent 'wonders of the LORD'.

A Warning to all Priests and jesuites... To the Tune of, A Rich Merchant Man (Fr. Grove, 1643?). Ashm. H 23(47). Crime – treason; Death – execution; Violence – punitive; Religion – Catholic/Protestant, clergy, church, heaven/hell,  Emotions – hatred; News – convicts/crimes; Politics – domestic. A viciously anti-Catholic ballad that describes the recent execution of two ‘seducing’ priests and warns others to flee England before they meet the same fate.

An excellent Ballad of George Barnwel an Apprentice of London, who was undone by a strumpet... The tune is, The Merchant (F. Coles, T. Vere, and W. Gilbertson, 1661-63). Euing 81; EBBA 31764. Bodies – looks/physique, clothing, nourishment; Crime – murder, robbery/theft, outlaws, immorality; Death – execution, result of immorality; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Employment – apprenticeship/service, prostitution; Gender – masculinity, femininity, sex; Economy – money, trade; Recreation – alcohol, food; Emotions – longing, excitement, despair, greed; Morality – social/economic, romantic/sexual, general; Places – English, European, travel/transport. The long story of an apprentice who is seduced by a ‘harlot’ and tempted into an ultimately destructive life of lasciviousness and crime.

A godly ballad of the just man Job.. The Tune is, The Merchant [issued with The doleful dance] (F. Coles, T. Vere, and J. Wright, 1665-74). Bodleian 4o Rawl. 566(203); Religion – Bible, Christ/God, faith, heroism, sin/repentance; Emotions – sorrow; Family – children/parents, History – ancient/mythological, heroism. A man overhears Job describing his manifold sufferings but refusing resolutely to turn from God.

A true sence of Sorrow: OR THE Poor York-shire-Man protected by Providence... To the Tune of, Rich Merchant-Man (J. Deacon, 1671-99).  Pepys 2.53; EBBA 20677.   Economy – hardship, household; Emotions – despair, joy; Family – pregnancy/childbirth; Gender – marriage; Morality –social/economic; Society – neighbours, rich and poor.  A poor man, whose wife is in child-bed, begs for relief and, after some disappoinments, is generously helped by a slightly mysterious gentleman dressed all in black.

THE Unfaithful Servant; AND The Cruel Husband... To the Tune of, The Rich Merchant-man: Or, George Barnwel (J. Deacon, 1671-99). Pepys 2.151; EBBA 20769. Crime – murder, punishment; Death –execution, result of immorality, unlawful killing; Employment – apprenticeship/service; Family – pregnancy/childbirth; Gender – marriage, adultery/cuckoldry; Violence – interpersonal, punitive; Morality – familial, romantic/sexual; Religion – Christ/God, sin/repentance, prayer; Emotions – anxiety, guilt fear. A maidservant who conspired with her master to poison the pregnant woman of the house regrets her foul deed and prepares for her execution by fire.

Christs tears over Jerusalem... To the Tune of, The Merchant (F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright, and J. Clarke, 1675-80). Bodleian 4o Rawl. 566(190). Religion – Christ/God, divine intervention, sin/repentance, Bible; History – ancient/mythological; Places – extra-European; Violence – divine; Environment – buildings; Morality – general; Emotions – sorrow, hope; Bodies – injury; Death – execution, godly end. This recounts the Biblical tale of Christ’s warnings to sinful Jerusalem and the horrors that God unleashed upon the city, urging England to learn the lesson and avoid a similar fate.

TREASON Justly Punished... Tune of, The Rich Merchant-Man, &c (F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright, and J. Clarke, 1678). Houghton Library, EBB65; EBBA 35048. Crime – treason, prison; Politics – plots, domestic, treason; Religion – Catholic/ProtestantDeath – execution; Violence – punitive; Employment – crafts/trades; News – convicts/crimes; Royalty – general. The sorry tale of William Staley, a Catholic who was excecuted for treason after threatening to kill the king.

Friendly Advice to / EXTRAVAGANTS... Tune of, The rich Merchant man (F. Cole, T. Vere, J. Wright, J. Carlk [sic], W. Thackery, and T. Passenger, 1678-80?). Beinecke Library, Broadsides By6 1; EBBA 35694. Death – godly end; Emotions – anxiety; Recreation – alchohol; Religion – Christ/God, sin/repentance. This laments the sins of society, urging everyone to remember that death can strike at any instant and that urgent spiritual preparation is therefore necessary.

The Unnatural Mother... The Tune is, There was a Rich Merchant Man (F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright, I. Clarke, W. Thackeray, and T Passinger, 1680?).  Pepys 2.191; EBBA 20806.  Gender – marriage, femininity, masculinity; Family – children and parents; Death – unlawful killing, suicide; Crime – infanticide; Violence – interpersonal; Morality – familial; Emotions – anger; News – convicts/crimes. A troubled wife kills herself and her two babies after an argument with her husband.

The Merchant-man and the Fidlers wife... To a Pleasant Northen [sic] Tune (Fr. Coles, Thos. Vere, J. Wright, J. Clarke, W. Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1680-81). Pepys 4.163; EBBA 21825. Gender – adultery/cuckoldry, marriage, femininity, masculinity, sex, sexual violence; Employment – crafts/trades, professions; Recreation – music, games/sports; Humour – bawdry; Violence – sexual.  A fiddler and his wife take a journey in a merchant’s ship, and the two men make a bet over the chastity of the woman.

A Warning-Piece for all Wicked Livers... To the Tune of, The Rich Merchant Man (J. Wright, J. Clark, W. Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1681-84). Crawford 1199; EBBA 34083. Death – godly end; Morality – social/economic, general; Religion – Christ/God, sin/repentance, Bible, charity; Economy – hardship/prosperity; Emotions – anxiety; Recreation – alcohol; Family – children/parents. This offers extensive moral advice after warning that Judgement Day and/or death may well be imminent.

Dirty Dolls Farewel ... Tune of, The Rich Merchant-man (J. Wright, J. Clark, W. Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1684).  Pepys, Loose Ballads; EBBA 21247.  Death – result of immorality; Religion – angels/devils; Employment – female/male; Gender – femininity; Morality – social/economic; News – sensational; Places – English; Violence -  diabolical.  A warning to all by the example of Dirty Doll, a disreputable practitioner of extortion, who was beaten during a visitation from the Devil and died of her injuries.

The Kentish MIRACLE... To the Tune of, A Rich Merchant Man (J. Deacon, 1684). Pepys 2.54; EBBA 20678. Religion – prayer, divine intervention, Bible, Christ/God, faith; Family – children/parents; Gender – femininity; Bodies – nourishment; Society – criticism; Economy – hardship, household; Morality – social/economic; Crime – robbery/theft; Places – English. A poor widow prays to God and is miraculously enabled to keep her seven children alive for seven weeks on a single loaf of (burnt) bread.

The Ungrateful Son; OR, An Example of God’s Justice... To the Tune of Kentish miracle (P. Brooksby, J. Deacon, J. Blare, J. Back; 1688-96). Crawford 953; EBBA 33528. Family – children/parents, inheritance; Morality – familial; Religion – Catholic/Protestant, Protestant nonconformity, divine intervention; Death – illness, result of immorality; Emotions – anger, sorrow; Society – old/young; Violence – interpersonal; History – recent. A man, imprisoned for his religious beliefs, passes his estate to his son for safe-keeping, and when the son subsequently refuses to return it he is promptly struck down by a fatal illness.

THE GOLDEN Farmer’s Last FAREWEEL... To the Tune of The Rich Merchant-man (P. Brooksby, J. Deacon, J. Blare, and J. Back, 1690?). Pepys 2.187; EBBA 20802. Crime – robbery/theft; Death – execution; Economy – money; Emotions – fear, guilt; Gender – masculinity; Morality – social/economic; News – convicts/crimes; Recreation – good fellowship; Religion – sin/repentance, Christ/God. A convicted burglar, formerly the head of a gang, repents his life of crime as he prepares for his execution.


This tune was hardly ever named on white-letter ballads and was also used very sparingly in songbooks, facts that reinforce the impression that it appealed less strongly to rich and highly educated individuals than it did to the consumers of black-letter balladry in general. When the tune was named in more substantial publications, these were typically works that seemed to aim at a broad audience. In The famous historie of Fryer Bacon (1629), for example, the servant Miles sings a mocking song to the tune, and William Slatyer set one of his controversial metrical psalms to ‘The Rich Merchant Man’ in 1621, identifying it as one of ‘the most noted and common, but solemne tunes, every where in this Land familiarly used and knowne’ (Psalms, or songs of Sion, 1621).


The famous historie of Fryer Bacon (1629), C2v-3r.

Una McIlvenna, ‘The Rich Merchant Man, or, What the Punishment of Greed Sounded like in Early Modern English Ballads’, Huntington Library Quarterly 79.2 (2016), pp. 279-99.

Claude M. Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad and its music (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 602-04.

William Slatyer, Psalms, or songs of Sion (1621).

Wit and Mirth (1707), vol. 3, p. 153.

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Related Texts

The ballad generated a string of closely related texts during the eighteenth century, and these clearly had the effect of enhancing George’s Barnwell’s fame, both nationally and internationally (see list below). The first was a chapbook version, written in prose and published as The ‘Prentice’s Tragedy (1700). Like other similar expansions of hit ballads, it stuck closely to the original narrative and included a full version of the song at the end of the story. The prose also echoed the verse at numerous points, and the description of Milwood’s house, ‘next door unto the Gun’, is the same in both accounts (in both cases, moreover, the address adds to the ominous atmosphere that marks the story from its start).

The ‘Prentice’s Tragedy also adds significant new detail, however, including material on George’s family background, supposedly in Herefordshire. It is also notable that Milwood, rather than George himself, now cuts the uncle’s throat, and she also beats her young lover when he panics in the wake of the murder. George’s final flight to ‘Polonia’ is retained, though it is explained more fully than was the case in the ballad.

The most famous new version by far was, however, George Lillo’s play, The London merchant, first performed and published in 1731. After its initial staging at Drury Lane on 22 June, this went on to become one of the most successful plays of the eighteenth century. It was Lillo’s big breakthrough, and performances were reportedly attended by several members of the royal family. The English Short Title Catalogue lists no fewer than eighty-five editions to 1800, and Lillo’s play was also printed and performed on numerous occasions in Germany, France and America (in Frankfurt, Goethe loved it, and in Boston the part of Barnwell was played by Edgar Allen Poe’s father in 1806).

In the published prologue to the play, Lillo acknowledged explicitly that his work was ‘Drawn from the fam’d old Song’. He was well aware of the ‘Novelty’ of his attempt to accommodate the spirit of classical tragedy ‘to the Circumstances of the Generality of Mankind’. Theophilus Cibber, the actor who played Barnwell in the first production, was equally conscious of the innovation and later described The London merchant as ‘almost a new species of tragedy’. Scholars of eighteenth-century literature have argued over the play’s status as a foundational text in the history of ‘bourgeois tragedy’ and ‘modern naturalist tragedy’ (Wallace).

Lillo follows the basic narrative of the ballad closely, and his text occasionally echoes the original. As with the earlier chapbook, however, there is a wealth of new detail and several new characters, including George’s master, his daughter and a second apprentice. The master and apprentice are named ‘Thorowgood’ and ‘Trueman’ respectively, demonstrating the playwright’s less than subtle intention to introduce morally impeccable male characters so that George’s waywardness is all the more alarming. And, at the end, the reference to Polonia is dropped and the trials of Barnwell and Milwood take place in London.

Lillo’s play was a hit from the start. Cibber later recalled that ‘the old ballad of George Barnwell’ was reprinted to coincide with the play’s early performances in the summer of 1731. He reported that ‘many thousands sold in one day’, often to ‘gaily disposed spirits’ who brought their copies to the play with the intention of making light-hearted comparisons. ‘But the play,’ wrote Cibber, ‘spoke so much to the heart that... they were drawn to drop their ballads, and pull out their handkerchiefs’. There is, of course, a pungent whiff of thespian self-regard here but we cannot doubt Cibber’s proximity to the action.

Through the remainder of the eighteenth century, The London merchant was performed not only for general audiences but also specifically for the young. It often formed ‘the pastime for my Lord Mayor’s Day’ in London and it was also staged regularly during the Christmas and Easter holidays for the moral benefit of apprentices (Cibber). This pedagogic use was sufficiently common that, over a century after the play’s original composition, the character of Pip in Dickens’ Great expectations was subjected by Mr. Wopsle to a long reading, during which he was forced unwillingly to imagine himself in Barnwell’s shoes. On his eventual escape, Pip commented, ‘It was a very dark night when it was all over’.

A new chapbook account appeared in 1775 under the title Youths warning piece. This version was based squarely on the play, though the connection with the original ballad was maintained through the inclusion of all the verses at the end. By this date, George is a London lad from start to finish and there are no further references to his roots in Herefordshire or his death in Poland.

Finally, in 1798, Thomas Skinner Surr published a novel entitled George Barnwell in three volumes. He was moved to tackle ‘so hacknied a subject’ by Mrs. Siddon’s recent performance as Milwood in a new production of Lillo’s play. Surr’s particular fascination with Milwood is clear, and the richness and centrality of her representation in the novel is perhaps the culmination of an eighteenth-century trend towards heightening her importance. Surr, like Barnwell before him, is mesmerised by this ‘syren’ whose mind is ‘strong and towering’, ‘masculine’ and ‘systematically vicious’. In his novel, remarkably, a story that began in the 1620s as a single-sheet ballad has sprawled out to become a multi-volume work of over 700 pages.

Christopher Marsh

Texts (in chronological order)

An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwell an Apprentice in London, who was undone by a Strumpet... The tune is, The Merchant (registered, 1624).

Anon, The ‘prentice’s tragedy: Or, The history of George Barnwell (c. 1700).

George Lillo, The London merchant: Or, The history of George Barnwell. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury Lane by His Majesty’s servants (1731), Prologue.

Anon, Youth’s warning-piece; The tragical history of George Barnwell; who was undone by a Strumpet, that caused him to rob his Master, and Murder his Uncle (c. 1775).

Thomas Skinner Surr, George Barnwell. A novel. In three volumes (1798).


Theophilus Cibber, The lives of the poets of Great Britain and Ireland, 5 vols. (1753), vol. 5, pp. 338-40.

Charles Dickens, Great expectations (1861), ch. 15.

English Short Title Catalogue.

Lawrence Marsden Price, ‘George Barnwell abroad’, Comparative literature 2.2 (Spring, 1950), pp. 126-56.

Una McIlvenna, ‘The Rich Merchant Man, or, What the punishment of greed sounded like in early modern English ballads’, Huntington Library Quarterly 79.2 (2016), pp. 279-99.

David Wallace, ‘Bourgeois tragedy or sentimental melodrama? The significance of George Lillo’s The London merchant’, Eighteenth-century studies 25.2 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 123-43.

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An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel an Apprentice in Lon-/don, who was undone by a Strumpet, who thrice Robbed his Master, and Murdered/ his Uncle in Ludlow.  The Tune is, The Merchant.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its textVerses in square brackets do not appear on the recording].


ALL youths of fair England,

that dwell both far and near,

Regard my Story that I tell

and to my Song give ear:


A London Lad I was,

a Merchants Prentice bound,

My name George Barnwel, that did spend

my Master many a pound.


Take heed of Harlots then,

and their inticing trains,

For by that means I have bin brought

to hang alive in Chains.


As I upon a Day

was walking through the street,

About my Masters business,

I did a wanton meet.


A gallant dainty Dame,

and sumptuous in attire,

With smiling look’s she greeted me,

and did my name require:


Which when I had declar’d,

she gave me then a kiss

And said if I would come to her,

I should have more than this:


In faith my Boy (quoth she)

such news I can you tell,

As shall rejoyce thy very heart,

then come where I do dwell.


[Fair Mistris, then said I,

if I the place may know,

This evening I will be with you,

for I abroad must go]


[To gather Monies in,

that is my Masters due,

And e’re that I do home return,

i’le come and visit you.]


Good Barnwel, then (quoth she)

do thou to Shoredich come,

And ask for mistris Milwood there,

next door unto the Gun.


[And trust me on my truth,

if thou keep touch with me,

For thy Friends sake, and as my own heart

thou shalt right welcome be.]


Thus parted we in peace,

and home I passed right,

Then went abroad and gathered in

by six a Clock at night.


An hundred pound and one,

with Bag under my arm,

I went to Mistris Milwoods house,

and thought on little harm:


And knocking at the door,

straightway her self came down,

Rustling in most brave attire,

her Hood and silken Gown.


[Who through her beauty bright,

so gloriously did shine,

That she amaz’d my dazling eyes,

she seemed so divine.]


She took me by the hand,

and with a modest grace,

Welcome sweet Barnwel then (qd. she,

unto this homely place:


Welcome ten thousand times,

more welcome then my Brother,

And better welcome I protest

than any one or other:


And seeing I have thee found

as good as thy word to be,

A homely Supper e’re thou part,

thou shalt take her with me:


O pardon me (quoth I)

fair Mistris I you pray,

For why, out of my Masters house

so long I dare not stay.


Alas good Sir she said,

are you so strictly t’yd,

you may not with your dearest friend

one hour or two abide?


Faith then the case is hard,

if it be so (quoth she)

I would I were a Prentice bound,

to live in house with thee.


Therefore my sweetest George,

list well what I do say,

And do not blame a woman much,

her fancy to bewray.


Let not affections force,

be counted lewd desire.

Nor think it not immodesty

I should thy love require.


With that she turn’d aside,

and with a blushing red,

A mournful motion she bewray’d,

by holding down her head:


A handkerchief she had

all wrought with Silk and Gold,

Which she to stay her trickling tears,

against her eyes did hold.


This thing unto my sight

was wondrous rare and strange,

And in my mind and inward thoughts

it wrought a sudden change:


That I so hardy was,

to take her by the hand,

Saying, sweet Mistris why do you

so sad and heavy stand?


Call me no Mistris now,

but Sarah thy true friend,

Thy servant Sarah honouring thee

until her life doth end:


If thou would’st here alledge

thou art in years a Boy,

So was Adonis, yet was he

fair Venus love and joy


Thus I that ne’r before

of women found such grace,

And seeing now so fair a Dame

give me a kind imbrace.


I supt with her that night

with joys that did abound,

And for the same paid presently,

in money twice three pound:


An hundred kisses then,

for my farewel she gave,

Saying Sweet Barnwel when shall I

again thy company have:


O stay not too long my dear,

sweet George have me in mind:

Her words bewitcht my childishness

she uttered them so kind.


So that I made a vow,

next Sunday without fail,

With my sweet Sarah once again,

to tell some pleasant Tale.


When she heard me say so,

the tears fell from her eyes,

O George, quoth she, if thou dost fail,

thy Sarah sure will dye.


Though long, yet loe at last,

the ‘pointed day was come,

That I must with my Sarah meet,

having a mighty sum


Of Money in my hand,

unto her house went I,

Whereas my Love upon her bed

in saddest sort did lye.


What ails my hearts delight,

my Sarah dear, quoth I,

Let not my Love lament and grieve,

nor sighing pine and dye,


But tell to me thy dearest friend,

what may thy woes amend,

And thou shalt lack no means of help,

though forty pound I spend,


With that she turn’d her head

and sickly thus did say,

O my sweet George my grief is great

ten pounds I have to pay


Unto a cruel Wretch,

and God he knows, quoth she,

I have it not, Tush rise quoth he,

and take it here of me:


Ten pounds, nor ten times ten

shall make my love decay,

Then from his Bag into her lap,

he cast ten pound straightway.


All blith and pleasant then,

to banqueting they go,

She proffered him to lye with her,

and said it should be so:


And after that some time,

I gave her store of Coyn,

Yea, sometimes fifty pound at once,

all which I did purloyn.


And thus I did pass on,

until my Master then,

Did call to have his reckoning in

cast up among his Men.


The which when as I heard,

I knew not what to say,

For well I knew that I was out

two hundred pounds that day.


Then from my Master straight

I ran in secret sort,

And unto Sara Milwood then

my state I did report.


[But how she us’d this youth,

in this his extream need,

The which did her necessity

so oft with Money feed:]


The Second Part behold,

shall tell it forth at large,

And shall a Strumpets wily ways,

with all her tricks discharge


The Second Part, to the same Tune.


HEre comes young Barnwel unto thee

sweet Sarah my delight,

I am undone except thou stand

my faithful friend this night:


Our Master to command accounts,

hath just occasion found,

And I am found behind the hand

almost two hundred pound:


And therefore not knowing at all,

what answer for to make,

And his displeasure to escape,

my way to thee I take:


Hoping in this extremity,

thou wilt my succour be,

That for a time I may remain

in safety here with thee.


With that she nit and bent her brows,

and looking all aquoy,

Quoth she, what should I have to do

with any Prentice Boy?


And seeing you have purloyn’d & got

your Masters goods away,

The case is bad, and therefore here

I mean thou shalt not stay


Why sweet heart thou knowst, he said

that all which I did get,

I gave it and did spend it all

upon thee every whit:


[Thou knowst I loved thee so well,

thou could’st not ask the thing,

But that I did incontinent

the same unto thee bring.]


Quoth she thou art a paultrey Jack,

to charge me in this sort,

Being a woman of credit good,

and known of good report:


And therefore this I tell thee flat,

be packing with good speed,

I do defie thee from my heart,

and scorn thy filthy deed.


Is this the love and friendship which

thou didst to me protest?

Is this the great affection which

you seemed to express?


[Now fie on all deceitful shows,

the best if I may speed

To get a Lodging any where,

for money in my need:]


Therefore false woman now farewel,

while twenty pound doth last,

My anchor in some other Haven

I will with wisdom cast.


When she perceived by his words

that he had money store,

That she had gull’d him in such sort,

it griev’d her heart full sore:


Therefore to call him back again,

she did suppose it best.

Stay George quoth she, thou art too quick

why man I do but jest;


Think’st thou for all my passed speech

that I would let thee go?

Faith no qd. she, my love to thee

I wis is more then so.


[You will not deal with Prentice boys

I heard you even now swear,

Therefore I will not trouble you,

My George heark in thine ear.]


Thou shalt not go to night qd. she,

what chance so e’re befall,

But man we’l have a bed for thee,

or else the Devil take all.


Thus I that was with wiles bewitcht

and snar’d with fancy still,

Had not the power to put away,

or to withstand her will.


Then wine and wine I called in,

and cheer upon good cheer,

And nothing in the world I thought

for Sarahs love too dear:


[Whilst I was in her company

in joy and merriment,

And all too little I did think,

that I upon her spent.]


A fig for care and careful thoughts,

when all my Gold is gone,

In faith my Girl we will have more,

whoever it light upon.


My Father’s rich, why then, qd. I,

should I want any Gold?

With a Father indeed, quoth she,

a Son may well be bold.


[I have a Sister richly wed,

i’le rob her e’re i’le want;

Why then, qd. Sarah, they may well

consider of your scant.]


Nay more than this, an Uncle I have

at Ludlow he doth dwell,

He is a Grasier, which in wealth

doth all the rest excell:


E’re I will live in lack, quoth he,

and have no Coyn for thee,

I’le rob his house, and murder him,

why should you not, quoth she:


E’re I would want were I a man,

or live in poor Estate,

On Father, friends, and all my Kin,

I would my Talons grate:


For without money, George, qd. she,

a Man is but a Beast,

And bringing Money thou shalt be

always my chiefest Guest.


For say thou should’st pursued be

with twenty Hues and Crys,

And with a warrant searched for,

with Argus hundred Eyes:


Yet in my House thou shalt be safe,

such privy ways there be,

That if they sought an hundred years

they could not find out thee.


And so carousing in their Cups,

their pleasures to content,

George Barnwel had in little space

his money wholly spent.


Which being done, to Ludlow then

he did provide to go,

To rob his wealthy Uncle then,

his Minion would it so


[And once or twice he thought to take

his Father by the way,

But that he thought his master had

took order for his stay.]


Directly to his Uncle then

he rode with might and main

Where with welcome and good cheer

he did him entertain:


A Sennets space he stayed there,

until it chanced so,

His Unkle with his Cattle did

unto a market go:


His Kinsman needs must Ride with him

and when he saw right plain,

Great store of money he had took,

in coming home again,


Most suddenly within a wood

he struck his Uncle down,

And beat his brains out of his head,

so sore he crackt his crown:


And fourscore pound in ready coyn

out of his Purse he took,

And coming into London Town,

the Country quite forsook.


To Sarah Milwood then he came,

shewing his store of Gold,

And how he had his Uncle slain,

to her he plainly told.


Tush, it’s no matter George, qd. she,

so we the money have,

To have good chear in jolly sort,

and deck us fine and brave.


And thus they liv’d in filthy sort,

till all his store was gone,

And means to get them any more,

I wis poor George had none.


And therefore now in railing sort,

she thrust him out of door,

Which is the just reward they get,

that spend upon a Whore.


O do me not this foul disgrace

in this my need, quoth he,

She call’d him Thief and Murderer,

with all despight might be.


And to the Constable she went

to have him Apprehended,

And shew’d in each degree how far

he had the Law offended.


When Barnwell saw her drift,

to Sea he got straight way,

Where fear & dread & conscience sting

upon himself doth stay:


Unto the Mayor of London then,

he did a Letter write,

Wherein his own and Sarah’s faults

he did at large recite.


Whereby she apprehended was,

and then to Ludlow sent,

Where she was judg’d, condemn’d and hang’d,

for murder incontinent.


And there this gallant Quean did dye

this was her greatest gains:

For Murder in Polonia,

was Barnwel hang’d in Chains.


Lo, here’s the end of wilful youth,

that after Harlots haunt,

Who in the spoil of other men,

about the streets do flaunt.


Printed for J. Clarke, W. Thackeray, and T. Passinger.

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This ballad is included according to the criteria for List A (see Methodology). The evidence presented here is accurate, to the best of our knowledge, as of 1st January 2024.

Shirburn ballads: not included.

Appearances on Ballad Partners' lists: Pavier and partners, 1624 ('George Barnewell'); Coles, Vere, Wright and Clarke, 1675; and Thackeray, 1689 ('Barnwell').

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: none.

No. of known editions c.1560-1711: 8

No. of extant copies: 7

New tune-titles generated: 'George Barnwel' (1 ballad).

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none known.

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library databases: 110 references, with occasional evidence of later collection as a folk-song (Roud nos. V7925 and 546 ).

POINTS: 0 + 30 + 0 + 16 + 7 + 2 + 0 + 11 = 66

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This box will be used to highlight any new information on this song that might come to light after the launch of the website.

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