Convict music & song

How would you research convict music?  Through police reports, of course!

Robert Williams, a black, with a shining face, was charged by constable Orr, with being drunk, and playing the tamborine in Kent-street, at the hour twelve, to the tune of “Darby Kelly O,” surrounded by a motley group of thieves, prostitutes, sailors, &c.

POLICE INCIDENTS. (1834, February 20). The Sydney Herald, p. 2.


Apart from the remarkable music manuscript of the Scottish convict fiddler, Alexander Laing, there are very few sources of information about the music or songs which convicts themselves played, sang, and danced.

The Tasmanian Waltz from Alexander Laing’s manuscript.
Tasmanian Archives

People wrote songs about convicts, particularly after the convict era ended, for example, the well known ballad Botany Bay (Singing too-ral, li-ooral, li-addity) was composed for a burlesque drama in the Gaiety Theatre, 1885.

This resource draws primarily on the newspaper accounts from the early colony between 1803 and 1840.  Many of these reports come from the court transcripts taken when convicts appeared before local magistrates, charged with various offences.  It presents a list of the music and songs which the convicts themselves performed.  Often the stories were embellished by the journalists for comic effect.  It is worth noting that most of the constables, known as ‘charleys’, as well as the journalists, were convicts or ex-convicts.

Theatre was a focal point of popular culture, supplying many of the songs and tunes which people took to their hearts and embraced as their own.  A large proportion of tunes now regarded as traditional folk music came from 18th and 19th century theatre productions.  This is apparent in many of the convict references where the songs and tunes were drawn directly from well-known plays, melodramas, and pantomimes.

Many thanks to Trove at the National Library of Australia for making these newspapers readily available online.  This is an ongoing project with plans to considerably extend the resource.

Arranged in order of number of references via Police reports:

*denotes the tune is also in Alexander Laing’s music manuscript

5 References

Off She Goes *

Judy Callaghan/Meet me by Moonlight alone (song)

4 References

Oh no, we never mention her (song)

3 References

Alice Grey

Paddy Carey *

My Heart for Love is Beating

Drops of Brandy

King of the Cannibal Islands (song)

Michael Wiggins

2 References

Jack’s the Lad
Broadside Ballads Online

All’s Well

Auld Robin Grey

Darby Kelly

Down Derry Down

Flow on thou regal purple stream

Jack’s the Lad

Maggie Lawder

My Heart with Love is beating

My Lodging is on the Cold Ground

Rogue’s March

Saint Patrick was a Gentleman

We’re a’ noddin’

Yankee Doodle

1 Reference

All Around My Hat

Barney Bodkin

Bobbing Joan

All Around My Hat
Broadside Ballads Online

Canst thou say farewell love

Castilian Maid

Cease Your Funning / Constant Billy

Come under my Plaidie

Glasses Sparkle on the board

Hot Cross Buns

How happy I could be with either

Jack’s Alive *

March to the Battlefield

Master Adam was First inventor of Kissing

Merrily Danced the Quaker’s Wife

Merry Month of May

My love is like a red, red rose

My Name D’ye see’s Tom Tough

My Pretty Page

My Village Fair

Unfortunate Miss Bailey
Broadside Ballads Online


Nora Crena

O Lady Fair

Oh say not woman’s love is bought

Old Blind Joe the Fiddler

Paddy Ward’s Pig

Poll of Plymouth Dock

Saint Patrick’s Day in the morning *

Unfortunate Miss Bailey

Wake Dearest Wake

Will Watch

Other tunes with convict connections



This entry was posted in Dance and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *