“Poor Old Maid”


"We're a lonely dismal crew, Poor old maid!/We're a lonely dismal crew/All dressed in yellow, pink and blue/Nursing the cats is all we do...." "Three scores and ten of us/And not a penny in the purse/So something must be done for us...."


Sharp refers to a manuscript in his collection with the additional lyrics, "We'll apply to George the Third/And our petition shall be heard./George the third unto us he said: 'And here's a penny to buy some bread.'" Sharp adds, "This is, no doubt, an allusion to the Bread Riots." He adds a verse from Christie, "But we'll apply to James our King/And to him a petition bring/That he may get us wed wi' ring/Poor auld maidens." - PJS

The "Bread Riots," also known as "Bread of Blood Riots," took place in 1816. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain's immense military spending led to an intense round of inflation, with devastating effects on the poor. The most intense uprising came in Liverpool, where protesters bore placards saying "Bread or Blood." 24 rioters were sentenced to death, though in the end only five were hanged and nine more transported.

This is in the reign of George III -- but the other side of the coin is, George III by this time was permanently insane (with what is now believed to have been porphyria); the future George IV had been regent since 1811 (and at times before that). So I rather suspect the song it older -- perhaps, as implied by Christie, to the reign of James I (1603-1625), the only significant King James of England, whose reign did see a lot of economic trouble, partly because of the high spending of Elizabeth's reign (which ended with an economic downturn) and partly because James didn't understand money at all well.

The American versions of course have none of this, and downplay the poverty; instead of the song being about a POOR ol maid, it is about a poor OLD MAID -- that is, her loneliness rather than her poverty is stressed. - RBW


  1. SharpAp 229, "Poor Old Maid" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Shellans, pp. 12-13, "Poor Old Maid" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Roud #3337
  4. BI, ShAp2229


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1876 (Christie, _Traditional Ballad Airs, vol. 1_)
Found in: Britain(England), US(Ap)