“Rosemary Lane”


A sailor meets a girl at an inn, and induces her to go to bed with him. In the morning he gives her gold and says, "If it's a boy, he will (fight for the king/be a sailor); if a girl, she will wear a gold ring."


The history of this song is extremely complex and obscure. The extended family is listed in the Index under three titles: "Rosemary Lane," "Ambletown," and "When I Was Young (Don't Never Trust a Sailor)." However, these may represent as many as five songs, or perhaps only a single one.

The three basic plots are as follows:

* "Rosemary Lane" (a title selected because, unlike Laws's title "Home, Dearie, Home," it is unique to this version) is a British ballad of a servant who is seduced and then abandoned by a sailor. It exists under many titles, e.g. "Bell-Bottomed Trousers."

* "When I Was Young" has the same plot but in a very reduced form; what matters is not the method of the seduction but simply that it happens. This song frequently has a bawdier feel. It ends with a warning, "Don't ever trust (a sailor) an inch above the knee."

* "Ambletown" (another title chosen because it is unambiguous) involves a sailor who learns from a letter that he is a father, and desperately wants to return home to see the child.

The greatest difficulty concerns the relationship between "Rosemary Lane" and "Ambletown." In plot, they are quite distinct. A comparison of the lyrics, however, shows that as much as half the material in "Ambletown" occurs also in "Rosemary Lane" (which is longer, seemingly older, and much more common). As many as three stanzas regularly "cross": "If it be a boy, he will fight for the king"; "And it's home, dearie, home"; and "The oak and the ash and the bonnie birchen tree." (The latter two may be derived from yet another song, "A North Country Maid" ).

It should also be noted that "Ambletown" could function as an ending to "Rosemary Lane," particularly if the warning about not trusting a sailor is not the original ending. This has not, however, been observed in tradition.

Extensive examination of the texts of the songs could not finally resolve the question. The Ballad Index Board is tentatively of the opinion that "Rosemary Lane" and "Ambletown" now are separate songs, which have cross-fertilized heavily but remain distinct. It is quite possible, however, that one (probably "Ambletown") is an offshoot of the other, with a new (clean) plot built around the same verses.

In addition, "Rosemary Lane" has undergone extensive evolution *after* the cross-fertilization stage. Our guess is that it began with a relatively "clean" broadside of seduction (now seemingly lost). This likely contained the "If it be a boy" stanza, but probably not the others. Tradition then mixes in the other common stanzas, and set to work on the song, producing both clean and bawdy versions. - RBW, DGE, PJS

An addendum: Don Duncan brings to my attention the poem "O Falmouth Is a Fine Town," by William E. Henley (1878), which has the following first verse:

O Falmouth is a fine town with ships in the bay,

And I wish from my heart it's there I was to-day;

I wish from my heart I was far away from here,

Sitting in my parlor and talking to my dear.

For it's home, dearie home--it's home I want to be.

Our topsails are hoisted, and we'll away to sea.

O the oak and the ash and the bonnie birken tree,

They're all growing green in the old countrie.

Henley admitted that part of the song, including the chorus, was old. Duncan speculates that "Falmouth..." is the rewrite of "Rosemary Lane" we postulated above. This seems quite possible -- but if so, then Henley's poem has gone into oral tradition itself, and experienced a great deal of folk processing. Thus, the essential outline we described above seems to be accurate.

Just in case that weren't complicated enough, Allan Cunningham produced a poem, "Hame, Hame, Hame," which once again used some of the same lyrics: "Hame, hame, hame, hame, fain wad I be, O hame, hame, hame, to my ain countrie!" The rest, though, seems simply a hymn to home, "When the flower is in the bud, and the lead is on the tree, The lark shall sing me hame to my ain countrie...." For this text, see, e.g., Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #191, "Hame, Hame, Hame."- RBW

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Johnson Ballads 624, "The Servant of Rosemary Lane" ("When I was a servant in Rosemary-lane"), J. Jennings (London), 1790-1840; also Harding B 15(279a), Harding B 11(4221), "The Servant of Rosemary Lane"; Bodleian, Harding B 17(130a), "Home, Dear Home" (with the "Home, Dear Home" chorus, several verses of this, and perhaps a rewritten ending)


  • Anne Briggs, "Rosemary Lane" (on Briggs1, Briggs3)
  • Liam Clancy, "Home Boys Home" (on IRLClancy01)
  • Jerry Colonna, "Bell Bottom Trousers" (Capitol 204, 1945)
  • Chris Willett, "Once I Was a Servant" (on Voice11)


  1. Laws K43, "Home, Dearie, Home (Bell-Bottom Trousers)"
  2. Cray, pp. 72-75, "Bell Bottom Trousers" (3 texts, 1 tune)
  3. Randolph-Legman I, pp. 81-88, "Bell Bottom Trousers" (6 texts, 1 tune)
  4. Chappell-FSRA 34, "The Boy Child" (1 short text, which Laws calls a "ribald fragment." Fragment it is, with only two of the regular verses, including "If it be a girl...." But I suspect the other two verses are a mixture from another, heavily bawdy, song, which we might title something like "eleven inches in")
  5. Ohrlin-HBT 72, "Button Willow Tree" (1 text, 1 tune, with a cowpuncher as the visiting man!)
  6. Gardner/Chickering ,165 "Jack, the Sailor Boy" (1 text)
  7. MacSeegTrav 43, "Rosemary Lane" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Silber-FSWB, p. 166, "Bell-Bottomed Trousers" (1 text)
  9. Colcord, pp. 167-168, "Home, Dearie, Home" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Hugill, p. 498, "Home, Dearie, Home" (1 text, 1 tune) [AbEd, p. 366]
  11. Shay-SeaSongs, pp. 146, "Bell-Bottom Trousers" (1 text; this follows a text and tune of "Home, Dearie, Home," i.e. "Ambletown," plus a stanza of Henley's adaption and an alternate chorus)
  12. Fuld-WFM, p. 139, "Bell Bottom Trousers"
  14. Roud #269
  15. BI, LK43


Alternate titles: “Oak and the Ash, The”; “Drury Lane”; “Raspberry Lane”; “Once When I Was a Servant”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1924 (Chappell)
Found in: Australia US(Ap,MA,NE,SE,So,SW) Canada(Queb) Britain(England)