The Farmer’s Boy


Just like most folk a substantial proportion of my nineteenth century kindred worked the land, mainly in back-breaking drudgery, and pretty much until they dropped. Some managed to scratch a living on farms even into the twentieth century (perhaps even into this one, though I don’t know of any). But what of those whose livelihoods were displaced by advances in technique and technology?  Where did they go?

The eponymous traditional song was one I grew up with, often sung at harvest festival time, though I think not in that chill, stone chapel on Sunday! Today, it is usually sung in a jolly manner, evoking those good old days of traditional methods, of sunlit harvests and halcyon days of plenty. It is easy to fall for this idyll, by, for example, looking at famous artworks, such as The Haywain, by John Constable, or my favourite for its golden shining, Harvest, by Vincent van Gogh, which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. These don’t convey the hardship, hard graft, icy winds, blazing sun, the dark, isolation of night, scarcity of fuel and barely adequate food. Maybe it sounds different, now? I appreciate there is considerable variety in lyrics, but this is what I recall:

The sun had set behind the hill, across yon dreary moor,
when weary and lame a boy there came up to a farmer’s door.
Can you tell me if here it be that I can find employ
to plough and sow, and reap and mow, and be a farmer’s boy,
and be a farmer’s boy.

Me father’s left, me mother’s ill, with children great and small.
And what is more, for me worse still, I’m the oldest of them all.
Can you tell me if any there be who will give me employ
to plough and sow, and reap and mow, and be a farmer’s boy,
and be a farmer’s boy. 

Sure, it is a rousing tune, often sung with considerable gusto.  In the song things work out well for the lad, but I wonder how many spent the night in a barn or under a hedge before trying their luck at the next farm or over the next hill. I wonder if that is what happened to my kinsman John Onion. In 1844 his brother James succumbed to consumption, which implies a degree of poverty.

John Onion was born about 1812, probably at or near Black Ladies, Bishops Wood, in the southern Staffordshire countryside, where his father, Edward, was an agricultural labourer. By the time of the 1841 census, young John had moved out, and appears to have sought employment in the fledgling industrial town of Wolverhampton. In 1848 he had spent the night at a beerhouse on Union Street, the remnant of which is now overshadowed by the railway and elevated ring road: a shadowy place round the corner from one of the finest Victorian public houses anywhere, the famed Great Western, after Brunel’s railway. Back then it was still beyond the edge of town and largely undeveloped, but would soon be swallowed up by the burgeoning town (now a city).

Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser 29 Mar 1848


[Magistrates, Wednesday, March 21]

John Onions, charged with stealing a pair of trousers, the property of William Williams, of Union-street, was committed to the sessions. The prisoner had slept alone one night at the house of the prosecutor, a beershop, and Mrs Williams had given him leave to put the trousers on the bed to increase the warmth. This permission, however, he extended to wearing them when far away from his dormitory, which he left early on the following morning. He was taken into custody several days afterwards at the Rose and Crown Inn, Penn, the trousers in question enveloping his nether man.

Presumably, not doing very well, he made off with his host’s trousers and was eventually arrested, wearing the stolen trousers, at the Rose and Crown Inn, Penn, then an agricultural area to south of the town. The word nether simply means lower.  The pub, apparently much changed, stands beside the main arterial road south (A449), but is surrounded by suburbs of the modern city.

Staffordshire Advertiser 8 April 1848



JOHN ONION pleaded guilty to stealing a pair of trousers, at Wolverhampton, the property of William Williams. To be imprisoned two months.

The England and Wales Criminal Registers via Ancestry records: John Onion, Imp, 28, County Sessions April, Larceny, 2 months.

I notice two records on the same page, both for larceny, with the sentence “1 month and whipped”. The prisoners were aged 14 and 17 respectively.

I have not been able to trace John through all of the censuses, though I think perhaps he fared not so badly in the end.

In 1861 he lived at Church Street, Tipton, occupation sinker, with wife Jane, many years his junior, and he is the pit and well sinker recorded at Sedgley in 1881.

3 thoughts on “The Farmer’s Boy

  1. Dear Andrew, please forgive this non-genealogist for intruding. I’m a sometime amateur folk-singer. But though ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ is something of a classic, I’ve not sung it – or at least not led it – until recently. Having been asked to lead it, I thought I’d better brush up my knowledge of it.

    There are, inevitably, umpteen variations of the lyrics out there. But although I knew that even the early collectors had found four tunes. I was surprised to find about eight, not counting minor variations. Even more surprisingly, I could not find the version that I thought I knew – until I stumbled across your site. This is it!

    Please, can you tell me where you found it?

    Interestingly, in what you say above that follows, you touch upon the reason that I have rather avoided it. I find it very difficult to sing with happy nostalgia for times we really wouldn’t want to live through again. What I call ‘jolly sailor boys following the plough down the mine’.

    Anyway, I am very grateful for you putting this tune on your site, but if you could let me know your source I’d be very grateful.

    With regards,



    1. No need to apologise! Thank you for taking the time to reply. As for the source, I can’t really remember. It was in a book of folk and other songs that belonged to my parents. I know not of its fate. I “borrowed” the image from the www. The lyrics are simply what I recall from childhood. I am sure there are more verses, but I have forgotten them. I seem to recall The Spinners singing this or a similar version, but may be mistaken. Sorry I can’t be of more help. Good luck with the singing. Andrew.


      1. That’s a bit rum. I searched Bing images and Google images and found all those versions – but not this one.

        Anyway, thanks to you I’ve got this and it will do just fine. Actually I learn by ear, so it’s not an issue for me, but a friend that sometimes likes to sing with me likes to have the ‘dots’.

        Thanks very much, Andrew



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