Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Ballad of the Midwife's Ghost

This ballad is a disturbing tale of a tortured ghost who after years of disposing of unwanted children decided to confess all in her death by haunting the inhabitants of her former home. Infanticide, particularly of bastard children was seen as a problem in the seventeenth century, the ballad's author describes how the midwife Mistris Atkins had been 'murthering Babes for Parents sake'. This ballad is set in Holbourn, London at a house in Rotten Row (an area which can still be seen it is now a track running along the south side of Hyde Park in leading from Hyde Park Corner to the west) The veracity of the tale is defended by its claim that the bones discovered by the maid were available to view at the Cheshire Cheese- a pub still in existence today. Whether or not any of the tale actually happened it is an interesting commentary on the contemporary importance of burial rights and the problem of bastard bearing in the seventeenth century.

 Let the world know my crime and that I am most sorry for’t

The Midwives Ghost:
Who appeared to several People in the House where she formerly lived in Rotten-Row in Holbourn, London, who were all afraid to speak unto her; but she grow-ing very Impetuous , on the 16th . of this Instant March, 1680, declarred her mind to the Maid of the said House, who with an Unanimous Spirit adhered to her, and afterwards told it to her Mistris, how that if they took up two Tiles by the Fire-side, they should find the Bones of Bastard-Children that the said Midwife had 15 years ago Murthered, and that she desired that her Kinswoman Mary should see them decently Buried; which accordingly they did, and found it as the Maid had said. The Bones are to be seen at the Cheshire-Cheese in said place at this very time, for the satisfaction of those that believes not this Relation.
To the Tune of, When Troy Town, etc.
MAn cornelis de 1670s WGA
T O speak of Murthers that have been
committed in our Sphear of late;
There's none like these I shall declare,
by monstrous hand, and cruel Fate:
Being acted by a Midwife fell,
Which in Scroop-Court of late did dwell.

Mistris Atkins she there was call'd,
of Reputation good alway;
Till Death did send his piercing Dart,
and told her that he could not stay:
But she must to the Stigion Lake,

For murthering Babes for Parents sake.
She seeing now her time was come,
most bitterly began to weep;
And lifting up her hands on high,
she took a short, not lasting sleep:
Six months ago, as I am told,
Before she did this same unfold.

Therefore not to detain you long
to this discourse, I now will press;
Which is a truth assuredly,
as many know, and you may guess:
When as 'tis plainly told herein,
Whereas their bones are to be seen.

The House whereas this Midwife liv'd,
hath very much disturbed been;
With Apparitions very strange,
the like whereof hath not been seen:
Sometimes resembling of her shape,

At other times Hells mouth to gape.
Which put the people in great fear,
that there had taken up abode,
Being loath for to disclose the same,
for fear expersions they should load
On her whom they really thought
Could never be to Lewdness brought.

...People they are apt of late, to condemn (most) strange things as lyes,To 'th Cheshire-Cheese you may repair, or this they will you satisfice: Having the Childrens Bones to show.... 
But still they daily was opprest,
with dismal shapes, and Lightings strange
That by no means they could not rest,
being very loath from thence to range:
They told some Neighbours secretly,
Desiring them their Faith to try.
To speak unto this Spirit strange,
if that occasion they saw;

But they thereby was daunted quite,
and very much was kept in awe:
The hair o'their heads standing on end,
To see their late Familiar Friend.

She finding none that would Reply,
importune at last did grow;
A'th 16th . of this Instant March ,
unto the Maid reveal'd her Woe:
Who then was by her Mistris sent,
To fetch Night-cloaths Incontinent.

pray Virgin stay, then quoth the [?],
for I to you will do no harm;
And tell Mary whom I love most,
that I hereby, her now do charm,
Two Tiles by 'th fire up to take,
A Board also, and then to make
A Burial of what she finds,

in decent and most handsome sort;
And let the World to know my Crime,
and that I am most sorry for't:
Desiring Midwives to take heed,
How they dispose their Bastard-breed.

She having now reveal'd her mind,
did vanish in a Flash away,
And none doth know where she's confin'd,
until the General judgement-day:
When as she shall the answer make,
For what she then did undertake.
The Maid at first astonish'd was,
at this which she her self did hear;

And to her Mistris did impart,
the same that now I do declare:
Concerning of the Murthers strange,
And did not seem at all to change.
Which being throughly searched out,
accordingly it did appear;

The Maid she spoke of is suppos'd,
to be her kind Kinswoman neer:
That will fulfill her will, 'tis said,
She being a Religious Maid.

Most People they are apt of late,
to condemn (most) strange things as lyes,
To 'th Cheshire-Cheese you may repair,
for this they will you satisfice:
Having the Childrens Bones to show,
In Holbourn if you do it know.

London, Printed for T. Vere , at the Sign of
the Angel in Guiltspur-Street. 1680.

Rotten Row as Seen today

Bones image from here
Cheshire cheese pub image from here 
Rotten Row image from here

Copyright © 2011 Elaine Hunter


  1. Sorry forgot to add that the painting is by Cornelius de Mann (1670s) and is from the web gallery of art-

  2. Hello- just been reading through your blog and enjoying it, when I stumbled on this poem. I'm researching Tudor childbirth- slightly earlier but it's really interesting. I was wondering where the poem came from ?
    Cheers, Amy Licence

    @PrufrocksPeach on twitter

  3. Hi Amy, thank you for reading glad you have been enjoying the it. Apologies I should have stated where I got this from! It is actually from a great free online archive- The English Broadside Ballad Archive

  4. Oooh, sounds good, I will definitely check the archive out. Thanks.