Gallant She-Souldiers

She Soldiers

The recent event at Forty Hall Farm was very enjoyable. My printing house was set up in a classroom there, so we were protected from the biting wind that blew on Saturday and Sunday. I had many keen and cheerful visitors young and old, but one that remained in memory was a music student, interested in the ballad sheets I was producing. She had a brisk demeanour, but as our talk turned to the stories of girl soldiers, she sang one that she knew by heart. I was surprised and delighted by her lovely voice. The song she sang was of “Polly Oliver” which I discovered later dated from the 1840s, but ballads about female soldiers go back to the 1650s with “The Gallant She-Souldier”, which perhaps set the pattern for many popular songs that followed, including “Polly..” mentioned above. Typically the young woman follows a sweetheart into the army and travels up and down, experiencing many adventures until unmasked by some accident. In the case of “The Gallant She-Souldier”, it was going into labour which meant the game was up. For a touch of veracity the reader was even invited to go to the Blacksmiths Arms in Smithfield to meet mother and son – minor celebrities while the ballad was current! How exciting this story must have been for the many women who hardly left their home towns for the whole of their lives. It’s easy to forget how limited life has been for women throughout most of history. When presenting the press as part of a historical event, I always let my audience know that in real life, although a widow could run a printing business (and did – the present day firm Reed Elsevier was originally known as the Widow Elsevier) a woman could not have worked as a printer, and indeed according to Moxon could not even enter the printing house. But the story of the she soldiers reminds us that many women did want more – and for a time at least, some of them got it.

 

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