The Rime of the Ancient Harridan, Or the Provost's Tax [around 1906]

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(Apologizing to the shade of Coleridge.) 

It is an ancient harridan, 
A Provost stoppeth she; 
“By thy red hair and baudy gown, 
Now wherefore stopst thou me?” 

There is a tax” — At that dread word, 
Sore trembled Provost B.– 
“Let go thy hold, thou beldam old, 
I know thee not,” said he. 
“I consort not with witches vile, 
Nor keep lewd companie.” 

She clutched him closer than before, 
He cannot choose but stand; 
And thus spake on that ancient crone, 
The red haired harridan. 

I am the State, your mistress dear, 
To whom you once did pay, 
The homage of your youthful vows, 
But now—ah! Well-a-way.

Unhand me, ancient Harridan, 
Uncleek thy filthy claws! 
Am I not rich? therefore immune 
From all thy tiresome laws?” 

The harridan whose hair is red, 
She grinned a hideous grin, 
And clutched him closer than before, 
With fingers crooked and thin. 

There is a tax, a golden fee, 
Which all my lovers pay, 
And for this tax may break my laws 
A hundred times a day. 

The law rests lightly on the rich, 
Who dwell in gilded hall, 
Let them but give me gold and they 
May flout my statutes all. 

The law bears heavy on the poor, 
A thing of daily dread, 
It binds them down to ceaseless toil, 
And tears and scanty bread; 
It lays its hand upon their heart, 
And weighs it down like lead. 

A hungry workman takes a hare 
From a rich lord’s domain; 
My sharp clutch closes on him and 
To prison straight he’s ta’en. 

The full fed social parasite, 
When he has given me gold, 
Can any day go forth and slay, 
Of hares a hundred fold. 

Strong drink it is the poor Man’s bane, 
A demon stark and fell, 
It binds his soul with a burning chain, 
And drags him down to hell. 

I have decreed, to sell strong drink, 
Is crime and mortal sin; 
Yet who gives me my golden fee 
The sin may wallow in. 

It is a crime with love to sit 
At nature’s altar feast. 
But fee the state and you may sate 
Your lust like any beast. 

For gold it is my greatest need, 
It gives me magic power, 
To rule the world from day to day, 
And eke from hour to hour. 

With gold I arm the workman poor, 
And pay him wretched fee, 
To slay his brother working men 
In lands across the sea; 
While you for whom ‘tis done may loll 
In ease and luxury. 

With gold I bribe the hireling scribe. 
To scribble daily lies; 
The parson, eke, so smug and sleek, 
To blind the workers’ eyes, 
With visions sweet of bliss complete, 
In a future paradise. 

And thus divert their minds inert 
From present ills and pains, 
Lest wrathful they arise one day,
Asunder burst their chains 
And with the shattered fragments strew 
The causeway with our brains. 

My craft and guile alone preserve 
Your class from this grim fate, 
I stand between the worthless drones 
And the workers’ honest hate. 

Then grudge no more to give me gold, 
But curb your stupid greed. 
The day that you deny me gold 
Sees your own doom decreed, 
And human labour stand upright, 
From shame and bondage freed. 

He gave the grusome harlot gold, 
And to his home was borne, 
A sadder and a flyer man 
He rose the morrow morn. 

Dundee; Lowden Macartney, Publisher, the Poets’ Box, 184 Overgate, 

Prince One Penny, The Trade supplied


John Lowden Macartney had been born with the surname McArthy in 1863 and worked in the jute mills. He subsequently became a journalist for the Dundee Advertiser and The Weekly News. He took over the Poet’s Box in 1906 and maintained it until its closure in 1946. He died in 1951.He specialised in publishing local songs and bothy ballads and brought out a large number of Irish songs, as there were many Irish workers in the jute mills and as seasonal workers for the potato harvest. He organised “penny readings” in the shop for those unable to read, as the illiteracy rate was quite high in Dundee.’
from Nick Heath’s article ‘The libertarian Dundonian: Jute, The Poet’s Box, the Guy They All Dread (with an aside on poet McGonagall)’ at (which contains more on Macartney).

Alvan Marlaw’s satirical ballad is a parody of Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ that delivers an indictment of corruption in civic and national government. Civic power is represented by the wealthy, selfish provost; the ancient harridan who stops him represents the State. The premise of the poem is that the ruling classes in Britain pay higher taxes, or bribes, in order to maintain the system of class and privilege, and ensure that the working classes remain poor and discriminated against in law. Radical ballads like this were quite common, especially in the nineteenth century.’ From Broadside ballad entitled ‘The Rime of the Ancient Harridan’ (‘Word on the Street’)

Provost B.– is Provost Barrie. In 1904 he was fined for an ‘incorrect income tax return’. A 1904 ballad by ‘Alvan Marlaw’ on the topic, ‘The Bailies of Bonnie Dundee’ is on the ‘Word on the Street’ site at