Lost in the wood

In Brief

Imagining the girl next door seeking salvation from a constable, Bloom plays wittily on the name of her employer, Mr. Woods: "O please, Mr Policeman, I'm lost in the wood." His conceit alludes to two staples of popular culture. The traditional children's story Babes in the Wood is one that he might have encountered either in pantomimes or in Mother Goose nursery rhymes. He combines its picture of frightened children lost in the forest with a music-hall song, Oh Please, Mr. P'liceman, about country girls lost in the big city.

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Babes in the Wood, originally published as a broadsheet ballad in 1595, is the story of two small children left in the care of their uncle after their parents die. To steal their inheritance, the uncle sends them off with a pair of murderers, one of whom kills the other and leaves the children to fend for themselves in the woods. They die, and birds cover their bodies with leaves.

Oh Please, Mr. P'liceman presents a less dire predicament. Gifford and Seidman identify the song as one "written by E. Andrews and popularized in the 1890s by the Tillie Sisters." They publish these lyrics:

To London Town we came, you know, a week ago today,
And 'tis the first time we've been out, and quickly lost our way;
We got somewhere near Leicester Square, when a p'liceman bold 
Cried out, "Move on!" and how he laughed as we our story told.

(Chorus)

Oh, please, Mr. P'liceman, do be good to us;
We've not been long in London, and we want to take a 'bus.
They told us we could go by 'bus to Pimlico, 
Oh, what wicked Place is London—Oh! Oh! Oh!

This was not the only music-hall song about unhelpful policemen. In Popular Music in England, 1840-1914: A Social History (McGill-Queen's UP, 1987), Dave Russell observes that "Policemen seem to have featured in music-hall song from at least the late 1860s," often as objects of scorn (101). Nor was it the only such song to entertain audiences with stories of country bumpkins daunted by their city cousins.

Please, Sir, I've Lost My Way, performed by Vesta Tilley, is the song of a Lincolnshire villager who feels "a little green" in the big city. He is approached by a woman who says that she too has lost her way in the city and needs help. A policeman appears; the woman suddenly accuses her savior of insulting and threatening her; the policeman threatens to haul him away and teach him better manners; he offers to give the policeman all his possessions to avoid the beating; the policeman takes his watch, his chain, and his purse. When the man finds another policeman and tells him the story, the constable at first laughs, and then tells him that he has been victimized by a pair of swindlers that the police are looking for. And now, "I'm chaffed by all who know it, by my friends, both far and near, / And even cheeky barmaids when they serve me smile and jeer."

The theme of laughter in these songs—knowing city dwellers enjoying themselves at the expense of naive recent arrivals—cuts the melodramatic pathos of Babes in the Wood. Bloom clearly is not too worried about the sexual vulnerability of his neighbor's servant, the girl who wears "Brown scapulars in tatters, defending her both ways." Herself perhaps a recent arrival from the country, she goes in the same mental pigeonhole as redheaded curates from the county Leitrim and burly policemen.

JH 2017
1879 illustration of Babes in the Wood by Randolph Caldecott. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Cover for sheet music of The Boys that Mind the Shop sung by Vesta Tilley, held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Source: www.vam.ac.uk.