Black Lives in Bethlem: George Syron and the 'Maid in Bedlam'
One of the most common questions the archivist gets asked is about a folk song with Bethlem connections, ‘A Maid in Bedlam’, sometimes also known as ‘One Morning Very Early’ from it’s first line. The most famous version is by the John Rebourn group who included it as the title track on one of their albums in 1977 .
The song is about a man who hears a woman in Bedlam, the common name for Bethlem Hospital in London up to the 1800s, bemoaning that her love has been sent to sea by his parents in order to separate him from her. In some versions its implied that it is this separation that has made her mad, longing for her lover as she rattles her chains in her confinement in the Hospital.
The song dates from the eighteenth century, and William Stenhouse’s notes on the ballad suggest it was reworked in the late Georgian period from an earlier song called ‘The Black’s Lamentation’. The story around this original is that it was written by a black man, George Syron, who was himself a patient in Bethlem, and that in this version it is the singer who is imprisoned and hoping that their lost love can come and rescue them. This song was originally released as a ‘broadside ballad’, a piece of music printed on a single side of a piece of paper, and was therefore popular, affordable and accessible- a little like a 45rpm record from 200 years later. Sadly it also means it can be very hard to trace- the closest we can find is a version in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library called ‘The Maiden’s Lamentation For the Loss of Her Love’ by George Syron, which they date to before 1740.
There is nobody called George Syron (or Sighius, another variation that crops up in some of the research) in our records as a patient or a member of staff, and unfortunately we don’t hold any information about the song in our records. However there is a ring of truth in the story, as mental health treatment at this time was very much based on containment and incarceration. The chains the maid rattles were undoubtedly very real in Bethlem (and in other places) in the 1700s.
If the story of who wrote the ballad is true, it is entirely possible that George was a patient in another institution, many of which were known as ‘bedlams’ in a kind of tribute to Bethlem. The persistent stories of George’s ethnicity perhaps hint that the Hospital (or its regional equivalents) was more multicultural than the records, which do not mention race, and only include a British parish of residence, otherwise show. The closeness of 'Syron' to 'siren' implies his name may have been an alias in any case, though we did check all the Georges in the admission books just in case. It shows the limits of our records in finding this history, but it does mean we can at least signpost this in a continuation from Duncan Salkeld’s work on black prisoners in Bridewell to the first identifiable black patient in Bethlem, John Flinn, some 100 years after the ballad was released.
The song has recently been reclaimed by Angeline Morrison as part of her project to find the black British experience in traditional folk song. If you have a few minutes we found her performance of ‘The Black’s Lamentation’ to be really moving and her album ‘The Sorrow Songs’ is well worth investigating.
We are indebted to Mhairi Lawson, who supplied us with a lot of the research in this blog, including the entry on the ballad by William Stenhouse and the entry in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.