“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And… it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”
U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD February 12, 2002
…and such is the case with the popular song ‘The Lass of Richmond Hill’ or ‘The Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill’ as some have it., much being known, much being guessed at and much more being made up on the spot. First let us remind ourselves of what the song is all about…
On Richmond Hill there lives a lass
More bright than May-day morn,
Whose charms all others maids’ surpass,
A rose without a thorn.
This lass so neat,
With smiles so sweet,
Has won my right good will.
I’d crowns resign
To call thee mine,
Sweet lass of Richmond Hill!
What is known is the song is not traditional as many suggest but a formally composed lyric written by Dublin barrister Leonard McNally (1752-1820) an Irish revolutionary republican and a double agent for the British Government. The “Lass” referred to was his wife Frances I’Anson who he married in 1787. Her family owned ‘Hill House’ in Richmond, Yorkshire, making her the ‘Lass of Richmond Hill’… in Yorkshire. The music for the song was written by James Hook (1746-1827), the organist at London’s popular Vauxhall Gardens and composer of over 2000 songs.
There were other claimants to the authorship of the song including Rosa Smith who may, or may not, have been a poet living in Richmond – our Richmond, that is – and she wrote the song about herself as a 19th century ‘selfie’. Others include song writer and poet called Wiliam Upton about which little is known apart from … “he was author of Poems on several Oc.” and King George 4th who apparently wrote the song about his mistress Maria Fitzherbert who lived not on Richmond Hill but in Marble Hill. Close but not close enough. Apparently the give-away clue is the line is: “I’d crowns resign to call thee mine. Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill.”
As with all good ‘known unknown’ stories like this there were many lasses who were identified as the ‘Lass of Richmond Hill’. As well as all those mentioned above – Frances I’Anson, Rosa Smith etc…, there was a Miss Janson, the daughter of a rich attorney who owned a house on Richmond Hill. Suspecting that her father disapproved of a possible wedding the lyricist thought that by making Miss Janson the subject of a popular song it would help advance his troth. Whether his troth was advanced or not falls into the unknown unknown category.
In 1807 the Rev. Thomas Maurice suggested in his poem ‘Richmond Hill’ that the ‘rose without a thorn’ was the tragic Miss Cropp who lived on top of Richmond Hill in a house that is now part of the Richmond Hill Hotel. It seems that on 22nd April 1782 having been forbidden by her father from seeing a certain Army officer she threw herself to her death from the upper window of the house. Miss Cropp came a cropper!
The Rev Thomas Maurice connection seems very shaky as he published his poem in 1807 but the song was first performed 18 years earlier in 1789 at Vauxhall Gardens in London by Charles Incledon. It soon became one of the most popular songs of the time.
“Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill” remains as popular today and is still performed in many forms – classical harp, military bands, morris dancing melodeon, regency recreationists and school choir warblers from Hong Kong to Halifax. Even the legendary 1960’s pop producer Joe ‘Telstar’ Meek came out with a really cheesy version in 1961… and the musical cognoscenti and not-so-cognoscenti are still arguing about the song- who wrote it and why and in particular who all those sweet lasses might be. Let them argue. We know the truth. We are surrounded by them – our wives and girlfriends, our family and friends, the woman on the bus, the girl in the street , the many sweet lasses of Richmond Hill.
“Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill” by the King Singers
“Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill” by Chris and the Students produced by Joe Meek
— from Martyn Day