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Over the years, a considerable amount of time and ink has been wasted trying to find the “hidden meaning” behind this song. The truth is that there is no hidden meaning – it is a jolly drinking song. Nevertheless, it is a song of considerable significance for Gloucestershire, having been taken up by the Gloucestershire Society, founded in 1657 as a charity organisation and still very much alive today. To find its history, we must look at a 17th century bawdy song entitled “My Dog and I”, in which the singer goes around visiting maidens and “my dog” is a barely-concealed erotic euphemism. Over the years it appears that the bawdy interpretation has been lost to sight. The first-known mention of the song as George Ridler’s Oven is on a broadside of 1771, printed in Bristol, and by the end of that century, it had become a dialect piece, with the inscription:
“A RIGHT FAMOUS OLD GLOCESTERSHIRE BALLAD” – Corrected according to the Fragments of a Manuscript Copy found in the SPEECH HOUSE in the Forest of Dean several centuries ago, and now revived, to be sung at the Anniversary and Monthly Meetings of the GLOCESTERSHIRE SOCIETY; (A Charitable Institution ), held in the Crown and Anchor Tavern, in the Strand, London.
The Gloucestershire Society website may shed some further light on the song: “The first three verses are most likely to be a celebration of the Ridler family of Bussage, near Stroud, whose Blacknest Quarry (corrupted to “Blakeny’s Quar” in the song), was for two hundred years a notable source of “oven stone”.
Later, the song was printed in various books and broadsides, including the 1859 publication “Scouring of the White Horse”, about the Uffington White Horse, Berkshire. Apart from this excursion outside the county boundary, singers and writers have always taken the song to be firmly Gloucestershire, and the evidence of collected versions backs this up. It is still sung annually by the Gloucestershire Society.
For tunes to this song, go to ‘Browse’ and search for 1319 in the Roud index search.