Mary, the Osier-Peeler



a simple but true story:

A Poem.
Printed for the Benefit of the distressed Family described in it.
sold also by rivingtons, london; nicholson, cambridge, and edwards; ely.

Author’s Preface

It may be requisite to explain to those, who are not acquainted with the produce of Cambridgeshire, and the manners of the people, that rearing Osiers for making baskets, hats, &c. is a profitable branch of trade, and peeling them for use, a favorite employment of the young women at a certain time of the year. When they have completed their work, they go in processions, dressed in their holyday clothes, decorated with the strips peeled from the rods; they collect contributions, and with them make a feast and a dance.

The delicate Willow Hats, of late so fashionable, are made of Cambridgeshire Osiers.

Mary, the Osier-Peeler

May an artless muse sing of a maid,
Who ventur’d her osiers to steep,
In that stream, where our Milton oft stray’d
To unburthen his soul, and to weep:
To weep for his Lycidas, sent5
To that country, whence none can return;
Where, to hear his melodious lament,
Gentle Camus [1]  would rest on his urn?
Where Gray for Favonius repin’d, [2] 
In strains like the swan’s dying lay:10
Where Mason [3]  fresh florets entwin’d,
To fling o’er the grave of his Gray?
And where, even now I behold,
A Druid reclining his head,
And inverting his harp of bright gold,15
Because—Mason’s pure spirit is fled?
Cambrian shepherds, prepare ye the yew;
Let the laurel conspicuous be seen:
Round his grave, while these tokens you strew,
Bind your unequal reeds with dead green;20
And forget not the unfading bay, [4] 
For the swain of the sweetly tun’d lyre,
Who deign’d, in his true doric lay,
Your innocent rites to admire. [5] 
On thy banks, gentle Cam, I have read, 25
Youthful poets oft court the soft breeze;
And the grass grows more rich, as they tread
On the margin, or flit through the trees.
And, while at a distance, in air
Float their gowns, as they pensively rove,30
Every rapt youth breathes a pray’r,
Whether stricken with verse or with love.
But I leave to such poets as these
Their sublime incantations to pour;
My muse it must ever best please35
The willow-built cot to explore:
To visit the thin-peopled green,
Where they patiently kiss the sharp rod
Who by all are unknown and unseen,
Except the broad eye of their God.40
With shepherds, who pipe all day long,
The world has full oft been amus’d.
No more may it charm the gay throng,
To hear some coy Phillis abus’d. [6] 
Look into a cot, [7]  and behold,45
Where can music and harmony be;
When, pining with hunger and cold,
Eight children encircle the knee?
But attend to the rod-peeling maid,
Whose story I promis’d to trace,50
Oh! never had nature pourtray’d
More beauty, than bloom’d in her face.
Her hair was as glossy as jet,
Her cheeks were as fresh as the rose;
Where sweetness and modesty met,55
Her innocent looks would disclose.
Her care—’twas a sweet one, I think—
Was to tend on her mother, and spin,
And to foster the willows that drink
Of the dews from old Cam’s sedgy brim.60
Her ambition—smile not, ye proud group;
For industry stood at her wheel,
And bade her to nourish the hope,
That the osiers, she rais’d, she might peel.
With a tear-glist’ning eye she addrest65
Her mother (her father was dead)—
Whilst her artless heart throbb’d in her breast,
O! mother, dear mother, she said,
The willows, I’ve rais’d, let me peel:
Let me go with the maids of the town,70
To earn—what I can’t at my wheel—
A homely but new russet gown. [8] 
When consent from her lips she let fall;
Ye fair, you may trust what I say,
With more transport, than you to the ball,75
To the task Mary hasted away.
Like swift-footed Daphne [9]  she flew,
Nor dreaded the tough rind to rend;
Altho’ from its wounds, she well knew,
Her fingers no care could defend.80
Her hands than the wool were more white,
More spotless than these was her heart,
Than the spindle her fingers more slight,
Yet she thought them too large for her art.
But, when seated all on the green sod,85
The osiers obey’d her command;
As quickly she stript the tall rod,
As erst ran the wheel thro’ her hand.
Twelve morns she Aurora had seen
Unbarring the gates of the light:90
Twelve Suns had gone down on the green,
When the task-master came in their sight.
The bundles he counted with care,
And rigorously peer’d o’er their toil;
Not a look from young Mary so fair,95
The edge of his av’rice could foil.
Delight flush’d her cheek, when her part
Of the earnings, tho’ paid with a frown,
Amounted, for all his hard heart,
To purchase the new russet gown.100
See, she cried, with my labour at last,
Dear mother, I’m able to buy
The russet, on which I’ve oft cast
So wishful and longing an eye.
Now they quitted their seat on the sods:105
For the feast and the dance they prepar’d.
Some were deck’d in the spoils of their rods,
In their holyday suits all appear’d.
Rustic beauty enough was display’d,
On that evening no bosom was sad:110
All the maidens were gaily array’d,
But Mary in russet was clad.
A round muslin cap without lace,
Seldom worn but on Sundays, I ween, [10] 
Most sweetly became her fair face;115
And her ribbons were bright willow green.
Her hosen [11]  she spun and knit too,
Of yarn from her fleeces the best;
On her foot was a neat leather shoe: [12] 
Like simplicity’s self she was drest.120
They footed it all the long night,
Till the sward smooth as velvet was made:
Not a cowslip or daisy so bright,
Or a kingcup could raise its gold head.
’Tis reported, they wou’d not have ceas’d,125
But protracted their sports on the green;
Had not, thro’ the grey streaks in the east,
The morning on tip-toe been seen.
On Mary each gaz’d with surprise,
And wonder’d to see her so fair;130
They encounter’d the glance of her eyes,
Yet knew not, from whence sprung their care.
But Will was the lad of them all,
Who was destin’d the damsel to win:
Like the rods, that she rear’d, he was tall;135
And white, as when peel’d, was his skin.
Thro’ the beans, as he led her away,
He told her, and spoke but the truth,
That her breath was more fragrant than they,
More charming than spring was her youth.140
That the bloom on her cheeks was by far
More fresh, than the ripe crimson hip:
That her eyes were as bright as a star,
And as honey-dew sweet was her lip.
They were wedded by mutual consent,145
And two summers were chearfully past,
Their earnings were carefully spent,
But their sorrows increas’d on them fast.
And now my fond muse must no more
Sing of Mary in russet array’d;150
But the ills, that were laid up in store
For the once happy rod-peeling maid.
Of her second child laid in her bed,
Three moons she was blind and forlorn;
The lustre extinguish’d and fled155
Of those eyes, that were clear as the morn. [13] 
She saw not the babe by her laid,
The dearest and fondest delight
Of a mother, whose pains are repaid,
When the cause of them smiles in her sight.160
To feed one, which stood by her side,
She was fain the platter to dip;
And the food by her feeling to guide
To its eager and half-famish’d lip.
’Reft of sight, whilst she grop’d in the dark,165
Had not Providence left her her scent,
From the embers ascended a spark,
By which they might all have been brent. [14] 
Whilst thus she in darkness was thrown,
To fill up her measure of woe,170
A sweet boy was nigh burnt to the bone,
When for food she had ventur’d to go.
In the streets as she wander’d along,
Exploring her path at noon-day;
She knew not to shun the full throng,175
But ran against all in her way.
But to God of all Mercies restor’d,
In pity, the use of her sight;
And their lustre was never deplor’d,
Since she saw but her babes and the light.180
William’s faith no decay had e’er seen,
Tho’ her beauty was fled like the wind;
He lov’d her for what she had been,
And look’d on her unshaken mind.
Short respite they had from distress.185
With a fever were all of them seiz’d,
And a thirst, that no tongue can express,
Which by med’cine could not be appeas’d.
But an elde, whom experience had taught,
One who lov’d them, and felt for their pains,190
From a fountain procur’d them a draught,
That cool’d the hot blood in their veins. [15] 
But O! can my muse now relate?
When, like spectres, they crawl’d on the ground;
Their landlord for rent would not wait,195
Tho’ his riches unearnt did abound.
Distrain’d [16]  of their clean fleecy beds,
Of their chairs, they of osiers had twin’d,
No friend, where to pillow their heads,
To their fate and the wide world resign’d.200
Poor William no more could sustain,
But fled with the speed he had left,
Some honest employment to gain,
Of his cot and his chattels bereft.
A lodging most wretched they gain’d,205
Where the family found a retreat;
How much worse, patient Mary exclaim’d,
Would it be, if we slept in the street?
The measles, chincough, [17]  and small pox,
Attack’d all the children together;210
Ev’ry ill of Pandora’s fam’d box
Had these houseless babies to weather.
In convulsions, too dreadful to bear,
Some were freed from their mansions of clay;
Whilst others, it pleas’d God, should share215
The ills of a more remote day.
But of all the afflictions, that prest
Upon Mary, ‘twas surely the worst,
To suffer five moons with a breast,
That with anguish was ready to burst.220
As a lily opprest with night dew,
She hung down her faint drooping head,
Her cheeks wore a deadly pale hue,
That once like twin roses were red.
Her soul with such patience was fraught,225
Not a plaint from her lips ever broke;
Tho’ with what she endur’d, you’d have thought,
That silence herself wou’d have spoke.
In her eye I have seen the tears stand,
I have seen them fall fast on the ground;230
Whilst she gratefully blest the hard hand,
That was carelessly probing her wound.
Thro’ sorrows, that may not be told,
Ten children to William she bore;
Yet she sometimes in secret made bold235
To pray, that she might have no more;
But heaven, as if wrath with her wish,
Soon sent her two babes at a birth,
Which emptied their never-full dish,
And drain’d them of all they were worth.240
But Pity bade Charity rise:
Hand in hand they approach’d the low thatch,
And Sympathy, dearest of ties,
With a soft finger lifted the latch.
Ah! then what a sight to behold!245
Each exerting their skill and their care,
The cherubs to shield from the cold,
All eager the labour to share. [18] 
But alas! scarce ten years were gone by,
When the fiends, [19]  so malignant before,250
Seiz’d the children, nor heeded their cry,
But ruthless re-enter’d their door.
With only nine [20]  shillings a week,
Poor William has ten to maintain,
Who, when well, the clear rivulet seek,255
And glean to supply them with grain.
Mary’s modest tongue dar’d not to ask
The kind friends, that so lately had giv’n:
To her soul ’twas too painful a task;
Tho’ to perish of want they were driv’n.260
With labour and hunger nigh spent,
When at eve William crept to his cot;
Instead of a crust in content,
To fast with eight babes was his lot.
O! cou’d I, to wind up my tale,265
Say, affliction had emptied her horn,
And that Mary of Cam’s sedgy vale
No more was distrest and forlorn!
But alas! her first boy, who, I own,
Was the pride of her strength and her heart,270
For a service must go to the town,
And with bodings she saw him depart.
No wonder, the mother’s fond eye
View’d her offspring with partial delight;
For had you, gentle reader, been by,275
You must have been pleas’d with the sight.
The urchin, who no more had seen
Than twelve summers roll over his head,
Was as rosy, as straight-limb’d and clean,
As if on ambrosia he’d fed.280
A master he found, that was kind, [21] 
Whom gratitude taught him to serve,
Strong in body, and willing in mind,
For his favor he strain’d ev’ry nerve.
He put forth the prime of his strength,285
Nor complain’d of the burthen he bore;
Till enfeebl’d and fault’ring, at length
He droop’d, and could carry no more.
To Addenbrooke’s dome [22]  he was borne,
Where humanity waits at the gate,290
To receive the diseas’d and forlorn,
And deep sighing bewails their hard fate.
There the hand but afflicts to relieve,
Tho’ it probes, like a friend, to the heart;
While with patience the wound we receive,295
In hope, a cure follows the smart.
Be Addenbrooke’s spirit at rest;
And O! might I lengthen my pray’r,
Let the spirits of those too be blest,
Who to soothe it remit not their care.300
And might I distinguish among
The foremost in virtue’s fair ranks,
May Iapis for science and song [23] 
Be immortal on Cam’s tuneful banks.
To the youth, whose misfortune I mourn,305
Your attention I once more entreat;
While I tell of his dismal return
To his native and homely retreat:
How he weeping retir’d from that dome,
Where he enter’d with joy to be heal’d;310
Tho’ a welcome reciev’d him at home,
Yet his sorrow could not be conceal’d.
Mary ask’d him, with tears in his eye,
If a service he thought to obtain.
He replied, with a heart-piercing sigh,315
“O! never, no never again.
“Lame and useless I fear I must be—
“But alas! the chief cause of my grief
“Is, in want my dear parents I see,
“Unable to give them relief.”320


Addenbrooke, John. Last will and testament. 18 June 1719. The National Archives, Kew. PROB 11/569/131.

"Art. XI." 25 (1797): 163.

Art. XIII. ser. 2, 22 (1797): 439.

Berridge, Virginia. "Fenland Opium Eating in the Nineteenth Century." British Journal of Addiction 72 (1977): 275–84.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by Susie Dent. 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Edited by William Smith. Boston: Little and Brown, 1849, 552.

Gray, Thomas. "Ode on the Spring." Thomas Gray Archive, last modified 2 Dec 2019,

Hampson, E. M. The Treatment of Poverty in Cambridgeshire, 1597–1834. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934.

Milton, John. "Lycidas." Justa Edouardo King Naufrago. 1638. Wisbech Literary Society (7/26/1798).


[1] EDITOR'S NOTE: God of the River Cam, the river that runs through the city of Cambridge, perhaps best personified in Milton’s "Lycidas" (1637):

Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,
His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
Like to that sanguine flower inscrib'd with woe.
"Ah! who hath reft," quoth he, "my dearest pledge?"5
Last came, and last did go. . . . (103–8).

[2] EDITOR'S NOTE: Favonius, or Richard West, the close friend of poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771). Gray’s elegiac output commemorative of or possibly inspired by the death of West includes "On the Death of Mr. Richard West," "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (1747), and "Ode on the Spring" (1748). “Spring” perhaps shares the greatest affinities with the opening stanzas of Morgan’s poem:

Beside some water’s rushy brink
With me the Muse shall sit, and think
(At ease reclined in rustic state)
How vain the ardour of the crowd,
How low, how little are the proud,5
How indigent the great!” (15-20).

[3] EDITOR'S NOTE: William Mason (1724–1797), English poet and executor of Thomas Gray. BACK

[4] EDITOR'S NOTE: Yew trees are evergreens, connoting immortality, and are often grown in cemeteries. The laurel or bay have long been associated with victory, prophecy, and poetry in the Greek tradition. Morgan pits these lauded plants against her conceit, the humble osier. BACK

[5] AUTHOR'S NOTE: See Mason’s beautiful Poem on the custom in South Wales of strewing the graves with flowers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: i.e., "Elegy written in a Church-Yard in South Wales" (1787). Morgan’s invocation of the Welsh “Cambrian shepherds” in this stanza shares a homonymic doubling with her Welsh tour and her current residence in Cambridgeshire. The language of Morgan’s footnote mirrors the summary of Mason’s poem in the Analytical Review, rather than the poem itself: “The second elegy relates to a local custom among the peasants in South Wales, that of planting field flowers and sweet herbs on the graves of their relations and friends” ("Art. XI," Analytical Review 25 [1797]: 163). The Monthly Review shares similar language in its review, from which Morgan may also have drawn: “one written ten years ago in a church-yard in South Wales, on the custom in that country of planting sweet herbs and flowers on the grave of a relation” ("Art. XIII," Monthly Review ser. 2, 22 [1797]: 439). The Wisbech Literary Society, the subscription library of which Morgan’s husband was member, subscribed to the Monthly Review, ostensibly making this publication available to Morgan by extension. The Wisbech Literary Society allowed periodicals to circulate among members until their annual meeting in July 1798, in which it was decided that new issues of the Monthly Review “be stationary in this Library for a month and then be circulated as usual” (7/26/1798). BACK

[6] EDITOR'S NOTE: Pastoral stock character popular in seventeenth-century broadside ballads and taken up in the eighteenth century by Edward Moore. BACK

[7] EDITOR'S NOTE: Cottage. BACK

[8] EDITOR'S NOTE: The OED highlights the double register of russet as denoting color and class: “coarse woolen cloth of a reddish-brown or subdued colour, formerly used for clothing esp. by country people and the poor.” BACK

[9] EDITOR'S NOTE: Daphne, daughter of the river-god Peneus, was transformed into a laurel tree. BACK

[10] EDITOR'S NOTE: Used parenthetically as a tag in verse for “I surmise,” or “I suppose” (OED). BACK

[11] EDITOR'S NOTE: Pair of hose, but with the distinct register of dialect or archaic usage. BACK

[12] EDITOR'S NOTE: Cowhide leather. BACK

[13] EDITOR'S NOTE: Mary’s temporary postpartum blindness may have been caused by fen ague, to which pregnant women were particularly susceptible (see Introduction). BACK

[14] EDITOR'S NOTE: Past participle for “burn”: per the OED, common in late Middle English through the sixteenth century. Morgan’s imitation, The Knyghte of the Golden Locks: An Ancyent Poem, Applicable to the Present Times, Selected from Many Others in the Possession of Mrs. Morgan (1799), assumes wholeheartedly the orthography, topoi, and found-poem genre of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), which she cites as inspiration. BACK

[15] EDITOR'S NOTE: The folk remedy that brought relief may have been opium, derived from white poppies, which was commonly used in this region to alleviate pain from rheumatism and fen ague, either in the form of poppy tea or dissolved in beer. See Virginia Berridge, "Fenland Opium Eating in the Nineteenth Century," British Journal of Addiction 72 (1977): 275-84. BACK

[16] EDITOR'S NOTE: To “levy a distress upon (a person), in order by the sale of the chattels to obtain satisfaction for a debt, particularly for arrears of rent” (OED, II.c). BACK

[17] EDITOR'S NOTE: Whooping cough. BACK

[18] AUTHOR'S NOTE: When she was brought to-bed of her twins, the ladies in her neighbourhood behaved with the utmost kindness and humanity to her. BACK

[19] AUTHOR'S NOTE: The small pox and measles, which had been so fatal in the family ten years before. BACK

[20] AUTHOR'S NOTE: Frequently only six shillings. BACK

[21] EDITOR'S NOTE: While the Wisbech Corporation had managed a municipal workhouse since 1720, it admitted neither the ill or infirm, the very young, nor those otherwise incapable of working; had the Osier Family applied for entry, they would likely have separated out the more desirable members. That the twelve-year-old boy is apprenticed out to learn a particular skill or craft was a common means of developing employable persons that would not further burden the Corporation or the parish. Wisbech was one of the more judicious in matching pauper children with savory masters, as demonstrated in their 1787 advertisement in the Cambridge Chronicle:

The Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor of Wisbech St. Peter’s, in the Isle of Ely and County of Cambridgeshire, take this methods to inform the public that there are at this time in the Poor-House of Wisbech aforesaid a number of very healthful Boys and Girls, from 13 to 15 years of age, whom they are desirous of putting out as Apprentices to respectable people; and as the Churchwardens and Overseers purpose to give premiums with each of them, no person need apply but such as produce testimonial proofs of character and situation” (qtd. in Hampson 161).

[22] EDITOR'S NOTE: Addenbrooke’s Hospital was among the first voluntary hospitals, opened in Cambridge in 1766. The hospital’s namesake, John Addenbrooke, died in 1719, but left money in his will “to hire, fit up, purchase or erect a building for a small physical hospital in the town of Cambridge for poor people of any Parish or any county” (Addenbrooke). BACK

[23] EDITOR'S NOTE: Iapis preferred the gift of healing over Apollo’s proffered gifts of prophecy and the lyre that he might extend the life of his father (Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, edited by William Smith [Boston: Little and Brown, 1849], 552). BACK