The Colliers (A Lot Of Little Blackbirds In A Cage)



Letter dated 11 August 1908 from Fred Godfrey
and Harry Castling assigning the performing rights
and a share of the composing royalties of The Colliers
to Billy Williams. Godfrey and Castling got
£3 each for the song.

Harry Castling & Fred Godfrey; EMI database also credits Billy Williams — London: Francis, Day & Hunter, 1909.

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Coal miners were much on people’s minds when this song appeared — a major strike by Durham miners took place in 1908, the year it was written, and likely inspired its creation. A problematic song, though, as measured by the sensitivities of a more enlightened era; the casual racism of Harry Castling’s lyrics — not deliberately meant to hurt but simply to entertain a working-class Music Hall crowd in its own idiom — now sounds a very sour note indeed. Even its good-humoured sympathy with the plight of the coalminer cannot save it. Too bad, because Fred Godfrey’s melody is as good as any of the time.


The chorus goes:

Early in the morning,
Down, down, down into the pits,
Work like n*****s, we look such pretty figures
All among the nobbly bits
(Lord love you).
Work all day for very little pay,
That’s what puts us in a rage.
We go down white, and up we come at night
Like a lot of little blackbirds in a cage.


Cinch 5047-BHomophon 6796Zonophone Twin 561-BHMV-Victor 120211-B






Billy Williams recorded five versions of this song: 28 August 1908 for Homophon; 21 December 1908 for Zonophone; ca. January 1909 for Jumbo; ca. September 1909 for Pathé; and ca. October 1909 for Edison Amberol. Reissues appeared on several other labels.1

Fred Murray (Bell Disc 179, ca. 1910)



1  For comprehensive discographies of recordings by Billy Williams, see Brian Rust, British Music Hall on Record (Harrow, UK:
    Gramophone, 1979); and Frank Andrews and Ernie Bayly, Billy Williams’ Records: A Study in Discography (Bournemouth, UK:
    Talking Machine Review, 1982).