Her ‘lily-white thighs’: Bawdy verses by the Cockatoo Island girls, 1873

21 May

One of the most striking documents I’ve found in my search for 19th-century larrikin girls thus far is a series of interviews with the bawdy inmates of Biloela, the Industrial School for Girls on Cockatoo Island, a site formerly worked by convicts in Sydney harbour.


Ruins of Biloela Industrial School today (taken from Arthur and Jenny’s photographic blog)

The interviews were conducted by a Royal Commission into Public Charities in 1873, and for all sorts of reasons they make for compelling reading. For a start, the girls had rioted just before the interviews took place. Most appeared with bruises and lacerations on their bodies (hips, breasts, faces, back) where they had been beaten by the Biloela superintendent, Mr Lucas – a man whom they had provoked by drawing filthy pictures in which he featured, er, prominently on the wall.

One of the things that struck me among the rest, reading these interviews, was the significance of singing to these girls. The girls ‘are constantly singing’, one of the matrons told the Commission. They used singing for emotional endurance and cultural sustenance; to kill time and entertain themselves. They also used it as a form of rebellion against the despised superintendent and his staff.

During the day, under the watchful eye of their superiors, the Biloela girls sang hymns as they went about their work. They also sang the kind of romantic songs taken up around the piano in family parlours and at concert recitals: songs such as the Scotch ballad, ‘Annie Laurie’, or the puff-piece, ‘Love Among the Roses’ (‘I felt the smart of Cupid’s dart; / Twas love among the roses’).

At night, however, when they were locked up in their dormitories at 6pm, the girls sang the latest songs they knew from the stage. Whenever a new girl came, the others begged her for all the latest hits, and then learned them as best they could. According to a policeman staged on Cockatoo Island, they also sang ‘blackguard verses’ – ‘beastly dirty songs’ which would never have been performed in a late-Victorian theatre. One of the girls’ verses had something in it about ‘lily-white thighs’, he said, and another was ‘The Rolling Magazine’.

I haven’t been able to track down the lyrics for ‘The Rolling Magazine’ (if anyone knows them, I would love to know). But there are a number of old English broadsides containing the phrase ‘lily-white thighs’, and stridently unedifying they are too.

I can’t be sure that the song ‘The Cat’ was the one sung at Biloela, whose lyrics I include below. Still, one can well imagine this song (contained in an anon. broadside at the Bodleian Library) being sung by drunken seaman on the wharves near Cockatoo Island, or else in pubs or in brothels around Sydney, and learned by the girls that way:

By the light of a candle I happened to spy
A pretty young couple together did lie
Said Nelly to John if you'll pull up my smock
You'll find a young hen full as good as your cock.
Then Johnny kissed her and pleased her awhile
When he pulled up her smock it made him to smile
Instead of a hen it appeared like a cat
For there was her beard and her rough hairy back. 
Then Nelly she opened her lily-white thighs
John played with the cat till the bristle did rise
He stroked down the hair as black as a coal
She catched his finger right snap in her hole.
...Then Nelly she held him so fast by the back
While she wriggled her ass & cried push it in Jack
He pushed in with courage so stout and so strong
She smiled in his face crying, well done John.
I burst in to laughter and spoiled the fun
But Nelly kept crying push it in John
Then John fell a laughing at Nell on her back
And swore he'd no more be plagued with a cat.


Annie Laurie, Scotch Ballad: Music (1865): see it on the National Library Australia site here. (There are any no. of advertisements for recitals in 1840-60s Australia in which ‘Annie Laurie’ was performed, appearing in papers such as the Brisbane Courier, the Hobart Mercury, the West Australian, &c).

Love Among the Roses (c. 1871): also on the NLA website.

The Cat, lyrics on http://traditionalmusic.co.uk.

Report of the Royal Commission on Public Charities. Report No. 2, (1873-4) NSW Legislative Assembly.

I came across the above report in Noelene Williamson, ‘”Hymns, songs, and blackguard verses”: Life in the Industrial and Reformatory School for Girls in NSW, Part I, 1867 to 1887’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 67.4 (1982): 375-87 – an article which unfortunately doesn’t say anything much about the songs, in spite of the promise in its title.

Cathy Preston says that another old English ballad, ‘The Tying of the Garter’ was sometimes called ‘Lily-White Thighs’. The version she gives doesn’t actually contain the phrase, however – although it does refer to a maiden spreading her thighs: see Cathy Lynn Preston, ‘”The Tying of the Garter”: Representations of the female rural laborer in 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century English bawdy songs’, Journal of American Folklore 105.417 (Summer 1992: 315-41; Cathy Lynn Preston, ed., Folklore, Literature and Cultural Theory: Collected Essays (Taylor and Francis, 1995), 69-70.

For another song with the phrase ‘lily-white thighs’, see ‘The Monk of Great Renown’ on this folkore site.

More info about NSW State Archives Records on Biloela can be found on the Archives website, here.


3 Responses to “Her ‘lily-white thighs’: Bawdy verses by the Cockatoo Island girls, 1873”

  1. Lefty E 22 May 2009 at 2:13 am #

    Delightfully ‘unrespectable’! That’s one thing I really noticed researching the fin-de-siecle labour movement: its (defensive/ strategic) obsession with respectability. Made it all rather … dry at times.

    But conversely, the unrespectable were so bloody …disorganised! They didnt exactly run a mag… And more’s the pity…

    My favourite post at The Vapour Trail!

  2. brightonandhovehousingcrisis 3 September 2017 at 2:41 am #

    Absolutely loved this, brilliant read.


  1. Airminded · History Carnival 77 - 1 June 2009

    […] Last time I did this, I couldn’t find any Australian content. That’s not a problem now. Manners in the colonies. White Australia and the Yellow Peril. Those bawdy Cockatoo Island girls. […]

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