The fine avenue of trees running alongside the river from Clifton Hall towards Wilton known as Clifton Grove was a popular place of resort in the eighteenth century. In his additions to Robert Thoroton’s History of Nottinghamshire (1797), John Throsby notes, ‘Here tradition says, the Clifton Beauty, who was debauched and murdered by her sweetheart, was hurled down the precipice into her watery grave: the place is shewn you, and it has been long held in veneration by lovers.’
The tale of the ‘Fair Maid of Clifton’ had been told earlier in a ballad existing in several versions, one of which is known as ‘Bateman’s Tragedy’, entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1624. This later became the basis for ‘Clifton Grove’ (1803), a poem by the Nottingham-born poet Henry Kirke White (1785–1806). According to this, Margaret, the ‘Fair Maid’, is not murdered by her lover, as in Throsby’s account, but destroyed by demons as a punishment for perjury.
Margaret had many suitors but disdained them all until she fell in love with a youth called Bateman. They used to meet in secret in Clifton Grove, but one autumn evening when he arrived he looked deathly pale. In broken accents, he told her:
For three long years, by cruel fate’s command,
I go to languish in a foreign land.
When he asked if she would remain faithful, Margaret declared:
Hear me, just God! If, from my traitorous heart,
My Bateman’s fond remembrance e’er shall part,
If, when he hail again his native shore,
He finds his Margaret true to him no more,
May fiends of hell, and every power of dread,
Conjoin’d, then drag me from my perjur’d bed,
And hurl me headlong down these awful steeps
To find deserved death in yonder deeps!
Drawing from her finger a gold ring, she quickly broke it in two, hid one half in her bosom, and gave the other to him.
Bateman left, and for Margaret two years passed ‘in silent grief’. But in the third, another man tempted her with his wealth and she married him. Six months later, Bateman returned and came to claim her. When he heard the news that she had betrayed him, he rushed down to the scene of their former love at Clifton Grove, where, tormented by visions of her in the arms of Germain, her husband, he cast himself in the river and drowned.
Remorse now overcame Margaret, although too late. She waited until the child she carried was born, and that same night, while those who attended her in childbed were sleeping, stole away and was never seen again.
The neighbouring rustics told that in the night
They heard such screams, as froze them with affright; …
And even now, upon the heath forlorn,
They shew the path, down which the fair was borne.
By the fell demons, to the yawning wave,
Her own, and murder’d lover’s, mutual grave.
In the nineteenth century, Sir Robert Clifton appears to have known another version which likewise attributed Margaret’s death to divine retribution. He writes, ‘A perjured maid, sheltering from a storm was struck by lightning, and carried from the Grove into the Clifton Deeps below; and as many people say, curiously enough from that day to this the land down which she fell has remained arid … !’ This variant combines the punishment for oath-breaking with the old ‘barren land’ theme, whereby nothing grows on the ground where people have met violent deaths.
In ‘A Warning for Young Maidens; or, Young Bateman’, a ballad in the Roxburghe Collection, it is Bateman’s ghost that overtakes the Fair Maid. Though she and Bateman have plighted their troth, after a mere two months she transfers her affections:
Old Jerman, who a widower was,
he[r] husband needs must be,
Because he was of greater wealth,
and better of degree.
When she denies making Bateman any vows, he hangs himself on her door and from then on she constantly fancies she sees his ghost. After giving birth to her child, she begs friends to watch by her bed, for:
Here comes the spirit of my love,
with pale and gashlie face,
Who, till he take me hence with him,
will not depart this place.
Alive or dead I am his right,
and he will surelie have,
In spight of me and all the world,
what I by promise gave.
But the friends fall asleep, and when they awake she has vanished.
The Roxburghe ballad tells the story in terms of the ghost who returns for his sweetheart, a theme found in other traditional ballads. English legend also offers many instances of the suicide by drowning of girls seduced and then abandoned by their lovers, some possibly historical. Conceivably all versions of the ‘Clifton Maid’ are more or less dramatic interpretations of an otherwise unrecorded local tragedy.