Thank you for this excellent summary.
My own opinion is a) that nobody really knows, and that nobody will ever know 'the whole truth', b) all we can do is make inferences, some of which some people may find persuasive, some not and also, c) without wishing to call anybody a 'liar' (Harwood disagrees that Blind Willie McTell wrote "the dying crapshooter's blues" even though McTell claimed that he did, but does not call him a liar), there is reason to be a tad sceptical about what one reads in early journals, and even in the methods and findings about people collecting in the field.
I would add that there is also some room for questioning whether there was ever a version of these lyrics specifically entitled by their singers 'The Unfortunate Rake'. The early references to this title are references to what I have learned on this very helpful thread thread may be more than one 'air', or melody, of this name, which also has a number of other names, which seems to have been a dance tune at some point, and whose origin is also obscure. The idea that the words/a version/variant (is there a technical difference in folkloric theory between a version and a variant) of this air at some point were joined up with the song whose 19th century title was mostly The Unfortunate Lad is, I humbly suggest, an inference, and most probably one entrenched in people's minds as a result of the work of A L Lloyd. But one reason for my coming on this thread was to see if anybody could provide me with, say, evidence from the 19th century of the actual use of those words with that title. I hope I have not muddled this up: this is how I understand it.
By the way, I have nothing against "Bert" Lloyd. I never met him, but it is said in literature I have found that he was likeable. He obviously managed to get on good enough terms with the English Folk Dance and Song Society. But some of his 'politics' strike one as almost wilfully naive with the wisdom of hindsight. I am thinking of a passage from his book on English Folk Song, a book which demonstrates to me a lack of ability to keep to the topic as opposed to going off at tangents, and does not feel to me look remotely 'academic'. Reading it after the horrors of the break up of the former Yugoslavia, not to mention the demise of British coal mining, I found this:
Things have changed a bit in the last few years. In some parts of Europe, and particularly in the folkloristically rich South-east the general democratic trend has set a different pattern in what Americans like to call the 'collector-informant context'. A Balkan collective farm peasant is no longer daunted by the man in collar and tie, any more than a Durham miner by the fellow from the BBC. The increase of working class self confidence offers new and more favourable conditions for discovering the full physiology of musical folklore, blood, flesh and wounds, and not merely its anatomy."
I hadn't seen Thorp Fife and Fife. Thanks for the reference. On cowboy versions, Harwood gives the name of a man who claimed to have copyrighted it in the 19th century: cannot just recall it now. That's another story from Harwood. Definitely a good read. Actually, I find him more readable than Lloyd.
Have a nice day, everybody.