Roots of Radicalism

Traditional British folk song

Part Six: Sea songs and shanties

BRITAIN'S great naval victories were won at a time when its sailors were subjected to appalling conditions and harsh discipline.

Hearts of Oak, written by an actor in the mid-Eighteenth Century, suggested that sailors were called to honour, not pressed like slaves, but this was not quite correct. British sailors were patriotic and fought valiantly, but life at sea was so bad that the fleet could only be manned in time of war by the use of the press-gang.

`A woman's view of this arbitrary form of conscription is given in the following song collected in Sussex:

All things are quite silent, each mortal at rest,

When me and my love got snug in one nest.

But a bold set of ruffians they entered our cave,

And they forced my dear jewel to plough the salt wave.

I begged hard for my sailor as though I begged for life.

They'd not listen to me, although a fond wife,

Saying: "The king he wants sailors; to the sea he must go."

And they've left me lamenting in sorrow and woe.

One cause for complaint was the delay in receiving pay. This forced naval seamen to sell their pay-tickets to usurers at half-price [1]:

An usurer in Lothbury, a Jew of high renown,

Hearing the sailors would be paid strait hasted up to town.

What! pay the Navy all, d'you say, sure that can never be!

For then much greater men must lose their trades as well as we...

Although confined to a floating prison, sailors were allowed some compensations when in port: "Pressed men, being unable to go ashore in case they absconded, were allowed bumboats alongside with the Jewish slop-dealers bringing them tobacco, clothing and booze, not to mention harlots from the Ratcliffe Highway" [2].

Songs about Britain's naval victories have not been as enduring as Admiral Benbow, a song about a British naval defeat! Benbow was a butcher's apprentice turned admiral who lost his life in action against the French in 1702:

Admiral Benbow lost his legs by chain-shot, by chain-shot.

Admiral Benbow lost his legs by chain-shot.

And down on his stumps did fall, and so bitterly did call:

"Fight on, my noble lads, 'tis my lot!"

A stoical devotion to duty tinged by a wry humour in the face of adversity has always marked and appealed to the British character. This 'Nordic fatalism' which can also be found in the sagas is in sharp contrast to the bombastic chauvinism we associate with certain more excitable peoples.

The only battle songs that have had wide appeal were those relating to piracy, a maritime counterpart to the success of highwaymen ballads. In Captain Ward, a pirate by that name cocks a snook at James I whose neglect of the navy had allowed an explosion of piracy.

Singing was not generally encouraged in the Royal Navy and it is not always easy to establish which songs were actually made and sung by sailors, and which ones were the products of landsmen. From the merchant sevice, however, there were many songs about the hardship of life at sea which, in contrast to the romantic view taken by the landsman, have an authentic ring to them.

They tell of cold and hunger, storms and shipwrecks, the hazards of Cape Horn and the miseries of icy whaling grounds. The Ship in Distress begins "You seamen bold who plough the ocean/See dangers landsmen never know", and tells the story of a disabled ship whose crew are forced to cast lots to see who is to be eaten first. The Greenland Whale Fishery bemoans:

Oh, Greenland is a dreadful place,

It's a place that's never green,

Where icebergs grow and the whale-fish blow,

And the daylight's seldom seen, brave boys,

And the daylight's seldom seen.

Sadness is not the only emotion represented. The special comradeship born of a hard struggle against the elements also evoked resilience and pride as in the stirring Scottish song The bonny ship 'The Diamond'.

The seaman's problems didn't end-when he got ashore. Many songs tell of him being robbed by prostitutes, or cheated or shanghaied by boardinghouse masters:

When first I landed in Liverpool,

I went upon the spree.

My money at last, I spent it fast,

got drunk as drunk could be;

And when my money was all gone,

it was then I wanted more.

But a man must be blind to make up his mind

to go to sea once more.

I spent that night with Angeline,

too drunk to roll in bed.

My watch was new, and my money too,

in the mornin' with 'em she'd fled;

And as I roamed the streets about,

the whores they all did roar,

"Here comes Jack Spratt, the poor sailor lad,

he must go to sea once more."

The songs we have cited depict hard men in hard conditions, but as Lloyd points out there is another side to the sailor's character: "Now and then, in museums and curio shops we find sweet mermaids carved on coconuts, classical scenes scrimshawed on spermwhale teeth, a pillowcase embroidered with two hearts and an anchor, delicate fond things worked by coarse hands in the stuffy half-deck, and we are reminded that if some of the old seamen were of the ringtailed roarer kind, others were thoughtful men, masters of their vernacular culture both at work and in leisure. So too with the songs they sang" [3].

Lloyd goes on to mention songs like Farewell, my dearest Nancy, Lovely on the water, and Just as the tide was flowing, beautiful songs which were "recorded from old sailors or have been found scribbled in the back of ships' log-books".

Along with ceremonial songs, work songs have one of the strongest claims to antiquity. By 'work songs' we are not here concerned with songs that are merely about work, but functional songs of the leader and chorus type used to provide a rhythm for co-ordinated muscular effort and to relieve the tedium of repetitive tasks.

The British folk song repertoire probably once numbered a large variety of work songs which have been lost over the centuries as machinery replaced human labour. For such a fundamental type of song, it is ironic that most of the surviving examples are of relatively recent origin.

The most obvious and well known type of work song is, of course, the so-called 'sea shanty'.

Songs or chants for hauling in unison were known to sailors in medieval times and those for rowing in ancient times, but it was the Nineteenth Century packet-ships and clipper-ships which stimulated the greatest age of the sea shanty.

The lead in developing these ships had come from America, but it passed to Britain. The shanty genre was thus to some extent Anglo-American though even the American ships had predominantly British crews.

There were essentially two types of work which shanties were designed to accompany. One was working with machines such as windlasses, capstans and pumps and was known as 'heaving'.

The other was setting and reefing sails which consisted mainly of pulling on ropes and was known as 'hauling'.

Haul away, Joe was used as a sheet shanty with the pull coming on the final word of the refrain which was often delivered as a "savage howl" [4]:

King Louis was the king of France afore the revolution,

'Way, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe!

But the people cut his head off an' spoiled his constitution,

'Way, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe!

Shanties flourished briefly in the great age of the clipper-ships and expired with their eclipse. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 made it practical for steamships to reach Australasia and the Far East. Sailing-ships failed to survive the century and the need for shanties died with them, killed like other work songs by the onward march of industrialisation.


  1. Shanties and Sailors' Songs by Stan Hugill (Herbert Jenkins, London 1969), page 29. Stan Hugill came from a long line of seamen, and had himself served in sailing ships.

  2. Ibid, page 17. The Ratcliffe Highway was a waterfront street close to the London Docks. An account of its pubs, brothels, music-halls and characters in the days of sail is given in Stan Hugill's Sailortown.

  3. Folk Song in England by A. L. Lloyd (Panther, London 1969), page 279.

  4. Hugill, page 198.