As one wanders through our stacks, reflecting upon 276 years of maritime history, one can also stumble across some musical gems on a maritime theme. Guildhall Library holds the Lloyd’s Marine Collection, but sea shanties and sea songs are both represented in the library’s resources.
Sea songs were more often sung ashore, occasionally by sailors home from sea, but frequently by land lubbers. These songs often celebrated a great victory or the bravery of a particular Captain. A renowned writer of these sailor songs was Charles Dibdin (1745-1814). Some tell of the “delights” of a life at sea and one wonders what real sailors thought of those doubtful pleasures. Some sea songs were sung aboard ship e.g. – forecastle songs, reflecting where the singing took place. Hugill (in “Shanties and Sailor Songs”) tells us that some forecastle (fo’c’sle/forebitter) songs were popular with the Navy and Merchant Navy.
Shanties (said to be from the French chantez or chanter) were practical work songs, sung not for leisure and enjoyment, but during very heavy work indeed e.g. – the words and repetitions of halyard shanties helped the men to haul together. Shanties were sung in the Merchant rather than the British Navy where work was carried out without musical encouragement.
One of the library’s musical treasures is “Real Sailor Songs: Collected and Edited by John Ashton”. It was published by the Leadenhall Press in 1891. Both writer and publisher offer interesting areas for study. Historian and member of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, John Ashton, was a ballad collector who drew on the broadsheets in his possession for his publications. He was aiming to bring the best of the texts he had collected to a wider public. In his preface, Ashton commented that at time of publication, sea songs were mostly sung in the music halls saying “I have omitted the whole of Dibdin’s, as they were songs for Sailors, but not necessarily Sailors’ Songs”.
His earlier publication “A Century of Ballads” (1887) included eighty broadsides from the seventeenth century. His “Modern Street Ballads” (1888) drew on later sources from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ashton made use of the woodcut illustrations from the original broadsides in his possession, but he rearranged them, attaching them to different songs, pointing out that in the original broad sheets the illustration often bore little relevance to the words beneath.
Ashton divided his volume of sailor songs into those about sea fights, the press-gang, disaster, life ashore, love, and finally a miscellaneous section. Several of the songs recorded by Ashton have a London theme e.g. “Meg of Wapping” is about landlady who cheerfully gains and loses six husbands. He also records “The Jolly Sailor” or “The Lady of Greenwich” in which a well to do lady falls in love with our hero sailor and showers adoration and wealth upon him. This enables him to return from the sea for good.
Other London songs recorded are “The Greenwich Pensioner”, “Bonny Shadwell Dock” and “Ratcliffe Highway in 1842”….
“You jovial sailors, one and all,
When you in the port of London call,
Mind Ratcliffe Highway, and the damsels loose,
The William, the Bear, and the Paddy’s Goose”
There are several versions of these songs but a common tale is the unfortunate sailor who comes ashore at Wapping, wages in pocket, meets and gets drunk with a woman who then robs him. The woman is sometimes described as a “flash packet” and the lyrics are filled with double entendre. There are versions in which the sailor steals something from the woman in return. Hugill thinks that songs celebrating the delights of being ashore are probably genuine sea songs. He calls Ashton’s book “The first genuine attempt to bring together sailor come-all-yous, forebitters and ballads, in one book.”
Publisher of the Ashton book, The Leadenhall Press, was founded by Andrew White Tuer (1838–1900) of Field & Tuer. The firm began at the Minories in 1862, principally as a printing and stationery business, but Tuer drove the business toward a fuller range of printing techniques and the production of books. In 1868 Field and Tuer moved to 50 Leadenhall Street and by the 1880s they were printing a wide range of volumes including children’s books and limited editions. They had also developed a reputation for reproducing art works. They worked with artists such as Burne-Jones Joseph Crawhall, Randolph Caldecott, and Punch cartoonists Phil May, Charles Keene and Linley Sambourne. To find out more about the publications of the Leadenhall Press see “Field & Tuer, The Leadenhall Press: A Checklist” by Matthew McLennan Young.
The work of Charles Dibdin is also represented in the library’s collections. Dibdin was an actor, composer and writer from Southampton who moved to London. He became part of Garrick’s Drury Lane Company and composed for them. His only experience of life at sea came from his brother’s seafaring career and perhaps his own journey to France to escape his creditors. He wrote several popular sea songs including “Blow High, Blow Low” “‘Twas in the good ship Rover” and above all “Tom Bowling” (suggesting the bowline, an important sailor’s knot) from a character in Smollett’s “Roderick Random”. “Tom Bowling” is often played on the Last Night of the Proms. Dibdin’ s songs had a strong patriotic flavour and were taken up by the British Navy in time of war. During the Napoleonic Wars his version of “Britons Strike Home” (1803) led to his being awarded a government pension.
Guildhall Library holds a copy of “Songs, Naval and National, of the Late Charles Dibdin, a Collection Arranged by Thomas Dibdin with Sketches by George Cruikshank”. His work was much admired by Charles Dickens who kept a copy of this in his library.
In 1889 a memorial to Dibdin was erected by public subscription which has a verse from “Tom Bowling” inscribed upon it. This gives a flavour of Dibdin’s style and demonstrates the marked difference between the sailor songs collected by Ashton and those written by Dibdin:
“His form was of the manliest beauty,
His heart was kind and soft,
Faithful, below, he did his duty;
But now he’s gone aloft.”
Other memorials to Dibdin are at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich and at Holyrood Church in Southampton.
Jeanie Smith, Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection
Find out more at Guildhall Library
JPT Bury “A W Tuer and the Leadenhall Press” in Book Collector 36.2 (Summer 1987):225-243.
Roy Palmer (ed.) Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs reference (1979) reference 782.4216221
Stan Hugill Shanties and Sailors’ Songs (1969) reference 782.421595
Stan Hugill Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961) reference 782.421595
Oxford Book of Sea Songs chosen and edited by Roy Palmer (1986) reference S782.421595
Matthew McLennan Young Field and Tuer, The Leadenhall Press (2010) reference SL 07.1
John Ashton Modern Street Ballads (1888) reference S 821:04
John Ashton Real Sailor Songs (1891) reference AN 11.4.2
T Dibdin Songs of the Late Charles Dibdin, with a Memoir (1864) reference B:D 544
Dibden’s Humourous Budget of Sea Songs. Vol. 1.  reference pam 1275
John Braham Braham’s Whim: or, Songster’s Delight : Comprising all the Modern Fashionable and Sea Songs now Singing at the Theatres of London (1812) reference pam 6170