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Please Note - Should you select the 'OD's page' It contains explicit bawdy material - common to both RN & MN

main input of this Web- Site - is to record the music and sayings of the Royal Navy.

Yet on occasion readers, ask about the songs as used by the Merchant Navy - A subject that is even  more complex than it is for the RN and which in fairness I spend little time recording or researching. - Yet, because so little is actually recorded with any proper authority and because I do from time to time have had the privilege to collect certain material. I hope this small rendering -  might  at least, until time and tide, allows something better, assist those who are interested,

As you are aware, the content of the site is concerned only with those actual songs that can be evidenced as being or having been in 'voice', that is to say used  by the respective services. For it is NOT sufficient to presume that every 'sea song' or 'song of the sea' that was written, was then sung by the sailors. For that is far from the truth.

Sadly very few manuscripts survive that give the truth to the issue. This is particularly true for the Merchant Navy. Where the majority of recorded material concern itself only with the work songs.

In respect of the commercially written songs that were taken-up, almost all of them were then altered and changed to fit the circumstance which prevailed at the time. (As an example Charles Dibden) was awarded a pension by the Admiralty for his vast output of sea-songs, and it is true to say that the romanticism of his songs, did serve to bring many young men to the sea, mostly to the quarter-deck itself. Also that many of  the songs were published  in Admiralty sponsored songsters, aimed by their Lords at the lower deck sailor, to improve education and language. Yet only one or two of Dibdin's songs are evidenced as being sung before the mast or ever voluntarily taken up in voice by the sailors themselves.   

The subject, of 'What Songs are Sung in the Merchant Navy" is certainly difficult to answer. In all probability, that is due to the fact that life in the Merchant Service existed on a voyage by voyage basis, and a dedicated commonality of tradition was never achieved outside of the ship or outside of work itself.

From contemporary accounts we can understand that the sailor was interested in gaining employment where he could get it. If his home town, happened to be a port, then that invariably led him to the sea. His profession should it be fisherman, coastal or deep water was generally learnt at the end of a rope or cane starter, and his weariness took him directly to his bunk. The ships under sail being under-manned and the work hard. To alleviate that problem, there are many work songs (shanties etc.) used to help in that labour, for the nineteenth century, these are to be found in many of the collected works, made at the turn of the century. As collected by the eminent circle of folk song collectors of the day, but those printed are often heavily sanitised. Whilst all such songs were only ever sung in the course of duty or on occasion to earn a pint ashore.

In Victorian times and before, within the age of sail the vast majority of men at sea, sailed on coastal craft. These comprised Smacks, Sloops, Tubs, Snows, Flats etc. Each with a crew of 3 or 4 men. Many of the craft were flat bottomed so that they could sit on the estuary mud flats at low tide. There could be seen hundreds of these on any single  brisk day, passing along the coast, hurrying between points of safety or refuge as before the railways and canals and indeed for much of the time after the best way of transporting cargo was by boat. . Here the men, when their work allowed would invariably relax in a shore side inn with a pint of ale and the songs they then used there would be different to those they used at the anchor on board.

Such coastal craft were generally owned by share of many people often a dozen or so or as as few as the Captain and his crew. Indeed Coastal Shipping Lines were few and far between. With perhaps the Welsh Slate and Coal Companies owning but a half a dozen vessels at a time. The songs they used ashore, were more akin to the songs of the village people, told of the girls, rough weather and the life of a nomadic man tied to the sea itself.

Other men, can be termed Deep-water Sailors. These were another breed, they sailed between Foreign Ports, in Brigs, Schooners and Barques and of course the full rigged ship the most noble of which was arguably the clipper. But even a Brig would have a crew of but 8 or 9, whilst the full rigged ocean 'ladies' had scarcely more than double that number. It is with these larger ships, watch on watch off that the men treasured there own favorite forecastle songs, much like those used by the RN.
These vessels were more expensive to run, to man and insure etc. They were built by more organised groups of men, who formed shipping companies. The larger shipping lines, like the Black Ball Line. Could have as many as a dozen or twenty ships under their house flag. Here the line had a set reputation with the sailors, the quality of victuals 'vittals' and on the shore, we now hear outward bounders being sung and in Foreign Port the 'homeward bounders' as well as 'up-harbour' pieces. Much as in the senior service. A-Roving  and other similar pieces being classics or well-known.

Predominantly the body of men at sea was a floating population, no pun intended, the crews  seldom serving together for more than a single voyage. Thus their songs were often of some age or resembled the popular folk songs of the day, with the good Tenor and Baritone voices choosing the popular output of the music halls. Whilst when in their cups, (a situation seldom tolerated at sea), it was to the bawdy song that the focsle might resound.

As already noted there was one genre of music that is forever part of the Merchant Fleet, that  is the Sea Shanty. Over collected by the Victorian Folk Song Collectors and scrupulously sanitized in the process. These were humorous,  and often explicit bawdy, circular  (repetitive), work songs that reveled in innuendo, it was these songs that formed the everyday usage for the deep-water sailor. Where he had set pieces which assisted in particular tasks on board. Yet with the introduction of steam and the use of winches, these songs were gone! Whilst there are many volumes dedicated to them there are very very few actual vocal recordings. I have no specific intention here to dwell on shanties in any greater depth. Save the suggestion below of some typical sources. So the question now stands as to what songs are used in the 20th century by the mercantile sailor?   
Broadly speaking, The Merchant Navy, refers to the register of the Commercial Ships of this nation. The ships of which have always belonged to individual's, small companies or larger shipping lines. But such was the bravery of those sailors during the First World War, that King George V himself, classified them as the Merchant Navy. Thus it is only from that time that their recorded tradition begins in earnest.

Yes the large passenger Shipping Lines like the White Star Line, had a uniform for its deck staff, a uniform more truthfully based on the Grand Hotels of the time and which also for the deck officers copied in some measure the Royal Navy. None of the lower deck men could claim such solidarity as there was no standard of dress, except that which came from the ships slop chest.

These men, on signing the articles of a ship, presented to the Captain or the Purser, his registration documents, including a uniquely numbered discharge book. At which point he became part of a ships crew and in consequence was listed in its documentation. The men were paid only while they constitute part of that crew. On discharge, or indeed if the vessel is shipwrecked the articles of employment are terminated. There is no record then maintained of them, or pay given to those men when ashore.

Reference to those crew-lists and to the respective certificates of discharge,  show that the men moved easily from vessel to vessel and company to company. As part of a floating pool of seaman. Although sometimes we can note that a man held preference for a particular ship or shipping company. Or perhaps for a certain type or class of ship.

For the officers and sometimes senior men from the foc'sle, particularly a cook. A company would often employ them as permanent staff, drafting them as required between its vessels. But this is seldom easy to determine, outside of individual companies records.

The point here is that individual companies, worked their own routines and system, and this 'individuality' is generally reflected in the songs and with the traditions the men observed. In consequence the Merchant Navy was not a single united service of people, like the Royal Navy, but a group of disparate individuals. Although loosly governed by the Board of Trane or Minister of Transport. Such authority had no remit to set a disciplinary code or establish such things as official marching songs. In fact nobody took the lead.

In fact the men relished the freedom of choice of which ships they joined and how they behaved and the whole anonymity of 'going to sea', with the unregulated reputation of having a girl, mistress or family in every port and some did.

his did mean, that there was no concerted approach to routine or duty, as a sailors life and professionalism was a common one, but it seldom encouraged a shared ceremonial tradition. Instead, each man carried with him, the individuality, shaped by the vessels he served in. His language was that of his home port and the parts of the ship around him. In consequence the songs these men used, differed considerably between ships. Such is illustrated in part by Stan Hugill , a most prolific  and authoritive author, in his book on the ports of the merchant service, 'Sailortown'.

In general their songs in the twentieth century followed the fashions ashore and the needs of his work aboard ship. As voyages are short, few songs survive that tell of his life, and where they do the tunes were borrowed from the music adrift around him. Hymns from Church and Chapel, and particularly songs from childhood etc.
On joining a ship at the start of a voyage, a common tradition practiced, was that every person must do his part and this applied to the focsle so that on a Saturday Night , when relaxation was the order of the evening, then each man made his contribution. Where in a voyage a song was first sung by one man, then it would belong to him uniquely for the rest of that voyage and he would take the lead in its performance. The better singers being  more often called onto lead, but always each man took his turn, and all enjoyed a good chorus. So the most popular entertainment songs or ditties were those in which everybody joined in.

Over the years some songs earned themselves a more universal recognition, songs on which no man had ownership. It is to these very few communal songs, that are the grist of a Merchant Navy reunion of today and the foundation of their traditions are now established.

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The Traditional Songs of the Merchant Navy
Readers, are likely to agree the most poignant and characteristic of all Merchant Fleet songs,  are those, which were used to regulate the work aboard ship. In particular those used to assist in the moving of large objects, like the ship itself, the anchor or its boats.  All tasks, which unless extreme care was taken, injuries such as hernias and ruptures occurred,  which were all too common. But as said I speak no more about that here save for the following which are considered the bible or word, on this subject

  • Shanties From The Seven Seas - collected by Stan Hugil ISBN 0-913372-70-6 (reprint 1992)

  • Songs of the Sailor & Lumberman - William Main Doerflinger ISBN 0-916638-40-5 reprint 1990)

  • In the Foc'sle
    In work or entertainment, there were songs that were used for activities such as clean ship, which were used to ease the burden of routine labour, one of these, universally popular in RN & MN ships alike, was the folk song 'To be a Farmers Boy' - Also good for your reunion.
    The Merchant Sailor, at any time did not just sing work songs, they had their own favorite sea songs, known throughout the Merchant Fleet, although sadly few particular records exist as to what these were and how they were sung. Particularly favored, were the outward and homeward bounders etc. Within that number the most famous of all merchant navy songs Maggie May can be numbered.

    Again there are many sites which deal with sea songs in general, but very few of these consider the usage of such items, or make proper study as to how exactly any one song was used. Without direct evidence that  any song was in the voice of a seaman, then it is not a true merchant Navy song.

    Reunion to Parade
    What the RN sailor has, which his merchant counterpart lacks and in any case never ever wanted at sea, is the strict tradition of ceremony. Indeed we have already noted (above) the taunt which the merchant man gave to RN sailors. Often the lack of spit and polish was the attraction for the MN man in going to sea on the merchant lines. Although the alternative was to that regulated discipline, was often replaced with strong-arm tactics, and bully boy discipline and brutality. Indeed the merchant man was wise to choose his ship and shipmates carefully, or be prepared to put up his fists as required. In some instances this is what some of the songs in dockyard tavern were about.

    What was good in youth, changes in retirement - and today the lack of COMMON accepted or united identities, worked  against them. For example - when a company dinner or re-union comes around.

    Yet in Crossing the Bar from this earth to the greater heaven. Often a more succinct recognised tradition is often eagerly sought, so that a man who has given his service to the sea, might at this point of his earthly existence, have the recognition due to him. - In this context and particularly in re-union, that is when music always come to the fore.

    Please also turn to the chapter on Funerals - where general advice is given and particular

    notes for a Merchant Seaman are made.    Whilst you too have earn't the right to wear the Union flag or red-duster, on your casket or coffin.

    Emphasis has already been directed to some books but now two others must also be mentioned which serve to promote your song heritage.


     The Music of the Waters - Laura Smith - Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. London 1888
    Boxing The Compass - Roy Palmer -2001 - ISBN 0-95-40682-0-3

    The first of these books is a classic study, of the songs gathered from seafarers, whilst the second provides a more general study of genuine and popular material with some notes and tunes to usage.

    Classic & Communal Merchant Navy Songs
    Gentlemen, you may not have a common or traditional form of salute, a set form of marching, or even a common uniform. Although the common uniform for the ex MN man - now adopted as required - is usually the fore and aft rig of a RN Petty Officers  - although it should be remembered that a seaman's jersey and yellow oilskin are also formidable examples of uniform dress.

    Gentlemen you earn't your medals and badges so wear them with pride, what maybe lacking in commonality is by far enhanced, by the diversity on offer in braiding and colours.

    You may certainly march proudly
    behind the old red duster to that universally accepted air of your occupation, which tells the public, here comes 'The Merchant Navy'

    - All the Nice Girls Love A Sailor - 
     As Classic Merchant Navy Songs   'Maggie May', must certainly stand to the front.

    Whilst today 'The Merchant Navy Man' also has a distinct following

    MN - Marching Song  
       All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor  (No Link - Yet)
    Classic Song 1  
       Maggie May (No Link Yet)
    Classic Song 2 
      The Merchant Navy Man
    Additional Favorites
      Fiddler's Green  

    More Merchant Navy Ditties


    This last group of items, is reserved for you input - Please tell us what you sang? -  So that I can upload them here and  preserved for future generations. Remember to tell me when and how they were used  and in particular, on what ship and shipping line you used them.

    Although I have been fortunate to be given a large collection of these as collected in the 1950's. Sadly the conditions of that bequest, prevent me from pasting them onto the web at least until such time as I have you input as guidance. . But I can use the archive, to satisfy a search for a lost song. So also if you need help, be in touch.

    ALL - Suggestions on how this page might be improved - are gratefully accepted.

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