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Royal Navy Songs

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Barry E. Scott
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An Historical Account of
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From the earliest days, sailors have used their songs to provide a diversion to the hardships of life at sea. Consequently many of his songs speak about the loved ones at home, food, the conditions of his service etc. etc. They also served to entertain him as well as regulating the rhythm of his day and work.

Sailors , as men are essentially no different to any other man employed in a trade ashore, except of course, by the nature of that employment he is seperated from home and must submit to the dangers and deprivations of the sea.
It must be remembered that in wooden sailing ships, the hulls leaked and so in storm and rain the men were always wet and seldom had a dry bed to sleep in. Aboard these vessels there was only one small fire and that was only lit to cook the food. Also after a short time from shore, water supplies would become stagnant and green, which his daily ration of spirits was intended to be used as a steraliser, whilst the ration of beer gave him something wholesome to drink, there was generally no tea or coffee on the lower deck.

It is no wonder that in his songs, he tries to cheer huimself up and why such ditties and stories have survived as those ashore have not. (although in part this was because the early song collectors took a fancy to seasongs and shanties and ignored other industrial songs. In the Royal Navy as compared to the Merchent Service, there was a need for the men to remain silent (not sing) during sail and gun evolutions. So that orders could e passed more easily. This 'silence' was to some extent diluted by the use of fiddlers or drummers so as to maintain the rhythm of work. However other situations such as 'clean ship' did allow for the use of song, and many of the bawdy songs now assosiated with the sports field were favoured. This use of bawdy song led to the introduction in the 19th century of a series of songsters. But as this was the music for entertainment, the work song survived though was rarely recorded.

However within the Merchant Service and often in the cutters and sloops of the RN, the situation was very different, there was far less available manpower to do the heavy jobs like haul in the anchor and boats and seldom a fiddler available to which the mewn could stamp their feet and heave. In such situations the Sea Shanty was generaly the order of the day with one of the crew taking up the role of shantyman.

This single difference created two nautical genres, that of the merchant service was heavily biased towards the shanty or work song, do to there more meagre manning complement, even then the early song collectors, frequently ignored the aspect of other songs they used for entertainment. As mentioned apart from certain work tasks such as holystoning etc. no song was generally used in the RN to assist work.

During the days of sail, men often served on board for years at a time, without setting foot ashore. There need foe entertainment meant they had a wealth of music that was used asforebit songs, drinking songs as well as for other purposes. We can therefore the music of the Royal Navy into five seperate groups or genre.

        • Ceremonial Use
        • To Regulate His Wwork
        • Diversion
        • Entertainment
        • Sport

Because the need for songs has changed over the centuries. It is common to find that the sailor would never discard a good song, but shift its purpose into another category. However it was the general view or unspoken rule amongst the men that, in any one period of time, no one song would exist in more that one category and therefore a favorite drinking song would never be used to lighten the work, and a song sung at the forebits on a balmy Saturday night in tropical climates would not be heard around the messdeck table.

The exception to this rule was where the man might sing these songs for his own amusement or divertion and even here there were certain items reserved just for this purpose as well as little ditties or sayings, used as remarks and punctuation in every day life. Such occasions that he sang to himself is similar to the way you behave today as you walk along the street and Jack would sing to himself as hestood to on lookout duty at the masthead or on the bridge sponson with a pair of binocculars at hand.

Ceremonial Use -

During Tudor times and before ships of the Royal Navy were often specially built and manned only during times of war or for exploration voyages etc. The men that manned them were the merchant men that often took their own ships into battle. The navy as we know it today was not organised and used until after the English Civil War and can be said to date from 1660 when the first proffessional list of Royal Naval officers was maintained. Even then the men would freely move between the Merchant and Naval forces and te two maritime forces shared the songs and music.

It wasn't until the Eighteenth century, and the ultimate development of the Man O War as a fighting ship that for the first time large numbers of men were required and wages in the RN tended be less than the merchant service. From now onwards the lot of a Naval sailor was different to the merchant man ad it is from this period that their music began to seperate.

The number of men on a warship in comparison to a merchant craft was much greater and of course the almost continual wars meant that the naval sailor was invariably pressed from ashore or other merchant vessels and seldom released until the war was over.

With so many men required to handle both sail and guns at the same time. The need to exact the maximum effort from each man during routine tasks such as hoisting boats or anchor was not so imperative.  Comparison to the man weight ratios (number of crew borne to weight of ship), provids proof of this. But the need to maintain silence during times of crisis was very important and so the RN adopted the tradition of working in silence, (that is no singing during routine sail and gunnery duties.) Instead to coridnate the work effort, fiddlers and drummers would play.

Captains of ships went to great lengths to recruit fiddlers and other musicians. Thus in the larger 5th rates and above of the Napoleonic times, we see the use of a fiddler or bandsman playing to maintain the step and ease the monotony of the task. Also we hear the drummer boy beating the time to well known tunes as he called the men to action or the issue of grog. The tunes they played are of interest to us here and mention will be made of them in the song list.

In contrast the act of pumping ship a daily occurance) was often a solitary one, with only a small group of men, employed at any one time, and sometimes during very difficult times such as in storm etc. the effort required at the pumps was quite considerable. In such circumstance  it cannot be imagined the men would not have used a song to keep the rhythm. Addittionally there is a great weight of evidence that tells us that during clean ship activities the men aboard RN ships would sing in mighty choruses.  Thus we find that during holystoning and other clean ship activities certain songs were used and dependent on the pious sonerity of the captain it is certain that such songs were often quite bawdy. 

Diversion -

Entertainment - Sailors can spend many months separated from their loved ones (particularly in the days of the sailing navy and the press gang.) It is natural therefore that they should seek varying forms of entertainment. In seeking such diversion ashore they are usually to be found sticking together in groups atharbour side inns or local canteens, here as aboard ship they are found of stories and songs. Such songs vary in there composition, dependent on the occasion.

Aboard Ship in the pre-steam fleets it was common for the men to gather together in the only open space that was set aside for there use. - The foredeck - Gatherings below decks were forbidden n the interests of Naval Discipline - In case sedation and mutiny were planned - Access to the foredeck was allowed for use of personal toilet at the heads, where the constant washing of the sea as the ship punged and rose to the seas would cleanse the ships side. and it was similarly the only place which was not used at sea for the operations of sails and guns. Indeed there was a small platform just in front of the foremast where the halyards and other ropes were secured - it was here in this area known as the 'forebits' that the men gathered in the evening watch to yarn and share their stories and in high spirits dance.   

Such verse, stories, and songs, told in spoken and sung formats were akin to the sailor as novels are to us today and many were the songs and stories about danger, bravery, history love and all other human emotions explored. The general format of such pieces were known to the old salts as 'forebitters'

Sadly in those days of the Nelsonic period, aboard the old ships of the line, few men could write and so there are so few accounts of life aboard written by the lower deck sailor and even less that contain some small account of the usage of music aboard, and more exactly the songs that were performed or sung. 

It is not until the early Victorian era are we more fortunate to find a greater wealthof written letters and personal accounts, however we do know that sailors were very fond of songs relating to life on the sea. That is not to say Songs written about the sea. Such as the output of Charles Dibden  (who was rewarded by the Admiralty for his stirring songs that did much to bring the Royal Navy into popular focus during the Napoleonic Wars.) No the songs the sailors favoured were often written by some character or eye witness aboard they tasted and sounded of the sea and many of them were printed by the Broadside and slipsong publishers of those days. 

Such broadside printers would either commission a writer to compose a song to commemorate a famous victory or more often copy a song that was in popular circulation. These printed slips were then hawked on the street corners (often by soldiers and sailors that had been wounded in action, in similar manner to the 'Big Issue' of today.) One collector of these broadsheets and slip songs was Samuel Pepys the diarist of the seventeenth century.

It was the publishers of these slipsongs etc. that began the music publishing business, and from such beginnings, street sellers of the nineteenth century, would go into the taverns and beer cellars to tout their wares and so from this the music hall was born.

When the age of the steam ship came, so the men found themselves better accommodated in mess decks below deck - Though the forebit sessions naturally died away, the men created their Saturday nights at sea and the old songs along with the new ones that came out of the music hall persisted. Whilst every so often a more formal ships concert was held once or twice in a commission on the main deck. These ships concerts were organised in similar way and heavily influenced by the music hall and from this came the famous Royal Navy 'sods opera' concerts.

Songs sung at formal Sods Opera were often specially written but there were many favorites such as Abul bul Ameer, & The Brothers St John.

In addittion there were many ad hoc song sessions in the dining halls after cinema showings or ashore in fleet canteens where the more general ditties often of sentimental flavour were heard, and insuch circumstances the Circus Song ( Wild West Show) and Limerick Song and other participation songs were favorites amongst those gathered.

The bawdy song and short ditty were reserved for other situations as were the fast disappearing work songs. 

Of the old forebitters - little evidence of what actually was sung or more precisely what was preferred aboard ship now exist, due to the general lack of literacy amongst the lower deck sailor. But collections of broadside and ballads do exist from which Halliwell (1841) Ashton 189) and Firth (1908) considered typical of those songs favoured by the 'Blue Water' seaman. Little evidence is preserved as to whether the sailor actually sang these songs but as a glimpse of what was possible. In this
bi-centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar I have gathered together some of those which reflect on the greatest Naval Hero of all time: Horation Nelson

Songs of Charles Dibden


The Collected History -

There are fortunately several manuscript collections of RN songs, which I have had the fortune to locate and absorb into this collection but many of these are heavily mixed with Music Hall standards and do not really fall into the pre set criterion. Hoever they do reflect on the type of song favoured for performance at ships concert and formal Sods Opera.

For the work songs and occasional dit's we have to search elsewhere and it is only through painstaking research that a few ofthese songs have been found..

Published Material -

In the nineteenth and early 20th century, the Admiralty and other aligned orginisations, sponsored a series of volumes known as RN Songsters. These contain 'sea songs' and other politically favoured items, which were intended to improve the content of material sung on the lower deck. - Though of social interest, these cannot really be said to entirely contain true naval songs. I consequence their content must be treated with caution.

 It really was not until WW1 that the first published ditty book was provided. This a very rare book published by The Fleet newspaper, was created by a member of the lower deck. But again after such a space of time, there is difficulty in verifying whether the enclosed material was used on the lower deck.

In WW1 ships and RN stations, created a plethora of newsletters and magazines. All of which incorporated songs in their content, but it is difficult to again, understand whether the published material was freely adopted or accurately conveyed the type of songs actually sung.

Covere of Fringes of the FleetIn 1915 Rudyard Kipling, wrote a series of articles for the Daily Telegraph, and in 1915 these were published as The Fringes of the Fleet doing so wrote poems or songs, that have all the appearance of copying extant items circulating within the fleet.

Given these new words and as is reported in the text(follow the hyperlink - by clicking on the cover picture.) these songs were set to music by Elgar, popularly performed in 1917 and thereafter in common use on the music hall.

It is from all  hose connections that the songs found use on the messdeck.

From the late 1870's to modern day, and in particular from WW2 onwards, various historical works, were apt to include reference to Naval Song, but the search for the odd snippet is long and tiresome.

The groundbreaking volume on the subject was Cyril Tawney's Grey Funnel Lines : The Traditional Song & Verse of The Royal Navy 1900 - 1970, for the first time a Royal Naval man illustrated many of the Navy's favorite songs.

This site and its companion texts aims to build upon this foundation.  



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