Category Archives: History

Why aren’t all sea songs properly called shanties?

This essay explains a useful point:

‘Forebitters were not work songs. They were songs of the sea that were sung for entertainment purposes only. Crew members would sing forebitters during the dog-watches: the times of the day when they were involved in solo deck duty, such as emergency lookouts. … such songs were called ‘fore-bitters’, because they were sung round the fore bitts [big strong fittings used to secure anchor and mooring lines – Ed], or they were called ‘come-all-ye’s’, because so many began with the words “come all ye sailormen.”

‘These songs were also sung in the forecastle, or as shellbacks referred to it as, the fo’c’sle which were the men’s living quarters below deck.

‘A simple clue that a song is a just a song of the sea and not a sea shanty is its length and lack of a short call and response form. “Although these [forebitters] are now often grouped together with shanties by enthusiasts, a sharp distinction existed between these leisure-time songs and sea shanties in the life and mind of a

So: shanties are work songs, like agricultural and railroad building work songs. Forebitters are sung at leisure – and the ones I know (which are quite numerous!) have all sorts of functions and themes, such as warning about the way sailors get treated ashore or on particular ships.

I have to say I like a good story – and so forebitters are often more my thing!

Sailors go 200 years back in time to crew sailing vessel which brought news of Trafalgar

Portsmouth Naval Base volunteers are to sail the schooner Pickle from Hull to the Solent to attend a celebration of the original HMS Pickle’s voyage to Falmouth carrying the news of the victory at Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Lord Nelson.

The battle took place off Cape Trafalgar (not far from the Southern tip of the country) and the journey took ten days – and then it took another 37 hours for captain Lieutenant John Lapenotiere to reach the Admiralty in London.

On arrival, it’s recorded that he announced: ‘Sir, we have gained a great victory but we have lost Lord Nelson.’

The accomplishments of Lapenotiere and his small boat are celebrated each November 4 – the anniversary of Pickle’s arrival in Falmouth – with Pickle Night, an evening for naval ratings to remember the heroes of 1805 and generally let their hair down, often dressed in the uniform of the day.

HMS Victory hosts a special Pickle Night event on the great ship’s lower gun deck with 104 specially-nominated ratings dining with Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock.

HMS Victory executive officer WO1 Dickie Henderson along with some senior ratings serving aboard Nelson’s flagship thought this year the presence of a replica (the original Pickle was wrecked more than two centuries ago) berthed next to Victory, would add to the proceedings.

The current Pickle was built 20 years ago in the Baltic, has a hull similar to the original and was adapted to look more like the original HMS Pickle to mark the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar.

The crew will live in more comfort than sailors of Nelson’s era but he sailing gear would have been recognisable to old time sailors. On her  planned way south from the 25th-30th October, she is to call at Harwich, Dover and Eastbourne, and reach Portsmouth on the 30th.

Thanks to support from long-time Navy supporter Sir Donald Gosling and his foundation, and the RN RM Charity, up to six sailors, at a time, from HMS Victory and Portsmouth Flotilla will be able to crew the Pickle on each leg (the longest is 36 hours)… I gather there has been no shortage of volunteers.

Phil Underwood and the Bonnet and Belt company

I recently came across Phil Underwood, a chap I quickly learned is an excellent singer and musician – but it turns out he’s also a playwright, producer, director and canal enthusiast and runs the Bonnet and Belt theatre company.

A regular production the company puts on is Roses and Castles, a drama for the stage for four actors and one actor/musician that tells the story of the English canals from the 18th century to the present day, through the fortunes of a canal family and their boat across nearly two hundred years.

It’s based on Phil’s experiences as a boatman living on the Grand Union Canal, and features a mix of historical and original songs and music. Look out for future performances, which Phil will list here.

Here’s his song Canals of England, performed with able fiddler and singer Nancy Potts: