Tag Archives: hero

The Valiant Sailor, a powerful song of naval warfare in the 18th century

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The singing Jack Crawford

Regular readers will remember a recent post about a press-ganged keelman who became a war hero, Jack Crawford, who climbed to the top of his ship’s damaged mast under heavy fire, and nailed the Union Jack to it. This important and astonishingly brave act won him an audience with King George III and a pension.

If you followed the link in the earlier post, you will know that there’s another Jack Crawford, a singer who has recently made a CD of largely traditional songs.

By an amazing coincidence, it turns out that one of them describes being press-ganged and then forced to fight at sea, and I’m glad to say that Jack’s considered performance is timed to make every word count.

My perspective of The Valiant Sailor is that it’s an important, eye-opening song with an understandably bitter point of view, and really should be heard by anyone with a romantic view of the Royal Navy of the time, warfare in the era of the wooden walls, or of press-ganging.

However, Jack has a different view of it, and as he sings this song (and I don’t) he’s obviously given it much more thought than I have. Here’s what he had to say in an email to me earlier:

‘You write of a “song with an understandably bitter point of view” and yet, when I sing it I feel no bitterness. Consider the closing sentiment “and here I lie a-bleeding all on the deck and it’s all for her sweet safety I must die.”

‘In my view, the sailor has become reconciled to his fate and he understands the necessity to defend his country at sea – and die in the process if that’s what the Fates decree. It’s not the life he chose and thread of the song is a linear narrative of how he came to be in that situation. As such, it’s far from romantic, but I don’t think it’s bitter. Granted, we have “thousands of times I’ve wished myself home” to make it quite clear (as if we were in any doubt) that he’s not enjoying himself, and who can blame him, but there’s no bitterness there. The dominant emotion is the sadness of his longing to return to his “Polly on the shore” and the stark realization that he never will.

‘I reprise the first verse to drive home the enormity of the events and serve as a warning to other young men – not from bitterness but as sound practical advice supported by a salutary lesson. I don’t think a song based on bitterness would have endured so well through changing times.’

I think this quality of enduring is significant. This is a song that remained in oral transmission right into the 20th century: more than a century after the events it describes, ordinary people still felt it had something of value that was worth remembering, even though the author was long forgotten to them. That, of course, is the real meaning of the term ‘folk song’.

Click here to hear an MP3 of Jack’s version of The Valiant Sailor (it’s a biggish file, but well worth the short wait) from the CD Pride of the Season, and click here to buy a copy.

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Keelman and war hero Jack Crawford nails his colours to the mast

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Jack Crawford climbs the rigging

Searching a few weeks ago for information about a quite different Jack Crawford, I learned about the one pictured above.

He was a keelman from Sunderland until he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy in his early 20s, and found himself on board HMS Venerable under Admiral Duncan, the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief of the North Seas. The story of this Jack Crawford’s fame, though, begins at the battle of Camperdown, in 1797, when the British and Dutch navies met in battle off the coast of Norway, near Camperdown, close to Bergen.

Instead of forming a line of ships, Admiral Duncan split the British fleet into two groups, which broke through the Dutch ships, firing broadsides. Although a daring move, it was successful because the Dutch ships were not yet ready for battle, and it prevented the Dutch fleet from joining the French navy in order to invade Ireland.

HMS Venerable’s main mast was broken in the fighting, but while under heavy fire the young Jack climbed it and nailed the Union Jack to it. This was the command flag of Admiral of the Fleet, and was both an  important identifier and a symbol of British power.

The loss of the flag could be a great blow to morale and could affect a battle, and the phrases to ‘nail your colours to the mast’ and ‘show your true colours’ are believed to refer to the importance of these flags.

In recognition Jack was later formally presented to King George III and granted a pension.

For much more on this story, the monuments to this local hero and information on material in Sunderland’s museum, click here.

More on the book Cockleshell Canoes by Quentin Rees

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Mark 7 military canoes. Photos supplied by Quentin Rees
and published with permission

Quentin Rees’s recent book Cockleshell Canoes is a thoroughly researched and well illustrated celebration of a group of people who have become part of canoe history.

Some, such as Blondie Hasler and the team of commandos who took part in the daring Operation Frankton are already well known. Commemorated in a major film titled Cockleshell Heroes, it was an attack by ten commandos in canoes on Bordeaux Harbour in occupied France during December 1942. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill believed the mission shortened World War II by six months, and Admiral the Earl Mountbatten deemed it as the ‘most courageous and imaginative of all the raids ever carried out by the men of Combined Operations Commands‘.

Sadly, most of the brave individuals involved were eventually captured and shot by the Germans, who at that time regarded commandos as equivalent to spies.

However, the roles of many others have previously remained unsung. In this book Rees has weaved together real-life testimonies from the stories of the courageous soldiers who used the canoes, their military commanders, and the canoes’ inventors and designers, and tells of an epic journey of progress that took canoe development took from Cornwall, all along the Southern English Coast and beyond – even to the tropical island of Ceylon.

The canoes proved to be valuable in many of the theatres of WWII, and thousands of the various models were sent worldwide, often being used by the various Special Forces, including by the the espionage specialists of Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Click here to buy a copy from Amazon – The Cockleshell Canoes: British Military Canoes of World War Two Cockleshell Hero canoes at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall.

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