The loss of the Steamship London, 1866

This is a recording of my singing of the ballad The Steamship London, which I learned from a recording of Sam Larner made in the late 1950s.

The British steamship SS London sank in the Bay of Biscay in January 1866 on a passage from Gravesend in England to Australia. It’s said that she was badly overloaded, and that of 239 people aboard, only 19 survivors were able to escape the foundering ship by lifeboat.

At the time, news was frequently conveyed in the form of printed ballads sold on the street, and were often sung by ballad salesmen and women. Many were learned as songs by those who bought them, and were then often passed orally from singer to singer – and so it is that more than nine decades after the SS London foundered in the Bay of Biscay, an elderly fisherman called Sam Larner was able to recall the lyrics and tune and sing the ballad for the folklorists (among other things) Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl.

Even in the age of the Internet, I have not been able to track down the original printed ballad, although I am sure that is what it was.

Read more about the SS London disaster here; and more about Sam Larner here and here.

2 thoughts on “The loss of the Steamship London, 1866”

  1. Hi Gavin. I enjoyed your recording of this song, having also heard the Sam Larner version. I thought you might like to know that I’ve just published a book about the SS London. Like you I was intrigued that such a major tragedy seems to have been largely forgotten. It’s a strange but fascinating tale in many respects, especially when you dig beneath the rather murky surface. If you’re interested it’s on the Amberley Publishing or Amazon websites under my name. There were a large number of ballads and poems published about the tragedy at the time – many of them rather terrible!
    Best wishes,
    Simon

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