Three score and ten – the greatest fishing disaster ballad


The chilling engraving The Storm by William Miller after Van de Velde,
published in 1858, taken from the Wikimedia. They’re not English East Coast
fishing smacks, but sadly I haven’t been able to find a suitable engraving
from the correct era

‘As day after day passes and no tidings arrive of the missing Grimsby smacks, it is beginning to be realised that the gale of the 9th ult. will prove one of the most disastrous to the Grimsby fishing trade on record. altogether nearly a dozen fishing vessels, carrying between 60 and 70 hands, are missing.

‘Most of the vessels were provisioned for eight or nine days, and many of them have been out for over a month. Of the safety of seven of them all hope has now been abandoned.’

Report from: The Hull Times, 2nd March 1889

Most people of my generation with a long-standing interest in traditional music have probably sung this song at one time or another, particularly those who like me come from nearby one of the the East Coast major fishing ports.

It’s a big favourite with a magnificent, anthemic chorus, and a powerful theme, and it’s also a song that some of us connect with some remarks  made by old Sam Larner in relation to a storm he remembered from his childhood. Back in the 1950s, he told Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl that the big East Coast storm that people remembered was in 1884, and that there was a saying: ‘Oh dear, oh Lor – the dreadful fishing of 1884.’

Well, Jim Potter has been digging around and has discovered that the song actually refers to a storm in 1889, and that  some 70 hands from Grimsby – three score and ten – really did die that February night, as the newspaper quotation above shows.

This is February 2009, almost 120 years to the day since those brave and unfortunate fishermen met their deaths. As many sailed from Grimsby, we can assume that quite a few were orphans or had been abandoned by their parents and were often treated pretty badly by their employers and surrogate guardians, as Anson makes clear in his book British Sea Fishermen.

Anyway, you can read all about Jim’s research at Folk Leads, find the original fisherman’s poem from which the song developed and read about the Three Score and Ten fishermen’s gravestone that he has identified .

I haven’t been able to make the link to his recording of the song work, so if you want to hear how this one goes, you’ll have to make do with my recording of this great old song.

For more songs at, click here.

British Sea-Fishermen by Anson Part IV- the West Coast, Wales and Scotland

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British Sea-Fishermen by Anson

Lowestoft sailing trawler, drawn by Rowland Hilder

‘… the life of the average fisherman of Britain – it is a never-ending “game of snakes and ladders,” and so accustomed is the fisherman to playing this game from the time he first goes to sea, that I am inclined to doubt that he would be happy if he was certain of always finding himself on a ladder.’

British Sea-Fishermen by Anson British Sea-Fishermen by Anson British Sea-Fishermen by Anson

British Sea-Fishermen by Anson

British Sea-Fishermen, by Anson – part III, from Lincolnshire to Cornwall

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Hastings beach pictured by Cristall in 1808

‘Hastings is one of the most interesting fishing centres on the South Coast and if one studies early 19th century paintings and drawings one realises that
Hastings beach cannot have changed very much in the past hundred years.
Even the boats have retained their general lines…’

Anson British Sea-Fishermen Anson British Sea-Fishermen

Anson British Sea-Fishermen Anson British Sea-Fishermen Anson British Sea-Fishermen

Anson British Sea-Fishermen Anson British Sea-Fishermen Anson British Sea-Fishermen

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