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.

Was Sir Walter Raleigh a murderer?

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Sir Walter Raleigh painted by Nicholas Hilliard, from the The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei via the Wikimedia

Ex-Naval man, 20th century historian and Roman Catholic Bishop, David Mathew describes Sir Walter Raleigh’s importance in 1596 like this: ‘With Hawkins, Drake and Grenville lost on service and Frobisher dead the previous year, Sir Walter Raleigh alone remained. Though much less of a naval figure, for he was in essence a Renaissance magnifico, Raleigh set the lines of later doctrine.’

British schoolchildren are taught that he was an important figure in Queen Elizabeth I’s court and navy, and that he was always getting into trouble with his queen, on one occasion for secretly marrying one of her ladies-in-waiting. But was he also a heartless murderer?

A street ballad in Samuel Pepys’s ballad collection certainly suggests he was. Read the story as told in a ballad that was widely sung and part of the oral tradition in England and America well into the 20th century. Sussex singer, fisherman and ferryman Johnny Doughty had a a particularly good version.

It’s sometimes also known as the Sweet Trinity and has its own Wikipedia entry. Mudcat has versions, and a surprising range of really good tunes for the song.

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