I Saw Three Ships

BBC carol programme

Regular Intheboatshed.net correspondent Chris Brady has written in to point out that a BBC programme charting the history of carol singing included the story of popular Christmas song ‘I Saw Three Ships’. Thanks for the tip Chris!

I didn’t know that a version of the song was collected from boatmen on the Humber in 1895, and sent to the scholar Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, who was a noted folklorist, as well as an antiquarian, a writer of hymns, and a prolific author on any number if topics.

Baring-Gould’s notes of the Humber boatman’s version can be seen at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website – it mentions that the ships are carrying the skulls of the three wise men who visited the baby Jesus shortly after his birth.

As a boy who grew up close to the banks of the Humber, I should set about learning the version in Baring-Gould’s notes. In the meantime, the more usual and innocent sounding setting Julie and I recorded a few Christmases back will have to do:

Gunning punts in Norfolk and Essex

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Gunning punt at the Museum of the Broads, Stalham

Gunning punt at the Museum of the Broads, Stalham Gunning punts at the Museum of the Broads, Stalham Gunning punt at the Museum of the Broads, Stalham

Gunning punts at the Museum of the Broads. The smaller boat is styled after
a gun punt but is too small for the purpose.

Intending to pick up on another recent theme from Chris Partridge’s Rowing for Pleasure weblog, I took some photos of gunning punts at another of my favourite small boating museums, the splendid Museum of the Broads at Stalham.

So imagine my surprise when I found he has only today put up a series of photos virtually identical to mine. Ah well… Great minds and all that. I trust he won’t be offended if I put mine up also.

The folklorist, antiquarian and scholar Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould lived at Mersea in Essex for ten years, and Hervey Benham quotes Baring-Gould describing the business of gunning like this:

‘At a former period wild-fowl shooting was largely practised by the [Mersea] islanders, who had their punts painted grey… In these shallow boats they lay for many hours at night and contracted both ague and rheumatism. My impression was that generations afflicted with these complaints acquired in the marshes had lowered the physique and mental development of the islanders. When the east wind blew the wild ducks and geese came in flocks near the coast where they were surrounded and shot.’

Call me a pessimist, but I can’t help thinking this tactic of surrounding and shooting the birds must have led to some nasty incidents in which some of the boatmen must also have been injured.

In a way, gunning punts are still used in Norfolk on a regular basis – for they were adopted for racing and developed into the scary Norfolk Punt, a high-powered sailing racing machine still sailed regularly on Barton Broad. But that’s another story that I’d like to tell one day.

PS There’s an interesting postscript to Chris’s Rowing for Pleasure post on gunning here.