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Jack Crawford climbs the rigging
Searching a few weeks ago for information about a quite different, 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,.
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, 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 intheboatshed.net, click here.