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.

The Smacksman


River Yare from Haven Bridge, Great Yarmouth. Photo
by Ranveig, taken from the Wikimedia

This is a song that has come down to many of us via Ewan MacColl, who collected it from the legendary Norfolk singer Sam Larner, though I think I first learned it from Terry L Kinsey’s book Songs of the Sea.

MacColl used a large amount of the material he collected from Larner as the basis for his one of the famous Radio Ballads, Shoals of Herring. If the name’s familiar, it might be because MacColl made a song by the same name for the radio drama-documentary production that subsequently became hugely popular around the folk scene.

It also seems to have been hugely popular with Larner himself, in his autobiography, MacColl reported that after he’d sung the song to Larner, the old gentleman had told him he was glad he’d learned it, saying that he’d known the new song all his life. One never really knows with autobiographies, but it makes a nice story – and that is just the kind of reaction that would make a political songwriter like MacColl rightly proud.

But let’s go back to Larner’s own song, The Smacksman!

The Smacksman

Once I was a schoolboy and stayed at home with ease.
Now I am a smacksman and I plough the raging seas.
I thought I’d like seafaring life but very soon I found
It was not all plain sailing, boys, when out on the fishing ground.

Coil away the trawl warp, boys, let’s heave in the trawl.
When we get our fish on board we’ll have another haul.
Straightway to the capstan and merrily heave her round,
That’s the cry in the middle of the night: ‘Haul the trawl, boys, haul’

Every night in winter, as reg’lar as the clock
We put on our old sou’westers, likewise our oilskin frock,
And straightway to the capstan and merrily spin away,
That’s the cry in the middle of the night: ‘Haul the trawl,boys, haul’.

When we get our fish on board we have them all to gut
We have them all to clean and in the ice-locker put,
We gut them and we clean them, and we stow ’em all away,
We stow them just as nice as the oyster in his shell.

When eight long weeks are over, then down the tiller goes
And we’re racing back to Yarmouth Roads with the big jib on her nose
And when we get to Yarmouth Town, then all the girls will say
Here comes our jolly fisherlads, who’ve been so long away

The only way I can sing this thing without being too naughty with people’s recording rights and copyright is to sing it myself. Here’s my version: The Smacksman

Boxing Day at Rye Harbour

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Old beach boat at Rye Harbour. Click on the thumbnails for much
larger photographs

It’s almost a tradition in our house to take a trip down to Rye Harbour on Boxing Day, if the weather’s bright and clear – see this post from the same day last year. This time Julie’s cold and my injured right Achille’s heel prevented us walking very far, but I did manage to grab a few shots.

A nice bonus was that the pub has this photo including  singer, fisherman and ferryman Johnny Doughty on its wall. Johnny died in the mid-1980s,  but although the publican couldn’t say who was in the picture, I was pleased to find there were still people in the bar who remembered the old fella living in the hamlet and singing in the pub.

There are more photos of the old boy and the ferry, and a host of great images of local beach boats being used and built at the  Rye Harbour website – just enter the terms ‘Doughty’ and ‘boat’ in the search gizmo to find them.

Some time ago I put up a post some time ago explaining the story behind one of the songs most closely associated with Johnny, The Wreck of the Northfleet.

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Above left: the channel to the sea.  I suppose there’s not much call for pilotage
services when the tide’s low. Above right: the River Brede

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Motor launch at a boatyard near Rye. It’s interesting to compare this motor launch
with the one shown in this post

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Can anyone tell us something about this mysterious and interesting boat? Whoever designed it knew where a little extra standing room would cause the least harm to the boat’s sailing qualities