The life and times of John Short of Watchet 1839-1933

John Short book

Buy this book here.

Most of us have heard and enjoyed singing sea shanties at some point. From books by yachting writers of the past (Francis B Cooke, for example) we know they enjoyed singing them a century ago (in the same era as some of the the collectors were collecting the songs), and composers and film makers have long used them as a device to signify sailing ships and sailors.

But while we’re all aware of the iconic status of sea shanties, most of us probably have little idea of the lives of those who used them in earnest to enable a group of men to work in time doing tasks such as:

  • hauling halliards (the lines that raise sails)
  • heaving on a capstan (for example, to raise the anchor)
  • pumping seawater from a ship’s leaky bilges (there were plenty of them, particularly in the years before Plimsoll’s reforms)

Where and when these songs were collected, and from whom, may also be a bit of a mystery – many of the books that I’ve seen over the years haven’t bothered to include the information.

Tom Brown’s A Sailor’s Life is therefore very welcome – for it answers both of these questions, describing as it does the life of mariner John  Short of Watchet, a man whose long career followed an arc that began with going to sea as a boy, working as a deep sea sailor in his young life, then worked on local boats, and eventually becoming a hoveller (a kind of local pilot and harbour boatman) as he grew older.

Happily for him and us, he does not seem to have got into the kinds of troubles involving drink, women and crimpers that are described by so many of the ‘warning’ type of sea songs.

Yankee Jack, as he was often called as an acknowledgement of his trips across the Atlantic, was also a popular local singer whose huge collection of sea songs and shanties (more than 150) going back to the mid 19th century were noted by the legendary folk song collector Cecil Sharp.

I’ve known  author Tom Brown since the 70s, though not well as I might have done as he’s generally a quiet chap, at least until he starts singing. But you have to watch the quiet ones, and I have to say this is a cracking book full of stories and detail: which ships Short sailed with, when, what his roles were on board, all referenced from Lloyd’s list and many other sources, and all spelt out very carefully.

Where there is ambiguity or doubt in the sources, Tom wisely takes great care to say so before arguing for his own conclusions. There are illuminating notes, too, about the ships themselves.

This material must have taken untold hours of research and thought.

The book also includes  wonderful set of 50-odd songs from Short’s remarkable collection. Thanks to Short’s long career and excellent memory, many of these are of an earlier vintage than those noted from other sources and often show interesting differences, while others are very much the versions that were found in the school books of my youth or in Stan Hugill’s classic book Songs of the Sea.

I must confess to a soft spot for John Short, for Watchet and its harbour, which in recent years has been overlooked by a statue of the old boy. Three decades ago my parents had a well-used second home in Watchet for some years (they later retired to the area), and I know the steps – still unchanged – where the best known photos of Yankee Jack were taken.

So you might have cause to think I’m a little prejudiced. Nevertheless, I’m very happy to say that, on my shelves at least, A Sailor’s Life earns an honoured place alongside Songs of the Sea and Roy Palmer’s Boxing the Compass.

There’s a handy orderform here.

The Boats of the Somerset Levels – a review

I guess the title of Mike Smylie’s latest book may sound a bit limited in range to some, compared with his earlier books, Traditional Fishing Boats of Britain & Ireland, Fishing the European Coast or even the definitely local Fishing Around the Bristol Channel, written with Ray Cooper.

But I would argue that does not make the new volume any less interesting.

The truth is that the Somerset Levels have long been home to the best examples of Britain’s long-standing tradition of flat bottomed boats, including turf and withy boats apparently derived from log boats with raised sides and used inland, and inshore bay boats apparently built using a combination of the flat bottom similar to the inland boats with clinker constructed sides made using skills brought by the Vikings. It’s notable, for example, that the names for the various parts of legendary flatties of Watchet and the River Parret have Viking-derived names.

I’ve had an interest in these craft and their interesting history ever since my parents moved to the area more than a decade and a half ago. Through much of that time I have been hoping that someone good at these things would one day get around to writing a book like this as a way of preserving and disseminating knowledge about these craft.

I was particularly concerned to see the research material collected by the folks associated with the Watchet Boat Museum, particularly John Nash, made available to boat enthusiasts. So I was very pleased when I learned that Mike, a prolific and effective author, had taken on the project.

Now the book is out it’s just about everything I’d expected and a bit more, for in addition to John Nash’s input, Mike has been able to include material from Commander Gil Mayes and Tony James, both of whom have built and sailed flatties in the modern era, and further material from legendary local fisherman Bob Thorne.

There are chapters on the turf boat, the basic and ancient looking Somerset Levels peat digger’s boat of about 17ft; the 18-19ft withy boat used for collecting withies used for weaving from pollarded willow trees; the river boat or Parrett flatner rigged with a spritsail and in some cases a foresail; the similar but more heavily built bay or Gore boat; the larger and more sophisticated Weston-Super-Mare and Clevedon boats often used for pleasuring as well as fishing; and the the big sister of them all, the Bridgewater barge.

To be honest, I didn’t know anything about the Bridgewater barge before I picked up this volume, and that alone would have made the book worth buying. Even better were the photos…

The only thing that I miss in The Boats of the Somerset Levels is that there aren’t more anecdotes about the old boys who used to work them. I’m sure I remember John Nash telling me that the locals used to toboggan down the banks of the muddy Parrett before hitting the water with a splash at about 30mph, and I had a hunch there would be more similar nonsense.

Either Mike or John likely decided that stories of this kind might owe rather less to the truth and rather more to someone’s sense of humour and to time spent in sheds drinking the local home made cider. If so he may have been wise – but, hey, it might have happened…

Seriously, this is a smashing 127 pages. Buy it here: The Boats of the Somerset Levels.

Mike Smylie’s book The Boats of The Somerset Levels is out now

This is one of the best pieces of news I’ve received today. Kipperman Mike Smylie’s book The Boats of the Somerset Levels is now out and available from Amazon (click on the title).

I’ve long had an interest in the dory-like Watchet flatners and have followed the progress of the museum there, so I will read this with great interest! Thanks for letting me know Mike, and good luck with sales.

Here’s the cover blurb:

‘Flat-bottom craft have always been fascinating, largely because they appear so simple in their construction at first glance, made by the farmers and fishermen who used them. Beneath this facade, however, they are examples of boatbuilding at its most complex. In Britain, the best examples can be found in the boats of the Somerset Levels and Moors, rivers and coastal waters. The Somerset Levels and Moors is an area shrouded in both mystery and mythology: a world of water with traditions reaching back into prehistory and a place of legends, such as its associations with Avalon. In this area criss-crossed with shallow rivers and man-made waterways, flat-bottomed boats were until relatively recently the ideal way of getting around and Mike Smylie, with the help of John Nash of the Watchet Boat Museum, takes us through six of them, as well as providing a tribute to the people who built and used them, and those who preserve them now they have fallen out of every-day use.’