The Shanty Quilt Part Three – Letters Home

Kind Letters - detail

Kind Letters – detail

Swansea Town is probably my favourite sea song. It is related to an Irish folk song called The Holy Ground and is sometime known as The Lass of Swansea Town. As with many traditional sea songs and shanties there are variations in lyrics; sometimes the song is dedicated to Lovely Nancy and at other times to Lovely Dinah, the locations cited differ, and in some versions there is a storm that evokes the ever-present fear of the sea’s power.  In 1985, it was included in the now sadly discontinued BBC radio programme for schools, Singing Together and is now featured in the section of my Shanty Quilt that represents life at sea.

My sewn panel reads Kind letters I’ll write to you, you’re the girl I do adore. This paraphrases the full lyric:

Kind letters I will write to you / Of the secrets of my mind. / Of the secrets of my mind, fine girl! / You’re the girl I do adore / But still I live in hope to see old Swansea Town once more.

Swansea Town set me thinking about sailor’s letters. In Jack Tar (Abacus, 2008), Roy and Lesley Adkins note that “the number of seamen who could read inevitably varied from ship to ship, and there is evidence that where the majority were illiterate, some of those who could read and write pretended they could not, while others who were poor readers and writers lost what little skill they once had.” The sending and receiving of letters was intermittent and often delayed, so “when letters did arrive it was a cause for rejoicing … letters from home were precious items that were read and reread, and frequently treasured.”

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

The most famous sailor’s letter ever written is probably the last letter written by Horatio Nelson to his lover, Emma Hamilton, from HMS Victory on 19 October 1805, just before the Battle of Trafalgar:

My dearest beloved Emma, the dear friend of my bosom … I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the battle …

Two days later, Nelson was dead. His letter was found amongst the papers on his desk, and was brought back to England and delivered to Emma by his friend Captain Hardy. It is now in the collection of the British Library.

To find out more, I have been reading two interesting books: Voices from the Battle of Trafalgar by Peter Warwick (David & Charles, 2005); and Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle by Roy Adkins (Little, Brown 2004). From these books I have learned about three letters home from men who were in positions of command at the battle.

Shanty Quilt: Kind letters I'll write to you

Shanty Quilt: Kind letters I’ll write to you

Before the battle, Captain Edward Codrington of the Orion wrote to his wife: “How would your heart beat for me, dearest Jane, did you but know that we are now under every stitch of sail we can set, steering for the enemy … And so, dear, I shall wish thee once more a good night, and that thy husband’s conduct in the hour of battle may prove worthy of thee and my children.” After the battle, he was to express concern that “we are all in distress about our poor wives hearing of the action and not knowing if we are dead or alive.”

On 28 September 1805, the 41-year-old Commander of the Mars, Captain George Duff, wrote to his “Dearest Sophia” to tell her he had met Nelson, “the pleasantest Admiral I ever served under,” and to “thank her for her picture; though I must  own I am not at all pleased with it, as I don’t think it does you any justice.” Captain Duff was killed at Trafalgar, and Sophia was left a widow. Their son, the thirteen-year-old Norwich who was serving as a midshipman on the same ship, wrote to Sophia to say that his father “died like a Hero, having gallantly led his ship into action, and his memory will ever be dear to his King, his Country, and his Friends.”

Captain Henry Blackwood of the Euryalus wrote to his wife on 19 October 1805: “You see also, my Harriet, I have time to write to you, and to assure you that to the last moment of my breath, I shall be as much attached to you as man can be.” And it was to Harriet he turned after the battle: “The first hour since yesterday morning to that I could call my own is now before me, to be devoted to my dearest wife … My heart, however, is sad, and penetrated with the deepest anguish … To any other person, my Harriet, but yourself, I could not and would not enter so much into detail, particularly of what I feel at this moment. But you, who know and enter into all my feelings, I do not, even at the risk of distressing you, hesitate to say that in my life, I never was so shocked or so completely upset as upon my flying to the Victory, even before the Action was over, to find Lord Nelson was then at the gasp of death.”

The Shanty Quilt in Progress, 26 October 2015

The Shanty Quilt in Progress, 26 October 2015

These letters must have been so precious to their recipients. From news of battle to the death of a national hero; from a determination to appear brave to breaking the sad news of a death; all these letters show the “secrets of the minds” of their writers. I’m glad the Shanty Quilt has prompted me to find out a little about them, and I hope to find out more as the project progresses.

Should you want to hear the song Swansea Town, there is an excellent recording on the 2005 album Cheer Up Me Lads! by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir