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

The Shanty Quilt Part Two – Sally Rackett and Friends

Sally Rackett detail

Sally Rackett detail

Stitching continues on my Shanty Quilt, and I have been looking at work songs – true sea shanties rather than sea songs – for the sections that relate to getting out to sea. Work songs can be split into broad categories. The structure of the shanty, the length, and the rhythm, are all chosen to fit the type of task they support; there are shanties for hauling, for heaving, for pumping, for working the ship’s capstan, and so on.

For the two “setting off” panels for my quilt I chose Hand Over Hand and Little Sally Rackett.

Hand Over Hand is a (unsurprisingly) “hand over hand” shanty, which is short in duration and sets the rhythm for a task such as hauling rope. The version I know is sung by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir on their 2009 album Way Hey (and away we’ll go).

Hand! Hand! Hand over hand! Get her underway with a Liverpool Man!

Hand! Hand! Hand over hand! Get her underway with a Liverpool Man!

The second shanty I use is better known. Sally Rackett is a call-and-response work song. The Shantyman (who leads the singing and sets the pace) sings a line and gets an answer from the crew. The pace and rhythm of the singing support the performance of the task in hand.

There are lots of recordings of Sally Rackett. My favourite is by the Twelve Buccaneers (1967). I also like the version sung by Kimber’s Men on See You When the Sun Goes Down (2010), and the rendition by Hanging Johnny on Shanties and Sea Songs (2009) is suitably rough and ready.

There are variations of Little Sally Rackett but the basic verse is as follows:

Little Sally Rackett (Haul her away!) / She pawned my best jacket (Haul her away!) / And she lost the ticket (Haul her away!)

In some versions, Sally Rackett has “shipped on board a packet and never did regret it,” while the jacket has been pawned or stolen by Lucy Lockett. There are verses about women such as Nancy Dawson (ran off with the Parson); Suzy Skinner (says she’s a beginner); Dolly Duckett (washes in a bucket); Rosy Riddle (broke my brand new fiddle).

Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1926

Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1926

The version by the Twelve Buccaneers includes a verse about a man that I haven’t heard in any other recording:

I knew a man called Tucker (Haul her away!) / Took a girl out to supper (Haul her away!) / But she kissed a man called Skinner (Haul her away!) / He was the one to win her (Haul her away!)

And in most versions, work is followed by rest:

All you fighting cocks now (Haul her away!) / Come and get your grog now (Haul her away!) / For we’ve worked enough now.

Learning about the different verse versions enabled me to make a slight variation of my own – I stitched that Sally Rackett had stolen the “best jacket” rather than pawned it. This gave a better narrative flow to my quilt – there is no need for a follow up about losing the pawn shop ticket.

As well as verse variations, there are song variations – the shanty Cheer’ly Man, which can be found on Cheer Up Me Lads (Storm Weather Shanty Choir, 2005), also features Sally Rackett stealing a best jacket. The tune is very different but the theme is the same.

Cheer'ly Man from Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, 1926

Cheer’ly Man from Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, 1926

These are old songs and some of the sentiments contained are not particularly correct today – especially in their attitudes towards women. However, to me, Little Sally Rackett conjures up very clear images of strong, resourceful women – from just three lines each I feel I know exactly what they look like, how they dress and where they live. The sailors who sing about these women know they may have been taken for a ride but there is no regret, no bitterness. It is just part of life.

The Shanty Quilt: Part One – Leaving Home

The Shanty Quilt - Leaving Home

The Shanty Quilt – Leaving Home

Last year, I wrote about my search for a recording of sea shanties remembered from childhood and how, along the way, I started to learn about different types of sea songs, shanties, and their meaning. This earlier post can be found here.

It is considered unlucky for women to sing many of these songs and so, rather than risk bad luck, I decided to stitch some of the lyrics instead. And so my Shanty Quilt began.

The Shanty Quilt has a narrative – it starts with setting out on voyage, getting out to sea, enduring storms and privations, returning home, having shore leave and then starting the whole cycle again.

The first three panels are about leaving home. They are based on two songs – Rio Grande and The Leaving of Liverpool. These are both sea songs, rather than shanties – shanties are work songs which are usually sung or chanted to a rhythm that supports the task in hand. Sea songs are songs of the sea; they often tell a story of adventures back on shore, about sweethearts loved and lost, or about missing home.

Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1926

Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1926

When planning the Shanty Quilt, I wanted it to have a circular narrative structure, so the first and last panel both feature the same lyric to illustrate the idea that the sailor lands, has some time ashore, spends his pay, packs up his belongings and goes to sea again. It is a never ending cycle, if the songs are to be believed.

My starting point, therefore, is a song called Rio Grande and I begin (and end) by referring to a particular verse:

New York town is no place for me. / Away for Rio! / So I’ll pack up my sea chest / And go back to sea / And I’m bound for the Rio Grande.

I have always been intrigued by the idea of sea chests. What was kept in them? Treasured possessions? Reminders of home? Or something mundane – spare clothes and eating implements? The last time I visited HMS Victory, one of the very knowledgeable guides informed me that most ordinary sailors in the Royal Navy in Nelson’s day owned very little, and might just stash their few possessions in a discreet corner; there simply wasn’t the space to store sea chests for the whole crew. This makes sense of course, but I think I prefer the idea of the song rather than the reality in this case. I need to research it further before I finish the quilt!

Detail of the Leaving Home section

Detail of the Leaving Home section

The second panel features another lyric from Rio Grande. The song bids Farewell to my Liverpool girl and continues:

Oh farewell to Sally and farewell to Sue / Away for Rio! / And farewell to you on the pier head too / And we’re bound for the Rio Grande.

My favourite recording of this particular sea song is from Norway’s Storm Weather Shanty Choir, who recorded it for their 2009 album, Way Hay (And Away We’ll Go).

The Storm Weather Shanty Choir also recorded the song that features on my third panel – The Leaving of Liverpool:

So fare the well my own true love / And when I return / United we will be. / It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me / But my darling when I think of thee.

There are many recordings of this particular song but for me, the best is the one I remember from my childhood. The Twelve Buccaneers recorded the version I grew up with but sadly their recording is no longer available. But I wouldn’t have thought of a quilt about sea songs and shanties without it.

The elusive LP by the Twelve Buccaneers

The elusive LP by the Twelve Buccaneers