Researching the lives of 18th and 19th century seamen around the Thames Estuary, Sheerness and North Kent shorelines can be a rousing experience. It brings you into contact with a great tradition of seafarers – the willing souls who joined the fight and those who were not so willing but pressed into service.
We do appear to be an island people and naval supremacy was so often a turning point in our history. Little wonder that this tradition features strongly in folklore, transported across the centuries through stories, poetry and songs.
Consider “Poor Tom Bowling”.
It’s one of those rousing songs that usually accompanies the revelries (and crocodile tears) from the audience during the ‘Last Night of the Proms’. The ballad (with the alternative title “The Sailor’s Epitaph”) seems to appeal to the hearts-of-oak in our blood, an essential part of the English psyche.
Arguably, it might not be classified amongst the greatest of musical arrangements or literary pieces, but since Victorian times “Poor Tom Bowling” has been loved and cherished by the middle and lower classes in the music hall, tavern and wherever a sing-along accompanies the free flow of drink. It is a good example of a vernacular lyric that is not a folksong but typifies a certain kind of English composition, a song with a text that is not overtly patriotic but nonetheless reflects the virtues of the nation at its best.
Written by Charles Dibdin (1745 – 1814) his songs captured prevailing attitudes towards different subjects and groups of people. In all Dibdin wrote more than 1,000 popular songs and was a major contributor to the development of the pantomime tradition. But his songs also underpinned the pride behind British traditions. According to the Wikipedia entry, his patriotic sea-shanties (painting the simple loyalty and manly courage of the British sailor) and their melodious refrains powerfully influenced the national spirit and were officially appropriated to the use of the British navy during the war with France. In 1803 he was induced by Pitt’s government, with a pension of £200 a year (£15,900 as of 2015), to abandon provincial engagements to compose and sing ‘War Songs’ to keep up the ferment of popular feeling against France. This was withdrawn for a time under the administration of Lord Grenville, but afterwards partly restored.
Charles Dibdin was employed to ‘spin’ the prevailing views concerning the naval service. Flogging, poor pay, bad food and negligence of the sick and wounded were all deterrents.
Bounties were offered to change perceptions and a group of merchants met at Lloyd’s Coffee House to set up the Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund. The Fund offered rewards for naval captures and gallantry, grants for the wounded and annuities to the families of the dead. It was a Fund designed to unite the ‘might of the labourer with the munificent donation of the noble and wealthy‘.
The aim was clearly stated: to inspire sailors, soldiers and ‘countrymen at large’ and to appal the enemy, who would see that the energy of Britain was ‘irresistable, as its resources are incalculable’.
This declaration of intent was published in the Times and issued as a broadsheet becoming a sort of national manifesto. To celebrate the fund, Charles Dibdin put on an entertainment Britons Strike Home at his theatre on the Strand – backed by the government and the loan of a military band.
The sentiments of “Tom Bowling” build on this call. The title of the song is the original name of a naval character in Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random, but it’s widely held that Dibdin modelled his version of Tom Bowling on his brother, Captain Thomas Dibdin. (One of the verses of the song is engraved on Dibdin’s tombstone.)
Whatever the inspiration, the ballad captures the noble spirit of the ‘Tar’. It is a ballad in the tradition and meaning of the word used by the school of poets that flourished in northern France during the 11th-14th centuries. During this time the ballad evolved into a dance-song, often with an improvised instrumental accompaniment. The original form appears to have broken away from its roots sometime during the 15th-16th century when the ballad lost its connections with dance. In time the word came to be used for verses and music of the most varied content, and in England, the term was associated with anything sing-able, simple, popular in style, and for solo voice.
It would be Sir Henry Wood and his Sea Songs who would establish “Tom Bowling” as a tradition of the Last Night of the Proms. With its elegiac content and superb melody this masterpiece was immensely popular in the Victorian drawing-room repertoire of storytelling through song.
Here was a hero well worth singing about. A man who rises to the call of the nation and the nation responds by acknowledging his commitment and sacrifice. Frederick Chamier captures the nobility of such a calling in his novel, “Tom Bowling: A tale of the Sea” when he describes:
“The peace of 1815 laid Sir Thomas Bowling up in ordinary. He was quick enough to perceive that the world was tired of war, and that each nation had involved itself so overwhelmingly in debts and difficulties, that universal peace would be long maintained. And when the man, who had spread fire of desolation throughout the world, was condemned to his solitary rock, as one all nations feared, and respected even in his island captivity, Bowling hung up his sword in his dressing-room, by the side of the first wooden leg, which his carpenter had manufactured from a part of the mast of his last prize.”
Dibdin so loved the popular entertainment of the day that he passionately accompanied himself on a ‘peculiar instrument’, which can only be described as a hurdy-gurdy, piano/organ with an assortment of attachments – including bells, side drum, tambourine and gong.
So let us 21st century researchers, writers and dreamers of a past age raise a glass, make a toast and sing a round to the life of noble Tom.
Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling, the darling of our crew;
No more he’ll hear the tempest howling for death has broached him to.
His form was of the manliest beauty, his heart was kind and soft,
Faithful below Tom did his duty, and now he’s gone aloft, and now he’s gone aloft.
Tom never from his word departed, his virtues were so rare,
His friends were many and true-hearted, his Poll was kind and fair,
And then he’d sing so blithe and jolly, a-many’s the time and oft,
But mirth is turned to melancholy, for Tom is gone aloft, for Tom is gone aloft.
Yet shall poor Tom find pleasant weather when he who all commands,
Shall give to call life’s crew together, the word to pipe all hands;
Thus Death, who kings and tars dispatches, in vain Tom’s life has doffed,
For though his body’s under hatches his soul is gone aloft, his soul is gone aloft.
E. David Gregory. Victorian Songhunters: The recovery and editing of the English Vernacular. 1820-1883
Frederick Chamier. Tom Bowling 1841
Youtube (search ‘Tom Bowling’ and ‘Charles Dibden’ for video collections)
Jenny Uglow. ‘In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815’