Article MT172

Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade

No.18: The Nile, Nelson and others1

The song Nelson's Monument has already been discussed in a separate article on this site2 but, in the course of the present series, it is convenient to emphasise the interest in and the importance attached to the events at Aboukir Bay in 1798 by examining related broadside texts, which extend our apprehension so as to encompass not just Nelson's exploits but the military victory subsequent to Aboukir Bay as achieved by Sir Ralph Abercromby; and in the context of pieces about other generals and admirals - 'Duncan, Jervis and Lord Howe' who 'Long the ocean they did plough'.3  Charles Dibdin issued a whole set of such songs through Pitts.4  In fact, in 1803, the British government paid Dibdin to write songs to keep alive national feelings against the French.  There is, as well, a Pitts piece entitled The Four Admirals (issued from 14 Great Andrew Street, before his move to number 6 in 1819) that cites the 'fam'd' first of June - no names appear and no date but this would have been the battle off Ushant in 1794 where Lord Howe defeated the French; goes on to invoke Cape St Vincent (February 1797) where Nelson served under Sir John Jervis; to Duncan and 'Mynheer, the fat Dutchman', almost certainly a reference to the battle of Camperdown (Kampen) fought in October 1797; very briefly, to the Danes who were 'shut in the port' which may, then, gesture towards Copenhagen (1801) and Hyde Parker and remind us of the part Nelson played in the blockade, blind eye and all; and, specifically, to Nelson himself.  But this piece must have been put out after Trafalgar (1805) which also gets a mention.5  Separately (as examples), a New Song in praise of Admiral, Lord Duncan … as well as a piece entitled Duncan and Victory can be found.  Lord Howe as individual inspired a Copy of Verses on the Glorious Victory Obtained by Lord Howe … and Lord Howe Triumphant.  Jervis was celebrated in Jervis Taking the Spanish Fleet and Dibdin again offered Jervis for Ever.  The name and deeds of one of Nelson's own Nile comrades, Samuel Hood, is found in The Honour of Admiral Hood .  There is a piece entitled Copenhagen and another entitled Battle of the Baltic.  Pellew (Lord Exmouth) appeared in a ballad about The Battle of Algiers; Sidney Smith in a piece from Dibdin.6

Printers, then, most obviously played their part in the spread of praise for British arms and notions of the superiority of British sailors over any foreign crew and the pieces described below offer testimony, as far as has been established, to the importance of Aboukir and the Nile in this respect.  Further, though, examination of text, whatever is found concerning the perception of events themselves, does also throw into relief one or two of the abiding problems associated with broadside printing, principally the difficulties attendant on any attempt to date issue and - as expressed in the introduction to this series - the relative lack of knowledge of printers' activities.  It cannot be claimed here that much is resolved but, perhaps, it is possible, in some cases, to edge nearer to definition.

We can pause to remark the general tendency in broadside printing to adopt the short-hand gesture in description (which was referred to in the piece on Nelson's Monument).  Pellew, although not actually named in a Pitts copy of The Battle of Algiers, was - as admiral - 'bold' and 'gallant' and his crews showed 'true British play' and the Algerines got a 'drubbing' ('the proud rascals') … 'the pride of the great and haughty Dey' was 'pulled down'.  Jervis was, of course', himself 'brave' as was his crew and in the face of a 'glorious' action the Spanish enemy was 'haughty'.  Hood was a 'gallant' admiral.

And just as reminder, we find Nelson described as a 'hero', as 'bold' and as 'gallant' in Battle of Trafalgar and Collingwood too as 'bold'; the enemy as 'haughty' (though 'daring'); and British tars as 'bold' and 'steady'.  In Nelson or The True Blue, Nelson is 'bold' and 'brave' and the French are 'Dogs'.  In England's Glory … British sailors are 'brave hearts of oak … '.  Nelson was described as that man of 'great fame' at Copenhagen - but in this case it was the crews that got the accolades - as 'undaunted fons of Britannia'; Nelson's ship, the Elephant, being described as 'brave' and his seamen 'brave' … and 'brave boys' … .  In Nelson's Victory he was 'brave'; in Grand Conversation … he was numbered amongst 'heroes bold'; was 'a man of noted fame' and, of course, 'brave'.  In The Battle of Boulogne (involving Nelson), British seamen were 'brave'.7  And so on.

Thus, there appears to be no immediate transformation of known broadside conventions in the face of a specific event or kind of event, that which it is possible to verify in actual terms.  Vocabulary is fairly predictable.  It is to be expected that the pieces discussed below incorporate the same sorts of descriptions as noted above and as have been found in convention elsewhere in this series.  However, as in so many cases of domestic murder where one perpetrator was very much like another, this does introduce an element of portraiture here in which an admiral is an admiral is an admiral.  Individual psychology is not necessarily relevant.

A brief recapitulation of the events at Aboukir can serve to hold comments in line with actuality and to offer occurrences and attitudes which might have been taken up and perpetuated in print.  Nelson's fleet had chased the French round the Mediterranean and had, at last, come up with them in Egypt.  Alexandria, which had, in any case, been Nelson's first choice of where he thought the French would be going once they had slipped out of Toulon and disappeared, was found not to have been favoured by the French battle fleet although the place was crowded with transports and Nelson chose to sail on in an eastwards direction with Zealous (Hood) and Goliath (Foley) in the van.  A midshipman at the mast head of Goliath spotted the French in Aboukir Bay.  It was already afternoon on 1st August but Nelson did not waste his opportunity and sent in his ships.  In the first crucial phase of battle, Zealous and Goliath entered the bay, Zealous taking soundings as Hood attempted to round the French fleet and gain the landward side and Goliath, with an up-to-date chart, able to overtake and engage.  Goliath left Hood to pound Guerriere, the first ship in the anchored French formation, and sailed onto the landward side so as to fight the next French ship in the line.  Other British ships followed.  Guerriere, each time a British ship sailed round the French fleet, bore the brunt of the British attack and as British ships manoeuvred so as to do the greatest possible damage to the French fleet, only Culloden (Troubridge) was unable to force any issue, grounding in her captain's anxiety to engage; and Bellerephon (Darby) had to withdraw, outmatched by the French flagship L'Orient.  Nelson himself, in Vanguard, engaged La Spartiate and it was then that he received a wound (below).  Somewhere around the two hour mark it became clear that the British were very much in charge.  When it was seen that L'Orient was on fire and would not survive, some British ships hauled their anchors to avoid the expected rain of fiery wreckage.  Somewhere between half-past nine and eleven o'clock at night, indeed, L'Orient blew up, its commander, Brueys, the French admiral, already killed.  By dawn, although the British were exhausted, it looked as if they could begin to claim the victory but it should not be forgotten that some French ships fought on and that the battle did not cease until well into the 2nd August.  Only Le Guillaume Tell and Le Généreux, commanded by Villeneuve, who was to face Nelson again at Trafalgar, managed to draw off, accompanied by two frigates.8  Some other French ships were aground.  Most had surrendered.

There are many more aspects to the battle, of course, but the essential sequence as given here is enough to supply details which might then surface in any ballad.  As it happened, in general if not quite always, ballads ignored the detail of the fighting in favour of blanket praise and with epithets as described in other ballads above; but we do note the mention below of Nelson's injury.  He was hit by a splinter and his forehead was opened up, leaving him with one eye temporarily closed by a flap of bloody skin.  Perhaps surprisingly - this does not appear in any ballad - he immediately exclaimed 'I am killed' and 'Remember me to my wife' and he sought to make arrangements for the transfer of command and to despatch news of the battle.  His reaction to the wounding might seem to have been that of a man less than a hero but would, on the other hand, serve to illustrate the human culpability which was clearly displayed in accounts of his life: when, for instance, he expressed dismay at perceived lack of recognition for his deeds.9

Matters were resolved at Aboukir by surgeons and, on receiving the news that l'Orient was on fire, Nelson re-appeared on deck with a bandaged head.  This action could even have contributed to Nelson mythology.10

First glance at events can be observed in The Times where, immediately the news of the victory at Aboukir arrived in England, a notice asserted that:

Every man in this country may addreff Admiral NELSON with SHAKESPEARE,
"HORATIO, thou art e'en as brave a man
"As e'er my underftanding cop'd withal."
The capture of the French Fleet by NELSON, has reduced BUONAPARTE to the fituation of Macbeth - -
"There is no going hence, nor tarrying here."11
The report, whilst in its own idiom, is still not too far removed in tone from ballad outpourings, and, again, emphasises heroic proportion.

Nelson's own despatches are dated 3rd August 1798 and are included in an extensive account in the Naval Chronicle - 'Proceedings of the Squadron Under Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson':

Almighty God has blessed his Majesty's arms in the late battle, by great victory over the fleet of the enemy, whom I attacked on the 1st August off the Mouth of the Nile … 12
It is even possible that the title of the ballad called The Mouth of the Nile as discussed here was seized upon from Nelson's own description.  The piece is, whatever, particularly awkward in textual form as it appeared in Pitts and Catnach copy, our first known examples13, as if a prose account had been chopped up rather than verses having been composed:
IT was in the forenoon of the first day of august
    One thousand seven hundred and ninety eight,
After a long pursuit we overtook the Toulon fleet
And soon we let them know how we came to fight …
The piece continues in like vein.  Twice Nelson is described thus:
When brave Nelson gave command altho' he'd
              but one hand …
Nelson had lost his arm at Tenerife in 1797 during a disastrous sally, initiated by Jervis, Lord St Vincent by then, to take Santa Cruz on Tenerife and so threaten Spanish shipping, often treasure-laden, as it sailed from the New World.  In view of the Nile injury discussed above it is worth recording that, at Tenerife, Nelson had immediately cried that 'I am a dead man'.  A certain morbidity becomes evident, a quickness to see the worst which is not the stuff of legend.14  Notably, too, the example of Tenerife shows that Nelson did not always enjoy overwhelming victories.  Apart from the events at Tenerife, there was the occasion of the battle of Boulogne in 1801.  A text was referred to above and in it whilst there is an attempt to promote British glory there is also an acknowledgement that that there were great losses on the British side.  Boulogne, moreover, could not be accounted a victory for the British.

We could not guess Nelson's momentary lapse from the tone of Mouth of the Nile.  It continued boastfully: 'We resolved to conquer or die to a man' - the sentiment is actually offered twice.

The progress of the battle is recounted in bathetic terms (that is, from our present-day perspective).  For example:

    The night came on we formed a plan,
To set fire to one hundred and twenty guns
    About ten o'clock at night, it was a brilliant sight
The L'Orient (sic) blew up while round went the cup.
and, again:
Amongst the jolly tars brave Nelson got a scar;
Yet Providence protected him from a cruel war …
    So now the battle's o'er the French fleet's no more
Great news shall be sent to George our King
Rule Britannia shall be sung and bonfires shall blaze
Bonaparte got the pledge of all Europe for his wage
And he'll never forget brave Nelson at the mouth
              of the Nile

This is all from a Pitts text.  Other Pitts copies vary slightly.  We find both 'Bonoparte' and 'Bonaparte' in successive Pitts printings.  The French fleet is actually described as the 'Toulin' fleet in one - presumably a reference to Toulon and we know that Nelson's brief from St Vincent had originally been to find out what the French were up to in Toulon as reports filtered through of growing armament there.15  Some of the irregularities in Pitts were ironed out in successive printings but it is important to note that copies, as far as has been ascertained, were issued from 6 Great Andrew Street - that is, after 1819 - and could not have been themselves contemporary with events at the Nile (the idea that such texts could have been founded on oral composites cannot be dismissed).

It is a similar case with Catnach copies.  They have the same narrative line but with orthographic surprises like those of Pitts.  As instance, one reference to the Toulon fleet appears as 'Tohlon' and another to 'Toulot'.  But the same qualifications apply here as to the Pitts ensemble.  Catnach's printings could not have appeared contemporaneously with events since he did not first set up business until 1813.

Nor do Pitts and Catnach texts seem to have begun life with attention to stanzaic pattern even though there are printings from both where an eight-line stanza emerges.  Indeed, it would be logical to assume a progress towards formality of presentation as a text settled down and Batchelar, working out of Hackney where he was an agent for Catnach, printed a copy in eight-line stanzas whereas the narrative is exactly the same as that in Catnach and Pitts.  A further copy without imprint also has an eight-line stanza.  Yet Porter, printing and selling from both Wotton-under-Edge and in Cirencester, favoured four lines to a section (not separate stanzas … the piece is continuous).  Porter, it seems, was printing from the late eighteenth century on though evidence for his activities is still embryo and there is no real suggestion that he anticipated Pitts and Catnach in the issue of the Mouth of the Nile.  The nexus of Pitts, Catnach and the copy without a name attached might, then, suggest the second decade of the century for first issue of the ballad.16

Armstrong in Liverpool, Harkness in Preston, Cadman in Manchester and Such in London all firm up the eight-line stanza appearance thus indicating that this was the way as a printing that it frequently travelled during the century.17  However, Dickinson, in York (who, according to the Bodleian library, was operating between 1823-1834), regularised the text as distinct four-line stanzas.18  Whether Dickinson was aware that Porter may have begun this process or whether, in fact, this is a case of coincidence at work is not yet capable of proof.

The Bodleian suggests dates of between 1863 and 1885 for a Such version.  His text, in eight-line stanzas, has no 'mistakes' in it (although the strange form, 'The L'Orient' reappears and there is one misapplied comma!) but the narrative is exactly the same as it was in Pitts and Catnach and Porter.

Interestingly, the Armstrong printing in the Bodleian Allegro archive is set alongside The Mountains High from Catnach - and, as if to counter any suggestion of clear progression in printing terms, we discover that we cannot always rely on our sources to offer printings that follow either logic in historical progress or even focus on the one printer.  The copy without a printer's name on it noted above actually appeared with a totally unrelated piece from Wood of Liverpool.  As another example of this kind of placement, Porter's Nobody Coming to Bury Me … can be found alongside Catnach's No More Shall the Chummie (in terms of the Nile battle see also below with Catnach and Harkness).19

But we have at least established a continuing interest in the battle at Aboukir Bay long after the event.

In printing terms in respect of a text entitled The Battle of the Nile we find it surrounded by a whole clatter of references which suggest that it was an early piece in printed repertoire being found as issued by Marshall in chapbook form in Newcastle, by Davenport, Evans and Jennings in London and by Dicey, Sutton and Smithson in Northampton.  Where the Dicey nexus is concerned it may have been that the printing was issued from Northampton or, equally, from London - Dicey is known to have supplied copy for Northampton whilst at the same time working in London at the end of the eighteenth century.20  One Jennings printing actually has a handwritten date of August 1798 on it but this is more likely to have merely recorded the date of the event.  Further, though, a reference in the Lauriston collection gives a Dublin date of 1814 for issue.21  Pitts and Catnach, as one might have expected, both printed the piece.  Piggott in London is yet another early printer.  Mate in Dover, operating between 1810 and 1830, printed a copy but his dates do not, of course, either invalidate or improve on the discussion above.  It is the same with Batchelar who, according to the Bodleian library printing between 1817 and 1828, issued a copy out of Hackney alongside The Mouth … which, because he was an inheritor, we would not expect to differ in its narrative essentials but which follows the continuous form of Pitts and Catnach.  Fordyce, certainly operating in the mid-1820s, issued the piece, again in eight-line stanzas.  Smith of Lincoln printed eight-line stanzas.  We have an early take-up and a prolonged time for issue but no positive evidence for printings that emerged around 1798 itself.  As is the case with The Mouth of the Nile favourite for first issue would seem at best to be during the second decade of the nineteenth century.22

Otherwise, the progress of the piece through the nineteenth century can be gauged by printings from Bebbington and Swindells in Manchester, Russell in Birmingham and Harkness in Preston.  Further still in this regard Such also printed the piece, as he did The Mouth - indeed, both together at one stage on a sheet at the bottom of which is also set (sideways) a copy of The Battle … from Scott of Pittenweem: surely, placed together by the collector of the pieces.  Scott was printing at the time of the opium wars of 1842-1843 and the Crimean War (1853-1856) and yet another of his pieces concerns the loss of the Tayleur in 1854 so offering more evidence of continued printing of The Battle … .23

There is, though, a little more to this march of pedigree.  As hinted above, it is worth considering the appearance of the piece under the auspices of these printers not simply through the matter of dates when the printers were operating but with a look at how a piece was placed alongside a variety of different texts.  Bebbington, in Manchester, for instance, printed The Battle … together with Battle of the Alma (the battle itself took place on 20th September 1854) and if we can believe that the two were first issued together by the printer and not separately at an earlier date, this obviously indicates a currency in broadside terms after the mid-century.24  The point is not so abstruse.  Some times, in our sources, as shown above in the case of The Mouth … we find copy from different printers (Armstrong and Catnach).  Pitts and Catnach are found together on another printing, this time of Catnach's Dear Woman's the Joy of an Englishman's Life and Pitts' Death of Abercrombie as described below … the result, surely, of a collector's whim or method: in this case, it would appear, Sir Frederick Madden's.  In another kind of pedigree of descent Harkness issued The Battle … in exactly the same manner as had Catnach, together with Death of Parker.  Such a combination dates in actual terms from 1797-1798, the years of the Spithead and Nore naval mutinies and the battle at Aboukir Bay, and this makes it look as though both pieces might have entered broadside repertoire at that date save that, as noted above, Catnach is not recorded as being in business before 1813 and Harkness during the 1840s.  J Russell, in Birmingham, issued a sheet with the same combination on it and in his case we know that he was printing between 1814 and 1838.  The Battle … in these instances was late in appearance.25

The piece itself - 'Arise, arise, Britannia's sons, arise … ' - is a straightforward celebration of Nelson's name and victory: 'Nelson, gallant Nelson's name applauded shall be'.  There is no exposition of the battle itself but instead a prolonged panegyric.  A chorus calls out (this is from Pitts):

Then huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza boys,
    Mars guard for us what freedom did by
              charter gain,
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza, boys,
    Britannia still Britannia rules the main.
Is there a gesture towards history and, perhaps, Magna Carta (see also below, England's Glory … )?

The verse is predictable enough in view of broadside convention where Nelson and other heroes are concerned:

The proud sons of France with insulting haughty
    Had too long oppress'd the neighbouring in-
And vainly did hope their conquest would be
    In harmony triumphant o'er the sea.
Of course, British arms 'taught' the French something different … The ballad continues without let:
… soon on the brow of each hardy British tar,
    Was planted a resplendent Royal crown …

Nelson's name is added to those of Duncan, Jervis and Howe.  And, at the Nile:

… all the angelic choirs sung the glories of
              the day.
And so:
… arouse arouse ye sons of mirthful sport,
    And receive your protectors with open arms
              returning, [bought,
And view the spoils they with their blood have
    For the glory of this happy, happy Isle …
A British seaman will henceforth be a 'terror to his foe, an honour to his friend' and children will be reminded what, at the Nile, Nelson had done.

This is the form in which the piece appeared in all printings, given the usual slight changes in orthography.  The copy from Smith of Lincoln (no dates have so far emerged) referred to above, offering an extended title of The Battle of the Nile Or Britannia Rules the Waves, declared it to be 'A Favourite Patriotic Song' which sums up its content and intention well enough.

Another ballad, Nelson Or The True Blue, issued by Hillat and Martin in London, also covers the events at Aboukir.26

Oh messmates (sic) I pray give attention,
    A story I'll tell you of old,
Concerning affairs of bold Nelson,
    And seamen of courage so bold.
Epithets like 'bold' are familiar to us from other ballads about Nelson as discussed, briefly, in the piece on Nelson's Monument already on this site and above.  The French, predictably, are but 'Dogs' and (in a chorus):
… the hearts of our Tars never fail'd them,
    Said they to our Tacks we'll stand true,
For the pride of a true British sailor!
    Is to live and to die a true Blue.
The piece describes how 'we' heard from Toulon that the French had sailed with 'thirteen Seventy fours and a fifty'; but the wind blew from the 'Eastward' - and this implies a struggle to make progress for the British fleet (Nelson's flagship, Vanguard, was, in actuality, nearly wrecked and the fleet had to turn back into port for repairs before proceeding).  Further, underlining the uncertainties in British intelligence of French manoeuvres:
From Malta, Messina, and Naples,
    We heard the French Fleet they had pass'd,
With a large Fleet bound to Alexandria
    Where we all arrived safe at least …
- a neat encapsulation of the work of British eyes and ears before Aboukir.  Finally, though, a man at 'our mast head' spied the French 'at an anchor' and, what was more, 'right in a line they do lie'.  'Brave' Nelson says 'we've found them' and he brought them to action 'this night':
It was early next morning by day-break,
    A most glorious sight met the view,
To see thirteen sail of French shipping,
    Strike to the British true Blue!
The Antagonist went to the bottom
    The Commodore blew up in the air
On the first day of August ninety eight boys,
    The French well remember the year.
So the 'news' of a victory was given - in appropriate broadside terms; but obviously 'late' since Hillat and Martin, the printers, did not begin operation until around 1837 (a Hillat did issue printings together with Catnach but, even so, this could not have been before 1813).  The names 'Antagonist' and 'Commodore', by the way, are not those of any French ships known to have been involved in Aboukir Bay and must be, therefore, the printer's way of referring to the enemy.

There is yet one more piece concerning Nelson at the Nile - England's Glory Or Bonaparte's Downfall:

COME let us ponder for a while,
    Upon the victory at the Nile,
And then you'll it worth your while
    To boaft of Nelfon's glory …
Nelson, a 'gallant hero', fought 'To maintain old England's right' - which introduces another aspect of the celebration of English prowess, an aspect (like the possible appeal to Magna Carta as noted above) to be likened to poets' appeals to some past and mythical golden age.  There are no details of the battle.  It seems to have acted as an excuse for a familiar set of claims and praise.  Tars were, of course, 'jolly' and 'brave hearts of oak'; 'Monfieur' was 'proud'.  Bonaparte 'means for invade our land' (sic) and so:
We'll make him come with cap in hand,
    Before we do furrender.
And the piece continues:
For our great guns fhall loudly roar,
The echo heard on the French fhore …
which, effectively, has transferred the action entirely - to the imagination.  Further:
Our foldiers, heroes of renown
Swear they will beat their batteries down …
    I hope the wars will foon be over;
That peace may reach from shore to fhore,
And then we'll make our invaders roar,
Then we will fing God fave the King,
That Bonaparte he may fwing,
    And we fhall live in clover.
The piece is from Storer in Bristol.  No dates for him are available but the use of the 'f' instead of an 's' usually denotes a fairly early presence as printer and another Storer piece, A man born a Briton is a man born to be free, is, like England's Glory … , concerned in part with invasion scares involving Bonaparte, very much a factor in the England of the 1790s, so that we can take Storer's operative period as embracing 1798.  What is more, this text provides another example of juxtapositionoing of text as discussed above, appearing, as it did, in harness with an entirely irrelevant piece - where the Nile is concerned - from Boag in Newcastle and entitled A New Song ('Oh! Dicky, my darling, thy market's a hum … ').

The text of England's Glory … is in the same metrical pattern as The Arethusa, which had appeared in 1796, and there is every reason to think that the same tune was used for both.27  The Storer piece could hardly be bettered as a piece of armchair soldiering or sailor-ing and as such amply demonstrates a printer's lunge at opportunity.

As summary so far, then, there is nothing to identify a first date of issue of texts on Nelson and the battle of the Nile.  There are only indications of retrospection and of a certain longevity of production.  This is consistent with what is known about other outpourings that have Nelson as central figure as exemplified by the many extant texts, some referred to above (and others in the piece on Nelson's Monument on this site) which are scattered through the nineteenth century.  The texts discussed all rely heavily on broadside convention of expression.  The 'facts' of the matter of the Nile seem to have been of secondary importance.

After Nelson comes Sir Ralph Abercromby (born in 1734), the name often spelled 'Abercrombie'.  Although he trained as a lawyer in Leipzig (1754) he switched professions and, after 1756, became a career soldier, serving during the Seven Years War, and actually retiring in 1783 but returning to the ranks when France declared war on England in 1793.  Thereafter, he served diligently in the West Indies, returned to Europe, and was eventually made commander of the English army in Ireland during 1797 and 1798.  Apparently distinguished for his consideration of the population in Ireland by emphasising the importance of the civil power and for his attempts to bring discipline to the army itself, he was disappointed to receive little support from the head of government in Ireland for the former aim and so gave up his command.  Still he served again under the Duke of York in Holland in 1799, a disaster for the Duke which led to the making of the well-known rhyme about him leading men to the top of the hill and then down again; and, suggesting that Abercromby was not to blame for failure, was then appointed to lead the army in an attempt to dispossess the French of what they had been gaining in Egypt.  At Aboukir he disembarked his troops in the face of furious opposition and, in the vicinity of Alexandria, on 21st March, fought his greatest - and last - battle.  There he was wounded in both chest and thigh and the former wound was the cause of his death (a spent ball that could not be extracted) a week after the battle.28

Clouter, in Bristol, printing between 1803 and 1815, issued a piece entitled His Majesty's Arms In Egypt … which concerned Abercromby.29  As gloss: it is worth noting that Clouter, like Storer, could have used the 's' in the alphabet but, for the most part, insisted on using the old-fashioned 'f'.  Thus, after reference to the 'Antients' and their stories and to battles fought by the 'Grecians' none of whom can compare with 'Britannia's great name', he introduced a chorus thus:

Britifh valour we difplay'd in loyalty's caufe,
We always are ready.  (sic) firm, cool and fteady,
To fight for our King, our Country, and Laws.
The ballad then went on to recount how on Sunday 8th March 1801, 'We landed our troops 'midst the roaring of guns' and completed the landing 'in a glorious attack' against 'our insolent foe'.  Further, on the 13th 'we thew'd them fome play' whereat 'they run' and 'Kind heaven once more crown'd our arms'.  And, further still, on Saturday 21st, when the enemy tried again to break out, 'We gave them such repulfe' as to put them to rout:
But paufe now a while, with pain I muft tell,
The achievments (sic) of the day, great Abercromby fell … .
The piece goes on to praise 'Sir Sidney' (Smith) 'and his darling crew' who were like 'heroes bold'.  'We' continued to make the enemy run 'In fpite of that rafcal, imperious Menoue' (sic) - who, when Napoleon first landed near to Alexandria in 1798 had stormed the city on one side, in conjunction with Kleber on the other.  And, finally, 'So fill up your glaffes' to raise a toast the King and a list of British generals including 'Oakes' who:
Told the French dogs in Egypt, they'd have none of their
It is, it seems, a trifling piece: a regular pot-boiler; but does reflect a printer's attempts to exploit a near-current event - given, that is, the length of time for news to arrive in England.  In this respect, The Times issued a report on May 3rd 1801which contained news in despatches from Abercromby on March 16th describing his 'debarkation' in Aboukir Bay before the 8th and his march to Alexandria describing an attack on the 13th March.  This news was sent via Lord Elgin at Constantinople and he, in despatches dated April 14th, was able to add details of the defeat by Abercromby, of Menou, in command of the French, and to mention wounds to various officers including Abercromby himself - but not to confirm his death.30  Clouter's piece, according to dates of his activities given above, was very much a later comment (and he did include mention of Abercromby's death) which appearance fits the pattern observed in the case of Nelson above.

Yet another piece, entitled Death of Abercrombie, does not even mention where the General fought and died but is nevertheless interesting for several reasons.  Firstly, in its apparently cavalier neglect of detail it seems to assume that an audience would know very well what events were being referred to and this, in turn, might just suggest an issue close to 1801 when news was fresh.  Secondly, it can be found in the stock of Jennings at Water-lane.  This is J Jennings, printing solo, according to the Bodleian library, between 1790 and 1802 at that address, before joining forces with Pitts at 14 Great St Andrews Street up until 1819.  The piece, on this copy, was placed alongside The Battle of Landrecy, a battle which, the ballad-sheet tells us, took place on 17th April 1794 - it is even possible, then, that this ballad had appeared contemporaneously and that the Abercromby victory offered a convenient opportunity for re-issue.31

Thirdly, the form is that of 'Recitative' and 'Air', thus taking a cue from theatre presentation and paralleling the much more well-known Death of Nelson, Braham's composition with words by Samuel Arnold (a consideration of which is scheduled to appear elsewhere on this site).  In fact, the Bodleian library, in connection with printings from both Pitts and from Walker in Norwich, credits the words of Death of Abercrombie to T Dibdin and the music to John Braham (1774-1856) and the second edition of the songs of Charles Dibdin, issued in 1841 (as cited in Roud's database), also gives the name of T Dibdin as author.32  This was Charles Dibdin's son by Mrs Dabenet (there was also another Charles by the same mother), with whom Charles senior conducted a liaison whilst still married to his first wife.  The two sons eventually took their father's name.  Charles senior himself left Mrs Davenet in favour of a Miss Wyld, whom he married when his first wife died.  Thomas John Dibdin (1771-1841) was a dramatist, like his brother, and he also wrote songs - his most famous was probably The Snug Little Island.33  So, given operative dates of printing, was Thomas Dibdin's piece on Abercromby contemporary with events at the Nile?  There is plenty of scope for a contrary view, of course.

In connection with theatre presentation, we might well expect a certain amount of persiflage and so it turns out.  Note, for example, the consistency with which apostrophes in place of an 'e' feature (which would not be subject to detection feature if the piece was sung).  Thomas Dibdin seems to have had an eye both to current fashion of expression in scribbledom and to the posterity of the written word:

'TWAS on that spot in ancient lore oft nam'd,
    Where Isis and Osiris since held sway,
O'er kings who sleep in pyramidic pride;
But now for British valour far more fam'd.
    Since Nelson's hand achiev'd a glorious day,
    And crown'd with laurel Abercrombie died.
This is the 'Recitative'.  The 'Air' following is equally florid, beginning at dawn with 'roseate colours', the flash of cannons, and then Abercromby's 'death-wound'.  Absolutely strictly, this is a correct description although, as noted above, the General did not die until a week afterwards; and, in terms of accuracy, it is also true that:
With a mind unsubdued still the foe he defied,
On the steed which the hero of Acre supplied …
- that is, Sidney Smith, mentioned elsewhere here.  The ballad proceeds to telescope events in favour of a good story …
The standard of Albion, with victory crown'd,
Wav'd over his head as he sank on the ground.
"Take me hence, my brave fellows," the veteran did cry,
"My duty's complete, and contented I die."
Needless to say, such words are not recorded in any official account.

Pitts and Jennings had the piece but none of the usual mid-century printers such as Fortey and Harkness.  The name of Abercromby, like that of others - Samuel Hood, for instance, - appears to have slid from the public eye.  But Stark of Gainsborough (dates are not available), a lone light, one of those printers who suddenly emerge and as quickly disappear with little left behind to establish credentials, did print the piece.34

A printing from Pitts with the same title of Death of Abercrombie is quite different:35

Come all you gallant generals Britannia no
              may boast,
Many a man true it is his precious life has lost,
Amongst them Abercrombie may be ranked now,
Who lost his life in Egypt fighting against Menew (sic) …
The ballad recounts how Abercromby had received his fatal shot and ' … in a short time after his life he did resign' … which, we know, was not the case.  The ballad goes on to describe how it was early the next morning when the French 'came pouring on us':
But General Abercrombie so did inspire his men,
That thousands of both horse and foot lay bleeding
              on the plain …
Abercromby then received his wound and:
No man possessed of British blood could ever then
              give way,
To see brave Abercrombie in the midst of us to stay
Not seeking for shelter but fighting sword in hand
And all along from right to left giving the command.

Then he fainted although nobody could persuade him to retire.

The French then attacked on the right and all along the line, right to left, the British were engaged.  Once more the thousands of horse and foot on the ground are invoked.  'Sir S. Smith', who had been detached from 'the gallant fleet under his command', was wounded as well as many of his gallant men; and the French 'of this great victory began for to despair'.  They turned their backs.  So:

Now to conclude my song the war is at an end
The invincible army was condemned …
A health is proposed, with familiar epithet, 'To Britons bold' …

This particular piece is certainly more detailed than the other ones discussed above.  The essential narrative is reasonably accurate relative to actuality.  The simple point where printing is concerned is that Abercromby's deeds were emphasised and his name and fame spread for a little while.  We know that the battle of Aboukir Bay stirred the nation and if Abercromby's victory may have been less celebrated than that of Nelson at Aboukir Bay it was, nonetheless, significant at a time when on land Napoleon was appearing to gain an air of invincibility.  In this connection, the name of Sidney Smith, mentioned in the ballad, is noteworthy because at the lifting of the siege of Acre and in a series of forays against the French, culminating in his part during Abercromby's campaign he inflicted defeats on Napoleon's forces hithertoo unknown.  Smith, it should be said, was not at all finished and continued to lead an active, colourful and controversial life.

Yet there is no sign of the particular piece later in the century.  Pitts is our only source.  The appearance of the piece along with a Catnach printing (not the same ballad) does not tell us much about dating precisely because the two printers' names were conjoined in the manner discussed above where other broadside ballads were concerned.

There is one more Abercromby piece, equally short-lived as far as we know, put out by Evans in Chester and entitled Abercrombie's Glory.36  One notes the spelling of the name:

You people all I pray draw near,
    Unto these lines pray lend an ear,
It is the truth I do declare,
    Called Abercrombie's glory.
The piece refers to 1801 and gives the briefest of sketches revealing how 'a jovial band' in Egypt 'so boldly stood'; how bold Britons advanced 'And so boldly made the French to dance'.  However:
At length there came a deadly shot,
    And dreadfully wounded Crombie got
Nearly that killed him all on the spot,
    But still he retain'd the glory.
And in somewhat confusing fashion:
Then to his merry men he said now,
    Let the victory be try'd my boys,
If I my lads are still be your sides,
    Your Abercombie's glory.


… there's none like and Crombie bold, (sic)
Who died in the field for glory …
He certainly did not die in the field!  Liberties are taken and so a myth-making, as in the case of Nelson - and probably all aspirant heroes - had begun.  The piece finishes with a health to the King and a hope that England's rights, whatever they are, will be maintained, another referral to supposed prerogative.

These, then, are the celebratory pieces attending victories at and around the Nile.  With their named heroes the ballads described above offer a public face; but we cannot leave the scene without looking at The Banks of the Nile, seemingly the only one of these several pieces to have a continued life in sung repertoire …  It is a piece that subsumes immediacy because it appeals not to ephemeral hero-worship but to common, constant humanity.

This is also made clear when the history of the song is considered.  It is, in the form in which we have it, a legacy, an adaptation of a much earlier song about leave-taking.  As The Undaunted Seaman, for instance, it appeared in the latter part of the seventeenth century and can be found in other shapes and forms through the next two centuries: for instance, as William and Nancy's Parting, the nearest form to The Banks … .37  Sometimes the girl goes to sea with her lover but not in The Banks …  For the sake of brevity we must neglect any full history and plunge in at something of an arbitrary point in the song's history, leaving out also consideration of later sung versions: our concern is with the progress of the piece as a nineteenth century broadside printing.

Two main strains of printing emerge.  In one - from John Forth in Pocklington, Bebbington in Manchester, Ross in Newcastle, Harkness in Preston and Fortey and Such in London, we are dealing with printers who operated towards the middle of the century and after.38  The absence of names such as those of Pitts, Catnach, Evans and Jennings (as examples) more or less precludes an early issue for this strain of printing.  We can conclude that its issue was retrospective (without dismissing possible oral genesis).  In it, whilst the narrative is always the same, there are expected orthographic changes and some changes in detail.  For instance, at the beginning, Forth has:

Hark!  Hear the drums beating, no longer I can stay,
I hear the trumpet sounding, my love I must away.
Wee ordered from Portsmouth many a long mile,
To join the British army on the banks of the Nile.
Harkness has this pattern and so has Bebbington except that his first line is:
Hark!  I hear the drums beating - no longer can I stay …
Both Fortey and Such have the same pattern.

In the next stanza Nancy, addressing Willie, rues the day, although in Forth and in Ross 'The parting of my true love' was the 'plague of my life' whereas in Bebbington, Harkness, Fortey and Such it was 'the parting of my life'.  So the narrative develops with Nancy declaring that she will cut off her yellow locks and Willie regretting that 'our Colonel' has given orders that the soldiers must leave their sweethearts:

And go fight the black Negroes on the banks of the Nile …
This is from Forth and Ross but, once again, differences appear with Bebbington, Harkness and Such citing 'the Blacks and Heathens'; and Fortey, in copies placed side by side, offering both versions.

Besides, says Willie (in all copy):

Your waist is too slender love, your fingers are too small,
I'm afraid you'll not answer me when on you I call,
Your delicate constitution would not bear the unwholesome toil,
Nor the cold sandy desert on the banks of the Nile.
Nancy curses the war and declares that it has 'robbed old Scotland' (Forth and Ross) or 'old Ireland' in all other copy 'of many a clever man in order to fight 'the black Negroes' (Forth) or 'the blacks and negroes' (Ross, Harkness, Bebbington and Such) or, in one Fortey copy, 'blacks and negroes' and in the other, 'blacks and heathens' …  Finally, 'Now the wars are over' and the two will embrace and 'We'll go no more to battle on the banks of the Nile'.

There seems to be no reason why it is Scotland and Ireland that lost their fine young men and not England.  One might argue publicity given to particular regiments as they were sent to Egypt but the battle fought under Abercromby involved - as a selection - the Cameron Highlanders, the Gordon Highlanders, the 42nd Foot Royal Highlanders and the 90th Perthshire regiment but also the 30th Cambridgeshire regiment, the 28th North Gloucester regiment, the 61st South Gloucester regiment, the Coldstream Guards, the Welch Fusiliers and the Corsican Rangers.  Presumably Irish soldiers fought under a variety of regimental banners.  Nor is there any specific occasion in Ireland to which the text may have been attached unless it was the Act of Union in 1801 - and, even though broadside printers sometimes select odd-sounding pretexts for issue, this does not seem at all likely.  Since Ireland had only recently emerged from a period of outright rebellion one might even surmise that printers would keep Irish connections quiet.  Irish issues of the piece were put out, it seems, at times around which English issues had already congregated (below).

Printings from Pratt in Birmingham, Fordyce in Newcastle and Lindsay in Glasgow39 begin differently to the copy as noted above:

Hark!  Hark!  The drums do beat my love, and I must
              haste away,
The bugles sweetly sound and no longer can I stay;
We are called up to Portsmouth many a long mile,
All for to embark for the battle of the Nile.
The reply is to 'Billy, dearest Billy' and:
… these words will break my heart,
Come let us now be married before that we do part …
'O Nancy, dearest Nancy' he replies:
… Government has ordered no woman there to go;
For Government has ordered, the King he doth command
And I'm bound on my oath my love, to serve in foreign land.
Nancy declares that she will on her velveteens and volunteer her services in Egypt and be Billy's 'loving comrade'.  Again, he admonishes her and, in this case, it is because:
… the sultry sun of Egypt your precious health would spoil,
And the hot sandy deserts on the banks of the Nile …
Nancy curses the war …
For they've taken out of Scotland many a fine young
They've taken away our Life Guards, protectors of our
And their bodies feed the worms on the Banks of the

The mention of life guards - in Pratt's printing with a capital 'L' - might have indicated that the piece was issued consequent upon the fortunes of a particular group of soldiers but, as the listing given above demonstrates, this suggestion may be to fly a kite!

In a final stanza there is a quite different turn in the narrative as compared with any in the first nexus already described but it does return us to the precise subject-matter at hand in this whole piece:

Let a hundred days be darken'd let maidens give a sigh,
'Twould melt the very elements to hear the wounded
Let a hundred days be lightened, let maidens give a
And remember Abercrombie on the Banks of the Nile.
Given small orthographic changes, the texts are consistent.  It is noticeable that there is no mention of 'blacks', 'Negroes' or 'Heathens'.  Yet, where printers' dates are concerned, Lindsay was printing in the second half of the century and Pratt mid-century.  Fordyce at least began at an earlier time and it may have been that the others took a cue from him.  This all does little but emphasise a late issue and continued printing.  Nor is there any north-south divide involved in any of these printings.  Southern English printers, in fact, do not seem to have adopted the piece at all.  Once more, there are frustrating complications in the matter of distribution.

There are Irish printings - from Birmingham and Brereton in Dublin and Haly in Cork.  In general, they all follow the first strain but, in any case, may be discounted in terms of immediate connection with the events of the Nile since none of these printers were operating at the time of the battle and are likely (it is never an absolute) to have copied English broadsides: if so, late in any case.  What is more, Haly has the following line:

For we must face the Russians on the banks of the Nile …
Logic would dictate an attachment to the Crimean war.  We have seen such an attachment in the case of The Kerry Recruit.40

Apart from anything else, though, it is a little strange that there is no showing from the early London printers.  In consequence, either those printings referred to here had, as it were, a direct line to events via oral transmission or they simply attached text to an event long past and a text that had long had currency.  It would never be safe to discount oral genesis.  Yet, where the second strain of printing described above is considered, how and why would Abercromby's name be attached in printings unless a particular occasion had offered itself?  Why, moreover, in late issue, attach the song to Abercromby at all at such a distance from the event itself?  The timing of issue of The Banks of the Nile contrasts clearly with that of The Battle … .  Was this just a continuance of the process whereby text had been used and re-used?  Abercromby's name, we know, in any case, disappeared from the public eye and mind.

Finally, then, because it is, in general, absolutely clear (as we saw outside this series in the case of Nelson's Monument) that text was frequently issued retrospectively - that is, beyond the obvious point immediately after and in celebration of or comment on any event - any attempt to establish printings as having been issued contemporaneous to an event is a tricky prospect.  We have but hints here: issues of The Battle … from 42 Long Lane in London, printing home of first Coster and then Evans, two printers known to us whose ancestry and antecedents stretch back into the eighteenth century, both of whom were printing in 1798.  Similarly, Hood Triumphant was from Evans, at 42 Long Lane.   The Jennings Water Lane address for Death of Abercrombie is also an early one.  It seems that he sometimes supplied Pitts with copy.  Clouter's dates - it should be born in mind that they are post-1798 - are suggestive also.  It might be that Clouter's text here predated Pitts and Catnach even if he printed after the event itself.

On the whole, though - rather unsatisfactorily - orthodoxy wins out and we arrive at a position where we might concede that text about the heroes of Aboukir Bay is likely to have been first issued well after the event and probably during the 1810s at the earliest, this tentative conclusion being the result of absence of proof to the contrary as much as it is through positive suggestion.  But if this is so and even if there were printings during the first decade of the century then we must also ask ourselves how, in at least one respect, this might affect the rather easy assumption that broadside printers were forerunners of our contemporary tabloid newspapers.  For if broadside printers did not print immediately on receiving the news of such and such an event but were consistently in retrospective mode then the red-hot quality of this news must have suffered.  On the other hand, The Banks … has a solid life during the course of the nineteenth century and does not appear to have depended for issue on any excited connection with the battle of the Nile itself.  Perhaps its nature as comment on an archetypal figure affected the timing and extent of issue.  It may, then, be better to reserve judgement on particular areas of broadside production.  During this series we have already encountered several signs of independent activity within the broader perspective of broadside printing - the quasi-religious tone of some text from the south-west of England (though there is some evidence of this tendency even in Catnach); the clear adaptation and absorption of material from both theatre entertainment and scribbledom found in the stock of Besley; the apparent north-south divide in printings of Fanny Blair; the lack of southern text where poaching is concerned; the extra dimension of Irish contributions; the focussed attention in cases of domestic murder with its own peculiar ambience.  In this latter respect, portrayals of events at Aboukir, despite the presence of The Banks … , might seem to contrast in their comparative laggardly issue when set alongside examples of execution ballads, which, as we have seen, often appeared before a trial or an execution and acted as daily or at least regular commentary.  And, as all too familiar puzzle, we are always left with the matter of how and when printers coexisted with and interacted with oral traditions.  Until more is recovered which details the day-to-day activities of printers, connections and explanations are likely to remain - frustratingly - a matter of ifs, buts and may-be-s.

Roly Brown - 12.10.05
Oradour sur Vayres, France,


Article MT172

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