Article MT235

The Weymouth Frigate

Truth and Fiction in a Broadside ballad

In July, 1915, the composer E J Moeran (1894 - 1950) was in the Norfolk coastal town of Winterton, collecting songs from one James Sutton.  Moeran must have been very happy to meet Mr Sutton, who gave him versions of The Captain's Apprentice, The Farmer's Son, The Press Gang, The Royal Charter and a previously uncollected song The Bold Richard.1
The Bold Richard

Come all my brisk young sea-men lads, that have a mind to enter
On board a Phoebus frigate your precious lives to venture,
On board a Phoebus frigate, she's Richard called by name,
And she's cruising with the Shannon all on the French main;
                                                        Singing What cheer O!

Now we'd not been sailing many leagues before we did espy
Three lofty sails to windward, they came bearing down so nigh;
But two of them were merchant-men came bowling from the west,
But the Conway was a frigate that did sail out of Brest.
                                                        Singing What cheer O!

Now we bore down upon them with high and lofty sails;
For broadside for broadside we soon made them prevail
Then he lashed his helm 'weather, not thinking he could fly;
When they found their ship was sinking for quarter they did cry.
                                                        Singing What cheer O!

Now we launched out our long-boats, and the others did likewise,
To save all those poor prisoners that ever we came nigh,
And those which we saved they vow and protest
We sunk the finest frigate that did sail out of Brest.
                                                        Singing What cheer O!

So come, all my brisk young fellows, now to Kingston we have got,
Let each of a hearty fellow drink out of a hearty pot;
For some unto their sweethearts and some unto their wives,
So we'll sing "Hallelujah" to all England, my brave boys.
                                                        Singing What cheer O!

What, I wonder, did Moeran make of this song?  'It seems possible,' he said, 'that The Bold Richard is an American sailor's song, which describes an adventure of Paul Jones's ship the Old Richard, but has been altered by British sailors.'2  We now know that the song is not based on an American one, but the song is still rather confusing.  What exactly is a 'Phoebus frigate'?  There is no Phoebus class of frigate in the Royal Navy and the name Phoebus cannot apply to the ship in question (although, as we shall see later, these was an HMS Phoebe), as we are told that the ship is called the Richard, a name unknown in navy records.  There were certainly several navy ships called HMS Shannon.  But was there ever a French ship with the unlikely name of Conway?  If, as the song suggests, the British frigate is fighting a French frigate then the action can be dated to 1815 at the latest, Britain having ceased fighting with France following the Battle of Waterloo.  Clearly some of the narrative is missing in the song and we can only conclude that The 'Bold Richard' is a slightly garbled version of a once longer song.

We know how important the broadside press was in the transmission of songs.  Some songs appeared on numerous sheets and have been collected on many occasions.  Other songs have only been seen on one or two sheets.  Some songs, collected from singers, have never been seen on broadsides, although the texts suggest a broadside origin.  And we may say that The Bold Richard is the product of the broadside press.  In fact, it has much in common with a song The Weymouth Frigate that is only known from its appearance in one chapbook.
The Weymouth Frigate

Come all you brave seamen that have a mind to enter
On board the Weymouth Frigate along with Captain Spencer;
On board the Weymouth Frigate she is called by name,
And she cruizes (sic) the sea's of Old England's fame.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

It was in October the twenty-second day,
That we from Plymouth Sound boys sailed away,
And Captain William Crosby was our Commodore,
And we steered our course all along the French shore.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

The very next morning it being fair and clear,
O we espied three sail boys belonging to Monsieur,
And two of them were merchantmen, and bound for the west,
And the other was a frigate that was just sail'd from Brest.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

Then a signal was made for us to give chase,
Which made all our hearts boys for to rejoice;
We took those two merchantmen before their own eyes,
And the frigate she bore down thinking to make us her Prize.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

Then a broadside from her we now did receive,
But two for one we quickly did them give;
Till they hauled down their white rag (sic) immediately,
"Our ship she is sinking for quarter we do cry."
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

Then we hoisted out our longboat immediately,
To save as many prisoners as we could come nigh,
But many bitter sighs unto us they did afford,
For they swam in the seas like the fish overboard.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

Now when we along side of our ship did come,
We sounded up our trumpets and beat up our drums,
The prisoners we saved unto us did protest,
That we sunk the finest frigate ever sail'd out of Brest.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

But a ship from St Maloes (sic) was fitted out then,
With sixty four guns and five hundred men,
She laid us on board in a very heavy sea,
And carried both our head and our bowsprit away.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

Our head and our bowsprit being quite gone,
A succour (sic) for our foremast boys we had none;
But we swang (sic) fore and aft upon our main stay,
Which carried both our main and our mizenmast away.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

Our Magazine of powder being blown up then,
Which kill'd our master and thirty of our men;
But I have cruiz'd the seas this thirty years and more,
But I never in my life such misfortunes saw before.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

Early the next morning it being fair and bright,
We got up three jurymasts by thence it was light,
We got up three jurymasts with a sweet and pleasant gale,
And we shifted our course for the old head of Kinsdale.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

Now we betwixt two anchors in harbour doth swim,
Let's all drink a good health unto George our king;
And we will keep a merry Christmas here brave boys,
And we will sing a quellieux to those Irish dear joys.
                                        Now sing what cheer O.

The Weymouth Frigate was included in a chapbook, 'A Collection of New Songs', published by G Angus of Newcastle.3  Also included in the chapbook were the songs William at Eve (titled William at Eve's Garland on page 3 of the chapbook), Say, Bonny Lass, Rat tat too, Still from Care and thinking free, and Loose every Sail to the Breeze.  A front page woodcut shows a woman using her right hand to hold a basked on her head.  The chapbook text made extensive use of the long 's', but this has been replaced by the short form in this transcription.  We know that G Angus was printing in Newcastle from 1808 until 1825 and so the chapbook must date from sometime during this period.  We also know that a Thomas Angus was also printing in Newcastle (dates unknown), as was M Angus & Son during the period 1778 - 1808.  The fact that M Angus stopped printing in 1808, the same year that G Angus began printing, suggests a connection between the two printers, who could have been father and son.  If that is the case, then The Weymouth Frigate may have been in the father's stock and, if so, could predate the year 1808.  The use of the long 's' would appear to confirm a date earlier than 1808, but, in fact such usage did occur until about 1810, when the long 's' was finally replaced by the standard 's'.  So, we may conclude by saying that the chapbook can be dated to the period 1808 - 1825, but that the song, The Weymouth Frigate, may predate this period.

Reading through the song text we can deduce that the Weymouth, a frigate under the control of Captain Spencer, left Plymouth Sound on October the twenty-second (of an unknown year).  Also on board was Captain William Crosby, the Commodore.  'The very next morning', presumably October the twenty-third, the Weymouth met three French ships out of Brest, two merchantmen and a frigate, and captured the merchantmen and sank the frigate.  But, the Weymouth was then attacked by a French ship from St Malo, 'With sixty four guns and five hundred men', and was badly damaged.  At one point the Weymouth's magazine blew up, 'Which kill'd our master and thirty of our men'.  However, the Weymouth managed to escape and, at Christmas time, sought refuge in the harbour at Kinsdale in County Cork.

When I showed the text of The Weymouth Frigate to Roy Palmer, Roy quickly spotted the similarity to James Sutton's song The Bold Richard and added that it was 'obviously the same song'.  Steve Roud, however, was slightly more cautious; 'The similarity to The Bold Richard was very well spotted by Roy, and there's no doubt that the two songs are closely related, and on balance I would say that they are the 'same' song, and I will give them both the same Roud number.4  But I reckon it looks as if the writer of one has deliberately modified the other rather than the differences being the normal wear and tear of traditional transmission.'5  Thinking about this, I have to say that I'm not too sure about the The Bold Richard being 'deliberately modified'.  There is, after all, a hundred or so years between the printing of The Weymouth Frigate by G Angus and Moeran's encounter with James Sutton, and a lot can happen in a hundred years.  Many of the lines in The Bold Richard are almost identical to, or clearly based upon, lines in The Weymouth Frigate, while some words could be simple corruptions.  Take, for example, the word 'Phoebus' which could be a corruption of the word 'famous', which is what Moeran suggested, or even, for that matter, a corruption of the word 'Weymouth'.

But, is The Weymouth Frigate based upon a real or an imaginary scenario?  There were certainly several boats named Weymouth in the British navy. These include:

1.  HMS Weymouth (1645), a 14-gun ship, formerly the Royalist HMS Cavendish.  She was captured in 1645 by the Parliamentarians, and was sold in 1662.

2.  HMS Weymouth (1693), a 48-gun fourth rate, launched in 1693.  She was rebuilt in 1718 and was broken up in 1732.

3.  HMS Weymouth (1736), a 60-gun fourth rate launched in 1736 and wrecked in 1772.

4.  HMS Weymouth (1752), a 60-gun fourth rate launched in 1752 and broken up in 1772.

5.  HMS Weymouth (1795), a 56-gun fourth rate, previously the East Indiaman Earl Mansfield.  She was purchased on the stocks and launched in 1795.  She was converted into a storeship in 1798 and rearmed with 26 guns.  She was wrecked in 1800.

6.  HMS Weymouth (1804), a 56-gun fifth rate, previously the East Indiaman Wellesley.  She was purchased in 1804, and by 1811 had been converted into a 16-gun storeship.  She was used as a convict ship from 1828 and was sold in 1865.

Royal Navy ships were 'rated' depending on their size and number of guns that were carried.  We can, I think, dismiss the first ship mentioned above; this would have been too small to have been a frigate, whereas the other ships (rated fourth and fifth) were of frigate size.  We could also, possibly, dismiss the second ship, which was sailing between the years 1693 - 1732, because England was not at war with France during this period, although, of course, there were always French privateers sailing the high seas, whether we were at war or not!  Officially we were at war with France during the years 1756 - 63, 1793 - 1802 and 1803 - 1815.

But, were any of these four ships captained by either a Captain Spencer or a Captain William Crosby?  Well, there was at least one William Crosby, a Commander, who died in 1808 and who had retired some time prior to the Napoleonic campaign of 1793 - 1815.  There were also several officers called Spencer.  During the Napoleonic campaign there were at least six possible contenders: Commander Christopher Spencer (Rtd); Vice-Admiral Sir Frederick Spencer; Earl Spencer, KG (1798 - 1857); Captain Lord Henry John Spencer Churchill (1797 - 1840); Captain Sir Richard Spencer, KCH (1776 - 1830); Captain the Hon Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer (1791 - 1830); and Captain Samuel Spencer (died 1795).  But, I can find no trace of any of these people having been captain of HMS Weymouth during their careers.  And, of course, if the events mentioned in the song did actually happen, then they could just as likely have happened prior to the period of the Napoleonic Wars.

If the song is based on fact, and Commander William Crosby was once the Captain of HMS Weymouth, then we must be looking at an event that occurred in the second half of the 18th century, but before 1793.  As to Captain Spencer, the only possible one from the above list would seem to be Captain Samuel Spencer, who died in 1795.  At the present we have no record of the song being printed prior to 1808 and so this must remain speculation.

Is there, I wonder, any reason why the song should have appeared in print sometime between the years 1808 and 1825?  Well, there could have been a reason, because, in 1805, HMS Weymouth (number 6 in the list above) did come to the notice of the public in a dramatic, though sad, manner.

Early in that year a fleet of East Indiamen, ships belonging to the East Indies Company, set out from Portsmouth to China, stopping first in Bombay.  It was winter, the weather was inclement, and one of the boats, the Earl of Abergavenny, hit the Shambles bank, just off Portland Bill.  Although the crew managed to refloat the vessel, it later sank as it was trying to make its way to the safety of Weymouth.  Over 250 crew and passengers drowned, including the captain, John Wordsworth, brother of the poet William Wordsworth.  HMS Weymouth was the naval ship sent to accompany the convoy on its journey to the Far East.6  Such an event must have been widely reported and well-known to the general public.  So did the Angus family decide to cash in on this event by printing (or reprinting) the song about the Weymouth?  True, the ship was captained by a Captain Draper, the commodore of the convoy, and not by a Captain Spencer.  But, by chance there was a Captain Spencer in 1805 who was also well-known to the public because of his exploits fighting the French navy.  This was Captain Richard Spencer, later to become Captain Sir Richard Spencer, KCH.

Richard Spencer was born in London's docklands in 1779.  In 1793 he joined HMS Arethusa as captain's servant.  The following year he joined the 74-gun HMS Leviathan and took part in the 3rd Battle of Ushant.  On 23 June, 1794 he was wounded in action.  In 1795 he became a midshipman, moving to HMS Hornet, a 16-gun sloop.  In 1799, Spencer became a lieutenant and was commissioned into HMS Queen Charlotte, a 100-gun ship of the line.  However, she blew up in an accident, before he could join her.  Spencer was captured by the French in Genoa in 1803 but escaped in a Danish vessel, the Enighiden, before being rescued by the 36 gun frigate Phoebe.  He was then transferred to HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship.  Spencer missed the battle of Trafalgar, he was sailing elsewhere at the time, but the following year he was intercepting vessels running sulphur from Sicily to Toulon - the sulphur being used by the French to make gunpowder.  He took part in the Battle of Maida, before being transferred to the East Indies, where he fought against the Dutch.  Spencer retired from the navy in 1815 and took his family to Albany in Western Australia.  In 1833 he was appointed Government Resident.  He died in 1839.7  As a slight footnote, it may be mentioned that Richard Spencer was at one time Captain of HMS Blanche, the ship mentioned in the song The Tars of the Blanche.  Coincidentially, this was also a song printed in another chapbook issued by G Angus of Newcastle.8

Spencer was clearly the stuff of heroes and would have been well-known to many people.  He has been described as 'intrepid to the point of foolhardiness, and a hero to his men'.  So, I again ask the question, did the Angus family think that Richard Spencer's name would help sell their chapbook and were they being canny in only using the general name 'Captain Spencer' in the song?  When it comes to history, fact and fiction can easily become blurred.  Is the song The Weymouth Frigate based on events that took place in the latter half of the 18th century, or is it a fiction, the product of some unknown broadside writer's mind?  If it was an earlier song, did the Angus family later reissue it in the hope that their readers would think that the song was about the hero, Captain Richard Spencer?  Perhaps this essay will stimulate others to look deeper into the mystery.  Who knows, one day we might actually find the truth and be able 'to sing a quellieux' in celebration, whatever that is!


My thanks to both Roy Palmer, Steve Roud and Malcolm Taylor for help in the preparation of this article.

Mike Yates - 18.2.10


Additional Note

When I finished the article I suggested that it might encourage others to 'look deeper into the mystery'.  Well, Roly Brown was certainly quick off the mark.  Roly kindly sent me a chronological listing of the Angus Family of Newcastle printers. And, as he pointed out, this listing does not exactly tally with some of my own dates.  Here is the listing: It will be seen that the Angus family began printing in 1774, so, if The Weymouth Frigate was reprinted from earlier stock, then it could well be a late 18th century song.  We can now say that M Angus was Mrs Margaret Angus, so was George Angus (the G Angus of my article) her son, or even her grandson?  The most important difference in this listing is that George Angus is only shown as a printer in his own right from 1813 onwards, although M Angus & Son were printing during the period 1800 - 1808.  My own research for G Angus, gleaned many years ago from Newcastle Trade Directories, showed a G Angus printing from 1808 onwards.  As I have seen this Directory entry I am still happy to believe that George was printing his own chapbooks at this date.

I said that I believed that the long 's' had disappeared from English printing by about 1810.  I am not an expert on the history of printing, but a publication date for 1813 does seem to be late for this usage, although I could well be wrong here.  So, at the moment, I am sticking with my guns, and with the earlier (ie the 1808 date) for George Angus.  Once again, though, may I invite readers to contribute to this article, and may I thank Roly for his interest.

Mike Yates - 21.2.10

Article MT235

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