logo Enthusiasms No 88
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The Bold Privateer
(Roud 1000)

Until the mid-nineteenth century, a nation at war issued commissions to many armed merchant ships, referred to as letters of marque.  This meant they could attack foreign vessels and take them as prizes.  Captured ships were subject to condemnation and sale under prize law, with the proceeds divided by percentage between the privateer's sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew.  This song is about a common theme in folk songs, that of a young sailor saying farewell to his sweetheart as he goes away to war.  In this song, he obviously prefers a privateer to a Royal Navy ship.  An 'A' text of the song is given below, collected by Frank Kidson from Yorkshire.1

Now for the much rarer 'B' text, collected by John Broadwood before 1843.2  This dwells very much on the realities of war and the attractiveness of the privateer to young men, rather than the dark reason hinted at in verse 3 of the 'A' text.  Certainly, the man of this version was proud to be a privateersman, and swore he would see the war out, whatever the benefits of staying ashore.  Part of the attraction was obviously that of prize money, which was more certain than in the Royal Navy, but the final verse of the 'B' version reveals a more laudable aim of his joining a privateer, that of leaving his sweetheart his prize mone.  Fortunately there is a modern recording of this version.3 There are two possibilities for the earliest broadside version.  John Catnach has one, which dates it between 1813 and 1838.  The other is by Robert Walker of Norwich, whose life and business have been analysed in detail, with the outcome of 1815-1818 as the date.4  They are very different texts, but there is a remarkable concordance between the Walker print and the early oral version collected by John Broadwood.  Catnach's text was repeated throughout the 19th century by eminent printers all over England and beyond.  Evidence from the New England barks Atlantic and Pacific, Baring Gould's Devon oral versions collected at the end of the century, and subsequent Edwardian oral versions from the rest of the West Country indicate that it was Catnach's text which caught on.  Why Walker and Broadwood's singer were different is open to question.  Not only was Baring Gould aware of the Broadwood text, but Harriet Mason gave it verbatim as part of her 1909 book.5

The tunes may be a guide to the differences between the two versions.  Baring Gould.  Gardiner, Hammond, Sharp got ten versions from the West Country, Collinson, Kidson, and Henry got one each from the south coast, Yorkshire, and Northern Ireland respectively, all from the first revival.  There have been two versions from New England ships in the Victorian period, and nine versions from the United States, mainly during the 20th century.  Apart from three of the versions collected by Baring Gould in the Dartmoor area, no two tunes are the same, exactly what you'd expect from the singers having got it from a broadside.  I'd go so far as to say that the Broadwood version has the most haunting tune in the English canon (and it has some fierce competitors), and yet the tunes sung by first revival singers were mostly jaunty, quite unsuited to the theme of the song.  As if to rectify this, during the postwar revival the song has been given a more stately tune by Phil Cunningham which has been recorded by Kate Rusby and others.6

Having dismissed tunes as being the reason for the difference between A and B versions, let us turn to the texts.  There are two candidates for the first version, Catnach and Walker.  With reference to the diagram below, they are both of four verses: both verses 1 have the same theme but different language; In verse 2 they both name the man as "Jemmy", but otherwise as verse 1; in verse 3, Catnach states the reason for the man's intentions are to escape the two brothers, but Walker does not mention this (neither does Broadwood's version); Walker's verse 4's theme is that of Broadwood's verse 5, stating the altruistic reason of leaving his sweetheart his prize money, but Catnach does not mention this.
Our anchor is a peak my love, our ship is under weigh
Our boats they do lay waiting, I can no longer stay
Our boats they do lay waiting, and I way must steer
To ship myself on board of an English Privateer

Jemmy Oh Jemmy do not tell me so
You fill my heart with sorrow, with sorrow, grief, and woe     
You fill my heart with sorrow, I tremble and I fear
That you should be slain in a bold privateer.

Oh Nancy oh Nancy for me to think upon
How many have been slain since the war first begun
In every engagement as dangers are brought near,
They have lost their sweet lives in a bold privateer.

There are prizes to be taken in proud Spain and France
And Polly that is on the shore will get share of the same
But when I do return will go home unto my dear,
And then I will bid adieu to a bold privateer."
Fare you well my dearest Polly, since you and I must part,
The raging of the seas my dear, I pledge to you my heart;
Our ship she lies a-waiting, So fare thee well, my dear,
For I'm just going on board of a Bold Privateer.
She said my dear Jemmy I hope you will forbear
And do not leave your Polly in grief and despair
You'd better stay at home with the girl you love so dear
Than to venture your sweet life on a Bold Privateer.
You know my dear Polly, your friends they do me slight,
Besides, you have two brothers, would take away my life.
From them I then must wander, myself to get me clear
So I am just going on board of a Bold Privateer.
And when the wars are over, if Heaven spares my life
Then back I will return again to my sweetheart and our wife
And soon I will get married to my charming Polly dear,
And forever bid adieu to the Bold Privateer.

On the face of it, therefore, Walker may be seen as the predecessor of the Broadwood version, and Catnach that of every other version.  But consider this.  One of the printer was first, and the other made changes.  Which is the more likely?  Either Catnach made the story more realistic, or Walker made it more romantic.  The popularity of Catnach's version by other broadside printers showed how 19th century values counted, but why did Broadwood's singer prefer the altruistic version, assuming he had access to both?  And why did he or she alter the words?  Polly/Molly is her name in most versions, Walker has Nancy, Broadwood's singer has no name.  The fullest oral version with seven verses is the version sent in to the Northern Constitution in 1933 which has a strong similarity to the Broadwood version.  It does not mention the two brothers, and the final verse gives the altruistic reason for his leaving her.  In fact, of the Broadwood twenty lines, twelve are shared completely with the Irish version.  Oh, and it changes her name to Ellen, a practice repeated in some American versions.

Given that the versions we know about may be a "random tip of the iceberg" we may ask the following questions:

1. Was Walker or Catnach the first?
2. Why the change?
3. Why is Broadwood the only survivor of the B text?
4. Why does NI version has so much in common with the B text?

Answers on a postcard (email) please.

Peter Wood - 5.5.21


1.  Kidson, Traditional Tunes (1891) p.101
2.  Broadwood, John Old English Songs (1843) pp.14-15
3.  Anlgicana 2002 CD by Eliza Carthy track 7; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLu7Bp_dJSA
4.  Brown, Roly Mustrad Article 217 ; pers.com
5.  Mason, Harriett Mason, Nursery Rhymes & Country Songs p.53
6.  McCusker, John 2008 album Goodnight Ginger track 7;   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgKS7cpjdYQ


When I produced the paper above, I was unaware of George and Nancy’s Parting, a broadside published by Burbage and Stretton of Nottingham (Harding B12 (140)).  I am grateful to Martin Graebe for pointing this out, and Steve Gardham for discovering it.  This song has the destined ship as a ‘man of war’ rather than a privateer, but the broadside contains many phrases which occur in the Walker broadside and the Broadwood version.  (It has to be said that the Burbage song is a ‘one-off’, being altogether more thoughtful than those more flamboyant songs The British Man of War (Roud 372) and On Board a man of war (Roud 662)).  The date range for this broadside given by the Bodleian is 1797 to 1807, which places it before the other three versions.  (It was followed by Jennings’ William and Nancy’s Parting with a completely different text, which was repeated by several eminent printers.)

The question is ‘where did Catnach get his text?’  He got from the Burbage text the idea of the two brothers who were out to get the man, but omits a reference to ‘prizes from France and proud Spain’, surely the whole point of enlisting in a privateer?  This means that a ‘man of war’ took prizes which was adhered to by Walker and Broadwood’s singer, but was dropped by Catnach and those who copied him.  And he did not include either the verse about ‘hazards’ or ‘dangers’.  On the other hand, he introduced ‘Jemmy’ which Walker took up.

So, how did Broadwood’s singer come across his song?  Textual analysis is enough to eliminate both the Catnach and Walker broadsides as a source.  It seems most unlikely that he got it from the Burbage one, given the geography and time distances.  It seems that another broadside that has not been collected by Harding et. al., but was seen by Broadwood’s singer formed the link between the singer and the Burbage text.  If we knew more about Broadwood’s singers, it might help.

Peter Wood, 15.6.21


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK
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