logo Enthusiasms No 77
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The Battle of Boulogne
another Nelson ballad

In the continuing exploration of material related to early printers of the nineteenth century as exmplified in the series currently appearing on this site and, more specifically, as a gloss to the Nelson story, issue of a piece concerning the 1801 battle of Boulogne provides an interesting dimension.  There are a number of printers of it who can be associated with successive periods in time.  No ballad copy (that is, as it can be found in the BodleianBallads on Line 2) can be firmly attached as a contemporary manifestation.  The question is an open one. 

The first of printers would appear to have been Samuel Harward in Cheltenham who died in 1809 – his copy of the piece is certainly 'early' and is entitled The Battle of Boulogne; Or, The Wounded Sailor's Lamentation.  Harward (1741-2? – 1809) had a varied, rather upwardly-mobile career in printing and with many of the accompanying other occupations such as acting as purveyor of patent medicines that are often associated with printers but all reference to him in, say, the English Short Title Catalogue places him in the late eighteenth century, ballads included.  The sole evidence for any Harward ballad in the nineteenth century is copy of Battle of Boulogne, issued from Cheltenham, that can be found in the Madden collection.  This at least indicates that he did not disdain street literature at this late stage in a successful career and does confine issue to a short period in time – but without coming close to the date of the battle.

Harward copy, in turn, is paralleled by issue from Robert Thornhill in Sleaford, whose title was The Sailor's Lamentation. A favourite song. Thornhill worked between 1791 and 1841 as printer, bookseller and bookbinder (BBTI ) and the Bodleian, in a manner attached to several of its stock of ballads, actually gives a bracketted (and, therefore, uncertain) possibility of a printing date for Thornhill's The Sailor's Lamentation as 'c.1801', the date of the battle itself.  It is not possible to be more precise at the moment.3

Angus, Catnach, Pitts and Crome did print the piece at an early time in the nineteenth century and there was more copy from Swindells, Russell, Birt, Fordyce and Harkness.  And, as in many ballad cases, there is need to take account of the appearance of Scottish printings as noted in the Roud index: the Randall imprint in Stirling (Charles printed between 1793 and 1813 and his widow, Mary, from 1813 to 1820 ... Charles was known for issuing chapbooks); and Morren in Edinburgh (printing between 1790 and 1822).  This Scottish input is a feature that keeps emerging in ballad study and deserves serious attention.

Both the Angus (Margaret) and Swindells (Alice) imprints do 'cover' the date of the battle and might, then, have offered a contemporary or near-contemporary view.  Margaret Angus printed between 1788 and 1825 and Alice Swindells between 1797 and 1825.  Copy from Crome (1792-1830) acted as 'cover' in the same way.  As yet it is not always possible to pinpoint items in his ballad activity but, judging by a predominant address on available copy and by the detail, it looks as if his career can be linked strongly with the 1810s and that it extended into the 1820s.

Pitts certainly printed copy from his first address (1802-1819) and, at a pinch, could have issued copy just after the battle (he also re-printed the piece after 1819).  Catnach did not begin printing ballads until 1813; Russell in 1814.  Other copy is even more clearly retrospective - and this has been found to be the case with several Nelson ballads.  Similarly, Death of Parker, a ballad that should have dated from 1797 and Parker's execution for his participation in the naval mutinies, poses similar questions and involves the Angus family.  Neither Death of Parker nor Battle of Boulogne is quite in the line of reviving long-established ballads such as Children in the Wood or Lord Bateman but are based on a particular event that, at worst, occurred in the near past.4

It should be noted that Angus copy had the title of The Battle of Boulogne and then the information that it was 'A new Song' and had been 'Compofed by the Wounded Tars at the Seige (sic) of BOULOGNE'.  This looks as if it is a printer's attempt to revive interest and suggests issue at an earlier date, perhaps around the time of the battle itself: a clue – no more.

Crome's title was THE Second of Auguft, as was that on copy from Russell (who printed 'August') and from Swindells.  Pitts, in one copy, employed the long 's' - like Crome and, indeed, Angus, in their respective issues.  Evidence suggests that this was not an infallible sign of age but a deliberate attempt by printers to give some sort of air of antiquity (a point followed up on in a forthcoming piece on the printer, Hurd, in Shaftesbury).  The tangle of individual whims is demonstrated.

Nonetheless, theballad appears to have taken but the one form.  Angus has a first stanza as follows:

One notes in this the break in the word 'proved' suggesting pronunciation that emphasises the '-ed'.

Copy as a whole continued with references to the commencement of action at 'eleven' at night, to 'ninety bright cannon' that were employed and to 'nine hundred seamen' killed.  However, there are the inevitable slight changes.  Thus, Thornhill had 'moor'd with chain' and one Pitts copy had 'moor'd and chain'd'.  Birt had 'moar'd and chain'd'.  Instead of nine hundred seamen, Crome reported that 'There many brave seamen did lie in their grave'.

The more startling difference is found in a Catnach copy:

Clearly, the date was wrong and this was corrected on other Catnach copy – this does indicate that he did issue copy at different times.  The 'incorrect' copy and one other both have the improbable header block of a bishop's mitre.  A third Catnach copy has a header of what looks like a tomb or an altar ...   Again the sometimes curious notions of printers is exposed.

Catnach, along with Pitts, had 'second day of August' (my italics) whereas other copy left out 'day'. 

Catnach, at any rate, ended his copy thus:

Pitts, making more sense, had 'peace and contentment to all British tars' ... Birt had 'And peace and content be to all British tars'.  The plea itself remained the same throughout copy

Thus, amongst all copy of the ballad, individual quirkiness amongst printers is displayed even as they printed together during a period that can be measured and when precedent was available.

In fact, the whole affair at Boulogne was hardly a battle.  The idea was to disperse Napoleon's fleet of flat-bottomed boats being assembled in Boulogne for an invasion of England by his armies.  Heightened attention was, in any case, being paid by the British Navy because of the overall threat of a water-borne invasion, and a Boulogne scheme was put together, urged on by Nelson, to bombard Napoleon's fleet of invasion ships.  Events unfolded in two different stages, the first early in August 1801 and the second ten days later.  The advantage during the first sally was with the British.  The town was bombarded and some French vessels sunk.  Reports were euphoric and Nelson is supposed to have said:

Unfortunately, on the second occasion, with a variety of misfortunes such as to a plan to attack at night that misfired, the British suffered losses.  Of the French, 'It is said that they were prepared for us, and have done some damage', at first estimated at around two hundred men.6

There was a third visit to Boulogne by a British fleet on 11th September that was inconclusive; and the combined ventures could be said to have represented something of a defeat for Nelson although the French never did invade.

The ballad at least gestures towards what was a setback to the prowess of the British navy and its 'gallant' hero so is slightly unusual in the Nelson pantheon.  It seems, in text, that the ballad concentrated on the second attack and, given the one or two slight differences in wording on various copy, the outcome becomes clear, as in copy from Pitts:

More happily, 'And you who relieve us the Lord will you bless'.

The piece stayed late in repertoire through Fordyce and, later still, Harkness; perhaps a sign of the enduring myth of Nelson's glamour and success and thus a good way to boost sales.  The piece also featured in Ashton's Real Sailor Songs in 1891 but this is hardly a sign of broadside longevity.  Ultimately, the ballad can be seen to be conventional in style and indeed, in the kind of reportage, with just that small frisson of doubt about the drift of the ballad and the reputation of Nelson though this aspect was hardly likely to have upset any hero-worship.7

Roly Brown - 8.7.16
Oradour sur Vayres



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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