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The Sailor's Songbag
A collection of songs assembled in 1778

The Sailor's Songbag is a collection of songs put together by an American prisoner of war who was incarcerated in Forton Prison near Portsmouth in about 1778.  It has been named and analysed by American folklorist George Carey.1  It was probably compiled by Timothy Connor, a privateersman captured by HMS Terrible and taken to Forton where he arrived in June 1777.  (The rest of this article assumes that the songs were collected by Connor.)  Since the collection dates from just before the Napoleonic era during which many English folksongs are said to have arisen, it should be subjected to further analysis now that we have online digitised catalogues of such songs.

First, a word about Connor's time at Forton.  Connor himself reported that they were harshly treated, and they "had nothing to eat but boiled cabbage" the day they arrived.  As for escape, the local people really hated the American rebels.  Mind you, this hatred could be related to the fact that the locals earned five pounds for taking up an American who attempted to make his escape; but they obtained only half as much for securing a French prisoner.  Despite these hardships, the inmates were allowed to write letters, keep diaries and journals and purchase books.  They also became friends with many of the guards resulting in perks such as local newspapers.  Perhaps these may give us clues as to how Connor recorded and even obtained the songs.

The collection consists of fifty-seven songs, each one getting comments from Carey, mainly about the occurrence of the song both before and after 1778.  He often expresses views on whether Connor has obtained the words of a broadside or from an oral source, largely by the accuracy of his handwriting.  Several of the songs are titled beginning with the phrase 'A New Song', often with nothing else other than the number of the song in the collection.  Other cryptic titles include those beginning with 'A Love Song', 'A Sea Song', or 'A Maiden's Lamentation'.  Even those which Connor graced with a title were better known by another following the welter of oral and broadside versions in the 19th and 20th centuries.  These include Young Nancy of London ('Nancy of Yarmouth' or 'Swansea Town'), In Woodstock Town ('Died for love' or 'A Brisk Young Lover'), A New Song No.38 ('The Golden Glove'), and Rich Merchant's Daughter ('The Silk Merchant's Daughter'). 

The table below is a list of mostly familiar songs also collected in the first revival and occurring in 19th century broadsides.  The title of the song in each case is the common one, rather than that used by Connor.  The "Roud No." number indicates a song's allocation in the Folk Song Index.2  "Entries" gives the total number of entries in the Index, while "Oral" indicates the number noted by collectors in the first revival, and "BS" indicates the number of broadside versions by different printers mainly in the British Isles.  All numbers are approximate.  The difference between the number of entries and the other number is largely due to the renewed interest, brought about by the post-war revival, including many audio recordings.

Common TitleRoud No.EntriesBSOral
The Baffled Knight111271521
Died for Love6025720106
The Golden Glove1412849160
Nancy of Yarmouth4071081923
Miller of Dee5031064413
The Silk Merchant's Daughter5521474725
Fair Maid's in Bedlam578311113
The Storm949107734
Cupid the Pretty Ploughboy986501627
Death and the Lady103175487
No, my Love not I1403713515
Whistle daughter Whistle15705806
Low Down in the Broom164453253
The Alderman's Daughter25333028

It is important at this point to draw attention to dates.  Connor drew up his collection about 1778, before the Napoleonic wars which were the time of most folk song creation, as has already been pointed out.  The 19th century growth in broadside production arose mainly out of technical advances, but printers had not only songs going back to the 17th century, but also songs generated in the wars. 

The Baffled Knight (Blow you winds hi-ho).  A Child ballad in which a womaniser gets his tables turned by the object of his affections.  The earliest known version was in the early 17th century.3  It was followed by versions pre-dating the present collection in all of which the miscreant was a knight.  (The first known instance of its' being called 'The Baffled Knight' was in 1725.)4  The versions subsequent to this collection tended to favour the shepherd, especially 19th century broadside versions.  Connor called this 'The Song' No 28, whose first line was "There was a bold Shepheard kept sheep upon a hill".  After all, in those days shepherds were more numerous than knights!

Died for Love may be better known to readers by its chorus line 'There is a tavern in the town'.  It first made an appearance as 'The Irish boy' in the late 18th century just before Connor wrote down the words.  The Edwardian collectors obtained many versions.

The Golden Glove, whilst only moderately popular in the post-war revival, it was much more so historically.  William Higgott in Derbyshire entered it into his manuscript in 1779, and about the same time, a chapbook by Tewkesbury printer Samuel Harward contained a version.  Carey suggests that Connor got it from a printed source.

Lisbon has been popular in the post-war revival and is seen by many people as typical of the Napoleonic "Nancy & William's Parting" or "lad bids farewell to his sweetheart" song of which there were many.  However, oral versions were found by Edwardian collectors.  'Lisbon' has been widely seen as arising from the Napoleonic Wars, which of course postdate this collection.  Could it be the splendid tune that caused it to catch on?  However, seen from this instance, another interpretation is that it is a universal theme which presumably was set in the American War of Independence.5

Death and the Lady has been equally popular in the post-war revival.  It first occurred in a Dicey broadside in the mid-18th century.  Chappell has information about possible earlier versions.6

The Cuckoo's Nest. It is possible that Connor could have obtained the song from The Entertaining Companion or Merry Songster's Delight published in 1766.  In view of the popularity of this song in the post-war revival, the number of historical versions is a disappointment.  Carey suggests that Connor got it from a printed source.

The Storm.  Nearly all the 19th century broadside printers issued a version.  Despite this, only three oral versions were collected in the first revival, one of them sung by Henry Burstow, the most prolific of singers

Fair Maid's in bedlam. There is a songster by Dicey of about 1755 which has the first printed copy.  There followed a few chapbooks and broadsides, mainly from Scotland and Newcastle.  Among the few collected oral versions, Baring Gould was the first with a version in 1891, but Carey suggests that Connor got it from a printed source.

Whistle Daughter Whistle. Interestingly the song has no known broadside versions, but many oral versions, mostly from the United States.  It has been very popular in the post-war revival.  Carey suggests that Connor got it from an oral source.

And then there are a number of songs which are popular in broadsides only, oral versions being very rare.  Many of the songs in this group appeared in 18th century songsters, some as far back as the 17th century.  Despite this last, perhaps these may be regarded as some of "transient" pop songs of the late 18th century, which did not catch on with 19th century singers, despite some of them appearing in great numbers in 19th century broadsides.  (we need to remember that the singers who were collected in the first revival learnt their songs in their youth, which for many of them meant the middle of the 1800s.)  The broadsides listed in the following table are overwhelmingly from the British Isles.

TitleRoud No.BS
Rambling Beauty5631
North of America5965
The Faithful Lovers10561
The Swimming lady20355
I wish the wars were all over20369
Celia's Complaint912514
The Terrible privateer93814
How hard is the fate93787
The Poor Man's wish for a wife93828
Women & Wine938512
The Husband's Complaint93936
Colin Stole My Heart Away939520
The Charms of Jemmy93966
How Stands the Glass Around939734
American War94013
Shady Willow157793
You gentlemen of England1852638
One or two songs are worthy of note.

Colin Stole My Heart Away.  This song appeared in an 18th century songster and a prodigious number of 19th century broadsides.  Only Sabine Baring Gould came across a singer who knew it, and he did not note it.

How Stands the Glass Around? Several 18th and 19th century prints of this song are extant.  Chappell quotes General Wolfe as having sung it in 1729, and that the words were included in The Songster's Companion of 1775.  Carey suggests that Connor got it from a printed source.

You Gentlemen of England.  All the main broadside printers issued a copy, starting in the late 18th century with either Evans in London or Swindells in Manchester.  Many 19th century books such as Chappell had it, but it was not picked up by first revival singers.

The remainder of the songs in this collection (24) have not been found elsewhere.


The theory that most of our folk songs originated in the Napoleonic wars is supported by these findings.  Whereas how Connor came by his songs has not been answered, those songs which can be recognised (mainly in the first table) were generated either many years before Connor, or about the same time.


1. George G Carey, A Sailor's Songbag Amherst, Mass.  University of Massachusetts Press:1976

2. Roud Folksong Index: ; for access, see https://www.vwml.org/

3. Ravenscroft, J Deuteromelia (1609) No.  22

4. A Collection of Old Ballads (1725) 3 pp.178-186

5. see Douglas, Malcolm Classic English Folk Songs London EFDSS: 2003, pp 95-96

6. Chappell, W, Popular Music of the Olden time (1859) Dover reprint pp.  164-168

Peter Wood - 27.6.21


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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