Tyne Folk

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Sea Shanties

The North Shields Connection

Before the 1830’s there is little evidence of shanties being sung at sea by European or American sailors. There are no shanties collected during the entire Eighteenth Century and few from previous centuries where songs of piracy and shipwreck seemed to dominate.

A few records exist of chants with simple refrains being used aboard Mediaeval vessels but not complete songs with story lines and choruses.

So, what happened to change this?

The centuries long Wars between the British, French, Spanish, Dutch and even the Americans came to an end in 1815.

Commerce With America after 1815

Commerce could thrive again, particularly across the Atlantic Ocean.

European sailors once again came into contact with their American counterparts and also with the men who loaded their ships with lumber, sugar, coffee, rum and particularly, cotton.

The men who did this loading were, almost exclusively, black and of African origin.

These men (stevedores and hoosiers) were known to never engage in a job of work without a song to accompany it. Songs they had learned from their forebears on the plantations. Songs which had their origins in West Africa.

Sailors heard this singing as their ships were being loaded. This would take weeks or even months. Sometimes the ship’s crew would even take part in the loading process – screwing the cotton into the ships hold by means of huge jack-screws.

In this way these songs from the land found their way to sea as work songs or shanties. Of course, the texts of the songs were altered to suit their new environment. Hence songs like ‘Blow the Man Down’ and ‘Roll the Old Chariot Along’ came to be sung by British and American sailors.

Technological Developments of Equipment

However, something else happened around this time to aid the process. The equipment used by the sailors aboard ship underwent a technological revolution!

Hauling on ropes to set and manage the sails was still as it had been for centuries but, slowly, winches were employed to ease this work.

The old see-saw mechanism pumps (needed to constantly keep the sea water out of the bilges) became modernized to include fly wheels (the Downton Pump). But the biggest change came in the mechanism for heaving up the heavy anchors.

For centuries the device used for this was the ‘spoke windlass’ (or wyndlas in Middle English) where handles attached to a horizontal barrel were turned to wind in the anchor cable. This type of mechanism, said to have been invented by Archimedes, is still employed to this day aboard Chinese Junks and Arab Dhows.

However, it soon became extinct during the 1830’s in Merchant ships.

A man from North Shields at the mouth of the River Tyne saw to that!

Invention of the Brake Windlass in North Shields

Brake windlass

In 1832 he invented and patented a new improved device called the Patent Brake Windlass at his iron works in Low Lights on the quayside.

The patent was granted on August 3rd 1832 to Thomas Storer Dobinson and his partner Benjamin Cowie Tyzack. For years they had been makers of ships anchors, chains and cables at their Tyne Chain Works.

The History of Tynemouth (1841) declares:
‘At Low Lights are extensive iron works, the property of Messrs B.C. Tyzack and T.S. Dobinson patentees of an improved windlass called Tyzack & Dobinson’s Patent Windlass. They are extensive government contractors for supplying Her Majesty’s Navy with anchors, chains and cables... Mr Dobinson was appointed Deputy High Admiral of the coast of Northumberland’.

Despite his high office, on May 12th 1851, Thomas was declared bankrupt at Her Majesty’s Court in Newcastle.

He died at Percy Banks, North Shields in 1865 in his 80th year.

Dobinson’s new device worked in a similar fashion to the see-saw pumps but was much larger with huge handles on both sides. It took several men on each side to operate it in a double-action movement.

From above head height to chest height in one movement, then downward to below knee height in the second.

The Heaving Shanty

This double ‘heave’ lent itself to the type of ‘chanty’ songs the sailors had learned from the stevedores at the jack-screws. A double refrain could be yelled out after simple lead lines from the ‘chanteyman’ (as the hoosiers called him).

Thus, a new type of heaving shanty was born with two refrain lines instead of the single line used in hauling shanties.

This was probably the ‘birth’ of shanty singing as we know it today.

Dobinson’s brake windlass (and its later counterpart the vertical barreled capstan) would allow shanty singing to develop into the style we know and love today with story lines and great choruses as in ‘Lowlands’, ‘Sally Brown’ and ‘Santiana’.

Stan Hugill said that ‘’when the last American whaling ship ‘Charles W Morgan’ was being hauled into port for the last time, with her crowd at the windlass roaring out ‘Santiana’, it is reported that many old timers on the quayside had tears in their eyes as they listened to the swelling chorus of this ancient work-song’’.

   Why do them yeller gals love me so
     Chorus:  Away, Santiana!
   Because I don’t tell ‘em all I know
     Chorus:  All along the plains of Mexico!

Jim Mageean

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