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Bonzer Words!: The True Cost Of Fish

Dermott Ryder tells of a song commemorating a great sea disaster.

Guided by several entertaining pre-song ramblers, I judge the story of Three Score and Ten to go like this. William Delf, a Grimsby fisherman, wrote and produced a broadside to raise funds for the families of the fishermen of Grimsby and Hull lost at sea during the great storm of February 8th and 9th 1889. According to anecdotal evidence—a singer in Doncaster told me in the autumn of 1967—the broadside contained the names of the eight ships lost, the names of the unfortunate fishermen and a poem in eight stanzas.

He hadn’t seen the broadside but he knew a chap who had. He didn’t know the names of the ships or of the fishermen either, nor was he familiar with the original poem but all was not lost because the oral tradition had come to the rescue. Late in the nineteen-fifties a retired sailor sang the song and somebody, my informant didn’t know who, liked the song and wrote down the words and started to sing it at folk clubs and sessions.

It caught the imagination of the duffel-coated intellectuals of a small but growing popular folk movement and became a part of the standard repertoire and travelled far and wide to bring the thrill of melodic seaborn danger to many who wouldn’t know a yardarm from a bull’s foot.

During its journey through the folk process, from the 1890s to the 1960s, the work lost six verses, gained one verse a tune and a chorus. When I acquired a version of the song, printed in a book rather than on a numbered stack of beer mats, I made a discovery. The new verse, the last, had a dating glitch. It starts: October night...in my presentation I have changed October to winter in the cause of historical accuracy. Other than this modification the words here are reasonably true to the version commonly used in Britain and in Australia from the nineteen sixties and through to the millennium.

Methinks I see a host of craft spreading their sails a-lee,
as down the Humber they do glide, all bound for the northern sea.

Methinks I see on each small craft the crew, with hearts so brave,
going out to earn their daily bread upon the restless wave.

And it’s three score and ten, boys and men, were lost from Grimsby town,
from Yarmouth down to Scarborough many hundreds more were drowned.

Our herring craft and trawlers, our fishing smacks as well,
alone they fight that bitter night and battle with the swell.

Methinks I see them yet again, as they leave the land behind,
casting their nets into the sea the fishing shoals to find.

Methinks I see them yet again and all a-board’s alright,
with their sails close reefed and their decks cleared up
and sidelights burning bright.

The winter’s night was such a sight as never seen before,
there were masts and spars and broken yards came floating to the shore.

There was many a heart of sorrow, there was many a heart so brave,
there was many a hearty fisher lad did find a water grave.

The Hull Times, 2nd of March 1889, reported that the gale of the 8th and 9th February had proven one of the most disastrous on record with many vessels listed as missing and with all hope now being abandoned for at least seven of them:

Sea Searcher—5 hands, John Witterington—11 hands, Eton—8 hands, British Workman—7 hands, Sir Frederick Roberts—5 hands, Kitten—5 hands, Harold—5 hands.

The Hull Times further reported that parts of the wreck from the Kitten had been picked up at sea and brought into port, and that the British Workman was seen to be reduced to a mere wreck by a heavy sea on the morning of the gale. It also sadly noted that many of the men lost leave wives and families and that great distress had come to the fishing communities. In an end note the prediction: ‘The total number of vessels lost will, it is feared, be near to 15 and between 70 and 80 lives of men and boys will be claimed by the sea.’ So, if you are visiting Yorkshire and buying a fish supper at Harry Ramsden’s, spare a thought for the true cost of fish.

© Dermott Ryder


Dermott writes for Bonzer magazine www.bonzer.org.au


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