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The Fireship

[ Roud 4841 ; Bodleian Roud 4841 ; Mudcat 46778 ; trad.]

Cyril Tawney sang The Fireship in 1964 on the Topic anthology of sea songs and shanties, Farewell Nancy, and in 1992 on his Neptune Tapes cassette of “more songs of seafarers and the fairer sex”, In Every Port. The latter track was also included in 2003 on his anthology Nautical Tawney. A.L. Lloyd commented in the Topic album’s sleeve notes:

Occupational hazards of seafaring were numerous, including the clinical consequences of encounters with sailortown ladies. Innumerable ballads tell of such encounters, using the same stock of metaphors—mainyards, open gangways, rigging on fire, etc. The Fireship is a gnarled and knobbly member of this large family, rarely preserved in print. Ratcliffe Highway, in Stepney, was perhaps the most notorious of London riverside thoroughfares.

Stan Hugill sang The Fireship in 1993 on his Veteran Tapes cassette Sailing Days.

Louis Killen learned The Fireship from the singing of Cyril Tawney and sang it on his 1993 CD A Bonny Bunch. He laconically notes:

The Fireship views the sailor’s dilemma more with humour than consternation.

Hughie Jones sang The Fireship in 1999 on his Fellside CD Seascape. He noted:

[…] A much, much older song about the girls is The Fireship, dating back to the 17th century. Once again sailor Jack is seduced into spending his money, later emerging from the encounter considerably worse off in more ways than one!

John Bowden and Sheafknot sang The Fireship in 2015 on her and Vic Shepherd’s Hallamshire Traditions CD Still Waters. They noted:

This euphemistic description of the hazards facing a love-lorn sailor was recorded many years ago by Cyril Tawney on the album Farewell Nancy, but it’s not heard very often nowadays. Cyril called it “a gnarled and knobbly member” of a large family of songs describing the “clinical consequences of encounters with sailortown ladies”—which just about sums it up! When John taught Modern Languages he frequently had to visit schools to persuade pupils of the advantages of learning a foreign language but he never thought of advising them to learn Dutch so they could hail a passing lady of the night as the hero of this song does!

The Exmouth Shanty Man sang The Fireship in 2022 on their WildGoose album Tall Ships and Tavern Tales. They noted:

Stan Hugill says that this originated as a 17th century English ballad, but was often sung at the pumps. The Weavers cleaned it up and had a 1950s hit with The Roving Kind.


John Bowden and Sheafknot sing The Fireship

As Jack as a-walking Point Beach up and down
He saw pretty Nancy from merry Portsmouth Town.
As soon as he spied her most beautiful face
He hoisted his tops’l and to her gave chase.

Chorus (after each verse):
T’me riggin gray!
Come rattle my riggin down!
Come rattle my riggin down Ratcliffe Highway!

He hailed her in Dutch and the signal she knew,
He hoisted his tops’l and for her hove to.
Jack lowered his jolly boat, and pulled along side,
And he found madam’s gangway both open and wide!

Jack entered her cabin, and swore, “Damn her eyes!”
She was nothing but a fireship rigged out in disguise!
Set fire to Jack’s rigging, likewise to his hull,
And up to the hospital Jack had to skull.

Set fire to Jack’s rigging, likewise to his hull,
And up to the hospital Jack has to skull,
With his helm hard to starboard as he sailed along,
And his mess-mates cried after him, “Your mainyard is sprung!”

Now, Jack’s back in England in merry Portsmouth at last.
And he lies on the lower deck amongst the low-class.
He lies on his hammock, and he cries out, “O, Lord!
Wasn’t that a stiff breeze when I sprung my main yard?”