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The Stowaway

[ Roud 6341 ; Ballad Index GrMa051 ; Bodleian Roud 6341 ; trad.]

George Dunn of Quarry Bank, Staffordshire, sang The Stowaway to Roy Palmer on 29 June 1971. This recording was included in 2002 on Dunn’s Musical Traditions anthology Chainmaker. Rod Stradling noted in the accompanying booklet:

The Stowaway or Little Hero is known to have been in the repertoire of the music hall artiste, Alice Maydue (c.1870-?) and two versions were collected in Canada. It appeared in late 19th century broadsides and songsters, and the text was issued on ballad sheets by among others, W. Forth of Hull (printing c.1857-c.1899).

Michael Kilgarriff, in Sing Us One of the Old Songs (Oxford, 1998), says it was written by Arthur Matthison in 1881 and also gives ‘music by Michael Maybrick’— but a songster in the VWML says ‘composed by Stephen Adams’.

As with many of his songs, George Dunn learned this from his father, but one or the other of them must have got the end of the song somewhat awry, so that George’s last two verses are actually a compressed version of four originals.

[Below is] the second half of Forth’s broadside text.

Jon Wilks sang The Stowaway on his 2021 album Up the Cut. He noted:

Roy Palmer recorded the Staffordshire singer, George Dunn, singing this song on 29 June 1971—one of 14 sessions they did together over a period spanning five years.

I first heard The Stowaway on George Dunn, Chainmaker, a double-disc album produced by MusTrad in 2002. Rod Stradling’s notes tell us that this song was known to be in the repertoire of a music hall singer, Alice Maydue, and had been collected a couple of times in Canada, as well as being printed by a number of broadside sellers in the North of England. George Dunn learned it from his father, but his version was incomplete. The version I sing here was taken from a fuller set of lyrics found in the Bodleian Harding collection

That this song has been overlooked by other singers of traditional songs surprises me. It has a phenomenal melody with great, soaring top lines. Perhaps it’s the slightly mawkish sentiment in the lyrics that put them off. Either way, I found the tune difficult to ignore and it quickly became a bit of an ear-worm—one that I’ve found particularly difficult to shake. I hope you have the same issues.


George Dunn sings The Stowaway

From Liverpool across the Atlantic
A big ship was sailing o’er the deep,
The stars shining brightly above us
And the water beneath us asleep.
Not a bad-tempered mariner amongst us,
And a jollier crew never sailed;
The first mate a bit of a savage,
But good seaman that ever man hailed.

One day he comes up from below deck,
Grasping a lad by the arm,
A poor little ragged young urchin
That ought to have been with his ma.
“My step-father brought me on board, Sir,
When nobody else was on board,
And he hid me away down the stairs there,
For to keep me he could not afford.”

“And he told me the big ship would take me
To Halifax town, oh so far,
And said, ’Remember the Lord is your father,
Who lives where the good angels are’”.
“It’s a lie, it’s a lie, not your father,
But some of the big skulkers here,
Some soft-headed, milk-hearted sailor;
Come speak up, tell the truth, or die, you hear!”

Then the mate took a watch from his pocket
As though he’d been drawing a knife:
“If in five minutes’ time you don’t speak, lad,
Here’s a rope, and goodbye to your life.”
Three minutes had gone by all in silence
And the little lad ne’er spoke a word,
But he knelt on the deck down below there,
As ofttimes when going to rest.

Then softly came the words, “Our Father”
To “for ever and ever, Amen.”
Not for all the bright gold in the Indies
I would not have heard him again.
Then the mate with the tears fast a-falling
Lifted the lad from the floor:
“You have laid down your life for the truth, lad,
I believe you for now and ever more.”

Last four verses of Forth’s broadside text

Then that pair of blue eyes bright and winning.
Clear and shining with innocent youth,
Looks up at the Mates bushy eyebrows,
And says he, “Sir, I’ve told you the truth.”
Then the Mate pulled his watch from his pocket
Just as if he’d been drawing his knife,
If in ten minutes more you don’t tell, lad,
There’s the rope—and good bye to dear life”

Eight minutes went by in all silence,
Says the Mate then, “Speak lad, say your say.”
Hill eyes slowly filling with tear drops,
He faltering says, “May I pray?”
An the little chap kneels on the deck there,
And his hands he clasps on his breast,
As he must a’ done often at home, lads.
At night time when going to rest.

And soft came the first words “Our Father”,
Low and clear from that dear baby’s lips,
But low as they were, heard like trumpet,
By each true man aboard o’ that Ship.
Every word o’ that Prayer then he goes through,
To “for ever and ever. Amen.”
And for all the bright gold in the Indies,
I wouldn’t ha heard him agen.

Off his feet, was the lad sudden lifted,
And clasped to the mate’s rugged breast,
An his husky voice muttered, “God bless you.”
As his lips to his forehead he pressed.
“You believe me now,” then said the youngster.
“Believe you?” he kissed him once more,
“You’d have laid down your life for the truth, lad,
I believe you from now ever more.”