> A.L. Lloyd > Songs > The Whale Catchers (The Twenty-Third of March)
> Trevor Lucas > Songs > The Twenty-Third of March
> Peter Bellamy > Songs > The Whale Catchers
> Martin Carthy > Songs > The Whale Catchers

The Whale Catchers / The Twenty-Third of March

[ Roud 3291 ; Ballad Index VWL100 ; trad.]

This song about the 1820-40 Davis Strait right whale fishing was sung under the title The Twenty-Third of March by A.L. Lloyd in 1957 on his and Ewan MacColl's Riverside album Thar She Blows! (reissued in the 1960s on the Washington label as Whaling Ballads). It was published in 1959 as The Whale Catchers in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, eds Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd, and recorded by Lloyd, accompanied by Alf Edwards on concertina, for his accompanying album, A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Like all tracks from this LP it was reissued in 2003 on the CD England & Her Traditional Songs. Lloyd wrote in the album's sleeve notes:

1725-1825 saw the rise and fall of the Greenland whale fishery. Hull was the busiest port, but many London ships sailed out of the Greenland Dock, Deptford. By the first quarter of the 19th century, the Greenland grounds were fished clean, so our song must belong to the period before 1825. Beyond that we know little of it, for no other version has come to light. W.P. Merrick noted it from Henry Hills (see A Sailor's Life). The curious fluctuations between major and minor are not uncommon in English folk melody.

Lloyd recorded this again in 1967 as The Twenty-Third of March for the album Leviathan! Ballads and Songs of the Whaling Trade, where he was accompanied by Alf Edwards, English concertina; Dave Swarbrick, fiddle; and Trevor Lucas and Martyn Wyndham-Read singing chorus. Lloyd commented in the album's sleeve notes:

As long ago as 1725, the dock at Deptford, in south-east London, was used as a whale depot by the South Sea Company, whose interest extended as far north as Spitzbergen. To this day it is called the Greenland Dock, and it is named in many good songs. We do not know how old this particular song is, which W.P. Merrick obtained from the Lodsworth, Sussex, farmer Henry Hills around 1900. It follows a familiar pattern of whaling songs: departure, hard times on the grounds, rowdy return. The old description of the whaleman: “head of iron and heart of gristle” well fits the anonymous characters of this piece, who can defy weather bitter enough to freeze off your finger-tips and toe-nails.

Peter Bellamy sang The Whale Catchers in 1974 on The First Folk Review Record. This track was included in 2001 on the Fellside CD reissue of Keep on Kipling. The original album's liner notes commented:

Taken from the version published in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, originally collected in 1900 by Percy Merrick from the singing of Henry Hills of Lodsworth, Sussex.

Martin Carthy recorded The Whale Catchers in 1986 for the Fellside anthology A Selection from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. This track was included in 2001 on The Carthy Chronicles. Carthy recorded this song again under the title Whalecatchers with Dave Swarbrick for their 2006 album Straws in the Wind. He commented in the album's sleeve notes:

Whaling quite rightly has no future nowadays and the spectacle of certain countries pulling strings and twisting arms to get around the current moratorium is infuriating and degrading to behold. That said, it has a past both harrowing and riveting. If the word “level” could ever apply to any ocean, then surely there was more level playing field a hundred and more years ago with human beings exploited at least as much as the whale. Humans were cheated right and left and more or less forced into further trips by horrifying double dealing if not bareface robbery. Assuming, that is, that they had not already paid with their lives. Our own view is that such things should never be forgotten. Hence the presence here of Whalecatchers. And it also has an extraordinarily beautiful tune collected in Sussex from Mr Henry Hills by the composer Mr Percy Merrick. The temptation to talk of “sustainability” in relation to these incredibly courageous men and their work should be resisted however: fields of operation were moved around as different fishing grounds were picked systematically as clean as possible. Nothing back then could possibly match the sheer scale of modern day hunting, and it's that industrial scale which so sharpens the focus nowadays. The idea of fingers and toes being frozen off as an occupational hazard was still very much alive among trawler lads working in the North Atlantic Fishing Fleets out of Hull - accompanied by a shrug - right up until the Cod Wars of the mid 1970s saw the beginning of the end of the fishing industry there.

Danny Spooner sang The Whale Catchers on his 2002 CD Launch Out on the Deep, and on his 2006 CD of songs of the whaling industry, The Great Leviathan. He commented in the first album's notes:

At six o'clock on those freezing London mornings, waiting to lock out of the Greenland Dock with a barge load of Baltic pine, I would often wonder what it must have been like for the old whalers who left from this dock in the 18th and 19th centuries. This song which I learned from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959), brief as it is, details the harshness of the Arctic whale fishery.

and in the second one's:

This song from the early days of British commercial whaling reminds us of the hardships associated with the Greenland Whale Fishery. The vessel probably set out from the Greenland Dock, which in 1763 was adapted for the whaling trade; it was 1,070 feet long and 500 feet wide, and at its peak supported 255 whaling ships.

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys sang Greenland Whale on their 2017 CD Pretty Peggy.

Compare to this the more graphic description of the actual chase in the song The Greenland Whale Fishery as sung by the Watersons on New Voices and by A.L. Lloyd on Leviathan! too.

Lyrics

A.L. Lloyd sings The Twenty-Third of March Martin Carthy sings The Whale Catchers

On the twenty-third of March, my boys,
We hoisted our topsail,
Crying, “Heaven above protect us
From the fierce and the icy gale.”
We never was downhearted
Nor let our courage fail,
But bore away up to Greenland
𝄆 For to catch the Greenland whale. 𝄇

On the twenty-third of March, my boys,
From England we set sail,
Crying, “Heaven above protect us
With a sweet and a pleasant gale.”
We never was downhearted, boys,
Nor let our courage fail,
For we bore off up to Greenland
𝄆 Looking out for Greenland whale. 𝄇

And when we come to Greenland
Where the bitter winds did blow,
We tacked about all in the north
Among the frost and snow.
Our finger tops was frozen off
And likewise our toe-nails,
As we crawled on the deck, my boys,
𝄆 Looking out for the Greenland whale. 𝄇

And when that we come to Greenland
Where the icy winds do blow,
We tacked about all in the north
All among the frost and snow.
Our finger-tips were frozen off
And likewise our toe-nails,
As we crawled on deck, my boys,
𝄆 Looking out for Greenland whale. 𝄇

And when we come in the Davis Street
Where the mountains flowed with snow,
We tacked about all in the north,
Till we heard the whalefish blow
And when we catch this whale, brave boys,
Homeward we will steer.
We'll make them valleys ring, my boys,
A-drinking of strong beer,
We'll make them lofty ale-houses
In London town to roar.
And when our money is all gone
To Greenland go for more, brave boys
To Greenland go for more.

And when that we come to Imez
Where the mountains flowed with snow,
We tacked about all in the north,
Till we see the whalefish blow
And when we catch that whale, my boys,
Then homeward we will steer.
We'll make those valleys ring, my boys,
All a-drinking of strong beer,
We'll make those lofty ale-houses
In London town to roar.
And when that our money is all gone
𝄆 To Greenland go for more. 𝄇

Martin Carthy sings Whalecatchers

On the twenty-third of March, my boys,
We hoisted our topsail,
Crying, “Heaven above protect us
With a sweet and a pleasant gale.”
We never was downhearted, boys,
Nor let our courage fail,
But bore away unto Greenland
𝄆 For to catch the Greenland whale. 𝄇

And when that we come to Greenland
Where the bitter winds did blow,
We tacked about all in the north
All among the frost and snow.
Our finger-tips were frozen off
Likewise were our toe-nails,
As we crawled on the deck, my boys,
𝄆 Looking out for Greenland whale. 𝄇

And when that we come to Imez
Where the mountains flowed with snow,
We tacked about all in the north,
Till we heard the whalefish blow
And when we catch this whale, my boys,
Homeward we will steer.
We'll make those valleys ring, my boys,
All a-drinking of strong beer,
We'll make those lofty ale-houses
In London town to roar.
And when our money is all gone
To Greenland go for more,
Oh, to Greenland go for more.

Acknowledgements

A.L. Lloyd's version is from the Leviathan! sleeve notes. Martin Carthy's variations transcribed by Garry Gillard, spurred on by José Antonio Torres Almodóvar from Madrid.