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Big Steamers

[words Rudyard Kipling, music Peter Bellamy; notes on Big Steamers at the Kipling Society]

Big Steamers is a poem by Rudyard Kipling, first published in 1911 as one of his twenty-three poems written for C.R.L. Fletcher’s A School History of England. It appears in the last chapter of the book. It is intended for children, with the verses responding with facts and humour to their curiosity about the “big steamers” as the merchant ships are called.

The poem has been set to music by English composers Edward German and Edward Elgar. German’s setting for baritone voice with piano accompaniment was published in 1911. Elgar set the poem to music late in World War I, with the permission of Kipling, and it was published in The Teacher’s World, 19 June 1918. This was in response to a request from the Ministry of Food Control, that it would be sung in schools and bring to the attention of children the importance of merchant ships: at the time many ships had been lost to German U-boats and food rationing had just been introduced. The song was simple and with piano accompaniment, suitable for children

Peter Bellamy sang Big Steamers to his own music in 1989 on his last LP Rudyard Kipling Made Exceedingly Good Songs. He also sang it live at the Cockermouth Folk Club in January 1991; this concert was published in the same year on his Fellside cassette Songs an’ Rummy Conjurin’ Tricks. Another version from Paul Adams’ collection of miscellaneous Peter Bellamy tapes was included in 2018 on the Fellside CD reissue of The Maritime Suite. Peter Bellamy noted:

On the eve of the First World War, Kipling warns a complacent and vainglorious nation that a strong navy is essential to the survival of an island power. My tune owes somewhat to a version of the traditional ballad Henry Martin.

The Wilson Family sang Big Steamers in 1991 on their Harbourtown LP The Wilson Family Album. This video shows them at Alma Folk Club, Ripponden, in 2011:

Jon Boden sang Big Steamers as the 15 July 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

The Unthanks sang Big Steamers in 2012 on their CD Songs From the Shipyards.


Big Steamers

“Oh, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,
With England’s own coal, up and down the salt seas?”
“We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,
Your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples, and cheese.”

“And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers,
And where shall I write you when you are away?”
“We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver.
Address us at Hobart, Hong-kong, and Bombay.”

“But if anything happened to all you Big Steamers,
And suppose you was wrecked up and down the salt sea?”
“Why, then you’d have no coffee or bacon for breakfast,
And you’d have no muffins or toast for your tea.”

“Then I’ll pray for fine weather for all you Big Steamers
For little blue billows and breezes so soft.”
“Oh, billows and breezes don’t bother Big Steamers:
We’re iron below and steel-rigging aloft.”

“Then I’ll build a new lighthouse for all you Big Steamers,
With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through.”
“Oh, the Channel’s as bright as a ball-room already,
And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe.”

“Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers,
Oh, what can I do for your comfort and good?”
“Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,
That no one may stop us from bringing you food.

For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,
They are brought to you daily by All Us Big Steamers
And if any one hinders our coming you’ll starve!”