> Mike Waterson > Songs > The Man-o’-War

The Press Gang / The Man-o’-War / On Board a Man-of-War

[ Roud 662 ; Master title: The Press Gang II ; Ballad Index RcTPrGan ; VWML RoudFS/S158437 ; Wiltshire 358 ; Mudcat 27046 , 168566 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl sang The Press Gang in 1966 on his Topic album Manchester Angel and in a live recording made in Chicago in November 1982 on his 1990 Cooking Vinyl anthology Black and White.

George Deacon sang The Pressgang in 1973 on his and Marion Ross’ Transatlantic album Sweet William’s Ghost. The album’s liner notes commented:

Collected from Winterton in Norfolk this song explains the cruelty and lies of the system by which crews were assembled. It is strange that the great British maritime tradition was founded on such a system.

Roy Palmer printed The Press-Gang in his 1973 book of “sea songs and ballads and prose passages illustrating life on the lower deck in Nelson’s Navy”, The Valiant Sailor. Roy Harris sang it in the same year on the accompanying Topic album of songs and ballads of Nelson’s Navy, The Valiant Sailor.

Mike Waterson sang this song as The Man-o’-War on his 1977 eponymous LP Mike Waterson; this track was also included on the Topic sampler Round Cape Horn: Traditional Songs of Sailors, Ships and the Sea. A.L. Lloyd commented in the original album’s sleeve notes:

Rarer than a good song should be, this one. Sharp heard it, or three verses of it, in a Herefordshire workhouse (the workhouse was a great place to find singers in his day). Jack Moeran noted a fuller version at Winterton, Norfolk [VWML RoudFS/S158437] , and that’s the one Mike bases his performance on. Moeran’s singer was James Sutton, nicknamed “Old Larpin”, from whom the great Sam Larner learnt a boatload of songs. The tune belongs to that imposing family of heavy crotchet, double-stamp ending, hornpipe-like melodies such as the Irish march tune, The Peacock, already popular in the opening years of the nineteenth century. It’s the favourite kind of melody for a great many songs about sailors, beggars and robbers. Any connection?

Danny Spooner sang Aboard a Man-o-War on his 1986 album I Got This One From…. He commented:

One night when singing in Frank Traynor’s club I heard a strong Cockney voice singing along in the audience. The voice belonged to Tony Martin, known to his friends as Masher. Over the years we became good friends and sang together often. From Tony I got On Board a Man-o-War and I really enjoy singing it. Unfortunately I couldn’t get Tony to join in on this track.

Damien Barber and Mike Wilson learned On Board a Man-of-War from Mike Waterson’s album and recorded it in October 2008 for their CD Under the Influence.

Nick Hart sang The Press Gang in 2017 on his CD Nick Hart Sings Eight English Folk Songs. He noted:

Learned from the singing of Ewan MacColl, this song was collected from a singer called James Sutton in Winterton, Norfolk, by Ernest John Moeran. Moeran was a composer and this is one of a suite of six songs he set to piano accompaniment. I don’t normally go in for that sort of thing, but his arrangement is surprisingly inoffensive for the period.

This video shows Nick Hart live at 14 Bacon Street, London, in January 2017 with Tom Moore on fiddle:


Mike Waterson sings The Man-o’-War

As I rode up of a London street
A bold press gang I chanced to meet
Why they asked me if I’d join the fleet
On board of a man of war, boys

Why pray brother sailors and tell me true
What kind of usage they give you
That I may know before I go
On board of a man of war, boys

But when I got there to my surprise
All that they told me was shocking lies
And it’s there was a row, a bloody good row
On board of a man of war, boys

Oh the first thing they done why they took me in hand
They’ve lashed me with a tarry strand
Why they’ve whipped me till I couldn’t stand
On board of a man of war, boys

They hung me up by my two thumbs
And they’ve whipped me till the blood did run
And it’s that was the usage they gave me
On board of a man of war, boys

I was married and me wife’s name was Grace
’Twas her that I blame for this shocking affray
Because it was from her I run away
On board of a man of war, boys

But when I set me foot on shore
And I see the girls we all adore
Why I’ll never go to sea anymore
On board of a man of war, boys


Transcribed from the singing of Mike Waterson by Garry Gillard.