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Songs & ditties


Being an island continent has always shaped Australia’s history. Our indigenous people came down by sea from the north and lived here for thousands of years before that extraordinarily skilled navigator, Captain James Cook mapped the coastlines – and hoisted up the Union Jack for the British Empire. Ever since, the sea has been a vital part of our nation and identity and this is all the more strange considering that for all of the nineteenth century the majority of Australians lived away from the coast, in the bush.

Our colonial story starts with the arrival of the eleven ships of the First Fleet, transporting hapless souls to serve time in the reluctant penal settlement of Botany Bay. Convict ships eventually transported some 185,000 men and women to our shores. Ships also brought optimistic free settlers and later, even more optimistic gold seekers, then came the waves of immigrants as the giant sail and steam ships sailed off with our famed wool, beef, timber and wheat and returned with even more new settlers. Whalers, and seal hunters worked our coast, and fishing fleets trawled the sea’s rich harvest. Our once mighty rivers continued our maritime story as mighty riverboats sailed up as far inland as Bourke and then, loaded with giant bales of wool, back down to the coastal dockyards. In the twentieth century our harbours echoed to the sound of ships loading black coal and other minerals. Ships also transported our soldiers to and from wars in New Zealand, South Africa, Europe, the Pacific and Asia. Australia is intrinsically tied to the sea.

Sailors are the world’s great travelers and it is for this reason their tradition is full of story songs that have also traveled. Australia grew up in the golden age of sailing ships when sleek, powerful clipper ships ploughed the oceans on the Britain to Australia run. Some of the world’s most famous ships like the Cutty Sark and Marco Polo serviced the Australian ports.

The sailor was often portrayed in a romanticised fashion – a ‘roving blade’ with a ‘girl in every port’- but, in reality, it was a difficult life. Conditions on board ship were uncomfortably cramped, food was often scarce or inedible, hours were long and, if the captain and mate were ‘hard men’, it could be unbearable. There was also an ever-present danger of drowning, and many early sailors met a watery grave.

There are various types of sailor songs or songs associated with the sea. Shanties, maritime work songs are the best known and many were used on the Australian run. In 2007 I discovered a rare collection of such shanties, taken down, including the musical notation, from a whaler and sealer on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, in 1923. You can see this collection at http://warrenfahey.com/ccarey.htm 

The older sea songs fascinate me, especially those with intricate stories that fairly smack of the salty yarns favoured by sailors. Tall stories are represented in yarns like ‘The Wonderful Crocodile’, shipboard life is shown through ‘According to the Act’ and legendary characters in the two songs about Paddy West and his ‘Academy’.


This unusual sea song comes from the mariner, Ben Bright. Bright had lived in Australia on and off and eventually retired here in 1973. The song appears in Stan Hugill’s Shanties of the Seven Seas as a pumping song, however, Bright’s version is a forebitter. The song tells of an obviously rotten voyage aboard a badly commanded ship and adds a resolve to avoid such ships in the future. The seventh and eighth verses were not from Bright but from verses I have been singing so long I haven’t the foggiest where they originated. Such is the life of a song.

Ben Bright sings ‘The Handy Barque The Campanero’.

This song doesn’t seem to have been collected from any other singer and it is also interesting because of its reference to steam. I didn’t think the song was complete so I wrote verse four and the last verse to round out the story. Some of the song also appears to have been borrowed from a sea song called ‘Away, Susannah’. Ben Bright introduced the song by saying, “There was a fair amount of singing went on in the sailing ships. Once you got settled down in a ship you got to know each other pretty good. Fellas’d tell stories of their experiences about shanghai-ing or boarding house masters like Tommy Moore, y’know. Or maybe somebody would have an accordion or a mouth organ and you’d hear songs in every language under the sun, and in broken English. I remember a fella called Peterson, a Swede, used to sing a song about Paddy West’s Academy’.

Warren Fahey sings ‘The Handy Barque The Campanero’

The pioneer collectors Norm O’Connor and Bob Michell recorded this very fine ballad from Catherine Peatey, Melbourne, 1959. Mrs Peatey had spent her early life in the Warrnambool and Leongatha districts in southern Victoria. Most of her songs she learnt from her father, writing down the songs in a manuscript book, which she kept for that purpose.  The incident of a young girl going to sea disguised as a sailor, sometimes to seek her true love or simply for adventure was not uncommon in traditional ballads. Although the lass in this particular song is noted as ‘Rebecca Young’, the most famous of these sailor girls was named Jane Thornton, who, reputedly, after serving in the Royal Navy, secured a Naval Pension, courtesy of the endorsement of Queen Victoria.

Catherine Peatey/O’Connor. National Library ORAL TRC2539/6; ORAL TRC2539/16

Mrs Catherine Peatey sings ‘The Female Rambling Sailor’

Warren Fahey (vocals and concertina) sings ‘The Female Rambling Sailor’ with Marcus Holden (cittern, viola) and Garry Steel (piano, bass)

Here is another different song of the ‘rambling sailor’ – the absence of women onboard ships filled the sailors with bravado when ashore. Many the mistake was made.

Sally Sloane sings ‘The Rambling Sailor. Recorded by John Meredith. NLA.

The next song commences by stating that a ‘sailor’s life is a lonely life’ which, one suspects, is a cover for their remorse at deceiving so many young girls. In this song the young girl is clearly devastated by her abandonment and goes forth to find her sailor lover. When she is told he has drowned (possibly sailors protecting each other) she runs her own boat into the rocks and perishes ‘for love’. This favourite song has an obscure connection with another popular piece sometimes called ‘Died For Love’ (from which the song ‘There Is A Tavern In The Town’ descended).

Warren Fahey sings ‘A Sailor’s Life’.

Warren Fahey (vocals and concertina) sings ‘Paddy West’

Paddy West.

Another more widely known song about Paddy West, the infamous proprietor of the ‘instant training course’ for would-be sailors, and, like its predecessor, sung in the first person. This one goes through a complex series of comic manoeuvres until he is ‘qualified’. Stan Hugill, in Shanties and Sailor’s Songs (Herbert Jenkins 1969), points to Paddy West being a real person. ‘He lived, so old-timers say, in Dennison Street, or Great Howard Street, Liverpool, although one old seaman seems to think he had his boarding house on Old London Road.’ Old traditions tend to stick and for well over one-hundred years untrained or useless sailors were often referred to as ‘Paddy Westers’

Bung Your Eye.

Countless songs relate tales of the sexual misadventures of sailors whilst in port.

This ribald tale comes from Back Country or the Cheerful Adventures of a bush parson in the eighties. J W Eisdell. 1936, and I have localised it add Sydney’s salty flavour. The song is known in several versions including ‘The Basket of Oysters’. Whilst it’s usual for sailors to return to a port and find they had fathered a child during his last visit, this song seeks to remedy the situation by passing the child back to the bewildered sailor.

Warren Fahey (vocals and concertina) sings ‘Bungle Rye’



Sydney is a city built on a harbour, possibly the world’s most beautiful harbour. Visitors are usually amazed that they can sail right into the city’s heart and stare up at the great ‘coat hanger’ of a harbour bridge, across to the Sydney Opera House with its evocative sails and then back to the CBD with its towering buildings and hubbub.

The close proximity of city life and harbour life come together at the Circular Quay where ferries dart in and out taking passengers up and down the harbour’s tributaries. The harbour, with its many ports and islands, has inspired poets, songwriters and storytellers and continues to contribute to our folklore.


The citizens of Sydney were fascinated by Bondi as a salt water bathing destination. While ocean pool swimming, with neck to knee bathing attire, was the norm there were alsosome hardy souls who braved the waves and after the establishment of the Life Savingservice the idea of sea swimming became incredibly popular. This song is typical of the popular songs written around the turn of the 19th century.
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This song was published in the Manly Daily, a large daily newspaper that served the north shore of Sydney. It must be remembered that this newspaper was prior to the establishment of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the north shore residents relied on local news availability. View Words



A song toasting the eastern southern beach of the same name. The songwriter appears to have transposed Maroubra to Hawaii complete with with swaying hula girls.
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The Lad on the Man-O’-War

Imperial Songster 85
approx 1905

words and music by Alan M. Rattray and L. L. Howarde
a popular pantomime number

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Emigration Bound

ARGUS ship’s newsletter

1862 March – June
Barque ‘Colonial Empire’ sailing London to Sydney
tune: Old Virginny

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On Sleep

ARGUS ship’s newsletter

1862 March – June
Barque ‘Colonial Empire’ sailing London to Sydney

Nature requires five
Custom gives seven

Laziness takes nine
And wickedness eleven

Our Dirty Second Floor

Tune: Nelly Gray
Note: this song, a parody, appears to be relative of Maggie May

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The Maid Onboard


A series of handwritten ship’s journals 1850s

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The Fisherman’s Daughter

M2834 –

1879 sea trip diaries
Note: song roughly hand-written nostalgic song typical of the era

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Outward Bound

March 1959 – Journal of the Shiplovers’ Assoc.
This song comes from the memoirs of Walter Warren (born 1858)
and he learnt it during a voyage from London to New Zealand in 1874

TUNE: Homeward Bound

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The Stokers

Sea Breeze 1959 August quotes this ditty from the steam ship era.

The Captain on the bridge above thinks he owns the show

‘Taint he, ’tis the stokers that make the ship to go,
‘Tis the grimy, greasy stokers lugging at the skids.
And only getting shillings while the captain he gets quids.

Haul the Bowline

Sea Breeze 1958

Part of a ditty sung on exiting Sydney 1882

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Blow The Man


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Whaler’s Life

Anon 1866 contributed to the Australian Journal by J D of Mount Alexander, Victoria.

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From Capt John Williams (born 1896) who had it from his father.

Anchors’ Weighed
The tears fall gently from his eye
When last we parted on the shore
And from her lips came many a sigh
To think that I should see her no more

Capstan Shanty

As sung in Melbourne and above reference

Call the hands to man the capstan
See the cable runs down clear
And we’ll spread our wings for England
As to England’s shores we steer

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