Songs I to N

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Ireland Farewell

The reflections, hopes and fears of an emigrant sailing away from Ireland to escape the 'Great Hunger' (1845-1852). The last many saw of Ireland would have been Mizzen Head and the nearby Fastnet Rock with its lighthouse, near which this song was written.  Actually, almost as many emigrants came east to South Wales, especially Swansea, as went west to America, but that is seldom remembered.

 

Jerry the One-Legged Rigger

Old sailors spoke of "Jerry the one-legged rigger, who could be seen working aloft on the top-gallant yard, the empty leg of his trousers flapping in the wind" - we thought he deserved a song.  The Hafod is the part of Swansea near the river, where the copper smelters were sited.  Swansea was late in getting a floating dock - ships tied up at the riverbank (The Strand) and at low tide sat on the mud.  This prevented the big, fast clippers from using Swansea - the typical Swansea barque was a small, flat-bottomed vessel of about  500 tons, with a crew of 10 to 12 - and in these little ships they went round Cape Horn in their hundreds

Johnny Come Over The Hill

From a story told by Mr Walter Ace of Gower, born 1907.  As a child, he would watch from the school yard as the 'three musketeers' carried out their weekly ritual, falling over in the river outside the pub as they tried to fill their water barrels through a beery haze.  The horses knew the way home and would set off up the hill in order - the first horse turned into the first cottage, then the next, and finally the last one at the furthest home.

 

Last Watch

Written on the bridge of a sail-training ship going up the Bristol Channel, sailing through the night to avoid a storm. This would be the "Last Watch" of our voyage, and we were looking forward to a night in a proper bed. Andrew had already discovered that he's getting too old for working aloft, but he's really good at sailing an armchair.

 

Laying Up Silver

One of the main sources of copper ore for Swansea's smelters was Cuba.  Fortunes could be made there, in mining or sugar production, but yellow fever (yellow-jack) took so many lives that Le Cobre, the main copper producing area of Cuba, became known as the "Swansea Graveyard".  See also the song "Cobre Days".  "Laying up Silver" isn't based on any specific happening, but this sort of story must have been all too common in the days of sail.

 

Let Me Breathe

In 1917 Charles Mew, a tramway maintenance man from Swansea, was near Ypres in Flanders, serving as Lance Corporal with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.  His unit was waiting behind the lines to go forward and relieve another unit from the fighting trenches when the incident recounted here happened. After the war, Charles attended several regimental get-togethers, but never encountered anyone he had served with. Apparently no-one else survived.

 

Lifeboat Horses

I like to think that this is a true story (it certainly SHOULD be).  If not, it is at least a genuine legend from Mumbles, the fishing village at the western end of Swansea Bay, also known as Oystermouth.  The story originated before the building of the pier with its lifeboat station did away with the need for launches from a horse-drawn wagon.  The old lifeboat station with its slipway is still preserved, between Knab Rock and the pier.

 

Limestone Harvest

The south coast of Gower is made of spectacular limestone cliffs which in Victorian times provided a welcome second income to many local families.  The stone was burned in kilns to make fertiliser, used as chippings for surfacing roads and made into mortar and limewash for walls.  Devon, across the Bristol Channel, is mainly sandstone, and a lucrative trade sprang up in Gower limestone.  The boats used were mainly described technically as 'Hermaphrodite Brigs', which became 'Muffies' in the local dialect.

 

Made Of Wood

Copper ore can be a dangerous cargo.  If it shifts in the hold it can unbalance and capsize the ship.  Swansea ingenuity came up with the 'trunk', a wooden structure built into the hold to stabilize the cargo.  This is dismantled for the outward voyage with coal, because a cargo of coal takes up more room.  'Valipo' is the Swansea sailors' nickname for Valparaiso in Chile, where much of the copper ore was obtained.  It had limited dock facilities, and cargoes had to be ferried between ship and shore in small boats called 'lighters'.

 

Mary Baker

The importance of aggressive advertising, product quality and customer satisfaction!  This is Portsmouth, New Hampshire, across the Piscataqua River from the US Naval base.  Mary Baker ran her establishment in Water Street from 1897 to 1912, when the red-light district was cleaned up and renamed Marcy Street.

 

May No More

A re-write of the "Maggie May" story from Maggie's point of view.  There's always at least two sides to any story. Although the original song is most often associated with Liverpool, Stan Hugill does give a Swansea version. 'Sailortown' of course could be anywhere, and often was.

 

Navigator Lady

Sarah Jane Rees from South-West Wales was the first British woman to get a Board of Trade licence in her own right as an officer in the merchant navy. Born in 1839, she got her ticket in the 1860s, when women were expected to do no such thing. After leaving the sea, she set up a school for ambitious sailors, teaching them the navigational skills they'd need to qualify for their own officer tickets. She was prominent in other areas too, some of which must have seemed incongruous to the sailors she trained. She was a nonconformist lay preacher and a leading figure in the South Wales temperance movement. She won a chair for bardic poetry at the National Eisteddfodd, and edited and produced a Welsh language periodical for women that ran successfully for over 13 years. She died in 1916.