> Cyril Tawney > Songs > Cheering the Queen (On a British Submarine)
Cheering the Queen (On a British Submarine)
Cyril Tawney sang his song On a British Submarine in a recording made by Peter Kennedy at Cecil Sharp House in 1960 on the HMV album A Pinch of Salt: British Sea Songs Old and New.
He recorded it again as Cheering the Queen in 1972 for his Argo LP In Port. It is also on his Neptune cassette Sally Free and Easy (1989; reissued in 2003 on his Ada CDs Navy Cuts and The Song Goes On).
Cyril Tawney wrote on his now defunct own website about his song:
My first submarine was the “Trespasser”, a shuddering World War Two veteran dating from 1942. I joined her early in 1954 and we operated out of HMS “Dolphin”, the Submarine Headquarters at Gosport. The Queen had been crowned the previous year, and she and Prince Philip were at that period in the middle of a Commonwealth Tour. The Royal Yacht “Britannia” hadn’t been completed in time for the tour, but it was ready by the time the Royal couple reached Gibraltar on their way home. “Britannia” picked them up there and brought them back to England. For the voyage up the Channel the Admiralty had prepared a special welcome, consisting of a cavalcade of warships sailing on an opposite course to the Royal Yacht. The idea was that as each ship drew abreast of “Britannia” the ship’s company would give three cheers, Navy fashion. Now, on a surface ship this really looks good. By carefully arranging the men along the ship’s rails, the impression can be given at a distance that they’re all approximately the same height. Then, as their caps are raised above their heads and rotated three times as they cheer, observers see three flashes of white along the length of the ship and around the superstructure. In order to bring this impressive spectacle about, of course, the men have to be well-rehearsed in accordance with a single set of instructions.
And that’s where the first element of farce entered into things that day. The Admiralty, inflexible as ever, made every type of craft rehearse these instructions, including the submarines. Now, for safety reasons we weren’t allowed to line the casing of a moving submarine, instead we were crammed willy-nilly into the bridge structure, or what’s referred to loosely as the ‘conning tower’. On the little old “Trespasser”, believe it or not, there were 60 of us up there for the Cheering ceremony, all shapes and sizes, and with hardly enough room to get our arms up above our heads. We couldn’t have looked smart even if we’d wanted to!
Enter Mother Nature with the second element of farce. It was a warm sunny day, and I reckon we met “Britannia” somewhere off the Dorset coast, south of Lyme Bay, but I could be wrong. As we approached the Royal Yacht, all bunched up in the conning tower trying to look disciplined, we were set upon by a swarm of gnats or midges which stayed with us throughout the ceremony. Trying to carry out the cheering drill according to the book while attempting at the same time to fend off all those midges resulted in near-chaos. The diesel engines were all the time sucking air down into the submarine and when we went down below afterwards there were tens of thousands of dead insects right back as far as the engine room. There were several submarines in the cavalcade and, when we checked later, we found that each one had had her own cloud of midges—but evidently only the “Trespasser” had a songwriter aboard.
I didn’t rush away and write Cheering the Queen immediately after the event. It wasn’t until four years later, when a class for songs newly-composed in the folk style was introduced at the 1958 National Folk Festival at Cecil Sharp House in London that I set about giving an account in song of the 1954 incident, with the kind of minor embellishments that any matelot spinning a well-worn yarn would have added. For instance, at such a distance I’ve no idea if Prince Philip even noticed what was happening, let alone if he made any comment. And of course, we weren’t still waving at nightfall.
The song was very much a beginner’s piece, with plenty of ‘me boys’, or just ‘boys’ to fill out the scansion, and quite a bit of reaching for rhymes—‘gnats as big as bats’, and so on. However, it was a non-competitive festival and the song was sufficiently well-received for me to be invited back to Cecil Sharp House a few weeks later. They wanted me to sing the song for Princess Margaret, who was guest of honour at a special Ball to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Folk Song Society. I was still in the Navy, doing a course at HMS “Collingwood”, the Electrical School at Fareham, and I had to get special leave for the occasion. There were two men that night who weren’t wearing penguin suits, me and the late Kenneth Loveless, both in Naval uniform. The High Society writers, like William Hickey of the “Express” and Paul Tanfield of the “Mail”, had a field day. I still have the cuttings. I had a chat with the Princess, who asked me for a copy of the song, which I provided. About 35 years later HRH requested the newly-released Neptune recording and this was duly sent.
With Princess Margaret taking a personal interest it’s reasonable to assume that the song has to some extent circulated in Royal circles, especially as the “Daily Telegraph” for 28 June 1977, under the heading “Word that Cheers the Queen”, announced that:
Sailors taking part in the Royal Silver Jubilee Review of the Fleet have been given a special instruction—to cheer ‘Hooray’ instead of ‘Hurrah’. At the Coronation Fleet Review the Queen was cheered with a ‘Hurrah’, but this year she has asked that she should be given a ‘Hooray’ instead. Announcing the Queen’s preference, the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, added, “I am delighted. I personally feel that way myself.”
Maybe he’d heard Cheering the Queen too.
Cyril Tawney sings Cheering the Queen
It happened on a Summer’s day in nineteen fifty-four,
We went to greet Her Majesty a-comin’ from the Tour.
Chorus (repeated after each verse):
On a British submarine, on a British submarine,
When sixty solid sailors went cheering of the Queen.
Their Lordships said, “Now cheer, my boys, but mind you make it smart,
There’s nothing looks so ragged as the cheering from your heart.”
Well, when we saw the signal boys, it made our innards freeze
“On the order ’one’ you hold your hats at forty-five degrees.”
“At forty-five degrees”, my boys, that’s what their lordships said,
“On the order ’two’ you wave your hats three times around your head.”
“And when you go to shout, my boys, be careful what you say,
The word you use for cheerin’ is Hurrah, not Hooray.”
We sailed towards Britannia, boys, the finest ever seen,
But every man was standing like a petrified marine.
But when we reached the moment, boys, that every skipper dreads
A swarm of gnats as big as bats descended on our heads.
The boat was filled with wavin’ arms and the air was filled with cries
As every man cursed and fought to keep’ em from his eyes.
The Duke he scratched his head as he watched us slowly part
“That’s the first time I’ve seen sailor boys cheerin’ from their hearts.”
We waved our way across the bay till we were out of sight
We waved our way all through the day and on into the night.
Ah! the day we met the Queen, my boys, the day I won’t forget
If we hadn’t dived to ninety feet we’d all be wavin’ yet.