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The Wreck of the ‘Northfleet’

[ Roud 1174 ; Bodleian Roud 1174 ; trad.]

Harry Upton sang The Wreck of the ‘Northfleet‘ in a recording made by Mike Yates in 1974 that was included a year later on the Topic album of traditional songs from Sussex, Sussex Harvest, and in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs and music from the Mike Yates collection, Up in the North and Down in the South. An earlier recording, made by Peter Kennedy on 5 September 1963, was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23). Mike Yates noted in the Musical Tradition's booklet:

During the night of 22 January 1873 the sailing ship Northfleet was anchored in the English Channel, ready to sail to Australia. On board were some 379 persons, mostly railway workers, en route to build the Tasmanian railway. The vessel was also carrying a cargo of railway iron. At 10.30pm the Spanish steamship Murillo struck the Northfleet amidships at water level and within fifteen minutes 320 of the Northfleet's passengers were dead, including Captain Knowles who, revolver in hand, had tried to prevent his crew from panicking. Although it was a calm clear night the Murillo did not stop, and it was not until September 22 that the ship was arrested by the Admiralty who subsequently confiscated the vessel.

Harry Upton learnt the song forty years after the event, in 1914, when he acted as a tarboy for his father, a shepherd who worked on the South Downs overlooking the Channel. Johnny Doughty also had a version of this song, although sung to a different tune, which he had learnt as a boy from Brighton fishermen.

Johnny Doughty sang The Wreck of the ‘Northfleet’ in a recording made by Mike Yates in the singer's home in Brighton, Sussex, on 24 August 1976. In was included 1977 on his Topic CD of traditional songs from the Sussex coast, Round Rye Bay for More. Mike Yates noted:

The sailing ship Northfleet, at anchor in the English Channel on the evening of 22 January 1873, was struck amidships by the Spanish steamship Murillo with the resultant loss of 320 lives. At least two songs recall the event but the present one, so far as I know, is the only one to have entered the folksong tradition. The song presents a reasonably accurate account of the Northfleet's final hour and includes mention of Captain Knowles who died, revolver in hand, attempting to prevent his crew from panicking.

The English Country Blues Band gave “an unnervingly upbeat treatment on an old broadside ballad The Wreck of the ‘Northfleet’ ” in 1983 on their Rogue Records album Home and Deranged. This track was also included in 2002 on their anthology Unruly.

Nick Dow sang The Wreck of the ‘Northfleet’ on his 2018 album of unaccompanied traditional folk songs, Far and Wide. He noted:

Romney, Hythe and Dungeness are old stomping grounds of mine, any many sun-filled days were spent there by me as a child in the 1950's. The older residents used to talk about the resting place of the ‘Northfleet’ five miles out to sea. Add to that the remaining piece of Mulberry harbour still visible at low tide in St Mary's Bay, and there is an adventure playground in the imagination of a seven year old! Johnny Doughty sang most of this version to Mike Yates in the 1970's, and I was inspired to a bit of research, and found the sad story of Maria Taplin, one of the only child survivors of the wreck. When I saw her photograph, rightly or wrongly, I composed and added a verse for her. Despite the ‘Music Hall’ tune, the song has a dignity when Johnny Doughty sings it and that has been a lesson to me.

The Dovetail Trio sang The Wreck of the ‘Northfleet’ on their 2019 CD Bold Champions. Rosie Hood noted:

Based on the tragic true story of a sailing ship. Harry Upton was recorded singing The Wreck of the Northfleet to Mike Yates in 1974. There were only 59 survivors of the 379 people on board after Northfleet was struck by steamship Murillo on 22 January 1873.


Johnny Doughty sings The Wreck of the ‘Northfleet’ The Dovetail Trio sing The Wreck of the ‘Northfleet’

Come listen all ye feeling people
While this sad story I relate;
It’s about a vessel called the Northfleet
Which met with such an awful fate.
Five hundred souls she had aboard her,
Lay anchored there, off Dungeness.
Bound for Australia was the vessel
They’d bid farewell with fond caress.

Come listen all you feeling people
With dreadful news I do relate
An emigrant ship, which was the Northfleet
At last has met a wrecked fate
An emigrant ship, bound for Australia
Laid anchored off at Dungeness?
Bound for Australia was this vessel
To bid farewell, with fond caress

Chorus (after each verse):
God help the orphans and the widows
And comfort them, where they may be
May God above us all preserve us
From the dangers of the sea

It was a big and foreign vessel
Came drifting with the channel tide,
Bore down upon the helpless Northfleet
And crashed into her ‘timbered side.
Nor did she stop to give assistance
Or repair the damage she had made,
While everyone aboard the Northfleet
Went down upon their knees and prayed.

A foreign steamer so it happened
Fast-sailing with the Channel tide
Came down upon this anchored vessel
And crashed within her timber sides
Away it went, this cruel steamer
Did not stop to see what wreck it made
'Mid human cries of shame and pity
Nor stopped to lend them helping aid

God bless those widows and those orphans
Comfort them where e’er they be.
May God in Heaven above protect them
From all the perils of the sea.

The Captain said, “Now to the lifeboats;
Stand back you men, the women first.
I’ll shoot the first that disobeys me.”
They did not heed but madly rushed.
The Captain fired, his shot was fatal,
And one poor fellow’s life was slain,
While everyone aboard the Northfleet
Went down upon their knees and prayed.

Who can describe the fight and terror
On board a sinking ship at sea?
The women screamed and strong men trembled
It was a sight of misery
“Launch out the boats”, the Captain shouted
“The women first, Stand back the men”
They heeded not, but manly rush-ed
Threatening the boats to overwhelm

The Captain he could see the danger
Although he tried to avoid the rush
“I'll shoot the first that disobeys me”
Some reckless ones at last did rush
The Captain fired, his shot was fatal
And one poor wretch laid lifeless there
The men stood back upon the vessel
And looked around in sad despair

The Captain sent down for his first mate
And bade him try and save his life,
And gave into his trustful keeping
His young but newly-wedded wife.
“No, let me stay with you, dear husband.”
“No, no, my wife, that cannot be.”
She stayed aboard the sinking vessel,
With him went to eternity.

Now when this vessel fast was sinking
An' each one longed to save his life
This gallant Captain stood embracing
His new and lately married wife,
“Oh let me die, with you, my husband”
“Oh no, dear wife, that cannot be”
“Take care of her,” he told his boatsmen
“While your poor Captain's drowned at sea”


An emigrant ship bound for Australia
Led upwards of five hundred men
Scarce ninety souls were saved from drowning
God help their children and their wives
Now many an eye there will be weeping
An aching heart both far and near
A silent prayer for those departed
And shed for them a feeling tear