> Folk Music > Songs > Will Watch

Will Watch

[ Roud 1617 ; Ballad Index Fran018 ; Bodleian Roud 1617 ; Wiltshire 525 ; trad.]

Sam Larner of Winterton, Norfolk, sang Will Watch at home in 1958/59 in a recording made by Philip Donnellan for the BBC. This track was included in 1974 on his Topic album A Garland for Sam. Another recording made by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in 1958-60 was included in 2014 on his Musical Traditions anthology Cruising Round Yarmouth and in 2020 on the Musical Traditions sampler A Little Box of Delights. Rod Stradling noted:

This splendid piece was written, not by Dibdin—as might have been expected— but by Thomas Cory in 1806, and the wonderful tune by John Davy. This sounds very like that used by Harry Cox for The Squire and the Gypsy. Given that Sam was in his eighties when this was recorded, it seems quite extraordinary that his text scarcely differs, beyond a handful of unimportant words, from the published original.

Jon Wilks sang Will Watch on his 2023 album Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost. He noted:

Another from the singing of Sam Larner. Some resources say this was written by Thomas Cory and John Davy in 1806. Others say it was a traditional song. Versions of it can be found on broadsides in the Bodleian Library. Wherever it came from, it’s an incredibly concise tale with a huge tune—one of those that I’m surprised other people have overlooked. I’ve since found Will Watch: the Sequel, in which his wife dies [Roud V6814]. I’ll save that for the next album.


Sam Larner sings Will Watch

One morn when the wind from the northward blew keenly,
When sullen roared the big waves on the main,
A famed smuggler, Will Watch, kissed his Susan serenely
Took helm, and to sea boldly steered out again.
Will had promised his Sue that this trip, if well ended,
Should coil up his ropes, and he’d anchor on shore;
When his pockets were lined, why his life should be ended,
The laws he had broke he would never break more.

His sea-boat was trim, made her port, took her loading,
Then Will stood to sea, reached the offing, and cried,
“This night, if I’ve luck, furls the sails of my trading.
In dock I can lay – serve a friend or two besides.”
We lay to ’til night came on darksome and dreary
To crowd every sail then he piped up all hands;
But a signal soon spied – ’twas a prospect uncheerly,
’Twas a signal that warned him to beat from the land.

“The Philistians are out”, cries Will, “we’ll take no heed on’t,
Attacked, who’s the man that will flinch from his gun?
Should my head be blown off I shall ne’er feel the need on’t,
We’ll fight while we can; when we can’t, boys, we’ll run.”
Through the haze of the night a bright flash now appearing,
“Oh ho!” cried Will Watch, “the Philistians bear down.
Bear a hand, my tight lads, ere we think about sheering.
Our broadside poured in; should we swim, boys, or drown?”

“But should I be poppéd off, you, my mates left behind me,
Pay regard of my last words, see ’em kindly obeyed.
Let no stone mark the spot, and, my friends, do you mind me,
Near the beach with this grave where Will Watch should be laid.”
Poor Will’s yarn was spun up – for a bullet next minute
Laid him low on the deck and he never rose more.
The crew fought the brig while a shot remained in him,
Then sheered, and Will’s hulk to his Susan they bore.

In the dead of the night his last wish was complied with,
To few known his grave and to few known his end;
He was borne to the earth by the crew that he died with;
He’d the tears of his Susan, the prayers of his men.
Near his grave dash the billow, that wild low last billow,
Yon ash struck with lightning that marked his cold bed.
Will Watch, the bold smuggler, that famed lawless fellow –
Once feared, now forgot – sleep in peace with the dead.