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A Ship to (Old) England Came

[ Roud 1424 ; Ballad Index RcasTOEC ; Mudcat 169435 ; trad.]

Walter Pardon sang A Ship to Old England Came at home in Knapton, Norfolk, on 11 May 1974, when he was recorded by Bill Leader and Peter Bellamy. This recording was published in 1975 on his Leader LP A Proper Sort and an alternative recording in 1998 on the Topic anthology My Ship Shall Sail the Ocean (The Voice of the People Series Vol. 2, Topic 1998), from which the lyrics below were taken, too.

Peter Bellamy recorded A Ship to England Came in 1975 for his eponymous album Peter Bellamy, accompanying himself on whistle. He noted:

Also from the singing of Walter Pardon, this fine Napoleonic-period song shows an unexpectedly humanitarian attitude towards the young cabin boy. As far as I know, Walter Pardon is the only informant of this unusual air and text.

And Martin Carthy sang A Ship to Old England Came on his 2004 Topic album Waiting for Angels. He noted:

Walter Pardon was a family friend and his truly vast repertoire is a real treasure house. His passion for his songs, that is to say what he considered to be their historical significance and what they meant to him personally, stood in the starkest possible contrast to his utterly understated approach to their singing. I relish the memory of the langour in his voice as he sings A Ship to Old England Came, one of those encounter-with-them-treacherous-French-seadogs songs which seem to abound in the general repertoire. And one of those archaic tunes which still sets my pulse going barmy.

Nick Hart sang A Ship to Old England Came in 2019 on his CD Nick Hart Sings Nine English Folk Songs. He noted:

Another little masterpiece from Walter Pardon. In the recording I learnt this from, the first verse is different from the others melodically, seeming to modulate down a tone before settling into the new key for the rest of the song. It seems to me that the most likely explanation for this is that Mr Pardon was settling into the song himself and that it was essentially unintentional. Martin Carthy recorded it on the album Waiting for Angels and he sings it as Pardon does on the recording. I’ve chosen to use the regular melody throughout. I’m not sure I’ve made the right decision. I know that no one else cares but these things keep me up at night.

Mara Carlyle sang A Ship to Old England Came in a 2021 video about Dover Castle in Kent. This is part of a video series Songs of England which explores traditional songs and their connections to historic places. It was commissioned by English Heritage and the Nest Collective.

Thom Ashworth sang A Ship to Old England Came on his 2022 download EP Gig Economy.


Peter Bellamy sings A Ship to Old England Came

There was a ship to Old England came,
Launched from the stocks unto the main.
Her sides were oak and her keel was box,
She’s a gallant ship launched from the stocks.

Launched from the stocks bound to the main.
Fifty big guns on her deck lay plain.
Beside five hundred brisk young men,
Who were picked and choosed by everyone.

We weighed our anchor to the bows,
Through the wide ocean we did plough.
As we were ploughing all on the deep,
Five French men-of-war we did meet.

It being late when we did meet,
Night drawing on; our lives were sweet.
We waited until the break of day;
Then we began the bloody fray.

Then up did speak our chief mate bold
Unto the little cabin boy:
“Go up aloft and see what you spy;
Come down again immediately.”

“I spy three ships coming from the east,
They’re bowling down, they make great haste.
These three ships’ names to you I mist let know.”
There was one the Oak and the other the Sloe,
The third that came was the Unity,
Which quickly made the Frenchmen flee.

Now, some said God had a hand is this.
Our little boy all danger missed,
Our little boy on the top mast high
Where powder and shot so thick did fly.