> Peter Bellamy > Songs > On Board a “98”

On Board a Ninety-Eight

[ Roud 1461 ; Master title: On Board a Ninety-Eight ; Ballad Index Pea1012 ; VWML RVW2/3/76 ; Bodleian Roud 1461 ; DT BOARD98 ; Mudcat 61881 ; words trad., music Peter Bellamy]

Roy Harris sang On Board a Ninety-Eight in 1973 on the album The Valiant Sailor: Songs & Ballads of Nelson’s Navy which was produced to accompany Roy Palmer’s book The Valiant Sailor (Cambridge University Press, 1973). Palmer also commented in the album’s liner notes:

A “ninety-eight” was, of course, a ship of 98 guns. This pithy autobiography has everything: press-gang, storm, battle, bloodshed, followed by retirement to Greenwich Hospital. It is a true-blue song, though its happy ending was by no means always true to life. The text is from a London broadside printed by Ryle; the tune is from Kidson’s A Garland of English Folk Songs (1928).

Peter Bellamy used another text collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in Norfolk, and set it to a tune of his own. He recorded it as On Board a “98” for both of his 1975 albums, Peter Bellamy and Tell It Like It Was. A live recording from the Cockermouth Folk Club in January 1991 was released in the same year on his Fellside cassette Songs an’ Rummy Conjurin’ Tricks, and was included in 1999 on his Free Reed 3 CD anthology Wake the Vaulted Echoes. Another version from Paul Adams’ collection of miscellaneous Peter Bellamy tapes was included in 2018 on the Fellside CD reissue of The Maritime Suite. Bellamy commented in the first album’s notes:

A “98” was, in Nelson’s day, a Second Class Man O’War, a ship of the line carrying ninety-eight cannons. This fine set of words was collected in Norfolk by Vaughan Williams, together with an unimpressing tune. I have written for it this tune, which I feel is more in keeping with the strength of the lyric.

Damien Barber learned On Board a “98” from Peter Bellamy and recorded it for his 2000 album, The Furrowed Field, and together with Mike Wilson for their 2009 CD Under the Influence.

This video shows Damien Barber and Mike Wilson at Cheltenham Town Hall in February 2009:

The New Scorpion Band sang On Board a 98 in 2004 on their CD Out on the Ocean. Tim Laycock noted:

A 98 gun wooden Second Rate, three-decked sailing warship, that is. This spirited song has been a favourite for many years. Peter Bellamy had a wonderfully swaggering version of the tune; ours is a version of another splendid sea ballad, Rounding the Horn.

A young man is pressed into the Navy, but eventually takes to the life, survives Trafalgar and ends his days in the home for retired Seamen at Greenwich. The song echoes Nelson’s comment on visiting a wounded sailor that “You and I have both lost a wing, Jack!”

Jon Boden sang On Board a 98 as the 15 September 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Andy Turner learned On Board a Ninety-Eight from Peter Bellamy’s records and sang it as the 20 October 2013 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Pete Wood sang On Board a 98 on his 2014 CD Young Edwin. He noted:

A story of a sailor’s life in Nelson’s navy. Probably a fairly common one.

Piers Cawley sang On Board a 98 on his 2020 download album Isolation Sessions #2. He noted:

From the singing of Peter Bellamy. Pete used to open his sets with this to blow the cobwebs away. I hope it does the same for you.

Andy Turner sang On Board a ’98 on his and Mat Green’s 2024 WildGoose album Time for a Stottycake. They noted:

One of many fine songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams on a trip to King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1905. This one was sung by Robert Leatherday [VWML RVW2/3/76] , who had been a sailor but was by then a resident of the workhouse. A “98” was a warship with 98 guns.


Peter Bellamy sings On Board a “98”

When I was young and scarce eighteen, I drove a roaring trade,
And many a sly trick have I played on many a pretty maid.
Well my parents saw that would not do for I soon should spend their store;
So they resolved that I should go on board a man-of-war.

Well, a bold press-gang surrounded me, their warrant they did show,
They felt that I was go to sea and face the daring foe.
Then as off they lugged me to the boat, it was then I cursed my fate!
For then I found that I should float on board a “98”.

And when first I put my foot on board, how I did stand and stare!
For our Admiral, he gave the word, “There is no time to spare.”
So we weighed our anchor, we shook out sail, and off they bore me straight
To face the French in storm and gale on board a “98”.

And as times fled, I bolder grew, I hardened was to war.
I’d run aloft with my ship’s crew and valued not a scar.
And right well I did my duty do till I got bosun’s mate,
And bless me, soon got bosun too on board a “98”.

So the years rolled by and at Trafalgar, brave Nelson, he fought and fell.
And when they capsized that hardy tar, I took a rap as well.
So to Greenwich College I came back because I’d saved my pate.
They’ve only knocked a wing off Jack on board a “98”.

So now I can my cocoa take, my pouch with ’bacco stored.
In my blue coat and my three-cocked hat I am as happy as a Lord,
Cause I’ve done my duty, I served my King, and now I bless my fate.
But bless me, I’m too old to sing. I’m nearly 98.