Big Steamers


Jon informs us that this was “Written by Kipling for his ‘beloved kids,’” and attributes this as another of Peter Bellamy’s setting of a Kipling poem, although Edward Elgar also set it to music as did Edward German in 1911. Elgar’s version came at the end of WW1 and was set to a simple piano accompaniment so that it could easily be taught in schools, thus making clear the essential value of merchant shipping facing attack from the enemy at sea. Whether there is any link between Elgar’s and Bellamy’s versions I cannot say as I write, but I’ll endeavor to find out. Again if anyone can enlighten us further it will be appreciated. There’s more about Bellamy and Kipling in general on this Mudcat thread. The poem itself was first published in 1911 as one of his twenty-three poems written specially for C. R. L. Fletcher’s A School History Of England.


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31 Responses to “Big Steamers”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Anne Dunn and Shelley Rainey, Jon Boden. Jon Boden said: Latest Post: Big Steamers […]

  2. muzza says:

    wow-this song doesn’t pull any punches …….just tells it as it is.
    Great poem, great, forceful performance of it……….
    Now all we need is a gentle tune for “Cargoes” by John Masefield and we’d have a matching pair.

  3. David says:

    Magical sound for a brilliant song. Congratulations on the site, Jon.

  4. Jane Ramsden says:

    I loved this one! Muzza, I used to sing ‘Cargoes’ in the school choir and it immediately came to mind. We sang 3 verses about 3 different ships and their respective cargoes, and changed the tempo in each verse to emphasise their differences. Wonderfully well-sung, Jon!

  5. Andy says:

    Brilliantly sung with plenty of gusto! Thoroughly enjoyable – can I use it as a ring tone??

  6. muzza says:

    ahoy there Mr Admin..couple of questions:-
    A) How do some clever folk seem to have put their photos on their comments

    B) What time of the morning is each new song actually loaded…I tried at 12:15am…and it wasn’t there!…….how disappointing is that for a groupie!

  7. OxFox says:

    Brilliant! Sung with gusto, aplomb and passion. One of my favourites so far I think 🙂

  8. OxfordClareB says:

    Apologies – the above comment was from me, using the wrong log-in details from OxFox! Muzza – if you subscribe to the iTunes podcast, the next day’s song is there bang on time (on mine it’s always a day ahead actually), so that might be worth bearing in mind for a truly committed groupie experience! 🙂

  9. admin says:

    The songs are scheduled in advance to appear on the site at midnight. I suggest hold control and click to refresh the page as this might clear any previously saved versions of the page that your computer is holding onto (for reasons best known to itself.) If that doesn’t deliver, then it’s either a broadband issue or site traffic. As you can see, I’m possibly not the most technically proficient either (the old broadband fall back is a dead give away), so I’ll have to ask the other admin and come back with some picture instructions. It might be nice to see who we’re dealing with.

  10. John Burton says:

    They appear in Canada around 7.00PM, funny thing though there are generally no comments at that time here.

  11. admin says:

    John I can only assume that that is a wordpress scheduling thingy (a technical term obviously)… For whatever reason going live at midnight (in theory) in the UK must equate to 7.00pm Canada according to wordpress. When you say ‘no comments,’ do you get my intro text, or just the track to stream?? Everything is set to post automatically at the given hour and I am just about to write three intros to get us through the weekend. Once done, then I just click the schedule button and let the site work it’s magic. It seems to work, even if it’s not Swiss watch precision.

  12. Peter Little says:

    Hmmm, no mention of dredgers there then I worked dredging aggregates for 30 years so all and any of the sea-songs sit well with me. Peter Bellamy was one of the inspirational characters who started me singing back in the 60’s and I’m sure that Jon’s fine voice will be as inspiring to those coming along now.

  13. John Burton says:

    Hi Admin, it is just the time difference, GMT to EST with or without daylight savings gives usually a 5 hour time lag over here,
    All of the comments are there and I can even download through itunes.

  14. Mark says:

    My great-grandfather’s ship was sunk in WW1 by a German Sub. He was returning from South America with beef. For some reason that makes this song quite poignant for me. Enough to make me finally break silence and post.

    None the less I’d still rather hear J. bang out Copshawholm fair with the rest of the Bellowhead band behind him – I aint that sentimental! 🙂

    You should all be grateful that I haven’t posted my pic.

  15. john baker says:

    being an ex.merchant marine i enjoyed this very much and i do believe that the merchant navy has never received the recognition that it well deserves if only for
    the 12 weeks of basic training at ts vindicatrix (the vindi) we were just kids right
    out of high school and the training and the discipline was brutal, we went in as boys
    and graduated 12 weeks later as *men* it created a very solid foundation for me
    even after i left the merchant navy, safe harbour, mates, john baker / canada

  16. muzza(s.e.England) says:

    Dear old Kipling forewarned (pre-WW1)and reminded us how vital the merchant fleet is to our island nation even today(ok Peter Little …and dredgers!- see above) .

    I expect John Masefield’s cargoes were susceptible to a bit of plundering as well in their day…….such exotic items.
    For a start…my auntie wouldn’t have got her “tin tray”Christmas present…and it wasn’t that cheap!
    @Jane……….ref your comment above………here are the words…..can you sing them and put it on youtube for us! (You’ve had a year to practise!)

    Cargoes (by John Masefield)

    QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
    Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
    With a cargo of ivory,
    And apes and peacocks,
    Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

    Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
    Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
    With a cargo of diamonds,
    Emeralds, amythysts,
    Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

    Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
    Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
    With a cargo of Tyne coal,
    Road-rails, pig-lead,
    Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

    John Masefield

  17. Jane Ramsden says:

    I have great admiration for merchant navy men. Went out with one once. I might be a Miss, but I have missed nothing, as a friend of mine once said! Well sung again, Jon. I can see it being quite exciting for young children with such gusto.

    @ Muzza: I have only had a few tries at the song recording and more or less given it up as a caterwauling job! A very kind lady sat at the side of me at a Show of Hands concert said, ‘You have a beautiful voice.’ But in truth she was more kind than tuneful herself, and I did have some of the best accompaniment in the world there!

    It is nigh on 50 years since I sang ‘Cargoes’ and I am struggling to remember the tune properly. No sheet music of course and, tho I can play the old descant recorder, it is so long ago also that I have lost my ability to sight-read a tune. It’s not what you could call a folk tune either. I’ll have to see what I can dredge up… hahahaha!

  18. Jane Ramsden says:

    In search of the tune, I can only find this YouTube link of Nelson Eddy (what a good-looking lad!) singing ‘Cargoes’:

    That is not quite the version I learnt in the choir! One might say, ‘Close, but no banana!’ Is this another example of where folk meets poet meets music hall?

  19. Jane Ramsden says:

    If we are still on ‘Sea Fever’, here’s the posh version of Masefield’s poem set to music by John Ireland, performed by Russell Malcolm:

    but it can be beautifully folked up, as it were:

    and the kind lad has made it possible to see his guitar chords. He likes foxes as well. We’ve got Lambwatch over Skipton way, HogCam at Lancashire Hedgehog Care Trust and now FoxyWatch!

    (Now, have I neatly side-stepped the singing-caterwauling issue? Hehehehe!)

  20. Jane Ramsden says:


  21. muzza(s.e.England) says:

    @Jane………Didn’t go a bundle on Nelson Eddy………….the other ‘Sea Fever’ baritone had a lovely voice but better when you can’t see him…except for the dramatic way he swished his music page over…and your Foxy man………..needs a bit more “ArrrrGH Jim Lad” in his voice for such a roughy toughy song!

  22. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Muzza: The Nelson Eddy version of ‘Cargoes’ was very much of its time methinks. I can hear a vague sthg of the tune I used to know, but not enough to help me sing it. I have tried, but soon go off-tune in the way you do when you don’t really know a song properly. As Julie Walters said in ‘Educating Rita,’ ”There must be better songs to sing than this…”

    What is wrong with poor Russell Malcolm? Fabulous voice. I would not know a baritone from a boombox – you see how unmusical I am? – I think I am a contraryalto…

    The young man is young and likes foxes. I thought well-folked, but I agree it would not be my interpretation of ‘Sea Fever,’ in which I suspect Masefield intended more ‘grit’.

  23. Joe Fineman says:

    John: I am impressed by your mention of Elgar & German. How did you find out about their settings? More generally, how might one investigate the tunes that were written for Kipling’s songs during his lifetime — many of which, I have read, ended up in music halls & schools? I have looked desultorily in libraries & on the Web, with disappointing results.

  24. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Joe Fineman: Under ‘Frankie’s Trade’ on here, Dave Rogers gave a pointer which may help with your quest interest:

    Dave Rogers: Here’s a link to the work of Brian Mattinson from the Kipling Society on documenting musical settings of Kipling’s poetry:

    (I knew my AFSAD archive would come in handy!)

  25. Diana says:

    Another great Kipling poem. I also remember “Sea Fever” asnd “Cargoes” by John Masefield. It is surprising what one can recall from far-off school days. All connected to the sea – lovely.

  26. Phil says:

    Coincidentally, I’ve just this morning uploaded my own version of this:

    Big Steamers (52 Folk Songs)

  27. Simon says:

    Joe, it’s me that spooted the Elgar and German connection (Jon’s comments are always within “”) and I’m afraid there is scant information but it’s on Wiki here.

  28. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Linda: Just seen your query about a cd copy of Louis Killen’s version of the timber-shivering Rose in June! Hard to find! I understand he did an unaccompanied version of this title song on his ‘Rose in June’ cassette.

    I have found this site which sells the album for about 12 squids. I am assuming this is cd & not cassette, though it’s not explicit. You could email them to check, but the 2001 date makes me think it is a cd. Happy hunting!

  29. It really helpful with me

  30. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    The merchant navy… vital and this song so true for we folk who live on this lil old island that is the UK.
    Our population is growing at such a pace that quite soon we will not be able to self sufficiently feed folk from all places in the world that want to come here as they speak English

  31. OldMuzza(NWSurreyUK) says:

    I wonder if the government has thought about investing in a fleet of merchant ships as we are becoming less and less self sufficient!

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