The shanty « Sam’s gone away », much loved by Chantimor, tells the story of different occupations on board a ship of the line – a « Man of War », which would have had up to 700 people on board doing a large variety of jobs. Along with the obvious posts such as Captain, First Mate and Gunner, Chantimor generally includes the role of Surgeon, Cabin Boy and Harlot.
Well, someone has to do it – so yes – c’est moi – the « harlot elect » of this song. (And I remind crew members that I am ACTING the role!!). And that got me thinking about the reality of women on board ships in the 18th & 19th centuries because there are some purists who think that women should not be in shanty groups – believing that life at sea at that time was male dominated.
It is true that it is difficult to find any evidence that women actually sang on board the vessels, but there is plenty of evidence to show that they were present. Admiralty Regulations stated that women were not allowed to be taken to sea and that ‘… no women be ever permitted to be on board but such as are really the wives of the men they come to, and the ship not too much pestered even with them’
Despite this, Warrent Officers (specialists such as the gunner, the cooper, the master, the carpenter etc were issued a government warrent) often took their wives to sea with them, and although it was not approved of, the Commissioned Officers generally turned a blind eye to the practice. These women never appeared on the muster books as the Royal Navy did not pay or feed them, but there is reference to them in various log books, memoirs,order books and court martial cases.
But some Senior Officers were not so tolerant. When Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, (a friend of Nelson) discovered that women had been brought on board his flagship, he ordered the women ashore because of ‘… the mischief they never fail to create wherever they are’.
As well as wives, whenever a ship came into port, large numbers of whores were brought in on « bumboats », the little boats which brought provisions to the ships.
The scenes on board ships while they were in port must have been interesting, to say the least, as the crew were allowed quite a large quantity of beer per day.
One sailor wrote that,
‘with the women came drink and what with the drink and the women the ship’s discipline came to a stop. The men and women drank and quarrelled between the guns. The decks were allowed to become dirty. Drunken women were continually coming up to insult the officers, or to lodge some complaint. Sometimes the women ran aloft to wave their petticoats to the flagship’.
There were also nurses on board. Well, I use the term « nurse » loosely because although The Royal Navy of the time had a comprehensive health care system, which included compulsory vaccination against smallpox, free medical treatment for sailors, a sick bay and a surgeon on every ship – as well as an extensive network of hospitals and hospital ships, the nurses who attended the sick and wounded at these establishments had quite a bad reputation, and were continually being sacked for prostitution, drunkenness and helping the sailors desert.
‘… those ladies are exceedingly bold and audacious … I had a great deal to do to repulse the temptations I met with from these sirens’.
So there we have it. Women WERE on board in quite large numbers so it is perfectly feasible that they could have sung along with the Shanty Men. For those of you who haven’t seen it before, here’s Chantimor + Sirens in action:
Disclaimer: Although I believe the historical information to be accurate (most of the info here comes from the BBC history site), Chantimor’s blog is just for fun & fancy and should never be considered in any way as a reference. God no!