What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

Brodie Waddell

Surely this was an age-old question. Although the traditional sea shanty was only recorded in the early 19th century, there were more than a few early modern seamen who over-indulged in drink.

Indeed, when ‘a crew of Jovial Blades’ met in an alehouse in one late 17th-century ballad, it was the sailor who took the lead over his landlocked companions:

A bonny Seaman was the first,
but newly come to Town,
And swore that he his Guts could burst
with Ale that was so brown.

In another song from this period, a group of cunning ‘Maidens’ from the London suburb of Poplar tricked ‘several young Seamen’ into eating a cat baked in a pasty. Once they realised their mistake, the feline feast ‘did force them to spew’, but they still ‘laughed and quaffed’ and ‘drank off the Liquor before they went out’. It seems the solution to eating ‘A Cat-Pasty’ is to get thoroughly drunk.

Even sailors’ wives were not averse to downing ‘a lusty Bowl of Punch’. According to another ballad, the ‘Jolly Company’ raced to the alehouse as soon as their ‘Seamen had newly left the Land’ and set on their task with gusto:

We Seamens brisk Wives are bonny and glad,
While our Men on the Ocean are sorry and sad;
We love our Liquor to drink it all up,
None of us but love a full Glass or a Cup

They went so far as to claim that the punch would ‘make our Noddles the quicker’, a suggestion that was not as far-fetched to their contemporaries as it might be to us. As unlikely as it sounds, Mark has shown that the idea of alcohol enhancing ‘wit’ and ‘reason’ was not unknown in early modern England.¹ A little of ‘haire of the old Dogge’ might also cure the resulting hang-over.

Detail from ‘The Seamens Wives Frolick Over A Bowl of Punch’ (1685-88), in Pepys Ballads, IV, p. 184, via EBBA.

One might be inclined to dismiss these as stereotypes played up by the balladeers trying to make a few extra pence, but there are also examples from the archives. The records of the High Court of Admiralty, for example, include depositions describing sailors such as Robert Oyle who habitually ‘debauch[ed] himselfe with drinke’, Frisby and Archer who spent ‘five dayes and nights together drinking and frequenting houses of lewd repute’, and Thomas Grove who returned aboard ‘much distempered with drink and began to curse and sweare’.

Are these cases typical? It’s hard to say at this point. All of the Admiralty examples come from the MarineLives project, a new group which is currently transcribing and publishing online a whole swathe of rich material from court records held at Kew. Perhaps once we have a complete set of cases over an extended period we’ll have a better idea of just how often 17th-century seamen had to ‘put him in the long-boat and make him bale her’ or ‘put him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him’, ‘earl-aye in the morning’.

In the meantime, the MarineLives team report that they are looking for a few more volunteers to join them to help uncover the rough lives of early modern seafarers, so if you’d like to help the world learn about a real ‘drunken sailor’ or two, do let them know.


¹ Mark Hailwood, ‘”It puts good reason into brains”: Popular Understandings of the Effects of Alcohol in Seventeenth-Century England’, Brewery History (forthcoming, January 2013).

6 thoughts on “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

  1. Those interested in early modern sailors might like to know about this conference next September in the charming city of Exeter: ‘Working Lives Between the Deck and the Dock: comparative perspectives on sailors as international labourers (16th – 18th century)’. They currently have a call for papers out, which can be found here: http://centres.exeter.ac.uk/cmhs/conferences/

    – Mark

  2. Thanks for a really interesting post Brodie: I’m reminded of the aria and chorus from act III of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (c.1688):

    ‘Come away, fellow sailors, your anchors be weighing,
    Time and tide will admit no delaying
    Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore,
    And silence their mourning with vows of returning,
    but never intending to visit them more,
    no never intending to visit them more.’

    The other group of people I regularly come across who seem always to be drunk, either stereotypically or in actual fact, are musicians: both minstrels and also church musicians, especially vicars choral in the cathedrals. I’d be interested to know whether occurrences of drunkenness amongst these individuals were in actual fact more frequent, or just more conspicuous, than was generally the norm.

    • I love that even opera features sterotypically drunken sailors! High culture and low culture fit together so beautifully sometimes.

      Interesting to hear that musicans are perceived as prone to drunkenness. It doesn’t surpise me at all for secular, travelling minstrels (some things never change), but intoxicated church musicians is a surprise. Perhaps connected to the old notion of being ‘as drunk as a monk’?

      However, as you say, it is difficult to know how much of this is stereotypes and how much is reality. The ‘dark figure’ of unrecorded drunkenness haunts us.

  3. Pingback: Norwich Entertainments – Part V: Ballad-singers and dangerous news, with coffee | the many-headed monster

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