A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Twenty Three


Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea

The definition of a nursery rhyme is broad enough to encompass all songs and poems aimed at or adopted by young children and so Bobby Shafto (the variant spelling of Bobby’s surname comes with an e at the end) which deals with an adult subject and is sung to the tune of a catchy sea shanty probably sneaks in. The most common version goes, “Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea/ Silver buckles at his knee/ He’ll come back and marry me/ Bonny Bobby Shafto/ Bobby Shafto’s bright and fair/ Panning out his yellow hair/ He’s my love for evermore/ Bonny Bobby Shafto”.

Clearly what we have here is the lamentation of a girl besotted by the charms of Bobby Shafto but, alas, the eponymous hero is off to sea in all his finery. In those days as it is to a certain extent still today, going to sea was a dangerous enterprise with no certainty of return and even if the matelot did return it could be many months if not years later. Still our besotted damsel is certain that he will not only return but lead her down the aisle, no doubt for the couple to live happily ever after. A heart-warming vignette of love’s young dreams, to be sure.

I seem to have spent a lot of time in this series arguing that attributions of historical characters to nursery rhymes were bunkum but here we may be on somewhat safer ground as there was a distinguished Shafto family in the North East of England. Robert became Member of Parliament for County Durham following a by-election in 1760 and it appears that he traded on his nickname of Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Our Bobby made a prudent marriage, taking the hand of Anne Duncombe, the heiress to one of the richest commoners in England at the time and to Duncombe Park in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. But in making this match, Shafto is said to have ditched his fiancée, Bridget Belasyse. Poor Bridget, so the story goes, was so distraught that she died of a broken heart shortly after Robert sealed the knot with Anne. Charming as that story may be it doesn’t accord with the facts which show that Belasyse died of tuberculosis a couple of weeks before the wedding.

Shafto stood down as MP at the 1768 general election but six years later stood again, this time as a candidate for the seat of Downton in Dorset where he had landed interests through his wife. Politics was a dirty business in those days and many of the elections for the seat up until Robert’s death in 1797 were the subject of dispute with challenges through petitions to the Commons.

For the 1761 general election Shafto’s made a virtue out of necessity by adding a verse to the popular rhyme, extolling the virtues and popularity of the candidate, “All the ribbons flying about/ all the ladies looking out/ clapping their hands and giving a shout/ Hurrah for Bobby Shafto

Some have argued that the Bobby Shafto of the song was a relative from Benwell who lived between 1760 and 1781. Although the rhyme was not published until 1805 the evidence of the use of a variant in 1761 which in turn gives credence to an earlier manifestation of the version we know today makes this unlikely. And the Robert Shafto portrayed by Sir Joshua Reynolds is not our Bobby either, a confusion caused by the unimaginative use of first names by the family!


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