Week 113 – On Board a Ninety-Eight

The visitor to Oxford is of course immediately struck by the beauty of the honey-coloured stone of the medieval colleges, the Old Bod, the Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian… But another of the glories of Oxford to my mind has always been the Covered Market. And when I was a student one of the glories of the Covered Market was, without doubt, Garon Records. I spent many a happy hour browsing through the racks of second-hand LPs, and there are quite a number of records in my collection which I picked up in that shop. I’d actually discovered the shop even before I became a student, having come across it on a visit to Oxford a few months earlier. It’s funny what one remembers after 35 years. I can’t remember much about my visit to the college, but I do remember having something to eat and a couple of pints of Morrells in The Grapes. then sitting on the grass by the canal reading E.H. Carr’s What is History?  And while, sadly, I cannot recall Professor Carr’s answer to that vexed question, I’m pretty sure the two LPs I bought in Garon Records that day were The Watersons and Among the many attractions at the fair will be a really high class band.

Generally the records I bought from Garon were in pretty good nick, the exception being a dreadfully beat up copy of Peter Bellamy’s Tell it like it was. This was in such a bad state that I think I only played it a couple of times. But that was sufficient to introduce me to two Bellamy classics, ‘Courting too slow’ and ‘On Board a 98′. Bellamy wrote his own tune for both of these, finding the tune which Vaughan Williams had collected for this song “unimpressing”. I was surprised, therefore, when I found the tune in Sharp’s English County Folk Songs, that it was a perfectly acceptable tune which fitted the song rather well. I learned it immediately, and have been singing it on an off ever since, either on my own or, for a few years in the 1980s, with Chris Wood on fiddle. It seems like a suitable song to post here on the eve of Trafalgar Day.

Vaughan Williams had the song from a Mr Leatherday (sometimes given as Latterday), a sailor of King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1905.

On Board A '98, collected by Vaughan Williams from Mr Leatherday, 1905. From the Full English archive.

On Board A ’98, collected by Vaughan Williams from Mr Leatherday, 1905. From the Full English archive.

Needless to say, I think, the song can be found in nineteenth century printed sources at Broadside Ballads Online, the Bodleian Library’s revamped and much improved ballad site; see http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/search/roud/1461

On Board of a Ninety-Eight, printed by J. Catnach, Seven Dials

On Board of a Ninety-Eight, printed by J. Catnach, Seven Dials “between 1813 and 1838” from the Bodleian collection.

One of my wife’s ancestors was a Greenwich Pensioner, although not a resident of Greenwich Hospital itself. In the 1841 Census John O’Leary’s wife and five children are listed as living in Portsea; while he, we imagine, was off at sea. In 1851 his occupation is given as Greenwich Pensioner – one assumes he had “done his duty, served his time”, although whether he now “blessed his fate” we can’t know. He and his family were all living in New Rents, Ashford, Kent. This is a really strange coincidence – Ashford is my home town, and I certainly would have had ancestors living in the town in 1851; Carol had been unaware that any of her forebears had any connection with Kent, still less Ashford. The association seems to have been shortlived, however, as the O’Leary family were no longer in Ashford by the time of the next census in 1861.

On Board a Ninety-Eight

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

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