About John Low

John Low

John has been a teacher and a librarian and is a published author and poet. He was Local Studies Librarian at the Blue Mountains City Library from 1982 until his retirement in 2007. In his 'senior' years he continues to spend his time exploring the Blue Mountains and pursuing an antiquarian interest in the curiosities of local history. He is on the management committee of the Blue Mountains Historical Society.

The Waterwitch

SOME THOUGHTS ON A TASMANIAN WHALING SONG AND ITS ORIGINS.

© John Low


INTRODUCTION

In a previous article on Simply Australia Warren Fahey highlighted the scarcity of songs from our maritime history. In the area of whaling this is particularly so for, despite the fact that whaling has played such an important part in the social and economic life of Australia and New Zealand, the number of whaling songs with specific Australasian associations is few.

 

Waterwitch It would seem, as Graham Seal [introduction to Haswell, 1992] has pointed out in relation to shanties generally, that the international stock of songs sufficed. After all, the whaling community that 'fished' Australasian waters was, indeed, an international one. However, the survival of the Tasmanian whaling song, 'The Waterwitch', while it appears to be merely a cut-and-paste appropriation of two 'international' songs, does provide evidence that localisation of at least some of this material did take place.

THE WATERWITCH LYRICS

A neat little packet from Hobart set sail,
For to cruise round the west'ard amongst the sperm whale;
Cruising the west'ard where the stormy winds blow,
Bound away in the Waterwitch to the west'ard we'll go

Bound away, bound away, where the stormy winds blow,
Bound away in the Waterwitch to the west'ard we go.

Now at early one morning, just as the sun rose,
A man from her masthead cries out, "There she blows!"
"We're away!" cried our skipper, and springing aloft,
"Three points on the lee bow and scarce three miles off."

"Get your lines in your boats, me boys, see your box line all clear,
And lower me down, me bully boys, and after him we'll steer!"
[Verse incomplete]

Now the ship she gets full, me boys, and to Hobart we'll steer,
Where there's plenty of pretty girls and plenty good beer.
We'll spend our money freely with the pretty girls on shore,
And when it's all gone, we'll go whaling for more.

Bound away, bound away, where the stormy winds blow,
Bound away in the Waterwitch to the west'ard we go.

[Version as published in T. Inglis Moore, 1964]

 

THE STORY OF THE WATERWITCH

From the time a settlement was established on the Derwent River in 1803, Tasmania had thrived as a whaling centre. In 1841 there were over thirty bay whaling stations around its coast and by the end of that decade, as bay whaling declined, Hobart had become one of the great deep-sea whaling ports. British, American and French whalers visited regularly and the town was home to a large locally owned whaling fleet that competed successfully with its foreign counterparts. The years between 1840 and 1870 saw Hobart's greatest whaling activity, with the trade decreasing fairly rapidly thereafter.

The ship that later became the Waterwitch was built in England and was launched from the Pembroke dockyard in 1820. As HMS Falcon, a ten-gun brig, she saw service against the slave trade off West Africa. However, by 1842 she had passed into private hands, been renamed Waterwitch and was in Sydney preparing to go whaling under the flag of McDonald, Smith & Co. Between 1855 and 1857 she was home to the poet Henry Kendall who spent two years as an apprentice member of her crew. The experience does not seem to have inspired any poetry, though he did draw on what he learned for an article on 'Sperm Whaling' he later wrote for the Australian Journal (Vol. 5, Part 54, November 1869).

 

In 1860 the Waterwitch was purchased by Captain John Scott McArthur and taken to Tasmania where she subsequently became one of the best known ships in the Hobart whaling fleet. When McArthur died in 1875 she was sold to Alexander McGregor, described by J. E. Philp as "the Grand Old Man of Tasmanian Whaling", and sailed under his flag until her last whaling voyage in 1895. She was then stripped of her gear, dismantled and, in 1899, broken up.

Alexander McGregor
Alexander McGregor (1821-1896)

'The Waterwitch', as far as I can tell, first appeared in print in 1964 in T. Inglis Moore's Poetry in Australia Vol.1: From the Ballads to Brennan. It was collected by the historian L. L. Robson in Hobart in 1961 from 88 year old Mr. Davies, a resident at St. John's Home for the Aged in New Town. Davies was born at Huon and had spent much of his life at sea. In an article published in Australian Tradition in 1965, Robson noted the song as one of five he taped. He described it as having "a sprightly tune" (but gave no further details) and told how Mr. Davies "sang all his songs enthusiastically and fairly loudly". I don't know where Robson's tape has been lodged but in 1988 Brad Tate, in his Down and Outback, published the song with additional verses and a melody he says was the one used by Mr. Davies. This was the tune to a British sea song, 'The Bold Princess Royal'.


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