Maritime Songs and Shanties

Essex has the longest coastline of any county in England, more than 350 miles long stretching from London docklands along the Thames, Crouch and Blackwater estuaries to Harwich harbour on the Suffolk border. Thames barges used to ply their trade up and down the coast, taking goods to and from London to the docks in Maldon, Colchester, Ipswich, Lowestoft and further along the East coast.

The historic port of Harwich was the starting point for the Mayflower, when it set off on it’s journey to America, calling in at several south coast ports en route.

Brightlingsea, as a limb of Sandwich, is the only one of the cinque ports situated north of the Thames.

An Old Thames Sailing Barge in the Blackwater Estuary

With this rich connection to the sea, it is not surprising to find maritime songs and singers in abundance. Shanty or Chantey (from the French chanter, to sing) crews can be found in many coastal towns, including Leigh-On-Sea, Southend-on-Sea, Maldon, Wivenhoe, Brightlingsea, Walton-on-the-Naze, Harwich and Felixstowe, just over the border into Suffolk. Harwich also hosts the annual International Shanty Festival each year, one of the largest shanty festivals, which is attended by maritime singers and crews from many different countries.

Harwich International Shanty Festival

Shanties were originally work songs, sung by sailors as they worked the bilge pumps, turned the windlass or hauled up the sails. You can often tell from the rhythm of the song whether it was a short-haul, halyard or capstan shanty. Shanty lyrics often reflect the realities of the sailors’ lives, from bad food to captains’ virtues and flaws and stories of women. The shantyman leading the work gang would set the rhythm of the song to suit the work being carried out and might add or remove verses appropriately to shorten or lengthen the duration of the song. Shanty singing declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when steam-powered ships replaced sailing vessels. However, there are still songwriters composing songs in the shanty style that are popular amongst the shanty crews.

Other maritime folk songs vary from traditional songs narrating events that took place at sea to contemporary songs with a nautical connection. There are songs about fishing and whaling, songs about young men being press-ganged into serving onboard naval ships, songs about young women being left behind as their loved one sailed off to sea, songs about young women dressing up in men’s clothing to become sailors, songs about pirates and smugglers, songs about naval battles, etc. Songwriters are still enchanted by the call of the sea.

Crews who especially enjoy singing Shanties:

The Hoolies Shanty Crew (Wivenhoe)
a mixed crew formed in 2018, they can often be seen supporting local events and charities or entertaining at the folk club
Contact: Julia Mason 07762 969116

The Hoy Shanty Crew (Leigh-on-Sea)
The Hoy Shanty Crew are an in-house crew formed at the Hoy At Anchor Folk Club and can often be heard singing there.
They meet occasionally on Saturday afternoons in Old Leigh.
Contact: Tony Prior 07805 641797

Salt Water and Beer (Maldon)
Perform shanties, songs of the sea, and other folk and traditional songs.
Contact: Tom Whelan 07801 143949