Hurrah For the Black Ball Line!

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At the beginning of the nineteenth century the commercial demands of ships always faster and less “armed” compared to the previous century (era of massive galleons, vessels and frigates): so the Clipper was born, ships for the transport of goods, without frills and with more sails. They are the latest models of sailing ships, the apogee of the Age of sailing, then soon the engines will take over .. and the repertoire of the sea shanties will end up among the curiosities of antique dealers (or in the circuits of Folk music).


Clippers traveled the two most important trade sea routes: China – England for tea and Australia – England for wool, they were competing with each other to reach maximum speed and arrive first, because the higher price was fixed by the first ship that reached the port. (see more)
The ships were famous for the harsh discipline on board and for the brutality of its officers: but the recruitment of the sailors was constant given the brevity of the engagement. The ships with the most terrible name were called “bloodboat” and its crew (mostly Irish sailors) “packet rats“.


The Black Ball Line was the first shipping company to offer a transatlantic line service for the transport of passengers and goods. Born in 1817 from the idea of Jeremiah Thompson, with four clippers covering the route between Liverpool and New York, the Black Ball remained in business for about sixty years. The Black Ballers, were also postal and derived the name from their flag (the company logo) red forked with a black disk in the middle.

In addition to the red flag, the Black Ball were distinguished by a large black ball also designed on the bow sail

The Company was renowned for its scrupulous organization of departures that took place on the first of the month, with any weather; it had very fast ships and the journey from England to America, mostly against the wind, lasted generally “just” four weeks, while the return, with the wind in its favor, could last less than three weeks. The business was profitable despite the competition, in fact in 1851 the company James Baines & Co. of Liverpool adopted the same name and the same flag of the Black Ball Line! The Black Ball Line of James Baines & Co. also operated on the route between Liverpool and Australia.

Given the premises it could not therefore miss a sea shanty on the Black Ball line (probable origin 1845): the text versions are many, compared to few recordings on YouTube

W. Symons. – Patterson, J.E. “Sailors’ Work Songs.” Good Words 41(28) (June 1900) Public Domain

 “Hurrah For the Black Ball Line”

Peter Kasin  with  introduction and demonstration of the type of work combined with the singing
 Ewan MacColl – The Blackball Line 0:01 (Rare UK 8″ EP record released on Topic Records in 1957)

I served my time in the Black Ball line
To me way-aye-aye, hurray-ah
with the Black ball line I served me time
Hurrah for the Black Ball Line
The Black Ball Ships are good and true
They are the ships for me and you (1)
(For once there was a Black Ball Ship
That fourteen knots an hour could clip
You will surely find a rich gold mine(2)
Just take a trip in the Black Ball Line)
Just take a trip to Liverpool (3)
To Liverpool, that Yankee school
The Yankee sailors (4) you’ll see there
With red-top boots (5) and short-cut hair
(At Liverpool docks we bid adieu
To Poll and Bet and lovely Sue
And now we’re bound for New York Town
It’s there we’ll drink, and sorrow drown)

1) even if it seems an advertising spot, the reality for the crews boarded on the Black Ballers was harder: the first officer was usually ruthless and violent to maintain discipline and keep the speed standard of the crossing high
2) this verse refers, at the time of the gold fever that broke out in California in 1848
3) between the beginning and the mid-nineteenth century the majority of British immigrants boarded from the port of Liverpool
4) even if the captain was American (the ships were equipped with the best captains money of the time could buy), the sailors were not only American but often English, Irish and Scandinavian
5) red was the dominant color of sailors uniform also in the cuffed boots

Foc’sle Singers & Paul Clayton (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 1959) 

In the Black Ball line I served my time
Hurrah for the Black Ball line
In the Black Ball line I had a good time
Hurrah for the Black Ball line
The Black Ball Ships are good and true
They are the ships for me and you
For once there was a Black Ball Ship
That fourteen knots an hour(1) could clip(2)
Her yards were square(3), her gear all new,
She had a good and gallant crew
One day whilst sailing on the sea,
They saw a vessel on their lee,
They knew it was a pirate craft,
All armed with guns before and aft,
They did not fear as you may think
But made the pirates water drink

(text from here, see also an extended version here)
1)1 knot is worth 1 mile / h, so 14 knots means 14 miles per hour
2) To clip it = to run with speed
3)  “in seamens language, the yards are square, when they are arranged at right angles with the mast or the keel. The yards and sails are said also to be square, when they are of greater extent than usual. “

Roger Watson from Short Sharp Shanties : Sea songs of a Watchet sailor (Vol 1)

Tozer calls this shanty an anchor song, Whall gives it for windlass, Colcord for halyard. Hugill says that he disagrees with the collectors who attribute shanties to specific jobs. Short, who gave it to Sharp as a capstan shanty, gave only one verse (“In Tapscott’s Line…”) and the words Sharp published are, frankly, unbelievable (e.g. “It was there we discharged our cargo boys” and “The Skipper said, that will do, my boys”). Both Colcord and Hugill also comment on Sharp’s published words. We have utilised fairly standard Blackball Line verses, slightly bent towards Short’s Tapscott Line theme. There is a degree of cynicism in this text—Tapscott was a con-man: he advertised his ships as being over 1000 tons when, in reality, they were 600 tons at the most!” (from here)

In Tapscott (1) line we’re bound to shine
A way, Hooray, Yah
In Tapscott line we are bound
to shine
Hooray for the Black Ball Line.
In the Black Ball line I served my time
in the Black Ball I wasted me prime.
Just you’ll take a trip to Liverpool
To Liverpool, a Yankee school.
Oh the Yankee sailors you’ll see there
With red-top boots and short-cut hair.
Fifteen days is a Black Ball ride(2)
but Tapscott ship are a thousand
At Liverpool docks we bid adieu
for Tapscott ship and golden crew.
In Tapscott line we are bound to shine
In Tapscott line we are bound to shine

1) William and James Tapscott were brothers who organized the trip for immigrants from Britain to America (the first based in Liverpool and the second in New York) often taking advantage of the ingenuity of their clients. Initially they worked for the Black Ball Line and then set up their own transport line that provided a very cheap trip to the Americas, so the conditions of the trip were terrible and the food poor. In 1849 William Tapscott went bankrupt and was tried and convicted of fraud against the company’s shareholders.  see more
2) legendary racing competitions were hired between the American and British companies: under the motto “play or pay” two ships left New York on February 2, 1839, it was the first challenge between the Black baller Columbus, 597 tons, Captain De Peyster and the Sheridan of the Dramatic Line 895 tons; Columbus won the race in 16 days, while Sheridan arrived in Liverpool two days later
“England, frankly confessing herself beaten and unable to compete with such ships as these, changed her attitude from hostility to open admiration. She surrendered the Atlantic packet trade to American enterprise, and British merchantmen sought their gains in other waters. The Navigation Laws still protected their commerce in the Far East and they were content to jog at a more sedate gait than these weltering packets whose skippers were striving for passages of a fortnight, with the forecastle doors nailed fast and the crew compelled to stay on deck from Sandy Hook to Fastnet Rock.” ~ Old Merchant Marine, Ch VIII. “The Packet Ships of the Roaring Forties”


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