Noble Fleet of Sealers, A
DESCRIPTION: "There's a noble band of sealers being fitted for the ice, They'll take a chance again this year though fat's gone down in price...." The ships set out to take the seal. When they get back to St. John's, the sailors hope for good luck and good food
EARLIEST DATE: 1955 (Doyle)
KEYWORDS: hunting ship travel
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Fowke/Mills/Blume, pp. 162-164, "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle3, pp. 10-11, "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle4, pp. 15-16, "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" (1 text, 1 tune)
Doyle5, pp. 16-17, "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" (1 text, 1 tune)
Blondahl, pp. 74-75, "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ryan/Small, pp. 114-115, "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" (1 text, 1 tune)
ST FMB162 (Partial)
cf. "The Ferryland Sealer"
cf. "The Old Polina" (tune)
NOTES [1009 words]: This song bears many resemblances, in the first verse and the melodic pattern, to "The Ferryland Sealer" -- which also derives from Newfoundland. But this piece has a different chorus, and the latter verses are different, so I tentatively distinguish them. If they are related, this is without doubt the newer song, since it mentions steam sealing ships; "The Ferryland Sealer" precedes the steamers.
This is also a very confusing song if you know the earlier, more familiar sealing pieces, because it mentions several names of ships that were famous at the turn of the twentieth century, but put them under captains who never commanded them. For example, the first ship mentioned is the Algerine; for the SS Algerine, see "Loss of the S. S. Algerine." If the ship involved were the SS Algerine that would force a date in no later than 1912, when that ship was lost. But the song lists the Algerine's skipper as Wilf Barbour -- a member of a famous family of sealers which also included among others George Barbour ("The Greenland Disaster (I)"), Alpheus Barbour ("Sealer's Song (II)"), and Baxter Barbour ("The Nimrod's Song"). The problem is, "Wilf Barbour" never commanded the Algerine (Chafe, pp. 87-88). Ordinarily I would guess "Wilf" to be an error for "Alf"=Alpheus or perhaps "Will"=William. But neither Alpheus nor William Barbour ever commanded the Algerine either; indeed, no Barbour ever commanded her. The only commander with name anything like "Wilf Barbour" is Will(iam) Bartlett, commander of the Algerine in 1902-1903.
The next ship mentioned, the Viking, lasted longer, but no Captain Barbour commanded the Viking in the period that the Algerine was afloat; William Bartlett Senior skippered her 1904-1913, then William Bartlett Junior in 1914-1915, after which William Sr. took her back until 1927. I. Barbour commanded the Viking 1928-1929 (Feltham, p. 154). She blew up in 1931; see "To the Memory of the Late Captain Kennedy."
The SS Newfoundland is the subject of "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)." She was renamed in 1915 after the disaster, and sank the next year. At the time she sank, there had never been a sealing captain John Blackmore (Chafe, pp. 88, 97)
The Terra Nova isn't much of a dating hint; she first went to the ice in 1885 and mostly stayed there until shortly before her loss in World War II, apart from missing 1904-1905 and 1910-1913 to go to the Arctic and Antarctic. But she never had a Captain Charles Kean (Feltham, p. 134). She was, however, commanded by Abram Kean (the greatest of all the Kean family; see "Captain Abram Kean") 1906-1908, 1917-1926, 1932-1933 (and a few other Keans having her briefly in the 1920s).
You can imagine that I was getting very confused by all those ships and wrong captains. And it got worse when I looked up the Arctic Sealer, because there was no such steamer in the period of the Algerine and the Newfoundland.
It turns out that the solution is to look at a later stage of the seal fishery, when it was much smaller and less well-known. By the 1940s, the steamers -- and, indeed, the Newfoundland sealing industry itself -- were almost extinct. The original Terra Nova was lost in 1943, leaving only the J. H. Blackmore to go to the ice in 1943, and only the Eagle (for which see "The Ice-Floes") in 1944 (Candow, p. 107). The J. H. Blackmore was the first example of the replacement for the old steamers -- the small "motor vessels," or MVs. And, yes, her captain was the John Blackmore mentioned in this song, who later became the captain of the Newfoundland mentioned in this verse; for more about him, see "The Sinking of the 'Newfoundland.'"
"The appearance of motor vessels sparked a transformation of the industry. Their numbers rose to 11 in 1946, 15 in 1947, and a historic high of 21 in 1948 [Busch, p. 244, says there were 25 in 1948]. The rise of the motor vessels broke the St. John's monopoly of the industry" (Candow, p. 108). Not one of the five that sailed in 1945 came from St. John's, and the five together were smaller than the Eagle! (Busch, pp. 243-244). These were the first of the "long liners" that some readers may know, e.g., from Stan Rogers's "Make and Break Harbour." In 1946, twelve companies based in seven different ports sent out thirteen ships, with even more in the years that followed (Busch, p. 244).
So, for instance, an MV Terra Nova went out in 1948, commanded by Wilf Barbour; there was also an MV Catalina Trader as well as the MV J. H. Blackmore, which might help explain the references to Catalina and John Blackmore in the song. In 1957, MV Algerine and MV Terra Nova went out, although not under Wilf Barbour; Wilf Barbour commanded the Bessie Marie, with Harold Laite commanding the Algerine and Gus Carter the Terra Nova. The new Algerine was a 338 ton converted tug which had been built in 1943 (Candow, p. 146). I have no data when the MV Arctic Sealer sailed, but one of her captains was William Moss, who lived 1911-1969. And Sid Hill (1888-1961) also commanded her; he began his career with the sealing steamer Eagle in 1933, then went on to command the MVs in the 1940s and 1950s. (Ryan/Drake, p. 82).
Since the MVs/long liners could also catch cod, they seemed ideal for Newfoundland conditions (Busch, p. 244).
But it was a short boom. There were only four MVs in 1950, and no steamers. The numbers bounced around after that, peaking at 12 in 1951, but by 1959, only one MV left; the demand for sealskins was too low to support an industry based in Newfoundland (Candow, p. 109) -- although the Norwegians would keep it up for years, and there were also sealers from Halifax. In 1958, Bowring Brothers, which had been owner of the largest sealing fleet for most of the preceding century, announced that they would bow out of the business, although it was a few more years before they actually made their exit (Candow, p. 110). Sealing as a Newfoundland industry was effectively dead by then. So this song probably dates from around 1950-1952. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Busch: Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985
- Candow: James E. Candow, Of Men and Seals: A History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt, Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1989
- Chafe: Levi George Chafe, Chafe's Sealing Book: A History of the Newfoundland Sealfishery from the Earliest Available Records Down To and Including the Voyage of 1923, third edition, Trade Printers and Publishers, Ltd., 1923 (PDF scan available from Memorial University of Newfoundland)
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Ryan/Drake: Shannon Ryan, assisted by Martha Drake, Seals and Sealers: A Pictorial History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Breakwater Books, 1987
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