Ferryland Sealer, The
DESCRIPTION: "Oh, our schooner and our sloop in Ferryland they do lie, They are already rigged to be bound for the ice...." The singer describes the provisioning of the ship, the path she follows, the work of sealing. He rejoices as they return home
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (collected from Leonard Hulan)
KEYWORDS: hunting ship travel
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Fowke/MacMillan 16, "The Ferryland Sealer" (1 text, 1 tune)
Peacock, pp. 120-121, "Ferryland Sealer" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ryan/Small, pp. 22-23, "Ferryland Sealer" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leonard Hulan, "Ferryland Sealer" (on PeacockCDROM)
cf. "A Noble Fleet of Sealers"
NOTES [1666 words]: Although this song has been published in several books, it appears likely that the only source is Leonard Hulan. It has some slight similarities to "A Noble Fleet of Sealers," but seems to be to a separate piece. - RBW
Peacock also has his version from Leonard Hulan. However, he claims a similar "variant" of "this fine old sealing song... was noted from George Decker in Rocky Harbour." Of course, Decker may have learned his version from Hulan who lives about 85 miles as the crow flies up the west coast from Decker. - BS
Although not collected until 1960, there is good reason to believe that this song is at least a century older, making it one of the oldest surviving sealing songs. There are several reasons for this.
The most basic is the simple fact that the sealer comes from Ferryland. Not Fairyland, we should note -- Ferryland is a small town on the eastern coast of Newfoundland, about halfway down the Avalon Peninsula. By the late nineteenth century, there would have been no sealers sailing from there, because there was no way for the small towns to finance the expeditions: "Marine-resource depletion was especially evident in the seal hunt.... By the 1860s, the old schooner hunt of the outports had given way to larger... steam-driven vessels which could penetrate deep into the ice packs in pursuit of the remaining herds. Such steamers required capital beyond the means of most outport employers, and the ownership of the industry transferred from the outports to St. John's" (Cadigan, pp. 137-138). "The two major sealing firms in the colony -- Ridleys and Munns -- had invested so heavily in sailing craft that they could not shift to steam very easily. In St. John's, on the other hand, merchants were not so hampered" (Ryan, p. 202), so the small towns lost their fleets. The change didn't happen instantly -- for a while, a few steamers sailed from ports like Harbor Grace, but they soon gave it up. "By 1896, the entire steam fleet [of sealers] was based in St. John's" (Candow, p. 43). Even before that, Ferryland and the outports on the Avalon Peninsula were out of the business.
This change also reduced the number of ships. In the early days, there were hundreds of small craft sealing -- peaking in 1857 at about 400 (Busch, p. 48). By 1900, only about twenty ships, all large steamers, would go out each year.
The fact that the sealing ships in the songs are a schooner and a sloop affirms the early-to-mid-nineteenth-century dating -- the ships were sailing vessels, and so preceded the steam sealers. Indeed, they probably preceded the sailing brigs that had taken over the bulk of the trade by about 1860 (Busch, p. 52). As early as 1820, schooners were being replaced by square-rigged ships that, although less maneuverable, were faster and so could do a better job of pushing through the ice (Ryan, p. 125).
Additionally, no steamer named either William or Nancy ever went to the ice (Chafe, p. 105). There were lots of sailing ships with those names in the early nineteenth century, although I've yet to find one from Ferryland. There was a ship named Nancy lost in 1829 (Ryan, p. 285), but she was out of St. John's. In 1834, Thomas Ryan commanded a 56 ton Nancey (note spelling) with a complement of 14 out of St. John's (Ryan, p. 472). A Nancy under Captain Kelly sailed from somewhere in Conception Bay in 1835 (84 tons, 21 men; Ryan, p. 476); so did one under under Captain Kelly (75 tons, 20 men; Ryan, p. 473). I assume this is the same Nancy as that which sailed from Harbour Grace in 1836 under Patrick Kelly, since she was also 75 tons (although she had 23 men in that year; Ryan, p. 480). Harbour Grace also sent out a 94 ton Nancy under Matthew Hudson in that year; she carried 24 men (Ryan, p. 480). In 1838, St. John's hosted a Nancy under G. Hudson (56 tons, 16 men; Ryan, p. 482). In 1853, there was a sealer Nancy supplied by L. O'Brien & Co.; her captain was named Moore, and she had 30 men; she was a small ship of 74 tons (Ryan, p. 459).
On April 13, 1847, a sealer William was caught in ice, but she too appears to have been out of St. Johns (Ryan, p. 140). Perhaps the same William (?) took in 5000 seals in 1852 in the "Spring of the Wadhams" (FelthamNortheast, p. 53); it appears this ship, under Captain Withicomb, was 116 tons and had a crew of 43 (Ryan, p. 459). A William of 133 tons, with 68 men, sailed from Brigus under S. Whelan in 1869 (Ryan, p. 490), and one of 105 tons under Captain Stone sailed from Catalina in that year with 60 men (Ryan, p. 490).
Conception Bay had several sealers named William in 1833; Captain Power commanded one of 57 tons with 18 men and Captain Green one of 123 tons with 27 aboard (Ryan, p. 474). Harbour Grace had a sealer named William in 1853, with 91 tons and 36 men, commanded by someone named Bransfield, and a second William, of 85 tons and 33 men commanded by Murphy. Conception Bay in 1835 had a 73 ton William, with 21 men, under Captain Snow. Presumably the same William (73 tons, 26 men, under Edward Snow) sailed from Brigus in 1838.
This ignores several listings of a ship Willaim (sic.) in Ryan (e.g. one such sailed from Carbonear in 1869; Ryan, p. 489, although perhaps they should count too. And I've omitted ships with names like William the King.
Also, one of the last sailing brigs to go to the seal fishery was named William; Ryan, pp. 163-164, prints a newspaper report from 1883 which read, "The brig William, Capt. Stephen Whelan arrived at this port from the Northern icefield about noon yesterday with between six and seven hundred old seals.... The steamers took the lead and kept it all spring, and as they passed through the different patches of hoods and harps everything in the shape of a seal was picked up. Verily, the days of our sailing fleet are numbered." I'm guessing this refers to the Brigantine William acquired by Bowring's in the 1870s (Keir, p. 133), but she wasn't a schooner or sloop.
As early as 1832, the sealers of Ferryland were selling their seals in St. John's (Ryan, p. 127), although that certainly isn't proof that the song dates from pre-1832.
The mentions of Cape Spear (outside St. John's) and Cape Broyle (just north of Ferryland) affirm that the voyage was from Ferryland, not St. John's.
The line "some more they were firing and a-missing of their loads" also would make more sense at an early date. Gunners initially were paid more than other sealers (Chafe, p. 25), but there were fewer of them as time passed. Shooting seals in the water didn't work; they sank. Even if shot on ice, they might try to escape into the water -- and sink (Busch, p. 47). It was easier to go after the young -- but it took some time for the sealers to make that standard policy. Use of guns was generally a fall-back, used only if the hunt for young seals failed to bring in enough pelts (Candow, pp. 35-36). And the fact that the shooters in the song were missing implies the early date when they used long muzzle-loaders to hunt (Busch, p. 47); better weapons became available starting around the 1850s.
Finally, the boast of "nine hundred fine scalps (properly "sculps"; a "sculp" was the standard name for skin plus fat) in the hold" clearly indicates a small-scale hunt. By the 1880s, a haul of less than a thousand seal was a pure and simple disaster. Even a brig with a crew of less than fifty could take in five thousand sculps (Busch, p. 54), and the steamers needed more than that to make the trip worthwhile. Taking some samples from FelthamSteamers: The Commodore averaged 15,486 seals per year from 1871 to 1883 (p. 31); the Diana, despite a disastrous year in which she managed just 476 seals, averaged 10,904 per year from 1892-1921 (p. 41); the Eagle averaged 15,816 per year from 1905-1949 (p. 47); the Imogene fully 35,643 in 1929-1940 (p. 70); the Neptune, over an astounding career from 1873-1941, pulled in an average of 18,647 per year; even the Ranger, one of the earliest and smallest, averaged 12,932 seals per year from 1872-1941 (pp. 115-116). This song is a tale of retail rather than wholesale sealing.
If the William was the one commanded by Murphy, it may have inspired more than just this song. Chafe, p. 35, tells this story:
"A celebrated old character was John Murphy an Irishman who not alone couldn't read or write but couldn't speak English except a few words. Still by hard work and perseverance he was successful and commanded his own vessel the 'William,' about one hundred tons, at the sealfishery. He couldn't remember the names of the ropes, so he had rags tied on them -- 'Pull the Red Rag', 'Let go the Rag' was his orders to his men.
"It was the custom as many of us remember to have every flag flying and the crew firing 'feue de joy' as the ship came up the Harbor.
"As she came into Harbor Grace -- He called to the gunners -- 'Shoot the (R. C.) Chapel.' Then as he passed the Point of Beach -- 'Shoot Ridley, his suppliers, and his next order as they were passing his own house -- 'Shoot my Wife.'" (According to Keir, pp. 124-125, was "shoot" was Murphy's mispronunciation of "salute.")
Believe as much of that as you want.
The word "Southern" in the first verse is often italicized, as if it were a ship name. I can find no reference to a sealer by that name, although there were so many small sealing schooners in the 1840s and 1850s that that means very little. But I suspect it should not be italicized. Rather, "Southern" is, I think, short for "Southern Shore" -- i.e. the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula. Ferryland is right in the middle of that region.
A few specialized terms:
"A rally" is "a run after seals on the ice by a group of sealers" (Young, p. 142).
"The jam" is the ice-pack, where the young seals rested, so-called (I believe) because the ships could find the ice jamming against their sides.
A "bat" is "a club with an iron hook and spike used to kill and take seals" (Young, p. 30). Compare a "gaff." - 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
- Cadigan: Sean T. Cadigan, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2009
- 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)
- FelthamNortheast: John Feltham, Northeast from Baccalieu, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
- FelthamSteamers: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Keir: David Keir, The Bowring Story, The Bodley Head, 1962
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
- Young: Ron Young, Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador, Downhome Publishing Inc., 2006
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