DESCRIPTION: "Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea, Silver buckles on his knee, He'll come back and marry me, Bonnie Bobby Shaftoe." The singer praises Bobby's appearance. (In some versions she ends by noting that he is "getting a bairn")
EARLIEST DATE: 1805 (Songs for the Nursery, according to Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes)
KEYWORDS: sailor love beauty pregnancy
FOUND IN: Britain(England(North)) US(SE)
REFERENCES (13 citations):
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore3 132, "Bobby Shaftoe" (1 text)
Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore5 132, (notes only due to a lost recording)
Stokoe/Reay-SongsAndBalladsOfNorthernEngland, pp. 12-13, "Bobby Shaftoe" (1 text, 1 tune); p. 198, "Bobby Shaftoe" (1 text)
Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes 60, "Bobby Shafto's gone to sea" (2 texts)
Baring-Gould-AnnotatedMotherGoose #153, pp. 116-117, "(Bobby Shafto's gone to sea)"
Montgomerie/Montgomerie-ScottishNurseryRhymes 75, "(Bobbie Shaftoe's gone to sea)" (1 short text)
Jack-PopGoesTheWeasel, p. 21, "Bobby Shaftoe" (1 text)
Dolby-OrangesAndLemons, p. 119, "Bobby Shaftoe" (1 text)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 170, "Bobby Shaftoe" (1 text)
cf. Delamar-ChildrensCountingOutRhymes, p. 125, "Bobby Shafto, climb a tree" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: [Cuthbert Sharp], _The Bishopric Garland, A Collection of Legends, Songs, Ballads, &c Belonging to the County of Durham_, 1834 (references are to the 1969 reprint), pp. 54-55, "Bobby Shaftoe" (1 text; 1 tune on p. 85)
Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; notes to #352, ("Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea") (1 text)
Bonny Bobby Shaftoe
NOTES [427 words]: According to Stokoe, "Tradition connects this song with one of the Shaftoes of Bavinngton, who ran away to sea to escape the attentions of an enamoured lady of beauty and fortune.... The original air was entitled 'Brave Wully Forster,' and appears so in a manuscript music book in the Antiquarian Society's possession, dated 1694."
The Baring-Goulds, however, report that the "original Bobby Shafto is said to have lived at Hollybrook, County Wicklow, and died in 1737." (They may have derived this data from the Opies.) But they add that a later verse, not found in "Songs for the Nursery," "was composed by the supporters of another Bobby Shafto -- Robert Shafto of Whitworth, a candidate for parliament in the election of 1761. He was said to be exceedingly handsome."
Jack-PopGoesTheWeasel, pp. 21-22, also speaks of this Robert Shaftoe: "Both his father John and his uncle Robert were Members of Parliament and Robert the younger joined them in 1760 when he won the seat of County Durham. He held the seat until 1768 when he moved south and became the MP for Downton in Wiltshire. It was during his election campaigns that his supporters started calling him Bonny Bobby Shafto in an attempt to win public favor.
"Robert Shafto may have achieved political success but he was apparently notorious for his bad treatment of the women in his life. The story behind the rhyme is believed to derive from the callous ending of his long engagement to Bridget Belasyse by his sudden marriage to another woman (wealthy heiress ANne Duncombe) on 18 April 1774, the eve of their proposed wedding." He died in 1797, having managed to use up most of her fortune.
The unrepentantly inventive Thomas, p. 132, managed to dig up a quote which reads "Bee-beschaft is an old Saxon word, literally accomplished messenger or scout, and is here the popular sobriquet for the limiteur or friar to whom the duty of begging provisions for the convent was entrusted."
I don't know what version of "Saxon" Thomas meant, but in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), there are no words beginning "beebe," and very few that start with "bee." There is "be-scufan," "be-schufan," "to push/thrust" (Clark Hall/Merrit, p. 44), which might be what is meant here. Nor, in checking five quite substantial Middle English glossaries can I find it as a Middle English noun; I would guess that the reference is to "biseche," "to beseech." But as a word for a monk -- well, note that Bobby Shaftoe is supposed to marry the girl, not beg provisions from her!
I wouldn't bet on any of those identifications. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.4
- Clark Hall/Meritt: John R. Clark Hall, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, fourth edition with a supplement by Herbert D. Meritt, Cambridge University Press, 1969
- Thomas: Katherine Elwes Thomas, The Real Personages of Mother Goose, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., 1930
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2022 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.