This text was transcribed and edited by Philip V. Allingham, Consulting Editor,Victorian Web; Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario

The Yarn of the 'Nancy Bell'" first appeared in Fun 2 (3 March 1866): 238, and republished in the Bab Ballads, a series of humorous verses published in Fun and other periodicals between 1862 and 1871, with many illustrations by the author signed 'Bab' (Gilbert's nickname derived from his having been called "Baby" as a child). What distinguishes this particular poem is its having been rejected by the editor of Punch as "too cannibalistic for his readers' tastes" ("Preface" to Fifty Bab Ballads, p. vii). In its ballad metre, internal rhyme, and dual narrative voices, as well as its subject matter, it has often been compared to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798).

'Twas on the shores that round our coast
From Deal to Ramsgate span,1
That I found alone on a piece of stone
An elderly naval man.

His hair was weedy, his beard was long,
And weedy and long was he,
And I heard this wight2 on the shore recite,
In a singular minor key:

"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite, 3
And the crew of the captain's gig."

And he shook his fists and he tore his hair,
Till I really felt afraid,
For I couldn't help thinking the man had been drinking,
And so I simply said:

"Oh, elderly man, it's little I know
Of the duties of men of the sea,
And I'll eat my hand if I understand
However you can be

'At once a cook, and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig.'"4

Then he gave a hitch to his trousers, which
Is a trick all seamen larn,
And having got rid of a thumping quid,5
He spun this painful yarn:

"'Twas in the good ship Nancy Bell
That we sailed to the Indian Sea,
And there on a reef we come to grief,
Which has often occurred to me.

'And pretty nigh all the crew was drowned
(There was seventy-seven o' soul),
And only ten of the Nancy's men
Said 'Here!' to the muster-roll.

'There was me and the cook and the captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And the bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig.

'For a month we'd neither wittles6 nor drink,
Till a-hungry we did feel,
So we drawed a lot, and, accordin' shot
The captain for our meal.

'The next lot fell to the Nancy's mate,
And a delicate dish he made;
Then our appetite with the midshipmite
We seven survivors stayed.

'And then we murdered the bo'sun tight,
And he much resembled pig;
Then we wittled free, did the cook and me,
On the crew of the captain's gig.

'Then only the cook and me was left,
And the delicate question,"Which
Of us two goes to the kettle" arose,
And we argued it out as sich.

'For I loved that cook as a brother, I did,
And the cook he worshipped me;
But we'd both be blowed if we'd either be stowed
In the other chap's hold,7you see.

"I'll be eat if you dines off me,"says TOM;
'Yes, that,' says I, 'you'll be, '
'I'm boiled if I die, my friend, ' quoth I;
And "Exactly so," quoth he.

'Says he,"Dear JAMES, to murder me
Were a foolish thing to do,
For don't you see that you can't cook me,
While I can and will cook you!"

'So he boils the water, and takes the salt
And the pepper in portions true
(Which he never forgot), and some chopped shalot.
And some sage and parsley too.

"Come here,"says he, with a proper pride,
Which his smiling features tell,
"'T will soothing be if I let you see
How extremely nice you'll smell."

'And he stirred it round and round and round,
And he sniffed at the foaming froth;
When I ups with his heels, and smothers his squeals
In the scum of the boiling broth.

'And I eat that cook in a week or less,
And as I eating be
The last of his chops, why, I almost drops,
For a wessel in sight I see!

* * * * * *

"And I never larf, and I never smile,
And I never lark nor play,
But I sit and croak, and a single joke
I have--which is to say:

"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig!"

Notes

1. Ports on a twenty-mile stretch of the Kentish coast of the English Channel.

2. Archaic expression for "person."

3. The boatswain, a petty officer in charge of rigging and sails, summons the men to duty with his whistle; "midship mate" may mean "midshipman," who is between a cadet and a sub-lieutenant in rank.

4. A light, narrow, clinker-built landing-boat.

5. A wad of chewing-tobacco.

6. The corruption of "victuals" into "vittles" (and hence into Cockney "wittles").

7. A nautical circumlocution or euphemism,the "hold" being a ship's storage compartment.

Related Material


Victorian Web overview Theater & Popular Entertainment Gilbert OV

5 March 2005