Appalachia Rhymes

Bobby Shafto

Bobby Shafto

Back when we first started talking about rhymes, Bob in Young Harris put me on the trail of Bobby Shafto by leaving this comment:

I am probably of a generation of Miss Cindy. I remember a set of Childcraft Books and a My Bookhouse set. I don’t remember my first rhyme but in addition to those cited I remember “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub”. Also something about “Little Bobby Shaftoe” although for the life of me I can’t remember what it was about. Oh, and what about the old lady in the shoe, what kind of shoe can you live in?

I googled around a little for information about Little Bobby Shaftoe and didn’t find much. A few weeks later, B.Ruth left this comment:

Here is a real oldie!

“Bobby Shaftoe bright and fair
Combing down his yellow hair
He’s my love forever more
Bonny Bobby Shaftoe

Bonny Bobby Shaftoe went to sea
Silver Buckles on his knee
He’ll come back to marry me
Bonny Bobby Shaftoe.

How many days till he comes back? Jump the rope to find out!”

Bonny Bobby Shaftoe, was said to cause the grevious death of another girl, when he married another!

After reading B.’s comment I decided I had to get back on the trail of Bobby Shafto and find out exactly who he was.

Lucky for me Mike Rendell, who writes at the Georgian Gentleman, knew all about Bonny Bobby Shafto, and even better he said I could share his research findings with you.


Robert Shafto by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Bonny Bobby Shafto written by Mike Rendell

As a child I remember learning the words of the song ‘Bobby Shafto’, with the verses which start:

“Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
Silver buckles on his knee,
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Bobby Shafto’s bright and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He’s my ain for evermair
Bonny Bobby Shafto”.

So who was Robert Shafto, what did he do, and why does the song commemorate him? The answer is not entirely straight-forward for there are many myths and contradictions, not helped by the fact that successive generations have added verses of their own.

What appears to be the case is that there was originally a North country ballad sung to a Scottish folk tune which was previously given the title ‘Brave Willy Foster’. Some suggest that the original Robert Shafto was a resident of County Wicklow in Ireland in the eighteenth century. I can find no record of this apart from hear-say.

What is clear is that even if the words were not initially written about the Robert Shafto who was a resident of Whitworth, near Spennymoor in the north east of the country, he chose to adopt it as an election song. He went on to become an MP, first for Durham City (1760 to 1768) and later for Downton in Wiltshire.

If he is the Bobby Shafto then he was born around 1730, the son of John Shafto who died in 1742. He is believed to have been educated at Westminster School in London before going up to Balliol College Oxford in 1749. Both his father and uncle had served as the local Tory MP in Durham and they lived at Whitworth Hall, a fine country house which burned down in 1876. In 1891 the ruined pile was replaced with a Victorian building, now the Whitworth Hall Country Park Hotel.

Our Robert was indeed flaxen haired and a dedicated follower of fashion. He had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The portrait shows him as tall, slim and youthful. What is clear is that when he too stood for parliament he was happy to adopt the moniker of ‘Bonny Bobby Shafto’ and to use this ditty when electioneering.

The story, quite possibly totally fictitious, is that Robert was at one stage betrothed to a local heiress, one Bridget Belasyse from Brancepeth (not far from his home at Whitmore).The story goes that Bobby upped and left her, leaving her devastated. In the story she dies of a broken heart, just a fortnight after her beloved went and married Anne Duncombe in 1774. Or maybe it was a fortnight before the wedding. Or perhaps it wasn’t a broken heart after all, but pulmonary bronchitis. (You makes your choice and takes your pick).

The records show “Anne Duncombe married Mr Robert Shafto on 18th April 1774 in the private dwelling house of her Uncle, Thomas Duncombe, in Grosvenor Square, London. The ceremony was conducted by Thomas Shafto of Brancepeth, the witnesses were Lisburn and T Duncombe esq.”

So, clearly there was a Brancepeth connection, since Bobby’s brother was rector there. But whether Bobby had ever run off to sea, is not recorded.


I hope you enjoyed Mike’s research on Bobby Shafto as much as I did! Fascinating to think of the rhyme lasting through all those years until Bob was able to hear it and B.Ruth was able to jump rope to it. I’ve never heard the rhyme myself-but I’m hoping some of you have and will chime in with what you remember about it.

Mike’s website is a fascinating read be sure to click on the links and go for a visit-I know you’ll be glad you did!


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  • Reply
    Donna W
    March 7, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Bobby Shafto is a song I learned in first grade at an Iowa one-room schoolhouse. I still remember the tune.

  • Reply
    Cheryl Soehl
    March 6, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    What is intriguing is how far one can go down a path of discovery by just being a little bit curious. Now that we have the wonderful resource that is the internet, our research can lead us farther than ever before. I do have a few volumes of the My Book House series, but haven’t looked at them in a long time. Perhaps I should pull them out to see where they might lead…

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    March 6, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Tipper: Most enlighten! We had ‘sayings’ as we jumped rope – but never this one. Thanks for a wonderful read!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    March 6, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Bobby Shafto was one of my favorite singing rhymes!
    I learned it from my mother. Never used it when jumping rope, though. It is so interesting to have this
    background! Thank you.

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    March 6, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    this is a great rhyme but I never heard it or jumped rope to it but I love it.

  • Reply
    Julie Hughes
    March 6, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    I haven’t heard the rhyme, but enjoyed reading about the background. Thanks

  • Reply
    March 6, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for the info. on Bonny Bobbie. I am looking hard at 60 and I still have my Childcraft. There is nothing like them today. The illustrations are beautiful. I read them to the grandkids but now they feel they are getting to big. Sigh,Judith

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    March 6, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I never heard of this guy or the rhyme.
    That’s not surprising, I didn’t know
    the background or origin of a lot of
    the nursery rhymes we learned as a kid.
    But I enjoyed the read…Ken

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    March 6, 2014 at 10:30 am

    Our childhood rhymes aren’t always based on the sweet & innocent are they? Enjoyed today’s post.

  • Reply
    March 6, 2014 at 10:23 am

    I remember the first verse of the rhyme- my mother used to recite it for me when I was a child. She grew up in Ohio and KY and was born in 1930.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 6, 2014 at 10:09 am

    I did some research on this rhyme as well and didn’t see the connect between the bonny man or the sea…The writer of the poem may have just used the word “sea” to rhyme with “knee”! LOL…Then back in the day the poor waiting heiress may have told that he went to sea to save grace, while she was waiting and hoping for him to come back! A lot of men went to sea back then. Some even landed on our shores…
    I think the heiress got lucky, ’cause from what I read, he was really stuck on his bonny (handsome) self and fancied hisself as a fashion gooroo! LOL
    The competition between the “heiress” and self-serving Shafto probably would never have been a workable marriage. Probably just staying around the rich “heiress” long enough to get his “silver buckles” !
    I’m just sayin’ !!
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    March 6, 2014 at 9:23 am

    This was a new one for me. I did a lot of jumping rope in my day, but that was not one of my rhymes. I liked this story. I don’t have my Child Craft Books any more. I’m not sure where they are, but I am hoping that some child is enjoying them even though they are old.

  • Reply
    March 6, 2014 at 8:54 am

    I love learning the history behind rhymes…thanks for the info! I love folk tales too.

  • Reply
    Bob in Young Harris
    March 6, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Thanks! That was interesting. I think my mom probably taught it to me because it was about Bobby and I was called Bobby. And for Miss Cindy, I’ll be 67 in August.

  • Reply
    March 6, 2014 at 7:48 am

    I remember girls jumping rope to rhymes and the name Bobby Shafto being in one of them. All I can remember is the name.

  • Reply
    Judy Mincey
    March 6, 2014 at 7:46 am

    I had not thought of that rhyme in many years, but it was one we used for jumping rope. Thanks for the history lesson.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    March 6, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Iheard “Bonny Bobby Shafto” at Choestoe School, read by my teacher there. But I can’t remember our jumping rope at recess by the rhythm of the rhyme. Enjoyed following all the research on the “real” Robert Shafto. Thanks!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 6, 2014 at 7:34 am

    I’ve never heard the rhyme but I love the story. It is fascinating to find the stories behind the rhymes we heard/read as a child. I used to wonder who in the world these people were in the rhymes. When there were pictures I noticed that their clothing was not familiar to me.
    And for Bob in Young Harris, I’m 67 years old and I did love my Child Craft Book Set!

  • Reply
    March 6, 2014 at 7:15 am

    I remember singing the one verse of Bobby Shaftoe when I was very little. I learned it as “he’ll come back and marry me, pretty Bobby Shaftoe” instead of “bonny.” I’m fairly sure it was in a little music book, maybe the one that had short nursery rhymes printed along with the musical notation of the tune…straining my memory now! But I recall the tune clearly. Maybe one day I’ll record this – and the 2-verse song about the wind calling the autumn leaves – and send them to you, Tipper! I’d just have to figure out a way to do that on the computer.

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