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.
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!