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Leaving of Liverpool

Shanties
Leaving of Liverpool

It's not much of an overstatement to say that everyone knows 'The Leaving of Liverpool': since the 1960s it has been recorded by many notable British, Irish, and American acts. But surprisingly it was extremely rare - only found in oral tradition by one man:William Main Doerflinger (1910-2000), who was active in the 1930s and 40s, publishing his work in the 1951 book, 'Shantymen and Shantyboys''. This included 'The Leaving of Liverpool' from Richard Maitland, a retired sea captain living in New York, whom he  had recorded in 1942.


The first commercial recording was by Ewan MacColl on a 1962 LP, entitled A Sailor’s Garland. Louis Killen, who was among the chorus singers for this album, recorded his own version in 1963, accompanying himself on concertina, and taught it to Luke Kelly, who in turn taught it to Liam Clancy and the Dubliners, whom he later joined. Both groups released their version in 1964, followed by the Spinners in 1966, and it spread round the world.


It is obviously not a work song: indeed Maitland told how he learned it in 1885 "I was on deck one night, when I heard a Liverpool man singin' it in the fo'c'sle ... Yessir, that song hit the spot!" But there is a version which was used as an outward bound capstan shanty for warping a ship out of dock. Curiously enough, this was also only *collected in New York, *from a retired captain, *in 1942 and *by Doerflinger.

The singer was Patrick Tayluer, who told Doerflinger "Now, these warps and ropes that we used to pull in, sometimes the warps were sixteen inches thick. They were known as 'grass warps' to sailors, and they were heavy. And the sailors used to lead a rope along there to the afterdeck, and back to the forecastle head through a snatch block, and that is the song they would sing. And when the ship was clear of the wharf, that was still known as the Landing Stage, the tug would take hold of the ship, and take her down the river, as far as Seaforth".

The words and tune of the chorus of the two versions are closely related, but there the similarity ends. The familiar version tells of a voyage in the David Crockett, a three-skysail-yarder which visited Liverpool under the command of Captain John A Burgess of Massachusets between 1863 and 1874, while Tayluer's has no specific details, but according to him deals with the California Gold Rush of 1849. With many signs of improvised lines, it certainly feels more shanty-like than Maitland's, and several verses also bear a resemblance to the homeward-bound shanty 'Old Swansea Town Once More'.

Click here for the words of Tayluer's version


Roud Number 9435
Click to play MIDI file
Song title
Leaving of Liverpool

Fare thee well the Prince's Landing Stage,
River Mersey, fare you well
For I'm bound for Californ-i-ay,
That's a place I know right well

So, fare thee well, my own true love
And when I return united we will be
It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me,
But my darling when I think of thee.


Oh, I'm bound away to leave you
By the way of the stormy Cape Horn
But I will write you a letter, love,
When I am homeward bound

So, fare thee well, my own true love
And when I return united we will be
It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me,
But my darling when I think of thee.


I have shipped on a Yankee clipper ship
'Davy Crockett' is her name;
And Burgess, he is the captain of her
And they say she's a floating shame

So, fare thee well, my own true love
And when I return united we will be
It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me,
But my darling when I think of thee.


Well, I've shipped with Burgess once before,
And I reckon I know him well.
If a man's a sailor, well, he'll get along,
If he's not, well, he's sure in hell.

So, fare thee well, my own true love
And when I return united we will be
It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me,
But my darling when I think of thee.


Oh, the tug is wating by the old Pier Head
For to take us down the stream
And the anchor is weighed; the sails they are set
So farewell, my love, farewell.

So, fare thee well, my own true love
And when I return united we will be
It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me,
But my darling when I think of thee.


And fare thee well to Lower Frederick Street
Anson terrace, and old Park Lane
Oh, I know it's going to be a long, long time
Before I see you again

So, fare thee well, my own true love

And when I return united we will be
It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me,
But my darling when I think of thee.

Recorded by Stormalong John
The Great Floating Landing Stage at Liverpool
Photo: Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, 1931
Play MP3
Leaving of Liverpool, sung by Stormalong John
Fare thee well ...

As trade grew in the 18th century, the rapidly expanding port of Liverpool experienced huge problems in loading and unloading ships calling there. They really needed a fixed mooring to tie up to, but due to the high tidal range, the level of the Mersey could rise and fall up to 25 feet. Liverpool solved this problem by constructing Britain’s first enclosed dock where, isolated from the tides, vessels could now remain at the same level as the quayside.
This dock system worked reasonably well for cargo ships, and a whole series of docks were constructed along the Mersey. But accessing the docks was time-consuming and could only be done when the tidal level was favourable. This was not too great a problem for cargo ships, as loading and unloading would often take days or even weeks, and a few hours waiting for a favourable tide was neither here nor there.

But passenger ships, especially short-haul vessels running across the river, along the coast, or to Ireland, needed quick turn-round times, coming straight into a mooring regardless of time or tide, to disembark incoming passengers and take on outward-bounders within a matter of hours. With the first Mersey steam ferry entering service in 1815, this trade expanded rapidly, and it was soon all too apparent that some sort of floating platform was needed to facilitate rapid and efficient turn rounds for this increasing number of steamers.
A landing stage was constructed in the 1830’s, but soon replaced by a far larger one, designed by William Cubitt and opened in 1847. This new stage, over 500 feet long and 80 feet wide, had nearly an acre of deck space for the passengers and cargo destined for the ferries serving the towns on the Wirral. In addition, small tenders would carry mail from here to ships anchored in the river awaiting their turn to enter the docks, or too large for the docks. Traffic continued to rise, and by 1876 a third stage was built to connect the Prince’s and George’s landing stages,
to become, at nearly one-and-a half miles, the longest floating structure in the world.
Liverpool’s passenger trade continued to grow, and large ocean-going steamers started using the Landing Stage: Cunard, White Star and Canadian Pacific liners could now tie up here instead of having to anchor in the river with passengers and luggage brought aboard by lighters.
In 1895 Riverside Station was opened, bringing boat trains from all over Britain
direct to the Prince’s Landing Stage. Passengers could now simply step from their train, walk across the Stage and make their way up the gangplank to the liner. Emigrants from Eastern Europe were brought by special trains from East Coast ports like Hull direct to their transatlantic liner, with their feet hardly touching English soil at all.
Liner traffic ceased in the 1950's, and b
y the 1970's the Landing Stage was in a sad condition, so a smaller stage was opened for just the Mersey and Isle of Man ferries. After sinking on its opening weekend, it was successfully refloated but sank again in 2006. The present stage was opened in 2012 and is used by the Mersey and Isle of Man ferries.

.. a place that I know right well.
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