Big Steamers

(notes by Peter Keating)

Publication history

First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent editions of the book. It appeared in Chapter XII, the final chapter of the book, called ‘George III to George V, 1815-1911’ where it carried the present title. Harbord (ORG, Verse 1, 1969, No. 990f) gives “Modern War” as an alternative title. The subtitled dates were added in IV., 1919, and reprinted with the poem in DV., 1940. Unfortunately, they make it look as though the poem was written about the First World War, though the book was published three years before the war even started. Kipling may have been moved to introduce the dates because, as he later explained to André Chevrillon: ‘“Big Steamers” was popular in schools and had a vogue at certain stages of the war,’ Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Ed. Thomas Pinney IV, 580. Nevertheless, the anomaly was recognised in the Sussex Edition, vol. 34, and the dates were deleted. Other textual changes in the Sussex: double quotation marks were replaced by single quotation marks, and the hyphen in ‘Hong-Kong’ (line 8) was removed.

There is a msical rendition by Peter Bellamy here.


“Big Steamers” is used in the School History to illustrate the importance to Britain of free trade, especially throughout the Empire, and its development since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Fletcher explains that for some years after the Corn Laws ‘it still paid farmers’ to grow most of the Corn that Britain needed:

But as the empty lands of America and Canada came to be more and more peopled and cultivated, and when the introduction of steamships brought down the cost and shortened the time needed to bring corn across the Atlantic, it began to pay them less and less.
(A School History, pp. 234-5).

It is this dependence on imported food and raw materials that provides Fletcher and Kipling with the opportunity to stress yet again one of the recurrent themes of the book – the necessity for Britain to to maintain a strong navy at whatever cost. “Big Steamers” was written to reinforce this view and Fletcher gives it the following introduction:

If England should ever be defeated in a great war at sea, it would be imposible for us to get our food at all, and
our population would simply starve. Therefore, at
whatever cost to ourselves, it is our duty to keep our
navy so strong that it must be for ever impossible for
us to be defeated at sea.

(A School History, p. 235).

The tone of those lines, and of the poem itself, make it perfectly clear they are being addressed to a young child. And, appropriately, it is a young child who takes up the challenge in a poem that is full of innocent charm, even though openly didactic. As the poem moves to its close Kipling is careful to engage his adult as well as his child readers. The first two lines of each four-line stanza are in the form of a question put by a child to the big steamers, with the third and fourth lines comprising the steamers’ reply. The child’s answers are simple variations on a theme, and the replies are equally simple responses pitched in a tone and language that the child will have no difficulty understanding.

Notes on the Text

[Title] Big Steamers: Ships powered by steam were first built in the 1820s, but it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that they began rapidly to displace sailing ships for both military and mercantile purposes. Kipling’s emphasis on ‘big’ in the title is particularly fitting. The child would have been familiar with ‘small’ steamers operating on rivers and around the coast, transporting goods and people locally. But now the child becomes suddenly aware of the presence of much bigger steamers and demands to know what purpose they serve.

[Sub-title] 1914-18:  As explained above, these dates as they appear in the Definitive Edition are rather misleading and were removed in the Sussex.

[Line 2] England’s own coal: The trading business of the steamers was by no means simply one way. Payment for the imported food was made out of Britain’s thriving exports of coal and manufactured goods. The leading role played by Britain in the industrial revolution is stressed throughout the School History and reinforced by the very next poem in the sequence “The Secret of the Machines.”

[Line 4]  your beef For the shipping of cattle, see ‘Mulholland’s Contract’.   [D.H.]

[Lines 7-8] We fetch it from Melbourne …Bombay: Trade, like the British Empire itself, is worldwide, linking great cities in Australia, Canada, Tasmania, China, and India.

[Lines 9-12] But if anything happened … or toast for your tea: The sudden understanding of the dangers involved in this kind of worldwide trade is neatly enhanced by the steamer’s appeal to the child’s self-interest.

[Lines 13-16] Then I’ll pray for fine weather … steel-rigging aloft: Although the child is now concerned at the possible loss of the good things usually served up for breakfast and tea, he/she still regards the steamers as pretty, quaint, toy-like, and, most significantly, notoriously susceptible to rough weather as sailing ships were. But the big steamers, being made not of wood and canvas but iron and steel, laugh away such fears.

[Lines 17-20] a new lighthouse … pilots … Looe: Now aware of the size and strength of the big steamers, the child suggests the building of a new lighthouse to help protect the ships from dangerous rocks and also the appointment of pilots, skilled navigators to guide the steamers through coastal waters. But the steamers swiftly offer reassurance that they are already well protected in these ways, with so many lighthouses in the English Channel that it is as ‘bright as a ball-room,’ while qualified pilots are as common as pilchards (small fish of the herring family) are at Looe ( a fishing-port in Cornwall).

[Lines 21-24] Then what can I do for you … bringing you food: The child is now, in effect, transformed into a representative British citizen, and told that what the big steamers most require is the support of civilians and protection from foreign navies which in any forthcoming war will strive to sink the steamers and starve Britain into submission. The image of the Royal Navy accompanying merchant ships through unbelievably dangerous waters which is conjured up in this stanza was to become a stark reality in the two world wars of the twentieth century.

[Lines 25-28] For the bread that you eat … you’ll starve!:  To force home the final message the child and adult are now combined. The aim of hostile countries is to prevent food reaching Britain, and everyone should be alert to prevent this happening, the child by thinking of what it will be like to go without sweets and biscuits, and the adult considering what it would mean to be denied the more vital bread and meat necessary to feed the family.


©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved