The Lowestoft Boat

(notes by Alastair Wilson)


In late 1915, Kipling wrote a series of articles for the Ministry of Information about the Royal Navy. These were for publication in both Britain and America, with this verse first published in an American copyright pamphlet on 19th November 1915, and later in the Daily Telegraph in November/December 1915. The articles were later published as The Fringes of the Fleet. Each piece was headed by a poem.

A recording of Elgar’s setting can be found here.

The poem

The text of this first article opens with a poem, which was later given the title “The Lowestoft Boat”, with the subtitles ‘(East Coast Patrols of the War)’, and ‘1914-18’ in the Definitive Edition. The form of the poem is derived from the seafarers’ ballad “In Lowestoft there lived a maid,” singing the praises of a young lady who, as they used to say, was ‘no better than she should be’.

This poem echoes the sea shanty ‘The Amsterdam Maid‘. For sample lyrics, see here. Kipling would, of course, also have known that Lord Byron borrowed from the shanty, in ‘So We’ll Go No More a Roving’. [D.H.]

Notes on the text

Verse 1

[Line 1] Lowestoft: a port in East Anglia, in Suffolk.

was laid: the shipbuilding sense of ‘laid down’ or ‘her keel was laid’

[Line 3] built for the herring trade: The North Sea herring fishery was a major industry for three centuries (mid-17th century to mid-20th century), and Lowestoft was a centre of that fishery. The herring shoals made a circuit of the British Isles, and the fishing fleet of boats (and the women who processed the catch ashore) would follow the shoals in a regular and seasonal progression, ending the year in October off Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The method of fishing was to use drift nets – the herring is a mid-water fish, rather than a bottom feeder – and each boat would ‘shoot’ a mile or so of nets which hung in a vertical curtain, supported by floats on the surface, with the boat, called a ‘drifter’, lying at the downwind end of the line of netting. The fish were caught in the mesh of the net, rather than being bagged up, as in a trawl net. The mesh of the net was of a size to allow the smaller fish through, thus ensuring that stocks were maintained. Overfishing and deliberate use of nets with a mesh smaller than that permitted has destroyed the fishing in the last half-century. Thus, the boat in the poem is a ‘drifter’ rather than a ‘trawler’. A drifter would be readily recognisable by her small triangular sail at the stern, used to steady her when lying head-to-wind at the end of her line of nets.

Verse 2

They gave her Government coal to burn, / And a Q.F. gun at bow and stern: As explained in the introduction, the Navy lacked small craft for a multiplicity of duties at the outbreak of war in 1914, and a whole lot of vessels were requisitioned, along with their crews, who were all enlisted into the RNR(T), and armed with a gun or guns, usually a three- or six-pounder Quick-Firing (QF) gun.

Verse 3

[Line 1] Her skipper was mate of a bucko ship / Which always killed one man per trip: In the strictest of terms, ‘bucko’, used as an adjective, means ‘blustering’, or ‘swaggering’ (Oxford English Dictionary) and always referred to a person, and not to a thing. It came to be a piece of sea-slang, and referred to a rowdy swaggering officer (mate), prone to use his fists or a belaying pin rather than sweet reason. So Kipling is suggesting that the skipper of our Lowestoft boat had been the mate of a deep-sea ship with a reputation for physical bullying of the crew. But the misuse of the word doesn’t matter, the meaning is clear.

In reality, the likelihood of a drifter skipper having such an immediate background was remote. As remarked above, the drifters and trawlers were taken up with their crews, and by-and-large the crews remained with their boat: they knew each other, and were used to working as a team, and knew the boat and her idiosyncrasies. But of course, illness and accident and enemy action brought changes, and he might have been a deep-sea sailorman in his youth.

Verse 4

Her mate was skipper of a chapel in Wales: Many of the lesser non-conformist sects in their Bethels, Zions and Zoars (chapels) owed no allegiance to any of the recognised non-conformist Churches, and their pastor and preacher might well be a layman, following any trade or profession. The mate was the second-in-command of the boat. Again, in reality, it is unlikely that a regular fisherman in the herring trade would have been “in charge of a chapel”. As remarked above, the boats followed the fish, and crews would spend the best part of nine months away from home; so no full-time fisherman could be the regular pastor of a chapel. Nonetheless, in the same way that changes to the skipper occurred in time of war, so it might have been with the mate.

Verse 5

Her engineer is fifty-eigh:t Service in the armed forces is usually confined to young men (and today, women). In Britain, it is unusual to find a serviceman over the age of forty, other than senior officers. But, and this was especially so at the start of World War I, there were many men much older who volunteered to fight. Our Lowestoft Boat’s peacetime engineer could well have been fifty-eight and would have volunteered along with the rest of the crew when his ship was requisitioned.

Verse 6

Her Leading Stoker’s seventeen: At the other end of the scale, young men, below military age, volunteered: and in the Royal Navy, Boy Seamen were sent to sea (as had been the case for centuries) at the age of 15½, and Boy John Cornwell won the Victoria Cross at the battle of Jutland in May 1916 at the age of 16½.

the Judgements:  Kipling capitalises the word, perhaps simply to signify what the future holds, whatever Providence dictates for the young stoker, work as usual or perhaps death.

Verse 7

And I’m sorry for Fritz: ‘Fritz’ was a generic name for all Germans during World War I – in World War II the equivalent was ‘Gerry’. ‘Fritz’ was a neutral expression; the pejorative words were ‘Hun’ and ‘Boche/Bosche’ (the latter being a word borrowed from the French).


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