Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling, the darling of our crew;
No more he’ll hear the tempest howling for death has broached him to.
His form was of the manliest beauty, his heart was kind and soft,
Faithful below he did his duty, but now he’s gone aloft, but now he’s gone aloft.
Tom never from his word departed, his virtues were so rare,
His friends were many and true-hearted, his Poll was kind and fair,
Ah, then he’d sing so blithe and jolly, a-many’s the time and oft,
But mirth has changed to melancholy, now Tom has gone aloft, now Tom has gone aloft.
Yet shall poor Tom find pleasant weather when he who all commands,
Shall give to call life’s crew together, the word to pipe all hands;
Thus Death, who kings and tars dispatches, in vain Tom’s life has doffed,
For though his body’s under hatches his soul is gone aloft, his soul is gone aloft.
This is a traditional song
Very few would consider this a ‘folk song’ as with any of Charles Dibdin’s songs, but it was sung to me in the late sixties by Jack Smith, a coastal bargeman, along with such pieces as ‘A-roving’ and ‘The Bold Princess Royal’. It is arguably the most famous of Dibdin’s thousands of songs. His sea-songs, it is said, never lasted long at sea, certainly not aft among the tars, though I’m sure they were sung with gusto on the quarterdeck. John’s version is almost word for word the version I have in ‘The Yorkshire Musical Miscellany’ of 1800 (p108) under the title ‘Poor Tom, or The Sailor’s Epitaph’. I might add that this is the nearest thing to a Yorkshire song in the book.
One might ask why include this song in a Yorkshire anthology, but apparently there was a real Tom Bowling and he was from York! During the nineteenth century most people just assumed that ‘Tom’ referred to Dibdin’s brother who was drowned on a voyage from the Far East, but this has been refuted by George Benson, a late nineteenth century researcher. The subject’s name was actually Edward Bowling, but he was always known as Tom to distinguish him from his father of the same name. Benson spent long hours in the Public Record office, London, searching through admiralty papers and finally published his findings in the ‘Leeds Mercury Supplement’ for 1896. He found the records for Edward Bowling and it appears he joined the Royal navy in 1779. He was also the only Bowling in the Navy lists up to 1864. Later evidence showed that in the muster list of the ‘Leopard’ for 1792-93 he was registered as an Able Seaman born in York. Captain Maude, also of York, who was thought to have persuaded him to join up, was also Captain of the Leopard.
With the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars he was rapidly promoted and in 1794 was Lieutenant of the sloop ‘Swallow’ then Lieutenant Commander in the gun vessel ‘Swinger’ until April 1797 when he was sent to the Royal Hospital and discharged on health grounds where he died shortly after.
Dibdin is said to have met him when Tom was on leave ashore at the ‘Blue Posts’ in Portsmouth where he greatly impressed everyone with his singing and congeniality. The song became instantly popular, and not surprisingly so amongst seamen. Sentimental songs, often overlooked by folk-song collectors, play a very important part in the lives of source singers.