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Origins: Bobby Shafto

Not Bobby Shafto. Damn pretty, though.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
Silver buckles at his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

Bobby Shafto’s bright and fair,
Combing out his yellow hair;
He’s my love for evermair,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

Sung to the tune of a sea shanty, Bobby Shafto appears for the first time in print in 1805, but is known to have been popular in the North East of England at least forty years earlier when it was sung in support of the titular Robert Shafto’s son, also named Robert, when he ran for parliament. At this time another verse was sometimes added:

Bobby Shafto’s looking out,
All his ribbons flew about,
All the ladies gave a shout,
Hey for Boy Shafto!

Unlike most of the posts in this series, we can say with some certainty who Bobby Shafto is. Onetime owner of Beamish Hall, now a hotel, the song is said to be the story of Bridget Belasyse, a noble woman to whom he was engaged, whose heart was broken when Shafto married Anne Duncombe, heiress to Duncombe Park in Yorkshire, on the eve of his proposed marriage to Belasyse. It was once said that Belasyse died of a broken heart just two weeks after the marriage, but new research suggests she actually died of tuberculosis shortly before the proposed wedding date.

A prolific spender, Shafto purportedly powered through the money his wife had brought to the marriage, wooing the ladies all the while.

While this Robert Shafto is almost certainly the Robert Shafto of the rhyme, the story of his profligacy and broken engagement is unverified.


One response »

  1. Other verses that I grew up singing:

    Bobby Shaftoe’s tall and slim
    Aye dressed up so neat and trim
    All the lasses keek (stare) at him
    bonny Bobby Shaftoe

    Bobby Shaftoe’s getten a bairn
    for to dandle on his airm
    on his airm and on his knee
    bonny Bobby Shaftoe

    which somehow makes the whole story about the jilted bride that bit sadder.


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