BOBBY SHAFTO Part 1 of 2

Recently I heard about a question on a game show which went: “Who wore silver buckles on his knees?” The answer, which I was proud to know, was: “Bobby Shafto.” The question made me think about the Bobby Shafto ditty which goes as follows:

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

The still popular song dates from the early 1700s and is now played as a nursery rhyme. It has several conflicting explanations. I delved into these and offer this story as my interpretation of what might have happened. I give it in two installments.

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Bridget Belasyse[i] lived in Brancepeth Castle[ii]. She sat gazing out of her window while her maid combed and braided her long blond hair. It was a crisp north of England morning. Birds sang, and light mists tinged with pink hung over the verdant surrounding fields. Her window faced east toward Durham City. city with its ancient castle and cathedral hidden from view in the valley of the River Wear valley. To her left was the village of Brancepeth and if she turned right and strained, she could see Whitworth Hall across the rolling countryside.

Bridget knew that the castle had been purchased by her warring grandfather and often wished that she had been born a man so that she could partake in this kind of gallantry and adventure. The closest that she had come to war was in 1745 when she was ten, and the English army led by The Duke of Cumberland raged through the countryside on their way north to Scotland to annihilate ‘The Jacobite Rising’ led by the romantic figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie[iii]. What took Bridget’s imagination was not the ruthless defeat of the rebellion but the romantic story of Flora MacDonald, a Scottish highland lass, who had aided the Bonnie Prince to escape abroad. Bridget knew that in the same situation, she would have done likewise.

It was now spring of 1760, and Bridget had just turned twenty-five, rather too old to still be unmarried, but she was headstrong and insisted that she wouldn’t marry “just anyone’’. She pointed out that her idol of feminine achievement, Flora MacDonald, hadn’t married until she was twenty-eight. She said that there was still plenty of time. Those who knew her agreed that, with her fortune and astonishing good looks, there probably was, plenty of time.

Her hair finished. She donned a bonnet and called for her velvet cloak. She went outside and walked with a resolute stride to St. Brandon’s church. Her ostensive mission was to welcome Thomas Goodfellow Shafto, the new rector. When she entered the church, its cool presence reminded her of her belief in God. She hastily curtsied and took a pew to kneel and pray. Beside the altar she could see two men conversing. Their voices echoed but strain as she did, she could not make out their words. She deduced that the one wearing a cassock must be the new rector and the other? The other, tall blond with a relaxed easy stance – surely that was Bobby, his brother. She knew that Whitfield Hall which she saw from her window was their family home, but she had never met the brothers. They had been raised in London where their father had served as politician and Member of Parliament[iv]. When Bridget began to feel uncomfortable in her strained eaves-dropping stance, she slipped out of the church unannounced. The two at the altar heard her retreating footsteps and smiled as they watched the church door close behind her.

“I hear that’s a feisty one” remarked Thomas.

‘One of the Belasyse from the castle?”

“The Belasyse, – If I’m not mistaken that was Bridget. She is monied – no other children – Her parents are elderly, she will get the entire estate when her parents die!”

“Worth a visit?”

“Yes indeed!”

The following morning Thomas and Bobby paid a visit. For some reason, Bridget blushed when her butler announced their presence. She wasn’t sure whether it was something about their voices in the church, or the easy self-assured way that Bobby had stood in the church which had intrigued her and now made her blush. She was still pink when the two entered her drawing room. She served small cakes and tea, acquired, she explained, through her father’s trading with the East India Company. They exchanged pleasantries. She mentioned that she liked to ride. Bobby was quick to follow up on her comment with an offer to accompany her. For the first time in her life, Bridget was attracted to a man. She heartedly accepted. The attraction appeared to be mutual. The young couple quickly fell into a routine of riding together every morning. They adopted a wooded dell, half way between Brancepeth and Whitworth Hall, as their meeting place. The place was damp and beautiful. That spring the ground was carpeted with blue bells. Their brilliant color spread in wonderous beauty under the trees giving the place an ethereal smell of damp earth and blossom.

Both Bridget’s and Bobby’s parents disapproved of their bludgeoning romance. Bridget’s because they wanted Bridget to marry a titled man of good means, and Bobby’s because they wanted Bobby to parley his good looks and charm into a relationship with an heiress to a fortune larger than Bridget’s. Both sets of parents agreed that a separation was required, but by the time they took action Bridget and Bobby had exchanged troths. Bridget gave Bobby a pair of silver britches or knee buckles and Bobby had sworn eternal love and marriage. Bridget’s mother called on the Shaftos at Whitworth Hall and requested that Bobby leave her daughter alone. She offered introductions to enable him to go to sea and ‘shape up’ as she put it, by engaging in meaningful work.

Bobby was attracted to the idea of getting rich quickly and agreed to join the East India Company and to ship out to India. He and Bridget met under their meeting place trees and exchanged a long farewell during which they repeated their vows of constancy and eternal love. They knew that they faced a long separation for the voyage to India alone, around the Cape, took about a year.

In order to thwart her parent’s attempts to pair her off with other suitors Bridget created a comforting song. She took an older north of England tune (circa 1690) and set her own words to it. Every morning, rain or shine, she opened her window and gazed east while she sang her catchy ditty.

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

During the day her parents and servants often heard her singing to the ramparts of the castle. She sang to the woods and dells around Brancepeth until everyone knew her refrain. Soon the servant girls took up the song. Some sang of upcoming nuptials, others of temporary separations. The song gained in popularity as it gradually passed from village to village. No-one changed the essence of the first verse for perhaps they liked the ring of Bonnie Bobby Shafto or maybe preferred anonymity for their loved ones. Some added verses to suit their particular circumstances.

There was this verse dedicated to a tall lover:

Bobby Shafto’s tall and slim,
He’s always dressed so neat and trim,
The ladies they all kick at him,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Others with shorter beaus added this verse:

Bobby Shafto’s fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He’s my love for evermore,

Bonny Bobby Shafto.

To be continued.

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End notes associated with this part.

[i] Belasyse, pronounced ‘bel- asis’.

[ii] Brancepeth Castle, originally constructed in Norman times, was purchased on April 7th 1701 by Sir Henry Belasyse, Bridget’s grandfather. He used funds accumulated during his military career.

[iii] In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II of England, landed in Scotland to lead a catholic claim to the throne known as the Jacobite Rising. The rebellion was defeated by William Duke of Cumberland. Bonnie Prince Charlie, as the ‘pretender’ was affectionately called by his followers, escaped with assistance of a local highland lass, Flora McDonald.

[iv] John Shafto Member of Parliament 1729-1742.

[v] Some believe that the Bobby Shafto song relates to a Bobby Shafto who lived in Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland and died in 1737

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4 thoughts on “BOBBY SHAFTO Part 1 of 2

  1. Much research has gone into this story, Jane.

    And I love the language – apt for the time and place.

    As Ian pointed out, Durham again. And thank you for the backstory.

    It’s interesting you mentioned East India Company. I’m currently researching the Company for a novel I plan to launch in 2020/21.

    Looking forward to part 2 of Bobby Shafto 🙂

    Cheers!
    Eric

    • Yes, I agree the East India Company was an interesting phenomena. I am sure that it is rich with possibilities for a story teller like you! As I understand it was merely a fledging in the early half of the 1700s.
      You are right some research was required even though I know Brancepeth and its environs and of course, I grew up with the Bobby Shafto ditty!.

  2. Interesting as usual. Lots of detailed descriptions to fold a person into the story. I think you’ve mentioned Durham City in some other stories if I recall correctly. Any significance there?

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