Gorging Jack and Little Billee

The case for the defence.

Most folkies still don’t realise that one of their favourite sea shanties, “Little Billee (There Were Three Sailors of Bristol City)”, was written by William Makepeace Thackeray around 1845 as a satire, complete with manky metre and grammar, on patriotic middle-class folkies’ enthusiasm for (parlour-ready) sea shanties. Cf. Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army” at around 01:17:

… as well as the Coen Brothers, who I think said somewhere that they made Inside Llewyn Davis simply in order to film a folksinger being punched in the face.

Musical camaraderie aside, I sing Little Billee in the Thackeray version:

I’d never really considered the exact nature of Gorging Jack’s snickersnee. From the Dutch you might venture that it is a alliterative compound of snikken (to sob) and snijden (to cut; the noun is snee). But in mankind’s affairs the cutting mostly comes before the sobbing, and the OED says that it’s actually from steken (to thrust, stab) plus snijden, and that “the st- of the first word to the sn- of the second” assimilated has been. For example, Samuel Rowlands’ Knave of Clubbs (1600) murmurs sweetly:

Pike-staffe and pistoll, musket, two-hand sword,
Or any weapon Europe can afford,
Let falchion, polax, launce, or halbert try,
With Flemings-knives either to steake or snye,
I’le meet thee naked to the very skin,
And stab with pen-knives Caesars wounds therein.

Contemporary Dutch gives us e.g. Willem Schellincx, who in “Quik” (mercury) from the great, mad 1654 song collection, De Koddige Olipodrigo (“the droll potpourri”, < the Spanish olla podrida), describes just to what lengths Monsignor de B. will go for the girl he loves:

Om Haar, wou hy hem laten tot huspot kappen, en laten ‘t hart torrenen uit zen borst.
Om Haar, wou hy hem laten steeken, snijden, villen, en braden as ien worst.


For her, he would let himself be chopped up into a hodgepodge, and let his heart be torn from his breast.
For her, he would let himself be stabbed, cut, flayed and fried like a sausage.

Tom Lehrer again provides the 20th century equivalent:

As firearms take over, in Dutch the combination of steken and snijden, thrust and cut (more logical than cut and thrust? will consult my Hackney neighbours), increasingly becomes the domain of surgeons and other carers. Take for example De huishouding der dieren (“animal husbandry”, 1865) on marmot hibernation:

De diertjes zijn koud en stijf en men kan ze in het ligchaam steken en snijden zonder dat zij er iets van gevoelen.


The little animals are cold and sniff, and you can stab and cut their bodies without them feeling anything.

So maybe Gorging Jack simply wanted to help Little Billee. Unfortunately I don’t know how to start an online petition for a posthumous pardon.

Hanseatic legionaries, playing at Waterloo and at Punch and Judy

A Hamburg organ-grinder’s dad at Waterloo, and whatever happened to his son’s Drehorgellieder?

Wikipedia implies that the Hanseatics saw no action after their triumphal entry into Bremen, Hamburg und Lübeck on June 30th, 1814, but they seem to have fought again in 1815. Here from Johannes Rabe’s excellent & principally oral history of Hamburg Kasper (Punch and Judy) puppeteers, Kasper Putschenelle: Historisches über die Handpuppen und Althamburgische Kasperszenen (1911) is an anecdote from the life of drum major Georg Heinrich Christoph Küper of Hanover. Küper joined the French in 1810 and may have gone to Russia, but in 1813, along with Napoleon’s other German allies, he smartly deserted them and joined the Legion, with whom he left for the Low Countries and even lower German in 1815. Like Thackeray in Vanity Fair, Rabe doesn’t describe the battle:

In the neighbourhood of Brussels and Antwerp one morning they marched off to the left, so that the 2nd Hamburg Battalion was at the head. Someone gave money to the child-beggars, who, turning somersaults and crying “Vivent les Anséates!”, ran alongside the battalion, and indicated to them that they should cry “Vive le tambourmajor Küper! Vive Leschew!” 1 to the following battalion. The instruction was promptly followed and elicited from those concerned the astonished utterance, “What the devil, how do the damned boys know our names!”, producing Homeric laughter in the battalion.

I am glad that Georg followed the money and ended up on the right side, because otherwise he probably would not have fathered son Georg in 1826, and Hamburg would have been deprived of a terrific puppeteer and organ-grinder. (And I hope someone makes the necessary changes to the Wikipedia pages about the Hanseatic Legion: to have been present at Napoleon’s final defeat is nothing to be ashamed of.)

Rabe’s life of Georg Junior, his family and dependants, and mid-century Hamburg urbanism is wonderful. Despite the disastrous culmination of romanticism in 1933, pre-C20th German popular culture online is dominated by idealistic fakelore – for example, the principal folksong archive doesn’t include any industrial era Moritaten. Rabe found in the archives of the municipal library 53 songs credited to Küper, and -despite the best efforts of the Allies- there are surely hundreds of barrel-organ songs out there. But the internet is not the place to look for Küper’s patriotic numbers, nor those about the 1858 comet, crinolines, velocipedes, and sex.

Georg Junior sang and worked mainly in Low German, also imitating other regional dialects of which there may still have been traces then in Hamburg districts. Reading of his exploits produces a tremendous nostalgia in me. One gag of his was also beloved of Hans W. when we made the streets musically unsafe 20 years ago in another border district and in a similar dialect: Küper would stand on a busy street and stare obsessively at a certain point. A crowd would gather round and follow his gaze, whereupon he would suddenly shout, “There! there! did you see it?” “No, no!” they would say, “I didn’t see anything!” “Me neither!” and he was off. Had-je-me-maar would also have understood.

So prizes, then, for anyone who can find the Neues Handwerkslied, dedicated presumably to his wife, “Sophie de hett eenen Küper, doch dat is een groten Süper”, or evidence of his mechanical masterwork, a portrayal of the Californian Gold Rush, documented in his pamphlet Beschreibung der Goldgruben Kaliforniens durch ein mechanisches Kunstwerk nach der Natur hergestellt. OK, or for a picture of Sophie, renowned for her cockiness, her figure and her rendition of the leave-taking song, Two friends stand hand in hand, here in a modern version:


  1. A Lieutenant Leschew was killed at Waterloo fighting with British German forces. Did the confusion re the end of the Legion arise because for this last campaign its men were raised outside whatever official channels existed and assigned to British command?

Yet more disastrous animals

Introducing my bovine concertina-playing twins, Salt-N-Pepa, and a porcine donations box.

Every real man should at least once (a) be a woman, and (b) try to conclude to his advantage a commercial transaction in the centre of Naples, which is where from a street vendor I bought these authentic Roman salt and pepper dispensers. Price: 1 euro, but if you look below, you will see that the holes are too big. My cows are seated on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

The piggy at the foot of the page is for Paypal tips and is for those who have enjoyed my performances and want to make an extra contribution. My rubber piggy is a revelatory element at markets: some children put money in him, and I like them very much, while others try to run off with him or break him open, and they will be bankers and politicians, and I love them too, obviously.

Someone asked me the other day what street entertainers will do in a cash-less economy, where piggy banks are no longer required. The answer is that they will be modified to take electronic payments, and grunt happily when the transaction goes through or bite you if your credit is insufficient. Like this:

… but better.