You shall have a Fishy!

The famous English folk song, When the Boat Comes In, is best known as the theme tune for the 1970s drama series of the same name, but its origins date back around 150 years earlier. The traditional lyrics relate to a father returning to his family, after a stint at sea working on a fishing vessel.

The song originated in Northumbria, with the lyrics written in local dialect by William Watson in 1826, under the alternative title, Dance to your Daddy. Born in Tyneside in 1796, Watson was a songwriter and concert hall singer around Newcastle, although he was also a painter and decorator by trade.

Fishing Boat

© Bernard GIRARDIN / Adobe Stock

He had moved to London to try and forge a career on the stage, writing a song called Thumping Luck, but he became homesick. He travelled back from the south coast by ship to the Port of Tyne, near Newcastle, in 1829. This appeared to be his only personal experience of life at sea!


Fishy lyrics

Published in the collection, Joseph Robson’s Songs of the Bards of the Tyne, in 1849, When the Boat Comes In was his most famous song. The narrator is telling a little boy, called Jacky, “Thou shalt have a fishy on a little dishy, thou shalt have a fishy when the boat comes in.”

Jacky’s father, Tommy, is a fisherman and the third verse (sung from his wife’s point of view) describes how “he’s so fond of ale,” but is kind to her, regardless of his drinking. Every verse ends with the mother telling young Jacky which fish he will have when his dad’s boat comes in. Many different species are mentioned – including haddock, bloater, mackerel and salmon.


BBC drama series

In 1976, a new BBC drama series had When the Boat Comes In (sung by Alex Glasgow) as its theme song.

Glasgow was a singer and songwriter from Gateshead when he was commissioned to record the title song for When the Boat Comes In. The miner’s son also recorded the incidental music for the show and wrote some of the scripts. The theme song was released as a single and was a chart hit, but Glasgow refused to perform it on Top of the Pops, saying, “I’m not a commodity!”

The series ran until 1981 and starred James Bolam as a World War I veteran called Jack Ford, who returned to his impoverished home town of Gallowshield, in northeast England, after the war ended in 1918. The series followed Ford’s struggles through the 1920s and 1930s. He was a political activist, rather than a fisherman.

The idea of the boat coming in referred not to a fishing catch, but to the changing of one’s fortune.


Historic industry

In the early 19th century, when the song was written, fishing was a traditional industry that dated from the Middle Ages in England. In the west of Cornwall, it was one of the main industries, supporting whole communities. Penzance was the main fishing port at one time, but the area diversified into tin mining and the fishing vessels and fish merchants moved to Mousehole and Newlyn in the late 17th century.

Fishing methods and processing changed little until the late 19th century. Pilchards were the main catch and in the late 18th century, mackerel became equally important. Pilchards were fished heavily until the 1960s and there are still some vessels pilchard-fishing today.

Until the late 19th century, there were three traditional methods of fishing: hook or handlining, drifting and seining. Today, there are numerous types of commercial fishing methods in use.

There are still many fishing villages in Cornwall, with one of the most famous commercial ports being Newlyn, where there is a vibrant fish market.

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