Bobby Shafto

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For other people named Robert Shafto, see Robert Shafto (disambiguation).
Robert Shafto
Member of Parliament
for County Durham
In office
1760–1768
Preceded by George Bowes
Succeeded by Sir Thomas Clavering
Member of Parliament
for Downton
In office
1780–1790
Preceded by Hon. Bartholomew Bouverie
Succeeded by Hon. Bartholomew Bouverie

Robert Shafto (sometimes spelt Shaftoe) (circa 1732-November 1797) was an 18th-century British Member of Parliament (MP), who was the likeliest subject of a famous North East English folk song (Roud #1359) and nursery rhyme "Bobby Shafto's Gone to Sea".

Biography[edit]

Robert Shafto was born around 1732[1] at his family seat of Whitworth near Spennymoor in County Durham. He was educated at Westminster School, London from 1740 to 1749, when he entered Balliol College, Oxford.[2]

He succeeded to the family estate on the death of his father John in 1742.[2] Both his father and uncle Robert Shafto had been Tory Members of Parliament (MPs).[3] He continued this tradition becoming MP for County Durham in 1760, using his nickname "Bonny Bobby Shafto" and the now famous song for electioneering purposes, defeating the Whig Sir Thomas Clavering, with a campaign supported by Henry Vane, first earl of Darlington, Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle and the bishop of Durham.[2] However, once in parliament he dropped this allegiance, supporting the administrations of John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute and Pitt the elder. He held the Durham seat for two parliaments until he declined to stand in the election of 1768.[2]

Shafto married Anne Duncombe (d. 1783), daughter and heir of Thomas Duncombe of Duncombe Park, Yorkshire, on 18 April 1774. Shafto and his wife had three children, John (1775–1802), Robert (1776–1848), and Thomas (b. 1777). His wife, Anne, had inherited property in the borough of Downton in Wiltshire and he became its MP in 1780.[2] He is known to have supported William Pitt the Younger during the regency crisis of 1788–9.[2] He did not seek re-election in 1790. Robert Shafto died in November 1797, and is buried in the Shafto family crypt beneath the floor of Whitworth Church.[4]

The song[edit]

The song is said to relate the story of how he broke the heart of Bridget Belasyse of Brancepeth Castle, County Durham, where his brother Thomas was rector, when he married Anne Duncombe of Duncombe Park in Yorkshire. Bridget Belasyse is said to have died two weeks after hearing the news,[5] although other sources claim that she died a fortnight before the wedding of pulmonary tuberculosis.[4] Even if the song was not composed about him, his supporters almost certainly added a verse for the 1761 elections with the lyrics:

Bobby Shafto's looking out,
All his ribbons flew about,
All the ladies gave a shout,
Hey for Bobby Shafto![6]

Thomas and George Allan, in their Tyneside Songs and Readings (1891), argued that the "Bobby Shafto" of the song was in fact a relative, Robert Shafto (1760–1781) of Benwell.[7] It is likely that his grandson, Robert Duncombe Shafto, also used the song for electioneering in 1861, with several of the later verses being added around this time.[4]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The date of his birth appears to be contradictory from a number of sources. Whitworth Hall claims it to be 1730, but the majority claim 1732.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Jessica Kilburn, 'Shafto, Robert (c.1732–1797)' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  3. ^ North Eastern surnames website, URL accessed 30 September 2006
  4. ^ a b c Whitworth Hall history, URL accessed 30 September 2006.
  5. ^ Famous North Eastern names, URL accessed 30 September 2006
  6. ^ I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 90–1.
  7. ^ Famous North Eastern names, giving this opinion. URL accessed 30 September 2006

External links[edit]

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
George Bowes
Raby Vane
Member of Parliament for County Durham
1760 – 1768
With: Raby Vane to 1761
Hon. Frederick Vane 1760–1768
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Clavering, Bt
Hon. Frederick Vane
Preceded by
Bartholomew Bouverie
Sir Philip Hales, Bt
Member of Parliament for Downton
1780 – 1790
With: Sir Philip Hales, Bt
Hon. Henry Seymour-Conway
Hon. William Seymour-Conway
Succeeded by
Bartholomew Bouverie
William Scott