Charles Dibdin

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For his son, the English dramatist, composer, writer and theatre proprietor, see Charles Dibdin (the younger).
Charles Dibdin, 1799, by Thomas Phillips (died 1845), oil on canvas

Charles Dibdin (before 4 March 1745 – 25 July 1814) was a British musician, songwriter, dramatist, novelist and actor. The son of a parish clerk (or, according to Robert Chambers, a silversmith[1]), he was privately baptised on 4 March 1745 in Southampton and is often stated to be the youngest child of 18 born to a 50-year-old mother. He is best known as the composer of the song Poor Tom Bowling (often simply called Tom Bowling), which often features at the Last Night of the Proms.

Life and career[edit]

Early life and early successes[edit]

His parents, intending him for the clergy, sent Dibdin to Winchester School, but his love of music soon diverted his thoughts from the clerical profession. After receiving some instruction from the organist of Winchester Cathedral, where he was a chorister between 1756 and 1759, he went to London at the age of fifteen. Here he was employed in a music warehouse in Cheapside, but soon abandoned this to become a singing actor at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. On 21 May 1762 his first work, an operetta in two Acts, written at the age of 16, entitled The Shepherd's Artifice, with his own words and music, was produced at this theatre. He appeared successfully in the role of Ralph in The Maid of the Mill, for which he wrote the music: for Isaac Bickerstaffe he wrote the words and music for such songs as Love in the City and Love in a Village.

Drury Lane with Garrick[edit]

Other works followed, his reputation being firmly established by the music to the play of The Padlock, produced at Drury Lane under Garrick's management in 1768, the composer himself taking the part of Mungo with conspicuous success. He continued for some years to be connected with Drury Lane, both as composer and as actor, and produced during this period two of his best known works, The Waterman (1774) and The Quaker (1775). A quarrel with Garrick led to the termination of his engagement. In The Comic Mirror he ridiculed prominent contemporary figures through the medium of a puppet show. In 1778 he was appointed Musical Director at Covent Garden at a then huge salary of £10 (£1,112 as of 2014)[2] a week.

In 1782 he became joint manager of the Royal Circus, afterwards known as the Surrey Theatre, but three years later he lost the position owing to a quarrel with his partner. His opera Liberty Hall, containing the successful songs "Jock Ratlin", "The Highmettled Racer" and "The Bells of Aberdovey", was produced at the Drury Lane theatre on 8 February 1785. Dibdin also produced many entertainments at the Lyceum Theatre.

In 1796 he opened his own theatre "Sans Souci" on the corner of Leicester Street and Leicester Square.

Monodramatic entertainments at King Street and Leicester Place[edit]

Manuscript in Dibdin's hand of "Mourn Ye Damsels of the Court"

In 1788 he dissolved his connection with the existing theatres. Having set sail for the East Indies, when the vessel put in at Torbay because of bad weather, he changed his mind and returned to London. He then commenced a new kind of one-man-show, musical variety entertainments entitled The Oddities and The Whim of the Moment, which ran for ten years, at Fisher's Auction Room in King Street, in Covent Garden. In these he introduced many popular songs, including "Poor Jack," "'Twas in the good ship 'Rover'," "Saturday Night at Sea," and "I sailed from the Downs in the 'Nancy.'" The song "Tom Bowling" was written on the death of his eldest brother, Captain Thomas Dibdin, at whose invitation he had planned his visit to India. His monodramatic entertainments continued at a theatre which he built, the Sans Souci Theatre in Leicester Place. His songs, music and recitations here permanently established his fame as a lyric poet.

War songs and later years[edit]

Dibdin's patriotic sea-shanties (painting the simple loyalty and manly courage of the British sailor) and their melodious refrains powerfully influenced the national spirit and were officially appropriated to the use of the British navy during the war with France. In 1803 he was induced by Pitt's government, with a pension of £200 a year (£15,900 as of 2014)[2], to abandon provincial engagements in order to compose and sing 'War Songs' in order to keep up the ferment of popular feeling against France. This was withdrawn for a time under the administration of Lord Grenville, but afterwards partly restored.

During this period, in 1805, he sold Sans Souci and opened a music shop in the Strand (opposite the Lyceum), but the venture was a failure and he was declared bankrupt. He retired from public life in 1805, disposing of his stock (including the copyright of 360 songs) to a firm in Oxford Street for £1,800, with £100 a year for the next three years in consideration of whatever songs he might write. He took up residence in Camden Town, where he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1813 after which the government granted him a pension of £200. In 1810 a subscription dinner and concert was held for his benefit. This raised £640, of which £560 was invested in long annuities for himself and his family. He died on 25 July 1814 in comparative poverty, and was buried in St Martin's churchyard there. His widow placed a stone over his grave inscribed with a quatrain from Tom Bowling.

There is a memorial plaque to Dibdin on the tower of Holyrood Church, Southampton.[3]

Dibdin's families and other writings[edit]

Dibdin had married early in life, but deserted his first wife and left her destitute. He then formed an illicit connection with Mrs Davenet (née Pitt), a chorus-singer at Covent Garden Theatre, and had some children by her. In time he deserted Mrs Davenet also in favour of Miss Wyld, with whom he remained and had several further children during his wife's lifetime, and finally married Miss Wyld when his first wife died. She and one daughter only (of that union) survived him. His two sons Charles and Thomas John Dibdin, whose works are often confused with those of their father, were also popular dramatists in their day.

Besides his Musical Tour through England (1788), his Professional Life, an autobiography published in 1803, a History of the Stage (1795), and several smaller works, he wrote upwards of 1400 songs and about thirty dramatic pieces. He also wrote the following novels: The Devil (1785); Hannah Hewitt (1792); The Younger Brother (1793). An edition of his songs by G Hogarth (1843) contains a memoir of his life.

Allusions in music and literature[edit]

The tune of "Tom Bowling" forms part of the medley of English sea-songs customarily played on the Last Night of the Proms. Mr Verdant Green, eponymous hero of the novel by Cuthbert Bede, learns to row and 'feathers his oars with skill and dexterity' (Part II Chapter VI), borrowing a line from Dibdin's song "The Jolly Young Waterman." The great Victorian baritone Sir Charles Santley made his farewell performance at Covent Garden in 1911 in the role of Tom Tug in Dibdin's opera The Waterman. And in James Joyce's story 'Eveline' (from 'Dubliners'), Frank 'sang about the lass that loves a sailor' from the song of the same name by Dibdin.

Charles Dickens quotes from Dibdin's patriotic song "The Tight Little Island" in Little Dorrit:

Daddy Neptune one day to Freedom did say,
"If ever I lived upon dry land.
The spot I should hit on would be little Britain!"
Says Freedom, "Why that's my own little island!"
Oh, it's a snug little island!
A right little, tight little island,
Search the globe round, none can be found
So happy as this little island.

The song was published posthumously in 1841 in Songs, Naval and National, of the Late Charles Dibdin, a collection arranged by Thomas Dibdin with sketches by George Cruikshank. A copy was found in Dickens's library after his death, though it is unlikely Dickens heard the same patriotic message as much of Dibdin's audience.[4]

Right before his marriage, James Boswell wrote a song, "A Matrimonial Thought" which was given a tune "by the very ingenious Mr. Dibden."

In the blithe days of honey-moon, With Kathe's allurements smitten, I lov'd her late, I lov'd her soon And I called her dearest kitten.

But now my kitten's grown a cat, And cross like other wives, O! by my soul, my honest Mat, I fear she has nine lives. Everyman's Edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, Vol. I, p. 381

Two public memorials[edit]

Celtic cross memorial to Dibdin, erected by public subscription in 1889, after his original tomb collapsed, in St Martin's Gardens, Camden Town

Seven years after his death a subscription to raise a monument to Dibdin was set in train under the patronage of the Duke of Clarence and Admiral Sir George York. At a public dinner and concert a large sum was raised, but insufficient to complete the project. A second grand musical entertainment, The Feast of Neptune, raised a further £400 and the monument was eventually raised in the Veterans' Library at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich.

British politician Michael Heseltine is a distant descendant of Dibdin, having 'Dibdin' as one of his middle names. He is a fan of Dibdin's works, and was responsible for the government's erection of a statue of Dibdin in Greenwich.[citation needed]

On the west face of the tower of Holyrood Church in Southampton is a memorial plaque to Dibdin, where he is described as a "native of Southampton, poet, dramatist and composer, author of Tom Bowling, Poor Jack and other sea songs".[5]

In 1889 a celtic cross memorial was erected, by public subscription, in St Martin's Gardens, Camden Town, after his original tomb collapsed. A verse from the song Tom Bowling is inscribed upon it:

His form was of the manliest beauty,
His heart was kind and soft,
Faithful, below, he did his duty;
But now he's gone aloft.

Selected works[edit]


  1. ^ Robert Chambers' Book of Days
  2. ^ a b UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2014), "What Were the British Earnings and Prices Then? (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  3. ^ "Southampton photos: Holyrood Church". St Mary's Church. Retrieved 3 November 2009. 
  4. ^ Philpotts, Trey. The Companion to Little Dorrit. Helm Information Ltd., 2003, p. 96.
  5. ^ "Southampton photos: Towards the Town Quay and the docks and harbour". urban75. March 2007. Retrieved 7 November 2009. 


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Dibdin, Charles". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Anon (Ed.), Memoir, in C. Dibdin, Sea Songs: A New Edition (London, H G Clarke & Hayward and Adam 1846), v–xi.

External links[edit]