Bobby Shafto's Gone to Sea

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"Bobby Shafto's Gone to Sea"
Sheet music
Nursery rhyme

"Bobby Shafto's Gone to Sea" or "Bobby Shafto" (frequently spelt Shaftoe) is an English language folk song and nursery rhyme. It has a Roud index number of 1359.


The most common modern version is:

Bobby Shafto's gone to sea,
Silver buckles at his knee;
He'll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!
Bobby Shafto's bright and fair,
Panning out his yellow hair;
He's my love for evermore,
Bonny Bobby Shafto![1]

This is very close to the earliest printed version in 1805. A version published in John Bell's, Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812) gives this additional verse:

Bobby Shafto's getten a bairn,
For to dangle on his arm;
In his arm and on his knee,
Bobby Shafto loves me.[1]

Other publications have made changes to some of the words, including the spelling of the last name:

Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He'll come back and marry me,
Pretty Bobby Shaftoe!
Bobby Shaftoe's fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He's my love for evermore,
Pretty Bobby Shaftoe![2]


The Opies have argued for an identification of the original Bobby Shafto with a resident of Hollybrook, County Wicklow, Ireland, who died in 1737.[1] However, the tune derives from the earlier "Brave Willie Forster", found in the Henry Atkinson manuscript from the 1690s,[3] and the William Dixon manuscript, from the 1730s, both from north-east England; besides these early versions, there are two variation sets for Northumbrian smallpipes, by John Peacock, from the beginning of the 19th century, and by Tom Clough, from the early 20th century. The song is also associated with the region, having been used by the supporters of Robert Shafto (sometimes spelt Shaftoe), who was an eighteenth-century British Member of Parliament (MP) for County Durham (c. 1730–97), and later the borough of Downton in Wiltshire.[1] Supporters used another verse in the 1761 election:

Bobby Shafto's looking out,
All his ribbons flew about,
All the ladies gave a shout,
Hey for Boy Shafto![1]

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.[4]

Thomas & George Allan, in their illustrated edition of Tyneside Songs and Readings (1891), argued that the "Bobby Shafto" of the song was in fact his son, although his father fits the description of the lyrics better.[5] In reality, 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.[6]

In culture[edit]

In literature[edit]

In film[edit]

  • The character is referred to in the Laurel and Hardy 1934 feature Babes in Toyland. During the song, "Never Mind, Bo Peep" (regarding her lost sheep), we hear the following: "Where they are hiding, Tom Tucker may know; Simon or Peter or Bobby Shaftoe."
  • In the movie The Caller both the protagonist and antagonist sing a verse.

In television[edit]

  • The tune was included in the "Three Rivers Fantasy" by composer Arthur Wilkinson, as the daily opening theme for Tyne Tees Television.[7]
  • The TV series The 4400 episode "The Marked" also mentioned a fictitious movie in which a character, an ex-marine called Robert Shafto, was named as the killer of JFK, likely a reference to Cryptonomicon, where Bobby Shaftoe was also a marine.
  • The TV series "M*A*S*H" season 7, episode "The Young and the Restless" Major Charles Emerson Winchester III refers to a young doctor as a "Bobby Shaftoe."
  • On the 31 March 1958 episode of the TV game show "You Bet Your Life," Groucho Marx stumps guest Ernie Kovacs with the question, "Who went to sea, silver buckles at his knee?
  • In Upstairs Downstairs, Ruby sings the song in the season 3 episode "Word of Honour".

In philosophy[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 90–1.
  2. ^ Mother Goose (Rand McNally & Company, 1946).
  3. ^
  4. ^ Famous North Eastern names Archived September 7, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, URL accessed September 30th, 2006.
  5. ^ Famous North Eastern names Archived September 7, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, giving this opinion. URL accessed September 30th, 2006
  6. ^ Whitworth Hall, retrieved 22/04/09
  7. ^ Arthur Wilkinson tribute Archived May 31, 2009, at the Wayback Machine by Gavin Sutherland, URL accessed July 1, 2008

External links[edit]