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The Yarn of the "Nancy Bell" -- W S Gilbert

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(Poem #161) The Yarn of the "Nancy Bell"
'TWAS on the shores that round our coast
From Deal to Ramsgate span,
That I found alone on a piece of stone
An elderly naval man.

His hair was weedy, his beard was long,
And weedy and long was he,
And I heard this wight on the shore recite,
In a singular minor key:

"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the NANCY brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig."

And he shook his fists and he tore his hair,
Till I really felt afraid,
For I couldn't help thinking the man had been drinking,
And so I simply said:

"Oh, elderly man, it's little I know
Of the duties of men of the sea,
And I'll eat my hand if I understand
However you can be

"At once a cook, and a captain bold,
And the mate of the NANCY brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig."

Then he gave a hitch to his trousers, which
Is a trick all seamen larn,
And having got rid of a thumping quid,
He spun this painful yarn:

"'Twas in the good ship NANCY BELL
That we sailed to the Indian Sea,
And there on a reef we come to grief,
Which has often occurred to me.

"And pretty nigh all the crew was drowned
(There was seventy-seven o' soul),
And only ten of the NANCY'S men
Said 'Here!' to the muster-roll.

"There was me and the cook and the captain bold,
And the mate of the NANCY brig,
And the bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig.

"For a month we'd neither wittles nor drink,
Till a-hungry we did feel,
So we drawed a lot, and, accordin' shot
The captain for our meal.

"The next lot fell to the NANCY'S mate,
And a delicate dish he made;
Then our appetite with the midshipmite
We seven survivors stayed.

"And then we murdered the bo'sun tight,
And he much resembled pig;
Then we wittled free, did the cook and me,
On the crew of the captain's gig.

"Then only the cook and me was left,
And the delicate question, 'Which
Of us two goes to the kettle?' arose,
And we argued it out as sich.

"For I loved that cook as a brother, I did,
And the cook he worshipped me;
But we'd both be blowed if we'd either be stowed
In the other chap's hold, you see.

"'I'll be eat if you dines off me,' says TOM;
'Yes, that,' says I, 'you'll be, -
'I'm boiled if I die, my friend,' quoth I;
And 'Exactly so,' quoth he.

"Says he, 'Dear JAMES, to murder me
Were a foolish thing to do,
For don't you see that you can't cook ME,
While I can - and will - cook YOU!'

"So he boils the water, and takes the salt
And the pepper in portions true
(Which he never forgot), and some chopped shalot.
And some sage and parsley too.

"'Come here,' says he, with a proper pride,
Which his smiling features tell,
''T will soothing be if I let you see
How extremely nice you'll smell.'

"And he stirred it round and round and round,
And he sniffed at the foaming froth;
When I ups with his heels, and smothers his squeals
In the scum of the boiling broth.

"And I eat that cook in a week or less,
And - as I eating be
The last of his chops, why, I almost drops,
For a wessel in sight I see!

* * * *

"And I never larf, and I never smile,
And I never lark nor play,
But sit and croak, and a single joke
I have - which is to say:

"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the NANCY brig,
And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig!'"
-- W S Gilbert
While Gilbert is best known for his long and fruitful collaboration with
composer Arthur Sullivan, he has also written a number of early pieces,
submitted to Punch under the pseudonym Bab, that are both funny and
rewarding. Perhaps the best known is the Yarn of the Nancy Bell, rejected by
Punch as being 'too cannibalistic'.

While the Gilbert of the G&S operas had clearly matured as a poet, the above
poem still shows all of the characteristics he is famous for - flawless,
pattering verse, some painfully twisted rhymes and an often skewed sense of

Note, in passing, the similarity between Gilbert's 'elderly naval man' and
Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.



  THE "BAB BALLADS" appeared originally in the columns of "FUN," when that
  periodical was under the editorship of the late TOM HOOD. They were
  subsequently republished in two volumes, one called "THE BAB BALLADS," the
  other "MORE BAB BALLADS."  The period during which they were written
  extended over some three or four years; many, however, were composed
  hastily, and under the discomforting necessity of having to turn out a
  quantity of lively verse by a certain day in every week.  As it seemed to
  me (and to others) that the volumes were disfigured by the presence of
  these hastily written impostors, I thought it better to withdraw from both
  volumes such Ballads as seemed to show evidence of carelessness or undue
  haste, and to publish the remainder in the compact form under which they
  are now presented to the reader.

  It may interest some to know that the first of the series, "The Yarn of
  the NANCY BELL," was originally offered to "PUNCH," - to which I was, at
  that time, an occasional contributor.  It was, however, declined by the
  then Editor, on the ground that it was "too cannibalistic for his readers'

        -- W. S. Gilbert, Preface to 'Fifty "Bab" Ballads - Much Sound and
        Little Sense'

For more about Gilbert, see poem #87

75 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Phil Barr said...

I love this poem with fond memory of mom reciting it to us kids around the campfire at night. Been thirty-seven years since I heard it, never read the original yet could still recall the opening verse and refrain well enough to google it. A pleasure to be memorizing Nancy Bell again. Can't wait to take some kids camping! --Phil Barr 20031105

Peter G. Mercer said...

Phil Barr?
It is at least 50 years since my uncles recited the "Nancy Bell" at Christmas. I also learned it by heart, and am surprised to find that "our" version has an extra verse inserted before the two final ones.

"But never more with man nor boy
Shall I stuff this cannibal skin."
"Cheer up old man, 'tis only those who plan such murders
Are guilty of sin."

I think it a worthwhile addition.
Does anyone else know where it came from?
They also left out verse 16, because it is too difficult I assume.

Peter G Mercer

Barry Brown said...

Can anyone tell me what Gilbert means by a "thumping quid"?

Barry Brown

ann gardiner said...

My father would recite poetry all night long to the amusement and amazement of young and old. He often would put us to bed with "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell" and eventually I learned it and have recited it and other of my father's delightfully gruesome ballads such as R. W. Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and The Shooting of Dan MCGrue" for my own children. Now one of my children wants to learn the Yarn and I knew I'd want a correct version, since mine was strictly verbally passed on.
George Gardiner

Mantler Milt said...

A "thumping quid" I always assumed refers to a wad of chewing tobacco.

G.K. Chesterton included a phrase from this poem in his classic "The
Higher Unity." Also a humorous parody on cannibalism.

Milton B Mantler
Gurley, AL

Daryl Brown said...

A quid is the wad of chewing tobacco he had in his mouth,I think they sometimes mixed it with gunpowder so maybe that made it thumping.

margaretbrown06 said...

Hi, I first came across 'The Yarn of the Nancy Bell' last year when I was
clearing out some of my daughter's (now aged 40) old school books. The Yarn is
included in TOUCHSTONES 1 by Michael and Peter Benson - New School Series
and published by Hodder and Stoughton and first published in 1968.
I have no idea if they actually studied this particular poem.
Must admit I rather like it. It simply rolls offf the tongue .... and I can
see it for what it actually is - a wonderfully funny yarn.

Lindsey Philpott said...

The "thumping quid" spoken of was the large wad of tobacco that was chewed upon by sailors as has been done in recent years (no more now, I think) by baseball players. The expression "thumping" is British as far as I know and means "large" or strikingly big of its kind (OED fr. 1660), although I could not tell you from which dialect it derives. The expression "quid" derives, according to A. Ansted, "A Dictionary of Old Sea Terms", 1897 from the word "cud" which in turn derives from the word chuti or quiti in the Old High German language meaning glue.

A sailor friend of mine, Mr. Al Sorkin, was known to recite the tale of the Nancy Bell to late-night shanty-singers on board of the brig "Pilgrim" in Dana Point, and he followed every verse with moves and intonation that exactly portrayed the actions of the "crew of the Nancy brig", including the ejection of a (fake) quid of tobacco! Al played the part of the Master-at-Arms in the movie "Master & Commander" starring Russell Crowe.

Lindsey (squarerigger)

Smallhrkrmr said...

A thumping quid is a large chew of tobacco.


Roy and Jean Small
Goose Pond Kennels
4570 Highway 13 West
Harrisburg, ILPhone

Gordon M Clark said...

I think you have the date in error. 29 July 1999(sic).

Gordon M. Clark


Summerland, BC

gordon poole said...

My Dad exposed me to this poem. I recited it in a talent context at my
high school in Malden, Massachusetts, in about 1951. Since I had won a
prize the year before reciting a piece called "Foolish Questions," I
couldn't win another, although my brilliant recitiation certainly deserved
I think the "thumping quid" was chewing tobacco, and in my performance I
acted it out in that sense, pretending to spit.
Gordon Poole

Sonya Robinson said...

read this many a year ago when I was in high school. graduated in
1971. found it misquoted in a science fiction book.

Sonya Robinson said...

thumping quid....large plug of chewing tobacco. nasty habit.

gordon poole said...

Dear Sir:
It seems to me that the addition you cite does not scan right with the
meter and rnhyme of the rest of the ballad.

gordon poole said...

My Dad exposed me to this poem. I recited it in a talent context at my high
school in Malden, Massachusetts, in about 1951. Since I had won a prize the
year before reciting a piece called "Foolish Questions," I couldn't win
another, although my brilliant recitiation certainly deserved one!!!
I think the "thumping quid" was chewing tobacco, and in my performance I
acted it out in that sense, pretending to spit.
Gordon Poole

Rcschroter said...

The date confuses me. I learned this poem (ditty) in an English class when I
was in Junior High School in Baltimore. I am writing about reminisces for my
grandchildren and having lost some of the lines was searching for references
on the web. I am now 79. I originally learned this in about 1940. Who was
the original author?

fcj1w said...

To Barry C Brown,Gilbert meant a chew of tobacco, Fred Johnson

Chris Cameron said...

For Barry Brown

'thumping quid'

quid 'a cut of something to be chewed, such as tobacco (dialect variant of cud)

Therefore 'thumping quid' would refer possibly to the size in that it thumped to the ground when he got rid of it.

I'm not smart, just had a good dictionary - Readers Digest Universal Dictionary!

Chris Cameron Tasmania

Michael Carrington said...

it means a large plug of chewing tobacco

M.W. Carrington

Tommy Brown said...

A Thumping Quid? Is I suppose a sleeping Leg, so he stomps it on the ground
so he could stand up.

The last verse

"But never more with man nor boy
Shall I stuff this cannibal skin."
"Cheer up old man, 'tis only those who plan such murders
Are guilty of sin."

Tommy Brown

Quote of the Week:
It's so much easier to suggest solutions when you don't know too much about
the problem. - Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990)

Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Albert Einstein (1879-1955).

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are
putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it. - Mark Twain, author and
humorist (1835-1910)

"If your only measure of value is color, then you shall never appreciate
the transparency of diamonds."

“In the arena of human life, the honors and rewards fall to those who show
their good qualities in action.”

Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more
difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
-- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

There are three enemies of personal peace regret over yesterday's mistakes,
anxiety over tomorrow’s problems and ingratitude for today's blessing.

Experience is always expensive.
It is the only thing, which cannot be gained without paying the price.

R.G.McCracken said...

A quid is a mouthful of chewing tobacco

Sonia Cashman said...

Hi Barry,
My father used to sing The yarn of the Nancy Bell, usually after copious quantities of anything alcoholic.
He told me that a "quid" was a bite off of a piece of chewing tobacco.
So a "thumping quid" was a large mouthful of tobacco, and obviously to get rid of it meant spitting it out.
I hope this clears up your confusion. Pete Cashman, Bath, England.

Herb B said...

Thumping quid is coughing up phlem.

Robin Dawes said...

"A thumping quid" would refer, I believe, to a major expectoration -
probably of the delightful mix of fluids that accumulate when one chews

PJ and CJ Chapman said...

Re Yarn of the Nancy Belle - "a thumping quid" is a large glob (a quid) a chewing tobacco spat out.

Jonathan Winthrop said...

I chaw of tobacco, I presume.

Michael_Ellis said...

A "thumping quid" is a wad of tobacco.

Edward Singer said...

The "thumping quid" refers to a mouth full of "chew". Getting rid means he
spit it out. I learned this poem fifty years ago for English Class in High
School and never forgot it.

Anonymous said...


Francis Vereecke said...

Where can I find the music of the song by Alfred Plumpton?

Mr Niggle said...

I'm looking for the same thing, because it's mentioned in nescio

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