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The Big Ship Sails on the Alley Alley O.......

3rd October 2020 @ 6:06am – by Jeremy Nicholls
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History Short Number 27

During a FaceTime conversation on Wednesday with distant friends, the date cropped up, which prompted one of them to launch into:
'The big ship sails on the Alley Alley O,
Alley Alley O, Alley Alley O,
The big ship sails on the Alley Alley O,
On the last day of September.'

because that indeed was the date. I remembered this ditty from childhood but realised that, as with so many nursery rhymes and other childhood songs, I had never given any thought to what it means. Iona and Peter Opie's magisterial Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes would surely provide the history and meaning: sadly, not a word about it. But Google came to the rescue! Space precludes me from delving very deep; suffice to say there are umpteen variations on the words of the rhyme, and the meaning of the 'Alley' is much disputed.

Manchester Ship Canal

openingofmanchestershipcanal

To our friend, the 'Alley' refers to the Manchester Ship Canal, an understanding shared by many in the Google pages on the subject. The canal links Eastham on the River Mersey to the former Salford docks. In the 1961 film A Taste of Honey, some Salford children can be heard singing the song.
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The Loss of the "Arctic"

wreckoftheu

For others the 'Alley O' is the Atlantic Ocean and the rhyme refers to the sinking of the steamship Arctic off Newfoundland in late September 1854.
'The Captain said, "It will never, never do,
It will never, never do",
The Captain said, "It will never, never do",
On the last day of September.
The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea,
The bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea, etc.
We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea,
The deep blue sea, the deep blue sea, etc.

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Foundered in the Mersey

For another commentator, 30 September relates to the Spring tides which follow the autumn equinox and that a heavily laden ship left the ship canal, taking advantage of the very high tide, but foundered on a sandbank in the Mersey. A persuasive contribution relates that before modern communications, a freight contract would specify only the month of sailing. If this was September, sailing on the 30th was fine, but 1 October would be a breach of contract. So, perhaps in bad weather or with the ship not yet properly sea-worthy, it nevertheless set sail, but with the captain grimly prophesying: "It will never, never do...".
Whatever fact or fiction lies behind the rhyme, 'The big ship sails on the Alley Alley O' is a classic among singing and dancing games. Thankfully, its morbid reflections didn't inhibit the children recorded in this delightful footage – click here.

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