Sailor’s Hornpipe

January 21, 1788.
The Governor accompanied by Capt. Hunter & some other officers went in Boats to examine Port Jackson….The next day one of the Party took a fife on Shore played several tunes to the Natives who were highly delighted with it especially at seeing some of the Seamen dance.

The Complete Letters of Newton Fowell. 1786-1790.  Midshipman & Lieutenant aboard the Sirius, Flagship of the First Fleet on its voyage to New South Wales.

This is the earliest account of dancing in the new land – before the fleet anchored in Sydney Cove, before the convicts had disembarked, before the colony had been proclaimed – people were dancing.

Sailor 1799 by Thomas Rowlandson. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

It is likely the seamen were dancing a hornpipe, jig or reel to the music provided by one of the marines. Music for all official occasions, as well as informal events in the First Fleet, “fell under the aegis of the Marines who, in addition to providing a force of terrestrial and maritime ‘sea-soldiers’, supplied ships with drummers and pipers”.

The sailor’s hornpipe originated as a stage dance which developed into an occupational folk dance. It became popular in the late eighteenth century with the development of the hornpipe rhythm in common time, as distinct from the earlier tune which had been in triple time. A solo dance, it portrays activities in the daily working life of a sailor such as looking out to sea, hauling and coiling ropes, pumping, and climbing the rigging.

“Music and dance were a part of Georgian Naval life both above and below deck. Letters dating from the 1750s show that dancing to the fiddle, fife and, drum was an almost daily occurrence on some ships, providing a source of entertainment and exercise for the seamen, and helping to maintain a connection with home.”

Captain Cook, famous for promoting the hornpipe to keep his men healthy, records on his second voyage of discovery [1772-1775] his seamen were proficient in both country dances and hornpipes.  In 1829, G.Yates, an English dancing master, writes that few English seamen were to be found who were not acquainted with the hornpipe, some indeed ‘dancing it in perfection”. Schoolboys destined for a naval career, generally made a point of learning the hornpipe and during the nineteenth century it was included in the training of naval cadets.

Not only for the common sailor, John Palmer who came to Sydney in 1788 as Purser on the Sirius, and became the Commissary of New South Wales as well as one of the wealthiest men in the colony, was a celebrated hornpipe dancer.

Sailor’s Hornpipe: Jack’s the Lad

The hornpipe tune is characterised by staccato quaver runs punctuated by the stressing of the second and third beats within the bar at regular intervals, the phrase always ending with the distinct double stress: pom! pom!

Sirius and Supply 1789 nla

Ships of the First Fleet, Sirius and Supply anchored at Port Jackson. 1789.
Courtesy of National Library of Australia.



Included is a short list of Australian sources to highlight the enduring quality of the tune in our history. [more to be added] A Collection of Reels, Jigs, Hornpipes And Other Country Dances. Allans Edition No.23.  Tunes for the Sailors’ Hornpipe were included in the traditional repertoire of many folk musicians and were recorded by collectors such as John Meredith well into the 20th century.

The Sailor’s Hornpipe by George Davis, p.219.
Folk Songs of Australia. John Meredith & Hugh Anderson. Ure Smith, Sydney.1968

Sailor’s Hornpipe: Jack’s the Lad and Sailor’s Hornpipe by Stan Treacy, pp.72-73.
Sailor’s Hornpipe by Frank Collins, p.80
Folk Songs of Australia. Volume 2. John Meredith, Roger Covell & Patricia Brown.


British Maritime Museum. Journal for maritime research. A Scots Orpheus in the South Seas.

Cook, James, The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery. Vol. I. The Voyage of the Endeavour, 1768-1771

Denning, Greg.  Mr Bligh’s Bad Language. Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Emmerson S., George. A Social History of Scottish Dance. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & London. 1972.

Goodwin, Peter.  Men o’ War.  The Illustrated of Life in Nelson’s Navy. Carlton Books, London, 2003.

Keller, Kate Van Winkle and Charles Cyril Hendrickson. George Washington. A Biography in Social Dance. Connecticut: Hendrickson Group, 1998.

National Early Music Association.(UK)  Hornpipe Conference. 1993.

Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. The Sailors’ Hornpipe, Scottish Version.  2004


The information on this website may be copied for personal use only, and must be acknowledged as from this website. It may not be reproduced for publication without prior permission from Heather Clarke.

This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *