‘The Wreck of Nancy Lee’, discussed by Australian Folklorist, Warren Fahey (AM)

Lantern Slide - 'The Wreck of the Nancy Lee', Part 1, circa 1932 -1956. Found on: Heritage in the Limelight's aggregated Collection Explorer, slide belonging to Museums Victoria Collection, MV.MM97437.

This is most likely the last slide anyone would consider selecting as a favourite. It is dull as dishwater and has no image other than the roughly typed words to selected verses from a song about a shipwreck. Yet, like many slides, it tells multiple stories.

‘The Wreck of the Nancy Lee’ was a popular song written by Arthur Le Clerq in 1931. Le Clerq was British and a composer of mainly novelty songs including ‘Nobody Loves A Fairy When She’s Forty’, ‘Tan Tan-Tivvy Tally Ho’ and ‘There’s Another Trumpet Playing In The Sky’. Undoubtedly, Le Clerq’s most successful song was ‘The Wreck of the Nancy Lee’, which became colloquially known as ‘He Played His Ukulele As The Ship Went Down’.

As a cultural historian who tracks songs, this song has fascinated me. Although recorded by only a handful of singers it was widely known. In 1999 I wrote an article in the Australian National Maritime Museum’s journal Afloat, calling for readers to send me fragments of any old maritime songs. I lost count of the number of people who sent versions of ‘The Wreck of the Nancy Lee’. Many thought it was a very old song, “possibly early1800s”. The contributed verses testified to its popularity and the fact it had entered what we call ‘the oral tradition’. There were also several interesting bawdy versions.

Jack Hayward was a ‘community singing leader and conductor’ from the Sydney suburb of Lakemba. He is represented by a large collection of slides, held at Museums Victoria, featuring popular songs for community singing. Favourites include ‘After The Ball’, ‘Don’t Bring Lulu’, ‘Bull and Bush’, ‘Little Sir Echo’, “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man’, ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ and Ramona’. There are few reviews of the style of evening Jack Hayward presented so we must assume he led the singing and conducted the audience (1).

Hayman was obviously no slouch as a self-promoter. In 1936 he organised a contest between Arthur Davis, a champion axe man, and himself - to push a billiard ball across an improbable course (2). We know that Jack Hayward served in World War Two and, near the end of the war, relocated to Victoria. His war duty appears to have been with the Entertainment Division (3). Hayman was also a pianist and had performed in England alongside some of the greats, including George Formby and Vera Lynne.

Although ‘The Wreck of the Nancy Lee’ is a basic typed slide, others Hayward’s slides appear to have been prepared and, possibly, given to him free of charge, by music publishers like J. Albert & Son, and Sterling Music Publishing Co. These were usually ‘hits of the day’, sometimes, like ‘Ramona’ (1928) were taken from current motion pictures. Get the audience singing and you sell music!

 

(1) See e.g. ‘Community Concert’, Propeller (Hurstville), 31 December 1936, 1.

(2) ‘Billiard Ball Marathon’, Propeller (Hurstville), 16 July 1936, 8; ‘Billiard Ball Push’, Propeller (Hurstville), 30 July 1936, 6.

(3) ‘Navy Entertainer’, Standard (Frankston), 27 July 1944, 7.

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