Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Franklin curiosities: Songs of the North

Among the slimmest, and most delightful items in my collection is this Australian chapbook, printed entirely in letterpress, and reproducing some of the ship-board printing from Arctic vessels of the Franklin era. It's a rare hand-set example, printed on much the same technology that the sailors in Belcher's squadron used themselves, made possible thanks to the Ancora Press at the Centre for the Book at Monash University in Melbourne. Founded in 1976, it is operated jointly by the University's English department, Library, and Communications department.

Much of their printing is done on a cast-iron press made in 1857 by Hopkinson and Cope of London, on indefinite loan from the State Library of Victoria. There is also an 1890's era Wade of Halifax press (used for this volume), as well as a modern steel press made in California in 1982. The predominant type used is Monotype Bembo, an old-style Serif typeface which is the ancestor of the Garamond font family familiar to modern users of word-processing and design software. As to the subject matter, they themselves say simply that it is "generally bookish or literary," but clearly a connection with Australia, or with early or significant printing, is among their criteria.

For this volume, poems printed on board ships in Arctic service were the inspiration, and the selection is small but judicious. First among equals is the "ARCTIC ANTHEM," once sung aboard HMS "Resolute," to the tune of "God Save the Queen":

God bless the Resolute

(A ship of good repute,)

And all her Crew!

Make her victorious

Over old Boreas

Whene'er he's uproarious

Our Consorts too.

Having heard my friend Dr Huw Lewis-Jones sing these lines on more than one occasion, it is his voice that instantly comes to mind as I read them, but I also at times try to imagine the sound of the Resolute's officers and men, under the dedicated and distinguished Captain Kellett, singing this in chorus as their voices echo out through the vast and desolate wilderness of ice, amidst which, though they could not know it, they would later be ordered to abandon their hardy vessel. Also included are "The Arctic Voyagers' Song" (to the tune of "Ivy Green"), the "Traveller's Evening Song," "The Arctic Mariner," and the infamous "Song of the Sledge," to which many a sailor once man-hauled a heavily-laden sledge over the frozen wastes:

Hark! Save, or we perish -- is borne on the gale;
When such is their need, is there one that would fail?
No! Shoulder to shoulder we'll search the dark West
And smile at all toil, & ask not for rest.

The collection concludes with "Appeal to the Seamen & Marines of the Expedition," followed by "THE EPILOGUE at the close of the season, at THE ROYAL ARCTIC THEATRE, 28th February, 1851."

The Ancora Press is mainly conceived as a training ground for students who have an interest in careers related to the publishing trade; it gives them the very best sort of "hands-on" experience -- that with ink and platen, font and fond. They were kind enough to send this copy to me several years ago in hopes that my publicizing it would have good effect in keeping the program alive, which I very heartily hope that it has!


  1. Thanks for sharing this interesting book with us. I celebrate that such recopilations are done, and those old songs not forgotten. They were surely a very important item to maintain the moral of the crews. Something we can no more properly understand with our electronic gadgets, this sensation of being isolated as they were, and can barely imagine how that kind of solitude was felt.

  2. Wonder if you could help with this NLA article as it is an area of common interest - the end of one line is not clear, you might know the song - anyone can edit it.
    Context of this song of the north can be found at http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11860007
    Thanks, Steve

  3. Both these poems are in the Songs of the North collection. The missing bit of the line should read "Sailor's sad tear" -- I've corrected this in the NLA transcription.

  4. Thanks Russell
    Makes sense now.
    Much appreciated.