Billyboy Steve Gardham
What’s that boat that I can see, billyboy, billyboy,
What’s that boat that I can see, me billyboy,
What’s that boat that I can see?
It’s a billyboy for me.
Chorus: I was skipper of a clipper, now a charming billyboy.
She’s as trim as any craft, billyboy, billyboy,
She’s as trim as any craft, me billyboy,
She’s as trim as any craft,
And she’s well rigged fore and aft.
She was built in Dunston’s Yard, billyboy, billyboy
She was built in Dunston’s Yard, me billyboy,
She was built in Dunston’s Yard,
And her bottom was well tarred.
Can you tell us where she went, billyboy, billyboy,
Can you tell us where she went, me billyboy,
Can you tell us where she went?
Up the Ouse and down the Trent.
Well can you take her out to sea, billyboy, billyboy,
Can you take her out to sea, me billyboy,
Can you take her out to sea?
Aye, as far as Yarmouth Quay.
In Goole docks is where we coaled her, billyboy, billyboy,
In Goole docks is where we coaled her, billyboy,
In Goole docks is where we coaled her,
Then we fuelled up all the trawlers.
In a calm or in a gale, billyboy, billyboy,
In a calm or in a gale, me billyboy,
In a calm or in a gale,
The old lass will never fail.
The heyday of the billyboy was undoubtedly the nineteenth century. Before that time the vessels resembling the billyboy on local paintings were all Dutch bijlanders or hoys, and when the steam coaster was introduced it soon became redundant.
Its design was based upon the Dutch bijlander, as its name implies a craft that could sail across the North Sea and also inland (by-lander). It had a bluff stern and bows but sheer sides and was designed to navigate the canals and the coast. No doubt some of its features such as removable masts were evolved from the Humber keel and sloop that for many centuries had navigated the estuary and its tributaries, but unlike these it had bulwarks and usually 2 masts to tackle more difficult waters. Lee boards were used on all 3 craft as on the Dutch vessels.
Billyboys came in a variety of sizes and rigging. Smaller versions were designed to go far inland using the fast developing canal system and indeed lock dimensions were altered so that billyboys could use them along with the sloops and keels. They could be rigged as brigs, ketches or sloops with a mixture of square and fore and aft sails.
The name billyboy has two suggested origins. In the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries Hull people were notable as being particularly ardent followers of William III, King Billy, as attested by his gilded statue in Lowgate. It is claimed that through this Hull people became known by outsiders as Billy Boys and that by association the unusual ships first built at Hull became known by that name. A more plausible origin is that ‘billy’ is a natural shortening of ‘bijlander’ and ‘boy’ is a short step from ‘hoy’. By the early nineteenth century these vessels were mostly being built further inland at places like Knottingley, Goole and Selby.
Unlike the preservation of the many Thames barges very few people in the Humber region thought of preserving local vessels until after World War II when the only billyboys left were rotting hulks well beyond repair. The Humber Keel and Sloop Preservation Society and a few others managed to preserve keels and sloops as these were still being built in the 1920s but sadly no billyboy.