The Sailor’s Farewell

Naval and military men were frequently imagined returning home in the later Georgian period. The Sailor’s Farewell and Happy Return was a ubiquitous version.Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s The Married Sailor’s Return Home, 1795, restores the father safely to the bosom of his family and tenderly evokes his reunion with his young, clinging children.  Ceramics were popular too, like this gorgeous lustre plaque.



Thomas Bewick (b. 1753) even recalled that in his childhood: ‘in cottages everywhere were to be seen the sailor’s farewell and his happy return’.

Military men were persuaded to fight from the desire to defend wife and children as well as from love of country. Along with sentimental reunion it was a motif common to pro-militia writings from the mid-century. In 1756, for example, Samuel Davies claimed that soldiers’ ‘tender Children’ and wives would want the men to return ‘victorious to their longing Arms!’ Such accounts sought to inspire patriotism and restore British men’s manliness as well as hierarchical gender relations.

The cultural motif certainly had some personal value for men. On 5 July 1811 John Shaw ended a letter to his future wife by copying out a poem celebrating the constancy of wife, children and friends in an uncertain world.


In one stanza a merchant on his travels remembered his family; a second featured an injured patriotic seaman:

the water still breaths in his life’s dying embers

the death wounded tar whose his colours defends

drops a tear of regret as he dying remembers

how blest was his home with wife children and friends.

The poem concluded by observing that a man’s twilight years were drear if they drew ‘no warmth from the smiles of wife children and friends’. It is interesting that John visualised his married life through the figure of the patriotic man uprooted from his family (he was himself a travelling hardware salesman) and hoped thereby to stir more palpable enthusiasm for their forthcoming union in his future wife’s letters.

For more on this, read my book: Parenting in England, 1760-1830: emotions, identity and generations (OUP, 2012) (published as Joanne Bailey)

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