All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor

I’ve just finished writing up a paper on images of Jack Tar between 1760 and 1860. I’ve rather fallen in love with Jack Tar. When my analytical brain was idling, I wondered why his figure appealed to me. After all, he’s often thoughtless, drunk, and womanizing.

Perhaps I am following my heritage? My family often lived in port- or dockyard-towns – from the mundane to the glamorous (Sunderland and Chatham, Venice and Genoa). My English maternal grandfather was a shipbuilder, my Italian paternal grandfather a ship’s engineer; my father was Venetian and could do the whole gondolier-punting-thing.

I have a further (weird) quirk that might contribute to this romantic yearning – a love of Hollywood golden-age films. Thus I grew up obsessed by dancing pirates, and tap-dancing sailors. Indeed, in some ways, my paper might just have morphed into a personal quest to think about why the manly sailor was so appealing – to both sexes.

I realise, you see, that it is not just me. The sailor has long been appealing. And as this image shows, the sexy Popeye still figures in the popular imagination ( He graced songs (sweet and lascivious), poems, pictures, plays, pottery, and textiles with his virile daring. New cultural forms simply adopted him. So you’ll find him in the 19th century music hall and 20th century cinema. The knowing quality of his appeal is perfectly captured in all its innuendo in the song ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor’ (1909). Here’s the chorus (you can listen to it here):

All the nice girls love a sailor/ All the nice girls love a tar/ For there’s something about a sailor /(Well you know what sailors are!) /Bright and breezy, free and easy,/He’s the ladies’ pride and joy! /He falls in love with Kate and Jane, /then he’s off to sea again, /Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!
Just to make things even more exciting ‘All the Nice Girls’ was often performed by a woman dressed as a man.

My theory is that Jack Tar always slightly sidestepped the censorious versions of manliness. He operated at the side-lines of manliness, combining just the right amount of virtue and vice: fearlessness, tenderness, fidelity, duty, and self-sacrificing love for his brother sailor, his sweetheart, and his nation. But he still loved grog, dance, and girls. The Jack Tar was thus the everyman, which aided his popularity for both men and women.

I take just one example here of how Jack Tar may have managed to have his way without being deemed too disorderly and too threatening (for the most part, and ignoring mutiny!). Why did Jack get to be a bit of a lad where women were concerned? Remember that most manly men from the later eighteenth century onwards were supposed to exert rigorous self-control. Not the sailor. I think, however, that ideas about the life-stages of masculinity helped him out here. Achieving manliness was about moving from boyhood to manhood and the navy was one of the most potent arenas for making boys into men.

So where sexual virility was concerned Jack Tar was granted some leeway because of his youth and according to whether he was unmarried or married. And of course this probably reflected the nature of naval service where most ordinary seamen were young and unmarried.[4] In Dibdin’s ‘I’ve sworn to be constant to Poll’ the sailor struggles with the temptations of women: ‘tawney, lily, and black’ in his aim to be constant. Yet his likely failure is treated light-heartedly and once he gains his fortune he promises

So I’ll bring up young tars, do my duty ashore/ And live and die constant to Poll’.[1]

Prize money was a further element of this life-phase aspect of the sailor’s manliness. Sailors were granted a share of the cash value of an enemy vessel that they helped to capture and returning sailors were often depicted in the act of proffering money to a woman.[2] In some instances this was indeed for sexual services. For example, the woman in an engraving by Rowlandson 1799 is bosomy, beautiful, and the exchange occurs in a pub.[3] Yet these images were not particularly censorious, partly because youths were permitted greater sexual freedom.


(Women were besotted enough by Jack Tar to stitch him. This is a Sailor’s Farewell)

Also, Jack was redeemable. All he needed was a good woman to make him over! So other versions of the sailor returning with prize money were more about love than sex, where the recipient was Jack’s sweetheart. In two earthenware figurines, for example, Jack greets his girl, posing with one foot resting on a box of dollars and with a bag of coins in his hand.[5] The song ‘Faithful Tom’ states the sailor’s aim:

With conquest to come home at last,/And deck our sweethearts with the spoil.[6]

In some paired Farewells and Returns, the sailor is better dressed at his return, indicating his financial improvement. In a rather more cynical depiction, Molly’s mother is shown attending only to the riches her prospective son-in-law has returned with.[7] The implication is that the money enables Jack and his girl to marry. This followed societal expectations that a couple should not wed until they had acquired enough means to support a household and family.

 Thus it is likely that the frequent image of Jack returning with cash was both a symbol of his sexual virility, but also marked his attainment of mature manhood by proving his capacity to attain financial independence through employment and to become the family provider. In the depictions of sailors returning to families, therefore, the prize money was not so blatant.

This was about youths acquiring self-control as they became men. As Isaac Land observes, in order to demonstrate more manly, patriotic status the Jack Tar was likely to be shown as self-controlled in two fundamental areas: converting battle bravery into heroism through coolness and self-composure and redirecting unconstrained sexual virility into reproductive sex. Through these acts he defended and produced a strong nation.[8]

In fact the prize money and family life that ensued were considered recompense for the sailor’s hardships and bravery. As the patronising Old Sturdy, the veteran tar of a play of the same name states:

Women, bless ‘em, they’re the sailor’s sheet anchor, his joy ashore, his hope at sea, they’re the treasures that reward the toils of life and the sweets that enable us to taste its sours without making wry faces.[9]

Thus the bravery was softened by tenderness. The bold tar explains to Poll in Rev T Browne’s ‘The Sailor’s Bride’:

I travel to the distant shore,/To bring back treasures to my dear’/For this thy sailor fearless braves/The danger of the ocean’s waves.[10]

In ‘The Sailor’s Love Letter’ the sailor tells Poll that he will be steadfast for

repaid are the perils I meet with at sea,/In the joy of returning, sweet Polly to thee.[11]

Difficult to resist that eh?

Jack Tar united a number of masculine qualities, some virtuous, some not. The intemperate behaviour, however, was accommodated and ameliorated by the good. In his figure, a bit of vice was the price for lots of virtue. Carefree, brave possessors of hearts of oak alleviated the strains of fighting and harsh conditions with alcohol and sociability. Occasional surrenders to temptation were forgiven because of their true-hearted loyalty to friends and wives.

[1] Universal Songster, p. 90

[2]Land, War, Nationalism, p. 6.

[3]Thomas Rowlandson, The Sailor’s Return (caricature) (PAD4768), National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

[4]85% of ordinary seamen were twenty-five or under and it is estimated that no more than a quarter of naval men were married, mostly the officers, petty officers and older seamen. Rodgers, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy Glasgow, 1986, pp. 78-9,

[5] C9562 National Maritime Museum

[6]Cited in The Chearful Companion, or Songster’s Pocket Book, ‘Sailors Songs’, p. 154 and in The Universal Songster, vol. 2, 1777)

[7]PW380, National Maritime Museum.

[8]Land, War, Nationalism, pp. 77-8, 83-5, 102.

[9] Robinson, British Tar , 235. No date given.

[10] Universal Songster, p. 89

[11] Rannie, ‘The Sailor’s Love-Letter, Universal Songster, p. 439.

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