Friday, March 17, 2017

Some Theories About The Origin & Meaning Of "The Big Ship Sails On The Alley Alley O" Singing Game

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides comments about the origin and meaning of the British singing game "The Big Ships Sail On The Alley Alley O". Lyrics and videos of that singing game are also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, cultural, and recreational purposes.

I include comments from other online sources in part to help ensure that that information is retained and disseminated. Another reason that I quote comments from other sources is that some of the comments in those discussion threads may be extraneous to the stated reason for that discussion. Be that as it may, I encourage pancocojams visitor to visit those linked articles/blogs to read their entire content.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to all those who are featured in this video. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.
Disclaimer: The comments about the origin and meanings of "Big Ship Sails" are meant to document some of the theories about the origin and meaning theories of this singing game.

I've no idea what the real origin and meaning of "The Big Ship Sails On The Alley Alley O" (although I'm leaning toward the last explanation given in this post).

Some theories can be discounted because versions of that singing game are documented before the events that spawned those theories. But perhaps the real origin and meaning of this singing game may never be known and may never be agreed upon.

This post grew out of this pancocojams post about "thread the needle" singing games: "Thread The Needle" Games In Britain, The United States, The Cameroons, & Jamaica

I added a video of "The Big Ships..." to that pancocojams thread [given below as Video Example #1] because it is an example of a "thread the needle" singing game.

A visitor's comment from that post is also included in this post along with this portion of my comment:
..."I hesitated to publish a separate post on "The Big Ship" singing game because this blog focuses on music and dance and other cultural indices from Africa and the Black African Diaspora and I don't want to give the impression that "The Big Ships" singing game is of Black African origin or that variants of that singing game were composed by people of African or Black African descent. [If so, I don't know of any.]

But it occurred to me that other children's rhymes and other children's singing games that I've showcased on this blog don't meet those criteria, but were (sometimes; also) played by people of African or Black African Diaspora descent* the same way that non-Black people played them....

*For what it's worth, I don't remember "The Big Ships" or "The Dusty Bluebells" from my childhood (in the 1950s in New Jersey). I don't think either one of those singing games were/are well known and independently played by children in the USA (without teacher or other adult direction).

Of course, I might be wrong about that.

Example #1: Ally Ally Oh

Vincent Bates, Uploaded on Mar 23, 2011
Oh, the big ships are sailing down the Ally Ally Oh, the Ally Ally Oh, the Ally Ally Oh.
Oh, the big ships are sailing down the Ally Ally Oh. Hey, ding dong day.

Example #2: The Big Ship Sails On The Alley Alley O -(Lyrics) Trad Arr P.M.Adamson

Peter M. Adamson Published on Aug 13, 2013

The origins of this song are somewhat mixed but general consensus seems to imply links to The Manchester Ship Canal, Liverpool Docks and The Atlantic Ocean. The Canal is often referred to as the gateway to the Atlantic. There are some suggestions that the song was sung at the Opening of the canal in 1894. The word 'Alley' could refer to the canal as a passage (Entry's in Salford were called Back Alley's) but it could also be the Alley as in Atlantic,the O being for Ocean or merely a child's addition in song. The song was also used for a children's game involving movement. The song was also sung in a Rita Tushingham /Dora Bryan film set in Manchester called 'A Taste of Honey'. The instrumental middle features the Tune 'Portsmouth' which I included because of it's Nautical connection.
Here are some comments from this video's discussion thread
Leatheryed1, 2015
"I suspect that it is actually from the French: 'à l'eau' which means 'at the water'?"

"+Peter M. Adamson Yes it is interesting that the French term would fit in this song so neatly. Maybe it was originally a French song or a song that sailors came back from France with that they modified? Some fascinating origins that a lot of our British stuff came from!"...
This continues with comments about another children’s rhyme “'Higgledy Piggledy,”

Peter M. Adamson, 2015
"+Leatheryed1 You may be on to something regarding origins of this song as many songs were transported across the waters and while there seems to be no explanation of the origins of the Big Ship there could well be something in your theory. If the song did originate in Manchester it would not be unreasonable as The Docks were there and naturally intercontinental travellers. As a child, in the 1950's I only remember The Guinness Boat and The Banana Boat both from The Atlantic direction but nonetheless there must have been ships from all over the world docking there and of course the song was sung long before then.The more I think about it the more I think you are right on this"...
This continues with comments about the “Higgledy Piggledy” rhyme.

These comments are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.
Excerpt #1:

Subject: RE: Lyr Req: The Big Ship Sails ^^
From: roopoo
Date: 08 Nov 99 - 02:28 AM

"I can remember as a small child at school in Buxton, we all held hands in a line. The person on the end of the line put their right arm on the wall and then the others went under, the kid by the wall letting their left arm follow through to cross the arms. The line the went under the arch made by the first kid's left arm and the next kid's right and so on, until all had their arms crossed in front. They then made a circle, still with arms crossed, and sort of twisted left and right as they chanted the follow-on rhyme so that their arms (in front of their bodies at waist height) sort of slid up and down each other. I think the Big Ship song was finished off before the follow-on chant started:
Ip dip dip, my blue ship, Sailing on the water like a cup and saucer ip dip dip, my blue ship, O-U-T spells out!

At this point the memory is getting a bit unreliable (it was nearly 40 years ago) but at some point I think the arms were "bounced" up and down, maybe on the O-U-T spells out. Although it is a bit like a selection chant, I think it was merely the next down the line who started off again.


Subject: RE: Lyr Req: The Big Ship Sails
From: Peter T.
Date: 08 Nov 99 - 02:20 PM

Yes, the Opies on the trail..... In "The Singing Game" (Iona and Peter Opie, OUP, 1985) they call it the only survivor of the ancient "Thread The Needle" game, of which visual record goes back to the Lorenzetti frescos in Siena in 1350! Variations are found in Appalachian dance ("Killiecrankie, Winding Up the Maple Leaf, etc.) and in England under "Dan, Dan, Thread the Needle."

They note that the problem with the Manchester Ship Canal origin is that there is an 1870 recollection from New Zealand; and that it has some obscure connection to the Christmas ships sailing, and various "through and throught the salley go" threading the needle songs. They give an extensive description of how to play the game, as well as a picture, which I am puzzling out. Boy, I can hardly wait to try this one out.....

One version:
1) Long line of people holding hands.
2) The two people at one end, hold up their hands to form an arch.
3) The player at the other end of the line, everyone still holding hands, runs through the arch, pulling everyone along through as well. (Thus twisting the original arch makers)
4) The new two leading people form an arch, and the last person in the line (one of those who had formed the original arch) goes through, and the process continues until everyone is twisted around.
5) They then form a circle of their twisted arms, and fall down at the end!!!!!

Up against the wall version:

1) Long line with last person making an arch with her hand high up on a wall.
2) Person at other end leads whole line through the arch, and last person's arms are thus crossed over
3) The orginal line leader now moves the line through the arch (alley) between the player at the wall and her nearest neighbour, who is likewise "stitched". The line then goes through the arch between the second and the third player.
4) And so on. After the last stich is made, all players go into a circle. Dancing in a circle, or falling down ensuues!!!!
yours, Peter T. "
This comment is completely given as it was found on that discussion thread.

Subject: RE: Lyr Req: The Big Ship Sails
From: Peter T.
Date: 08 Nov 99 - 02:24 PM

Oops, should have said that mouldy's version is the one cited by the Opie's (up against the wall variant)! Nice to hear from a trained expert!!!!!!!yours, Peter T.

Subject: RE: Lyr Req: The Big Ship Sails
From: GUEST,Fred
Date: 28 Jun 08 - 03:01 AM

"In the dentist's today a (very) young mum had had brought her (I guess) 12 or 18 month old daughter, The little one (not olde enough to talk properly) was happy as larry in the play area pushing a plasic bus round and singing at the top of her voice "big shi ally alley o as ay ast ay ao ep ember"

Mum looked young enough to be my grandaughter and I was fascinated to see our culture so demonstrably being passed through the gerenerations. I learned the song as a child from my mother (a native of Liverpool, and graduate of the university of life) more than sixty years ago.

Looking for the origins of the song I ended up here.

From what I can see it has connections with shipping, and ties in to Liverpool especially, possibly tyneside too. Some associate it with the Manchester ship canal that linkes the cotton industry in Manchester with the sea, and that could be so, regarding the canal as a new form of "alley"

I was interested by the suggestion from martin above that the alleo might be shorthand for the Atlantic Ocean, and for my own contribution, I could easily see it as a shanty used to mark time by sailors working the ropes on rigged ships. Given the connection with Liverpool and the Atlantic, and the references to sinking and drowning, I suspect it pre-dates the ship canal."

Subject: RE: Lyr Req: The Big Ship Sails
From: GUEST,Fred
Date: 28 Jun 08 - 03:18 AM

"Extra bit:
The Atlantic crossing can be rough, especially in winter, and I've just read a suggestion that the last day of September is about the turn of the weather, so any ship's captain delaying sailing across the Atlantic Ocean until then would be at risk of bad weather, and thus his crew would be more at risk on the crossing.

Gut instinct says it was a sea shanty used to mark time by sailors on rigged trading ships crossing the Atlantic, and taught by old salts to their grandchildren and turned it into a game that may or may not have origins in the rope moving through ship fittings, as a line of children move under the arns of another, echoing the movement of the rope.

And generations later, a child in a dentist unwittingly recalls her genetic origins in song. Nice."

Subject: Lyr Add: THE HOLLY, HOLLY, HO
From: Jim Dixon
Date: 30 Mar 09 - 10:21 PM

"From First Year Music: Rote Songs for Kindergarten and First Year by Hollis Dann (New York: American Book Company, 1914)—where there is a musical score for voice and piano:


The big ship sails thro' the Holly, Holly, Ho!
Holly, Holly, Ho! Holly, Holly, Ho!
The big ship sails thro' the Holly, Holly, Ho!
On the last day of December!

Children form a circle, joining hands and singing. One child, representing a ship, runs in and out, stopping at the end, in front of another child. The one chosen now represents the ship. The game may be continued in this way until all have been chosen."

Subject: RE: Lyr Req: The Big Ship Sails
From: GUEST,Trish
Date: 01 Jan 13 - 03:15 PM

"Just did a quick search and got the below, don't know if it's true or not:

Rhyme & History


The big ship sails on the ally-ally-oh
The ally-ally-oh, the ally-ally-oh
Oh, the big ship sails on the ally-ally-oh
On the last day of September.

The captain said it will never, never do
Never, never do, never, never do
The captain said it will never, never do
On the last day of September.

The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea
The bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea
The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea
On the last day of September.

We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea
The deep blue sea, the deep blue sea
We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea
On the last day of September.

The words of the Nursery Rhyme and children's song, 'The big ship sails... ' have been suggested by Kevin Dinnin. Little is known about the origins of the song, but we have speculated on possible origins

The big ship sails
Nursery Rhyme lyrics, origins and history

Nursery Rhyme Origins

The rhyme and song was often sang by children playing skipping games, the lyrics suited the ritual chants for children 'jumping in' the skipping ropes. Perhaps the term 'big ships' provide a clue to the origins. The Manchester Ship canal was opened in 1894 and is the eighth-longest ship canal in the world, being only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal in Central America. The MSC was built for ocean-going ships - there were only six ships in the world too big to use the Ship Canal. These big ships started their journeys on the canal which led to the sea. The Manchester Ship Canal connected Manchester, W England, with the Mersey estuary at Eastham, Birkenhead. Perhaps this is the origin of the song...

Info supplied by Kevin Dinnin"

Excerpt #2
Fibonacci, 16th Apr 2006
"I thnik I have read somewhere that Irish children used to call the sea the "Illey Alley O" "

DevonHawker, 07th Aug 2008
..."Someone answered earlier and said about the Irish children referring to the sea as the Illey alley o,bear in mind a lot of the workforce on the MSC were Irish "Navigators" (navvies as they became known in the area) so called as they dug ,by hand, the NAVIGATIONAL canal's of the time.

A lot of them settled in the area and there families remained for generations,my own included, so originally it may have been from the Irish Illey alley o, but Anglicised.

One of the reasons for this Anglicisation may have been down to the geographics of the area. I recall as a child in 1960s and 70s that at certain points you could look down the alleys that ran between the back to back terraced houses and quite literally see the big ship sailing "down the alley"."...

Except #3
From comment section of
slam2011, March 17, 2017 at 5:24 AM
"I just realised the Alley-oh video tune is not quite the one I remember. Not unusual, there must be thousands of variants.

As far as I recall, we sang:

The big ship sails down the alley-alley-oh
The alley-alley-oh
The alley-alley-oh
Oh the big ship sails down the alley-alley-oh
On the last day of September.

My husband he is the captain of the crew
The captain of the crew
The captain of the crew
My husband he is the captain of the crew
On the last day of September.

I dipped my head in the deep blue sea,
The deep blue sea
The deep blue sea..

And here my memory gets faulty. I think there may have been something about 'never never die'.

What puzzled me as a child was, we always used to call marbles 'alleys'. When we played alleys we used the heel of a shoe to make a hole in the soft ground to roll the alleys into: this was the alley-hole, or as we said it, 'the alley'ole'...And I used to think, however could a big ship sail down the alley-hole???"
This comment refers to a video given in that "thread the needle" pancocojams post and also given here as Video Example #1.

Excerpt #4
From,5753,-18017,00.html SEMANTIC ENIGMAS

"The big ship sails down the alley alley o", I remember. But was it the last or the first day of September and does it have any historical relevance?

P McVeigh, Munich Germany
"The last day of September. Apparently there are several theories about the significance of the song but most of them have been debunked. It is one of the last survivors of the ancient "thread the needle" dance/game."...

Anne, Sunland, California, USA
"It's about the Manchester Ship Canal and as Manchester Docks at the end of the canal are actually in Salford, Salford kids used to sing the song many years ago."

Little Jockey, Salford England
"Sorry, folks but the Alley-Alley-o is the Suez Canal. It commemorates its opening in NOVEMBER 1869. I sang it, with my parents or my contemporary infant pals in the early 1930s == years before the Second World War."

howard, stockport England
'Alley O' does seem to suggest The Atlantic Ocean. The song was certainly popular in Salford, Manchester, and Liverpool where big (cargo) ships sailed from. I remember it in a Taste Of Honey and it is still popular today in Salford. I have sung it regularly in school with the younger ones who regularly request it.

P M Adamson, Salford, UK
"We sang this song in Bradford, Manchester, in the 1940s. Children used to form a circle, and two would form an arch to pass under whilst singing this song. I thought it referred to a view of a ship launch, down a street in Tyneside."

Kate, Stafford UK
"PS The Manchester ship canal was opened in January 1894, but the last day of September fits the song well!!"

Anne Lowe, Glasgow
The Alley O is the Atlantic Ocean. Clearly nothing to do with a canal. The Arctic sank on the 27th September and it could very well have been the last day of September that children in Liverpool would have heard the dreadful news about the disaster.

Here's an excerpt from that article: The Sinking of the Steamship Arctic
by Robert McNamara, Updated August 28, 2014
"The sinking of the steamship Arctic in 1854 stunned the public on both sides of the Atlantic, as the loss of 350 lives was staggering for the time. And what made the disaster a shocking outrage was that not a single woman or child aboard the ship survived.

Lurid tales of panic aboard the sinking ship were widely publicized in newspapers. Members of the crew had seized the lifeboats and saved themselves, leaving helpless passengers, including 80 women and children, to perish in the icy North Atlantic."...

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  1. I woke up with this song in my head (no idea why!) and searched for its origins. I learned it as a kid from my mother who was from Birkenhead and my granddad worked as a boiler maker at Cammel Laird’s. I’m leaning towards the sinking of the Arctic theory as that ship must have been a regular sight in Liverpool and the accident a terrible loss of more than 300 passengers. By the way, many thanks to you, Azizi, for this interesting and important documentation of history and culture!

    1. You're welcome, Ros Griffiths.

      I appreciate you sharing your information about how you learned the "The Big Ship Sails On The Alley Alley O" rhyme this rhyme and what you think it might mean.

      I had never heard of this rhyme until I read about it on

      Although this pancocojams blog focuses on African American and other Black cultures throughout the world, I also love to share cultural examples of children's rhymes and singing games -even if those examples may not have originated from those populations and even though those examples aren't well known, or known at all among those populations.

  2. Here's a comment that was posted to another pancocojams post about British children's rhymes and songs: "Thread The Needle" Games In Britain, The United States, The Cameroons, & Jamaica

    Unknown August 6, 2018 at 9:29 AM
    "I grew up in Salford, the inland end of the Manchester Ship Canal (MSC), where there were docks in Manchester and Salford separated by a swinging road bridge on Trafford Road. The swinging brigge was permanently fixed about 20 years ago along with a doubling of the road's width by the construction of a fixed bridge alongside.

    We used to sing this song at 'playtime' in the school yard (Langworthy Road school). It had no connection to the MSC and we knew by the lyrics it was about a ship going to sea after a certain time of year, leading it's captain to fear the worst and foretelling their demise.

    "Ally Oh" was part of a style of word corruption that was typical where I lived back then, and almost certainly meant the Atlantic Ocean. Nobody ever refered to the MSC as the Alley.


    Thanks for your comment, Wayne!