A variant on the famous Tyneside song 'Weel may the keel row', this song was written by Thomas Thompson. References to the Press Gang, bread prices, and a desire for lasting peace probably date the song to around 1815 when post war economics pushed the price of bread on Tyneside to an all time high.
Keelmen were the largest male occupational group in Newcastle and were employed in ferrying coal from the staithes to the ships and wharves. The 'row' referred to in the song was infact the giant oar used by the keelmen in times of poor wind or adverse tide. The keelmen's labour, however, was physically punishing and many were unfit for work by the time they reached their forties.
The author of this song, Thomas Thompson, was born in Bishop Auckland in 1773. Author of 'Canny Newcastle' and 'The New Keel Row', amongst others, Thompson is regarded by many as one of the earliest and best of Tyneside writers.
'The Newcastle Songster', from which this song was taken, was printed by J. Marshall, one of the most prominent chapbook printers in Newcastle during the early nineteenth century. It is rather difficult to date the book, but as we know that Marshall didn't move to his Flesh Market premises until 1811, it is possible to say that it certainly wasn't published before this date. The appearance of much of the books contents in John Bell's 'Rhymes of the Northern Bards', published in 1812, could also indicate that the book was printed around the same time. However which was printed first, can not be established for certain. The book contains some of the region's best known traditional songs. From 'Weel may the keel row' to 'Canny Newcastle', the book has offerings from well known Tyneside composers such as John Selkirk and Thomas Thompson, and would have been extremely popular among the local population.