This is the first printing of the now famous traditional song. The Sandgate area referred to in the song was a riverside district of Newcastle. The Sandgate, from which the area takes its name, stood on the main traffic route between Shields and Newcastle. This gate and the old city wall to which it was attached gave the area a somewhat segregated feel to the rest of the town, and even after the gate and wall were pulled down it still retained a feeling of semi-independence. The area was the most densely populated in Newcastle and was dominated by the keelmen and their families. 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 keelman's labour, however, was physically punishing and many were unfit for work by the time they reached their forties.
This song is taken from 'The Northumberland Garland', one of 4 volumes of songs collected by Joseph Ritson in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century and published under the collective title of 'The Northern Garlands'. The book was published in London by R. Triphook in 1810 and is held by the Robinson Library of Newcastle University. The 4 volumes are entitled respectively, - 'The Bishopric Garland; or Durham Minstrel', 'The Yorkshire Garland', 'The Northumberland Garland', and 'The North Country Chorister' and were sold previous to the publication of The Northern Garlands as separate publications. The Northumberland Garland was first published in Newcastle in 1793 and reprinted in London in 1809.
The collector, Joseph Ritson, was born on the 2nd October, 1752 at Stockton-upon-Tees. After studying law under a Ralph Bradley Esq., Ritson settled in London where he commenced practice as a surveyor. He did however 'keep an affection for the north which prompted him to compile, between 1783 and 1802 several collections of verse relating to Durham, Yorkshire and Northumberland. Here were printed, sometimes for the first time, but in most cases from broadsides and other printed sources, 'Elsie Marley', 'Rookhope Ryde', 'The Battle of Otterburn' ... [etc.] (Frank Rutherford; The collecting and publishing of Northumbrian folk-song; Archaeologia Aeliana 4 XLII). This is not only an important collection in its own right, but was also one of the main sources used in the compilation of the Northumbrian Minstrelsy, the first large-scale regional survey of song to be made in Britain.