The Greasy Wheel

Trad with additional words by Ian Campbell
boat

Home

Song Menu

Reference

Play

notes

Recordings

Version 1 (transcribed from Ian Campbell recording)

If you want to join a Braunston boat
A thing you never should do
You get the strap tied round your neck
And the tow rope round your toe
If you want to join a fly boat
And show them a clean pair of heels
Then you’re all right to work all night
Upon the greasy wheel

Come all you jolly fly men
It is a great delight
To work upon a steam boat
Grafting day and night
But if you can steer a fly boat
And keep her out of the field
Then you’re all right to work all night
Upon the greasy wheel

If you want to join a fly boat
You’ll have to change your ways
You’ve got to keep her spotless
You’re cleaning night and day
Between Camp Hill and Norlip
She gleans from funnel to keel
Then you are fit to do your bit
Upon the greasy wheel

If you want to join the fly men
On the Brum to London run
Just picture you in the white and blue
You’ll have no time for fun
You give ’em a blast to let you past
They’re tempted never to yield
But they know you’ve got the right of way
Upon the greasy wheel

This song captures the brief glory of the men who manned the Fellows and Morton steam barges at the end of the last century. The boats ran non-stop from London to Birmingham. Their glory was brief because the steam power which gave them their ascendancy had already, in the form of the locomotive, made the canal system obsolete.

The origins of the song are unclear and may have come from more than one source. Charles Parker of the BBC claimed to have collected it in fragmentary form for use in a radio programme about life on the narrow-boats 'The Cry from the Cut' (information from the Ian Campbell recording). Part of the song being sung by a working boatman, Mr Arthur Johns of Braunston, can be heard on the 1962 radio programme 'Cry from the Cut' along with additional verses and arrangement by Ian Campbell. The transcription of the Ian Campbell recording is given above.

David Blagrove, similarly, collected fragments of the lyrics and the tune from an old boater in the bar of the Greyhound at Hawkesbury Junction on the Coventry Canal in the early 1960's and put it back together again filling in the blanks (information from Bru Peckett). David was kind enough to supply the lyrics which are given below.

 

Version 2 (from David Blagrove)

If you wants to join the Braunston boats, a thing you never should do
You'll find the strap around your foot, the towrope round your toe
If you would join the fly boats and show 'em a clean pair of heels,
You'll be right to work all night upon the Greasy Wheel.

Repeat last line as chorus

If you wants to be a flyman on the Brum to London run
Just fancy you in the white and blue, you'll have no time for fun
If you would steer a flyboat and keep her out of the fields
Then you'll be right to work all night upon the Greasy Wheel.

Chorus

If you wants to join the flyboats you'll have to change your ways
You got to keep 'em sparkling, shining night and day,
From Camp Hill to Knowle if she gleams from funnel to keel
Then you'll be fit to do your bit upon the Greasy Wheel.

Chorus

Come all you jolly flymen, it is a great delight
To work upon a flyboat, steering through the night
The 'oss boats say they've right of way, they're not inclined to yield
So gi' 'em a blast to loose you past, upon the Greasy Wheel.

Chorus

Just what is the 'greasy wheel'? Whilst attempting to find out I came across an excellent web-site entitled 'The History of the Narrow Boat Steamer - So Far ...' run by Richard Thomas. For anyone with an interest in narrow boat steamers this site is a must. Fortuitously, Richard was able to contact David Blagrove who kindly provided the following information about the song.

"The Greasy Wheel" is certainly an old steam boaters' ditty. The tune is obviously borrowed from an older 19th Century song called "Jim the Carter's Lad", but the words have always struck me as being a genuine boatman’s ditty, composed by most probably more than one man. The name, which applied to the FMC steamers, but may have orginally been given to the GJCCC’s steamers, appears to derive from the prominent flywheel in the engine room of the steamers. The "greasy" epithet is also obvious to anyone who has ever taken a turn in a steamer’s engine hole; even though it was customary to keep everything spotlessly clean, oil and grease are inescapable, especially heavy steam oil for lubricating the cylinders. Tom Rolt though thought that it might have something to do with cargoes of tallow and soap that they once carried. Some steamer crews were also known as "Greasy Ockers", which may have been related to FM’s one-time base at Ocker Hill or, as Jack James once told me, when the butties were sent forward from Braunston to the top of Hatton behind a horse before the "candlestick" locks were installed, it was customary to grease their hocks against the mud of the poorly-maintained Oxford and Warwick Canals’ towpaths.

Anyway, the version that I have always known goes as follows :

If you wants to join the Braunston boats, etc (Second version above)

There was another verse part remembered for me by Henry Grantham, late of Buckby locks, which he always said referred to the 'flu epidemic of 1918-19. He added "You only ever saw Fellerses tied up fer ice or death!"

Come all you starchy steamboat men as wants a job a-flyin'
Step aboard old Enoch's boats, the poor old bugger's dyin'
Somes a-dyin' fer lack of food and some fer want o' sleep,
But what's a-killin' Enoch is the poor ole bugger's feet!


The things that seem to me to be authentic are the references to such things as cleaning up on the "ten mile" from Camp Hill to Knowle; shoving the way past horse boats; getting tangled in towlines and straps (easily done for a novice); not getting "farmed up" in fields and the steamer men's costume. I suspect the bit about "doing one's bit" dates from the 1914-18 war, when steamer men were in a reserved occupation, from 1917 at least.

David Blagrove (April 2012)

Recorded on :

Something to Sing About - The Ian Campbell Folk Group - Pye Records (1972)
Re-issued on CD by Wooded Hill Recordings HILLCD 21 (1997)