JOHN SHORT ‘YANKEE JACK’ 1839 – 1933
The bronze depiction of John Short on the Esplanade was the second commissioned statue by the Market House Museum and quite possibly more photographed than the Ancient Mariner.
It is here thanks in great part to the late Ben Norman for whom ‘Yankee Jack’, as he became known to the residents of the town, was a particular hero. As with the statue of the Ancient Mariner, the sculptor is Alan Herriot.
The statue dedicated to Ben was unveiled on March 22nd 2008 by his wife Margaret with considerable pride but also tinged with some sadness as Ben had died in January and had not lived to see the unveiling of his hero.
The life of John Short ‘sailor and shantyman’ is the stuff of legends and for this short description it might be worth including a short biography that Ben wrote:
“The life of John Short of Watchet is, in many ways, an ordinary life. He was born in 1839, married and fathered three children and died at the grand old age of 94. He also sailed around the world and became something of a local hero as ‘Yankee Jack’.For over 40 years John Short, Watchet’s famous sailor and shantyman, sailed the world in a great variety of sailing ships as an able seaman and later as bosun. In the 1860s some of John’s ships ran the blockade in the American Civil War, and because of this, he was affectionately awarded the nickname of “Yankee Jack” by Watchet townsfolk.
It was a tradition aboard large sailing ships for sailors to sing sea shanties. This assisted them to work together when hoisting sails or walking around the capstan, etc. John Short’s strong and tuneful voice often led him to take the role of solo shantyman, and over the years he memorised the words and tunes of dozens of shanties, including the well-known Rio Grande, Shenandoah, Blow the Man Down, A Roving and Spanish Ladies.
In 1873 he married Annie Marie Wedlake, the daughter of a Watchet master mariner, and in 1880 they had a son, George. John continued his ocean-going career until the late 1880s. On receiving news that his wife’s health was failing, he returned to their little cottage in Market Street to help and comfort her. Subsequently he sailed only on short trips aboard local coasting vessels, including the ketch Annie Christian. In 1902 he was appointed as Watchet’s Town Crier and later took charge of the town’s Fire Brigade. He continued to sing with other sailors around the harbourside and occasionally at local concerts. In 1914, at the age of 75, he was introduced by the Reverend Dr. Allen Brockington, of nearby Carhampton, to Cecil Sharp, an eminent collector of folk songs and shanties. Sharp was very impressed with the old sailor’s singing and declared that “John Short’s rich, powerful, yet flexible voice would excite the envy of many a professional vocalist”. Over a number of days Sharp transcribed the words and melodies of many of John’s shanties, which were willingly sung again and again.
Later Sir Richard Terry, another distinguished collector, visited John to gather and publish yet more shanties from his repertoire. Had these two renowned gentlemen not met “Yankee Jack” many delightful old songs of the sailors could have been lost for ever.
John Short died in 1933 at the great age of 94. A simple obituary in The Times said of Watchet’s grand old sailor: “He thought little of his reputation as a singer, but much more of homely things”. He was buried in Watchet’s churchyard, but sadly, there being no headstone on his grave, its location is unknown.
The sculptor has decided on a rather wistful Yankee Jack looking back to the times perhaps to the days of his running the blockade in the American Civil War or maybe perhaps even further back when at the tender age of nine years he embarked on his first voyage with his father on a ship trading with the ports of South Wales. By the age of fourteen he was a full time seaman. Tom Browne is his book ‘A Sailors Life’ suggests that his first deep sea voyage was on the ‘Primrose’ bound for Quebec in 1857 and that it was on this particular trip that he learnt his first two shanties. He goes on to describe that ‘in his twentieth year he doubled round the horn on the ‘High Block’ to Valparaiso and followed that with a voyage to India aboard the ‘Earl Balcarres’.
His leaving the deep sea in 1901 coincided with the end of the Victorian era and also a time when sail was being replaced by steam, a dramatic and for many old sailors a period that brought with it deep regret and sadness. He didn’t desert the sea altogether but continued to sail on ships trading much nearer to home and South Wales. We know that John Short had a deep hatred of steam ships and can we imagine perhaps John together with Tom Chidgey, Watchet’s marine painter, sitting on the quayside discussing the tall ships which were still plying their trade from the harbour. They would undoubtedly have exchanged stories and Tom may well have felt a little envious of the tales of Yankee Jack in faraway places.
As we make our way towards West Street Beach, on the right hand side opposite the Star and the basin are a row of quaint cottages and it is one of these, immortalised by a beautiful caved stone plaque, that tells us that it was the home of the shantyman. Here Cecil Sharp collected no less than fifty seven songs, many of which were reproduced in ‘English Folk Chanteys’ published in 1914.
David Milton, our town crier like John Short before him, is also a singer of shanties and his wonderful CD ‘Songs of the Bellman’ maintains what must be now a Watchet tradition. On the CD he includes a ballad dedicated to his personal memory of Ben Norman; it is thanks to his determination that John Short will forever be on the lips of those who hold Watchet traditions dear.
Yankee Jack is not averse to a selfie and has had many a visitor sitting on his knee for a quick photo! Make sure you tag #lovewatchet in your pictures!