A Valentine for the Navy

Readers of MusiCB3 may remember that a few weeks ago in Sarah’s Valentine’s Day post, she mentioned an unusual “Naval Valentine” – proof, yet again, that you can find the most extraordinary items in the UL’s music collections, whilst in pursuit of something else.

The “naval Valentine” was a song by Charles Dibdin: Jervis for ever. A new song for the popular  entertainment of “Valentine’s Day”. Written  as a forecastle effusion and most heartily  inscribed to the Jolly Tars, who so nobly  drubbed the Dons on the 14th of February,  1797.” 

So who was Jervis? And how did he end up in a Valentine’s Day song?

Admiral Sir John Jervis, Commander of the Fleet at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, 1797.
Naval Chronicle, July-January. 1801. T540:8.c.2

Was the song based on real events? Yes. In fact Dibdin’s song is a fairly faithful, and detailed re-telling of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. In 1797 the British Navy was blockading Spain. Twenty-seven Spanish ships were attempting to join up with the French fleet at Cadiz, intending to convoy a further 57 ships carrying mercury. On the night of the 15th February, Horatio Nelson, then a Commodore, sailed through the fleet, and brought news of the fleet’s whereabouts to Admiral John Jervis, who was commanding the British fleet from the battleship Victory.

It had been a very foggy night, hence how Nelson had passed through the fleet unseen. Unfortunately, also owing to the fog, Nelson was unaware of how many Spanish ships were actually in the area. By the time the British realised they were out-numbered two-to-one, it was too late to disengage. Determined to stop the Spanish ships joining the French fleet, battle was joined at 11.30 a.m on St. Valentine’s Day.

The battle was fiercely fought. Nelson’s decision to run across the bows of the Spanish ships thwarted their plans to escape. This was swiftly followed by the boarding of two of the ships. Nelson directly disobeyed orders, and would probably have faced a court-martial had his plan not worked; but Jervis liked the young sailor, and so there was no official reprimand, though he was not formally mentioned in the Admiral’s account of the battle. It was a famous victory.

Jervis for ever / Charles Dibdin.
London : Printed & sold by the author, and by Diether, [1816?]

Dibdin’s Valentine’s Day was a short revue-type work that was premiered in February 1797. The earliest mention I can find of it is in The Oracle and Public Advertiser (February 16th, 1797) in which the work is paired as the “B-movie” for Dibdin’s Castles in the air. It appears to have a complicated plot-line “This amusement through the medium of a domestic story, will embrace a great variety of subjects, among which hieroglyphics, love, dissipation, generosity, sarcasm, ingenuity, conceit, folly, ingratitude, compassion, ridicule, congratulations, and festivity will not be forgotten.” Interestingly at this point there is no mention of the naval songs, which were added rather later in the run.

Alarmingly at this early stage, it does include a song called The patent coffin – a tale of skullduggery and grave robbing. Dibdin must have thought that this was going to be a popular choice, as it was the first song from Valentine’s Day that he published. Much later in 1797 an enterprising funeral director advertised his latest style in patent coffins immediately under the latest theatrical work by Dibdin.

By March 1797, two new songs had appeared A dose for the Dons, and Jervis for ever, both celebrating the Battle of Cape Vincent, as Dibdin added the latest naval victory to his Valentine’s revue.

The chance discovery has been a fascinating insight into the adaptability of musical theatre, adding in new songs to reflect current events. It’s common today, but is perhaps sometimes seen as being innovative, in fact it dates back to at least that great musical entrepreneur, Charles Dibdin.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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