Charles Dibdin, the prolific composer of Tom Bowling and other sea shanties, was born in Holy Rood parish in 1745. His father, a High Street silversmith and clerk to Holy Rood Church, sent him to Winchester College intending him for a career in the church. Charles, however, showed more interest in singing and acting than in studying to be a clergyman. After leaving school he worked as an actor, composer and a producer at Drury Lane Theatre for about twelve years before falling out with the famous actor-manager David Garrick. After this he performed a one man-show at the Lyceum Theatre, in which he sang a selection of his songs and acted. But although the show ran for 200 nights, it was not a financial success. In fact, lack of money was a problem throughout Dibdin’s life. A later venture into a music shop enterprise also proved a failure. He died in 1814.

His love of the sea was partly inspired by his elder brother Tom who was a sailor. The song Tom Bowling was inspired by Tom’s death at sea in the Indian Ocean after being struck by lightning.

Charles wrote over 900 songs, most with a nautical theme, some of which are still sung. It was claimed, not least by himself, that his songs improved the moral of sailors and contributed to the Royal Navy’s famous sea victories.

Charles Dibdin

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Portrait of Dibdin by Thomas Phillips, 1799

Charles Dibdin

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A model of a proposed statue of Dibdin by James Milo Griffiths, 1891

Newspaper clippings (available online or accessible through the Local Studies Library):

Rededication Ceremony: Memorial Statue to Charles Dibdin, Esq - (pamphlet, 15/03/1985)
The Waterman; or, The First of August - (music and text of the opera, no date of edition)
One of So'ton's Famous Sons - (Southern Daily Echo 15/03/1945)
With Pen, Brush and Song - (Country Life 03/11/1977)

Further reading:

Southampton People, by John Edgar Mann, p36-37. (HS/t)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, Volume 16.
Charles Dibdin: One of Southampton’s Sons, by Henry G. Thorn. (HS/t)
Collections of his songs are held in the Local Studies Library
‘Time to Revive the Spirited Melodies of ‘England’s Greatest Song Writer’, by Malcolm Kenworthy, in Hampshire, volume 34, number 1,November 1993, p49-50. (H/y)


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