Wellerman: what the song means

The Wellerman needs no introduction. ShantyTok has made it ubiquitous; even those who know nothing about sea shanties seem to know the chorus. It’s brought together thousands of singers and musicians. It’s even changing lives. Scottish postie Nathan Evans found fame through his version and was awarded a record deal.

But do you know what it’s actually about? What’s a Wellerman? What is tonguing? We’ll explore the history of the song, break down the lyrics, and share our favourite versions of the shanty. If you fancy singing it, check out our instrumental karaoke version of Soon May the Wellerman Come.

History of Wellerman

Originally recorded as ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ this is a song about the New Zealand whaling industry. Whalers were trying to collect 2 things: oil and bone. Oil was the main product being used for lighting, lubrication in machinery, and the production of various products.

If you’re familiar with whaling, you’ll perhaps be picturing a powerful battle in deep waters. This is not the sort of whaling that was being done in New Zealand. They were doing shore-whaling. It’s very different from the style of whaling discussed in The Bonny Ship The Diamond.

This entailed tracking down the shallow waters the whales preferred to give birth in – the young need calm water and easy access to the surface. Once they found them, they’d kill the adult whales and take them onshore for processing. This easy access dramatically increased yields and was responsible for several new towns popping up to support the industry.

Polack, Joel Samuel, 1807-1882. Polack, Joel Samuel 1807-1882 :The North Cape, New Zealand, and sperm whale fishery. J. S. Polack, del., W. Read, sc. London, Richard Bentley, 1838.. Ref: A-032-026. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22876310

These whalers received their pay in the form of goods instead of money. This forced many of them to settle in New Zealand because they couldn’t afford to leave. One of the large companies involved in this was the Weller Company. Their prime years were from 1830 to 1840. 

They had stations all along the southern coast and would regularly arrive to collect the processed oil, and pay their workers in a variety of supplies including “sugar and tea and rum”. In the same way that postmen have names but are often called the postie, the arriving ship had a unique name but was often referred to as the Wellerman.

The song itself is thought to be a creation of the shore whalers. They created a fictional story about deep-sea whaling and added several elements familiar from their own lives.

Wellerman lyrics

There once was a ship that put to sea

And the name of the ship was the Billy of Tea

The winds blew up, her bow dipped down

Oh blow, my bully boys, blow


Soon may the Wellerman come

To bring us sugar and tea and rum

One day, when the tonguing is done

We’ll take our leave and go

She had not been two weeks from shore

When down on her a right whale bore

The captain called all hands and swore

He’d take that whale in tow


Before the boat had hit the water

The whale’s tail came up and caught her

All hands to the side, harpooned and fought her

When she dived down below


No line was cut, no whale was freed

The Captain’s mind was not of greed

But he belonged to the whaleman’s creed

She took the ship in tow


For forty days, or even more

The line went slack, then tight once more

All boats were lost (there were only four)

But still the whale did go


As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on

The line’s not cut and the whale’s not gone

The Wellerman makes his regular call

To encourage the Captain, crew, and all

(Chorus) x2

What the lyrics mean

“And the name of the ship was the Billy of Tea”

The Weller Company owned many ships but there are no records of one called the Billy of Tea. This makes sense in the context we shared above. As a fictional song created by shore-whalers, you’d expect a somewhat humorous name.

A billy is slang for a lightweight cooking pot often used to boil water for tea or coffee. They named their fictional whaler after this. Perhaps the song was first created when they were making a cuppa?

“The winds blew up, her bow dipped down”

The front of a ship is known as the bow.  It got windy and the front of the ship dipped after cresting a big wave.

“Oh blow, my bully boys, blow”

This is telling the crew to row hard.  ‘Blow’ means strike but was used for many purposes such as row. ‘Bully boys’ is a way of saying tough men, good fellows, hardy chaps… you get the idea.

“Soon may the Wellerman come”

This is inspired by the shore-whalers’ day-to-day living. As we discussed, the Wellerman would bring them supplies. There’s no reason to suggest the Weller Company ever did deep-sea resupplies. Logistically it makes no sense. Imagine how difficult it would be to find a specific ship out in the middle of the ocean…

“One day, when the tonguing is done”

Tonguing is a whaling term. When the whale’s being processed, the blubber is cut off in long strips known as tongues. These would be chopped into small pieces and put in a large pot to boil down – the highly valued oil being the final product.

“When down on her a right whale bore”

There are several species of whale. A right whale – also known as a black whale – is the 2nd largest whale in the ocean. They were a popular choice for whalers because they have lots of oil, feed near the surface, and stay in coastal waters. It’s widely believed the name ‘right whale’ came about because they’re the right whale to hunt.

“No line was cut, no whale was freed”

The whale has been harpooned and remains attached to the boat. This means the escaping whale is actively pulling the boat through the water.

Best versions of Wellerman

Thanks to TikTok, there are almost too many excellent versions of this song. It’s extremely tricky to narrow it down, but we’ll share our favourites.

The Wellerman

Not a typo. The group is called The Wellerman. They’re a sea shanty band that popped up as a result of TikTok collabs. This is a great version that’s a lot of fun. It’s perfect for singing along with as there are several parts.

The Trills

Now for something totally different… This cover is a very modern twist on the song – it involves beatboxing and some audio effects. If you’re a traditionalist we’d still recommend checking this out. It’s a banger.

Laura Paley

Known for her beautiful stairwell covers, this does not disappoint. A melodic and enchanting version of the song. Imagine if you lived in her building and were walking down the stairs to this? Oliver’s YouTube comment sums it up, “You’re the siren those sailors spoke about”.

Final thoughts

You’ve learned about shore whaling and the role of the Wellerman. You know it’s a fictional song, we’ve explained all the lyrics, and shared some fantastic versions  – think we missed a great one? Let us know in the comments.

If you’d like to try singing it, why not give our acoustic karaoke version a go?

7 thoughts on “Wellerman: what the song means”

  1. I am a shantyman in a Dutch shantycoire ‘kantje boord’ and we sing also the Wellerman. It,s a great succes during our performance. We have also Facebook.

  2. I’m so happy I found this website! I started off watching the film “Fishermen’s Friends.” That led me to the YouTube videos of the actual Fishermen’s Friends band. That led me to The Longest Johns and Nathan Evans, among others. Now I’m all in on the whole sea shanty singing thing.

  3. Mohammed Mozammal Hoque

    It’s all about the daily nitty-gritty of sea riders and their homesickness in a melodic relief.
    With the same theme, Bangladesh has its shanty – “Deora song”

    Very soon I (on my YouTube channel “SOUL Bangla Global Music”), I will release the English version of our “Deora song” where I will blend this western “Weller man melody” to our eastern “Deora melody”. I hope all of you will look forward to listening my rendition.
    By the way, here is my YouTube channel link, where I release the English versions of our Bangali songs for global music listeners:

  4. I see the word printed “blow” used as the word replacing “bow” ie her blow dipped down. Ur selection of covers don’t mention it. Is it just a constant mistake via speech to sound subtitles? Definitely got my attn.

  5. I invite friends in for drinks (coffee, tea, and rum) and play this song and other shanty songs till we rant and we roar like true British sailors m.

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