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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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?
4 thoughts on “Wellerman: what the song means”
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.
Awesome. I love that shanties are becoming so popular. I bet you’re getting lots of new members since Wellerman went viral!
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.
I’m really happy to hear you’re enjoying it. It’s definitely a fun rabbit hole to fall into. Keep on singing!