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The original Bobby Shafto has been identified with a resident of Hollybrook, County Wicklow, Ireland, who died in 1737.
"Bobby Shafto's Gone to Sea" or "Bobby Shafto" is an English language folk song and nursery rhyme, originating in Ireland.
The most common modern version is:
- Bobby Shafto's gone to sea,
- Silver buckles at his knee;
- He'll come back and marry me,
- Bonny Bobby Shafto!
- Bobby Shafto's bright and fair,
- Panning out his yellow hair;
- He's my love for evermore,
- Bonny Bobby Shafto!
This is very close to the earliest printed version in 1805. A version published in John Bell's Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812) gives the additional verse:
- Bobby Shafto's getten a bairn,
- For to dangle on his arm;
- In his arm and on his knee,
- Bobby Shafto loves me.
The rhyme used by the supporters of Robert Shafto (sometimes spelt Shaftoe), who was an eighteenth-century British Member of Parliament (MP) for County Durham (c. 1730-97), and later the borough of Downton in Wiltshire. Supporters used another verse in the 1761 election:
- Bobby Shafto's looking out,
- All his ribbons flew about,
- All the ladies gave a shout,
- Hey for Boy Shafto!
The song is said to relate the story of how he broke the heart of Bridget Belasyse of Brancepeth Castle, County Durham, where his brother Thomas was rector, when he married Anne Duncombe of Duncombe Park in Yorkshire. Bridget Belasyse is said to have died two weeks after hearing the news.
Thomas & George Allan, in their illustrated edition of Tyneside Songs and Readings (1891), argued that the "Bobby Shafto" of the song was in fact his son, although his father fits the description of the lyrics better. In reality, it is likely that his grandson, Robert Duncombe Shafto, also used the song for electioneering in 1861, with several of the later verses being added around this time.