Blood Red Roses

BLOOD RED ROSES  is a halyard chantey sometimes called “Bunch o’ Roses” or some variant.  There has been much speculation as to just what the “blood red roses” were as well as the “pinks and posies”; one source speculates that it is an imagery of the bubbling blood of a dying whale as they hauled the kill alongside.  Another suggests that the sailors were making sport of the Marines on board as they aided in hauling the kill, but one would never find Royal Marines working a whaling ship so that’s out.  Stan Hugill wrote that this song was popular not only in Liverpool ships but also among Yankee ships and that it likely derived from an English song regarding Napoleon and British soldiers, or “redcoats”.  One does find tunes and songs relating to Napoleon and the “Bonny Bunch of Roses O”, but but the evidence for this song is not there and on a personal note I suspect that the point of the song is a bit grittier… I have found in numerous references dating to the 18th and early 19th century of men being taunted in military and maritime situations by either being called out as “whores” and “whoresons” and variants, or as “pansies”, “pinks”, “posies”, and even “roses”… not unlike experienced soldiers and sailors of recent days taunting “green” recruits.  So my theory is that as the whole crew did the work, they still found humour in taunting the “green” or inexperienced hands.  All circumstantial, I freely admit, but it still seems the best fit… It is doubtful that every work song shipboard is the result of literary musings or elevated thought, so there ya go!

Jos. Morneault


Our boots and clothes are all in pawn
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down!
And it’s mighty drafty ’round Cape Horn,
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down!

cho: Oh, you pinks and posies!
Go down, you blood red roses, Go down!  

For it’s ’round Cape Horn we all must go
For that is where them whalefish blow.

*Sing out me boys, and pull plus fort
Around Cape Stiff through the frost and snow.

*My dear old father said to me,
Oh son, you’re a fool for to follow the sea!

** “The topmen up,” the mate he roars!
“It’s lay aloft you lazy whores!”

*The gals are waitin’ straight ahead.
A long strong pull should shift the dead!

Now pull ‘er taut and that’ll do
For we’re the boys to kick ‘er through!

*Verses I wrote or rearranged in order to lengthen the song and to differentiate from similar lines utilized in other chanteys.
** Gratitude to Danny Spooner for this verse.

2 thoughts on “Blood Red Roses

  1. Sam Navarro

    Blood red roses

    I can not see previous comments so please forgive me if this is a repeat.

    Who is being called blood red roses and why?

    Look at the context and think of who the men are, where they are and what they are doing.

    Now read:

    “Sing out me boys, and pull plus fort
    Around Cape Stiff and through the frost and snow.

    They are sailing around Cape Stiff, a name describing the strong stiff breeze, which lays between home and the whaling seas.
    The weather is bone cold. The experienced sailers know this pain, the inescapable bitter wind driven sting of snow and ice, for which their clothing ill protects them. All their extremities – noses, cheeks, ears, finger tips- are bitten by the cold until their skin is frozen to numbness. In these conditions they work and bleed. The only protection is hard labor to keep moving and everything they touch is cold stiff abrasive. The new hands don’t know the tricks of the game; they don’t know the secrets of how best to survive this bitter crossing. The men are blood red roses because their overexposed bodies resemble the blood red rose in appearance. They work hard to keep the breeze and make passage a fast as possible.

    1. JosMorn Post author

      Hello Sam,

      Yes, I have heard this theory as well, but it doesn’t hold up against the vernacular of the period… What you describe would be more in keeping with a genteel interpretation of more polite society for gentle ears of the ladies or for children, and not the manner of imagery utilized by rough sailors or soldiers even in our current PC world. Additionally, the song was not sung solely in cold climates, so the theory folds a bit more, not to mention the chorus going on to call the men “pinks and posies”, common put-downs and jabs used against men throughout the 19th century. And again, in reading various novels and letters from the 19th century, one too often finds men being driven to work harder (or even taunted) by older, more experienced men who refer to the newer, younger men in disparaging language such as referring to them as “hitting like a girl” and “my sister can work harder than that” and variations on that theme, essentially verbally emasculating the men – until those men prove themselves or even despite it! However, I chose to see the song in historical context and not give value to what I feel is really being said – much like those songs in which someone is killed or a man beats his wife; I don’t endorse it or agree with it, but I see the colour of it from afar and apart, much like reading a good novel.

      I appreciate your interest and thank you for your comment!


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