Swab The Decks

With regard to the management of the convicts…promoting cleanliness, comfort, and hilarity among them; admitting them freely upon deck to take the air…

Dancing is encouraged also every afternoon, and they may sing all day long if they please. As they have but little to amuse themselves with, endeavours must be made to find amusement for them, and this can be no ways better accomplished than by giving them something to work at.

Cunningham, Peter. Royal Navy Surgeon for convict ships. 1819-1828. Two Years in New South Wales. 1827 1

On board ship, one of the main forms of relaxation was dancing.  In calm weather officers and gentlefolk would dance on the quarterdeck, captains encouraged their crews to dance hornpipes and country dances, and surgeons recognised the benefits of allowing convicts to dance in order to raise morale and provide exercise.

The dances would not have been the most fashionable types presented in the latest manuals, but older dances and those devised by the participants themselves.  On some occasions men and women would dance together, however, it was not uncommon for groups of dancers to be all male [sailors] or completely female [convicts].

The most common instruments were the fiddle, fife and flute as these could each be safely stowed within a crowded ship where space was very limited. 2

Since the voyage to Australia was long and tedious, ways were found to keep both sailors and convicts busy – scrubbing, scrapping, holystoning and swabbing the decks.

This cheerful dance from Walsh’s Selected Country Dances for 1760 has a light-hearted, nautical theme.

The deck of HMS Buffalo, where sailors swabbed and Governor King danced.
On the deck of the British ship Buffalo, after 1818, Augustus Earle, etching and aquatint, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1978.3

Dancing to the band of the NSW Corps on board HMS Buffalo. Sydney Gazette, 17 April, 1803. 4

Perhaps the artist Augustus Earle was inspired to create his etching of HMS Buffalo after dancing on the deck.

This particular deck was the setting  for a number of recorded dances:  Captain Kent gave a fête on board in April, 1803 and Mrs King, wife of Governor Philip Gidley King, recorded:  A dinner party for the Governor….afterwards they all danced reels and sang.. 5on her return voyage to England in 1807.

Download the pdf
Listen to  Swab the Decks  Arr. Roland Clarke or Swab the Decks As played by Roland Clarke

Country dance: Duple minor longways

A1 1 – 4 1st couple set twice* to 2nd man and circle left.
A2 1 – 4 1st couple set twice* to 2nd lady and circle left.
B1 1 – 4 Gallop down the middle and back [2 bars], cast one place with 4 step hops. 2nd couple moving up on bars 3 and 4.
B2 1 1st man and 2nd lady cross,
2 1st lady and 2nd man cross,
3 1st man and 2nd lady cross back.
4 1st lady and 2nd man cross back.
*4 pas de basque, or 2 pas de basque and 1 rigadon

Selected Country Dances for 1760, Walsh, London 6

Brisbane-based dance group Kaleidoscope has an animation of Swab the Decks which shows the basic pattern of the dance.
Visit them at  http://www.dancekaleidoscope.org.au/dance.html#SwabTheDecks.



1Cunningham, Peter. Two Years in New South Wales. 1827. D.S. Macmillan (ed), Angus & Robertson, 1966

2Goodwin, Peter. Men o’ War.  The Illustrated Story of Life in Nelson’s Navy. National Maritime Museum, Carlton Books, London 2003

3On the deck of the British ship Buffalo, after 1818, Augustus Earle, etching and aquatint, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1978.   www.artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=107382

4 Account of Fete on board HMS Buffalo. Sydney. (1803, April 17). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), p. 3. Retrieved September 15, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article625518

5Mrs King’s Diary of the Voyage to England. 23rd March, 1807. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

6Selected Country Dances, Walsh, London 1760.
National Library of Scotland. Edinburgh. Glen 35(1)


The information on this website www.historicaldance.au may be copied for personal use only, and must be acknowledged as from this website. It may not be reproduced for publication without prior permission from Heather Clarke.

This entry was posted in Dance. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Swab The Decks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.