- 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
Robert Shafto (sometimes spelt Shaftoe) was an eighteenth-century British Member of Parliament (MP), who was the likeliest subject of a famous North East English folk song (Roud #1359) and nursery rhyme “Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea“.
Robert Shafto was born around 1732 at his family seat of Whitworth near Spennymoor in County Durham. He was educated at Westminster School, London from 1740 to 1749, when he entered Balliol College, Oxford.
He succeeded to the family estate on the death of his father John in 1742. Both his father and uncle Robert Shafto had been Tory Members of Parliament (MPs). He continued this tradition becoming MP for County Durham in 1760, using his nickname “Bonny Bobby Shafto” and the now famous song for electioneering purposes, defeating the Whig Sir Thomas Clavering, with a campaign supported by Henry Vane, first earl of Darlington, Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle and the bishop of Durham. However, once in parliament he dropped this allegiance, supporting the administrations of John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute and Pitt the elder. He held the Durham seat for two parliaments until he declined to stand in the election of 1768.
Shafto married Anne Duncombe (d. 1783), daughter and heir of Thomas Duncombe of Duncombe Park, Yorkshire, on 18 April 1774. Shafto and his wife had three children, John (1775–1802), Robert (1776–1848), and Thomas (b. 1777). His wife, Anne, had inherited property in the borough of Downton in Wiltshire and he became its MP in 1780. He is known to have supported William Pitt the Younger during the regency crisis of 1788–9. He did not seek re-election in 1790. Robert Shafto died in November 1797, and is buried in the Shafto family crypt beneath the floor of Whitworth Church.
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, although other sources claim that she died a fortnight before the wedding of pulmonary tuberculosis. Even if the song was not composed about him, his supporters almost certainly added a verse for the 1761 elections with the lyrics:
Bobby Shafto’s looking out,
All his ribbons flew about,
All the ladies gave a shout,
Hey for Boy Shafto
So why the title of this blog? Well as I was brought up in Spennymoor, I thought it would be nice to pay tribute to Spennymoor’s favourite son.