Royal Naval Museum




The Sailor's Hornpipe


The hornpipe was originally an old solo dance, in three-time, danced to the Celtic instrument known as the hornpipe. It was a feature of many trades, with the trade being imitated by particular movements in the dance, thus the hornpipe varied according to this. The dance had no previous connections with the sea, but by the beginning of the eighteenth century it became popular with seamen, and the measure was changed to two-time.

From the sixteenth century, a sea dance was a popular feature in dramatic stage productions, but it was in the nineteenth century that the more familiar form of the "sailors’ hornpipe" was introduced. The dance was based on movements suggested by nautical duties, e.g. hauling of ropes, rowing, climbing the rigging and saluting. The Victorian actor, T. P. Cooke, who specialised in nautical roles on the stage, made this form very popular. It is claimed that Cooke visited every port in England to learn all the various steps used in hornpipe dances, and, established this new style of the dance, which he performed around the country, and was accepted by almost everyone.

The sailors’ hornpipe continued to be danced even though the hornpipe’s association with other trades declined, although the dance became less common when fiddlers ceased to be members of the ship’s company. 

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©Royal Naval Museum Library, 2000 

The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available