The usual tune for this dance was first printed as the “College Hornpipe” in 1797 or 1798 by J. Dale of London. It was found in manuscript collections before then – for instance the fine syncopated version in the William Vickers manuscript, written on Tyneside, dated 1770. The dance imitates the life of a sailor and their duties aboard ship. Due to the small space that the dance required, and no need for a partner, the dance was popular on-board ship.
Accompaniment may have been the music of a tin whistle or, from the 19th century, a squeezebox. Samuel Pepys referred to it in his diary as “The Jig of the Ship” and Captain Cook, who took a piper on at least one voyage, is noted to have ordered his men to dance the hornpipe in order to keep them in good health. The dance on-ship became less common when fiddlers ceased to be included in ships’ crew members.
In dramatic stage productions, from around the sixteenth century, a popular feature was a sea dance. But the nineteenth century saw the more familiar form of the “sailors’ hornpipe” introduced. Nautical duties (for example the hauling of ropes, rowing, climbing the rigging and saluting) provided the dance movements.