What was the alley, alley O?

It was a game played in the front playground at High Ham Primary School. Two children stood facing each other, their arms raised and outstretched and their hands clasped together to form an arch through which the rest of us passed.

It must have been before Easter of 1969, for once I was in the junior class, playtimes were spent in the back playground. Children being particular about the exact timing of activities, it was probably September-time, so it would have been the autumn of 1968, or even 1967.

Where the words came from, and what they meant, would have been questions that did not occur to the class of twenty or so children. The object of the song seemed to be that the children forming the arch would bring their arms down on the person passing through on the last day of September, whereupon the person trapped would become a member of the arch.

The big ship sails through the Alley Alley O,
Alley Alley O, Alley Alley O,
The big ship sails through the Alley Alley O,
On the last day of September.

The Captain said, ‘It will never, never do,
It will never, never do,
It will never, never do’,
The Captain said, ‘It will never, never do,
On the last day of September.

The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea,
The bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea,
The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea,
On the last day of September.

We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea,
The deep blue sea, the deep blue sea,
We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea,
On the last day of September.

Looking back more than half a century later, the question that occurs is why the Alley-O was a source of fascination for small children in a tiny country school.

Did we become engaged simply to be engaged? Was the concern with taking part in an activity which involves everyone else? Whether it was the Alley-O, or some other concept that equally lacked any meaning for us, was there a desire to join together in the singing and the activity?

Perhaps the greater knowledge of the world and much greater cultural sophistication of younger children now have brought with them the loss of something simpler and unsophisticated. It is a long time since I saw the Alley-O being played, what now takes place to create participation and community?

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11 Responses to What was the alley, alley O?

  1. Stephen Tricks says:

    Not what you had in mind in the playground, but there may be a historical and legal reason why the big ship sailed on the last day of September. A CIF (Cost, Insurance, Freight) contract for the international sale of bulk goods such as wheat or coal would specify the month in which the goods were to be shipped so that the buyer would know roughly when they would arrive. There was of course no electronic communication. September would be a good month for shipments across the North Atlantic or other Northern Hemisphere sea in order for the cargo to arrive before winter. A shipment date of 30 September would be within the contract but a shipment date of 1 October would be a breach of the contract, giving the buyer a right to claim against the seller and the seller a potential claim against the shipowner. The fact that the captain said this will never, never do and that the ship sank to the bottom of the sea suggests that the captain did not want to sail on 30 September either because the ship was not yet seaworthy or because of bad weather, but he was under pressure from the seller and shipowner to sail on that day.

    • Ian says:

      What a fascinating answer. Thank you very much for sharing it. There are frequently visitors to this page looking for information about the background to the song.

  2. Alley-Alley Oh / Ali Ali O ~= Atlantic Ocean. Presumably?

  3. Geraldine Wall says:

    I always thought this song was about The Manchester Ship Canal.

  4. How interesting! We used to sing this too at my little country primary school in 1967. My school was in Cheshire. It just came back to me today for some reason and I found this blog while researching what this song was all about.

  5. John Holden says:

    We used to sing this song in the late 50’s at my school in Northumberland.

  6. Judith Vaughan says:

    I went to a little primary school in West Hendon North London from 1956-64. We used to sing and play this in the playground. Thanks for bringing it back to me.

  7. M. Sweet says:

    if anyone remembers the game ‘alley, alley, ots in free’ and knows the correct spelling i need it for a book I’m writing. The game was played in 1954 in Canada when I was 7. I am unable to find any reference on my computer and would greatly appreciate any help

  8. PADDY says:

    We used to sing this in Plymouth as primary kids.
    As an adult, I always assumed that the “alley alley” were bit of the song was anglicised French, “Allez, allez”

    But I’ve never had a clue what it was about.

    What was the name of the big ship? And what was the cargo? How many ships went down on the last day of September? (Although I think we might have sung about the first day…)

    Interesting and perplexing, and this song.

  9. Alyson says:

    we all held hands in a line. the first child leant against a wall with one hand making an arch and the rest went under the arch without dropping hands causing everyone to be in a tight huddle. This whilst singing the song. (Leeds. mid 50s)

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