Sea shanties prove a blast

John Gavin was executed and buried near the Round House.

FREMANTLE’S volunteer Round House guides are hosting a singing competition on April 6, giving life to the history of John Gavin, the first European settler executed in WA.

The guides have called on composers to write a ballad or sea shanty for the 177th anniversary of the 15-year-old’s death, the competition serendipitously coming as shanties enjoy a global comeback thanks to kids’ video platform Tik Tok.

Gavin came to Australia as a junior convict on board The Shepard in October 1843, part of a group called the Parkhurst Reformatory boys who were also referred to as government juvenile immigrant/apprentices.

Five months later, Gavin confessed to the murder of his employer’s son, 18-year-old George Pollard. He was controversially executed only three days after his confession and was buried in sand dunes south of the Round House, with no known family.

Guides president Frank Duffy says the hanging is “significant to the history of WA on so many levels”. 

Robyn Littlewood, who looks after the guide’s admissions agrees and says this part of our local history need to be known.

“The Fremantle Round House is going through a new interpretation, some of our history, such as John Gavin’s execution, is dark but needs to be brought to life.”

Ms Littlewood said it was “relevant today, in regards to how we treat others based on appearances”.

She says the guides believe it would have been “quite frightening to the indigenous people” to see the new arrivals killing their own kind publicly.

Local playwright Peter Leonard Bibby will also be conveying the short life, history, and execution of John Gavin, in his script, “Boy on a Rope”, intended to be seen for the first time at the upcoming Fremantle Heritage Festival. 

Bibby says the circumstances of Gavin’s death would be perceived as “absurd” today.

He’s also writing a ballad for the competition, collaborating with Broome artist Summer who will sing the story.

While the competition reflects on a sad moment in history, the current viral Tik Tok trend of sea shanties is bringing smiles back around the world. 

British singer Nathan Evans’ version of the sea shanty Wellerman sparked the trend and has landed him a record deal and top spot on the UK Billboards. 

Sea shanties were originally made to boost morale among sailors in the mid 1800s. 

Bibby says it’s not too far a stretch of the imagination that young Gavin might have even sung the catchy tune en-route to Australia.


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