The story of the London was the subject of extensive newspaper coverage and details of its loss has been thoroughly documented. [Ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_London_(1864)]
The London is one of the four wrecks that proved especially inspiring to balladeers and poets: the others being the Comet in 1825; the Forfarshire in 1838. (which inspired songs that focused on the heroics of Grace Darling) and the Titanic in 1912.
There were several factors that attracted the attention of the newspapers and hence the public. The London was carrying emigrants who were mostly ordinary men and women with whom the public could identify. (See OD003~Shipwrecks). She was also carrying a celebrity, the actor Gustavus Brooke. There were 19 survivors, who provided eye-witness reports of weeping mothers, heroic deeds and prayerful acceptance of fate that all played into the sentiments of the time.
This engraving from the Illustrated London News depicts the doomed passengers at prayer. Their clothing suggests that these are second class emigrants.
All in all, this presented a golden opportunity for ballad printers and the fledgling popular music industry to make some money. An inquiry began in January 1866 and published its conclusions in March thus serving to keep the London in the public eye and extending the commercial life of the songs sold about the disaster.
The music industry was not alone in this. Among the “souvenirs” offered for sale were commemorative mugs bearing the words ‘The Unfortunate London’. Photographs of survivors were sold, as well as books that used the wreck to preach about morality. [Wills, Simon; The Wreck of the SS London]
It is typical of shipwreck songs that the captain is the only sailor likely to get a mention. This pamphlett ignores the sailors and remarks only on the 220 passengers.
For a general discussion of shipwreck songs see OD003 ~ Shipwrecks
Notes on the Songs:
The songs and poems all take the form of a more or less detailed description of events. They were published in all parts of the country and one was printed in Welsh. Most name Gustavus Brooke and that prayers were said
bar095 ~ The Dreadful Shipwreck Of The London Emigrant Steam Ship 270 Lives Lost. Emphasises in its title that ordinary folk were among the passengers drowned.
bar226 ~ The London Steamer is the only song about the London to have survived in the oral tradition having been recorded in 1958. It inflates to number lost to 370 and names Captain Martin but not Gustavus Brooke; an emphasis that may be due to the fact that the song was collected from a fisherman..
bar389 ~ Loss of the London give a sketchy account of the events. The Captain is mentioned but not named while the heroic role of Brooke is given prominence.
bar483 ~ Wreck of the London (First line : “You landsmen all come list to me”) reports 220 lives lost, the number of passengers who it identifies as being emigrants. It names Captain Martin and Gustavus Brooke and also Draper, the minister who led prayers as the ship sank. It is the only item that names Falmouth as the port that the survivors returned to.
bar484~ Wreck of the London (First line - “Now I'm going to say a word of the shipwreck that occurred”) deploys the frequently used trope of the passengers emabarking with light hearts, little suspecting their fate. It mentions the Captain but does not name him. Like Los of the London, it gives prominence to Brooke’s heroic role and mentions his request to the survivors to remember him to his friend in Melbourne. It is the only item to be explicitly critical of the crew: For some of the crew were stupid and stood there like a stump”
bar514~London Wreck – is one of several poems that McGonagall wrote on the subject of shipwrecks. (See also bar ~ Grace Darling or the Wreck of the Forfarshire). It gives prominence to Brooke and mentions wealthy passengers rather than the emigrants. It is the only item to mention the Italian ship that picked up the survivors. McGonagall gets the numbers of passengers and survivors wrong.
bar529~ Hanes y llong a elwid Llundain, was printed in Wales. And is is a poem in the bardic tradition. It mentions Draper, the pastor; and two other first class passengers; the Reverend Dr. G. Woolley (who worked the pumps) and Mr G. Palmer. It is the only item that fails to mention Gustavus Brooke.
Other Songs and Poems:
Nicollete Jones says that a song was written to to raise funds for a lifeboat to be called the G. V. Brooke but does not identify the song; and that a poem (also unidentified) was written in Brooke’s honour by Edwin Tomlin. She also quotes from a song written by W.C.Bennett which says of Captain Martin:
‘...when the London’s awful end is told in years to be;
One form amid those fearful hours men’s swimming eyes shall see’
You, Martin, amid storm and wreck, and hope, dead to despair,
Still grimly wrestling with the seas for those beneath your care;
Still calm, with firm, unfaltering voice, while aught remain to do,
Battling with death, still at your post, to God and duty true’
[Ref: Jones, Nicollette; The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea. P7]