Roy Palmer describes this lament in The Oxford Book of Sea Songs:

"In memoriam of the poor Fishermen who lost their lives in the Dreadful Gale from Grimsby and Hull, Feb. 8 & 9, 1889” is the title of a broadside produced by a Grimsby [other source: Whitby] fisherman, William Delf to raise funds for the bereaved families. It lists [nine] lost vessels, the last two from Hull: Eton, John Wintringham, Sea Searcher, Sir Fred. Roberts, British Workman, Kitten, Harold, Adventure, and Olive Branch. In addition the names of some of the lost sailors are given, and there is
a poem in eight stanzas. This passed into oral tradition, and in so doing lost six verses and acquired a new one (the last, in which an error of date occurs), together with a chorus and a tune. The oral version was noted from a master mariner, Mr J. Pearson of Filey, in 1957, and has subsequently, with some further small variations, become well known in folk-song clubs.

The Watersons introduced the song to the broader folk-revival scene in 1965. Before their recordings, the song had only small circulation mostly confined to Yorkshire.

William Delf was born at Wangford, Suffolk in 1851. He had a history of penning broadsides about local tragedies "for the aid of widows & children" (see: Lines in Memoriam of the poor Fishermen who lost their lives at sea, from HULL and other ports, on Tuesday, March 9th, 1883). Grimsby grew to house the world's largest fishing fleet by the mid 20th century, but fishing populations plummeted soon after.

The inclusion of October in this song is a strange detail as the gales occurred in February.