Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Jack Ashore

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THE nautical enthusiast who, in these degenerate days, set out on a pilgrimage to Wapping Old Stairs, in hopes of passing a pleasant hour with the worthy descendants of the heroes and heroines immortalised by the late Mr. Dibdin, would probably find himself disappointed. In vain he would search for that constant Molly whose artless declaration of her virtue - spotless as those trousers which it was her proud privilege to wash - can no more be doubted, than the fact that her love for her Thomas was as warm and as sweet as the grog which she made, and presented to his manly lips at the very earliest opportunity after his landing from the ship that had so cruelly borne him away from her. Fruitless, too, would be his inquiries after Harry Hawser, or Jack Robinson, or Billy Buntline, or any recognisable descendant of those flip-swigging, hornpiping, free-handed noble old bragging sea dogs, brave as lions in battle, playful and blythe as kittens in their shore frolicks, and tender as boiled fowl in their greetings and partings with sweethearts and wives. The modern Jack ashore is altogether a different being from that Jack of old, whose theatre of pleasure extended from Tower Hill to Shadwell Church, and who passed the whole of his time "twixt cruises" in uproarious hilarity, the patron of fiddlers, and the very soul and essence of good-humour and sprightliness. Here are the old taverns where [-189-] jolly Jack Tar, both of the Navy and of the mercantile marine, used to drain his can of flip, jingle his guineas, and, as a worthy son of Britannia that rules the waves, exhibit a proper contempt for land-lubbers, one and all. Here are the old taverns, as well as several of modern build, and they are ablaze with gas and plate-glass, and there are announcements of concerts and dancing-rooms. Men in reefing jackets pass in and out, some alone, and some in close companionship with females in ball-room attire. There is the sound of music within, and shrill female laughter. This is promising. Let us enter the Old Frigate, and see how the modern Jack-ashore disports himself.
    A first look round somewhat damps one's expectations; the more so, because it is evident at a glance that the male customers who cluster about the extensive bar are seafaring men, and that the females. present are their consorts. A terrible-looking lot the latter-brutal, blear-eyed, savage, from fifteen to fifty and over, all with a thirst for gin as ferocious as that of the tiger for blood, and with as little consideration for the victim who supplies it. No blandishment or "blarney" with those bruised and bloated Black-eyed Susans; no ogling or make-believe of affection, or even of affable toleration, for the men whose pockets they are draining. They demand more gin or rum with the air of a Whitechapel fighting man in female disguise, and spill it down their capacious gullets without so much as a bare "thanky." But perhaps these are not fair samples of the modern "lass that loves a sailor." The "concert hall" is at the end of a passage; a curtain screens the entrance to it; and no doubt within its more secluded precincts, Jack ashore, and in search of that lovely charmer, a few hours in whose blissful society [-190-] gives ample reward and consolation for weeks of toil upon the raging main, is more fortunate.
    Delusive hope! The "concert hall" was as melancholy a place as could well be imagined. At the end of the room there was a raised platform, with a shabby attempt at scenic decoration, and a fiddle and a harp; and at intervals a female "came on" and favoured the company with a song, not much more indecent than many to be heard at any music hall. Afterwards the singer, with her low-necked frock and her short skirt and " fleshings," moved among the audience with cigars and tobacco, and received its congratulations, together with any odd pence it might please to bestow on her, over and above the price of the Havannahs. That was all the "fun," if so it may be accounted ; which was by no means certain, judging from the apathy and listlessness of the forty or fifty Jacks ashore who sat at the tables in company with the bare-armed brazen vixens who honoured them with their company. A very large percentage of the Jacks had spruced themselves up; and by the flashy rings on their little fingers, and their bran-new silver watch chains, and the sea bloom of bronze on their faces, it was evident that they had been but recently paid off, had put money in their pockets, and come out on the spree. It was early in the night, and, though many of them were in that supposed hilarious, devil- may-care condition, known in nautical circles as "half-seas over," there was not a jolly sailor among them. If they were now enjoying themselves, it must indeed be a heartrending spectacle to see them when they confess to being dejected. They were as flat as though the salt in their veins had all turned to soda; and I don't believe that among them, had every man contributed all he possessed, they would have mustered spirit enough for [-191-] one good old-fashioned hornpipe. They were dull and stolid, and good for nothing but drinking.
    This, at least, was evidently what the women thought - drinking and fleecing. A heartless, cold-blooded set of ogres! I do not speak exclusively of those assembled at the Old Frigate, but of the scores and hundreds besides who were to be found that night, or any night, haunting Ratcliff and Shadwell, and lying wait like beasts of prey for spoony modern Jack ashore, to hocuss and pillage him. They are a peculiar breed of females, I believe, that have their lairs in Tiger Bay, and Back Church Lane, and Palmer's Folly, and other awful places contiguous to the Docks. They appear different from the vilest creatures of any other part of London, and they act differently. The grit of vice seems to have scoured their natures bare of all that is womanly, while it gives the keenest edge to their cunning and rapacity.
    Just imagine one of these petticoated bipeds taking pride in the snowiness of her Thomas's trousers, or treasuring his bacca-box ! If it would fetch fourpence she would swallow it in a quartern of gin before Tom's ship was out of the river ; and as for its being marked with his name, she would regard that rather as a provoking circumstance than otherwise, since it rendered the article less saleable. Jack ashore has wonderfully altered with the times. He sits like a fool, and allows a tigress of the "Bay" to get drunk at his expense ; and when she has cleaned out his pockets she will snatch his cap from his head, and fling it in his face, and threaten some horrible visitation to his eyes and liver if he dare accost her again. Should he be too wary to let her dip her hand into his pocket, and so "drink him dry," she will permit him to accompany her [-192-] to her den; and he is a remarkably lucky Jack if he escapes therefrom with the clothes on his back.
    Occasionally, once or twice a week, these cases of robbing and stripping are brought under the notice of the police magistrates ; but it is a fact which the police of this infamous district could corroborate, that if the plunderers were prosecuted in every instance, his Worship on the bench would find his time pretty constantly occupied with them. Jack ashore, however, has no love for the police or for police-courts, and would rather bear the loss than risk the ridicule of his shipmates.
    "Then that settles the matter!" the reader may exclaim. "Premising that your Jack is not a born idiot, he must expect to be left to his own self-defence, like other folks; if he neglects common-sense precautions against those whom he knows to be his enemies - if he walks into danger with his eyes open, and is content to pay the inevitable penalty - why, let him."
    But sailors are not like other folk. They are victims of tradition. From time immemorial it has been the custom for Jack ashore to seek his pleasure in a certain neighbourhood, and in certain ways; and a very large number of individuals are good enough to provide taverns and concert-rooms at which Jack is an expected guest when he has a spell of rest from sea-voyaging. Jack is not ungrateful. It would seem like deserting the ship to turn his back on Ratcliff Highway, where, solely and wholly in his behalf, the publicans, the saloon and lodging-house keepers, have been at such vast expense to provide for his delectation.
    Moreover, it is Jack's weakness to regard himself while ashore as a guest, not as an inhabitant and a taxpayer who has a personal interest in parochial affairs. He lives at sea, and he is only on a visit to land ; so [-193-] that it is not good manners to object or remonstrate if he should not happen to agree with the habits and customs of his entertainers. He sits down to the board as it is spread for him, and the arrangement of the feast is no affair of his. As with his amusement, so is it with his ashore business in the purchase of his clothes and jewelry-in the cashing of his advance note. He regards everything as being all right; and even if he has suspicions that this affair or that is slightly irregular, he contents himself with the reflection that it will be "all the same in the long run." He may do very well aboard ship, but he is as a fish out of water whenever be sets foot on land; and he will never be better until competent persons take his case in hand, and snatch him from those vultures of Ratcliffe who are his undoing. Of course, I am aware that his case has been taken in hand, and that a magnificent building, known as the Sailors' Home, stands open for his accommodation in Wells Street ; but somehow or another that admirable establishment is not appreciated to an extent that makes it overflow with lodgers, or encourages its managers to institute other Sailors' Homes on a like plan.
    In no respect, however, does Jack exhibit himself so much in the light of a big helpless baby - a creature to be protected against his own acts of foolishness - as in his disregard for his own life, while toiling aboard his ship for the wherewithal to come "capering ashore." Grim experience must have convinced him of the uncertainty of the most esteemed vessels ; and he knows perfectly well, that should he be cast into the sea hundreds of miles from land, and with only his own limbs to support his body, he must drown. He knows that storm or accident may bring him to this fatal [-194-] predicament any day or any hour; and in the face of possible death he shakes his obstinate head and will not avail himself of the means of life-saving his friends hold out to him.
    Jack does not believe in life belts and buoys. They are "old-womanish," and fit only for milk-sops and cowards. Jack, who occasionally may be found with an infant's "caul" sacredly secured in a little bag about the bosom of his guernsey - a caul purchased at a cost of three or four guineas, in the sure belief that the miserable shrivelled little scrap of skin will keep him afloat in the most tempestuous sea-laughs to scorn the most substantial cork waistcoat, which would cost five shillings, and would infallibly keep his immersed body from sinking. He has any number of excuses for setting his mind against wearing cork belts and life-buoys. He will tell you that they are not to be depended on ; that he has seen men trust their lives to them, and be cruelly betrayed - for, hampered with their water soddened weight, the wearers have been carried to the bottom.
    And, to the shame of humanity be it spoken, this accusation against so-called life-buoys may occasionally be founded on fact. I don't know whether by this time they have reformed their villanous ways; but I can state from personal experiment, that a couple of years since the slop-sellers of Ratchiffe Highway kept commonly on stock belts which were duly stamped "all cork," but which, on being dissected, turned out to be merely straw and rushes which, under pressure of seven pounds of iron, soaked and sank in a very few minutes. But Jack knows perfectly well that he can trust the National Life Boat Association, which is constantly persuading him to provide himself with an article that [-195-] costs no more than a bottle of Ratcliffe Highway brandy, and for the genuineness and efficacy of which the managers pledge their reputation. This fact made plain to Jack, he immediately tacks about, declares that "bad is the best" as regards both buoys and belts, and asserts his belief that at a pinch they are but little better than instruments of torture, keeping a man up very likely while he starves by inches, instead of going down at once and being saved all the suffering.
    This was positively the argument used to me by an ancient mariner of the Royal Mail Packet Service, and that in the presence of the most convincing evidence to the contrary which could possibly be set before a man. The occasion was the return to Southampton Docks of the "Douro" from the island of St Thomas, after the memorable hurricane at the end of 1867, which devastated that place and the ships that were lying in harbour there - among others the mail steamers Rhone and Wye. From the former vessel one of the few rescued by means of a life-buoy was a lad named Bailey. There were only seven buoys on board the ship, and four out of the seven were the means of saving so many of the crew. The lad Bailey obtained his buoy in a somewhat miraculous manner. When the Rhone smashed up, and the few survivors of her crew were clinging to ragged splinters of wreck in the furious sea Bailey, who was holding on to a spar, saw at a little distance an able seaman girt with a life-buoy; but, as he enviously watched the fortunate A.B., one of the sharks with which those terrible waters abound nipped the man in two below the waist, and in his agony the poor fellow flung up his arms. The result was that the remainder of the body slipped through the buoy, leav-[-196-]ing it vacant. Being a marvellously cool hand for his age, the lad Bailey swam to the abandoned article and slipped his head and shoulders through it. Beat out to sea, worn out and exhausted, he fell asleep without knowing it, by good fortune grasping the side cords tightly in his hands. Hours afterwards he was cast up on the beach, the rasping against the shingle waking him; and there-for I saw it myself-was the impress, in the soaked yellow paint, of Master Bailey's hair, where his heavy head had rested on it. The ancient mariner of the "Douro" saw it too, but still he shook his thick old head, and regarded Master Bailey as if he thought, that, for the credit of a favourite nautical delusion, it would have been more becoming in him to let the buoy alone, and sunk without any fuss.
    It is a grave fact, however, that Jack speaks only half the truth when he assigns as a reason for not adopting the life-belt, his independent conviction that he is quite as well off without it. Were he to reveal his mind with perfect candour, he would confess that those who are in authority over him - in the merchant service, that is to say-iniquitously, and, as they believe, to serve their own ends, do their best to make him ashamed to be seen with either belt or buoy. It is a disgraceful fact, that the most unwelcome visitor on board the majority of the merchant ships lying in our docks is the agent of the Life Boat Association, who comes with the view of persuading the captain or his mate to permit the use of additional life-saving apparatus on board their ships. As tested by the Government order, they carry a notoriously insufficient number of buoys, and openly express their contempt and disapprobation even of these. The excuse is, that they make the men [-197-] "chicken-hearted." Emigrant ships, no matter what their tonnage or passenger-carrying capacity, are required by the law to carry but four life-buoys and six life-belts, which, in the emergency against which they are expressly provided, would probably save ten lives - certainly no more.
    Ordinary merchantmen carry but two buoys, and the captain won't have more, though they are offered at the low price of ten shillings each, and each will, with ordinary care, last a dozen years. "I've got seamen aboard my ship," sneered one polite gentleman whose crew reckoned twenty-two; "we don't want life-buoys here, nor any nightcaps, nor no smelling salts, nor warming-pans; and I wish you a very good morning." Another captain spoke out his reason in a much more honest and brutally blunt fashion. "I like my fellows to understand that they've got to keep my craft afloat, or sink with her. Men will work like devils to save their own lives, but how much respect would they have for my property if, a few miles off shore we were in danger of foundering, and every fellow could dance over the side with one of these nuisances made fast to him!" There were the regulation two buoys on board this amiable captain's ship ; and one feels curious to learn what, in the event of the calamity at which he hinted, would be his behaviour. Would he cast the "nuisances" left and right, one to the cook and the other to the cabin-boy, and take his bare chance with the rest; or would he, in obedience to "Nature's first law," encircle his waist with one of the charmed rings that make a man proof against death by drowning, and leave his "fellows" to do the best they could?
    Jack ashore is not given to literature; but he is curious in the matter of "charts," and has a religious [-198-] belief in all that bears the Admiralty stamp in proof of their authenticity. Does he ever see the Wreck Chart which is published annually? It is no secret to him that many ships are lost at sea, but it is doubtful if he has any idea how many. The Wreck Chart would show him at a glance. It would be specially interesting to Jack the coaster; for of all men who earn bread on salt water, the coasters are those most encouraged by masters and mates to despise a currish leaning towards life-belts - while they are the very fellows, it may be assumed, who might be tempted to abandon the crazy old collier rather than go down with her. Here Jack would see the fair face of the ocean, especially about certain notorious reefs and rocks and banks, hideously dotted-every black dot marking the spot where there has been wreck and death. He would discover places over which he had sailed many a time blotched as closely as the pock-marks on some men's faces. He may read, in the report accompanying the Chart, that hundreds of these wrecks occurred either a few miles from shore, or in a part of the ocean highway so commonly trafficked over that, had the poor fellows whose lives have been sacrificed but possessed the means of holding up in the water for only a few hours, they might have stood a fair chance of rescue.
    In the matter of life-saving it may sound almost inhuman to discuss the question of "cost;" to set widows' weeds and orphans' tears on one side of the scales and a few paltry shillings on the other; but still it may be as well that the reader should know what life-belts and life-buoys cost. It is a fact that a manufacturing firm of standing and eminence - that of Messrs Birt, Dock Street-has offered to place the necessary apparatus on any number of ships that may [-199-] desire it, to convey the same on board, and provide suitable boxes to keep it in, to visit the ships and examine the articles, and make good any deficiency, at the rate of one shilling per annum for every belt or life-buoy in use.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874