Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 41 - 1868 - By Land and Sea

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Royal College of Surgeons - Fenian shoots Duke of Edinburgh - Greenwich Hospital scandal - Victory and Bucentaur - Theseus - Abyssinian War - An earnest wooer - Napier of Magdala - Governor Eyre acquitted - Admiral de Horsey - Shah and Huascar - Tea clippers-Emigrant ship - Auxiliary screw steamer - East and West India Docks - Ratclifle Highway - Swedish Church - Wapping Old Stairs - Mahogany Bar - Landseer's lions.

THE year 1868 was distinguished by several important events, with which, apart from the fact that I followed their development with an interest that by this time had come to possess a somewhat critical blend, I can establish no direct personal connection.
    Early in the year a medical student friend offered to engineer for me a visit to the Royal College of Surgeons' Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. I was under the permissible age, he said, but there were many curious things to be seen there, and if I liked he would "work the oracle." This mysterious operation resulted propitiously, by the grace of Fortuna, and I found that he had not exaggerated the attractiveness of the show. Of the many interesting exhibits I particularly remember the skeleton of the Irish giant, O'Brien, who sold his bones in advance to Dr. Hunter and then (through his executors) tried to evade completion of the bargain - in vain, as it required no label to certify; and the mummies of the two poor ladies, successively embalmed by their sorrowing widower and now (if they are there yet) standing up in scanty raiment and a glass case at the top of the principal staircase. I thought that a shame, and hoped he had found their ghosts, suitably armed with vipers or something, waiting for him on the other side of Styx.
    Fenianism continued, and an attempt by a man named [-313-] O'Farrell to murder the Duke of Edinburgh in Australia by shooting him in the back from a distance of five or six feet caused general indignation. 
    When, in 1890, I came to meet the Puke and his Duchess, "Imperial" (and imperious) "Marie, daughter of the Tsars," I recollected this incident with great interest.
    The scandal of the eviction of the nation's poor blue-jackets from Greenwich Hospital still echoed around. Wren's vast buildings were vacant and desolate, yet the Admiralty, apparently jealous of the merchant service and seamen, did all it could to prevent any part of the Hospital being devoted to their benefit. The Times, to its honour, published a strong leader on the subject, in which England was reminded that Greenwich Hospital had been founded after the battle of La Hogue "for the safe retreat and public maintenance of men who had kept their watches over the public safety." But in this instance Jove thundered in yam. England defaulted.
    The fate of Nelson's flag-ship Victory has occasioned much discussion of late, and I am glad that the nation has insisted on its preservation. In the '60s the same question was to the fore. It was suddenly found that the old ship's demolition had been decreed on the score of economy, and, if I recollect aright, it had actually been removed from its moorings in Portsmouth Harbour for that fell purpose. Mr. Gladstone's name was associated by popular rumour with this solicitude for the nation's ha'pence, but I do not remember whether justly so or not.
    Public opinion, however, raised a breeze of the double-reefed topsail variety, and she had to be brought back - to remain without further molestation for another half-century, when the same cycle of condemnation and reprieve has had once more to be gone through. That the ship was found so rotten in 1922 was very discreditable to the Naval Authorities. Ordinary care, with periodical inspection and repair, would have kept her taut at quite negligible cost ; instead, she was allowed to get rotten at her moorings until the only cure our naval architects could prescribe was breaking up. The Venetians kept their Bucentaur not only afloat but sea-[-315-]worthy for 700 years. Were they more able shipwrights than Britannia's own artificers? It would almost seem so.
    And then, O Lords of the Admiralty, knew ye not of the ship in which Theseus journeyed to Crete on his star-turn Minotaur expedition, a vessel which is recorded to have been preserved by the grateful Athenians from B.C. 1226 until the time of Phocion or thereabouts, say, B.C. 317; a matter of 909 years. The debating societies of the day used to discuss the problem whether, seeing that every part of her bad been renewed, she was the same vessel or another; and if so, which?
    The Abyssinian War was brought to a successful conclusion, all its objects being accomplished with very little damage to ourselves. Theodore, King of that classic land, had imprisoned some English missionaries, traders and others, as well as a number of French and German mechanics, and in spite of many representations not only refused to give them up, but threatened to turn his royal executioners Loose upon them. It is said that he had sent a letter to Queen Victoria proposing himself as successor to the late Prince Consort, and that the disdainful silence with which the flattering communication was treated reacted badly on his self-esteem. As Englishmen could not be maltreated and murdered in those days with the same impunity as has now come to be the case, a mixed British and Indian force under Sir Robert Napier was landed and marched to the reputed impregnable fortress of Magdala, where his Abyssinian Majesty had located himself, his army, his prisoners and his Jack Ketch.
    In April the affair was terminated by the capture of this stronghold and the suicide of the successor of Memnon and Prester John. The British Loss was one killed and some fifteen wounded. In the sanguinary-for the Abyssinians - action which preceded the storming British troops used breech-loading rifles (Sniders) for the first time, and Congreve rockets as missiles almost for the last time, in warfare.
    The expedition was an example of efficient organisation and Sir Robert Napier (soon to be "of Magdala ") deserved all the credit he got, and it was not a little. Public houses [-316-] called after him sprang up all over the country. The Standard of May 18th published an admirable description of the final operations by its Special Correspondent.
    This same number contained a scathing leader on the prosecution of Governor Eyre, who was accused of having exceeded his powers in proclaiming martial law and suppressing the Jamaican insurgents with a strong hand. He was then before the Bow Street magistrates, the leading counsel for the prosecution being Sir Robert Collier, who had previously stated in the House of Commons that Eyre had legal justification for what he bad done. Eyre, whose counsel was the late Lord Halsbury, was committed for trial; but on June 2nd the Old Bailey Grand Jury threw out the bill and so ended the case, after years of anxiety and suspense, with a very decided slap in the face to the Government.
    The massacre of Cawnpore has been ascribed to a British general's irresolution. A strong man, it was said, would have cowed the local mutineers and prevented the tragedy. But what would have been his subsequent fate? Bad, judging from the recent Indian parallel to Jamaica. John Bull is a difficult master, who has taken to breeding temporisers in lieu of men of action. No Gordian-knot cutters for him nowadays! He wants ducks not Drakes.
    Governor Eyre had been materially assisted by Captain de Horsey-afterwards Admiral de Horsey, who died in October 1922, at the age of ninety-six, and who in May 1877, while in command of Her Majesty's unarmoured ship Shah, successfully engaged the Peruvian rebel ironclad Huascar - who was then in command of the Wolverine and senior officer on the Jamaica station. He was not sent to the Old Bailey, but was thanked by the Jamaican Legislature and both Houses of Parliament. Nevertheless, some of the odium seemed to cling, for he was passed over when in 1892 his turn for promotion came, although seniority had never before been ignored, and he had fought the only serious action at sea for nearly half a century. His being denied the highest rank open to officers of his standing and service was a mystery which caused much speculation: the Key was probably a, West Indian one.
    [-317-] In those days the annual race home of sailing-ships from China with the earliest consignments of the season's teas was a notable event. Tea is one of the matters in which the custom of 1924 differs essentially from 1868. Then Indian herb was unknown, or nearly so, and practically all our supplies came from China. Sou-chong, bo-hea, pe-koe, mo-ning, and other celestial names were truly household words. The coming of Indian tea and the substitution of steam for sails have abolished a competition which was wont to cause the crews, from skipper to cabin-boy, to put forth their best and all of it, without stint or measure.
    The prize consisted, for the owners, of ten shillings extra per ton of new tea carried by the first vessel to enter the docks and for the successful commander a bonus of 100.
    During the 1850s American clipper ships hailing chiefly from Boston competed actively in the tea races and for a time often succeeded in winning the prizes; but very early in the 1860s the Briton, with the aid of Aberdeen-built clippers, bad come into his own and our friends from Massachusetts found themselves run off the course. The Boston craft were built of soft wood which absorbed much water and appeared to render them less efficient as they grew older, whereas British oak suffered no such disability. The Yankee captains were reckoned smart and even prone to take unfair advantage, but in the end the English heart-of-oak got its way - hard-headed skippers failed to compensate for soft-wood hulls. The soft wood, too, was apt to twist out of shape in the strain of heavy seas. 1859 saw the last foreign competitor in the English trade. In that year Captain Whitmore of the American clipper Sea Serpent landed at Plymouth, went to London by train and unjustifiably entered his ship as arrived; but found two British clippers - Fiery Cross and Ellen Rodger - already docked.
    The most famous of all the races was in 1866, when sixteen ships sailed from Foochow. The three first, Ariel with 1,230,900 lb. of tea, Taeping with 1,108,700 lb. and Serica with 954,236 lb., dropped their pilots after crossing the bar and hoisted sail in company at 11.10 a.m. on May 30th. After varying fortunes and sighting each other only occa-[-318-]sionally, Ariel at 1.30 a.m. on September 5th raised the Bishop's Light and made sail up Channel. At daybreak a vessel under press of sail was seen astern. This was the Tae ping, and all day the two ships raced up Channel together, going 14 knots with a strong W.S.W. breeze astern. Ariel led by a few minutes throughout and at 3 a.m. on the sixth was boarded by a pilot off Dungeness and greeted as first ship in. But Taeping, only ten minutes behind, had the good luck to get a more powerful tug and reached Gravesend first, ultimately docking twenty minutes ahead. Ariel had won the sailing match, however, and, to avoid disputes, the owners met and arranged that Taeping should take the tonnage premium, privately agreeing to divide it between them, the captains likewise sharing their gratuity. Serica was close up and docked at midnight. A fourth racer, Fiery Cross, was only twenty-four hours behind.
    So the three ships had left Foochow on the same tide and ninety-nine days afterwards arrived in the Thames on the same tide. Never had a race caused so much excitement, and as everybody concerned - owners, agents, captains and crews - wagered on the result, the sums changing hands were considerable.
    The next year, 1867, Ariel and Taeping sailed an almost equally close match in 102 days, but were beaten by Sir Lancelot in ninety-nine.
    This year, 1868, Ariel arrived in ninety-seven days, and made sure that she had won, but was followed in a few hours by Spindrift, which had left Foochow twenty-three hours later and made up some of it on the way. Sir Lancelot was third, in ninety-eight, and Taeping fourth in a hundred and two days. A week or so after Ariel bad berthed I went with one of my athletic friends to see her.
    She was a full-rigged ship, built 1865, and distinguished from other clippers by being fitted with double top-sail yards on all three masts. We found that she was beautifully painted and decorated and smart and spick-and-span, in spite of her recent tussles with the blusters of AEolus, who had given her a good buffeting off the Cape. The mate who showed us round seemed to think she was a wonderful [-319-] craft; in which he probably did himself and his shipmates some injustice, for I believe that in such a trial it is the officers and men who count most, provided their vessel is at all up to the average. I confided this view of the case to the mate, who immediately invited us to his cabin to have a drink.
    My idea of the matter seemed borne out by subsequent events, as Captain Kerry, who had engineered Ariel's triumphs up to that time, resigned, and she never did anything very noteworthy afterwards.
    These flying clippers were much faster than the old bluff-bowed East Indiamen, but not so safe, for the desire for speed led to overmasting and overloading with canvas. Beautiful Ariel was lost with all hands in 1872, and her chief rival, Tae ping, was wrecked off Formosa in 1873. A later famous clipper was Cutty Sark. She and another renowned racer, Lalla Rookh, are still sailing the oceans in 1924 - the latter as a timber-ship under the Finnish flag. One of the clippers was called Deer foot, after the bogus Indian runner to be referred to later; but in racing she lagged a good way astern of the name.
    These clippers sometimes beat the steamers of the day. In 1864 the s.s. Annette took three days longer than the slowest of the twelve racing sailers and thirty-three days longer than the fastest - Taeping. And this was not so very exceptional.
    After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the Tea Derby began to decline, and in a few years steam by this more direct route had replaced sail round the Cape and a great school of British seamanship was closed for ever.
        "They mark our passage as a race of men:
        Earth will not see such ships or skill again."
    In 1924 there are still old salts in active life of my acquaintance who sailed as mates in the tea clippers, and proud are they of being able to say so.
    We became interested in what was going on on an emigrant ship close at hand, preparing to sail for Australia, and asked permission to go over her, which was willingly granted. She was a wooden, full-rigged ship, larger than the tea [-320-] clipper, but not by any means so well furnished. She was taking maize in bulk from a barge alongside, which, we were told, was to form an important part of the emigrants' diet. Carpenters were busy in the holds knocking up tier upon tier of sleeping bunks out of rough deal battens. The cooks' galley was fitted with big coppers and boilers, and there were pens round the decks for milch-cows, sheep and poultry. I forget how many hundred men, women and children she was to carry, but the number was sufficient to start a goodly colony on their own account. That is how the parents and grandparents of our present Australian brethren sought the Southern Cross. What happened when such a ship came to grief was exemplified in later years by the sad case of the Northfleet in 1873, run down while at anchor near the Goodwins by the Spanish steamer Murillo and sunk with hundreds of her passengers, emigrants for Tasmania. The heroism of poor Knowles, her skipper, dwells with me still. He succeeded in getting his newly- married wife into one of the boats, waved her farewell and waited his turn to be one of the 293 to be drowned. And the dastardly crew of the Murillo steamed away, throwing a tarpaulin over their vessel's name in a vain attempt to preserve anonymity. North fleet had been built in 1853, and was no laggard. In 1857, and again in 1858, she went out to Hong-Kong in eighty-eight days and once came home in eighty-two. In 1860 she was second in the tea race, in 114 days.
    We also inspected another Australian ship - an auxiliary screw steamer. In those days, before the compound and triple - and quadruple - expansion engine had come in, coal consumption on steamers was much heavier than now, and it was considered scarcely practicable, and certainly not economical, to carry sufficient fuel for a voyage to the Antipodes under continuous steam. So for a good many years there existed a class of vessel, heavily rigged and moderately engined, which sailed when AEolus was favourable and relied on her boilers when he sulked. The Royal Charter, mentioned in Chapter XXII, was one. Multiplication of coaling stations has assisted the compound engine [-321-] to abolish this type of ship. Nevertheless, I saw a survivor at Guernsey in 1922 - the Pourquoi Pas? - in which Dr. Charcot conducted his Antarctic expedition. And a bonny craft, too.
    The East and West India Docks exhibited a very different aspect from the present in those days. Sailing-ships predominated, and were often moored side by side with their bowsprits projecting over the quay walls and even over the sheds. Being so much smaller than the modern steamer, they were very much more numerous, and must have given employment to many more officers and men.
    The changed circumstances of to-day are powerfully evidenced by the forlorn condition of the old sailors' resorts, Ratcliffe Highway in particular. From being crowded, day and night, by the sailors of all nations rioting with their Pollys, they have become comparatively solitary and constrained. More than one of the old world-famed taverns have been turned into mission-halls. The Mahogany Bar is there, close to Wapping Old Stairs, famous in song and story, but how changed! how quiet! The Swedish Church, in Prince's Square, where Swedenborg was buried in 1788, built for the special use of Scandinavian sailors and for over a century a theatre of much beneficent activity, is there, but has been closed for years, for tars of that category frequent the Docks and the Pool no more. The last time I saw it, in 1916, some Jewish lads - amongst other changes the neighbourhood has become Hebrewised to no little extent - were climbing in and out through an aperture in a window accessible from the roof of a porch-sky-light larking!
    Nowadays, steamers of great tonnage, each equal in carrying capacity to a dozen or so of the old sailing-vessels, arrive, are worked out, reloaded and despatched again with all the celerity possible, for keeping such costly giants idle is not to be thought of. Moreover, they use the downriver Docks to a great extent and their crews are not, as a rule, paid off. In the 1850s and 1860s the major part of the tonnage was carried by sail and the wind-jammers either moored in the Pool or went into the London, St. [-322-] Katherine's or other up-river Dock, where they often stayed for weeks, the crews being discharged on arrival, long before the cargoes were. Such times have passed, and with them the class from which the patrons of Ratcliffe Highway (now St. George's Road), the Scandinavian Church and the Mahogany Bar were drawn.
    It was in 1866 that the whim took some members of my boating club to pay a visit to Wapping Old Stairs in a four-oared cutter, and accordingly one fine Saturday afternoon we turned out in full fig-white jerseys and trousers and dark blue caps - and, with the club pennant fluttering at the stem, dashed through the Pool, I pulling bow, and made for the classic landing-stage, which was dilapidated and patched to an extent calculated to remove any apprehension we might have been under of having struck Wapping New Stairs by some error in navigation. Our arrival created quite a sensation, and there were plenty of willing hands to help us to make fast.
    Retaining as caretaker a decent-looking waterman who had his wherry alongside, we passed through a lane of curious onlookers to the Mahogany Bar tavern, where the unheralded invasion of five young fellows in boating uniform excited another sensation. The renowned Bar - reference to which has been known to draw tears from sailors' eyes in the most distant parts of the world, more especially after they have been engaged for a week or two in beating round Cape Horn - already contained a fair contingent of customers more or less suggestive of marine types. Silence fell upon them as we filed in, one after the other, through the swinging doorway, and room was civilly made in the centre of the counter, behind which were serving a clean-shaven, rather corpulent man in a white apron, and a quite handsome barmaid - a girl of twenty or so, although she was evidently rather a girl of a thousand to a strapping young sailor in a pilot jacket, a mate probably, who had obviously received a call, and an imperious one, to the Bar - who wore a necklace with black and red pendants. We ordered three quarts - "pots" we were careful to call them - of shandy-gaff, a mixture of ale and ginger-beer, which, when cool, [-323-] was then reputed to possess much power of refreshment for hard-working oarsmen on a hot afternoon.
    The host and his fair assistant were civil, if surprised, and became all smiles when our stroke explained that we had voyaged all the way from Putney expressly to - metaphorically - put our feet under the historic mahogany. There was no disturbance or unfriendliness, and we had to excuse ourselves politely from accepting several invitations to drink. At the Stairs our boat was found Al, and we had a quasi-royal send-off from quite a crowd of ragamuffins.
    The Nelson Monument in Trafalgar Square, itself erected some twenty-five years before, was completed by the addition of Landseer's lions. They had been so long talked of and their proximate advent so often vainly promised over a long series of years, that they had come to be-for all their invisibility-a sort of standing joke. They were inquired for in topical songs, burlesques and pantomimes:
        "And, as you're passing through Trafalgar Square,
        Bring Landseer's lions-if you find em there!"
was one couplet I remember. However, they came at last, were seen and greatly admired. Their attitude of majestic though peaceful repose was, so we liked to think, emblematic of this our British Empire. Perhaps it was - in 1868.