Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 22 - My Sea-Going Folks

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MINE being at once a poor and a riverside district, the bulk of its inhabitants are naturally dock-labourers, deal-porters, corn-porters, coal-heavers, watermen, lightermen, and other the like long-shore people. But mingling with these are a considerable number of sea-going folk. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a number of sea-going folk of the humbler kind-sailors, firemen, trimmers, and so forth-have their shore homes in my district.
    To the casual observer the families of the landsmen and seamen appear "much of a muchness," but to those who have daily to deal with them both, and who may have occasion to discriminate in the matter, the seagoing folk stand out as a class by themselves. They have their especial characteristics, and have about them more of whatever touch of the poetical there may be associated with the lot of poverty than most other sections of the poor. Even in their homes the influence of the mighty ocean is upon them. "The better part of their affections are with their hopes abroad," with those who go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, with the vessels that carry for them more than merchandise, however precious - the lives of those near and dear to [-312-] them. Even when not religious in the ordinary acceptation of the term, they are in a sense a prayerful people. When storms are raging upon land they pray that it may not be so at sea, or if the weather signs seem to make it certain that "'tis a wild night at sea," their petition is that He who holds the waters in the hollow of His hand will put forth His might to save.
    Whatever differences of opinion theologians may have upon the subject of the efficacy of prayer, these poor people - these mothers and wives and children of our sailors - have none. By them it would be held a sin not to pray for those whom they had reason to fear might be in peril on the deep. While others are indifferent they are fearful, and often enough tearful, weather-watchers, the position in this respect reminding one of Eliza Cook's lines -

    "The hurricane comes and the hurricane goes,
        And little the heed we take,
     Though the tree may snap as the tempest blows,
        And the walls of our homestead shake.

      But the north-east gale tells a different tale,
        With a voice of fearful sound,
     When a loved one is under a close-reefed sail
        On the deck of an 'outward-bound.'"

    And it is not only the outward-bound, but the homeward-bound also that has to be feared for " when the stormy winds do blow." Indeed, in a general way the situation of the homeward-bound is the more dangerous. The outward-bound can steer for the open sea, and if she be a stout ship, well handled, and have sea-room she is comparatively safe. But the homeward-bound may be approaching a rock-bound coast and running into fogs, a [-313-] dangerous position even in calm weather, and doubly so in time of storm.
    Within doors the signs that tell of the sea-going folk are writ large for those who can read them. The shore homes of our sailors are, in their main features, much as the homes of other labouring people - one or two, or at the most three-roomed homes, poorly and scantily furnished. But the ornamentation - and it is a matter for thankfulness that even in the poorest classes of homes there is, as a rule, some attempt at ornamentation - tells of those who cross the seas and visit foreign lands. The mantelpiece is "set out" with curiously-shaped shells or pieces of coral, and "real" Japanese or Chinese painted or inlaid tea-caddies or trays, or figures in native ware or metal. Where "father" is a long-voyage seaman, with occasional leisure time either at sea or in foreign ports, the centre-piece of the ornamental arrangement will probably be a model ship which he has carved and rigged. This is carefully protected and proudly displayed under a glass shade, and is regarded as in the nature of an heirloom. On the wall over these will be hung fans, Turkish pipes, festoons of cowrie shells, and other cheap and simple curios. In the same way "mother's" brooch and Polly's earrings most likely consist of foreign coins mounted to form these articles of personal adornment - silver coins of small intrinsic value, but prized by the womenkind as coming from abroad, and having been brought as special gifts to them.
    Again, the pictures in these homes are mostly of a maritime cast, representations of disasters at sea figuring most prominently - wrecks, ships or fishing-boats in a gale, [-314-] incidents of lifeboat work, and so forth. But perhaps the most distinctive, and at the same time most noteworthy, feature in this connection is the framed memorial-cards hung picturewise upon the walls. They are cards intended to keep green the memory of those who have found "a vast and wandering grave." One is to the memory of a sailor who died and was buried at sea. Another to that of one who "went down with the steamship L----." Others refer to friends or relatives who perished in the wreck of this or that ship, and here is one "in proud remembrance" of a gallant young seaman, the son and grandson of seagoing folks, who was drowned while bravely attempting to save the life of a shipmate who had fallen overboard. Here the tinge of poetic feeling, which, as it seems to me, is engendered even in uncultured minds by association with the mighty waters, is again apparent. For example, the memorial lines on the card last spoken of are -
        "Do not fear, heaven is as near
            By water as by land."
On another card that I recall to mind the lines ran -
        "Tis well to find our last repose
            Where the churchyard yew is high,
          But those who sleep in the desert or deep
            Are watched by the self-same eye."
A third bore the brief but appropriate inscription -
        "In the deep bosom of the ocean buried."
While still another, forsaking the poets and turning to the Bible, gave the sublimely simple text, " And the sea gave up the dead that were in it."
    [-315-] In the case of seamen who have died and been buried at sea, the surviving relatives receive some material memento of the loved and lost. Before the body is committed to the deep shipmates cut off and reverently preserve, until they can send it to the relatives, a lock of the dead man's hair. his "kit," too, is brought back with his ship, and his friends advised as to where it is deposited under official care. The "kit" of an ordinary seaman before the mast, especially if he has been for some time at sea, is usually a poor affair - is a good deal in the way of being a thing of shreds and patches. From a strictly financial point of view it is often scarcely worth the trouble of claiming, the garments of which it chiefly consists being of a kind that your wardrobe dealer would hardly be inclined to "take as a gift." Nevertheless, it is likely to contain something that will be held as priceless, something that will serve as a relic to those who hold the memory of their lost one all the more dear because as mourners they can never stand -
        "Where he in English earth is laid."
    Among the possessions of the lost at sea, whose sea "kits" ultimately come into the hands of their families, is frequently found a Bible. In numbers of instances this comes as a surprise even to the relatives. The dead sailor has in life seemed - on shore, at any rate - wholly rough and reckless, and heedless of things spiritual. But in his calling he has seen the mighty works of the Lord in some of their most impressive aspects, and the well-worn Bible taken from his sea-chest affords ground for the hope and belief that he has been impressed, has been [-316-] led to search the Scriptures and to find in them eternal life. It is seen that the message of salvation has been made known to him, it is hoped, at an accepted time; that he has died as those who die in the Lord, and will be with them on the right hand when the sea shall give up its dead. The Bibles and the locks of hair saved and forwarded by kindly and thoughtful shipmates are lovingly treasured, but secretly and sacredly, are only spoken of or shown on special or fitting occasions.
    But if the lives of time sea-going folks involve especial causes for anxiety or sorrow, they have also their brighter features, of which the home-coming from a voyage of "father" is one of the brightest. This incident constitutes one of the few pleasant sights to be witnessed in my district.
    In these days of rapid communication and accurate information in such matters a sailor's family know by what tide his ship will be "up." Having this knowledge, the wife will in many instances go to meet her husband as he lands, - partly, in some cases, that she may save him, if need be, from
    "The harpies of the shore, who pluck the eagles of the sea:"
but in a general way in simple affection, in order that he may see as well as know that "there is an eye to mark his coming, and grow brighter when he comes." The children left at home will know about what time to expect him there, and are on the look-out to hail him with nods and becks and wreathed smiles as he heaves in sight in tow of his consort, while neighbours, as he passes along, exchange a welcoming "What cheer?" with him.
[-317-] The wife is dressed in her Sunday best, and looks beaming and happy. The husband, sea- and sun-bronzed, has in honour of being thus under convoy donned his shore-going "reefer" suit. If he is a short-voyage man, with but little time at home between his runs, he will probably be carrying over his shoulder his long, round canvas clothes-bag stuffed full with the washing portion of his wardrobe, which the wife will promptly wash and get ready for sea again. The husband, like the wife, looks smiling and happy, and the picture on the whole is, as I have said, a pleasant one to look upon.
    Occasionally it is Jack and Jack's sweetheart who are thus seen together homeward bound. In either case they come sailing cheerily along the street, yard-arm to yard-arm, as Jack himself would say, until they finally drop anchor in that safest of all shore-havens - home. The home-coming is regarded as a festive occasion. It is celebrated by a hot supper on the first night, and, by way of an indulgence, little Johnny and Jane are allowed to sit up later than usual. The next night there will perhaps be a family party to some place of public entertainment, or if time allows, and it is the summer season, Jack, going upon the principle of the waiter who, when he had a holiday, spent it in voluntarily assisting another waiter, will give his family a treat in the shape of a blow on the river. And in doing so the sailor is wise, as well as a little self-sacrificing. In his company the day-trip to Gravesend or Sheerness, or it may be round the Nore and back, becomes interesting as well as healthful. So much I can say from experience.
    More than once, when indulging in that form of [-318-] holiday myself, I have "made up to" sea-going men from my own district, who were on board not in their professional capacity, but as excursionists, and they invariably proved desirable compagnons de voyage. Perhaps only the more intelligent of the sailor class would care for this mild - especially to them - form of pleasure. However that may be, I found them intelligent and observant men. They know the names and nationalities and destinations of most of the passing ships, and occasionally have a story to tell of some peril that the passing ship has encountered on former voyages. They point out the spot at which the Princess Alice went down, and where the ill-fated Northfleet was moored when she was run into, and recall some of the more thrilling incidents of those terrible disasters. They know the currents you are threading and the "set" of them, the names of the buoys or light-ships that are passed or sighted, and the particular dangers to navigation of which they give warning. Nor is it only of the river and shipping that they have a sailorly knowledge; they have something of interest to tell you of the more prominent landmarks that are passed.
    Considering the arduous and hazardous character of their employment, the Jacks of the mercantile marine are poorly paid, and but too often poorly cared for in the matter of forecastle accommodation and food. In regard to the latter point the short-voyage men, the coasters, the colliers, and those on weekly or fortnightly runs out and home, are in a better position than the long-voyage hands. The short-voyagers "find themselves" in provisions. They mess together, have their own caterer and cook, [-319-] and by acting upon co-operative principles and purchasing in the cheapest markets, they manage to feed themselves substantially as well as econonmically. But even with this advantage given in, Jack, as just said, is poorly paid.
    Anything in the way of home-coming rejoicings would have to be upon a very limited scale indeed if they were solely dependent upon Jack's earnings. Jack's wife, however, is usually a thrifty, industrious, capable woman, who contributes by her labour to the maintenance of the household. She, as well as Jack, belongs to "the wage-earning classes." Her husband being so much from home, she is in a position to labour for hire with less detriment to family and domestic life than ensues in the case of most other poor men's wives, who have, as well as their husbands, to daily labour for their daily bread. She is a charwoman or a laundress or a needlewoman, or perhaps a "hand" in some of the manufacturing industries in which female labour is employed. By her own exertions she can usually manage to, in homely phrase, keep the pot a-boiling while her husband is at sea; to find food for herself amid children, with perhaps a little to spare. In these cases Jack's wages are reserved for the payment of rent, the replenishment of the wardrobe, and other of the heavier items of family expenditure. Nor where Jack and Jack's wife thus pull together are there wanting Jacks who, through time instrumentality of the Post Office Savings Bank, have their little account with Her Majesty.
    As a class, the sea-going folks pay their way, can "hold up their heads with the best," and are happy and comfortable in their degree.
    Unfortunately there are still [-320-] foolish Jacks - Jacks whose Jack-ashore customs would be greatly more honoured in the breach than the observance. These, however, are a decreasing section of our seamen, thanks to our missions to seamen, the influence of our sailors' homes, and the general spread of education. The average seaman of to-day when on shore is a home-loving man. He does not "kick up his heels" or "throw his money about." He is still a generous fellow, but he is not merely foolish or thoughtless in generosity.
    As an illustration I may cite the conduct of a sailor in my district. He is on a fortnightly run, and has only two days in port at the home end. Naturally he is desirous of spending with his family as much as may be of the brief leisure allowed him under this arrangement, but for years he always spared time out of it to pay a visit to an old shipmate, who, by reason of physical infirmity, had fallen upon evil days, and become the inmate of a workhouse, in which he was destined to end his days. He took his old comrade a regular and liberal supply of tobacco, gave him news of other former shipmates, and supplied him with newspapers, and all with a sea-breezy cheerfulness of manner that enhanced the kindliness of his act, and brought a gleam of brightness into the ordinarily dull and dreary life of the other. A small matter this, perhaps, and only mentioned as being in its way characteristic, though one can easily imagine it meaning a great deal at the time to the friendless seaman, who, under stress of affliction, had been driven to seek a last anchorage in the workhouse.
    Owing to an incidental circumstance, I am somewhat [-321-] specially in touch with the sea-going folk of my district. One of the lures of certain public-houses in the district is the announcement displayed in the windows, "The Shipping Gazette taken in here." The Shipping Gazette is the paper of sea-going folk as sea-going folk. It is directory, guide, and newspaper all in one. Each week it gives methodical and exhaustive lists of homeward and outward-bound ships: the homeward-bound with dates of clearance or sailing, and their ports of destination the outward-bound with clearance, sailing, or Channel dates. In addition to this it gives Lloyd's list for the week, in which is recorded the arrival, or sailing, or passing of all manner of vessels. Then there is the column of ships spoken, giving the date of the speaking, the bearings at the time of the ship spoken, the direction in which she was steering, and - in most instances - the announcement most welcome of all to the relatives of seamen, "All well." Time paper further gives a complete list of the sea-borne mails for the week, specifying the dates of their despatch, and those upon which they are due at their port of arrival - important information for those who have friends at sea. The general maritime intelligence of the Gazette -  including records of shipwrecks and disasters at sea - is comprehensive. It also gives special reports of law cases affecting seafaring interests, and in its correspondents' column it affords advice upon knotty points of the Merchant Shipping Acts.
    All this, with a variety of minor matters, makes the Gazette a specially important and interesting paper for sea-going folk. But the immediate interest of the in-[-322-]dividual mariner or mariner's wife is generally confined to some single ship. They want to know if it has arrived at its port of destination, or at what intermediate ports it may have touched, or whether it has sailed homeward- bound, or been spoken or signalled, or what not. In the systematically arranged pages of the Gazette such information is to be obtained at a glance. Or if the desired information is not there, that circumstance can be taken as negative proof that the ship has not been spoken, or has not sailed or arrived, as the case may be. A two or three minutes' look at time paper is all that Jack or Jack's friend requires to inform them upon the point in which they are interested.
    But the Gazette costs threepence, while it is to be seen "at the bar" of the Crown and Anchor free. That is, there is no specific charge for looking at the paper; but, under the unwritten law governing these matters, the searcher after news is bound to "call for a glass for the good of the house;" and the good of the public-house is, as a rule, the harm of those who are tempted within its doors. Here, for example, where there is a disposition to frequent the public-house, a professed desire to have a peep at the Gazette is made a stock excuse for "dropping in," and once within the walls of the dram-shop, Jack ashore or his friends are under special temptation to drink. In this way the public-house announcement that "The Shipping Gazette is taken in here" becomes an incentive to drinking.
    In the hope of in some measure counteracting the effects of this "draw" in my own district, I follow the lead of the publican (on this head), and take in The Shipping Gazette. [-323-] I make it part of my business to digest its contents, making mental or, if need be, written notes concerning ships in which I am aware seamen from my district are sailing. I can tell the relatives of the absent mariners at what dates time ships in whose movements they are interested were at certain ports, or set sail on their homeward voyages, or the like. I can inform Mrs. Smith that her husband's ship was spoken on such a day "all well," or inform Mrs. Baker that the vessel on which her good man is homeward-bound from Bombay was "off Aden" at a date which indicated that a good run is being made.
    In the same way, when Mrs. Brown, who has heard some alarmist reports concerning the safety of the H----, on board of which she has two sons, anxiously inquires if I have seen any news of the H----, I am able to reassure her by informing her that I see by the Gazette that after leaving Brisbane the H---- had put in at Newcastle (New South Wales) with loss of foremast. That is all the Gazette states, but we know that what the Gazette says is all that there is to say. Its no news is good news. We can safely infer in this case that though the ship has been in rough weather, and sustained damage, there has been no injury or loss of life among the crew. Of course there will be a delay for repairs, and a corresponding delay in the arrival home of the vessel; but, having timely knowledge that such will be the case, the relatives of the crew will not experience the anxiety they would otherwise feel on the H---- becoming "overdue."
    As it is known among the people of my district that I keep myself posted in these branches of maritime [-324-] intelligence, I am constantly being asked for information, or for a loan of the Gazette; and in numbers of instances I have the satisfaction of knowing that I obviate the necessity of a visit to the public-house. In this way, as I have just said, I am brought somewhat specially into touch with the sea-going folk of my district. I see a good deal of their home and shore life, and of those characteristics which, unconsciously to themselves, mark them as a class. I am a daily witness of their joys and sorrows, and of their kindness to, and sympathy with, each other in those griefs to which as a class they are more particularly liable. Though an unromantic, they are an interesting folk. The mercantile Jack of the period has nothing of the stage sailor in his appearance. In these days of steam transport he is as often stoker Jack as Jack before the mast. He is greasy and grimy when at work, and as a result of working in the heated atmosphere of a "stoke-hole" has rather a pallid than a sea-beaten look when he is "cleaned up." The work of a ship's stoker being highly destructive of clothing, stoker Jack's working clothes "are generally of a nondescript order;" it is in his shore "rig- out," his pilot-cloth "reefer" suit and navy cap, that he looks most sailor-like. At best he is not as picturesque a figure as our merchant seamen of the olden days, or the trim sailors of our modern Royal Navy. Nevertheless, in essentials he is still the same manner of man as the hardy and adventurous sailors who have made England first among the nations for commercial enterprise and maritime discovery - is strong and active, brave in danger, patient in suffering.
[-325-] As I have used it here, " sea-going folk" is perhaps scarcely a term of precision. The bulk of my sea-going folk, the women and children, are not sea-going. Some of them have never been on the sea, have never even seen it except in the way of an "eight hours at the seaside" trip. But they are the mothers or wives or children of seamen. For them, though they may remain on land, there is but too often "sorrow on the sea." Their hearts and thoughts are with the sea, their remembrance with the dead whose grave it has become, their daily and nightly prayers for those who may be in peril upon it, their trust in Him whom even the winds and sea obey.