Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Mother Carey's Chickens

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The man with the "cheeses" at the ship-chandler's shop - "Will you buy a couple of life-buoys cheap?" - No use keeping them in stock, nobody will buy them - Opposition to life-buoys by mates and captains - A life-buoy agent pitched overboard -  The marvellous story of little Jack Bailey and of his life-buoy that saved him from the shark - The pickle merchant who uses more cork than is required for all the life-buoys and belts in the kingdom.

I WAS in the neighbourhood of Wapping one Saturday, at the shop of a ship-chandler. It was growing late in the evening when there came in a needy-looking man with something bulky in a canvas bag, which from its shape, and connecting it with chandlery, I took to be cheeses. But it was only for a moment that this idea possessed me. It almost immediately occurred to me that a couple of cheeses of at least two feet diameter and about six inches thick would wecigh about half a hundredweight, whereas he with the bag, who was a little old man, carried them quite lightly in his left hand. I was not long left in doubt, however.
   Addressing the worthy chandler, he began, "Can I persuade you, master, to buy a couple of -"
    But the other took the words out of his mouth - "A couple of life-buoys? No, thanky," said he, impatiently; "I've had the last one I bought of you on hand this three months."
    "It ought to have sold, too," replied the life-buoy man, despondently; "it was a very good one, I remember."
    "I daresay it was, but that don't make a ha'porth of difference. Good or bad, people won't buy 'em." And then, turning to me, he continued, "I do assure you, sir, strange as it may seem, that if I was to offer the article we are speaking of to the first seaman that passed on his way to his ship at a quarter what it cost me, it is twenty to one against his buying it. I'd lay forty to one, if the conditions were that he carried it openly in his hand through the streets to where his vessel was lying."
    "And why should he object to be seen carrying so useful an article through the streets?" I asked.
    "Because," returned the ship-chandler, " he wouldn't like to run the risk of being jeered and laughed at."
    [-230-] "By the landsmen, you mean, of course?"
    "No, I don't. I mean by sea-goers. More likely than not, if a seaman was seen with a belt or a buoy, his own shipmates would chaff him more unmercifully than any one else. Ask this man here. He can tell you more about it than I can."
    "I was just about to remark to him," I replied, "that I should have thought a much readier way of disposing of such goods would be to deal with those who need them at first hand - to go down to the docks and aboard the outward-bound vessels, and offer the buoys or belts to the crews and to the passengers as well."
    The life-buoy maker was a sad-looking old fellow, but he grinned at this last observation of mine.
    "I think if you tried it once, sir, the chances are you would fight shy of the experiment ever after," said he. "I know them that have tried it and been sorry they did. Some of the captains and mates even are dead set against life-buoys. You would think, by the way they treat any one who makes an attempt to introduce such things on board their ships, that they were inventions for drowning people instead of saving them from drowning. They'll cuss and swear at you something awful, especially them in the coasting trade, who you d naturally think would be more glad than any one to have a belt or a buoy by 'em. 'Be off!' they'll say, unless you want to be pitched over the side. We want something that will make the men stick to the ship when she's in danger of going down, not such darned things as them to encourage them to give you the slip when you're most in trouble.' And you'd be lucky if you didn't have something shied at you if you didn't get off the vessel as quick as you could.
    "They ain't particular how they serve you if they're of the rough sort, and only last year a man I know, in my own way of business, he went aboard a ship that was lying in the London Docks, not to try and sell a buoy, but to take one to one of the crew who had bought and paid for it, and just as he got on deck he met the second mate, who was one of the unfeeling sort I'm speaking of, and who up and spoke to him so pleasant that the man thought he was going to do a stroke of business with him. He asked the price of the buoy, and handled it, and wanted to know what weight it was calculated to keep afloat in the water.
    'Could it keep you afloat, do you think?' he asks him, quite affable. ' I d take to it as comfortable as going to bed,' says my friend, 'if there was occasion.' 'Then here goes to make you comfortable, you confounded Mother Carey's chicken,' says the second mate, turning all of a sudden fierce on him, and chucked him into the river and the buoy after him. Course he only got a ducking, and was able to scramble ashore, but even such little things as that pints to the sort of spitefulness there is amongst those who are prejudiced against life-buoys. But it isn't everybody who is so foolish," he hastened to add, as though suddenly bethinking him that, under the circumstances, the little anecdote was neither judicious nor timely; "sensible going voyagers buy 'em and are glad to. I wouldn't press these two on you, master" (this to the ship-chandler), "but, to tell you the truth, I m hard up, and don't see my way to getting over Sunday. Don't say you won't buy 'em till you've had a look at 'em." And so saying he withdrew from the bag a couple of life-buoys of full size, and apparently well made and finished. "I'll warrant that they are made throughout of solid cork," said he, "and if you'll kindly take them off my hands, you shall have the two for fourteen shillings."
    "Yes, they are cheap enough, but they are no use to me. I can't sell 'e, so I won't buy 'em."
    " Look here, now," persisted the other persuasively: "say you'll buy 'em, and I'll take half a dozen tins of meat, beef and mutton, in part payment."
    But the ship-chandler was still obdurate.
    "When I say no I mean no," said he. "You won't coax me to lumber my shop with a class of goods there's no demand for if you talk from now till next week. So you are only wasting your time." He was convinced at last there was no hope, so with a lengthened visage the poor life-buoy maker replaced his rejected ware in the bag and went his way.
    The ship-chandler would have permitted the subject to drop as being too commonplace to be worthy of further discussion, but for me it had a more than passing interest. I should no more have thought, had I required such an article as a life-buoy, of looking out for somebody who was hawking it about from shop to shop, then of going to a Brummagem jewellery bazaar to purchase a gold chronometer. One might reasonably sup-[-232-]pose that of all things in the world an apparatus, the only use of which is to preserve a man's life in the last extremity, should be guaranteed by a responsible maker. The saving virtues of a life-buoy must depend wholly and solely on good workmanship and on the quality of the material used in its construction. And without for a moment wishing to depreciate a humble industry or to insinuate that a manufacturer on a small scale is not as capable of producing goods in as excellent quality as are turned out of extensive wholesale premises, to my thinking it would be a safeguard and a satisfaction if the precious promise of saving me from death by drowning were stamped with the name of some firm of high repute.
    The two buoys I had seen were canvas-covered, and a purchaser had only the seller's bare word that they were interiorly composed of the "best cork." But when a trade falls so low as to include among those who work at it poor fellows such as I had just now seen, and who was willing to sell at a "slop" price - to take tinned meat (presumably for the Sunday dinner of his family) in part payment - it is far from impossible that the hard-up manufacturer might be tempted to use some rubbishy substitute for cork, which would treacherously sink with the drowning man who trusted to it. I put the matter to the ship-chandler in this light, and his reply was that, as far as he knew, the man I had seen was honest enough, and might be trusted. He had heard of so-called life-buoys being stuffed with rushes and with waste cane, but he had never handled them. At the price the man had offered the buoys he might, perhaps, get as much as three or four shillings for making them, and the two would be a long day's work. He was what was called a garretmaster, and always made up his goods and disposed of them in the way I had seen. There were not many engaged in making life-buoys to hawk about; but if there were half a dozen, that was six too many. The regular manufacturers - the wholesale people - could very well supply the demand there for such things - a hundred times over, in fact, if they had orders for them; but there was no call for them or for cork belts either worth speaking of. Put it roughly  that five thousand persons - seamen and emigrants - left the port of London daily, on short or long voyages, and he, the ship-chandler, could lay a pound to a shilling, if it could [-233-] be proved, that not more than one in a thousand were provided, on their own account, with either life-belt or buoy.
    The ship-chandler spoke like one whose knowledge of the subject justified his expressed opinion, but I was loth to believe without further inquiry that he had not somewhat exaggerated the facts of the case. I must confess to having a kindly regard for life-buoys. It dates back now some sixteen years - to the time, indeed, when the mail steamers, the Wye and the Rhone, with many other vessels, were completely wrecked in a terrible hurricane off the Island of St. Thomas. On that occasion a life-buoy was marvellously instrumental in saving a little lad who was one of the few survivors.
    When the ship was dashed to pieces on the rocks, and the suddenly enguhphed crew were struggling in the troubled waters in the midst of splintery wreckage, little Jack Bailey, who was clinging to a frail spar, saw at a short distance off an able seaman who was breasting the waves with the help of his life-buoy. Jack was doing his best to make towards the man, when all in a moment the latter tittered a shriek, and throwing up his arms, his body slipped through the buoy. The waters thereabouts abounded with sharks, and the probability is that the man was nipped off at the waist by one of those rapacious monsters. Anyhow, it was an accident by which the cabin-boy benefited. The now empty buoy was drifted towards him, and he managed to slip his head and shoulders through it, and to secure the lashings to his body. But the storm still raged, and he was carried out to sea, and at length, buffeted and benumbed, he became insensible, and knew no more of the matter until many hours after, when he was roused to consciousness by his naked body rasping against the shingly beach. I met young Jack as he was landing from the Douro at Southampton, his only luggage being the precious buoy that had so miraculously saved him, which he was taking home as a present for his mother. We went with two others of the rescued crew, and had a quiet little dinner at Morgan's Hotel, where Jack told me his story and, bearing out the truth of it, there on the yellow paint of the outer canvas was the impress of the back of Master Bailey's head and his hair where it had rested, while, senseless as a log, he was beating about in that sharky ocean. And it is worth mentioning in connection with the unaccountable negligence manifested by [-234-] seafaring folk to provide themselves with a cork float, that of the whole crew of young Bailey's ship only seven were saved, and of these four swam ashore with life-buoys on their bodies.
    In order to ascertain how far the astonishing statement the ship-chandler had made was correct, I paid a visit to the largest manufactory of apparatus for life saving at sea; and it scarcely needed more than the very first remark made by the head of the firm in answer to my question to corroborate my first informant.
    "You may guess," said he, "how little in favour life-buoy's and everything of the kind are in every branch of the sea service, and, I may add, the river service as well, when I tell you that with all our business transactions with the shipping interest, including Admiralty and Trinity House, the Board of Trade, the Royal Humane Society, the Thames Conservancy, and the Royal Lifeboat Institution, our annual receipts from all these various sources do not amount to more than one-half of our yearly account with one of our customers - a pickle merchant - for bottle-corks and bungs."
    Questioned as to the foolish fear of being "chaffed" that prevailed among seamen as regards their including such simple life-saving apparatus in their ordinary equipment, he replied that what I had been told was exactly true. He informed me, moreover, that he had caused it to be made generally known that the firm were prepared to provide as many cork belts as might be required for any vessel; to supply handy chests to stow them in; and to send some one each time a ship returned to port, to overhaul the chests, and make good all necessary repairs, at an uniform charge of one shilling per belt or buoy per annum, and in not one case in fifty had the offer been accepted, the chief objection being the strange one that all such contrivances had a tendency to make passengers unnecessarily anxious and nervous, and to foster timidity in the crews. They are, it is said, tempted to abandon a vessel, when, if they knew that if the vessel were lost they would undoubtedly be drowned, they would be induced to use their utmost endeavours to stick to her to the last; whereas, according to the simplest teaching of common sense, a crew would certainly have greater confidence and cooler courage to stand by their ship until her last chance was gone, knowing that her sinking did not necessarily involve theirs also. The sailor who, on joining his ship, took with him [-235-] with his other traps a cork belt, would lead such a life on its account among his shipmates that probably, for peace and quiet sake, he would be driven to pitch the objectionable article overboard.
    It was the same years ago even with the lifeboat crews. It was regarded as contemptible among the dauntless fellows who manned such craft to wear the jackets provided for them, and it was not until considerable loss of life in consequence had taken place, and the authorities insisted that on no occasion, even when merely out for practice, should a lifeboat man put off without wearing his cork jacket, that the humane provision was universally adopted.
    I was sorry to hear that the same unpardonable apathy prevails amongst those who are responsible for the safety of steamboat passengers on the Thames. When, nearly five years since, the Princess Alice went down off Woolwich, and more than six hundred lives were sacrificed, the shocking occurrence stirred the heart of the country with a thrill of horror, and as with one voice the people asked why all such vessels should not be compelled to carry, in some shape or other, life-preserving appliances sufficient to keep afloat their full complement of passengers, should they be in danger of drowning. The prompt answer given by those accustomed and competent to deal with such matters, was to the effect that there was no reason at all why such humane provision should not be made; that such contrivances existed in the handiest possible forms, and that at the expense of a very few pounds each, every passenger carrying steamer plying on the river might be secured against the possibility of such a catastrophe as attended the loss of the great saloon steamer.
    I was shown a Parliamentary Blue Book - bulky enough almost to contain a full list of all who have been drowned since the commencement of the present century - full of the evidence of experts and witnesses who were examined by the Commission appointed; and the upshot of it all was, it was strongly recommended that immediate steps should be taken to make it compulsory on the proprietors of river steamers to provide every vessel with ample life-saving apparatus of an approved pattern. Just about the same time the Eurydice capsized in a squall, and all hands were lost except two, and of these one wore a life-belt [-236-] and the other was supported by a buoy. This, of course, strengthened the popular conviction that it would be nothing short of criminal negligence to defer carrying out, forthwith, the suggestions of the Princess Alice Commission of Inquiry. But there have been no river wrecks of any great importance since, and the alarm and excitement subsided. After all the fuss and commotion, nothing at all has been done, and it is next to certain that, in the unfortunate event of a crowded Thames steamer suddenly sinking in mid-river to-day, the percentage of lives lost would be quite equal to that which made so memorable the disaster above mentioned.