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London River,
H. M. Tomlinson, 1921


An Old Lloyd's Register

WITH the sensation that I had survived in to a strange and a hostile era that had nothing to do with me, for its affairs were not mine, I was inside a submarine, during the War, talking to her commander. He was unravelling for me the shining complexity of his "box of tricks," as he called his ship. He was sardonic (there was no doubt he was master of the brute he so lightly villified), and he was blithe, and he illustrated his scientific monologue with stories of his own experiences in the Heligoland Bight. These, to me, were like the bedevilments of those dreams from which we groan to awake, but cannot. The curious doings of this new age, I thought as I listened to him, would have just the same interest for me as the relics of an extinct race of men, except for the urgent remembrance that one of the monstrous accidents this child knows of might happen now. That made an acute difference. This was not nightmare, nor ridiculous romance, but actuality. And as I looked at this mocking youngster, I saw he was like the men of that group on the Queen Mary who were similarly mocking, for my benefit, but a few weeks before, their expert share in forwarding the work we had given them in this new age; and then where were they? Ships I knew, but not such ships as these, nor such work.

Another officer joined us, an older man, and said this to him was strange navigation. He was a merchant seaman. He had served his time in sailing ships. I asked him to name some of them, having the feeling that I could get back to the time I knew if I could but hail the ghost, with another survivor from the past, of one of those forgotten ships. "Well," he replied, "there was the Cutty Sark."

If he had said the Golden Hind I should not have been more astonished. In a sense, it was the same thing. The Cutty Sark was in the direct line with the Elizabethan ships, but at the end. That era, though it closed so recently, was already as far as a vague memory. The new sea engines had come, and here we were with them, puzzled and embarrassed, having lost our reasonable friends. I told him I had known the Cutty Sark, and had seen that master of hers--a character who went about Poplar in a Glengarry cap--who gave one of her masts (the mizzen, I think) a golden rooster, after he had driven her from Sydney Heads to the Channel to break the record--Captain Woodget. His men said it was like living in a glass house.

I recalled to him that once, when my business was concerned with bills of lading and freight accounts, I was advised to ship four hundred cases to Sydney, New South Wales; and one-half of that consignment, my instructions ran, was to arrive a month before the other. The first lot went in a modern steel barque, the Cairnbulg. ("I have seen her," said this submarine officer). More than a fortnight later, being too young to remember that the little Cutty Sark had been one of the China tea clippers, I shipped the last half of the consignment in her. But she disordered all the careful plans of the consignees. She got in a fortnight ahead of the Cairnbulg.

The effect of that casual recollection on the submarine officer was distinctly unwarlike. This memory, and not his present work, might have been the real thing. He knew Woodget, the man in the Glengarry. He wanted to know more; ever so much more. He mentioned other ships and masters, to induce me. I got the idea that he would let his mind, at least, escape into that time, if only I would help him to let it go. But there was that potent and silent enigma about us.

No such escape for him. We have fashioned other ships, and must use them. What we have conjured up compels us to live with it. But when you do not go to sea you may have what ships you like. There is some but not much interest in the reappearance in the newspapers of the sailing lists; a few of the old names appear again, though new ships bear them. But late at night, when a westerly wind with rain turns for me a neighbouring yew tree into an invisible surge, then it is the fortune of one who remembers such as the Cutty Sark to choose different ships and other times. Why not choose them? They were comely ships, and now their time seems fair. Who would care to remember the power and grey threat of a modern warship, or the exotic luxury of a liner of this new era? Nobody who remembers the graciousness of the clippers, nor the pride and content of the seamen who worked them. To aid the illusion of the yew, I have one of those books which are not books, a Lloyd's Register of Shipping for 1880, that by some unknown circuitous route found its way from its first owner in Madras to my suburb. It goes very well with the surge of yew, when westerly weather comes to unite them.

I should like to know how that book got to London. Somewhere in it is the name of the ship which carried it. Anyhow, I think I can make out in it the houseflag of that ship. It, was, I believe, one of J. H. Allan's teak-built craft, a forgotten line--the Rajah of Cochin, the Copenhagen, the Lincelles, though only just before the War, in the South-West India Dock, I met a stranger, a seaman looking for work, who regretted its disappearance, and the new company-owned steamers; for he said they were good ships, "but more than that," he told me, "Allan was an old gentleman who knew his own ships, and knew his men." This stranger said you forget a ship now as soon as you are paid off, "and glad to," and "you don't ever know who owns her, even if there's a strike. Parsons and old maids and Cardiff sharks, I reckon."

Very likely. But what sharks once were in it have all disappeared from my Register. It belongs to those days when, if you went to New Zealand, you had to go by sailer; when the East India Dock had an arcade of jib-booms and bowsprits, with sometimes a varnished shark's tail terminal--the Euterpe, Jessie Readman, Wanganui, Waimea, Waimate, Opawa, Margaret Galbraith, Helen Denny, Lutterworth, and Hermione. There were others. What is in these names? But how can we tell? There were personal figureheads, there were shapely forms, each with its own narrative of adventure, there was the undiscovered sea, and there was youth; and these have gone.

It is all very well to say that the names and mere words in this old Register have no more meaning today than a railway time-table of the same date. Hardly to be distinguished in the shadows in some corners of St. Paul's Cathedral from which night never quite goes, there are certain friendless regimental colours. Few of us know now who bore them, and where, and why; but imagine the deserved fate of one who would allow a brutal word to disturb their dust! They mean nothing, except that men, in a world where it is easy to lose faith, treasure the few tokens of faithfulness, courage, and enterprise proved in their fellows; and so those old staffs, to which cling faded and dusty rags, in a real sense support the Cathedral. Poplar once was a parish whose name was more familiar in Eastern seas and on the coasts of the Americans, and stood for something greater and of more value, than the names of some veritable capital cities. That vista down the East India Dock Road from North Street, past the plane trees Which support on a cloud the cupola of Green's Chapel, to the gateway of the dock which was built for John Company, was what many would remember as essential London who would pass the Mansion House as though it were a dingy and nameless tavern. At the back of that road today, and opposite a church which was a chapel-of-ease to save the crews of the East Indiamen lying off Blackwall the long walk to Stebonhythe Church, is the public library; and within that building are stored, as are the regimental colours in the Cathedral, the houseflags of those very ships my Register helps me to remember--the tokens of fidelity and courage, of a service that was native, and a skill in that service which was traditional to the parish. Tokens that now are dusty and in their night, understood only by the few who also belong to the past.

There is the houseflag of the Cutty Sark, and her sister ships the Dharwar, Blackadder, Coldstream--but one must be careful, and refuse to allow these names to carry one away. There are so many of them. They are all good. Each can conjure up a picture and a memory. They are like those names one reads in spring in a seed-merchant's catalogue. They call to be written down, to be sung aloud, to be shared with a friend. But I know the quick jealousy of some old sailor, his pride wounded here by an unjustifiable omission of the ship that was the one above all others for him, is bound to be moved by anything less than a complete reprint here of the Register. How, for example, could I give every name in the fleet of the White Star of Aberdeen? Yet was not each ship, with her green hull and white spars, as moving as a lyric? Is there in London River today a ship as beautiful as the old Thermopylæ? There is not. It is impossible. There was the Samuel Plimsoll of that line--now a coal hulk at Gibraltar which must be named, for she was Captain Simpson's ship (he was commodore afterwards), the "merry blue-eyed skipper" of Froude's Oceana, but much more than that, a sage and masterful Scot whose talk was worth a long journey to hear.

The houseflag of Messrs. R. and H. Green, in any reference to the ships of Blackwall, should have been mentioned first. There is a sense in which it is right to say that the founder of that firm, at a time when American craft like the Boston clippers of Donald McKay were in a fair way to leave the Red Ensign far astern, declared that Blackwall had to beat those American flyers, and did it. But that was long before the eighties, and when steam was still ridiculed by those who could not see it equalling clippers that had logged fourteen knots, or made a day's run of over three hundred miles. Yet some of Green's ships came down to the end of the era like the Highflyer and the Melbourne. The latter was renamed the Macquarie, and was one of the last of the clippers to come home to Poplar, and for that reason, and because of her noble proportions, her picture is kept, as a reminder, by many who wish to think of ships and the sea as they were. It is likely that most who live in Poplar now, and see next to its railway station the curious statue of a man and a dog, wonder who on earth Richard Green, Esq., used to be; though there are a few oldsters left still who remember Blackwall when its shipwrights, riggers, sailmakers. and caulkers were men of renown and substance, and who can recall, not only Richard Green, but that dog of his, for it knew the road to the dock probably better than most of those who use it today. Poplar was the nursery of the Clyde. The flags which Poplar knew well would puzzle London now--Devitt and Moore's, Money Wigram's, Duthie's, Willis's, Carmichael's, Duncan Dunbar's, Scrutton's, and Elder's. But when lately our merchant seamen surprised us with a mastery of their craft and a fortitude which most of us had forgotten were ever ours, what those flags represented, a regard for a tradition as ancient and as rigorous as that of any royal port, was beneath it all.

But if it were asked what was this tradition, it would not be easy to say. Its authority is voiceless, but it is understood. Then what is it one knows of it? I remember, on a day just before the War, the flood beginning to move the shipping of the Pool. Eastward the black cliffs lowered till they sank under the white tower of Limehouse Church; and the church, looking to the sunset, seemed baseless, shining with a lunar radiance. Upriver, the small craft were uncertain, moving like phantoms over a pit of bottomless fire. But downstream every ship was as salient as though lighted with the rays of a great lantern. And there in that light was a laden barque, outward bound, waiting at the buoys. She headed downstream. Her row of white ports diminished along the length of her green hull. The lines of her bulwarks, her sheer, fell to her waist, then airily rose again, came up and round to merge in one fine line at the jibboom. The lines sweeping down and airily rising again were light as the swoop of a swallow. The symmetry of her laden hull set in a plane of dancing sun-points, and her soaring amber masts, cross-sparred, caught in a mesh of delicate cordage, and shining till they almost vanished where they rose above the buildings and stood against the sky, made her seem as noble and haughty as a burst of great music. One of ours, that ship. Part of our parish.


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