Squareheads

I stumble on a fine sea yarn, a memoir called “The Luck of the John Lockett” by Shalimar, the pen name of F.C.Hendry. The story is in his From the Log-Book of Memory (Blackwood, 1950), one of many volumes of reminiscence and fiction Hendry published from the 1930s until his death in 1955. They are all out of print.

Astute readers of these blogs will recognise John Lockett from an account of her sinking I wrote on the occasion of a Remembrance Day. The three-masted barque under a Norwegian flag. My 17-year old father. A German U-Boat captain. The sinking off The Lizard in April, 1917.

John Lockett Leaving the Tyne, by Frank H. Mason

Hendry is not precise about dates, but from some remarks in another story, his voyage in John Lockett must have been before 1904, perhaps even at the end of the preceding century. She was then still owned by W. & J. Lockett, ship-builders and merchants of Liverpool, engaged, in those last days of British sail, in lucrative but dangerous runs—one of which is here recounted in Hendry’s story—around the Horn to Chile, to the West Coast of South America. Out in brick ballast and coke from Tyneside, back with a hold full of copper ore or nitrate.

Hendry’s account of this adventure is illustrated by the marine painter Frank H. Mason. John Lockett Leaving the Tyne shows the moment when the ship, now well out in the offing, has dropped the pilot and bid farewell to the tug, and her crew unfurl the sails before a fresh north-easterly trade.

We have a photo with which to compare this image. From more than ten years later. John Lockett, now in Norwegian ownership, showing neutral markings at the waterline, under tow in the Avon Gorge just outside of Bristol, during World War I.

John LockettHendry, or Mason, must have had photos available to them too. The ship, by then many years on the bottom of the sea, is recognisably the same one, even to the untrained eye. What that eye cannot see are all those things Hendry sees through the eyes of a mariner and returns to again and again. The beautiful lines, the low poop, the unimpeded sweep of the deck. The impeccable balance between elegant design and fitness for use. Responsiveness and refinement. He calls her “dainty.” “That flower of a barque,” he says. The ship itself a living thing, the main character in a thumping good tale of seas and men and seamanship.

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“Every man before the mast was a Scandinavian,” Hendry says. We are introduced to a Danish ship’s carpenter, who had a way with languages. A Swedish sailmaker.  A Norwegian, “the most powerful member of the crew,” staggering under the sort of load that a wiry Chileno has been man-handling into the hold all day. Collectively, a chorus of mostly older men, judging silently the seamanship of their officers.

The question of Scandinavians in the British merchant fleet was of long-standing controversy. A report to Parliament in 1887, published as Final Report of the Royal Commission on Loss of Life at Sea makes interesting reading.  A witness appearing on the 12th of March 1886, for example, complained that masters “are taking foreigners on deck—Scandinavians—and chucking British seamen out.” The foreigners grumble. They malinger. They take lower wages. They don’t learn English and so jeopardise safety. The witness mentions a certain Captain McPherson who “had four Englishmen, and he wanted a Scandinavian boatswain. He said he could get along with them better, and I said he could not.”

For his part, Hendry has not one word of criticism of the Scandinavian crew. “Fine men and thorough seamen.” The captain, however, had a most curious grievance with them. It seems that a side-enterprise on these voyages involved a “slop chest”—articles of clothing for sale, along with “plugs of tobacco, packets of matches and bars of soap”—opened for business in the ship’s cabin once they were under way. The profit went to the captain.

The first offering was a disaster:

The men seemed to have developed what is now known as “sales resistance” to an extent that was far from the captain’s liking. As the mate remarked to me, the old man couldn’t have it both ways. He could hardly expect thrifty Squareheads who joined the ship sober and well-dressed, eagerly to pay fancy sea-prices like parish-rigged British seaman who were down to their last shilling and had mortgaged their month’s advance of pay to boarding-house keepers to get away from their squalid lodgings.

“Parish-rigged” is cruel. It is nice, however, to encounter the word Squareheads—the usual word for Norwegians in my neighbourhood.