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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)

Ben Hird and Company

Ben Hird and Company,

The managing owner, or part owner, Harry Henderson, became a trusty page 60 friend of the novelist, but the one of the three who captured his liking most was the ship's supercargo, Ben Hird, a burly, jolly, sailorly Scot (he seemed to me more Irish than Scot, though he came from Aberdeen). He had been at sea in one way and another for more than twenty years; he had voyaged all over the South Seas, and spent long months on lonely islands as trader. He could sing a good song, and valiantly maintain the reputation of his birthland when convivial spirits met. So, too, could the third and youngest member of the trading trio, Jack Buckland, whose nickname was “Tin Jack.” He was a bright but somewhat irresponsible character, given to chatter and youthful pranks; a trader for his firm on one far-out island after another. He is considered to be the original of Stevenson's character, Tommy Hadden in “The Wrecker.”

But Ben Hird was the most stimulating figure. He was a very great favourite among all the Island people, white and brown, whom he met on his long cruises in schooners, brigantines and steamers under the famous Circular Saw house flag.

Stevenson's letter now in the Turnbull Library was addressed to Ben Hird in May, 1893, from Vailima. It was dictated to Isobel Strong, his adopted daughter, and signed by him. He mentioned that “something is already out in England in which you are directly interested…. The book is called ‘Island Nights’ Entertainments,' and is dedicated to three rather decent fellows—Harry Henderson, Jack Buckland, and B—, but you will find it on the flyleaf. They are all people anyway for whom I entertain a particular esteem—and Be—there, I'm letting it slip again—is not the least.”

R.L.S. was expecting and hoping Hird would visit Apia. “For months I hung on to my last bottle of good whisky for Ben Hird.”

“You are expected,” he added, “to sing ‘Afton Water,’ and to tell the latest story of Tin Jack with all details on the verandah of Vailima.”

“Tin Jack” Buckland was a merry-hearted young fellow who was never likely to grow old. He came to a tragic end on Christmas Island, killed while handling explosives in the customary free-and-easy way of the Island. Ben Hird died when on a trading cruise in his firm's steamer among the Line Islands and was buried on the coral atoll of Funafuti. The last of the cheery trio, Harry Henderson, died in Melbourne in 1926.

I am inclined to the belief that Ben Hird was the original of London Dodd, the narrator of so much comedy and tragedy in “The Wrecker.” True, he was not a smallish man, as the author described him in the introductory chapter, where Dodd comes in in the trading schooner from Auckland that arrived at Tai-o-hae, the French port of entry in the Marquesas. But he was the bearded supercargo with a pleasing flow of conversation, and he was “an old, salted trader,” an accurate enough description of Mr. B. Hird.

A reference to one Tierney in the Stevenson letter to Hird is cryptic to most readers without some explanation. Stevenson wrote:“…. I was very sorry to hear about poor old Tierney, but I trust he is all on the mend and jolly again, like others of that vast clan of one-handed calenders, the sons of kings, who people the Line Islands.”

The last portrait of R.L.S.

The last portrait of R.L.S.

The allusion is to a Captain Tierney, a trader who lived on Apaiang, in the Gilbert Islands. As far as my memory serves me, he was reported in Auckland to have blown one of his hands off, or shattered it, when killing fish with dynamite. A rather common mishap in the Islands, holding the explosive a second too long before throwing it into the water, Evidently Hird had reported the accident to Stevenson, who had visited Captain Tierney on Apaiang in 1889, when he was cruising in the schooner Equator.