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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 17 — The Tyneside

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Chapter 17
The Tyneside

The entrance to the Tyne reminded me of Greymouth, New Zealand. What they called the Tip Head was very similar to the training walls—or breakwaters—at our West Coast port. To illustrate the importance of the River Tyne and its surrounding district, one needs only to mention that it has three towns at its very mouth in North Shields, Tynemouth, and South Shields, while ten miles up the river is the important city of Newcastle, alongside of which is Gateshead. Half-way up this navigable stretch is Wallsend on the north side and Jarrow almost opposite. With all these towns engaged in ship-building, this hive of industry will be appreciated. The river is the boundary between the counties of Durham and Northumberland whose coal mines have played such a large part in the development of Tyneside into one of the most important industrial centres of Britain.

We had already discharged when word came that the crew was to be paid off, for the Claverhill was to be laid up. This was a severe blow, particularly to the officers and engineers, for they do not move from ship to ship as do firemen and sailors. When we were all going ashore to the shipping office to sign off, our First Mate, who was himself carrying a hand-bag, said to me, “Would you mind carrying this bag ashore for me?”

“Certainly,” I said and walked down the gangway quite unconcerned. It was not until we got to the shipping office that I learned that I had smuggled ashore a bag full of cigars! It was rather unfair to have asked me to do this, but we all laughed when we learned of the Mate's trick. He was certainly an old war-horse, and must have done this many times before.

On the morning we were to sign off, the Chief told me that I was to stay on with him. The Captain was also to keep a Mate aboard, as well as the Cook, for it was not known how long the ship would be laid up. It thus meant saying good-bye to all the others, and bringing to an end pleasant associations over a long period with a really happy band of men.

This trip out East was typical of the voyages that are made page 229 from month to month, and year to year, by Britain's great fleet of tramp steamers. They certainly play an important part in extending the trade of the Mother Country to the farthermost parts of the earth.

I have endeavoured to paint a picture, not only of the movements of such steamers and the cargoes they carry, but also the life of those on board. The experience certainly established firmly in my mind a wholesome regard for Britain's sons of the sea. I think of those splendid firemen and their work in getting the Claverhill across the China Sea to Hong Kong on our limited bunkers; I think of the same splendid loyalty of everyone serving on board; I think of the anxiety of our Captain and Chief Engineer, not only with regard to the stranding of the Claverhill, but also their seeing that every voyage was made as profitable as possible for their owners. I was impressed at the outset with the discipline on this humble tramp. In a cargo-ship, such as this, there would be a good deal of “Jack,” and “Bill,” and “Bob,” if they were in the colonial service. On the Claverhill I was always Mr. Reese to everyone, whether it be the firemen or my own fellow-officers. This, in itself, was a splendid contribution to discipline, and prevented familiarity from undermining one's authority. The comradeship was splendid, and one learned the necessity and value of give and take. Humour was incessant and mess-room stories brought much laughter; the Chief with droll Scottish yarns, and the Second, though unable to appreciate some of the Third's jokes, could cause a laugh with a Presbyterian one! It was our Cockney friend who could rattle them off without a blink and without a blush. The Fourth could tell some colonial ones, so we were all performers.

I am afraid my shipmates remained incredulous over the “fish story” about the famous “Pelorus Jack” in New Zealand. It was always hard to convince people of the authenticity of the statement that a fish of the dolphin species used to meet the Nelson-Wellington ferry steamer at the entrance to French Pass. It was harder still to convince them that this big fish would swim alongside and rub itself against the bow on the starboard side of the ship. I have since seen this performance, but I did not have with me on the Claverhill any of the photographs that give such convincing proof. I do not know what my shipmates would have said had I been able to tell them of a later happen- page 230 ing when an American tourist with a revolver, attempted to shoot this famous fish, and that the New Zealand Government then took action protecting “Pelorus Jack.” This would surely have made it a “fish story”!

I spent a month on the Claverhill, when she was laid up in this way at South Shields. There wasn't much to do in the engine-room, so I had the chance of seeing the surrounding district. South Shields was a solidly built old place. King Street and Market Place are the parts I remember best, although the Marine Parks are fine public reserves. These were laid out on a grand scale alongside the South Pier, with a fine beach in the foreground, from which the land terraced back on an easy slope. Walks and promenades overlooked the sea, with a lake in the foreground. I was to visit South Shields again in midsummer and saw this splendid park and beach alive with holiday-makers. They do make their own fun in the North! In the evening, a popular walk was along the Pier to the Tip Head. Cupid must have worked overtime during the summer months in Shields, for in Marine Park there appeared to be a garden seat every few yards!

The Chief and I had mess with the Captain and Mate, so I was able to benefit from the conversation of experienced men. At this time there was much talk on all ships about the Turbine engine. I was now on the Tyne where Parsons, the inventor, had experimented with his patent engine on a specially built vessel named the Turbinia. They told me how she would come down the Tyne and out into the North Sea to carry out her trials. The speed developed amazed everyone. Parsons was said to have carried out his boast that one day he would have breakfast at Newcastle and dinner in London. The turbine, passing from the experimental stage, was first adopted by the Allan Line running out of Glasgow to Canada.

The great ship-building yards on the banks of the Tyne had become rivals to Clydeside, acknowledged as the greatest shipbuilding centre in the world. I have explained earlier how foreign countries had stolen some of Scotland's best brains. The men of Newcastle and the Tyne did not need to go outside their own territory for tutors, for they had a natural gift for engineering. The Scots were beginning to feel this Tyneside competition, for firms like Swan & Hunter, as it was then, could hold their own with anyone. This rivalry between Clyde- page 231 side and Tyneside found expression when, a few years later, the Cunard Company decided to build the Lusitania and the Mauritania; the former went to the Clyde, the latter to the Tyne. They were wonderful and enormous ships. The Lusitania became immortalized by her tragic end, but, before this happened, the Mauritania had fairly won the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, greatly to the joy of the engineers and workmen of Tyneside.

Besides seeing the great shipbuilding yards on the Tyne I was fortunate to hear the opinions of our Captain and Chief Engineer who knew this part well. They discussed the Clyde as well as the Tyne, so I learned much about these two great centres of industry.

I made several trips to Newcastle. As is the case of many old English cities there is, in Newcastle, an old part of the town. I remember the narrow cobble-stoned streets, so narrow that they are but what we call a right-of-way to-day. This part of Newcastle must be very ancient. Though a sombre-looking city, the Newcastle of to-day is one of the big centres of the North, and typical of the people of the surrounding counties. They are indeed hard working and, like the Scots, probably suffer more than any other people in Britain when slumps occur in the ship-building industry. I saw Jesmond Dene, their picturesque park; fine old trees and lovely dells, together with a waterfall, combined to make this a restful place. The old flour mill on the “banks o' the burn,” as they would say in Scotland, is a reminder that before the days of steam, England ground her corn in mills driven by a water-wheel. The stepping-stones, which form a bridge across the stream, made crossing like stepping from boulder to boulder to get over mountain streams in New Zealand.

I paid a visit to a fine old gentleman—Mr. Montgomery, brother of the man who had been a fellow-boarder in Melbourne. He was glad to hear of his brother whom he had not seen for many years. The Sunday afternoon of my call was a cold, misty day—most days are wet and misty at this time of the year. In the course of conversation I passed some disparaging remark about the weather, and my host said quietly, “Ah, Mr. Reese, it does not always need a blue sky to make for sunshine in life!” I was unable to reply, and I have never forgotten his remark. One could not but admire his philosophy, which page 232 may be the key to the happy nature of the people of the North. Their humour is very similar to that of their neighbours over the Border; they have the same first-footing when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, and their love of jokes makes them delightful companions.

The dialect of these northern counties is different from the South. The people of Tyneside had a peculiar habit of lifting the tone of their voice on the last word of a sentence. On the train to Newcastle one day, I heard two well-dressed young women talking. One said, “What time did you get home last night?”

The other replied, “About nine o'clock.” The “night” and the “o'clock” were several notes higher than the other words. This is typical. The boys call a girl “Hinnie.” “Hullo, Hinnie!” It sounds very strange at first, but it was the swearing of the men that astounded me. “How are yer, yer b… ?”—pronounced “boogger”—is an almost universal and affectionate greeting. They told of a man who could neither read nor write waiting on the railway station one morning to join the excursion train on a holiday. He saw all his mates buying the morning paper so thought he ought to do likewise. As he sat looking at it, one of his work-mates said, “Hey, yer b…., you're reading the paper upside-down!”

Illiterate, but quick at repartee, Geordie answered, “Any b…. fool can read it the other way!”

Throughout the shipping world, the men from Tyneside are known as “Geordies.” It was a Geordie who, after making his first voyage to the Baltic in the days before ocean travel was thought of, said he had been to the four quarters of the globe—Russia, Prussia, Memel and Shields!

We had been in South Shields for several weeks when the Captain received word to arrange for Mr. Reese to proceed to London to join the S.S. Savan as Third Engineer. I was thrilled with the news, more especially when told that the Savan was one of the Scrutton Line of ships trading to the West Indies.

Newcastle is about 150 miles farther north than Leicester, where I had been with the London County team, so I had the opportunity, while going up to London, of seeing more of the glorious country-side of England.

Next day I presented myself at the office of my employers, later returning to my lodgings in Canning Town in the real page 233 East End and near the East India Docks, where the Scrutton ships always berthed. The Savan carried about a dozen passengers and was a better class ship than the Claverhill; this meant more attention to uniform and generally keeping more spruced-up than in the old tramp.

This change to another ship, belonging to different owners, explains my good fortune in seeing so many parts of the world. I have known seafaring men to spend all their lives at sea on the Atlantic, trading between Liverpool and New York; such would be the fate of anyone joining, say, the Cunard Company's service. On the P. & O., or Orient Companies' ships, it would be to the East or Australia. Coming nearer home, in the N.Z. Shipping Company, or Shaw Savill Line, it would be the one trade between England and New Zealand.

In the period of which I speak, there were many shipping companies in England that, owning only about half a dozen ships, found the overhead cost too great to maintain Marine and Engineer Superintendents, with all the attendant expenses of supporting such an organization. In the case of the tramp steamer companies especially, it would be difficult for their own shore staffs to handle and control all such matters as repairs and maintenance, and overhauls, apart from staffing arrangements. The ships might arrive in London this trip, Glasgow the next, and another at, say, Liverpool. The result was that there grew up in London a number of firms with organizations capable of handling all the steamers of half a dozen different shipping companies. Messrs. Jacobs and Barringer, of Gracechurch Street, London, was such a firm, and it was they who first employed me as Fourth Engineer on the Claverhill of the Hazelhurst Line, and now transferred me to the Savon of the Scrutton Line. It was in this way that I was to be moved about like a pawn on a chessboard and, in the process, to see so many places.

As Third Engineer, I was now as high as I could go without holding a Marine Certificate. Legally—for all ships sail under Board of Trade regulations—the Chief must have a Chief's Certificate, and the Second, a Second's Certificate. In practice, except on small coastal ships, the Second who held the qualification of a Chief was preferred; a natural precaution by the owners when ships went so far from home, with the possibility of accident or illness of the Chief.