Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Shipping London of the Gay Nineties: Schooner Days DXXXI (531)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 28 Mar 1942
Full Text
Shipping London of the Gay Nineties
Schooner Days DXXXI (531)

After the echoes of "Shenandoah" and "What shall we do with a drunken sailor?" had died away in the Green Room at the Ellen Bradley grill the Shellbacks Club settled down to this refreshing picture of the gay nineties by Percy W. Elkington, a young member so veteran (the club is eight years old) the 1942 president didn't know he was a charter member:

COME down with me into Cockspur street, just off Trafalgar Square. The date is, say, Sept. 1st, 1890. Maritime London in a way then commenced in Cockspur street, for there all the important shipping companies maintained their up-town ticket offices, and window-shoppers might gaze with admiration upon models of the latest fashions in ocean liners.

$5,000 "TOY BOATS"

These scale models very perfectly portrayed the great ships upon which you were invited to travel. Whenever a passenger liner of outstanding features in modernity had been built, the plans were handed over to one of those so-called "model dockyards" to be found around England, and for a sum approximating £1,000 sterling a scale model of exceeding beauty and faithfulness was built and sent down to Cockspur street for consecration to a showcase career until she should be out-moded by a lady of finer feather.

Most of you will remember the beautiful models of the Empress of Britain and of the Queen Mary that have been exhibited in Toronto; Those were built by the celebrated Northampton firm of model engineers, Bassett and Lowk, though I doubt if any £1,000 paid for either of those perfectly engineered models. Stepping out of Cockspur street and turning right brought you into Whitehall and down past the Admiralty offices. From Whitehall went out many telegraph wires that reached many White Ensigns flying in different parts of the oceanic world, and what the White Ensign said in the gay nineties there were very few flags that could dispute.


Pass on: there was no Cenotaph at the foot of Whitehall in those days. Before us flowed the River Thames, always known to sailors as "London River." Here, what has been called Liquid History commenced. Here tidal water was flowing and ebbing—-and what else but the ebb and flow of the sea tides has made London? Here you were gazing upon the spot where the Romans landed and fought our doughty Queen Boadicea. Here in a later age Mr. Pepys took barge for Greenwich or Chatham; here commenced those melancholy mediaeval processions that ended at the Traitors' Gate of the Tower; here, and in our own times, Sir Alan Cobham landed from his first round flight to Australia, and as he descended wondered why all the crowd was gathered.


The Reach between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge was not very indicative of a great seaport, for all you would see of marine life of the higher order were the craft we called dumb barges. Midshipmen were regarded as the lowest form of marine life in my day.

These barges approximated to what we call scows over on this side; and having laden their cargoes from ships in the docks or from sundry warehouses, they committed themselves to the mercies of the tidal current, except for the energies of the one-man crew, who used a huge sweep or oar in the office of a rudder, and with the free use of a language that has become traditional, steered his clumsy craft hither and yon on the tide as the traffic gave and God permitted.

Their limits of activity were Putney up-stream and Gravesend eastward, and their presence was a quaint touch in the wonderful procession of liners, clipper-ships, overseas steam tramps, coastal schooners, and what-not that London docks threw out upon the river at every turn of the tide.


Let us now move to London Bridge and join the dreaming throng of city clerks spending their lunch-hour gazing at what was London's first link with salt water. The stretch of river between London Bridge past the Tower Bridge and down to Limehouse Reach was known as The Pool, and through the ages this has formed a handy mooring-place for smaller ships and also for artists. This was the limit to which tide-water carried oceangoing vessels, and beneath the gaze of the crowd on the bridge small steamers and sailing craft, brigs, schooners, Dutch schuyts and what not discharged various cargoes into barges.

Perhaps some of you will recall that brandy-and-soda was a sporty drink in the gay nineties, and hereabouts in this region we are contemplating was a warehouse which accommodated no less than 120,000 barrels of brandy to keep Algy fit for his gaieties!

But, as I said, London Bridge in the lunch hour was to the city clerk of those days what Simpson's and Eaton's are to the Toronto stenographer of to-day, between 12 and 2. Doubtless many a city office boy at outs with the boss used to have high imaginings as he looked down upon these little vessels which would soon be leaving again for the Isles of the Blest, to bring back more cargoes of fruit and spices—-and brandy.


But the lunch hour is over, and we will go uptown with the boys to Leadenhall street and Fenchurch street, where the real business offices of the great shipping companies were located. They are there still, and likely to be, though their windows are sandbagged or boarded up where they have been blitzed.

Step inside, and you were at once struck with the sense of the wide world across the seas. Did you wish to ship five thousand tons of freight to Bombay, or maybe a bale of goods to Capetown? Did you wish to import an elephant from Burma or send your mother-in-law to Helsingfors or your wife to Nagasaki? Bills of lading, clearances, would be ready in a minute.

Did you hate the smell and shake of a steamer and wish to take passage to Australia in a perfectly appointed sailing-ship, with naval reserve officers and the best of British crews? Yes, sir, we have the McQuarrie sailing next week for Melbourne, and she will make the passage within seventy days. Oh, yes, she carries a doctor, and a cow for fresh milk. Yes, she has bathrooms, too, for ladies and gentlemen. And so on.

That was the daily language of Fenchurch and Leadenhall streets. And when you had so satisfied yourself in Leadenhall you could step over to Lloyds, nerve centre of maritime England, then as now and forever. If the time of your visit was unfortunate you might hear the Lutine's bell strike that melancholy period to some lost ship's career.

In the '90s it was not unusual for passengers going to or coming from Australia to choose sailing ships in preference to steamships for the passage; and the sea trip of about three months' duration was fairly comfortable for most of the way. It gave passengers a real good opportunity to get away from worries and irritations that beset them and it was considered a most healthful and invigorating project.

A ship in the Australian passenger trade was commonly advertised as having bathrooms for passengers' accommodation, a doctor and a cow. The cabins were well equipped and as commodious as modern steamship cabins. Food and services were good and plenteous. The ships were commanded by naval reserve officers and manned by picked seamen, than whom the world never has seen better.

The Atlantic part of the voyage, from United Kingdom to Cape of Good Hope, was usually congenial and pleasant. Running down the easting in the Southern Ocean is described as plain hell.


Passengers had to stay below decks where they might hear but could not see what was going on; and the hearing was largely of thrashing gear, the pounding of sailors' feet overhead and the crash and thump of seas on and about the vessel. Sometimes the passengers stayed below for three or four weeks at a stretch. Yet ladies made the trip. The speaker mentioned seeing ten on the poop deck of a clipper, all dressed as for a garden party with picture hats and sunshades.

Mr. Elkington admitted that he had been called a liar on one occasion when he said that he had seen the famous old clipper ship Cutty Sark under sail. The man who said that fighting word was the untruthful one. Mr. Elkington really did see Cutty Sark with all her canvas spread.

Mr. Elkington told of seeing many of the older tea ships in general carrying trade, and shorn of the glory of their profit-making but not of their splendid lines or the grace and beauty of their sailing qualities. He saw others that had fallen on unhappy days and had been deprived of nearly everything but their modelling.


Now let us step over to Fenchurch street station, the terminus of the London, Tilbury and Southend railway. You might if you asked the time of a train's departure of the first man you met get a reply in terms of the time of high water at London Bridge.

Fenchurch st. was much concerned with both and knew the answers to each. Here you literally smelt the sea and sometimes all that therein is. Also you might meet a mermaid of sorts, if sailors cared for that kind of thing. If you had a minute to spare—and we had more minutes to spare in those times than we think we have now—you might well take a look round the walls of this gloomy terminal.

What met your eye? The great passenger liners of the premier companies pictured in immense, colored posters, ploughing their way through poster-artists' seas, and bearing gallantly aloft, braced hard on the backstays as only artists could brace them, immense yards bearing great square sails—-fore and main courses, lower and upper topsails, sometimes to'gallants, and always on the mizzen a spanker and gaff-tops'l. "Gee, but they were swell." P. & O.'s, Orient liners, Royal Mail line beauties, B. & I.'s—-they all sailed and steamed across the walls of Fenchurch Street Station and the world was happy and men were glad. I never sailed in a liner carrying sail. But from the deck of honest-to-God sailing ships I have seen many a liner under sail. Off the coast of Australia once we came upon the magnificent double-funnel four-master P. & O. Caledonia under full sail, and in the Indian Ocean the great bulky Golconda, also a double funnel four-master, hitting it up for Calcutta under courses and tops'ls and steam.


Another time, off the Cape of Good Hope, in a full-sail, 13-knot breeze, we passed—I mean that literally—the last of the auxiliary corvettes of the British Navy, bravely sailing along at a seven-knot clip with everything spread to her royals. H.M.S. Penelope was admitted to be the slowest ship under either sail or steam that the British Navy ever commissioned. As a small boy I used to be taken aboard of her, once in so often, by the curate of our church, who was related to her chaplain. At that time she was guardship on the North Sea station. But for all her 7-knot limit she did good work at the bombardment of Alexandria.


And so, still in the days of sail, we board our train for such of the London docks as are situated on the North bank of the Thames. Here you were in the nucleus of the world's greatest wealth, but there was assuredly nothing to proclaim that in the awful slums of Stepney and Canning Town. Narrow streets and alleys and odd little bridges connecting confusions of mean cottages and tenements, scattered warehouses and vistas of brickwork suggesting nothing related to wealth or human comfort—that was the beginning of dockland in those far off days. A sight of the East India Dock Road isolated from all other thought might leave you the impression that Bombay was the next stop.

The Lascar crews from the P. & O. liners, Asiatics of all types forming the crews of ships loading and discharging cargoes in the docks—all these gave a very Oriental aspect, as well as a very well recognized Oriental aroma, to dockland. It was indeed an experience in those days to pass down the East India Dock Road or Ratcliff Highway on a Saturday night, and hear the admixture of all the languages of the Far East with the strident Cockneyisms of East London, when the particular day and night of the week lent a moistened fervor to the proceedings.


One did not have to leave the train to realize that you were in the presence of the big ships, though there might be no sign of the water which was bearing them. Into the sky over the roofs projected the tops of huge funnels, forests of tall masts, the tips of long jibbooms. All around was evidence of sea-cult.

Alight and look into it. The maze of docks between the Tower Bridge and the Isle of Dogs drew each their own trade by custom or tradition, but we happen to have landed upon one of that chain carrying the title of the West India Docks. In English's curious way of contrariness in nomenclature we shall not find in this particular dock any ships which have any truck with the West Indies. We have, indeed, fallen upon a fine gathering of the great Colonial clippers, together with some specimens of what some years before had been the lightning-bolts of the China Tea Trade. Though to a man who has looked upon all these grand sailing ships in the surge and swell of the Trades and the Roaring Forties, they here in dock looked dishevelled and forelorn, the merest novice would realize that before him was something that had great meaning in the world of ships. Their 70-foot jibbooms might be housed in on top of the bowsprit, their skys'l and to'gallant yards might be triced up and down in the rigging; their picturesque figureheads might be staring dully at the fronting scene; but for all that, their power and their beauty could not altogether be concealed.

Those clipperships were the finest work of the designer, the builder and the rigger in days when their creations had to meet the terrible power of waves beating upon them relentlessly for weeks together in the awful storms of the Southern Ocean. As Masefield wrote of them, "Their tests were tempests and the Sea that drowns."

Among this sky-piercing throng of fine ships we find such as the celebrated and beautiful clipper McQuarie, getting ready for her passengers to Melbourne. There is also the Torrens, Joseph Conrad's ship, which will sail for Adelaide with thirty or forty first-class passengers and 200 emigrants. I had the pleasure once of sailing in company with the Torrens up the South Atlantic from Cape Town to St. Helena, and for a couple of days at Napoleon's isle we were anchored in the same tier and I saw Conrad, then a seaman aboard her, unknown to literary fame.

These two are typical of the gallant company of ships then present known as the passenger and wool clippers, in that they year after year made the same voyage to bring back the season's wool clip from Australia for the London market.


What were once those celebrated tea racers, but now through the onrush of steam following upon the opening of the Suez Canal had become general cargo seekers, are represented here by the Cutty Sark and Fiery Cross-—quite small fry alongside the impressive tonnage of the wool clippers. Also in the gathering is the fast little Thermopylae, the great rival of the Cutty Sark, and which many seamen of the age considered was all-round the fastest vessel that ever went upon the waters. I have picked upon these several ships from a vast gathering of the beauties of the days of sail because it so happens that I have seen each one of them somewhere about the seas in all the glory of their white canvas, forging along on their mission through solitudes of the sea too vast for human comprehension. As Masefield concluded his general tribute to Sail—-"Earth will not see such ships as these again."


Dockland spreads along both shores of Thames, from Tower Bridge to Tilbury, and I can only just scratch the subject. There is an aspect of it, however, that I cannot overlook, and that is the religious side of Thames history. Whilst it may have been the case that very few of us in those old days got any nearer religion than a distant view of the spire of Limehouse Church, there came a day when I found considerable interest in visiting the old churches of Thames side, to find there among the quaint and rich monuments much of the story of England's sailor heroes of the earlier centuries. There also, as part of the church ornaments are slung models of ships that have been famous in their generation. Some of these models have been donated by mariners as thankofferings for deliverance from the perils of the sea. It recalls Byron's couplet in Childe Harold:

"They promise to amend their ways but don't

Because if drowned they can't, if saved they won't."

In the Church of Saint Nicholas at Deptford, the pantheon of all the Thames-side churches, is the memorial to the famous Peter Pett, who in his capacity of master-shipwright of the British navy during the reigns of the two Charles led us away from the towering poops of the medieval ships and became, as the monument says, "the first inventor of that distinguished and novel ornament of the Fleet most formidable to our foes, most useful and secure for ourselves, which our men call the Frigate.

"He was a just man," the tribute continues, "and discreet, the Noah of his age, who, after he had walked with God and brought to light his afore-mentioned invention, was called from the tempests of this world, and his soul gathered unto his Saviour, in the year of our Lord 1652."

That 17th century inscription is one among the many hundreds which decorate and immortalize the churches of our beloved Thames, and to those of you who will visit London in happier days to come I will say, though it cannot be vouchsafed to you to look upon the lady ships of sail I have attempted to describe, do not fail to visit the old churches of Thames-side nor the National Maritime Museum, at the Royal Palace of Greenwich, wherein the maritime history of England is gloriously and richly enshrined.

What is the emblem that has always floated above all this glory of our commercial maritime greatness? The Red Ensign—the "Old Red Duster." As C. Fox Smith sings:

"North and south and home again,

Round the world and all,

From London docks to Callao,

From Rio to Bengal.

Where'er the Old Red Duster flies,

Where'er a ship can swing,

Wherever British seamen toil

You hear their chorus ring.

It's "Stormalong" and "Ranzo Boys,"

"Paddy Doyle" and all,

Gypsies of the deep-sea trade,

Listen to their call!

One man's song is ten men's work,

At capstan, sheet, or fall,

Take your time from the shanty man,

All together, HAUL."



"Because we thought you might like this for your British War Victims' Fund and because you said you'd try to have a 'Schooner Days' story for every one of our coppers, the Senior Girls' Bible Class of Pickering United Church are sending you one thousand coppers in this box. This is our second contribution to your Fund for British War Victims. We build it up with our spare coppers—-these very ones! We wish they could be a thousand thousand—-and 'Schooner Days' as well!

"With every good wish


Schooner Days gets as many brickbats as bouquets but has never yet acquired a gold brick. This is a copper brick. It comes in a Laura Secord candy box, which it completely fills. We have a guilty feeling of having shortchanged the senders, for this is only the 531st Schooner Day, and we owe Percy Elkington for that, as well as 469 more Schooner Days to the generous young ladies of Pickering.



HARBINGER, last sailing ship built to carry passengers to Australia. In 1890 she carried an average of 200 per voyage. She was sold to Russia in 1897. Mr. Elkington has himself built a model of her as beautiful as this picture by A. V. Gregory, or the £1000 steamer models of Cockspur street, although much smaller.

Cutty Sark as re-rigged recently.

JOSEPH CONRAD's ship, the TORRENS, from a Montague Dawson painting.

PORT JACKSON, four-masted Australian clipper which served as a training ship for certificated officers.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
28 Mar 1942
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • England, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 51.50853 Longitude: -0.12574
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Shipping London of the Gay Nineties: Schooner Days DXXXI (531)