Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Making Hay While the Sun Shone in December: Schooner Days DLXXIV (574)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 30 Jan 1943
Full Text
Making Hay While the Sun Shone in December
Schooner Days DLXXIV (574)

by C. H. J. Snider


ON a fine bright early December day, 1873 or 1874, just after dinner, when a sailor's belt is at the stretch, and he feels that independence which fills him with power beyond anything during the twenty-four hours, I was one of the crew of the brigantine Fleur-de-Marie, a French vessel then engaged in the lake trade.

"The Fleur-de-Marie was not built in France, but at Lanoraie, on the St. Lawrence, in 1853. She was an old-time brigantine, with black topsides and scarlet petticoat; hemp-rigged, with thick shrouds and stays of tarred rope instead of steel wire, and four yards crossing her foremast, her forward sail-plan culminating in a royal. She had the old style single topsail, which hoisted up on its yard to the top-gallant cross trees, and had to be reefed to be reduced in area. She only measured 156 tons register, and was less than 100 feet long on deck, but with her square rig was quite a handful for a crew of four men forward and captain, two mates and cook aft. Capt. Robert Kent, of Port Whitby, my home port, bought her when she was new, and traded out of Whitby harbor in her for years.


"We were lying at the old Hamilton wharf in Toronto, near the foot of Church street, and had just finished loading a cargo of wheat for Ogdensburg down the St. Lawrence at a freight rate of '12 1/2 cents gold.'

"American money was then at a discount of 16 per cent., and shippers had to pay in gold or its equivalent. It was no uncommon thing for captains who sailed their own vessels to come home with baking powder tins from the cook's galley filled with gold half-eagles, eagles and doubles.

"As we had ten thousand bushels under the hatches this cash freight rate of $1,250 looked good compared with our own $2.50 a day, which is what we were getting as 'big money' for the fall of the year. In the summer able-bodied seamen worked for $1 a day or $25 a month and often for less. Even in the timber trade and the stave carrying, two of the hardest rackets lake sailors ever had to stand, wages of $14 to $16 a month was common pay seventy years ago.

"After due consideration, I, being the youngest pup of the lot and still in my teens, was deputed to meet the captain, my fellow townsman, and demand an increase of pay to $4 a day!

"On mv way aft to where the Old Man smoked in state in the cabin I got out on the snow-covered wharf and walked up and down, rehearsing my speech, hoping to get my courage up, and backing and filling all the time.


"Suddenly my mind was made up for me. The first mate, a typical one of his order, rough and tough, came out on deck and bawled to me to let go the springline, which led from amidships diagonally across the wharf, and was, like everything else, thickly crusted with snow.

It flashed on me that it was now or never. If I let go that snow-clad line the next order would be to strike the fly for the tug and lay aloft and cast pff the gaskets of the fore topsail; and we would be bound away on a voyage at $2.50 a day, from which there would be no chance of change.

" 'I've got to see the Old Man before I do another hand's turn said I, as gruffly as I could in my boy's bass. 'We may be quitting this hooker.'

"Mr. Mate let go expletives and other kinds of things about d—-- sailors and the general-weaknesses and wickednesses of their kind. But, being imbued with the importance of my mission, I proceeded to the seat of the mighty in the smoke-filled cabin and presented—-well as I could-—our modest demand.

"The old man glared at me, and with the power that was his, as master of the vessel, proceeded to explain to me just what he thought of us as a miserable crew that did not know when we were well off, and added that we were now getting more than we were worth, which was very likely the fact.

"I insisted that all before-the-mast had decided to quit unless we were granted the advance. The fact that it was late in the season, a good freight was in his hold, and the brigantine was ready to sail and, being old, had difficulty in shipping hands for late voyages, had more to do, I am sure, than my feeble arguments. He finally sent me forward, agreeing to pay us $4 per day, accompanied by language more flowery than the ship's name, with particular application to myself, my forbears and descendants to many generations. All of which appeared to do him good.


"I came out of the cabin and on deck to meet another explosion from the mate, who still had his mind on that spring line, and again, with many encouraging epithets, ordered me out to let go the snow-covered rope.

"This I now did with alacrity, and in my best form as a sailor who was being duly compensated for his highly technical efforts.

"My report forward immediately afterwards was so satisfactory that everyone, including the captain and mates, were forthwith in good humor.

"We got away with a tug, towed out through the Western gap, and went spinning down the lake in a spanking nor-wester, spitting snow. We arrived off Kingston in about 16 hours, flying a pilot flag for the river, and with little delay made our destination at Ogdensburg, N.Y. The Fleur-de-Marie returned up the river with an easterly slant, loaded coal in Oswego and was over in Kingston within a week, making her earnings about $1,750 for the round trip.


"Of course it might have taken a month, or might never have been completed, for she could have been frozen in for the winter or lost in the late gales. But that was how these little vessels made big earnings in the schooner days—high freights, and a run of luck.

"We four forward in the Fleur-de-Marie drew $40 each, after stripping her and laying her up for the winter at Kingston. We dispersed on our various ways feeling like millionaires. I returned to my home at what is now Haydon Park at Whitby harbor to strut about until the sun warmed things the following spring."

THE narrator was the late J. J. O'Connor, of Port Arthur, District Magistrate for Thunder Bay, and the time ten years or so ago. He puffed blue rings from a good cigar as he spoke and looked out across the gleaming drifts of new-fallen snow. He went on:

"Home coming in the fall was for us sailors like summer holidays to the business man. We looked forward to it all season. Men without homes, who had saved up enough money to pay for a winter's keep deposited the whole shot with the old-time Esplanade hotels, such as the Armories on West Market street, or George Williams or Andy Tymon's, at the corner of Church street, and the other sailors' lodgings on the old Toronto harbor front; now high and dry behind the viaduct—-very dry indeed, and far inland.

"Here they took it easy, sure of three square meals, an odd drink and a pipeful until spring struck into the snowdrifts and they were drawn to the outfitting schooners, of which Toronto had a good quota. I always spent my winters at home, and early spring would find me along the well-filled wharves of Whitby, on the same quest as those who haunted the Toronto Esplanade—a 'site.'

"The old time sailor's spring still looks good, and I would like to be in it all again. Its charm and glamor I have never found in any other calling. Then the future had to take of itself, but the fond hope beckoned that I would, some day tread by own quarterdeck, as the proud possessor of a lake schooner.

"That to my mind—and I haven't changed it—was the height of achievement and enjoyment of life. I never got there—but I have had the vision. I went off on another slant, into drugs, and insurance, and vessel agencies, and have wound up on the bench, peddling justice, something that is needed, and lots of it.

"But I would like to have been master of a schooner!"



THE SHELLBACKS were gladdened at the weekly luncheon meeting in the Ellen Bradley Grill by the presence of Sub-Lieutenant John Macrae, middle one of Montye Macrae's three sons in navy blue. John is a two-striper actually, but his new uniform was several hundred miles astern of him in his brief leave, so he appeared as a sub. Another boy is in Persia. Another, the oldest, has been around the world on the King's business and his own pleasure. and only home a few weeks in these last four years.

The club was also delighted by the guest speaker, Mr. A. W. Whitehead, who talked on Sea Chanteys. Unabashed in the presence of such an established musical authority—-even when he admitted being one of the few men outside of shipowners who had made money out of chanteys this century—-the Oilskin Choir of the club led by Chanteyman W. I. Hearst, deputy reeve of North York, tore into "Johnny Comes Down to Hilo" and "We're Bound for the Rio Grande" till the rafters rang, if the Ellen Bradley had any rafters.

Whatever Mr. Whitehead thought of the choir, the singing was good, even if it didn't come up to his own rendering of "A-Roving," "Fire Down Below." and "Hullabaloo Belay.' Nothing we had could match the pleasant effect of his perfectly controlled trained voice, although we will back Bill Hearst against the world on any capstan head or concert platform.

The two last-named songs seem somewhat suspect as actual chanties. It would be hard to pull, haul, or pump to them, and the humor is a bit too smart to have sprouted from the fore bitts.

"King Looey got 'is 'ed cut off

W'ich spoiled 'is constitooshun."

"King Looey got 'is 'ed cut off

may be the most sparkling gem of improvisation of which a chanteyman is capable. It took more than forecastle wit to evolve

"Me father says: 'Young man, me b'y'—

Hullabaloo belay, hullabaloo bela belay,

To w'ich 'e quickly made reply:

Hullabaloo belay."

That's what the bird said with a shake of his poor little head in "Tit-willow." While chanteys borrowed their tunes from everywhere, the words were often made on deck, to fit the ship and the scene. They might be copied from other ships and other chanteys, but if the words came from music hall patter there was little originality left, since the tunes were borrowed. It is perhaps true that there are only two original tunes in the world. Chanteys used any good air the chanteyman could recall. His judgment, as Mr. Whitehead remarked, in selecting a good tune was infallible.

Mr. Whitehead said, however, that he himself was responsible for the preservation of these songs and considered them authentic. They were two of six tunes which he had picked out, with laborious care, from the repertoire of a genuine old chanteyman, tone deaf, but musically accurate, who had used these and others in many sailing ships. There was no question of their authenticity as chanteys in his time. The tunes were not attributable to any known source or variation.

MR. WHITEHEAD had much to do with the present popularity of chanteys, and has thus made a great contribution to the enjoyment of this generation. He explained modestly that being interested in folk song he had gathered up some chantey tunes, and they had been prepared for use by Terry and presented by John Goss and his London Singers-—to the great delight of the world, as Shellbacks can testify.

The words of the original songs had to be deloused extensively, but Mr. Whitehead pointed out that the smelly parts were usually the chanteyman's exemporization. while the choruses, in which all the crew joined, were kept clean.

WHAT is a chantey, or, more precisely, what was a chantey? Because, for better or for worse, chanteying has passed from folk song into art. And so out the port hole.

Mr. Whitehead said with truth that the efforts of old sailors in the Seven Seas Club to show John Goss and his splendid co-adjutors how chanteys should be sung produced only dirges, dismal in comparison with the peculiarly sparkling music and comedy which marks the chanteying of the London Singers and of the Oilskin Choir.

Percy Elkington, who learned about chanties at sea fifty years ago in the great clippers that stormed around the world, mildly put to rights this concert audience criticism of chantey renditions.

"It might remembered," said he, "that Providence was responsible for the tempo, not the chanteyman. When the ship was rolling gunwales under, and the watch had to pull and haul as and when they could, in water up to their necks, the measure had to be slow, irregular and long drawn out. Men can't put forth sustained muscular effort to jive time.

"We were six hours once, all hands, furling a lower topsail in a hurricane in the Southern Ocean. We'd never got the job done if it had not been for the chanteying, but you can understand that the cries were long, slow and not very musical, while the buntlines and clewlines were hove taut inch by inch to the click of capstan pauls amid the screaming of the wind and the thunder of the water, and the sail was fisted and booted and manhandled into its gaskets by men swung a hundred feet up on the yardarms when the ship rolled hard.

"We had a wonderful chanteyman, a Welshman out of Liverpool, and that man was worth, as the saying goes, ten men on a rope. He had a marvelously stimulating voice, better than the bellowing of all the hard-case mates. His best chantey was built on 'Who Killed Cock Robin?' Poor fellow, he was terribly smashed by a fall from aloft, and died from his injuries."

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
30 Jan 1943
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.6371909001251 Longitude: -79.3705403808594
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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Making Hay While the Sun Shone in December: Schooner Days DLXXIV (574)