No doubt many readers of Sea Breezes will have visited Maryport, in days gone by one of the busiest between Liverpool and Glasgow. My recollection goes back to days prior to building of Senhouse Dock, when the trade of the port was principally with brigs and schooners, and an occasional barque.
After the building of the Senhouse Dock the trade of the port increased by leaps and bounds. The first large sailing vessel I remember arriving was the four-masted ship Falls of Bruer, with wheat from ‘Frisco. In those days the port tugs were kept busy with collier brigs and schooners which kept up a constant trade with Ireland. Many a trip we boys used to make in the tugs Florence and Senhouse, with old Captains Mounsey and Brown, when towing the vessels to sea.
Among them I remember the Hippolyte, Indefatigable, Thomas – a vessel which, I think, at that time was about 100 years old – Ada, Rainbow, Onyx, Essex, Caradoc and Mina. The name Indefatigable was always a stumbling block to the berthing master, who, when he wished to hail her, would call out, “Indi, Indi, Indi, Tom Merry’s brig ahoy.”
Stirring shipwrecks often occurred during the winter, owing to strong tides running in the Solway Firth, and a coast exposed to the full force of a sou’-wester, Maryport was not one of the best ports to make, and many a fine vessel found herself driven ashore to the northward of the harbour. The Quebeckers, as well as the coaster, bred a fine body of men, who were as competent sailormen as could be found anywhere in the world. Theirs was a hard life, and the remuneration very small, generally about £2 10s. 0d. per month. In spite of this they brought up large families, many of their sons occupying high positions later, and their homes were the acme of cleanliness and respectability.
Many an exciting story of gales and shipwreck my boy friends and I heard recounted by those old warriors of long ago, so that we visualised the time when we should be old enough to carry on honourably the tradition of the sea and prove ourselves worthy sons of a worthy town. One old gentleman, to whom we were never tired of listening, was the gateman at Elizabeth Dock, John Davidson, or, as he was usually called, “Happy Day John,” from his form of salutation, “Happy Day, my bonnie lads.” He was a most devout member of the “Home Mission.”
Messrs. Hine Brothers’ steamers were constant visitors to the port, usually loading steel rails for Canada, while sailing ships were loading for all parts of the globe, D.S.A., River Plate, Chili, Puget Sound, Japan, India and Australia. Day and night the clanging of the rails could be heard, only ceasing on many occasions during church hours. I saw many famous sailing ships loading during the ’80’s and ’90’s, such as Star of Persia, Fiery Cross, Knight Companion, Narcissus, Cromartyshire and Comliebank. The last sailing ship I saw loading in Maryport was the William Mitchell, which ship, and the Garthpool, now represent all that is left of the thousands of sailers which formerly graced the Red Ensign.
Of the many industries of Maryport in those days, but now defunct, was shipbuilding, carried on by Messrs. Ritson & Sons, whose yards were famous throughout the country for successful broadside launches. The River Ellen, where the yards were situated, is only 60 feet wide bank to bank, yet, with the exception of three or four barques towards the finish, all their vessels were launched broadside, I do not remember them ever having a serious accident, which, when the width of the river available for launches is taken into consideration, entitled the builders to great praise for the success attained.
None but those who had the pleasure of witnessing a broadside launch can imagine what an inspiring sight it was. They took place at high water spring tides, and as these occur at Maryport at about noon and midnight, launches have taken place at midnight and at full moon. Imagine the scene! The narrow River Ellen, the shipyard on one bank, and Moat Hill rising to a height of 130 feet on the other. Crowds would assemble on Moat Hill, from which point of vantage one could obtain a perfect view of the whole scene. The beautiful vessel released from the slip by three of the yard’s most trusted carpenters, began slowly and majestically to slide from her birthplace, then, gathering speed, would practically tumble off the dock wall into the river. The wave caused by her first impact came right across the road opposite, and far up Moat Hill. Woe betide the unwary sightseer who had not mounted high enough, for it was not unknown for some to have been washed off their feet. The ship usually gave three heavy rolls before settling down to an even keel, the first roll, as may be imagined, was “rail and rail.”
Previous to 1885, the ships were all wooden vessels, and I had the pleasure of seeing the launch of the last wooden vessel Messrs. Ritson built, her name being Southerfield. She was burned at sea, off Cape Horn while homeward bound, nitrate laden; fortunately all hands were saved.
Likewise, I saw the first iron ship built, and launched broadside in 1885, by Messrs. Ritson’s. They named her Ellenbank, after one of the family estates. She was of 1,426 tons nett register and full rigged.
Among the steel vessels built at this yard I remember the Kinora, Netherby, Acamas and Carl, full rigged ships; Auchencairn, Peter Iredale and Willy Rickmers, four-masted barques; Wythop, Criffel, Midas and Ladas, were barques. In the latter vessel I had the pleasure of serving for nearly three years under the builders’ management.
The Ladas was launched at Maryport in 1894. Curiously enough the winner of that year’s Derby was Lord Rosebery’s horse Ladas, a coincidence that augured well for the success of Messrs. Ritson’s newest vessel. She was 1,290 tons nett, barque rigged, and a very handy, shapely vessel.
The rigging of the vessels built at Maryport was done for many years by a family called Monkhouse. Many times while the vessels were fitting out have I dodged school to watch rigging operations, especially when the topmasts and heavy yards were being sent up. The main purchase was usually led to a L. & N.W. locomotive which supplied the hoisting power, and very keen judgment it required on the part of the engine driver, especially at such times as fidding the topmasts, &c.
We loaded steel rails in Senhouse Dock, and sailed end of August, or early September for Corral, Chili, Captain T. Messenger in command. The dock gates and pier were crowded as we towed out, and as it was Saturday noon, a large number of trippers from Carlisle had congregated. Letting go the tug off St. Bees, we spread her wings, wind light East to E.S.E. Next evening, off the Codling Bank Lightship, we overhauled the Maryport barque Brier Holme, one of the well-known Holme Line. She, like ourselves, was outward bound, and I have no doubt that Captain Rich, her commander, was very much upset at the way we walked past her, both vessels being then close hauled on the port tack. This, we found out later, was where the Ladas shone. With the wind aft she was very ordinary, but with it abeam she could hold her own with almost anything that came along; in fact, I never saw anything pass her, nor weather her when she had the wind abeam, while I was in her.
We made a very fair run to Cape Horn, passing through the Straits of Le Maire. When in the middle of the Straits, the wind suddenly shifted from north to west in a heavy squall, and we just managed to weather the west end of Staten Island. After this we had the usual trying westerlies, but Captain Messenger drove her into it. One evening, while under topsails, he successfully stayed her, an operation I had never seen under such conditions, and after our experience that evening I had no wish to see it repeated. On the port main braces being let go, on the order “Mainsail haul!” the yards swung round so quickly that the men had no time to gather in the whole of the slack starboard braces before the yards swung back again, the men jumping for their lives clear of the loose braces. On the next swing, however, we managed to get a turn, but it was a near thing for the mainmast going.
We discharged at Corral, being in company there part of the time with the barque Ivanhoe, Captain Brisco, another Cumbrian. After taking in ballast we sailed in February, 1895, for Newcastle, N.S.W., via Cape Horn. Off the Horn we were in company with Milne’s barque Inversnaid, Melbourne, for U.K.
A week after passing the Horn, about the 1st March, 1895, we sighted ice on our port beam at 4 a.m., roughly about 15 miles to the north of us. We were heading to the eastward, wind light south, making about 4 knots. We sailed east till noon and could not see a break anywhere in the wall of ice, which by this time was only about four miles from us, and coming more ahead. We then put about, stood west until midnight, then north until daybreak, when we stood to the eastward again, seeing no more ice that day. Next day, however, and for many days afterwards, I think about 18, we sighted much more than we cared about.
I had heard of Captain Pattman sailing the Loch Torridon some fifty miles though huge bergs as he supposed, only to find that he was embayed in an ice island and had difficulty in beating his way out again. I can well believe it, in view of our experience in the Ladas.
We sailed about 40 miles along the south side of this first mass of ice, and it stretched as far as we could see to the south and east, with no sign of a break. Many, many, anxious nights we passed after this, especially when the wind freshened from the westward, and the white horses began to curl, as it was very difficult on a dark night to distinguish ice from foam. One never-to-be-forgotten night we were bowling along under main topgallant sail, wind strong west. About 9 0’clock ice was reported by the look-out on the port bow, about 10 o’clock it was reported on the starboard bow, and soon afterwards right ahead. We then discovered we were sailing into a large bay of ice. Quick action was necessary. To clew up the main topgallant sail, and brace the yards sharp up on the starboard tack was only the work of a few minutes, and here is where the Ladas showed her good weatherly qualities. She stood up to it grandly. What a picture it would have made for a marine artist !
However, more serious thoughts occupied our minds.
None but those who have experienced a trying ordeal such as this can adequately understand it, where death indeed was very near, and no hope at all should anything go amiss, or any gear part. We had little to spare when at last we cleared the S.W. horn of the berg. The great and all-important question on everyone’s lips was, how far the ice might extend under the water? We had several near shaves before we were able to square away again, as we had to weather the N.W. corner before we were able to keep her on her course. This was only one of many anxious nights. and days.
Most of the bergs we passed were from 50 to 1,000 feet long, and from 40 to 150 ft. high. Some took on very fantastic shapes, appearing like castles, churches with steeples, One beautiful morning when we had about 30 bergs around us we struck a piece of old ice that was nearly awash, and about 100 feet long. We were passing between two large bergs at the time. This old fellow caught us on the port bow, and scraped along the side with a noise as though it were ripping the side out of the ship. We did not think then that any damage had been done, but time proved otherwise.
There were very strong S.E. winds after rounding Tasmania. and arriving off the “Nobbies,” Newcastle, N.S.W., the tug Erna told us there was too much sea on the bar for us to cross. Give her sail, Captain, and get her off the land said the captain of the tug. “Don’t you worry about that.” shouted Captain Messenger, and before very long we were bowling along under a main royal, much to the amazement of the tug skipper, who told me afterwards that he expected every minute to see us turn turtle.
Arriving back five days afterwards we discharged our ballast and, loading coal, sailed for San Diego, California. Four days after sailing we encountered a heavy N.E. gale. We soon found she was making water, but by pumping daily we were able to keep it under. It caused quite a lot of comment at San Diego to see us pumping out a steel ship.
On this passage in the North Pacific we caught the largest shark I have ever seen hooked. It was 19 feet long, blue in colour, and had a long tapered snout. Cutting it open when we had got it on deck. we found twenty-two young sharks. all about a foot long, fully developed, and alive.
Arrived at San Diego we found the Port Stanley and Beeswing both in with Australian coal. I have never been to any port where I found the people more hospitable than at San Diego, they gave us a royal time, feasting us and driving us about all around the country side. Of course, the newspaper reporter visited us, and going past the offices of the paper one evening we were highly amused to see a specimen of our cook’s culinary achievement, with an axe on one side of it, and a broken saw on the other. A placard behind it informed the public that the captain of the Ladas had failed to make any impression on the loaf with the saw, and he called to the Chief Officer for an axe, but alas, after breaking the edge of the saw, he had to give it up as a bad job.
From San Diego we went north to Victoria, B.C., but before commencing to load went on Bullen’s Slip. Esquimalt. We then found a very large number of rivets on the port side had the heads sheered right off, no doubt the result of our encounter with the ice.
After loading a cargo of salmon at the Outer Wharf. Victoria, we sailed in November, 1895, for Liverpool. Several vessels towed out of the Straits of Juan de Fuca with us, among them being Fingal, Mary Jose and the Dutch barque Van Gallen. During this passage we passed everything we sighted.
Two ships I remember passing off Staten Island were the Greenock four-master Miltonburn and the ship Talus. Perhaps this was due in part to the extra dose of white lead and tallow we had given the Ladas at Esquimalt.
Previous to joining the Ladas Captain Messenger had been chief officer of the Dunboyne. He was what is termed a holy terror for carrying sail, and I have no doubt he would have made a reputation as commander of one of the old-tune tea clippers. I do not think he knew the meaning of the word fear. His great delight seemed to be to hear the wind howling, when he would hang on to the mizzen weather shrouds, whistling for more wind, his steely piercing eyes glistening with delight.
With a full cargo of salmon the Ladas was a wee bit cranky ; however, we had a very fair passage through the Pacific, and an ideal run round the Horn. All went well until the night of the 18th-19th February, 1806. We were then getting towards the southern limits of the S.E. trades in the Atlantic. The wind was East all day and increasing towards evening, with frequent heavy squalls. During the first watch the ship had every stitch set, though each successive squall was becoming stronger. About 1 a.m. the Chief Officer took in the Royals and other light canvas, gaff top- sail, upper staysails, etc. The vessel was braced sharp on the starboard tack. About 3-15 a.m. an extra heavy squall struck us. and down went the lee rail of the Ladas, down, down, until we thought she was going right over. Topgallant halyards were let go, but the ship was lying over so far that the yards would not come down. She lay practically on her beam ends with her hatches in the water, absolutely dead, for probably, 20 minutes, though to us it seemed hours. Suddenly, either from a shift of wind or that she paid off quickly, I cannot now say which, she was caught by the lee, and those of us who were on the main deck had to jump for our lives, as she lifted the whole body of water on the lee side right across the deck. and lay down on her starboard side, though not as far as before, as, when she was upright, the topgallant yards had run down. We managed after a while to square in the main yards, and she paid off, after this we snugged her down to two lower and main upper topsails.
After crossing the Equator, we had very light trade winds, mostly from the N.N.E.-North, and even N. by W. Captain Messenger was often inclined to put her round on the port tack, but his better judgment prevailed, for several ships which did so fell into a belt of calms.
Getting hold of the westerlies, she got all the canvas she could stagger under. Off the south Irish coast we were running before a strong W.S.-wester, and frequent heavy squalls, under a main topgallantsail, which we lowered and hoisted fully a dozen times in the middle watch as each squall came along.
As well as I can remember we were about eight hours from passing the Tuskar, until we rounded the Skerries. The Sarah Joliffe, coming out of Holyhead, tried to speak us, but we were well past Lynas with the wind now dead aft before he could get up to us. Captain Messenger left us in Liverpool to take over command of the newly-launched Maryport-built barque Midas, and Captain R. Dixon, late of the White Star sailing ships Castle Head and Copley, took over command.
We loaded general cargo in the West Waterloo Dock, and sailed in May, 1896, for Honolulu, Sandwich Islands. On this passage were in company many times with the ship Eurasia bound for Portland, Oregon. Captain Dixon had a thorough knowledge of Cape Horn weather, in fact he seemed to sense every move in the game. He did some hard driving, and in face of head winds, got round without much trouble. I believe our passage to Honolulu was 119 days, the previous passage from Victoria to Liverpool having been 120 days. What Honolulu is like now I cannot say, but in those days it was well named “The Paradise of the Pacific.” One and all we had a glorious time, and were shown every kindness and hospitality by the natives.
At Honolulu, in those days, vessels moored stern on to the wharf with a slip rope. On sailing, the lower topsails were set, the slip rope let go and away they went. Working out, two of Spreckel’s vessels passed us bound to ‘Frisco, as we were. They hailed us in passing, saying they would report us when they got to ‘Frisco. On getting outside we saw them beating through the passage between Oahu and Molokai, but as we were in ballast we kept round to the westward of Oahu. We arrived in ‘Frisco on a Sunday, and the following Tuesday the first of Spreckel’s vessels arrived, the W. G. Irwin. Her skipper had the biggest surprise of his life when he found we had arrived ahead of him. I was in Balfour Williamson’s office along with Captain Dixon when the Yankee came bowling in. Ilis first remark was, “Where is that Britisher? I never thought I would live to see the day that a d… Lime Juicer would show me the way from Honolulu to ‘Frisco.”
What a glorious sight the wharves of ‘Frisco presented in those days ! A forest of masts extended from the breakwater right up to the Long Wharf. Ships of all kinds, from the stately tea clipper and Australian wool clipper to the timber drogher and the whaler. Pacific and Green Street districts were very tough quarters in those days, and not very safe places to go meandering around after dark, as many longshoremen and sailors found to their sorrow when they came to their senses outside the Farralones, with a fat and sore head and a big “dead horse” to work off.
Discharging our ballast at the Outer Wharf, we went up the river to Port Costa and loaded wheat for Liverpool. Queenstown for orders. To the eastward of the Falklands we carne up with the Milne barque Invercoe and had a neck-and-neck race with her for many days, it blowing strong from the S.W. On the wind coming more abeam we drew ahead of her. After lying a week in Queenstown in company with the Clydesdale and the well-known Palgrave, we arrived in Liverpool in May, 1897, and heard once more the familiar chanty “Leave her, Johnnie.” the opening lines being :
Solo—”I thought I heard the skipper say,”
Chorus—”Leave her, Johnnie. leave her”
Solo—”To-morrow you will get your pay,”
Chorus—”It’s time for us to leave her.”
To this stirring tune, which echoed over the Mersey, we hove her into the Wallasey Dock, Birkenhead, and after discharging, shifted into the Salthouse Dock to load for Valparaiso and there I left her to sit for my higher certificate, and, incidentally, to finish my “Days in Sail.”
The last time I saw the Ladas was in Buenos Aires Roads in 1915. She was then under the Norwegian flag. I believe she was towed into Leith some years afterwards dismasted. She was a very handy vessel, and the hard-driving Captain Messenger gave her, during the 18 months he had command, spoke well of the quality of the canvas and gear Messrs. Ritson put into her. The canvas, I may mention, was their own manufacture.
I may state I have written the foregoing entirely from memory, solely in response to the Editor’s invitation for sailing ship “stuff,” and hope it will serve to while away a few pleasant minutes for those still interested in the “glorious days of sail.”