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An essay by Morley Roberts

In A Sailors' Home

Title:     In A Sailors' Home
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

After coming back to England from Australia in the barque _Essex_ I found "home" a curious place, which afforded very few prospects of a satisfactory job. For if there is one thing more than another borne in upon anyone who returns from the Colonies it is the apparent impossibility of earning one's living in London. Every avenue is as much choked as the entrance to the pit at a popular theatre on a first night. And though it is said that we may always get a tooth-brush into a portmanteau however full it is, there comes a time when not even a tooth-brush bristle can be put there. I looked at London, wandered round it, spent all my money, and determined to go to sea again, this time in a steamer rather than in a "wind-jammer." With this notion in my mind I went down to Hull, whither a shipmate of mine had preceded me. He had been a quarter-master in the _Essex_ and was the melancholy possessor of a cancelled master's certificate. He owed this to drink, of course, as most men do who pile their ships up on the first reef that comes handy. But when he was sober he was a good old fellow. He took me round to the Sailors' Home in Salthouse Lane, and introduced me to the man who ran it. I stayed there six weeks.

The Sailors' Home as an institution is not over-popular with seamen, especially with the more improvident of them. And the improvident are certainly ninety per cent. of the total sea-going race of man. As a rule Homes cease to be such when a man's money is done. He is thrown out into the street or into some equivalent of the notorious Straw House. There is always much talk at sea about the relative advantages of Boarding-Houses and Homes, and half the arguments about the subject end in more or less of a "rough house" and a few odd black eyes. However rude and brutal the boarding-house master may be, however much of a daylight robber he is (and they mostly are "daylight robbers") it is to his advantage to make his house popular. There is no surer way of doing this than ensuring his boarder a ship at the end of his short spree on shore. In many Homes the men look after this themselves. Jack is a child and wants to be looked after. As far as the Home in Salthouse Lane went, I think it combined some of the better qualities of both the common resorts of men ashore. The boss of it knew something about seamen; he was certainly not a robber, and he kept me and several others when we did not possess a red cent among us to jingle on a tombstone. He also kept order, for he had had some experience as a prize-fighter, and could put the best of us on the floor at a moment's notice. Once or twice he did so, and peace reigned in Warsaw.

There were certainly very few of us in the Home. Hull was not quite as full of sailors as hell is of devils, as a boarding-house master once assured me that San Francisco was when I tried to get taken into his house after being rejected even less politely by that eminent scoundrel Shanghai Brown. Besides myself there were a sturdy blue-nose or Nova-Scotian; a long-limbed, slab-sided herring-back or native of New Brunswick, a big thick-headed ass of an Englishman and a smart thief of a Cockney, known to us all as Ginger. We lived together without quarrelling more than three times a day. This we thought was peace. It was certainly more peaceful than my last boarding-house at Williamstown, where we had a little bloodshed every night. But there the very tables and benches were clamped to the floor; the windows were too high above us for anyone to be thrown out, and on a board nailed beyond our reach was the legend, "Order must and _will_ be preserved." But that boarding-house was very exciting; my last excitement In it was tripping up a man, treading on his wrist and taking away a razor with which he meant to cut throats. In Hull we never went further than a good common "scrap," though they happened fairly often.

Times were not very brisk in Hull just then. At anyrate, we did not find them so. We had a "runner" at the Home, who was supposed to help us find a ship, but certainly did not. He was a very curious person to look at. He weighed eighteen stone and was a perfect giant of strength, with legs like columns and a neck about twenty inches round. I never found out what his nationality was. He looked like a Russian, but denied that he was one. It was said that he once fought six men in the lane and downed them all in sheer desperation. As a matter of fact, he was rather cowardly, I think, and easily put on, though if he had really got mad something would have had to give. We did not rely on him but looked for ships ourselves in a very casual way. Most of us pretended to look for them and loafed about the neighbouring slums. When sailormen are thrown on their own resources they are pretty helpless creatures. The man who is a lion on a topsail yard in a gale is too often like a wet cat in a backyard when he is ashore. I was lazy enough myself, but as it happened it was I who got something to do for Ginger, for the New Brunswicker and myself.

I had not been living in the highly-desirable neighbourhood of Salthouse Lane for a week before I found myself without a stiver. The rest were in the same condition. Every three days or so I borrowed a penny from the boss and got a shave in order to keep up my spirits. Three days' beard is almost as depressing as three days' starvation, and the little shop at the corner, which renewed my self-respect for a penny, seemed to me a most admirable institution. As for drinks, we had none--we were sober sailors indeed. The sun might get over the fore-yard and go down over the cro'-jack but we never touched liquor. Nevertheless we had fights to relieve the monotony of the situation. The Nova Scotian and I took to being hostile. We disbelieved each other's lies. So one day while we were in the smoking-room he said something which was not at all polite. I could not knock him down with a chair because the careful and provident boss had had them chained to the floor. So I hit him, and hit him rather hard, for what he had said out of pure devilry. He was sitting on the table and I knocked him off. His particular mate was the very thick-headed Englishman. He did his best for the Nova Scotian by holding me very tight while the blue-nose hammered me. This was awkward, to say nothing about the unfairness of it. I got away but presently found myself across a bench with my back in danger of being broken. More by good luck than management I broke loose and got the blue-nose across the bench, I am thankful to say I nearly broke his back. Then we waltzed round the room in the wildest way, till the wife of the boss and the servant girl flew in and broke up the party with the most amazing energy. I was the youngest and the most civilised, and the women naturally said it was the Nova Scotian's fault. They said so in the most voluble manner, and the Nova Scotian did not like it. He said they took my part because I was not so ugly as he was, and said it wasn't fair, especially as I had spoilt what little beauty he had. He further asserted that he would knock the stuffing out of me, and we were on hostile terms for twenty-four hours. Two days later he got a job as bo'sun in a barque and his mate shipped with him, and peace was assured for a time.

The food they gave us was rough but fairly good and plentiful. Wherever the meat came from it could be masticated with some effort. In Barclay's boarding-house, in Williamstown, we had to take a spell in the middle of a mouthful. I have seen steak there that would have pauled a chaff-cutter. In the dining-room at Salthouse Lane there lived the wildest, most eccentric clock I ever saw in all my travels. It had a most remarkable way of striking quite peculiar to itself. We used to dine at one o'clock. At noon the clock usually struck one. In very extravagant days it struck two. But no one could guess what it would strike when it was really one o'clock. I once counted seventy-two strokes, and on a public holiday it went up to a hundred and twenty. It was our only amusement.

We were allowed to come in at almost any time. When the Nova Scotian and his mate had departed the Cockney and the herring-back and I used to run together and go waltzing round the back part of Hull pretty well all night. Once we sat on the steps of a bank for nearly four hours, between twelve and four. With us were two young ladies, who were possibly not very respectable but about whom I knew nothing as I had never seen them before and never saw them again, and another young sailor who was good at yarns. I didn't know his name. Absurd as it may seem we were all quite happy. The policeman on the beat saw that we were, and evidently hated to disturb us. He came past us three times, and each time asked us very nicely to go home. Next time he repeated his request, and as he said he would look on our doing so in the light of a personal favour to himself, we agreed to evacuate the bank at last.

Our greatest privation at the Salthouse Lane establishment was want of tobacco. We rarely had any of it. I remember one day, when want of nicotine made me very sad, we went, on my suggestion, into the bag-room and pulled out our bags and chests. My chest was what seamen call a round-bottomed chest, _i.e._, a sailor's canvas bag. The beauty of it is that anything wanted is always at the bottom. In turning the bag out I found half a plug of tobacco. If we had been gold-mining and I had struck a "pocket," or come across big nuggets we could not have been happier. We sat in the smoking-room, and having divided the plug we had a grand debauch. Of course we sometimes begged a pipe or two from luckier men about the docks, but to find a real half plug was something to gloat over.

When I had been in the Home nearly two months, and owed what seemed an amazing amount of money, I really began to think that if I could not ship in a steamer I must go in a wind-jammer again after all. So I really began to hunt round in earnest, and after trying all sorts and conditions of craft I landed on a job in the _Corona_ of Dundee. She was a biggish composite vessel of about seventeen hundred tons register, with that horrible thing, wire running rigging. In her I made the acquaintance of one of her old crew, who had stayed by her in Hull river, who told me various yarns of her behaviour at sea, and how one man had been killed in her on her homeward passage from San Francisco. As we got to be pals he suggested I should bring some more men if I knew of any in want of a job. I brought along Ginger and the herring-back, and we went to work cleaning out the limbers. It was not a nice job, for the limbers of a ship which has been carrying wheat are, to say the least of it, rather malodorous. We scraped the rotting black muck out with boards and scrapers, and sent it up on deck. It was a two and a half days' job. Then the mate set me over my two friends to "break out" casks of beef and pork from the fore-peak. As I hadn't been much to sea it rather amused me to find myself bossing two men who had been at it all their lives. But I have to own that they were two of the stupidest men I ever met, though they were not bad fellows. Then the time came for us to go to London by the "run." They offered us 30s. for the run to London river. This, with the five shillings a day I had earned by six days' work on board, made L3. I had practically spent nothing while I was working in her, although we left the Home too early in the morning to have breakfast there. We used to go to a coffee-stall near the dock entrance and get what is described by Cockneys as "two doorsteps and a cup of thick" for about 2d. We went home for dinner and supper. Thus I had nearly all my L3 for the boss of the Home. He got the money when we were out in the "stream" with the tug ahead of us.

We were only one night at sea. We washed her down and cleaned her a bit generally and made her look a little decent, and I had the look-out that night. As we towed the whole distance we came up London river next afternoon. It was a gloomy and miserable day, which made London horrible to behold. It was like entering hell itself to come up into the parts where the big warehouses stand and where the docks are. We came at last to Limehouse, where she was to be dry-docked. I was at the wheel then, and it took us two hours before we got her in and had her settled down upon the blocks with the shores to hold her. Then I took my round-bottomed chest and left her. The mate, who had taken a fancy to me, asked me to ship in her for her next voyage, but I said I meant to "swallow the anchor" and have no more of that kind of work. My experience in Hull--the semi-starvation, the fighting, the loneliness and general blackguardism of the whole show--had somewhat sickened me of the life. And yet seamen are good fellows, and might be much better if it were not for the greed of owners, who feed them badly, house them vilely, and think of nothing in the world but dividends. Seamen know what they know, and they resent with bitterness the way they are treated. They have a bitter saying, "That's good enough for hogs, dogs and sailors." The day must come when England will cry to her children of the sea, and weep because they are not.

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: In A Sailors' Home