Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of James Runciman > Text of Collier Skipper

A short story by James Runciman

The Collier Skipper

Title:     The Collier Skipper
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Many old-fashioned people who read of the massacres caused by steamboat collisions, think regretfully of the time when eight hundred sail of ships would make the trip between Tyne and Thames without so much as the loss of a bowsprit from one of the fleet. It was slow work, perhaps, and it might be a tedious sight (say those who praise past times), to see a ship being hauled up the river foot by foot with a warp and a kedge; yet we do not get cheap coals now, for all our science, and we have lost our seamen. The old inhabitants of the eastern seaports never cease to lament the progress of steam. They point out that all the money made in the brig colliers goes into few hands, and is carried away to be spent in London and Torquay, and Cannes, and Paris, by the great coalowners. They say, too, that the new race of seamen are unsocial beings who do no good to any town that the steamers run from. The modern "hand" comes into the river, say, at dusk; sees his vessel put under the coal spout, jumps ashore to buy a loaf and a few herrings, and then goes off to sea by three in the morning. This goes on all the year round, and if the sailor gets four-and-twenty hours to spend at home, he thinks himself wonderfully lucky. The sailor-men of old times seldom worked in the winter. All the colliers were laid up in the river, and the men lived on their summer earnings, so that multitudes of small tradesmen, who are now unable to live, fared very comfortably then.

These complaints may not be very logical or well founded, but the people who make them speak with perfect belief. Whatever may be thought of the social aspect of the question, the nautical aspect is not to be mistaken; for our school of seamen is undoubtedly departed.

The old collier sailor was a man of one faculty: he could handle a ship to perfection, but he could do nothing else, and he knew nothing else. On shore he was a child of the most innocent description, and the world that lay outside the regular line traversed by his old black tub, was a place beyond his conception. It is true that he sometimes went to such far-off regions as the Baltic, but even that extent of travel failed to open his mind. The worthy man who said that the four quarters of the globe were "Russia, Prussia, Memel, and Shields," was the type of the travelled collier captain. It is hardly possible to understand the complete ignorance of some of those fine sailors, or to conceive the methods on which they worked their ships. A man who could neither read nor write would take his vessel without a mistake from port to port. The lights on the coast were his only books, and his one intellectual exercise consisted in calculating the set of the ebb and the flood. With all the phenomena that he was used to observe in his ordinary life, he could deal promptly and sagaciously, but anything new tended to disarrange his mind. When steamers were first ordered to carry red and green side-lights with a high white light hung forward, an old captain saw the mysterious coloured circles coming down on him. He did not understand this new thing, and his faculties became confused. He shouted "Hard a-starboard. We'll be into a chemist's shop." This momentary infirmity of purpose was the source of much fun among more advanced mariners in his town. Another master who happened to have a leisure evening went to hear a popular astronomical lecture. He was much troubled by what he heard, and he explained his perplexity with great feeling to his friends. He said: "The man told the lot of us that the world turned round and round; but I cannot see how that can be. The Hatter's Rock's been there ever since I can mind." It sometimes happened that a captain more than usually competent was sent over seas to strange regions. One gentleman who could read and use a chart was despatched to Rotterdam. After getting over the bar and well away to the east, he produced his charts and made a learned inspection; but the charts had been a long time in the lockers, and circumstances combined to alarm him extremely. He went up on deck and called to his mate, "Put her about, the rats has eaten Holland." One of the most remarkable of the old school was a man who could actually take his ship about and find his place on the chart without being able to read the names himself. He always became very shortsighted on longish voyages. Towards the end of his time the new race of apprentices who had learned to read began to go to sea: before that period he had only been used to coasting trips, and the learned youths were a godsend to him when his owners sent him far afield. He would call his lad down below, and, assuming a tender air, would give the seasoned youngster a glass of rum. He would then point to the chart and say, "We're there. What is that place, my man? I can't see very well." On receiving his answer, he would remark, gravely, "I thought it was that." This innocent device gave the greatest entertainment to his irreverent pupils. Sometimes this kind of ignorance led to complications. One old gentleman bored away through a fog for several days under the pleasing impression that he was going north about from Liverpool. After a long time a vessel came past and the lost captain inquired, "Are we going right for the Castle foot?" The stranger made answer. "What Castle foot?" Whereupon the incensed skipper said, "There's only one Castle foot. Tynemouth Castle." The answer was discouraging: "If you go as you're going, you'll be at Newfoundland in a very short time." This hero felt his way back and after many days and much hailing of passing ships he sighted St. Abb's Head. He then said with pride, "Ah! here's England. Aw thowt aw would fetch her." He had really known no more of his route than a player at blind man's buff knows of his way about a room.

Of course very many of the captains were more accomplished than the stolid persons concerning whom so many droll legends still linger; but the fact remains, that valuable property and valuable lives were entrusted to men who wrought solely by rule of thumb, and that the trust was, on the whole, very wisely bestowed. With clumsy old craft that sailed in heavy weather as though they were dragging an anchor at the bottom, and that missed stays on the faintest provocation, these men carried goods to the value of millions, without incurring nearly the loss which is borne through the failure of the smart iron steamers. They are nearly all gone now, and the public are not much the better. Many good judges think that in the event of a great naval war we shall feel the need of that fine recruiting ground that lay between Spittal and Yarmouth. The old collier sailor, illiterate as he was, and stupid as he was in many respects, made a model man-of-war's man when he had been drilled into shape. He was alert, obedient, and utterly careless of danger; he had the fighting instinct developed to the point of ferocity; he was at once strong and docile, and his very simplicity made him the best possible instrument to be employed on dangerous enterprises. The last specimens will soon be beyond the reach of social students. Here and there may be found some bronzed old man who remembers when the Tyne was little more than a ditch flooded at tide-time. He hobbles sturdily to the pier and looks at the passing vessels with dim eyes. The steamers pass up and down with their swaggering turmoil; the little tugs whisk the sailing ships deftly in and out; but he will always think that the world was better when the bar was shallow, and when the sailors worked up stream without the aid of those unseamanlike kettles.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Collier Skipper