We are taking a broad definition of literature so in this section will be a few pieces of journalism and other stuff, but it’s mainly from ‘literary’ writers. We begin with the poet John Masefield, then onto Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novelist and short story writer who was American Consul in Liverpool. The theme of the sea is extended by extracts from Redburn, the semi-autobiographical tale of Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) set largely among coarse and brutal sailors and the seedier areas of Liverpool.
“When I’m discharged at Liverpool ‘n’ draws my bit o’ pay,
I won’t come to sea no more;
I’ll court a pretty little lass ‘n’ have a weddin’ day,
‘N’ settle somewhere down shore;
I’ll never fare to sea again a-temptin’ Davy Jones,
A-hearkening to the cruel sharks a-hungerin’ for my bones;
I’ll run a blushin’ dairy-farm or go a-crackin’ stones,
Or buy ‘n’ keep a little liquor-store.”
So he said.
They towed her in to Liverpool, we made the hooker fast,
And the copper-bound official paid the crew,
And Billy drew his money, but the money didn’t last,
For he painted the alongshore blue,
It was rum for Poll, and rum for Nan, and gin for Jolly Jack;
He shipped a week later in the clothes upon his back;
He had to pinch a little straw, he had to beg a sack
To sleep on, when his watch was through,
So he did.
John Masefield, 1902
Nathaniel Hawthorne 1853
I do not know what sort of character it will form in the children,–this unsettled, shifting, vagrant life, with no central home to turn to, except what we carry in ourselves. It was a windy day, and, judging by the look of the trees, on the way to Southport, it must be almost always windy, and with the blast in one prevailing direction; for invariably their branches, and the whole contour and attitude of the tree, turn from seaward, with a strangely forlorn aspect. Reaching Southport, we took an omnibus, and under the driver’s guidance came to our tall stone house, fronting on the sands, and styled “Brunswick Terrace.” . . .
The English system of lodging-houses has its good points; but it is, nevertheless, a contrivance for bearing the domestic cares of home about with you whithersoever you go; and immediately you have to set about producing your own bread and cheese. However, Fanny took most of this trouble off our hands, though there was inevitably the stiffness and discomfort of a new housekeeping on the first day of our arrival; besides that, it was cool, and the wind whistled and grumbled and eddied into the chinks of the house.
Meanwhile, in all my experience of Southport, I have never yet seen the sea, but only an interminable breadth of sands, looking pooly or plashy in some places, and barred across with drier reaches of sand, but no expanse of water. It must be miles and miles, at low water, to the veritable sea-shore. We are about twenty miles north of Liverpool, on the border of the Irish Sea; and Ireland, and, I suppose, the Isle of Man intervene betwixt us and the ocean, not much to our benefit; for the air of the English coast, under ocean influences, is said to be milder than when it comes across the land,–milder, therefore, above or below Ireland, because then the Gulf Stream ameliorates it.
Betimes, the forenoon after our arrival, I had to take the rail to Liverpool, but returned, a little after five, in the midst of a rain,–still low water and interminable sands; still a dreary, howling blast. We had a cheerful fireside, however, and should have had a pleasant evening, only that the wind on the sea made us excessively drowsy. This morning we awoke to hear the wind still blustering, and blowing up clouds, with fitful little showers, and soon blowing them away again, and letting the brightest of sunshine fall over the plashy waste of sand. We have already walked forth on the shore with J—– and R—, who pick up shells, and dig wells in the sand with their little wooden spades: but soon we saw a rainbow on the western sky, and then a shower came spattering down upon us in good earnest. We first took refuge under the bridge that stretches between the two portions of the promenade; but as there was a chill draught there, we made the best of our way home. The sun has now again come out brightly, though the wind is still tumbling a great many clouds about the sky.
* * * * *
Evening.–Later, I walked out with U–, and, looking seaward, we saw the foam and spray of the advancing tide, tossed about on the verge of the horizon,–a long line, like the crests and gleaming helmets of an army. In about half an hour we found almost the whole waste of sand covered with water, and white waves breaking out all over it; but, the bottom being so nearly level, and the water so shallow, there was little of the spirit and exultation of the sea in a strong breeze. Of the long line of bathing-machines, one after another was hitched to a horse, and trundled forth into the water, where, at a long distance from shore, the bathers found themselves hardly middle deep.
September 19th.–The wind grumbled and made itself miserable all last night, and this morning it is still howling as ill-naturedly as ever, and roaring and rumbling in the chimneys. The tide is far out, but, from an upper window, I fancied, at intervals, that I could see the plash of the surf-wave on the distant limit of the sand; perhaps, however, it was only a gleam on the sky. Constantly there have been sharp spatters of rain, hissing and rattling against the windows, while a little before or after, or perhaps simultaneously, a rainbow, somewhat watery of texture, paints itself on the western clouds. Gray, sullen clouds hang about the sky, or sometimes cover it with a uniform dulness; at other times, the portions towards the sun gleam almost lightsomely; now, there may be an airy glimpse of clear blue sky in a fissure of the clouds; now, the very brightest of sunshine comes out all of a sudden, and gladdens everything. The breadth of sands has a various aspect, according as there are pools, or moisture enough to glisten, or a drier tract; and where the light gleams along a yellow ridge or bar, it is like sunshine itself. Certainly the temper of the day shifts; but the smiles come far the seldomest, and its frowns and angry tears are most reliable. By seven o’clock pedestrians began to walk along the promenade, close buttoned against the blast; later, a single bathing-machine got under way, by means of a horse, and travelled forth seaward; but within what distance it finds the invisible margin I cannot say,–at all events, it looks like a dreary journey. Just now I saw a seagull, wheeling on the blast, close in towards the promenade.
September 21st.–Yesterday morning was bright, sunny and windy, and cool and exhilarating. I went to Liverpool at eleven, and, returning at five, found the weather still bright and cool. The temperature, methinks, must soon diminish the population of Southport, which, judging from appearances, must be mainly made up of temporary visitors. There is a newspaper, “The Southport Visitor,” published weekly, and containing a register of all the visitants in the various hotels and lodging-houses. It covers more than two sides of the paper, to the amount of some hundreds. The guests come chiefly from Liverpool, Manchester, and the neighboring country-towns, and belong to the middle classes. It is not a fashionable watering-place. Only one nobleman’s name, and those of two or three baronets, now adorn the list. The people whom we see loitering along the beach and the promenade have, at best, a well-to-do, tradesmanlike air. I do not find that there are any public amusements; nothing but strolling on the sands, donkey-riding, or drives in donkey-carts; and solitary visitors must find it a dreary place. Yet one or two of the streets are brisk and lively, and, being well thronged, have a holiday aspect. There are no carriages in town save donkey-carts; some of which are drawn by three donkeys abreast, and are large enough to hold a whole family. These conveyances will take you far out on the sands through wet and dry. The beach is haunted by The Flying Dutchman,–a sort of boat on wheels, schooner-rigged with sails, and which sometimes makes pretty good speed, with a fair wind.
This morning we have been walking with J—– and R— out over the “ribbed sea sands,” a good distance from shore. Throughout the week, the tides will be so low as not to cover the shallow basin of this bay, if a bay it be. The weather was sullen, with now and then a faint gleam of sunshine, lazily tracing our shadows on the sand; the wind rather quieter than on preceding days. . . . In the sunshine the sands seem to be frequented by great numbers of gulls, who begin to find the northern climate too wintry. You see their white wings in the sunlight, but they become almost or quite invisible in the shade. We shall soon have an opportunity of seeing how a watering-place looks when the season is quite over; for we have concluded to remain here till December, and everybody else will take flight in a week or two.
A short time ago, in the evening, in a street of Liverpool, I saw a decent man, of the lower orders, taken much aback by being roughly brushed against by a rowdy fellow. He looked after him, and exclaimed indignantly, “Is that a Yankee?” It shows the kind of character we have here.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1853
As I stood leaning over the side, and trying to summon up some image of
Liverpool, to see how the reality would answer to my conceit; and while
the fog, and mist, and gray dawn were investing every thing with a
mysterious interest, I was startled by the doleful, dismal sound of a
great bell, whose slow intermitting tolling seemed in unison with the
solemn roll of the billows. I thought I had never heard so boding a
sound; a sound that seemed to speak of judgment and the resurrection,
like belfry-mouthed Paul of Tarsus.
It was not in the direction of the shore; but seemed to come out of the
vaults of the sea, and out of the mist and fog.
Who was dead, and what could it be?
I soon learned from my shipmates, that this was the famous Bett-Buoy,
which is precisely what its name implies; and tolls fast or slow,
according to the agitation of the waves. In a calm, it is dumb; in a
moderate breeze, it tolls gently; but in a gale, it is an alarum like
the tocsin, warning all mariners to flee. But it seemed fuller of dirges
for the past, than of monitions for the future; and no one can give ear
to it, without thinking of the sailors who sleep far beneath it at the
bottom of the deep.
As we sailed ahead the river contracted. The day came, and soon, passing
two lofty land-marks on the Lancashire shore, we rapidly drew near the
town, and at last, came to anchor in the stream.
Looking shoreward, I beheld lofty ranges of dingy warehouses, which
seemed very deficient in the elements of the marvelous; and bore a most
unexpected resemblance to the ware-houses along South-street in New
York. There was nothing strange; nothing extraordinary about them. There
they stood; a row of calm and collected ware-houses; very good and
substantial edifices, doubtless, and admirably adapted to the ends had
in view by the builders; but plain, matter-of-fact ware-houses,
nevertheless, and that was all that could be said of them.
To be sure, I did not expect that every house in Liverpool must be a
Leaning Tower of Pisa, or a Strasbourg Cathedral; but yet, these
edifices I must confess, were a sad and bitter disappointment to me.
But it was different with Larry the whaleman; who to my surprise,
looking about him delighted, exclaimed, “Why, this ‘ere is a
considerable place–I’m dummed if it ain’t quite a place.–Why, them ‘ere
houses is considerable houses. It beats the coast of Afrilcy, all
hollow; nothing like this in Madagasky, I tell you;–I’m dummed, boys if
Liverpool ain’t a city!”
Upon this occasion, indeed, Larry altogether forgot his hostility to
civilization. Having been so long accustomed to associate foreign lands
with the savage places of the Indian Ocean, he had been under the
impression, that Liverpool must be a town of bamboos, situated in some
swamp, and whose inhabitants turned their attention principally to the
cultivation of log-wood and curing of flying-fish. For that any great
commercial city existed three thousand miles from home, was a thing, of
which Larry had never before had a “realizing sense.”
Herman Melville, Redburn ch.27
XXXVII. WHAT REDBURN SAW IN LAUNCELOTT’S-HEY
The dead-house reminds me of other sad things; for in the vicinity of the docks are many very painful sights.
In going to our boarding-house, the sign of the Baltimore Clipper, I generally passed through a narrow street called “Launcelott’s-Hey,” lined with dingy, prison-like cotton warehouses. In this street, or rather alley, you seldom see any one but a truck-man, or some solitary old warehouse-keeper, haunting his smoky den like a ghost.
Once, passing through this place, I heard a feeble wail, which seemed to come out of the earth. It was but a strip of crooked side-walk where I stood; the dingy wall was on every side, converting the mid-day into twilight; and not a soul was in sight. I started, and could almost have run, when I heard that dismal sound. It seemed the low, hopeless, endless wail of some one forever lost. At last I advanced to an opening which communicated downward with deep tiers of cellars beneath a crumbling old warehouse; and there, some fifteen feet below the walk, crouching in nameless squalor, with her head bowed over, was the figure of what had been a woman. Her blue arms folded to her livid bosom two shrunken things like children, that leaned toward her, one on each side. At first, I knew not whether they were alive or dead. They made no sign; they did not move or stir; but from the vault came that soul-sickening wail.
I made a noise with my foot, which, in the silence, echoed far and near; but there was no response. Louder still; when one of the children lifted its head, and cast upward a faint glance; then closed its eyes, and lay motionless. The woman also, now gazed up, and perceived me; but let fall her eye again. They were dumb and next to dead with want. How they had crawled into that den, I could not tell; but there they had crawled to die. At that moment I never thought of relieving them; for death was so stamped in their glazed and unimploring eyes, that I almost regarded them as already no more. I stood looking down on them, while my whole soul swelled within me; and I asked myself, What right had any body in the wide world to smile and be glad, when sights like this were to be seen? It was enough to turn the heart to gall; and make a man-hater of a Howard. For who were these ghosts that I saw? Were they not human beings? A woman and two girls? With eyes, and lips, and ears like any queen? with hearts which, though they did not bound with blood, yet beat with a dull, dead ache that was their life.
At last, I walked on toward an open lot in the alley, hoping to meet there some ragged old women, whom I had daily noticed groping amid foul rubbish for little particles of dirty cotton, which they washed out and sold for a trifle.
I found them; and accosting one, I asked if she knew of the persons I had just left. She replied, that she did not; nor did she want to. I then asked another, a miserable, toothless old woman, with a tattered strip of coarse baling stuff round her body. Looking at me for an instant, she resumed her raking in the rubbish, and said that she knew who it was that I spoke of; but that she had no time to attend to beggars and their brats. Accosting still another, who seemed to know my errand, I asked if there was no place to which the woman could be taken. “Yes,” she replied, “to the church-yard.” I said she was alive, and not dead.
“Then she’ll never die,” was the rejoinder. “She’s been down there these three days, with nothing to eat;—that I know myself.”
“She desarves it,” said an old hag, who was just placing on her crooked shoulders her bag of pickings, and who was turning to totter off, “that Betsy Jennings desarves it—was she ever married? tell me that.”
Leaving Launcelott’s-Hey, I turned into a more frequented street; and soon meeting a policeman, told him of the condition of the woman and the girls.
“It’s none of my business, Jack,” said he. “I don’t belong to that street.”
“Who does then?”
“I don’t know. But what business is it of yours? Are you not a Yankee?”
“Yes,” said I, “but come, I will help you remove that woman, if you say so.”
“There, now, Jack, go on board your ship and stick to it; and leave these matters to the town.”
I accosted two more policemen, but with no better success; they would not even go with me to the place. The truth was, it was out of the way, in a silent, secluded spot; and the misery of the three outcasts, hiding away in the ground, did not obtrude upon any one.
Returning to them, I again stamped to attract their attention; but this time, none of the three looked up, or even stirred. While I yet stood irresolute, a voice called to me from a high, iron-shuttered window in a loft over the way; and asked what I was about. I beckoned to the man, a sort of porter, to come down, which he did; when I pointed down into the vault.
“Well,” said he, “what of it?”
“Can’t we get them out?” said I, “haven’t you some place in your warehouse where you can put them? have you nothing for them to eat?”
“You’re crazy, boy,” said he; “do you suppose, that Parkins and Wood want their warehouse turned into a hospital?”
I then went to my boarding-house, and told Handsome Mary of what I had seen; asking her if she could not do something to get the woman and girls removed; or if she could not do that, let me have some food for them. But though a kind person in the main, Mary replied that she gave away enough to beggars in her own street (which was true enough) without looking after the whole neighborhood.
Going into the kitchen, I accosted the cook, a little shriveled-up old Welshwoman, with a saucy tongue, whom the sailors called Brandy-Nan; and begged her to give me some cold victuals, if she had nothing better, to take to the vault. But she broke out in a storm of swearing at the miserable occupants of the vault, and refused. I then stepped into the room where our dinner was being spread; and waiting till the girl had gone out, I snatched some bread and cheese from a stand, and thrusting it into the bosom of my frock, left the house. Hurrying to the lane, I dropped the food down into the vault. One of the girls caught at it convulsively, but fell back, apparently fainting; the sister pushed the other’s arm aside, and took the bread in her hand; but with a weak uncertain grasp like an infant’s. She placed it to her mouth; but letting it fall again, murmuring faintly something like “water.” The woman did not stir; her head was bowed over, just as I had first seen her.
Seeing how it was, I ran down toward the docks to a mean little sailor tavern, and begged for a pitcher; but the cross old man who kept it refused, unless I would pay for it. But I had no money. So as my boarding-house was some way off, and it would be lost time to run to the ship for my big iron pot; under the impulse of the moment, I hurried to one of the Boodle Hydrants, which I remembered having seen running near the scene of a still smoldering fire in an old rag house; and taking off a new tarpaulin hat, which had been loaned me that day, filled it with water.
With this, I returned to Launcelott’s-Hey; and with considerable difficulty, like getting down into a well, I contrived to descend with it into the vault; where there was hardly space enough left to let me stand. The two girls drank out of the hat together; looking up at me with an unalterable, idiotic expression, that almost made me faint. The woman spoke not a word, and did not stir. While the girls were breaking and eating the bread, I tried to lift the woman’s head; but, feeble as she was, she seemed bent upon holding it down. Observing her arms still clasped upon her bosom, and that something seemed hidden under the rags there, a thought crossed my mind, which impelled me forcibly to withdraw her hands for a moment; when I caught a glimpse of a meager little babe—the lower part of its body thrust into an old bonnet. Its face was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor; but the closed eyes looked like balls of indigo. It must have been dead some hours.
The woman refusing to speak, eat, or drink, I asked one of the girls who they were, and where they lived; but she only stared vacantly, muttering something that could not be understood.
The air of the place was now getting too much for me; but I stood deliberating a moment, whether it was possible for me to drag them out of the vault. But if I did, what then? They would only perish in the street, and here they were at least protected from the rain; and more than that, might die in seclusion.
I crawled up into the street, and looking down upon them again, almost repented that I had brought them any food; for it would only tend to prolong their misery, without hope of any permanent relief: for die they must very soon; they were too far gone for any medicine to help them. I hardly know whether I ought to confess another thing that occurred to me as I stood there; but it was this-I felt an almost irresistible impulse to do them the last mercy, of in some way putting an end to their horrible lives; and I should almost have done so, I think, had I not been deterred by thoughts of the law. For I well knew that the law, which would let them perish of themselves without giving them one cup of water, would spend a thousand pounds, if necessary, in convicting him who should so much as offer to relieve them from their miserable existence.
The next day, and the next, I passed the vault three times, and still met the same sight. The girls leaning up against the woman on each side, and the woman with her arms still folding the babe, and her head bowed. The first evening I did not see the bread that I had dropped down in the morning; but the second evening, the bread I had dropped that morning remained untouched. On the third morning the smell that came from the vault was such, that I accosted the same policeman I had accosted before, who was patrolling the same street, and told him that the persons I had spoken to him about were dead, and he had better have them removed. He looked as if he did not believe me, and added, that it was not his street.
When I arrived at the docks on my way to the ship, I entered the guard-house within the walls, and asked for one of the captains, to whom I told the story; but, from what he said, was led to infer that the Dock Police was distinct from that of the town, and this was not the right place to lodge my information.
I could do no more that morning, being obliged to repair to the ship; but at twelve o’clock, when I went to dinner, I hurried into Launcelott’s-Hey, when I found that the vault was empty. In place of the women and children, a heap of quick-lime was glistening.
I could not learn who had taken them away, or whither they had gone; but my prayer was answered—they were dead, departed, and at peace.
But again I looked down into the vault, and in fancy beheld the pale, shrunken forms still crouching there. Ah! what are our creeds, and how do we hope to be saved? Tell me, oh Bible, that story of Lazarus again, that I may find comfort in my heart for the poor and forlorn. Surrounded as we are by the wants and woes of our fellowmen, and yet given to follow our own pleasures, regardless of their pains, are we not like people sitting up with a corpse, and making merry in the house of the dead?
XXIX. REDBURN DEFERENTIALLY DISCOURSES CONCERNING THE PROSPECTS OF SAILORS
The ship remained in Prince’s Dock over six weeks; but as I do not mean to present a diary of my stay there, I shall here simply record the general tenor of the life led by our crew during that interval; and will then proceed to note down, at random, my own wanderings about town, and impressions of things as they are recalled to me now, after the lapse of so many years.
But first, I must mention that we saw little of the captain during our stay in the dock. Sometimes, cane in hand, he sauntered down of a pleasant morning from the Arms Hotel, I believe it was, where he boarded; and after lounging about the ship, giving orders to his Prime Minister and Grand Vizier, the chief mate, he would saunter back to his drawing-rooms.
From the glimpse of a play-bill, which I detected peeping out of his pocket, I inferred that he patronized the theaters; and from the flush of his cheeks, that he patronized the fine old Port wine, for which Liverpool is famous.
Occasionally, however, he spent his nights on board; and mad, roystering nights they were, such as rare Ben Jonson would have delighted in. For company over the cabin-table, he would have four or five whiskered sea-captains, who kept the steward drawing corks and filling glasses all the time. And once, the whole company were found under the table at four o’clock in the morning, and were put to bed and tucked in by the two mates. Upon this occasion, I agreed with our woolly Doctor of Divinity, the black cook, that they should have been ashamed of themselves; but there is no shame in some sea-captains, who only blush after the third bottle.
During the many visits of Captain Riga to the ship, he always said something courteous to a gentlemanly, friendless custom-house officer, who staid on board of us nearly all the time we lay in the dock.
And weary days they must have been to this friendless custom-house officer; trying to kill time in the cabin with a newspaper; and rapping on the transom with his knuckles. He was kept on board to prevent smuggling; but he used to smuggle himself ashore very often, when, according to law, he should have been at his post on board ship. But no wonder; he seemed to be a man of fine feelings, altogether above his situation; a most inglorious one, indeed; worse than driving geese to water.
And now, to proceed with the crew.
At daylight, all hands were called, and the decks were washed down; then we had an hour to go ashore to breakfast; after which we worked at the rigging, or picked oakum, or were set to some employment or other, never mind how trivial, till twelve o’clock, when we went to dinner. At half-past nine we resumed work; and finally knocked of at four o’clock in the afternoon, unless something particular was in hand. And after four o’clock, we could go where we pleased, and were not required to be on board again till next morning at daylight.
As we had nothing to do with the cargo, of course, our duties were light enough; and the chief mate was often put to it to devise some employment for us.
We had no watches to stand, a ship-keeper, hired from shore, relieving us from that; and all the while the men’s wages ran on, as at sea. Sundays we had to ourselves.
Thus, it will be seen, that the life led by sailors of American ships in Liverpool, is an exceedingly easy one, and abounding in leisure. They live ashore on the fat of the land; and after a little wholesome exercise in the morning, have the rest of the day to themselves.
Nevertheless, these Liverpool voyages, likewise those to London and Havre, are the least profitable that an improvident seaman can take. Because, in New York he receives his month’s advance; in Liverpool, another; both of which, in most cases, quickly disappear; so that by the time his voyage terminates, he generally has but little coming to him; sometimes not a cent. Whereas, upon a long voyage, say to India or China, his wages accumulate; he has more inducements to economize, and far fewer motives to extravagance; and when he is paid off at last, he goes away jingling a quart measure of dollars.
Besides, of all sea-ports in the world, Liverpool, perhaps, most abounds in all the variety of land-sharks, land-rats, and other vermin, which make the hapless mariner their prey. In the shape of landlords, bar-keepers, clothiers, crimps, and boarding-house loungers, the land-sharks devour him, limb by limb; while the land-rats and mice constantly nibble at his purse.
Other perils he runs, also, far worse; from the denizens of notorious Corinthian haunts in the vicinity of the docks, which in depravity are not to be matched by any thing this side of the pit that is bottomless.
And yet, sailors love this Liverpool; and upon long voyages to distant parts of the globe, will be continually dilating upon its charms and attractions, and extolling it above all other seaports in the world. For in Liverpool they find their Paradise— not the well known street of that name—and one of them told me he would be content to lie in Prince’s Dock till he hove up anchor for the world to come.
Much is said of ameliorating the condition of sailors; but it must ever prove a most difficult endeavor, so long as the antidote is given before the bane is removed.
Consider, that, with the majority of them, the very fact of their being sailors, argues a certain recklessness and sensualism of character, ignorance, and depravity; consider that they are generally friendless and alone in the world; or if they have friends and relatives, they are almost constantly beyond the reach of their good influences; consider that after the rigorous discipline, hardships, dangers, and privations of a voyage, they are set adrift in a foreign port, and exposed to a thousand enticements, which, under the circumstances, would be hard even for virtue itself to withstand, unless virtue went about on crutches; consider that by their very vocation they are shunned by the better classes of people, and cut off from all access to respectable and improving society; consider all this, and the reflecting mind must very soon perceive that the case of sailors, as a class, is not a very promising one.
Indeed, the bad things of their condition come under the head of those chronic evils which can only be ameliorated, it would seem, by ameliorating the moral organization of all civilization.