[From Manx Quarterly #19,1918]

Memories of the Old Red Pier at Douglas, Isle of Man.

Period from about 1856 to about 1870.


I have lately returned to the Island after many years' absence, and I notice many changes. One day while wandering along the North Quay, I was struck by the empty condition of the harbour. That day there were only four vessels alongside the quays-two small coal steamers and two trawlboats. My mind went back to the time when every foot of quay-space was occupied. There were all sorts of vessels, but coal smacks were the most numerous. Sometimes a Whitehaven brig might be seen, and frequently timber ships from Norway. The present day method of handling the coal is the chief cause of the unoccupied state of the harbour. The steamers can discharge their cargoes and clear out in a day or two. In the old days the coal boats had to lie by the side of the quay until their cargoes were sold. If the skipper of a smack could get ready for sea again in a week or ten days, he thought he was lucky. The well-to-do people bought their coals by the cartload, but the bulk of the people got their coals by the bag. The coal porters stood in a row near the Market Place, with their bags under their arms (they were mostly middle-aged or elderly men). When one of then got an order, he went to the side of one of the coal-boats, and the coal was hoisted by a hand-winch in a tub, and emptied into the porter's bag, and two men lifted it on to his back. The weight was one hundredweight and a quarter, for carrying which to any place within the pre-eincts of the town, he received one penny. Often he had to carry his load up several flights of stairs; as many people lived in rooms (hard-work and small pay) ; but they were independent, and called no man masses. Some of them saved money and bought houses, but people lived the "simple life" in those days. Everyone had a stock of herrings for the winter. Oatmeal and potatoes were cheap. and a bit of " mate" for Sundays did not cost much.

It is very interesting to watch the swarms of gulls that are to be seen about the harbour. They are wonderful birds, all their movements are so graceful. they soar and skim through the air with steady wings and swoop down on the water when they see anything that attracts them. They seem to be full of the " joy of life." How tame they are! They perch on the masts and bulwarks of the vessels. Many of them alight on the quay and walk across the roadway, almost to the doors of the houses, because some of the ladies feed them with scraps. They were not always so tame. It does not seem long ago when they were rather shy birds, because men used to shoot them for sport. The Wild Birds' Protection Act has wrought the change in the habits of the gulls, and also in the habits of men. Few men nowadays would think of shooting those beautiful birds, even if they could do so with impunity. They would as soon think of shooting tame pigeons, or the fowls in a public park.

While thinking of the changes that time brings about, I continued my walk and soon found myself at the entrance to the old Red Pier. The chains that barred wheeled traffic had disappeared. The neat red sandstone flooring has given place to dinghy looking asphalt. The Pier is lumbered with empty boxes and barrels and other unlovely objects. Alas! it has fallen from the high position it once held as the chief centre of attraction in Douglas for natives as well as visitors.

That high building now need as offices for the Steam Packet Company was the ,"Imperial Hotel." It was built on the site where the old Court House stood. That small stone building next door was known as the " Watch-house," where passengers' luggage was examined.

Let us imagine we are walking on the Pier about fifty or sixty years ago. As you get near the steps leading to the raised platform that surrounds the lighthouse, we see a group of men dressed like sailors. They are the harbour boatmen.

They were generally called "hobblers." Some are sitting on the stone step that runs along the wall, baiting fishing lines; others are lounging about in that easy attitude tbat strong men can assume when they have nothing particular to do. They were all broad-shouldered, deep chested men. A prominent figure among them was "Billy the Ruffan," so called because he wore a full beard and moustache, a practice that was not so common at that time. He was a commanding figure, six feet in height, and well-proportioned. He was worthy of a place on the most eminent painter's canvas. Nearly all the men are smoking or chewing tobacco, and they converse with each other in loud tones, like men accustomed to speaking in a gale of wind. One of them looks over the Bay, and he speaks to a man near him. They all look in the same direction. There is a strange vessel in the offing. She may need a pilot, and a boat to pass the ropes to the mooring posts. The group instantly assume a. lively attitude and hurry to their boats. Rowlocks and oars are shipped, painters are cast off, and in a few minutes several four-oared boats are racing across the bay. A bit of reach money must not be missed in the winter time. A stiff breeze is blowing, and there is a rough sea; but no boatmen in Great Britain could manage a boat in a heavy sea better than the Douglas hobblers of that day. The race usually becomes a contest between two boats. The other boat crews soon realise that they will have no chance (perhaps they got a bad start), so they return to the harbour. If the ship is a long way out, and the wind favourable, a tug-sail was sometimes hoisted, giving the boat so equipped a great advantage. When the first boat arrived alongside the ship, competition ceased, and their rivals returned to the harbour, leaving the men to make the best bargain they could with the captain — an unwritten law that was strictly observed.

Let us suppose it is summertime, and many visitors are walking on the Pier. Dozens of gaily painted boats are lying in rows near the broad steps at the Pier-head. They all have names, and some of them very pretty names, such as the "Blue-eyed Jane," " The Village Girl," " Sweet Alice," and such like. Those who wish to hire a boat have plenty to choose from. A visitor with some lady friends approaches the side of the Pier, and appears to be interested with the boats. A boatman enquires. " Do you want a boat, sir? That's the boat for ye l" stretching his arm and pointing to one of the boats.

" Boy, shove the "Village Girl' to the steps."

Another boatman appears on the scene. " Look here, sir, before you go on that boat get your life insured. Yonder's the boat for ye !" pointing to a somewhat heavier boat. " Boy, shove the "Blue-bell' down."

Another boatman chimes in, " Don't have a heavy brute like that, sir. Ye might as weel try to pull a muck-cart. Look at that boat, the second in the row. she's light and speedy, as well as steady. Shove the 'Daisy' alongside, boy."

The visitor goes down the steps, followed by his friends. and gets into the first boat he comes to. It may happen to be one of those recommended, or it may not. The excessive touting became rather a nuisance, even to the boatmen themselves; so a time came when they organised themselves and adopted a sort of co-operative system, so that each boat-owner might have a fair chance. A boatman named Marlow acted as bookkeeper and secretary. He was a fresh coloured, good-looking-young man, about 31 years of age. I don't know how long the arrangement continued. I think it fell into disuse when there came to be landing-places where boats were on hire, at the Loch Parade and the Promenade, and the boating industry ceased to be concentrated in one place.

Most of the visitors were Lancashire cotton operatives, and many of them took to boating with that whole-hearted energy that is a characteristic of the Lancashire lad. Their amateurish rowing was a source of amusement to the people who assembled otr the Pierhead in the evenings. The gyrations of the boats were sometimes very funny. When one of the rowers " caught a crab" the feat was highly appreciated by the onlookers. Serious accidents never occurred. The water in the bay is generally smooth in the summer-time. If it was rough. boats were not allowed to go out without a competent man aboard. Hirers of boats were warned not to go past the headland. It sometimes happened that a party in a boat fancied they were expert rowers, and felt so confident that they ventured a long way out. When they started to return they found they where in a. strong current, and could make no progress. They pulled till they were tired, but they seemed to get no nearer to land. They became very sorry for themselves, and wished they had not come so far. They look around and see a boat about a hundred yards away. The men in the boat appear to be fishing. They shout and attract the attention of the fishermen, who row towards them. When the boat gets near, they explain their plight. and request the boatmen to give them a tow to the harbour. The boatmen offer to tow them to the harbour for half-a-sovereign.

"That's too much," the visitors cry in chorus, and offer five shillings. "Ten shillings is the least we will take," reply the boatmen. They turn their boat and begin to row away. The visitors are alarmed, and call them back and agree to pay the ten shillings. Then the boatmen hitch their painter to the other boat, and pull towards the harbour and reach the pier all safe. A severe lesson for the over-confident amateurs. It often happened that one of the boatmen was the owner of the boat that was in difficulties. He did not want to lose his boat, and had been keeping an eye on the venturesome party.

There were many amusements on the Pier, including dancing. Near the lighthouse there were negro-minstrels galore, and some good vocalists who did not black their faces. Some excellent string hands sometimes played on the Pier. There were also acrobats and jugglers. Some of them were very clever, quite equal to any I have seen in the music-halls and circuses in England. There was " Kelly, the tumbler." He came to the Island every season for many years. His performance was unique. His best trick always gained him great applause, and a good shower of coppers. A tumblerfull of ale was placed on the ground; Kelly stood on a chair and bent his body backwards, and without using his hands he got the glass in his month and drank the ale as he gradually rose erect, and did not spill a drop.

There was the "Chinese juggler," from Lancashire (as he called himself). He did some wonderful feats with cannon balls. He.would throw a cannon-ball in the air straight above his head, and when it came down he ducked his head forward and caught the hall between his shoulders. He displaced great dexterity in juggling. One of his feats was to catch a cannon-ball when falling on a plate. without breaking the plate. There were feats by strong men, such as balancing a long pole while another man climbed to the top and went through same clever evolutions when there. But it would take too much space to give the details of all the performances to he seen on the Pier in those days.

In the winter time the steamboats sailed according to the tide, but in the summer season the passengers were landed or embarked in smallboats when there was not enough water in the harbour — a rather slow and tedious process. As the duty on tea, tobacco, and spirits were much lower than in England, all passengers leaving the Island had their luggage examined to prevent smuggling. so they all had to stop at the Watch-house for that purpose. The search was usually a mere matter of form. Sometimes the Customs House officer would just give the bag a poke with a stick, and say, " Pass on". The pockets or the clothing were never examined, unless the passenger appeared to be altogether too stout. It rarely happened that anything was seized, but the search-officers made a capture sometimes to prove to their superiors that they were on the alert. But a good deal of stuff was smuggled. What matter? That was good for the shopkeepers.

Sometimes natives helped visitors to get contraband goods past the Watch-house. I knew a man who kept a boarding-house. He had a coat with big pockets that would hold a couple of quart bottles of spirits, or a good-sized parcel. of tea or tobacco. He would just take a stroll down the pier and meet the visitor behind the lighthouse, and transfer the stuff to his pocket. The passenger could then get aboard quite safe. Passengers were allowed one pint of spirits for use on the voyage. There was an old gaffer from Bolton, named Bentley, going away one morning. He took his bag to the Watch-house to be examined. There was a quart bottle of rum which be did not attempt to conceal. The search officer promptly took possession of it,

" That's not gradely," exclaimed Bentley. " It's nobbut a pint a piece for me and t'old lass," pointing to his wife, who was standing near.

"You should have got separate bottles," said the officer. " Move on! People are waiting."

Bentley was very angry. He shook his fist at the officer, and shouted " Ye are nowt but a d--d robber." Then his wife got hold of his arm and pulled him away. When he got to the steps where the boats were loading with passengers for the steamer, he realised that he had not a drop of spirits for the passage. He determined to send for some. He thought there was still plenty of time, so he gave a boy some monev to fetch him a bottle of rum. He stood waiting on the steps, bat the messenger was a long time in returning. The last boat was loaded, and the boatmen were ready to push off. One of them shouted, " Come on, sir, if you are going today." He reluctantly got on the boat and said to the boatman, "Can't ye wait a bit, till that chap comes with t'cough mixture I sent for?"

The boatman took no notice, and the boat was pushed off. When they got a few yards from the steps the messenger came in sight. He stood on the steps. holding the bottle in his hands. Bentley commanded the boatmen to return, but they refused, saying " The last bell has rung, and we can't delay." Bentley raved and shouted, but it was all in vain. The boatmen rowed steadily on. Some of the boatmen on the pier had free drinks that morning.

The arrival and departure of the steamer was an event that always attracted many people every day. Among the passengers leaving the Island there was generally a number of young people who were going to seek their fortunes in other lands. It is a well-known fact that the Manx are a migratory race. I have seen it stated that there are more Manx people in Lancashire than on the Island, without counting those in London and other parts of England, besides those who have gone to the United States of America, to Canada, and the other Colonies. They nearly all do well, and some become prosperous and attain high positions in life. It is a pity there are so few opportunities for young men of a career on the Island. The young people's friends are there to bid them " goodbye." It is a pathetic sight, and, although the emotions are kept under control, the wistful look betrays the sadness within. As I stood on the pier, my mind went back to the scenes I had witnessed long ago. I seemed to hear the music of the band. and the voices of the singers, and the tramp of many feet as the crowd of happy people walked to and fro. Suddenly, I was awakened from my reverie by the discordant sound of a coalboat's siren, and I found myself alone with the empty boxes and barrels. Then I turned homewards, and bid " goodbye" to the ghost of the old Red Pier.


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