[From The Manxman, #13 1914]
Company which never grows old. Ten knots faster than greyhound. First" Ben " at Bonny. Bad for the pubs. Croaking about Croakets. Collaring a cod. Funny first office.
It is now eight months since I last had the pleasure of adding a little more steampacket lore in this column, to what I had previously published. That I have meanwhile acquired some further knowledge is not quite to the point. The " point " (if I may quote myself) is, rather, what may I best do with that knowledge? Surely, to continue the old plan of putting down (not necessarily in chronological order) -such fresh history as I have been able to verify, in order that, at some future time, I -or somebody else, if you prefer-should be able to compile a true history of the steam packets from their start.
The I.O.M.S.P.C. is a really singular concern. With one exception those older, and very many newer than it have served their purpose and disappeared from public view. Some have long been supplanted by fresh comers more up-to date, and others by the activities of rivals so modern that they have tried to take the world by storm. Yet, notwithstanding the untoward fate of others, the Steam Packet Co. (as it appears to me) is as new as if it were just beginning, although, it carries the burden of 84 years on its back!
I think I am known to have conscientiously abstained from that sort of stupid praise which distinguishes certain newspapers when dealing with shipping firms-for where IS the concern which never made a mistake or has nothing to recall?-but yet here is one which would still have been great had it merely jogged along in a humdrum way. On the contrary, it has gained the admiration of the world by never ceasing to be pioneers in everything new worthy of adoption.
I have no particular brief for them, but those directors who held up their hands and said, " Yes " to building such a ship as the Ben-my Chree did an action without parallel in the history of the mercantile marine. This I will explain further if I can. The Guion liner Arizona earned the title (by public consent) of the " modern greyhound of the Atlantic," and this so recently as the year 1879. She was a vessel "far too big to come alongside the Liverpool landing .stage," and, indeed, good folks began to ask was it safe for her to leave, or enter, Liverpool at all? This " greyhound " was only 75 feet longer than the " Ben," not so wide, and ten knots slower! And yet the Ben-my-Chree comes alongside the stage as if she was a Seacombe ferry boat! Let this be as it may, I have no wish to blow, in any way boastfully, the " Ben's " trumpet. But I would wish you to listen to a maritime scrap of con versation which, about three years back, I overheard between two of the leading shipping magnates of Liverpool.
We were all returning from the trial trip of a new liner, which has since made a distinctive mark,on the commerce of Liverpool.
We had been to the North of Scotland, and arrived back at 9.20 on a certain August morning. The "Ben " was just then coming
alongside to take up her usual position for sailing. She passed close to the liner when the following ensued :
lst Shipping Magnate (pointing to the I.O.M. boat) : "That is the greatest relative enter prise in the whole of the mercantile marine, in my opinion."
2nd Shipping Magnate: " I don't quite under stand. What, relative to what? "
1st Shipping Magnate: " The bigness of the ship relative to the few coppers she gets and the few miles she goes. I am amazed that Mans 'farmers ' should have had the courage to build so wonderful a ship."
I don't know why they were called " farmers," but I give you the thing as I heard it. The " Ben " IS a great ship, and the distinguished member of the Dock Board who said she was the greatest relative enterprise in the mercantile marine stumbled very near to the truth.
But where did we leave off? I think we had just ended the " Troubles of Sophia Jane," having, watched that beaten, but not disgraced, vessel leave the Manx trade and become the first steamboat to reach Australia. Since then I have come across a gentleman who saw her, either at Melbourne or Sydney, and who thinks that she may possibly be afloat yet. He is enquiring, and will let me know.
Before proceeding further I am afraid that a little apologising requires first to be done. I am leaving over till another month "The Story of the Three Ben-my-Chree's," but I am pleased to announce that, since the last Manxman appeared, I have duly received-through the kindness of Mr. Percy Christian, a gentleman well known as a frequent visitor to the Island - two fine photographs of Ben-my-Chree (1), built in 1845, as she now lies in Bonny River, West Africa! This is immense! I have also obtained a really good picture of King Orry (1), built in Douglas in 1842. It has been a regular " teazer " to get this picture, having entailed a search of just fifteen years. So, you see, there is nothing like patience, after all.
The Above is a picture of the first King Orry, Built at Douglas in 1842 - A very rare print
Another cause of the " Ben's " adjournment is that, since last Summer, we have acquired the old Royal Hotel, and that fact will need some sort of mention. Except for the tiny midget of a Harbour Commissoners' Office-I'll find them another if they will move - the Co. now own the entire estate from the hoarding on your left as you come from the steamer round to the old Imperial Hotel on the venerable Red Pier. The gradual acquisition of this great "block " has caused no fewer than four one time famous licensed houses to become extinguished, namely, the Royal, the Imperial, the Pier Inn, and an ancient little " pub " once kept by a worthy of the name of Birtles. I suspect that I already hear you saying, " If this sort of thing goes on, and the Packet Co. live long enough, there will be no licensed houses left on the Island at all! " At any rate the present collection gives elbow room for work, and you may with confidence send an extra trunk or two by " advance " this year.
Now, about the Royal. Most people seem to think that it was an hotel of extremely long standing, the leading house in the town a century ago. In this they are quite wrong
Portico of Old Royal Hotel, to be retaimed as entrance to new Cargo Office,
It was not till July, 1837, that Captain Bacon's mansion on the Parade was turned into the Royal Hotel, it being adjacent to the old Red Pier whence the steamers arrived and departed. It at once obtained consider able favour and custom.
So, you see, it was seven years younger than the Steampacket Co., of which the Captain of the thirties was a director. Go and look at the south-west portion, where the portico is. That is the old mansion, the addition to the north west-you can easily see where it begins and ends-stands on what was formerly Captain Bacon's garden. As a residence it was, of course, very old. There was some fine, old wood and stone work in the cellars, the staircases leading thereto delighting an antiquary like myself. A little, but not very much, remains to-day, and of this little I will put into these columns, from time to time, such pictures as I am able to obtain, these including the Pier Inn and the once popular tavern of the Birtles. Perhaps, also, I can get to know something extremely old about the site in general.
Talk about earlier holidays. The seasons used to be earlier. I was recently looking over some Royal Hotel books of thirty years ago. I find that June and July was then nearly as busy as August. A Mr. Wannop ran up £5 8s. 10d.early in the former month, but from two to four pounds was the average. A Mr. Spooner -he must have come by the midnight boat appears not to have stayed there, but he ate 12s. 10d. worth, with 6d extra for coffee, during the day. But more about the Royal later, for I must once again find room for a little fresh old lore.
By an odd chance the following letter fell into my hands:
Feb. 25th, 1839.
To the Directors of the Queen of the Isle. Gentlemen,-We beg to prefer a complaint against your Agents, in Liverpool, for the " irregulway " in which they conduct their business, having, within the last four months, omitted the forwarding of three " Croakets," thereby incurring a duty of 15 per cent. on the value of the same, which we have been obliged to pay, and not being able to obtain any redress in Liverpool from your Agents we shall be obliged to bring in our claim against the proprietors of the packet, which claim shall be forwarded from Liverpool in course of next post, and which we hope you will look into and have settled to our satis. faction by the liquidation of our claim, and Remain, Gentlemen,
Your most obdt. servants, p.pro. McAndrews, Pilcher & Co., J. Nosworthy.
I wonder what the value of a " croaket " was, and what the total claim would have been?
Who was Samuel Kirkby? Did the present estate of Kirby, or Kirkby, in any way get called after him? He turned up on December 31st, 1844, and wrote the 'following in the " Complaints Book " at the then Packet Office
That an intimation be given to the directors to adopt some other plan in the landing of passengers, so as to avoid the difficulties now existing.
(Signed) Saml. Kirkby.
This is deliciously vague, a fine instance of not giving them the slightest idea of how to try and do it! Two other odd mem.'s came from the same source. On June 30th, 1846, the " propriety of continuing the Whitehaven service " was suggested for consideration. This means " discontinuing," I suppose, but it is still being continued, and doing better than ever. On the same day new boilers were ordered for the King Orry, and as she was built in1842, four years' wear only seems rather strange.
Going back to the old minutes, there are many, both grave and gay, well worth preserving. On July 26th, 1836, there was another instance of that shrewd blend of generosity and justice which has always distinguished the directors, namely:
Resolved unanimously that the salary of William Andrews, the late clerk in the office, be continued as heretofore, in consideration of his delicate state of health, the term of its continuance to be referred to the discretion of the directors.
Who was William Andrews? When did he die? Where was he buried? Being the first clerk of the Company I think he deserves a place amongst the immortals. You know that I don't give them all in regular order, but here are a couple more of the same type of domestic entri°s, the first being quaintly funny
6th Feb., 1838. Ordered that the wages with held from-[here follows a blank, the name never having been put in]-fireman of the Queen of the Isle, in consequence of his being detected in stealing a fish fram that vessel, at Liverpool, be paid to him, the amount being Two Pounds, from which to be deducted 5s. 6d. for his fare to Douglas.
It is a pity that the name of the hero who stole the fish has been lost to history.
Here is the other one, and very typical it is of the extreme loyalty of the Manx to the British Throne:- loyalty
17th July, 1838. Resolved that the masters of the Queen of the Isle and Mona's Isle be each allowed £5 towards defraying the expenses incurred by them in celebration of the day of his Majesty's Coronation, and a dinner to their respective crews, deducting from the master of the Mona's Isle £2 2s. already paid him for fireworks.
Great, old days! and William the Fourth was King! Gill was master of the Queen of the Isle and Quayle of the Mona's Isle., Both rest, quite near together, at Kirk Braddan.
One more. Do you happen to know where the first office of the Company was situated?
Very few do. If you stand on the steps of the Royal portico and look along the Quay you find, immediately on the left, two public houses. Just beyond is a club or billiard room. The upper part of this property is very old, but still preserved much as it originally was. This is the original office of the I.O.M.S.P.C. You will see a gateway at the side, and this leads to stables and a yard at the back. Once upon a time the cargoes were stowed here and the horses, for its delivery, housed. In the rear there is a curious stone inscribed to the old owner, Topliss (an interesting item which will be photographed in due course), who once kept the Billiard Rooms. Topliss and billiards have, in fact, been :synonymous terms in Douglas as long as the oldest person there can remember. Listen, therefore, to this and try and feel suitably amused:
9th September, 1836. The directors agree to let the large room and closet above the office to the Billiard Playing Company for the sum of £11, British, annually.
When the late Mr. Edward Moore or Mr. William Andrews wrote the above down they scarcely thought it would interest you and me in the year 1914. But it does.
This being the thirteenth issue of the Manx man, certain members of the Three-Legged Club are seizing so glorious an opportunity of showing how famously wrong everything will now go. You remember how, before 1913 came in, every sort of bad luck was predicted for everybody. As a matter of fact, 1913 was the most prosperous year ever known to the Steam packet Co., but I only mention this fact in order to tell you that the thirteenth steamer built for the fleet was King Orry (II) one of the luckiest of ships, which ran for forty-one years with singular success, and, when sold by auction, brought together a record crowd of bidders, who paid nearly as much for odds and ends as they cost when new, so anxious were they to possess a " trophy " from the famous vessel. It would appear to me, therefore, that the more we have to do with thirteen the better. The thirteenth master to be appointed, by the way, was the late Captain Robert Gibson, who enjoyed exceptional prosperity and never met with an accident.