The Londoner’s River
Lt. Comm. LM Bates,, Frederick Muller Ltd, 1949
A rather wonderful book I found in a secondhand bookshop in the West Country for a pound – it’s always worth repeating that some of the best London book bargains are found miles from the capital – there’s just not the competition for them and therefore the prices are much lower. In fact, if you mention it to the bookseller what you’re looking for they often say ‘I’ve got a load more in the warehouse at the back that I don’t display because no one buys them…’
But back to The Londoner’s River. I can find virtually no information about Leuitenant Commander LM Bates (I’m sure somebody will have the info – I love doing this blog…) save that he spent many years traversing the sixty-nine miles of the tidal part of the Thames, knew the river better than most, and observed at first hand the characters that lined its docks, ports and ships.
He wrote several books on the subject: the ones I’ve read appear to be collections of articles that first appeared in shipping journals. Some are more ‘Greenwich-y’ than others – understandable, really, there’s an awful lot of river to cover in shortish books but the anecdotes about London ‘characters’ and incidents are charming and the illustrations by ‘Stanley’ are both dramatic and from a world we just don’t recognise today, rendering them, IMHO, utterly wonderful.
Understandably, writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many of Bate’s tales are of the war – one book, Thames on Fire deals specifically with the war years (and I note is going from 1p on Amazon) but there are delicious little asides, told with a nice nudge-nudge, wink, wink feel and snippets that made me immediately start googling on tangents.
Take the Seven Seas, for example. Built in 1876, as the Emma Ernest, she was an unassuming wooden brig that spent her life trawling around the world with dull cargoes, being cut down and refitted every so often, usually so she could carry even less interesting goods.
Even during the first World War she only trudged coal to France, her most ‘interesting’ moment an unfortunate collision with a destroyer. On a boring passage to Cornwall she got stranded, then rammed and ended up being towed home.
But like so many salty seadogs, Emma Ernest was to find a whole new lease of life as a land-lubber. She was moored at Charing Cross Pier, renamed the Seven Seas and became the plushly maritime headquarters for the social club of the British Sea Services.
Bate’s description of a guest night at the Seven Seas Club is delightful – even he reckons that it was ‘the kind of evening which Kipling would have loved to spend.’
…it’s haze of smoke, the yarns and chorus of shanties…watched over by the ship’s macaw, a bird whose plumage and repartee were equally brilliant.
The ship was full of nautical treasures, including a lifebelt, the only thing recovered of HMS Pincher, lost with all hands during WWI, a copy of The Times from Wednesday Nov 6t, 1805, reporting Collingwood’s dispatches from Trafalgar, a cannonball fired by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and a ship’s lamp from the Arethusa, a training ship broken up on the Thames in 1935.
But the piece de resistance – and the reason I’m banging on about it today – a ship’s bell, inscribed Shakespeare- Liverpool. Apparently a club member, finding himself lying next to the ship Ferreira in a foriegn port was furious to see his dear old Cutty Sark reduced to flying the Portuguese flag. He stole onboard, and half-inched the ship’s bell in protest.
The Portuguese crew, in sort-of retaliation, pinched the bell from the poor ship Shakespeare, who happened to be lying the other side – and sailed with it for 19 years.
When the Cutty Sark was bought back by Captain Dowman in 1922, the original culprit returned her bell to her – and received in exchange the Shakespeare’s bell – not entirely sure what had happened to her – probably chime-less she got run into in fog or something. The bell was presented to the club.
Sadly the Seven Seas was badly damaged by bombs and was broken up. I have no idea what became of the Shakespeare’s Bell.
Not really sure why I went off on this one today – but you could do worse that seeking out LM Bate’s books of the Thames if you’re at all maritime-interested.
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