Home' Ships and Shipping : July 2009 Contents Family tree research is a trip down a "memory lane" peopled
solely with your own relatives.
Part of the pleasure is that they all have tales to tell you as your
journey progresses, some more interesting than others.
Coming across Tom Sullivan's hand-written memoirs on my
own such perambulation was like being hailed by an old sea dog,
leaning over the gate of the garden of the memory lane where he
had finally swallowed the anchor, eager to reminisce with me, his
great grandson, about the trials and triumphs of a merchant
seaman in the heyday of deep sea sail in Victorian days.
The flimsy title sheet, browned with age, announced in a bold,
forward-sloping hand: "At Sea Under Canvas Fifty Years Ago, by
Tom Sullivan A.B."
Penned in the 1920s, it chronicled a vivid account of life below
decks, enlivened further by dialogue recalled from all that time ago
by the former Able Seaman, by that time in his seventies.
Tom traces his early life from being orphaned, when cholera
claimed both his Irish immigrant parents in the London slums in
1848, to being apprenticed to a tailor before running away to sea
to escape what he described as a "miserable life".
His new life as an Ordinary Seaman began at Rochester on a
West Hartlepool-based ship plying a coastal trade between Britain
and the Continent, as well as further afield to the Baltic. All went
well at first, but a fatherly skipper was replaced by a martinet of a
man, whose terrifying death threats forced the young runaway to
Penniless and alone in Sunderland, he scraped a few coppers
together playing a souvenir German concertina in pubs before
getting a berth on another coastal vessel. This resourcefulness and
resilience is a continuous theme throughout Tom's chequered
career at sea and ashore between voyages. He displays on more
than one occasion a healthy disregard for overbearing authority.
All of which adds colour and depth to his writing.
Another falling out sees the lad, still only 20, walking from
London to Liverpool to try his hand on trans-Atlantic passages. On
the way he passes through Stafford and gives a chilling account of
what research has established as being the last public hanging
there in 1866 of a murderer, William Collier. Comparing Tom's
version and the official record throws up an intriguing suspicion of
a miscarriage of justice all those years ago.
Later in the same year, Tom's travels take him to the Savannah
River, in Georgia, USA, aboard an Irish barque from Wexford he
describes as: "...like a clipper for'ard and a Dutch galiot aft...",
where the reader is given another of his common man's eye-
witness accounts of history unfolding. Historians have rightly
hailed the freeing of slaves after the American Civil War as a
triumph of liberty. Tom saw another side of the coin with the
now-homeless blacks, weak with starvation and disease, coming to
the river bank to collect driftwood for fires to keep out the winter
chill, only to be grabbed by alligators and dragged to their doom.
His description of this and harrowing sights he saw ashore leave a
searing impression of the aftermath of a devastating conflict.
There are rough and cruel times aboard ship for Tom, as well. In
one instance, a drunken gambling dispute in the fo'c'sle sparks a
vicious fight. On another occasion, mid-Atlantic, a crewman takes
on a skipper in bloody fisticuffs, endangering ship and crew. In yet
another incident, a slow Atlantic crossing to Dublin with grain for
the Guinness factory leaves Tom and his shipmates with no food
left. He is given permission by the skipper to cook a "pancake" of
crumbs from the bread locker, cooking fat and cockroach corpses
to stave off the pangs of hunger.
Another brush with authority sees Tom putting himself
beyond the law and risking jail. He signs on for a short trip from
Cardiff to Naples in a brig of some 200 tonnes, but stormy
weather forces the small vessel to heave to just off the Welsh
coast. Frightened for their lives, Tom and the only other seaman
in the crew decide to jump ship as a safer option than staying
aboard in the foul conditions, leaving the captain and mate to
their own devices.
Now a runaway, Tom changes his name to Jack Green and is
canny enough to quickly get rid of his sea clothes to a pawnbroker.
His less street-wise shipmate stands out in seaman's rig and is
promptly arrested to face certain jail for up to 18 months.
Tom, or Jack, as he now is, lies low for a while and takes shore
jobs just north of Cardiff. He turns down work digging the Severn
Tunnel through claustrophobia, working instead for a grocer,
delivering provisions in a horse-drawn cart.
Life ashore brings him more scrapes and clashes with authority
so he soon returns to sea, this time out of Bristol, where he was
eventually to settle after he married and raised a family. But before
he was to "swallow the anchor", he was to experience more exotic
times as a mariner.
The slave trade that made his adopted hometown rich had been
abolished, but Tom finds berths on ships that ply the same routes
to Africa's west coast, now trading in palm oil. Not that this is
without its excitements.
Among his anecdotes is the account of an unpopular skipper of
the 378-tonne barque, Bolivia, who had offended an African chief
on a previous trading trip, being kidnapped and subjected to
humiliating punishment ashore, to the amusement of his crew.
Another time, Tom is required to accompany the third mate of
his ship, plus some far-from-trustworthy, locally-recruited native
sailors, on a mission of some delicacy.
A chieftain, who is a valued trading partner of the ship's
owners, asks a favour. He has arranged a marriage with a
woman, but she lives some distance away down the coast. Tom's
skipper agrees to send a boat to collect her and bring her to
her groom. Thus Tom sets off in an open sailing whaler from
his ship in company of the motley crew. After a series of
adventures, at times at gunpoint, he returns to deliver the
precious cargo intact.
The legacy of the action-packed adventures is not only in Tom's
hand-written account. His cherished discharge certificates bear
witness to his performance and behaviour on board ship as, for the
most part, "very good".
Also in his papers is his will, a few lines in that familiar firm
hand on a torn-off lined sheet requiring that "when the breath is
out of my body" he should be buried at Greenbank Cemetery,
Bristol, "with no ceremony whatsoever."
A modest end for a colourful character, whose fitting epitaph
could be to fulfil his earlier request; that his record of his
experiences at sea should be published to encourage others to
share his enthusiasm for seafaring.
*Mike Starke is the great-grandson of Tom Sullivan Green.
For further information contact:
Mike Starke, Isle of Wight. Email: email@example.com
Vessels on which Tom Sullivan served: Margaret Ann, 700-ton barque, built St
John's, Newfoundland, 1851, 138ft x 28ft; Estephania, 114-ton schooner,
built by Harveys, Ipswich, 1859, 89ft x 20ft; Sagitta, 302-ton brigantine, built
Guernsey, 1856, 135ft x 25ft; Bolivia, 378-ton barque, built Whitehaven,
1857, 147ft x 23ft; A. D. Gilbert, 177-ton schooner, built Truro, 1865, 108ft
x 23ft; Mary Johns, built by Harveys at Hayle, 1868, 115ft x 24ft.
July 2009 SHIPS AND SHIPPING
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