Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 5. The smuggler’s grave

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The smuggler's grave – Thos Sivell's headstone at Binstead, Isle of Wight

The smuggler's grave – Thos Sivell's headstone at Binstead, Isle of Wight

Bert Sivell was just a story I’d been told, about a boy who ran away to sea. He had sailed on sailing ships and ate “hard tack” with weevils. We didn’t know quite what a weevil was, my brother and I, but we knew that hard tack was a ship’s biscuit and that it had to be banged against the table top to knock the weevils out. We did not know Bert was short and sternly blue-eyed like my father and me, or that he lost his teeth to the scurvy food.

He was less real to us than the family smuggler, Thomas Sivell (one of many Thomases), who was “cruelly fhot on board his floop” by Portsmouth’s custom officers in 1785 and got a mention in the Isle of Wight guide books. For years we had visited the smuggler’s grave at Binstead every summer on our annual trip to visit our granny. We posed for photos beside the ornate stone, re-read the inscription and ran our fingers through our name chiselled deep in it – “Sivell”. I can still feel the lichens, and smell the fresh cut grass in the sunny churchyard.

Thos Sivell’s stone memorial had been raised through public subscription after the shooting, and was carved with a sloop under sail and an unforgiving little poem soliciting sympathy for his “difconfolate” widow and children. But we, like the long-suffering Preventives who shot him, believed he was a smuggler and scorned the local vicar who dared say he  was just a silly old fool caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The disconsolate widow was apparently buried beside him, under a much plainer stone dedicated to “Ann, wife of Thomas Sivell”. We stood in the sun in the little churchyard in the 1970s and did the maths, my dad and I, and giggled at the thought that she must have been 22 when the old goat died. Turned out it was another Thomas. But why ruin a good story?

How could Bert compete? We knew so little, and what little we knew was wrong – until we found the letters, thousands of them, tied up in faded ribbons in the trunk under a blanket by his widow’s bed. Suddenly Bert Sivell was no longer just a tale I’d been told but a person, a man who had written to his girl later his wife every Sunday afternoon for 22 years, without fail, like clockwork.

Of course such a man makes lists. And there it was, under the letters and the postcards and the envelopes with the fancy foreign stamps torn off, as instructed, because he collected them, in a slim black school exercise book, in his own tidy handwriting:  a list of ships he’d sailed on, and dates and destinations, beginning with RMS Oruba.

Bertie Sivell did indeed run off to sea to be a cabin boy, but not before the mast in the fo’c’sle of a sailing ship. Monkbarns came later. In September 1910, five months after the naval recruitment office “kicked him out“, as he put it, he took the ferry to Southampton and signed on with the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co – Rudyard Kipling’s “steamers white and gold” rolling down the islands of the Caribbean, as cabin boy to the saloon class passengers: walking lapdogs for 5d a day.

I’ve never sailed the Amazon, I’ve never reached Brazil;
But the Don and Magdalena, they can go there when they will!
Yes, weekly from Southampton, great steamers, white and gold,
Go rolling down to Rio (Roll down, roll down to Rio)
And I’d like to roll to Rio some day before I’m old

From The Beginning of Armadillos, Just So Stories, 1902

Read on: A sailor’s life – 6. Great steamers white and gold

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3 Responses

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  1. […] A sailor’s life – 5. The smuggler’s grave […]

  2. I love this – I’m guessing we’re related, as my grandfather Arthur Sivell was from Ryde on the IOW.
    The records re: Thomas Sivell show that there were over 70 barrels of contraband spirits pulled from the sea after he was shot, and it also seems that most people with boats at that time supplemented their income by smuggling.
    My dad swears that he read somewhere that the customs officers responsible for the shooting were sent to the Caribbean to work, as they feared reprisals from the locals. I’ve not been able to find that so I can’t confirm…

    shansivell

    August 28, 2012 at 9:54 am

    • Dear Shan,
      Great to hear from you! We are indeed almost certainly related. My grandfather was an only child, and his father was the only son, but his father George had five younger brothers – James, Henry, William, Samuel and Robert. Any link? Where did you find the record of the barrels – most exciting. Please tell me more.
      ‘Cousin’ Jay

      Jay Sivell

      August 28, 2012 at 10:36 am


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