Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘Priwall

A sailor’s life – 74. Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?

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The iron-hulled three-master Monkbarns, built 1895

The iron-hulled three-master Monkbarns, built 1895

She was obsolete the day she slipped into the Clyde in June 1895: a steel-hulled, full-rigged, three-masted windjammer launched into an age of engines barely two years before Rudolf Diesel changed the world of shipping forever.

The flax mill owner who had commissioned her, Charles Webster Corsar of Arbroath, named her Monkbarns after a local character from a Walter Scott novel (The Antiquary) and demanded everything of the best. The decking and rails were of teak, the accommodation for officers and crew particularly fine. “Her outfit includes all the modern appliances for the efficient working of such a vessel,” reported the Lennox Herald, the Saturday after she was floated.

As a final touch, Corsar even gave her a little white Pegasus figurehead – which would make Monkbarns and her “Flying Horse line” sisters, Fairport and Musselcrag (1896), recognisable around the world. It was not whimsy but canny branding: Corsar’s flax mills and manufactory in Arbroath supplied the sailing ship canvas sold by the family’s cadet branch, D. Corsar of Liverpool – every bolt of it stamped with their trade name, Reliance, and a little flying horse.

The Lennox Herald did not mention the figurehead, nor any further detail, merely remarking that the naming ceremony was carried out by Mrs David Corsar, Jnr, of Cairniehill, Arbroath.

The launch, reported in the Lennox Herald, West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, in June 1895

The launch of Charles Corsar’s full-rigged ship Monkbarns, reported in the Lennox Herald, West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, in June 1895

In fact, the launch by Messrs Archibald McMillan & Son (Limited) merited only a single paragraph in a round-up of Dumbarton news that week, wedged between reports about two men being fined 20 shillings each for driving without lights and a rumour in the Glasgow Herald that the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand was buying five new steamers, possibly from Dennys of Dumbarton, which had “built the greater number of vessels for the line, and will probably run a good chance of getting at least some of the work”.

The reporter’s description of Monkbarns having “all modern appliances”, however, echoed down the years. Frank C. Bowen wrote in 1930 that she had “every modern labour-saving device for working the cargo and sails” (Sailing Ships of the London River), and most subsequent authors took him at his word. Yet Monkbarns’ apprentice boys might have considered the matter rather differently.

Like every other sailing ship of her age, she had neither light nor heat. The White Star liner Majestic, completed five years before Monkbarns, catered for 4,100 passengers with an à la carte restaurant and Pompeian swimming pool. But Monkbarns had kerosene lamps and the galley fire (weather and cook permitting). There was no electricity for refrigeration. Fresh vegetables and fruit barely lasted out of sight of land. Potatoes were stored in the dark and given a haircut every week or so. Meat was “preserved” in casks of brine. Margarine came in tins. Coffee was drunk black. Even the water was rationed.

The boys were trainee officers – set apart from the sailors in the fo’c’sle and their masters in the saloon aft by virtue of being unpaid. They lived in the “half-deck”, an iron bunkhouse amidships, which on Monkbarns latterly consisted of two rooms and a corridor with doors either end so that entry could always be from the lee side of the ship while at sea. It was an ice box in the winter and an oven in the tropics, but it had a skylight exit and a “monkey bridge” to the poop that was popular in heavy seas, when the decks were often awash to a depth of two feet or more.

Monkbarns half deck. Eugene (right) and John Davies. Jim Holmes in bunk. Private collection E. Bainbridge

Monkbarns half deck. Apprentices studying. Private collection E. Bainbridge

Monkbarns’ half-deck had bunks around the walls on three sides; a bare deal table with raised sides in the middle – flanked by boot-marked benches; a pot-bellied iron stove fed with coal filched from the cargo; and a battered cupboard in the corner divided into lockers, with fancy knotted rope tails for handles. There was a mirror, mottled with damp, and a single smelly kerosene lamp swinging in gimbals.

The bunks were narrow, with high boards along the open side to stop the sleeper rolling out as the ship pitched, and coloured pictures – often of girls, sometimes a country scene – pasted to the surrounding bulkhead by previous occupants. By some hung a canvas “tidy”, containing needles and cotton for repairs. The apprentices had to do all their own own mending, darning and cobbling. Laundry had to be done in salt water, in precious time off and only when there was chance of the garment drying.

New boys would arrive each trip with shop-smart dungarees and new straw mattresses, which the old hands in patched gear would regard balefully. Their own bunks were bare except for blankets, and within weeks the new boys learned why, when the “donkey’s breakfasts” had to be tossed overboard crawling with bed-bugs. Wet oilskins stayed wet, and chafing salt water boils were endemic.

Caleta Buena, Chile, 1913

Caleta Buena, Chile, 1913

Aboard Monkbarns “all modern appliances” did not include a donkey engine until the mid-1920s, and in many ports her cargo was loaded and discharged by hand – the boys shovelling Australian coal out through the hatches basket by basket to waiting lighters off the coast of Chile, until the dust grated in their lungs and ground itself under their skin. As the last basket was hoisted out there would be shanties and a well-earned tot of whisky – unless the Master was a teetotaller.

Then work would begin again, scouring out the filthy holds for the arrival of saltpetre, 200lbs a sack, which had to be swung aboard and stacked one by one in pyramids below. Monkbarns took about 3,000 tons, or 34,000 bags. The air would be like soup. Out in the Chilean anchorages, in holds lifting and falling in the long Pacific swell, the evaporation from the bags was known to kill rats and even woodlice, and ship’s cats would lie down in dark corners and not wake up.

Guano was considered worse, a throat-catching green 
powder of ancient bird droppings scraped off rocky
 outcrops further north, off Peru. But nowadays 
potassium nitrate is considered too dangerous to 
handle, let alone breathe.

Priwall - four-masted barque built by F. Laeisz of Hamburg for the nitrate trade - had steam winches and shore staff

Priwall – four-masted barque built by F. Laeisz of Hamburg for the nitrate trade – had steam winches and shore staff

The beautiful four and five-
masted barques that set records and made fortunes 
for A.D. Bordes of Bordeaux and F. Laeisz of Hamburg shifted up to 5,500 tons of nitrates in eleven days flat, but they had steam winches – four to a hatch – and a small army of cadet officers and shore staff. Monkbarns did not.

Monkbarns boy Eugene Bainbridge, rowing around the bay visiting the other ships in Iquique in 1924, wrote enviously: “Priwall, which we went on next, was the antithesis of the Rhone, being spotlessly clean. She had every modern fitting – brace-winches (motor), halliard apparatus for two men to raise the halliards with ease, and a derrick on the jigger. Two wheels amidships with cable connection aft, where there are two more wheels under the poop. The Third Mate showed us the Captain’s saloon, decked up with light polished wood round the walls and carpet on the floor. She also carried plenty of spare spars etc. […] There was a bunk in the chart house for the Old Man, and a crowd of English charts used on the voyage round the Horn. We had a look at the log book, which registered one week nothing but 12 and 14 knots!”

Notwithstanding the
 rise of the oil industry by the
1920s, Corsar was not alone
 clinging to canvas in 1895.
 Many of the names familiar 
to us from the last days of 
sail were built after Monkbarns, including Penang and Pamir (both 1905), Peking and Passat (both 1911).

Laeisz had in fact only completed Priwall four years previously, in 1920, having been interrupted by the First World War. (In 1939 she arrived Valparaiso just in time to be trapped by the Second World War. She was interned, and 1941 was donated to the Chileans to avoid her falling into allied hands. Renamed Lautaro, she continued in the trade until she
 caught fire and burned out in 1945 while 
loading a cargo of nitrate off
 Peru.)

Monkbarns Valparaiso bay ships Peru Queen of Scots

View of Valparaiso bay from Naval School. Ships left to right: Peru, Santiago, Monkbarns, Taltal, Queen of Scots (white hull) and Valparaiso in dock. Extreme left: barque California. E. Bainbridge collection

Though most sailing ships were less well equipped than the ships of the Flying P-line, they were still holding their own against steamers on the longer routes, to Chile and Australia, because of the price of coal – and the demand for sail-trained officers that would continue in motor-ships and oil tankers for many years to come.

Boys were cheap, British ships indentured them for four years largely unpaid and by 1919 (following a mutiny aboard) Monkbarns had expanded her deck housing to accommodate a dozen of them. They often made up half the crew. Steamers couldn’t afford to hang around, but sailers could. And hang around they did, for months at a time by the end, waiting for a charter.

Monkbarns left Valparaiso with her last cargo under sail in early 1926: a load of guano salvaged from another victim of Cape Horn, Queen of Scots. After they had sailed, the boys spent several days trimming the ship, wheeling the filthy stuff down the deck from the fore hold to the hatch aft. The ABs had refused, but the boys couldn’t.

As is recorded elsewhere, it was to be a weary voyage; Captain William Davies died – probably of stomach cancer – and they put into Rio, they were becalmed, suffered baffling winds and ran out of food.

They finally arrived in the Thames under tow after 170 days out and anchored off Gravesend, amazed at the sheer volume of traffic, big and small steamers passing in a continuous stream. Fresh meat and veg were delivered aboard and dinner that night was sausages and boiled potatoes.

“I can say that never was a meal so appreciated,” wrote young Bainbridge. The following morning they began heaving up the anchor at about 8.30am, to the shanty Rolling Home followed by Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her, for the final leg to Charlton Buoys.

“All hands joined in with a will, even the pilot, so that the echo went ringing over the river and a large crowd gathered on the shore to listen,” wrote able seaman Dudley Turner in the fo’c’sle. “The pilot even grabbed a capstan bar and tramped around with us singing In Amsterdam There Lived a Maid.”

It was July 1926, and Monkbarns was the first full-rigged ship to come into the Port of London for eight years, “a wandering and lonely ghost which we may not see again,” wrote The Star. The Times called her “a picture out of the romantic past”.

Chips the ship’s carpenter was more prosaic. “I’ve had six meals since I came ashore 16 hours ago,” he told the Westminster Gazette, “and I’m still hungry.” Monkbarns was to find only one more cargo – Welsh coal, which she delivered under tow, to her new Norwegian owners off Corcubion in northern Spain the following March. She finished her life as a coal hulk to the whaling industry – the last British full-rigged ship to sail round Cape Horn, according to Alan Villiers (Sea-dogs of To-day, 1932), still bunkering passing steamers as late as 1954.

Monkbarns' final voyage - at Corcubion, northern Spain, from Sea Breezes, Vol 10, p65, June 1927

Monkbarns’ final voyage – at Corcubion, northern Spain, from Sea Breezes, Vol 10, p65, June 1927

My last sighting is from a personal letter. Brian Watson, later senior pilot/deputy harbour master at Montrose, was then a nosy British steamship apprentice in the Baron Elibank. In 1954 he spotted a name in raised letters on the nearby bunkering hulk after his ship had sought refuge in Corcubion bay during bad weather. He recognised she was an old Britisher and climbed aboard for a look round.

In 1999 he wrote: “We berthed alongside a coal hulk and I could clearly see her name Monkbarns the metal letters still visible on her counter stern.” He said the masts had been cut down to stumps and he thought the bowsprit had been cut away, most of the deck and poop cabins had been stripped, a rusting galley stove had been moved into the poop accommodation.

Unfortunately, he was spotted by the steamer’s Mate and chased back to work before he could check the bows for the little white horse. Sadly, I can find no further trace of what became of Monkbarns.

© Jay Sivell

Is there anyone among our readers who can put Jay in touch with a reliable Spanish or even Basque maritime museum or historian? It is likely the old ship was broken up at Ferrol, Biscay.

This article appeared first in The Cape Horner magazine, the journal of the International Association of Cape Horners. August 2014, V2 No 65

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