Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘sailmaker’s palm

A sailor’s life – 19. Monkbarns & the sailmaker’s palm

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Monkbarns sailmaker Henry Robertson and his leather sailmaker's "palm", in the Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath

Monkbarns sailmaker Henry Robertson and his leather sailmaker's "palm", in the Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath

Arbroath is a brief stop on the railway line that runs down the east coast of Scotland from Aberdeen; a cluster of brown terraces between a ruined abbey and an old harbour wall, beyond which the North Sea growls grey and empty to the horizon.

After nightfall, which is at four o’clock in the afternoon by late October this far north, the smell of wood smoke and fish wafting from open smokery doorways along the waterfront cheers a weary traveller, but the boat yards and slipways that once lined the foreshore are gone and the power looms that once produced 450,000 yards of sailing ships’ canvas a week are silent.

Brothock mill, where James Watt himself came to install the town’s first steam-powered engine as a very old man in 1806, stands empty. The river no longer runs hot with waste from the spinning mills, and the fishwives no longer scrub their laundry at Danger Point where it meets the sea. The forest of masts that brought flax from the Baltic has gone and housing estates have sprung up on the bleaching fields.

Nowadays Arbroath is quiet, a shadow of its heyday as an industrial port, but the mid-week streets are dense with Scotland’s history – the least part of which is the story of the Corsars’ “flying horse” fleet, as it was known to the boy apprentices who would chronicle the last days of sail.

The Corsars were canvas manufacturers, the sons and grandsons of a young handloom weaver who had seen the arrival of Watt’s great spinning engine in Arbroath and liked it so much (in the immortal words of the late Victor Kiam) he bought the mill.

David Corsar senior had started out in a small way, buying yarn from the country folk who gathered in the high street outside the Town House in all weathers every Saturday to sell what they’d spun during the week, and employing other men to weave it into cloth in their own homes. In those days almost every grocer in the burgh had its notice in the window advertising “lint and tow given out to spin”, and the click of handlooms could be heard from tenement windows across the town.

The Signal Tower museum, Arbroath

The Signal Tower museum, Arbroath

Linen was a cottage industry in Angus, employing whole families heckling and spinning the rough flax fibres to thread, and even the smallest children were set to work winding the yarn onto ‘pirns’ for sale to the merchants who supplied the flax.

Corsar bought his first manufactory in 1823, and despite a wobble three years later, which closed nearly every mill and factory along the Brothock after the banks “in their competition for business offered unwarrantable facilities to men without capital, and many without experience or judgement”– which sounds strangely familiar today – by 1842 there were fifteen mills in the town, and twenty loom shops weaving the heavier canvas in which Arbroath was to specialise. In 1849 Corsar & Sons launched mass production of their top quality Reliance sailcloth, every bolt of which left the Spring Gardens powerloom manufactury stamped with the name, Reliance, over a little flying Pegasus, and to sell it to the shipping industry a merchanting office was set up in Liverpool.

Steadily, more and bigger ships plied to and fro across the Baltic, supplementing the Scottish flax with bales from Russia, Latvia and Estonia, tied with lead seals stamped in Cyrillic letters that are still being dug up today.

D. Corsar & Sons prospered. When the oldest son, William H., died in 1886, the youngest and sole surviving partner, Charles Webster, inherited an estate “valued at some hundreds of thousands, I know not how many,” according to his brother-in-law, a local preacher retained by the Corsars on a stipend of £50 per annum. Three sisters were to receive £10,000 each, and two nephews £4,000.

It was a lot of money. Corsars’ child workers earned 3s 6d a week for a ten-hour day, spent half sweeping floors and replacing bobbins, and half attending Mr Howie’s school on Lordburn. Women mill hands got 5s 3d – and time out to cook the family dinner – and the men 15s. Even a skilled hand “hackler” working at a piece rate of 2s 6d a cwt of imported Russian flax in 1900 could only achieve £1 in a good week.

By the time Charles Webster died, in 1900, he left a fortune valued by the Arbroath Herald at about a quarter of a million pounds, in flax, yarn, cloth, stores, machinery, mills, factories – and ships. Nine ships in all.

The Corsars’ first ship is thought to have been acquired by chance in Arbroath harbour in 1852, possibly in settlement of a debt. But the 174 ton Canadian brig Haidee proved so serviceable on the Australian run that three years later they replaced her with a larger sailing ship, built in Arbroath for trade with the West Indies, and over the years more followed. By 1872, although the family’s main business was still in flax and still in Arbroath, Corsar & Sons had interests in several ships.

In 1884, in what can only be seen as a canny bit of marketing, Charles W acquired two iron-hulled four masters, Pegasus and Reliance. The Corsars’ flying horse line was born.

Over the next ten years, he bought and commissioned more, some with traceable Corsar links such as “WH Corsar” and “Cairniehill”, the family home, and some more obscure. At least to me.

Steam-powered shipping was already cutting the demand for sailcloth, but there was still a living to be made in sail, where the wind was free and labour cheap. Charles W’s last three ships were built in 1895, by which time the view from Cairniehill, Arbroath, was a mass of saw-tooth factory roofs and chimneys. He named the vessels Monkbarns, Fairport and Musselcrag, after Arbroath as it was depicted by Sir Walter Scott in his third Waverley novel, The Antiquary.

The joke – and surely it was a joke – may not have been apparent to the apprentice boys who wrote the final accounts of Britain’s last sailing ships, of which Monkbarns would be one. But they will have understood the nod to literature, and the author of Ivanhoe, because the old sailmaker who helped teach the young officers-to-be their business for the last 14 years of Monkbarns’ sea-going life had grown up in the shadow of Arbroath abbey.

Arbroath to this day is proud of its connection to Scott, (as sacks full of responses from readers of the Arbroath Herald attested when I wrote asking about the names a hundred years after the three ships were launched,) and Charles Webster Corsar was evidently a fan.

The central character in The Antiquary is a crusty old amateur historian known as “Monkbarns”, after his house, modeled on the stately Hospitalfield pile at the entrance to the town. Scott called his town Fairport, and Auchmithie, the abbey’s former fishing village round the headland from Arbroath proper, he named Musselcrag.

Charles W. Corsar could have bought steamers, but the last surviving son of the weaver with the vision to buy Watt’s engine chose instead to build sailing ships, and with a wry flourish he named them after a historical romance.

Sadly, there is no happy ending. In 1911 the Corsar business came crashing down due to an “ill-advised will”, according to one of Charles W’s great-great-grandsons. The premature death of his oldest son, at 44, triggered a clash of trusts and a firesale to protect the girls’ portions.

That March, the Arbroath Herald reported, the old-established firm “which has an honourable place in the history of Arbroath” went into sequestration due to a falling out between the heirs. “Gratifyingly” there were no trade creditors, it said, but 400 workers faced unemployment and “it is hardly likely that the beneficiaries under Mr Charles Corsar’s settlement will receive anything like the provision he hoped to make for them”.

A bankruptcy hearing in April was held in private, but the Herald was able to print the full list of assets and liabilities: three spinning mills, the weaving factory, a bleachworks, three warehouses and a waterproofing plant, plus stock, including the counting-house furniture and sundry investments, were valued at £153,220.

Unfortunately the liabilities left a deficiency of £22,312 (and 16s 7d), including £25,000 left to each of Charles W’s three daughters, trusts totalling £81,000, a mortgage on Monkbarns, and a £31,000 contingency fund set aside for litigation involving two other ships, Gunford and Chiltonford.

Corsars’ shipping ventures offer a snapshot of the times. Princess Alice had been wrecked in 1872; George Roper went down on her maiden voyage outside Melbourne in 1883 – due to tug error; Cairniehill suffered a mutiny in 1895 and was sunk by fire in New York in 1896; WH Corsar was wrecked in 1898; Glencaird was stranded off Staten Island in 1901; and Reliance burnt out loading saltpeter at Iquique in 1907. Even Monkbarns had her troubles. In 1906 she was stuck in ice round the Horn for three months, visible to passing ships but beyond reach of all assistance, and her captain died there. Then, in 1910, the new master, James Donaldson, collided with a German ship in Iquique in Chile, damaging the famous flying horse figurehead and unleashing more litigation when the ship docked at Hamburg.

Gunford meanwhile had run into a reef off Brazil in 1907 and been lost. Or rather, she ran into three reefs, over several days for reasons which were not clear because the relevant pages of the ship’s log were subsequently “stolen by pirates”, according to her captain. The ship had not made a profit for several years and was found to have been heavily over-insured, not just by the owners (which was deemed legitimate) but also – and privately – by the ship’s manager, which was not.

There was an inquiry at which the captain, an elderly German who had not been to sea for 22 years, lost his licence for a year. But a court hearing in 1909 eventually ordered the insurance company to pay up. Deliberate wrecking was hard to prove. The case was taken up in the House of Lords, resulting in a change in maritime law, and was still rumbling on in 1911 when the Corsars went bust.

By then, Fairport, Musselcrag and Pegasus had “gone foreign”, and Almora and Chiltonford were limited companies under new management. The Corsar mills and plant were sold that June, and the firm was taken over by a Glasgow company.

Monkbarns – still laid up in Hamburg – was sold to John Stewart & Co of Dundee for £4,850. And by August 17th eight new teenage apprentices had stowed their sea chests in the cramped half deck and taken the first creases out of their brand new dungarees.

In Arbroath, a scrap of reinforced leather lies on a glass shelf under a photograph of an old man stitching in the sun on Monkbarns’ deck. Henry Robertson, aged 52, of 24 Allan Street, Arbroath, joined the ship the same day as Bert Sivell, aged 16, from Ryde, and after a lifetime at sea lies buried up the coast in Sleepyhillock cemetery, Montrose.

His leather sailmakers “palm” in a glass cabinet in the Signal Tower museum, Arbroath, is the last surviving tangible link with Monkbarns.

Read on: Pommie boys and Aussie girls, Newcastle NSW 1912
Previously: Corsars’ flying horse figurehead

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll