In a former blog, I wrote about the occupation of the “Lamp Trimmer”. Just what did he do and what was life like for him on a ship?
The following is an extract from the book “The Log of a Sea-Waif; being recollections of the first four years of my sea life”, by Frank Thomas Bullen (1857-1915) published by Smith, Elder & Company, London, 1899. (Available on-line [i])
This extract is in reference to a voyage of the coastal steamer the “Helen McGregor“. This ship was built in 1866 and was lost while attempting to cross out over the Clarence River bar in very heavy seas on 12 March 1875. Her Master was Captain A Turner. The below extract is believed to have taken place in the early 1870s.
” I was overjoyed to get a berth, without anybody’s assistance, as a lamp trimmer on board a pretty little steamer, called the “Helen McGregor”, that ran regularly between Sydney and the town of Grafton on the Clarence River, called at Newcastle and sundry places on the river en route.
My lamp-room was a mere cupboard by the side of the funnel, on deck, and just abaft the galley. To do my work I had to kneel on, a hot iron plate in front of the said cupboard, exposed to whatever weather was going. But the cook had all my sympathies. In his tiny caboose, he had to prepare meals for seventy or eighty people, while all his pastry-making, butchering, etc (for we carried live sheep and fowls with us), must need to be done on deck. Now the vessel, though exceedingly pretty to look at in harbour, was utterly unfit to cope with the tremendous seas that sweep along the eastern shores of Australia. Somewhere, in one of Henry Kingsley’s books (The ‘Hillyars and the Burtons’, I think), he speaks of a little steamer climbing one of those gigantic seas like a bat clinging to a wall. That was a common experience of ours. Her motions were frightful. I have seen every soul on board sea-sick while she crawled up, up, up one mountainous wave after another, plunging down into the abysses between them as if she would really turn a complete summersault. Everybody was black and blue with being flung about, and the passengers, who had perforce to be battened down in the sweltering saloon, or the second cabin, suffered misery untellable. Yet even that wretchedness had its ludicrous side.
To see our fierce little hunchback cook astride a half-skinned sheep, to which he held on with a death-like grip, his knife between his teeth and a demonical glare in his eye, careering fore and aft in a smother of foam, surrounded by the debris of preparing dinner, made even men half dead with fatigue and nausea laugh. But it was terrible work. As for me, I got no respite at all at night. For I had to keep the lamps burning; and she thought nothing of hurling both the big side lanterns out of their slides on the deck or shooting both binnacle-lights at once into the air, leaving the helmsman staring at a black disc instead of the illuminated compass-card. And often, as I painfully made my way forward with the side-lights after a long struggle with wetted wicks and broken glass, she would plunge her bows under a huge comber, lifting a massive flood overall, which seize me in its ruthless embrace and swept me, entangled with my burden, the whole length of the deck, till I brought up against the second-cabin door right aft, with a bang that knocked the scanty remnant of breath out of my trembling body. Down in the engine-room, the grey-headed chief-engineer stood by the grunting machinery, his hand on the throttle-valve, which he incessantly manipulated to prevent the propeller racing the engines out of their seats whenever she lifted her stern out of the water and the screw revolved in thin air. For the old-fashioned low-pressure engines had no ‘governor’, and consequently, no automatic means of relieving the terrific strain thrown upon them in such weather as this. And the firemen, who had to keep steam up, though they were hurled to and fro over the plates like toys, were probably in the most evil case of all.
She must have been staunchly built, for she bore the fearful buffeting without any damage worth speaking of, except to the unfortunates who were compelled to attend to their duties under such difficulties. And after the gale blew itself out, and the glorious sun mounted triumphantly in the deep blue dome above, the scene was splendid beyond description. We always kept fairly close in with the land, except when crossing a deep bight, and the views we obtained of the magnificent scenery along that wonderful coast were worth enduring a good deal of hardship to witness. We arrived off the entrance to the Clarence River just at dark, and to my great astonishment, instead of going in, the sail was set, the fires were damped down, and we stood ‘off-and-on’ until the daylight. As soon as there was sufficient light to distinguish objects on shore, we stood in; all passengers were ordered below and everything was battered down. All hands perched themselves as high as they could on the bridge, upper deck, and in the rigging, while we made straight for the bar. These precautions had filled me with wonders, for I knew nothing of bar-harbours. But when, on our nearer approach, I saw the mighty turbulent breakers rolling in mountains of snowy foam across the river’s mouth, I began to understand that the passage through that would mean considerable danger. Every ounce of steam we could raise was on her, and the skipper, a splendid specimen of a British seaman, stood on the bridge, the very picture of vigorous vigilance. We entered the first line of breakers, all around us seethed the turmoil of snowy foam, with not a mark of any kind to show the channel, except such bearings as the skipper knew of on the distant shore. Perched upon the rail, a leadsman sounded as rapidly as he could, calling out such depths of water as amazed me, knowing our draught. Along came an enormous wall of white water, overwhelming the hull and hiding it from sight. “Lead-quick”! Yelled the skipper above the thunder of the sea; and Joe screamed: “Two, halt one, a quarter less two.” Ahh! A long and grinding concussion as she tore up the ground, then along came to another mighty comber overall. When it had passed we were over the bar and in smooth water, only the yeasty flakes of the spent breakers following us as if disappointed of their prey. A very few minutes sufficed to dry up the decks, and the passengers appeared well pleased to be in the placid waters of the river and at peace once more.
What a lovely scene it was! At times we sped along close to the bank, while a great stretch of the river extended on the other side of us a mile wide, but too shallow for even our light draught. On gleaming sand-patches, flocks of pelicans performed their unwieldy gambols, and shoals of fish reflected the sunlight from their myriad glittering scales. Turning a sharp bend we would disturb a flock of black swans that rose with a deafening clamour in such immense numbers as to darken the sky overhead like a thunder-cloud. And about the bushes that clothed the banks, flew parrots, cockatoos, and magpies in such hosts as I had never dreamed of. For an hour we saw no sign of inhabitants; then, suddenly, we sighted a little village with a rude jetty and about half a dozen houses. All the population, I suppose, stood on the pier to greet us, who came bearing to them in their lonely corner a bit of the great outside world. Our skipper, though noted for his seamanship, was equally notorious for his clumsiness in bringing his vessel alongside a wharf, and we came into the somewhat crazy structure with a crash that sent the shore-folk scurrying off into safety until it was seen to be still intact. We were soon fast, and all hands working as Chinamen to land the few packages of goods, for we had a long way to go yet and several places to call at. Our discharging was soon over, the warps cast off, and followed by (as I thought) the wistful looks of the little community of Rocky Mouth, we proceeded up the river again.
Occasionally we sighted a homestead standing among a thick plantation of banana trees, each laden with its massive bunch of fruit, and broad area of sugar-cane or maize. From amongst the latter as we passed rose perfect clouds of cockatoos and parrots, screaming discordantly, and making even the dullest observer think the heavy toll they were levied upon the toiling farmer. Again we stopped at villages, each bearing a family likeness to the first, but all thriving and inhabited by well-fed sturdy people. Just before sunset we arrived at Grafton, having passed but two vessels on our journey up – one a handsome Brigatine, whose crew were laboriously towing her along at a snail’s pace in a solitary boat, and the other a flat-bottomed, stern-wheel steamer of so light a draught that she looked capable of crossing a meadow in a heavy dew. There was a substantial jetty built out from the steep bank to the end of which, after considerable fumbling about, we moored. The only house visible was a rather fine dwelling whose front verandah overlooked the jetty from the top of the bank. I was surprised to find quite a considerable town, with well laid out streets and every appearance. There was little inducement to remain, however, and I soon hurried on board again to enjoy some grand fishing over the side.
Here we remained for a week discharging our cargo and reloading with maize, cases of preserved beef and mutton, and bags of tin ore. Just before sailing, we received a good deal of farm produce, including several hundred bunches of bananas, for which there was always a good demand in Sydney. In order not to miss a tide we sailed sometime one morning before daylight, and when about twenty miles down the river, ran into the region of a bush fire. As we had to hug the bank rather closely just there, we had an anxious time if it, the great shower of sparks and sheets of flame reaching out towards us as if determined to claim us, too, among their victims.
The sight was terribly grand; the blood-red sky overhead and the glowing river beneath making it appear as if we were between two furnaces, while the deep terrific roar of the furious fire so near drowned every other sound. All hands were kept alert dowsing sparks that settled on board of us, and right glad was everybody when we emerged into the cool and smoke-free air beyond. After that, we had a most hum-drum passage all the way to Sydney…”[ii]
 The Grafton Argus, (Grafton) 8 January 1900, Trove, National Library of Australia website https://trove.nla.gov.au .Accessed 22 January 2018
ii Bullen, Frank Thomas. The log of a sea-waif: being recollections of the first four years of my sea life. Smith, Elder & Co., 1899. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5osDe9. Accessed 21 Jan. 2018. Gale Document Number: GALE|BJPYVT144389105
Pictures from Google Images http://www.thepirateslair.com/10-21-huge-anchor-light.html retrieved 22 January 2018