‘A Ticket In Steam’ by Norrey Ford

‘A Ticket In Steam’ by Norrey Ford

Robert Ford of Hull, born 1866 and eight years old, nursed an overriding ambition. Steam.

His father, another Robert, sailing his own brig coastwise out of the Humber, argued that steam was a passing fad. “Stands to reason, son. Who’d charter a vessel half full of mucky coal before a ton of cargo can be put aboard? The cost of coal alone would send freight charges sky high. Owners will be thankful to be out of steam and back to sail before long.”

John William, the eldest son, agreed. “Foreign-going ships he wants, too.”

Young Robert grumbled. “What’s wrong with wanting to see more than Hull, Leith, Liverpool, and London docks for the rest of my life?”

“In a steam-kettle liable to blow up cargo, passengers, crew and all?”

John William was nineteen, in the last year of his apprenticeship. He was learning navigation at Trinity House in Hull. He would follow his father as master of the brig. His future was fixed.

But for a second son? Robert went forrard and hid in his favourite cranny on deck, having for the moment nothing else to do. The brig was his home. The drumming of the sails, the liveliness of the deck under his bare feet, were second nature. His mother and sisters sailed with them all summer, never missing a voyage unless his mother was expecting another child. His cradle had been lashed on deck before he could remember and, like all his brothers and sisters, he had crowed at the great sails moving above his head and reached towards them with tiny fists.

He had seen Bridlington Bay crowded with shipping taking shelter from a storm; crossed the Firth of Forth in a winter’s gale; knew Liverpool docks as a forest of tall masts.

But he was determined not to be trapped. Painstakingly, he had read his elder brother’s articles of apprenticeship and decided that such were not for him.

…. five years, during which time the said Apprentice will faithfully serve his said Master, obey his lawful commands and keep his secrets … and will not embezzle or waste the goods of his Master …. nor absent himself from his service without leave, nor frequent taverns or ale houses, nor play at unlawful games …

What were unlawful games? What secrets could his father have?

… his master will and shall use all proper means to teach the said Apprentice the business of a seaman…

True, his father believed a rope’s end to be proper means. But if the Master were not one’s father, but a stranger from another port, a hard man and mean?

… and provide the said Apprentice with sufficient meat, drink, lodging, washing, medicine, medical and surgical assistance, and shall pay to the said Apprentice the sum of £50 in the manner following: Eight pounds in and for the first year, nine pounds in and for the second year ….

Robert, sharper at figures than his John William, had the sums firmly in his small head. Ten pounds for the third year, eleven for the fourth, twelve pounds for the fifth year. John William was now getting a whole pound every month, an unimaginable sum!

… the said Apprentice providing for himself all sea bedding, wearing apparel and necessaries .. and if the Master provide any necessary apparel or sea bedding for the said Apprentice, he may deduct any sums properly expended …

Which meant, their father declared, that many a poor lad never saw a penny of his fifty pounds, nor much by way of apparel and sea bedding either.

Robert concentrated on his problem. He wanted foreign-going qualifications. He wanted steam. Education, that was the answer; but how did a boy who spent most of his life at sea, who attended school only in winter, get himself educated?

Some lads went to the Nautical School all year round and learnt more than navigation. Robert imagined himself in white trousers and short navy jacket with brass buttons, the uniform of a Trinity House scholar. Could he persuade his father?

In his eleventh year he announced that he wished to attend school full time. He found an ally in his mother Sara. “Our Walter‘s getting handy on board now, Father. You could spare Robert, as he’s so eager. You’d like one son a deep-water sailor, wouldn’t you?”

“I need my sons on the deck of my brig, Sara. But if Robert wants more experience, I’ll look to it.”

He was as good as his word. In autumn 1877 he engaged for Robert to sign on as cabin boy with a fellow-captain.trading to Riga carrying a deck cargo of timer. That winter, Robert had his first taste of Russian ports, of freezing seas and ice-breakers at work. He learned the hard way that to touch iron with one’s bare hand in those waters was to lose the skin off one’s palm.

Tragedy struck the Ford household when a little daughter was burned to death, her flannelette nightdress catching fire as she reached up to the chimney piece. Her father snatched her to him, smothered the flames with his own body, but the child died and he was scarred for life.

Sara wanted her six remaining children under her wing for a while. Robert was allowed to stay ashore and study navigation. Charging a rent of a halfpenny a week, John William lent his younger brother his school books and helped with the lessons. Now Robert had another ambition—a set of navigation instruments of his own, but that would cost money and he had none.

He saved his pocket money, did odd jobs, and unknown to his parents won a cash prize or two at Hull Fair, in the Lads’ Boxing booths.

After a year’s hard work, he decided he had enough money to buy his instruments. When the brig docked in London he walked to the West End, to the establishment of a famous instrument maker. Impressed but not over-awed by mahogany and plate glass, he spread his cash on the counter and explained precisely what he wanted. A seagoing youth in navy-blue serge trousers, heavy boots, and a handknitted blue guernsey, he was unaware of his broad Yorkshire accent and thought little of the smart assistant who explained that the money was not nearly enough. Perhaps somewhere nearer the docks? A less expensive …?

Robert swept his money back into his pocket and said goodbye. He would come back in a year. He wanted only the best and was prepared to wait for it, he said.

In a few minutes the assistant caught up with him in the street.”Young sir, will you return to the shop, please? Someone in the back room wants to speak to you.”

Had he said or done something wrong? Robert entered the back room as cautiously as he would have obeyed a summons to his father’s cabin.

“A very fine gentleman” he used to say in his later years, invited him to sit down; to talk about his ambitions, his efforts to fulfill them. They talked of ships and the sea, the old man and the boy. Then a set of instruments was produced from a cupboard. Polished mahogany and fine brasswork, they made Robert’s eyes bulge.

“Not new, young man. Second hand. Our name on them, see? They’re in fine condition and will last you a lifetime.” The price named was exactly the sum Robert possessed. It was years before he understood that he had been the recipient of a thoughtful act of generosity. The instruments did, indeed, last him a lifetime.

Sixpence was returned to him as discount for cash. Enough to pay his omnibus fare to the ship, and buy a meat pie and mug of tea at the dock gates.

When Robert gained his second mate’s certificate, it was time to leave his father. But steamships were few and young second mates plentiful. He was disappointed many times. His moment came in his home port. As the brig sailed up the Humber homeward bound, he saw his heart’s desire. An American steamer, bigger than any he’d seen. He stared at her with longing. He had to sign on in her. He had to.

At home, after tea, his father tossed the evening Mail across. “Yonder grand steamer captain of yours is in trouble. He’s been up in Court. Killed his second mate on the voyage, they say.”

Robert’s heart thudded with sudden conviction. He said cooly, “Then there’s a second mate’s berth going?”

His father chuckled. “Aye. A captain’s too, if they hang him.”

“Give me that paper.”

His mother protested “Nay, our Robert! Thoo’d never sign on with a murderer!”

“He’s acquitted! That man as good as mutinied! Where’s my cap?”

The American vessel was berthed in Princes Dock. When the captain returned he found a young Englishman waiting, who saluted smartly and said he believed the ship lacked a second mate.

“Heard what happened to the other?”

“Yes, sir. He refused to obey an order and you knocked him down. My father would have done the same. So would I, sir, if I’d been master.”

“I killed him.”

“An iron stanchion killed him. Not your fist.”

The American grunted. “Name?”

“Robert Ford. Second mate’s ticket.”

“In steam?”

Robert’s hopes were dashed. “Not yet, sir. There has to be a first time for everyone.”

“Your gear handy?”

“Lying in Queen’s Dock. I can fetch it.”

“Do that. We leave on to-night’s tide.”

Ashore, he kicked his heels with excitement. Steam! The world was his and there was no end to it. First mate, then Master. He’d get a pilot’s certificate too.

There was no time to go back to the house. He scribbled a note and sent the ship’s boy off with it. Then he shouldered his sea chest and marched out of sail into the world of steam.

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