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Decay and Resurrection? Voyaging in Hull 3

Fresh from an extraordinary two day conference in Cardiff, “Re-imagining Challenging Histories”, a stimulating conversation between academics and heritage professionals about spaces and silences, I headed again to Hull. I have been grappling with Brexit and its implications and I know Hull voted overwhelmingly to leave, possibly a modern incarnation of its historical tendency to defiance. For those who don’t know, in 1642 the Governor of Hull, Sir James Hotham, refused to open the Beverley Gate to Charles 1. This is widely regarded as one of the trigger points of the English Civil War. More on Beverley Gate later. William Wilberforce, the parliamentary abolitionist, was born and lived in Hull and the Cod Wars are part of its story. Hull has its own Daily Mail, and its own white telephone booths. It also has its own City of Culture 2017, the reason for my journey.

On Saturday night 2 July a French performance group were to close the Yorkshire Festival and open the first Amy Johnson Festival with Plas des Anges, promised to be a spectacle Hull would never forget. As part of the HLF team working with the Hull 2017 team, I was invited to participate and a spectacle it truly was. As night softly descended on Queens Gardens, activity on top of various tall buildings surrounding the gardens indicated something was about to begin. For over an hour we were spellbound watching white-clad “angels” moving along very high wires strung between buildings, showering us with a snow storm of white feathers as ethereal music filled the night. A huge white zeppelin of a cherub, guided by tall poles, loomed slowly over our heads, coloured spotlights changing it from bright white to electric blue and back. Breathtaking yet sinister, its slow pace in contrast to the flying angels who moved and danced and dangled from the overhead wires. As the performance came to a climax, a blizzard of feathers covered the ground all around us and children and adults alike scooped up armfuls and tossed them over their heads with delight. Hull was littered with feathers for days and we kept finding them in clothes and bags and along the footpaths and river where we walked. Such beauty momentarily transformed Hull and a transitory magic brought smiles and laughter to its people. That this beauty came from Europe seemed not to be noticed.

The next day we walked through the building site that is Hull’s central streets at the moment and were brought face to face with the site of the Defiance – the remains of Beverley Gate, uncovered by archaeologists in 1986. You might think that the site would have been cherished, a symbol of how Hull has regarded itself as standing apart, as different. But behind temporary wire barricades, the steps and remaining footings and structures of the gate and the Victorian bridge which crossed the link between the former Queens Dock to the Princes Dock and thence to the Humber, was a site of decay and neglect – rubbish, bottles, filthy peeling interpretation panels, a veritable ‘skip’.

Further research showed that it had been like this for at least four years, possibly more. A local councillor quoted in Hull Daily Mail said it was a disgrace in 2014 and declared, “If this was in any other continental European city, they would be having King’s Head Days or Defiance Days with bands marching, flags flying and people in historical costumes. As it is, we’ve just got a big hole in the ground”. So at some point Hull was regarded as a European city by its inhabitants, even if holding a King’s Head Day was seen as a good idea for a celebration!


A walk around the city and along the River Hull towards the oddly-named quiet and deserted High Street enroute to the Museum Quarter (see my earlier blogs on Hull) was interrupted by another wire barricade blocking off the path. A man in a vicar’s dog collar and his lady companion lifted up the barricade and encouraged us to crawl through and we then repeated the favour for another group of people trapped by the wire. Our small act of defiance! IMG_0677We explored the interestingly engineered Drypool Bridge, and discovered a rather rusty iron plaque which obviously once marked something that Hull wanted to remember but is now only forgotten.


In 1888 something to remember, in 2016 forgotten

Visiting Wilberforce House where William was born told us much about him but I looked in vain on the ground floor for a mention of any other abolitionists. IMG_0699I did finally find Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Hannah More and others upstairs along with a rather oversized rendition of Clarkson’s famous chest. In this he collected and carried the wealth and skills and natural products of the African continent throughout England for years trying to convince British citizens and politicians that Africa offered far more attractive (and moral) opportunities than the slave trade.


Model of Clarkson’s chest. Smaller, original one is in Wisbech Museum.

Clarkson was an East Anglian, born in Wisbech, educated at Cambridge. He carried out the major research into the evils of the trade, risking his life to get the evidence needed to provide Wilberforce with credibility in parliament. Clarkson lived and died in Playford near Woodbridge, Suffolk. His brother John was responsible for bringing the free former enslaved Africans from North America to Freetown, the first governor of Sierra Leone and is buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Woodbridge where I currently live. The idea that Wilberforce singlehandedly ended the British slave trade is one of those enduring myths of British history which the Wilberforce House, despite its refurbishment and new exhibitions for 2007, does not actively dispel. A futile search for a cafe on Sunday in the Museum Quarter was another disappointment. The Museum Quarter consists of three museums side by side and a beautiful park-like garden and backs onto the River Hull. It was a shock to discover there was no cafe and the attendant apologised for the lack of a vending room which had existed but was no longer in operation. A room with vending machines wasn’t quite what I had in mind so I was not dismayed by its closure. Thinking that Hull needed to hurry up and think about meeting the needs of the anticipated thousands who were going to arrive in 2017, and presumably would require cafes and non-pub food on a Sunday, we repaired to the nearby Sailmakers Arms for a cold drink. IMG_0698

We walked north of the High Street and found Blaydes, yet another impressive former merchant’s house and office, alongside another derelict dock, white feathers settling among red poppies on the wasteland. There is something very sad about all this dereliction. Many of the empty sites are car parks but none of them that we saw had become community gardens or parks or even temporary allotments or wild green spaces.


The white spots are feathers!

The people have not reclaimed their city. I was struck by the evidence of how wealthy Hull had been and how poor it is now in so many ways. What happened in between? Wars, depression, loss of industry, declining fish stocks, containerisation, urban planning disasters, Thatcherism, banking disasters, and finally Austerity. This is the austerity agenda in action, piled onto decades of urban decay and industrial decline. I thought of Westminster, George Osborne and Brexit and the famous lines from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias,Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Can Hull City of Culture 2017 in some small way compensate Hull for the last 100 years? Could some of these small white feathers among the red poppies symbolise a possible future where beauty and magic, dreams and prosperity, make “Hullness” possible once more?


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Voyaging with Volunteers

This month we have had Volunteers’ Week and it seems appropriate to highlight and acknowledge the role of ordinary (extraordinary) people who labour long and hard to save, salvage, protect and preserve heritage precious to them and their local areas.


The past few weeks I have been working with groups of volunteers in Scotland and Northern Ireland who are doing just this. In one case the heritage was threatened by local authority’s tendency to demolition by neglect, in another by careless and directionless failed private ownership, in the third case, “inevitable progress” and a blindness to the future value of remnants of past technology. In all three cases, volunteers have worked indefatigably to secure the building, the grounds, the ship and the locomotives and rolling stock for the future and then to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the money to be able to share that heritage with other people. The value of the work these people do cannot be over-estimated. Without them, much of the local heritage of the UK would be lost forever.

When I first visited Whitehead, between Carrickfergus and Larne, County Antrim, three or four years ago, the site was a collection of sheds and tracks filled with rolling stock and railway paraphernalia and weed-infested backyard littered with rusting metal.


On my recent visit, the activity in the Whitehead engineering workshops is impressive, the apprentices and volunteers readying the site for its public opening later this year.

Since the 1960s extraordinary restoration work has been carried out in the unheated, uninsulated sheds, and volunteers worked on carriages and locomotives in very primitive conditions. As the local foundries closed down all over Northern Ireland, they set up their own, as heavy engineering workshops modernised or shut, they bought machinery and equipment from clearing auctions. And perhaps most wonderful of all, this voluntary group kept steam trains running on the mainlines throughout Ireland including the Portrush Flyer. Now with funding from HLF and Europe and the Northern Irish Tourist Board and others, the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland is about to open a heritage engineering and railway centre where people can see conservation and restoration work in action: heavy machinery dating from the glory days of British engineering in use, locomotives, diesel and steam, running and static, carriages, the older timber ones built like coaches, the cranes, wheel drop, forge and foundry in action, see the locomotives being turned on the newly installed turntable, smell the grease, hear the steam, the hammer, shunting, and of course ride on the trains.


All of this has been achieved by dedicated teams of volunteers who would not let Ireland’s steam and railway heritage disappear and the interpretation on the site will celebrate their extraordinary achievement by featuring them and their stories.

The same commitment was responsible for saving the 1953 paddle steamer Maid of the Loch from the scrapyard when she was left to rot. Sadly many of her fittings and equipment were stripped and stolen, as her owners, a private English-based company, went into receivership. The last paddle steamer builder on the Clyde, equipped with a massive steam engine and boilers to drive her two paddles, she was first built, then dismantled and transported piece by piece overland to Loch Lomond where she was reconstructed and operated on the loch until 1981. Having rescued her from the scrapyard, the volunteers have been opening her to the public on her pier at Balloch, using her for events and functions. Now the volunteers want to get her steaming again around Loch Lomond.

First they needed to get funding to restore the steam-driven Slipway and Winch House in order to slip her to determine the condition of her riveted steel hull. With that project successfully completed, they are in the process of developing their final application to the HLF to make this dream a reality. imageIn glorious sunshine two weeks ago, we held our meeting on deck to discuss and plan the work they need to do (to conserve and restore the ship and the paddle wheels, to fit a new boiler, to engage people, schools, families, students in the project) to ensure a successful outcome.

The third project, the saving and restoration of Moat Brae, a Georgian townhouse on the River Nidd in Dumfries, is another triumph for a group of determined local people. Once a private house, then a nursing home, then derelict and threatened with demolition, part of the original garden had already been sold off for building housing.

But the empty boarded-up shell of the house with what was left of its river-side garden, overgrown and impenetrable, held a special story. Here J.M. Barrie had visited as a child, played and adventured in the garden with the children of the house. Like them, he was a student at Dumfries Academy next door. IMG_7348It was at Moat Brae that he experienced the wonder and freedom that became Neverland and Peter Pan. It was this connection and this story which meant Moat Brae should not be lost. Local people got together and saved the house and what was left of its grounds, raised money to replace the roof and secure the building. Then they set out to get HLF and other funding to realize their ambition of a Centre for Children’s Literature and a place where children and their adults could dream, play and adventure again. With funding secured, they are now ready to make that happen. In the meantime they have been using the building as place for their communities to visit, and the day I was there, displaying amazing students’ work from Dumfries and Galloway College. IMG_7367

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Voyaging Far North 2

Private history or public history?
Small local museums are both repositories of local memory, artefacts and documents and community storytellers. As I wander Helmsdale, my base for the first two nights of my Caithness and Sutherland visit, I am reminded also ofIMG_4850 how inaccessible and hidden so much of this history is.

Driving up to Helmsdale on the east coast from Inverness means crossing Moray, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths, place names that resonate with anyone interested in maritime matters.

Helmsdale itself is a product of the infamous Clearances, planned to provide accommodation and employment to those evicted from their lands to make way for sheep. In the early 19th century as the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland “improved” their estates for productive and profitable sheep farming, their tenants were evicted from the straths and glens and moved to planned settlements on the coast such as Helmsdale.  Many went to Canada and other parts of the New World. Between 1813 and 1819, more than 1,500 people were forcibly moved from Strath of KIMG_6994ildonan and by 1831 there were only 257 people left.

Later Helmsdale was a herring port and the village population grew to several thousand during the herring fishing season. Local families provided crews for the herring boats and the trade supported coopers, curers, blacksmiths and labourers. Women gutted and packed the herring and sold it around the district  from creels on their backs. The earlier inner harbour and single lane stone arched bridge further upriver gave way in the later 19th century to a man-made outer Harbour and more recently, a flying modern metal span tying southern cliff top to town. This magnifies the intrusive sounds of huge trucks as they hurtle down through the town and over the bridge and changed the place and landscape for ever. Local people told me that an ancient castle ruin, shown in old black and white photographs standing on the cliff top, was destroyed to make way for the bridge.

I stay in the old Customs House at the end of the outer harbour, a generous B&B run as B&Bs used to be when I first came to UK: a shared bathroom down the hall, fresh milk brought up to the room, conversations with Mrs Macdonald and a fabulous breakfast with no irritating portion control packets. Mrs M’s father and brother were herring fishermen, owning their own boats and her house is lined with photographs and memorabilia of a lost world. She would like to see a monument or memorial of some kind to the fishermen and their fleets such as stand on other harbours up and down the coast but is not sure how to go about getting such a thing.


In the morning from my bed I watch the sun rising over the harbour, the snow on the far southern shore of the firth glittering in the distance. Bunillidh, the last boat to fish out of Helmsdale, stopped  in the mid 1990s. Only a few small fishing boats stacked with lobster and crab pots are against the Harbour wall. At times they head out through the narrow entrance, a few men busy with lines and pots.IMG_6991

High above the small town an impressive stone war memorial towers over the landscape, out of all proportion to the surroundings. Built in 1924, it commemorates the 38 men from the parish who died in WW1 and 16 men in WW2.

At some angles the poignant memorial to the Clearances becomes visible also above the town. The Clearances Memorial itself has a history. The 10 feet high bronze “Exiles” statue was funded by a Canadian millionaire who left Sutherland and made a fortune in South Africa.  He originally envisaged a 30 foot family of emigrants atop a 90440px-The_Higland_emigrants_monuments_Helmsdale foot plinth, towering over the landscape, complete with visitor centre but due to lack of financial support, his plans never eventuated. It was to be a response to the huge and controversial statue of the Duke of Sutherland which towers over the neighbouring town of Golspie.


But there is little  information for visitors unless they can visit Timespan, the impressive heritage centre beside the river. Timespan has limited opening hours out of season and has been closed on both of my visits to the area which tend not to be in the tourist season. I am sure it tells wonderful stories but I wonder should access to the stories of place and people only be available to those who can visit a “Heritage Centre” in season?

On both my visits I wander the shore in the early morning before breakfast. Like so much of the UK coastline the beach is filled with rubbish of many materials and a lot of plastic – some obviously dumped here from the land, some washed up.

I can’t resist picking up sea glass, marbles and pottery sherds, an obsession of mine for many years. I eat in the Bannockburn Arms most nights, chatting to the landlady who moved here from Brighton 12 years ago. People talk to you here, other diners in the restaurant (all visitors from somewhere else) and drinkers in the pub. They all know the Flows Country project, the reason I am here, and are interested in its progress. With pubs and shops closed, they are hoping it will bring more trade to this quiet, somewhat forgotten town.

As I walk down to the river under the stone arched bridge, I think of Mrs Macdonald’s wish to have a memorial to the herring fishermen she remembers at the harbour. As Alex Salmond said in 2007 at a ceremony in Helmsdale to remember the Clearances, “this statue is not only a reminder of the Highland Clearances, but a great example of the skill and vision of those who remain”.  Perhaps the monuments are not only testament to the pain and poignancy of the Clearances and the Great War but also symbolic of how selective the history is that we choose to commemorate. Those who remain might well believe that their more recent history, instead of being hidden and private, is worth the public telling.

I hope Mrs Macdonald gets her monument to the generations of men and women who worked the herring. And perhaps seeing such a memorial would remind us that the herring disappeared along with jobs and a way of life. Just as with the degraded blanket bog of the Flow Country, there are lessons we can take for our own times from this.



A few weeks ago Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands Society posted on Facebook about a bent bronze sheathing nail that is being offered for sale on eBay for $US5,250. The seller included a 1971 letter of provenance from a staff member of the National Geographic Society who says he recovered the nail at a depth of some 30 feet in 1957 from the bottom of Bounty Bay at Pitcairn Island. The letter states that the “excessively rare” nail “is from the remains of the Bounty” and was used to fasten copper sheathing to the hull below the waterline. To further authenticate the origin of the nail, the writer also states that other larger items on the site were marked with the “Broad Arrow, symbol of British Government ownership”.

When Parkins Christian gave my great grandmother the marlin spike, also marked with the broad arrow, he was trying to save what was left of the Bounty-Pitcairn heritage from just such speculative collecting. He would have been amazed, if not horrified, to think a bent bronze nail was worth more than $5000 because of its possible connection with the famous ship his great-grandfather sailed to Pitcairn Island in 1790. Certainly today it is hoped that the site is protected from ‘Bounty hunters’ although it may not have been in 1957.

For the descendants of the mutineers, the legacy of the events on the Bounty seemed to be difficult to escape. In his 1967 history of the Charles W Morgan, the 1841 whaling ship that I sailed on in 2014 and that Parkins served on for 20 years as First and Second Mate, Edouard  A. Stackpole speculated that the reason Parkins never became a whaling ship’s captain was because of the actions of both his great-grandfathers. Everywhere he went, his connection with Fletcher was always part of his story as told by others. The fact that he never told the Bell children might indicate that this wasn’t the way he wanted to define himself. So who was this man who links Pitcairn, Norfolk Islands, the Bounty mutiny, the American, NZ and Australian whaling industry and maritime history, the Charles W Morgan and my ancestors’ life on Sunday (Raoul) Island? Who was this man whose legacies are beautifully crafted wooden and whalebone artefacts, a marlin spike and photograph and the memories and stories others told of him?

The Pitcairners 1857 Norfolk Island (courtesy Norfolk Island Museum)

The Pitcairners 1857 Norfolk Island. George Parkyn is the small boy on the left (courtesy Norfolk Island Museum)

He was born George Henry Parkin Christian on Pitcairn Island on 16 October, 1853. He was the fifth child and fourth son of Isaac Christian (Fletcher’s grandson) and Miriam Young, the granddaughter of Edward Young. Parkins was the fifth of sixteen children, and the last one to be born on Pitcairn. His next younger brother Reuben Denison Christian was born on the voyage to Norfolk Island on the Morayshire which had left Pitcairn Island on 2 May 1856 carrying 194 people for resettlement on Norfolk Island. A photograph of some of the women settlers taken in 1857 identifies “George Parkyn Christian”, dressed in what appears to be a smock or dress, half-hiding behind Rebecca Evans, his mother Miriam standing at the back among women with the familiar surnames of Nobbs, Young, Quintal and Evans.

No.10 Quality Row. Built in 1844, it became the family home of Isaac and Miriam Christian, George Parkin's parents, after the Pitcairn Islanders arrived in 1856. It is now the Norfolk Island Museum (courtesy Norfolk Island Museum)

No.10 Quality Row. Built in 1844, it became the family home of Isaac and Miriam Christian, George Parkin’s parents, after the Pitcairn Islanders arrived in 1856. It is now the Norfolk Island Museum (courtesy Norfolk Island Museum)

In 1874 he married Augusta Ross Adams who had also been born on Pitcairn, daughter of Jonathan Adams and Phoebe Quintal. Mutineers John Adams, Edward Young, William McCoy, Matthew Quintal and their Tahitian wives were her great grandparents. They had eight children born between 1875 and 1889. His wife died of cancer aged 46 in August 1899. Interestingly, two of the children’s names reflect Parkins’ link with the New Bedford whaling industry and the ships’ captains; this may be a coincidence of course. Howland was born in 1883 (a Howland company had been a past manager of the Charles W Morgan and a James Howland 4th Mate, on the Charles W Morgan, drowned in 1882). His youngest son James Sherman Christian was born in 1889 (Capt. Sherman was captain of the Canton). Parkins served on board the Charles W Morgan for at least 12 of the 14 voyages between 1893 and 1913, mostly as boat steerer or second mate.

From Charles W. Morgan by J.F. Leavitt (Museum of America and the Sea, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut)

From Charles W. Morgan by J.F. Leavitt (Museum of America and the Sea, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut)A photograph of him taken on board either 30th (1904) or 31st (1906) voyage shows a tall, strong, well-built man with an intense gaze.

A photograph of him taken on board either 30th (1904) or 31st (1906) voyage shows a tall, strong, well-built man with an intense gaze.

Bessie and the Bell children were not the only children who hero-worshipped Parkins. Captain Earle’s three year old son Jamie accompanied his parents on the 1902 voyage of the Charles W Morgan and in later life Jamie remembered that he idolized “big George Christian”, second mate, who made toys for him including a small sailing boat on the deck, and spent much of his off-watch time with the boy. How much time he spent with his own 8 children, given his voyaging, is uncertain. While he was away whaling on the Costa Rica Packet in 1890, his 4 year old daughter Mary died of an abdominal tumour.

A first day cover from Norfolk Island 1983

A first day cover from Norfolk Island 1983

My research into Parkins Christian continues. Establishing an accurate timeline for his peripatetic life has proved challenging and earlier books on the whaling industry are vague and often contradictory. I have him as a seaman on the schooner Ariel (NZ) in 1872 when he saved a young girl from drowning when she fell overboard, the Robert Towns and the Costa Rica Packet (Sydney), the Othello (Hobart and NZ), American whaling barks Cape Horn Pigeon, CantonCalifornia, Charles W Morgan and the schooner A.M. Nicholson and finally the Resolution (Norfolk island). The Royal Humane Society (London) awarded him a silver medallion for bravery following the Ariel rescue when he was just 19. He captained the Resolution at 72. He sailed and whaled throughout the Pacific, the South Indian Ocean, the Japan Seas, the Atlantic, the Ochotsk Sea and the Arctic. There are conflicting sources and stories which add to the confusion. But his will be a story worth the telling.

The Elders - George Parkins is on the right. (Courtesy Norfolk Island Museum).

The Elders – George Parkins is on the right. (Courtesy Norfolk Island Museum).


From the Bounty to New Bedford – a remarkable whaler man Part 1

In the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts, there is a gallery of intricately-carved objects made by whaling men. Among the scrimshawed and carved teeth and bone, needle cases, babies’ rattles, serated pie-cutters, umbrella handles and walking sticks, there is a wooden inlaid jewellery box with a mother-of-pearl heart-shaped key hole, topped with a small reclining dog carved from whale “ivory”.

Detail of the reclining dog carved in "whale ivory" and the inlaid wood.

Detail of the reclining dog carved in “whale ivory” and the inlaid wood. New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford.

Jewellery Box made by Christian on the ship California c1870s-1880s for Captain G.F. Brightman's wife Lizzie

Jewellery Box made by Christian on the ship California c1870s-1880s for Captain G.F. Brightman’s wife Lizzie. New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford.

Carved whale tooth attributed to George Parkin Christian. Australian national Maritime Museum

Carved whale tooth attributed to George Parkin Christian. Australian national Maritime Museum

Across the Pacific Ocean in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, there is a scrimshawed whale tooth signed “Christian” showing a harpooner standing in a whaleboat about to fling his lance at a surfacing sperm whale. Behind these two artefacts is the story of a remarkable man, George Henry Parkin Christian.

The scrimshawed whale tooth signed "Christian" with other whaling artefacts displayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney.

The scrimshawed whale tooth signed “Christian” with other whaling artefacts displayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney.

Much has been written about whaling shipowners, captains and even captain’s wives (who often accompanied them to sea) but much less about whaling ship crew. Master mariner and whaler man, Christian’s life spans three Pacific islands – Pitcairn, Norfolk and Raoul/Sunday, New Zealand, the east and west coasts of America and Greenland and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Three generations of my family knew Parkins, as we called him, and my research aims to reconstruct his challenging and adventurous life, from his birth on Pitcairn Island in 1853 to his death on Norfolk Island in 1940 at the age of 86. So far I have discovered a wealth of new stories and connections and a lot of contradictions and puzzles.

As a child I was intrigued by the long wooden handled metal spike in the mahogany and glass cabinet in my grandparents’ dining room in Sydney, Australia, sitting curiously among pieces of carved ivory, Royal Copenhagen china plates, transparent Belleek cups and saucers, intricate enameled birds, Argentinian silver, miniature Chinese vases and other souvenirs of their travels. The spike looked out of place – rough against their delicacy, practical against their decorativeness, a tool to be held and used rather than displayed. This marlin spike was no souvenir however, but a gift to my great grandmother Bessie Bell and her family from the whalerman my family knew as Parkins Christian. The spike was a tangible link to my island ancestors, whose story ranked alongside Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and all the adventurous Enid Blyton books I read voraciously as a child.

Whaling bark California

New Bedford Whaling bark California

Parkins had first met my great grandparents in the late 1870s when he came ashore on Sunday (Raoul) Island in a whaleboat from the New Bedford whaler California. Seventy years later, Bessie recalled the tall, darkly handsome man with the “luminous eyes and rich colouring” of his “Tahitian forebears”. He became the children’s hero and best friend for years to come. The night after the California sailed, Bessie’s father Thomas told them the story of Fletcher Christian, the mutiny on the Bounty and the settlement on Pitcairn Island. Not uncommonly, he muddled the generations, with Fletcher as Parkins’ grandfather rather than great-grandfather. Parkins told the young Bells nothing of this dark chapter in his family history, holding them spellbound instead with stories of the Great White Whale, Moby Dick “that bit whaleboats in half and crunched them to pieces in his awful jaws”.

Parkins visited the island several times in the 1880s, moving from the California to other ships and kept in touch with the family for many years. Bessie remembered his visit on the Costa Rica Packet in the late 1880s “the most famous of the veterans of the early South Pacific whaling fleet still under sail”. With a group of sailors, he loaded the whaleboat with kumaras, yams and other produce to carry to Sydney, their destination port, promising to return the next day for more. But unbeknownst to the Bells ashore, some of the crew mutinied while the ship was still anchored off Sunday Island and Christian was viciously attacked. The ship sailed directly for Sydney and according to Bessie’s memoirs Christian never visited again. He joined the Charles W Morgan when she called at Norfolk Island in 1894 and served as first and second mate almost continuously on the ship until 1913 both out of New Bedford and San Francisco. His last recorded whaling voyage was as First Mate on the New Bedford schooner A.M. Nicolson from 1914-16.

George Henry Parkin Christian or Parkins Christian as he was known to my family. He gave this photograph to my family. grandfather

George Henry Parkin Christian or Parkins Christian as my family called him. He gave this photograph to my grandfather.

My grandfather Leslie Dyke, Bessie Bell's second son, born in New Zealand. He is holding the marlin spike, a gift from Parkins Christian.

My grandfather Leslie Dyke, Bessie Bell’s second son. He left New Zealand, where he was born, for Australia in 1928. He is holding the marlin spike, a gift from Parkins Christian.

After that he returned to Norfolk Island where he helped build, then captained the Resolution, a schooner built by the islanders in a bid to trade directly with New Zealand. He was then 72 years old and still described as “of massive build” by a local newspaper. My grandfather Leslie, Bessie’s second son, recalled meeting Parkins in New Zealand. His mother had asked him to return the marlin spike as she believed Parkins had only left it for safe-keeping. Parkins  told him to keep it on condition he didn’t sell it to any Bounty treasure hunters! After my grandfather’s death, my mother passed the spike onto me. It is one of my most treasured possessions!

More on Parkins Christian in my next blog.

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Bessie and the Whales

Detail of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend's world map complied in 1931

Detail of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend’s world map compiled in 1931. New Bedford Whaling Museum.

It is now exactly twelve months since I joined the Charles W Morgan at Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in June 2014 to sail to New Bedford, the ship’s home port. Since then through research and writing, I have been pursuing the story of my great-great grandparents on Sunday/Raoul Island and of whalerman, master mariner and Charles W Morgan crew member Parkins Christian. I have also discovered a fascination with the extraordinary (if abhorrent) history of whaling and whales themselves. My research has included visiting museums with whaling-related collections in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Sydney and Eden, NSW, Australia and Lajes da Pico, Pico and Horta, Faial in the Azores. I decided it was time to return to my blog!

Zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend’s world map compiled in 1931 used American whaling records to plot every single recorded whale taken by American ships in the 19th century. Red dots are sperm whales, blue dots baleen whales such as humpbacks and right whales. Sunday or Raoul Island is almost completely obscured by red dots. The Kermadecs lie between the Vasquez and French Rock Whaling Grounds, the red dots stretching from New Zealand in the south to converge and overlap with blue dots to Tonga and almost to Samoa. Another thick line of red dots connects the Kermadecs with Norfolk Island in the west. As a 38th Voyager on the Charles W Morgan in 2014 I had the extraordinary opportunity to actually sail on the only remaining whaling ship of the many that whaled off and visited Sunday-Raoul Island.

Despite the decline of whaling in the Pacific by the time my great great grandparents, the Bells, were living on Sunday Island, American and colonial whaling ships were still hunting whales and provided much needed supplies, equipment and new faces when they anchored off the island. The ships also took on firewood, fresh meat (goats had been left on the islands from the early years of whaling, a fact which undoubtedly saved the Bells from starvation in the first year after they landed) and water although the weather and heavy surf in Denham Bay meant more often than not they couldn’t anchor and go ashore. These visits are recorded in the ships’ logs from the early 19th century.

Raoul or Sunday Island

Raoul or Sunday Island – aerial view. The Bells lived first on Denham Bay (the long beach in the south of the island) then moved to North Beach across the ridge. Later they moved back to Denham Bay. http://www.doc.govt.nz/raoulisland.

In December 1878 the California’s log reported that the ship was laying off Sunday Island for three days, sending boats ashore for firewood. In March 1880 the log of the Canton records that “during the day we have very light winds and some times calm. Ship under all sail drifting towards Sunday Island which we saw at 9am”. The California was off Sunday Island again in April 1888 and February 1889. In March 1889 its log reports sighting the Sydney whaler the Costa Rica Packet, whaling off Curtis Rocks.

George Parkins Christian served on several whaling ships including the Sydney-based Costa Rica Packet, the California and the Canton before he joined the Charles W Morgan when she called at Norfolk Island in 1894. Many years later my great-grandmother Bessie remembered his visits and that “it was always the American whalers who were our best friends”. Her father Tom told them the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, of how Christian’s great grandfather Fletcher had fallen out with Captain Bligh. Parkins told them nothing of this but regaled them with stories of the Great White Whale, Moby Dick, “that bit whaleboats in half and crunched them to pieces in his awful jaws”.

From the island the children watched the whales’ annual migration from the Antarctic waters past the Kermadecs to the warmer waters of the tropics and back again with calves in the autumn. Bessie remembered the humpbacks off Denham Bay and the northern shores of the island, and the children watched their antics in delight, fascinated by the fountain-like spouts. Sometimes a whale would leap out of the water, “its huge body vertical between sea and sky and visible for one enthralling second from snout to tail flukes”. She recalled a special moment when, with sisters Hettie and Mary, she witnessed a cow whale feeding her calf. The girls climbed down the cliff to get a better view, looking directly down on the cow rolled on her side ejecting milk directly into the mouth of her twenty-foot long calf.

Sunday or Raoul Island, the Kermadecs. Bessie and her father and brothers were between Sunday Island and Meyer Is. when they were nearly overturned by a whale.

Sunday or Raoul Island, the Kermadecs. Bessie and her father and brothers were fishing near Meyer Is. to the north-west of Sunday Island when they were nearly overturned by a humpback whale.

Another encounter with a school of humpbacks during a fishing trip with her father and brothers to nearby Meyer Island was more frightening. The whales appeared from behind the island, broaching and sounding, leaping high and swimming in wide circles around the rowboat, disturbing the hitherto calm waters. When one leapt out of the water and then crashed back down very close to the boat, their father Tom yelled for them to row for their lives. Bessie suddenly realized one was diving under the boat, and felt the bow of the boat heaved up out of the water, then rolled on its side until the gunwale was under the water. The huge shape slid out from underneath and with a violent swirl, turned and flung itself out of the water a few yards away. The flukes towered over the boys’ heads and they threw themselves into the bottom of the boat. Parkins Christian told them later that they were lucky, that when whales swim round and round a boat like that, they mean mischief. The boat could well have been smashed and the occupants “sent down to Davy Jones’ locker – and the sharks”.

Humpback whale off Massachusetts 2014

Humpback whale off Massachusetts 2014


Fluke of a humpback off the coast of Massachusetts, 2014

One particular whale visitor was definitely not welcome. One morning, outside their hut on Low Flat in the north side of the island, they noticed a terrible smell. The children ran off to the beach to investigate the source and found a decomposing eighty-foot long blue whale “bigger’ the one that swallered Joners … bigger’ the house!” according to little Jack. Tom Bell said it was the largest whale he had ever seen. Faced with living with the stench for months, he commented ruefully that with thousands of miles of ocean all around, the sea had chosen this exact spot to cast up the dead blue whale. The noisome smell wafted on the breeze across the island until at last, thanks to the hot sun, heavy seas and keen winds, the beach was clean and the air pure once again.

Over the past year I have watched humpback and minke whales off the coast of Massachusetts and fin and sperm whales more recently in the Azores, off the island of Pico. It is easy to imagine the Bell children’s awe and delight as they watched these huge and wonderful creatures in the sea all around them.

Fin whale off Pico May 2015

Fin whale off Pico, The Azores May 2015

Humpback whale off the coast of Massachusetts

Humpback whale off the coast of Massachusetts

Minke whale breaching off Plymouth, Massachusetts

Minke whale breaching off Plymouth, Massachusetts

More on Parkins Christian in my next blog.

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Voyaging on the Charles W Morgan – the third part


As I write this I am sailing on a very much smaller yacht on a very different sea. It is night and I am on first watch, alone in the cockpit of a 48 foot ketch crossing from Menorca to Sardinia. Since leaving Mahon Harbour, Menorca at 0730 this morning we have seen but two ships sail westwards and no other yachts. We have been headed by an east wind all day. I find myself comparing this with my experiences on the Charles W Morgan back in June. As I keep the log, I unconsciously use terms I have absorbed from the whaling logbooks, writing “under all sails” for example; in this case the main, mizzen and genoa. No romantic topgallants, spanker or royal here. The stars appear, the only light in the inky black which surrounds us. As I check our course and position on the chart plotter, I wish I knew how to steer by the stars. This seems so far removed from sailing on the Charles W Morgan. And yet in many ways it is not.

Captain Files midships watching sail handling


On deck – manila lines and a deck prism.


On 25th June the Charles W Morgan moved slowly out of Vineyard Haven under tow, lower topsails loosened on the main and foremast yards and the inner foresail raised. Crew, spreadeagled out on the bowsprit and jib boom, unfastened foresails and the mizzen staysail was hauled out. As the creamy canvas took the wind, it cracked and curled, cupping the breeze and slowly increased our speed. There was magic in the way the crew knew instantly which manila line or halyard to haul on, make fast, loose and drop. The new running rigging had been made in the Philippines, the best any rope-works could produce today.

As a sailor of smaller yachts both classic and modern, I was familiar with halyards and sheets and topping lifts and furling lines but here there seemed literally miles of wheat coloured rope everywhere, curled, loose, hanging and falling about the decks. The only difference between one golden rope and another was its position on the deck and its thickness. So much to learn!


Ryan the “stowaway” and Sarah Spencer from the staff of Mystic Seaport “knowing their ropes”


A foresail was raised, the flaxen manila ropes snaking across the deck, gathering in great pools at the foot of the masts, hanging like sheaves of corn from the wooden pegs. The crew moved about the deck to the calls of Sam Sikkema, the Chief Mate, echoing orders back as they hauled and fastened and held and loosed and braced and dropped, furled and slackened. It was cloudy with fair visibility, south west winds at 20-23 knots. The ship’s 22nd captain Richard ‘Kip’ Files had intended to try sailing off and tacking down Vineyard Sound but a strong 3 knot tide meant a tow was necessary if we were to reach New Bedford that afternoon. If we tacked we wouldn’t even reach Wood’s Hole and waiting for the tide to turn was not an option.

Stay sails were raised to help the speed, the crew assisted by shanties led by Geoff Kaufman as they moved back along the deck hauling on the halyards. Geoff told us that halyard shanties were not necessarily used on whaling ships as they usually sailed with enough crew to manage the sails. At 1130 still under tow down Vineyard Sound, a decision was made to go through Quick’s Hole between Nashawena and Pasque Islands rather than around Cuttyhunk Island, the original route planned. This meant a shorter voyage but quicker sailing.


Chart detail showing the ship’s route through Quick’s Hole from Vineyard Sound into Buzzard’s Bay.

Once through Quick’s Hole at 1200 we broke the tow and sailed! The ship heeled as her sails filled with wind. The old language of sailing and ships – clews, outhauls, mizzen, foresail, topgallant, royal – bounced over the deck as the crew “danced” in time to the shouted orders flowing from first mate to crew, echoed and repeated chorus-like as rigging was climbed, yards were raised and lowered, halyards hauled, sails unfurled, braced, backed – inner and outer foresails, mizzen and main stay sails, mainsails, lastly the top gallants gathered up the wind. I stood on the fore deck feeling the ship lift as we sailed out into the bay.


The mayor of New Bedford in the foreground, Chief Mate Sam Sikkema on the anchor deck.


Sailing Buzzards Bay to New Bedford- credit Andy_Price_Mystic_Seaport.jpg

Sailing Buzzards Bay to New Bedford. Credit – Andy Price, Mystic Seaport Museum.

I have to agree with Ryan the stowaway who said that, “one of the greatest things about sailing aboard the Charles W Morgan is watching her tack”. As we tacked across Buzzard’s Bay, at one point reaching 8 knots, I watched in awe as the crew responded to the call “Stand by the main braces” and performed a by now well-rehearsed dance at the working braces. The mainmast has five, and foremast four yards holding the square sails and rigging. To turn the ship, the foresails are backed to catch the wind on the opposite side which drives the bow through the wind, then as the ship moves from one tack to the next, the main yards pivot elegantly as one, catching the wind once more. With boyish enthusiasm, barely able to contain his pleasure at how well the ship handled, Captain Files demonstrated the art of tacking with the help of a model ship on the deck. Down on his knees he moved the model’s yards as he explained how the foremast sails affect those on the main and mizzen, and demonstrated the systematic manoeuvres which (apparently effortlessly) turn the ship.


Captain Files demonstrating the art of tacking a square rigged sailing ship


Climbing the rigging - again!

Climbing the rigging – again!

Then there was a chance to climb the rigging. I remembered “always three points of contact” from the climb on the Joseph Conrad in April and somehow the climb up up the Charles W Morgan’s rigging seemed easier, with firmer timber spreaders rather than ratlines. On my second climb I clipped on and paused a moment to look out over the sea and down at the decks far below. As the crew member waiting with me on the futtock shrouds shivered with cold, I reluctantly retraced my steps. IMG_0064

At 1430 through the haze we sighted New Bedford. Almost as if she had sensed this long before, the Charles W Morgan was flying under  all sails but the royal, heading for her home port for the first time in 71 years. She was going too fast! I had hoped to have a turn at the helm (referred to by more experienced crew as the “shin cracker”) and waited patiently in line with other 38th Voyagers.


Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Herman Melville’s great-great-grandson at the helm.


Our flotilla! Photo courtesy Bunny Fleming.

But we were too late.  At 1520 the slowing down process started; the second mate took the helm, the main yards backed, fore and main yard squared and braced up and then the tow lines passed to waiting Sirius, the fore topsail braced in, the jib taken in, the inner and upper topsails lowered.

The ship approached the hurricane gates, still wearing her lower topsails accompanied by a flotilla of more than 40 boats and a local press helicopter buzzing above. Crowds of people lined the two shores as we heard the sudden boom and saw the smoke of cannons fired in welcome from Fort Phoenix on our starboard side. The ship was coming home.

Passing Butlers Flat Light. Photo courtesy of Bunny Fleming.


Entering New Bedford harbour through the hurricane gates. Photo Andy Price, Mystic Seaport Museum.









I wondered how Parkins Christian had felt as he approached his adopted home when yet another whaling voyage was ending. After serving on the New Bedford whalers the Canton and the California, he had joined the crew of the Charles W Morgan in 1893 and remained on her until 1913. In 1916 the Boston Herald described him as a “disappointed man” when he returned from a summer whaling cruise on the schooner A.M. Nicholson which he had joined after learning his “old love” would not be sent out that year. On his return he discovered that in fact the ship had just left New Bedford for Cape Desolation, Greenland, after “sea elephants” (elephant seals). He said that if he had seen her on the whaling grounds he would have deserted the schooner to go to “my old love, even if I have to swim for it”. As I felt the ship move through the water I could quite understand his feelings. I too will always cherish my short time sailing on the Charles W Morgan!


Even the Charles W Morgan needs fenders!


Chief Mate easing the ship into the pier.


Saying farewell

As the ship gently approached the State Pier in New Bedford and completed this leg of her historic 38th voyage, I had feelings of both elation and sadness. I was now one of a very few people alive who had sailed on an American wooden whaling ship. I had climbed the rigging twice during the voyage, savouring the sheer joy of being aloft on the mainmast as the ship sailed. I had spent the night in the fo’c’sle, listening to the sounds of the ship, the sleeping crew, the watch on deck and aware of the almost imperceptible movements of the ship in the water. I had hauled halyards and freed off lines, sung shanties, hung over the bow as the the keel sliced through the water and watched the sun rise over the white jib boom. And now it was time to leave. My voyage was over and for the next few days she was New Bedford’s once more.


Coming alongside State Pier, New Bedford.










My next post will return to Sunday Island and the Bell family.