Lesley Walker's Blog

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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 second part

My last left me in my berth in the fo’c’sle too excited to sleep, accompanied by snoring and noisy rotation of the large fan. Ryan the Stowaway has commented in his blog about the snoring and even made a recording of the sounds of the fo’c’sle!

“Yesterday, a woman peered into the fo’c’sle and said “I feel bad for the people who don’t snore. That’s got to be terrible.” It’s definitely challenging. As someone who doesn’t snore, the past two nights have been like sleeping between two running air compressors. As the night drags on, the sound rises to the level of low revving chainsaws”.


Choosing berths – Susan Funk, our cohort co-ordinator from Mystic Seaport is probably pleased she is staying ashore!


Fo’c’sle – narrow berth, low headroom, intimate spaces.

Fo'c'sle in model whaling ship in New Bedford Whaling Museum

Fo’c’sle in model whaling ship in New Bedford Whaling Museum











Reading The Cruise of the Cachalot by Frank T. Bullen published in 1898, it seems that conditions in the focsle have not altered so much:

“… down the steep ladder, I entered the gloomy den which was to be for so long my home, finding it fairly packed with my shipmates. A motley crowd they were. … Finding a vacant bunk by the dim glimmer of the ancient teapot lamp that hung amidships, giving out as much smoke as light … even my seasoned head was feeling bad with the villainous reek of the place …”

We did have the luxury of electric light, curtains and the fan to move the air about. And no smoking!

Fo'c'sle - narrow berth, low headroom, intimate spaces.

Fo’c’sle – my narrow berth with exotic bedlinen, low headroom, intimate spaces.

0533 25 June 2014
“This day begins. I need to get out of this confinement. I sense a light breeze, feeling the ship move, swaying ever so gently. I extricate myself from the coffin-like bunk, trying not to wake Mary below me as I let myself down, and with bare feet go up the companionway to the deck in my pyjamas. I see the shadowy figures of the Watch talking quietly midships. The light is still dim. I feel the damp wood of the deck planks under bare feet, and notice with delight the beads of dew sitting in droplets on the oily surface. The sun is starting to rise, the wind SW, a few soft cloud puffs in the lightening sky.”

Dawn, Vineyard Haven, Martha's Vineyard, 25 June 2014

Dawn, Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard, 25 June 2014


Dawn breaking over the bowsprit and jib boom

Dawn breaking over the bowsprit and jib boom

This was precious time alone with the ship. From the anchor deck I watched the light creeping up from the East. Shortly after Mary and Vanessa appeared and we three relished the silence. Little did we realise that this time would be the only opportunity for silent reflection!

Early morning, Vineyard Haven

Early morning, Vineyard Haven

Mary Wayss, teacher at Our Sister's School, New Bedford

Mary Wayss, teacher at Our Sister’s School, New Bedford




Breakfast on deck - eggs benedict, hash browns ...

Breakfast on deck – eggs benedict, hash browns …









Later dressed and breakfasted, we were ordered ashore as the crew climbed rigging, untied sail ties and sorted lines and halyards. Ashore we met the VIP guests who were to accompany us to New Bedford including the Editor of the New Bedford Standard Times newspaper, New Bedford’s mayor and Steve White President of Mystic Seaport Museum and his wife Maggie, and a man who, as a young boy, had watched the Charles W Morgan leave New Bedford for Mystic Seaport in 1941.

Crew Briefing on deck with Chief Mate Sam Sikkema and captain 'Kip' Files

Crew Briefing on deck with Chief Mate Sam Sikkema and Captain ‘Kip’ Files

38th Voyager Vanessa Hodgkinson, an artist from London, wearing her whites approximating the loose 'slops' worn by seamen (and women disguised as seamen).

38th Voyager Vanessa Hodgkinson, an artist from London, wearing her whites approximating the loose ‘slops’ worn by seamen (and women disguised as seamen).











It was time to go! I felt almost reluctant to board, as, with the voyage’s beginning, the ending came that much closer. The wind was SW at 17 knots gusting 20-23 knots. The tugs moved into position, Jaguar alongside to port, Sirius forward with a tow line to help us out from the wharf.

Time to go

Time to go. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, Mystic Seaport staff and Melville scholar, aloft on the foremast, freeing the sail ties on the lower topsail yard


Around us, classic yachts including the beautiful topsail schooner Shenandoah (1964),  Alabama (1926) and the William Fife designed Sumuran (1914) and modern, ribs and other boats gathered. Roann, Mystic Seaport Museum’s restored Eastern-rig Dragger was our support vessel.

Shenandoah (1964)

Shenandoah (1964)


William Fife designed Sumuran (1914) and Alabama (1926)


Roann (1948) 60-foot long, Eastern-Rig Dragger from Mystic Seaport











As I went to board I spotted a familiar face from my walking tour in New Bedford the previous Sunday. Annette Mason and her husband Bob from Solana Beach, California, were the only other participants on the tour and we had spoken of my impending voyage on the Charles W. Morgan. Annette had expressed the desire to see the ship (and stowaway!) but she was booked to leave New Bedford that evening. And here she was now, camera in hand, at Vineyard Haven. She had changed her flight back and taken the dawn ferry across to see the ship leave. Later I discovered she had persuaded the Haven harbourmaster to take her out in his launch as the ship left and she sent me some of her photographs. This is the sort of passion this ship creates in all who come to know her!

Charles W Morgan leaving Vineyard Haven. Courtesy Annette Mason.

Charles W Morgan leaving Vineyard Haven under sail. Courtesy Annette Mason.

Charles W Morgan leaving Vineyard Haven watched by Harbor Master, Jay. Courtesy Annette Mason.

Charles W Morgan leaving Vineyard Haven watched by Harbor Master, Jay. Courtesy Annette Mason.












Replacing the bulwarks after the gangplank has been removed. Foreground – one of the iron try pots in the copper and brick try works, used for extracting oil from blubber

Once on board we were allocated a watch, port or starboard, (I was port – or larboard as it would have been during he ship’s whaling days) for the fire and safety drills including man overboard and abandon ship. We went through a safety drill donning life jackets stowed in the former vegetable locker midships. On deck, the gangplank was removed, the starboard waist whaleboat was hauled up, back on its davits, the lines were loosed and the Charles W Morgan was guided gently out.

Hauling up the starboard waist whaleboat

Hauling up the starboard waist whaleboat

Lifejackets stowed in the former vegetable hold on deck. We were allocated port or starboard watches for fore and safety drills. I was in the port watch.

Lifejackets stowed in the former vegetable hold on deck.

There was a fresh breeze behind and we’d hoped to tack out to Vineyard Sound under sail and the crew began working the lines. The order was given to break the tow. But shortly thereafter, with the tide running at 3 knots, it became clear that there was no way we would even make Wood’s Hole against the tide. Orders were given and the tow line was passed back to the waiting Sirius. But even under tow, we were away!

Standing by with the lines and halyards

Standing by with the lines and halyards

Manila everywhere!

Manila everywhere!


Voyaging – The city that lit the world

The time has finally come! As Air Canada Flight AC869 cruises towards North America I think of how the survival of the Charles W Morgan links me directly to both the geographical and the historical world of my great great grandparents and great grandmother. Over the past few months, since I was offered a place as one of the 38th Voyagers, I have started a journey of which I have dreamed for many years – to explore and write about their extraordinary story linked to the changing world in which they lived. When my great aunt Hester gave me a copy of Crusoes of Sunday Island in the late 1950s I discovered that my ordinary-seeming family had a past that was out of the ordinary.  My great grandmother had, at my age, sailed to, lived, worked and played on an isolated volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I remember standing in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm gazing in awe at the ghostly ship towering above me. The Vasa sank in 1628 and I was struck by the realisation that this was a sight I was never supposed to see. So too the 19th century whaling ships which Bessie and her brothers and sisters watched whaling, sailing and anchoring off Sunday Island, bringing the world to their remote part of the Pacific and linking communities in Massachusetts, Pacific and Atlantic Islands, New Zealand and Australia. And over 130 years later I was not only seeing, but sleeping and sailing on one!

New Bedford, Massachusetts is where Parkins Christian called home in between whaling voyages and before and after the Charles W Morgan’s move to San Francisco as her home port from 1886 until 1906. Once known as the whaling capital of the world, and the richest town in America, 329 whaling vessels employing roughly 10,000 men sailed from here in 1857. Like so many American towns, New Bedford was designed on a grid, with a modern highway obliterating the original connection of town, harbour and the Acushnet River.

Samuel Rodman's Candleworks, North Water St, built in 1810 for the manufacture of very expensive spermaceti candles. This was New Bedford's first major restoration project.

Samuel Rodman’s Candleworks, North Water St, built in 1810 for the manufacture of very expensive spermaceti candles. This was New Bedford’s first major restoration project.


New Bedford Historic District, looking up William St towards the 1834 Customs House, the oldest continuously operating customs house in the US.

New Bedford Historic District, looking up William St towards the 1834 Customs House, the oldest continuously operating customs house in the US.

New Bedford Historic District, Water St

New Bedford Historic District, Water St

At first impressions New Bedford has seen better days. Like New London, Connecticut, another whaling port which I visited in April this year, there are many empty shops and closed up buildings, remains of warehouses and grand public buildings.

Large elegant wooden and shingled houses topped with turrets and towers, surrounded by leafy gardens line County St, the former homes of the whaling merchants and ship owners. Streets called Rodman and Rotch, Morgan and Hillman remind residents of the families who built, funded and owned the whaling fleet in 19th century.

Rotch Jones Duff House and Garden, County St, built 1834 and associated with three families who were closely tied to New Bedford's whaling industry

Rotch Jones Duff House and Garden, County St, built 1834 and associated with three families who were closely tied to New Bedford’s whaling industry

House, County St, New Bedford

House, County St, New Bedford

The city’s loss of the Charles W Morgan the last surviving American wooden whaling ship, to Mystic Seaport in 1941 symbolized the loss of prosperity wrought by the end of whaling and later the textile industry followed by the Great Depression.

It is Sunday. In the harbour a large fishing fleet of trawlers and scallopers, most with Portuguese names, lies idle.

Fishing trawlers, New Bedford

Fishing trawlers, New Bedford

I wander the streets finding most shops, the second hand book shop, the galleries and most of the cafés closed. Even the cobbled streets of the historic district are quiet. The Visitor Centre with interesting interpretation is open but empty. I go on a free walking tour about the Underground Railroad (I had missed the Whaling tour in the morning) and discover another aspect of New Bedford’s rich history, the Quaker link with abolition and the anti-slavery movement, Frederick Douglass’ residence in the town and the escape route the whaling ships provided for those who could obtain the right papers. The presence of Cape Verdean, Azorean and Portuguese restaurants (all closed too!) is a visible link to the whaling voyages and crews of the whaling years.

I wondered where Parkins Christian had stayed between voyages – the Mariners’ Home?

Mariners' Home, built c1790, New Bedford

Mariners’ Home, built c1790, New Bedford

Or in one of the many boarding houses on what is now Johnny Cake Hill?

Interpretation panel showing the boarding houses on what is now called Johnny Cake Hill

Interpretation panel showing the boarding houses on what is now called Johnny Cake Hill

Did he attend services in the Seamen’s Bethel before joining yet another voyage on the Charles W Morgan? As the Whalemen’s Chapel, this was immortalized in both Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick and the eponymous film where Ishmael attended a service before he joined the Pequod under Captain Ahab. A sign on the wall indicates the pew in which Melville sat listening to Rev. Enoch Mudge’s sermon before embarking on the whaling ship Acushnet on 3 January 1841, just months before the Charles W Morgan was launched. In a ironic reversal of truth and fiction and due to public demand, a copy of the fictional bow-shaped boat pulpit in the John Houston film (made in Youghal, County Cork, Ireland) has replaced the Bethel’s original plain box pulpit. The pulpit may not be original or authentic but it satisfies visitor expectation.

Seamen's Bethel, New Bedford

Seamen’s Bethel, New Bedford


Pulpit, Seamen's Bethel, New Bedford

Pulpit, Seamen’s Bethel, New Bedford

But the cenotaphs or memorial tablets lining the walls are real. Testament to the dangers of whaling, these record that there would be no last resting place on earth for William Kirkwood, 25, who fell from aloft and drowned near Cape Horn in 1850, for Gilbert Jay, 19, who was lost from a boat in pursuit of a whale in 1822, and Franklin Jay who suffered the same fate in 1832, for Captain William Swain 49 who, having fastened onto a whale, was carried overboard by the line and drowned in 1844 and boat steerer Nathaniel Cole 24, and two of his crew Edward Laffray 25 and Frank Kanacka 19, who lost their lives by the upsetting of their whale boat in the Ochotsk Sea in 1854. Modern tablets to contemporary fishing tragedies show that going down to the sea in ships can still be a dangerous occupation.


Later in the week I explored the wonderful collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and, in the limited hours it opened, the Museum’s Library and Archive. Despite the very helpful staff in the reading room, the restricted days and opening hours were a huge source of frustration for international visitors like me who just managed a glimpse of the treasures within. The whaling fleet logbooks survive in great numbers and just as in Mystic Seaport library and archive, the ones in New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard libraries are truly magnificent. More on these later!
Next – the 38th Voyage!