Log book of a Collier Skipper


Reproduced here with kind permission of his family.

Capt. James Knill.  Born 1823> ?

Introductory remarks

When the muse is pleas’d to shine,
I take my pen, and write a rhyme,
The Fickle Jade, is ill to please,
Unless I humour her to ease
Her motions.

Capt. James Knill.  Born 1823> ?

The following rhymes were written at various times under various circumstances, at sea and on shore, at anchor in roadsteads, in bad weather, or sailing gaily along with a fine, fair wind, to the destined port, all hearts glad with the prospect of meeting with those they loved, after an absence of a long and tedious voyage. Among rocks and sands and stormy weather, and other incidents of a seafaring nature, I write a good deal from memory. As I have lost several leaves out of my log book, and it being a long distance to look back, my perspective telescope gets obscured by fog, and other causes, and the vista of the past half-century becomes almost as capricious as a dream or a fading vision. But I hope my readers will not look at my defects, either humerous or serious, but at the feelings and emotions of the muse which prompted me at the times and seasons they were written, in the sixties and seventies, on board the “Annandale” brig, pitching and rolling, and heaving sometimes on a lee shore and other times on a weather shore. My friends and relatives have often urged me to put my odds and ends together, and now I comply with their request, hoping to please them with sentiment or humour. I send my little barque upon the sea hoping she may have a pleasant voyage. J.W. KNILL.

Through “Dawdon Dene” With Maggie

As I was walking through the dene,
A little to the west of Seaham (Se-am),
And musing on the lovely scene,
Was startled from my musing dream –
My meeting with my Maggie.

‘Twas in the early summer time,
Between the hours of eight and nine;
The evening clear, serene and fine,
And wild flowers grew in virgin prime
To grace the walk of Maggie.

The lark was singing up on high,
Between the earth and azure sky;
The sporting lambs did bleating cry,
And flowers each other seem’d to vie
To grace the walk of Maggie.

The trees were clad in foliage green,
Their rustling leaves in ardour seem,
To lend their music to the scene,
And welcome bid the graceful queen,
Or whisper love to Maggie.

The hawthorn lends its sweet perfume,
The primrose gay in nature’s bloom,
The daisies modestly assume,
And nature’s laid her carpet down
To greet the walk of Maggie.

The feather’d songsters of the wood,
Of various hue and varied brood,
Join all their notes in gladsome mood,
As if her coming understood
To cheer the walk of Maggie

The burn meandering runs along
Through meads and trees and flowers among,
And joins the quorum in their song –
A motley, lively, cheerful throng –
To sing love songs to Maggie.

The trees may bud, the birds may sing,
And flowers may bloom and nature bring,
And fill her pleasures to the brim,
And at me all her treasures fling –
There’s none so dear as Maggie.

The River Wear

To the Editor of the “Times”. (From memory.)

Dear Sir,

To me it’s very queer
Such things should happen on the Wear.
We have to pay from year to year
To keep the river bottom clear;
Now there is not water (e)nough to float
From side to side the ferryboat;
The sand and mud have grown so high,
When it’s low tide the middle’s dry;
From boat to boat we have to plank it,
When in the middle we get bank ‘et.
Poor things, the ladies shake with fear,
And trembling cry, “Oh dear, oh dear,”
Lest they get dip’d into the Wear.
We hope to see, and that right soon,
A dredger working up and down –
Dredging up the sand and mud
To make the ferry’s passage (good) gud;
Then the ladies will be pleas’d
And find their fears from danger eas’d,
And thank the friendly Corporation
For making needful alteration.


The poor Old Crossing Sweeper on Tower Hill, London

With hollow cheek and sunken eye,
On Tower Hill as I passed by,
With broom in hand he sweeps the way;
And never asks, but trusts for pay,
The poor old crossing sweeper.

His trembling limbs benum’d with cold,
His tatter’d garments thin and old;
He’s scarcely clad and scarcely fed,
And yet he looks a man well bred,
The poor old crossing sweeper.

His crownless hat and soleless shoes,
Tell plainly they’ve been long in use;
His hair looks out, his toes the same.
And all he wears not worth a name,
The poor old crossing sweeper.

At night where does he lay his head,
I question much if on a bed;
In some poor garret or a cell,
His crumpled garments plainly tell,
Where sleeps the crossing sweeper.

His pallid look and hollow voice,
As he lifts up his hat apoise,
To kindly thank for what I gave,
Tell me that soon the greedy grave
Will claim the crossing sweeper.

Consumption’s mark’d him for its prey,
He seems much weaker every day;
Of late I’ve miss’d him from his stand,
I cannot now put in his hand
A copper, poor old sweeper.

Where is he now, his kindly death
Deprived him of his scanty breath?
Has he pass’d o’er that friendly bourne
“From whence no travellers return?”
The poor old crossing sweeper.

The King, the Prince, the Duke, the Lord,
Must meet, indistinct, at this ford;
The courtly dress and glittering crown
Are here as useless – both laid down
With the rags of the crossing sweeper.

To the Harbour Master at Seaham Harbour,
January 2nd, 1870.

With due respect I write to you,
Not to inform, as know you do
That my ship, the “Annandale,”
Has broke the “Will Thrift’s” martingale.
Her master looks to me for pay,
Which must be paid without delay;
And which I think is very hard,
As my ship was securely moor’d
Till by your orders cast adrift;
She went foul of the “Wm. Thrift”;
My owner might think it rather queer
That I should do such damage here.
I think the estate of Londonderry
Should pay the cost to Bill and Jerry.

On receipt of the above he sent me to order a martingale at the Workshop, at the harbour expense.

To the Hetton Coal Fitter, Seaham Harbour.

I don’t intend to write a song,
Much less to write a sermon,
As I unto a class belong
That cannot boast of Learning;
But just to say the long delay
I have in getting loaded
Has wearied me from day to day,
My mind with promise goaded;
If promises could make the coal,
Or words made into guineas.
By this they would have filled my hold,
To count them take dominies.

An order was sent to the dock to put the “Annandale” under the spout immediately and load her right off.

To the promoters of the Reading Room,  Seaham Docks.

Ladies and Gentlemen,-
We thank you kindly for the boon,
In giving us a reading room,
Where we can pass our leisure time,
Improving our best part the mind;
The house adapted once for cooks,
You’ve made it now a house for books,
Where drunken cooks the dinners spoil’d,
And wasted both the roast and boil’d,
Where well-cooked food made stomachs fain,
There’s something now to feed the brain;
And as the wheels of time roll round,
Proved friends to sailors still are found,
And you, kind friends, who e’er you be,
We join to thank you heartily.
We’d thank you more for something yet,
A library if you would get;
And we would help by contribution,
To make it a greater institution;
Such a boon is wanted much,
That we may have a choice in touch,
For men with various mood of mind
Amongst the sailors you will find,
Some for scripture, some for song,
Some for history hundreds long,
Some for grammar, some for diction,
And others fonder still of fiction;
Some like to climb up to the stars,
And others polar regions far;
Some like to soar up to the sun,
And others like to quiz at the moon,
To see what kind of folk are there,
If they are black or brown or fair;
Some like to study politics,
And others plants and trees and tricks,
And some the birds and beasts and fish,
On wings or legs or in a dish;
Some like to dig deep in a mine,
In hope some treasure there to find,
But, friends, lest I should tire your patience,
I’ll here wind up my long narration;
Yet say that still brave hearts and true
Beat underneath a jacket blue,
And that if war should e’er break out
We could still give the foe a clout,
But hope ere long the flag of peace,
Will wave proclaiming wars have ceas’d.

SEAHAM, November 15th, 1870.

The Dirty Streets, Seaham Harbour

To the Editor of “Seaham Observer,” 1871.

The wind’s blowin’ strongly from the east,
And keenly felt by man and beast;
The frost’s been keen most all the week,
And snow’s “wreathe’d” up about the street;
But now the frost and snow are gone,
And, melting both, the rains come down.
Now the streets almost are ankle deep,
For want of men and brooms to sweep;
The ladies have to walk tip-toe,
And ankles, even legs they’ll show;
They have to kilt then gowns and skirt,
To keep them out from ‘mong the dirt;
For shames sake send the carts and shull’s.
With men, to clear away the mulls.
If camels should go down your street,
They’d splash your windows with their feet,
As they your dirty lanes go doon (down).
We gipsies, singing, buy a broom,
The ladies then, with many thanks,
Will cleanly walk along your banks;
And when a shopping they have been,
To home return both sweet and clean;
No need to use the sponge and brush,
The streets are clear’d of mud and slush.

The Storms.
I think it will not be out of place to inform my reader that I am looking back to a distance of seventy-five years, and trying to connect some of the links of the first twenty years of my eventful life. I was born on the 29th January, 1823 at an obscure fishing village on the Northumberland Coast. my father was a Coastguard man, and my mother a fish agent’s daughter. On the night I was born a vessel laden with barley was wrecked on the rocks at Newton, and the old fishermen and fisherwomen had a good harvest of barleycorn, which was ground into meal to make bread for the bairns, and after I grew to know language I heard them say it is so many years since the barley ship came ashore, the night Johnny Knill was born.

Where’er I roam, whatever land I see,
Home of my youth thou art still dear to me.”

I can remember seeing the French fishing boats come ashore, and my father assisting to save the crews, for which he received a medal from the King of France. I also can remember the wreck of the “Forfarshire”, at which Grace Darling played so prominent a part, on the Farne Islands, and my father bringing a pair of scissors to my mother, which he had picked out from the hole in the cock. We could see her wreck from the watch house, at Newton, by the telescope. There are many more incidents I might mention which occurred in my youthful days, but I pass them over, and come to the time when my dear father was taken from us – a family of seven and a widowed mother. I

was the eldest, fourteen years of age. After my father serving his country for twenty-seven years, we were cast upon the world to do the best we could for ourselves. I have often thought if our case had been freely ventilated, and some kind, acute friend had inquired into the circumstances, my poor mother would have gotten an annuity from Her Majesty’s Government.

I went to the fishing for about two years, and then, when a little over sixteen, I had the privilege of joining Her Majesty’s revenue cutter, “Mermaid”, on the Berwick Station, and remained in the service until I was about twenty, when I left it and joined the merchant service, as related in the sequel of my narrative. During the time I was in the “Mermaid”, a circumstance occurred which I have never forgotten, and never will as long as my memory keeps her seat, and right reason holds the helm – until the last harbour is gained, and the sails of my poor weather-beaten barque is furled, to be loosed no more, until the three calls, “All hands on deck”, to meet and hail the Great Captain of Heaven and Earth, and the owner of every vessel of mercy which appears in the register of the port of eternal rest no more to un-moor and put to sea, where there shall be no more sea or storms, or devils, or Johnny Grippys.

Some with masts lost and sails all riven,
The port would never make;
But by a gracious gale are driven
There for the owner’s sake,”

“Sampson arrives, but in a wreck
David with broken bones,
Eli with a broken neck,
Stephen midst showers of stones.”

“Plagues and deaths around me fly,
Till He bids, I cannot die,
And not a single shaft shall hit,
Till a God of Love sees fit.”

Permit me to say that I write from facts as they have recurred to my memory. They are experiences and hardships which has been my lot. Infidelity may laugh at some of my writings, but they are true.

My first Shipwreck

As I write from memory of the past fifty-five years, I beg to ask my readers to pardon the omission of days and dates, and read my narrative in its main incidents, as connected with the above headings. I was a young man when I shipped in a Berwick smack, bound from Berwick to Easedale, in the Highlands of Scotland, with a cargo of coals. Her name, “Charlotte Mackenzie.” Her crew, four in number, including the captain (named Constable), and a very good double C he was. We had a very rough and stormy passage down the Scotch coast, and up the “Moray Firth,” until we entered the Caledonian Canal, through which we were towed by horses on the side of the same, by a rope from the ship attached to them. From thence we passed into Loch Ness, through which we had to make several tacks, sometimes almost blinded by snowstorms, although it was in the month of May – extremely cold. Eventually we arrived at Easedale, our port of discharge, after a tedious time, navigating through sounds and lochs and rocks, among which we had many a close shave. We got discharged of our coals, and loaded a cargo of slates for Berwick-on-Tweed. We sailed from Easedale through the Sound of Mull, and had a fairly good passage until we reached Cape Wrath (ominous name), where we met with very bad weather. Our captain made up his mind to try and gain an anchorage in Loch Laxford, and in doing so struck a sunken rock, and holed her bottom, slipped off the rock, and began to fill with water. We put out the boat ready to leave the ship, but seeing a small cove between two high rocks on the lee, made for it, and just in entering it sank, leaving us standing on the deck, up to our waists in the water, looking at each other in wonder and amazement at our narrow escape, proving the words true that “Safety consists not in escape from dangers of a frightful shape; an earthquake may be bid to spare the man that is strangled by a hair.” we landed in our own boat, and were met by the farmers and fishermen, and conducted to a farmhouse, and were treated very kindly. After being refreshed with milk and scones, and had our clothes dried, we returned to the ship, and found her free from water. We boarded her again to get our clothes, which were all wet. My son chest was full of water, my reference Bible and books all spoiled; also, my best shore-going suit; all the provisions, except the beef, which was carried to the farmhouse. We stayed a few days with the farmer’s family, consisting of wife, daughters, and sons, and cattle. Our bed for three was separated from the cattle by a wooden partition, and often during the night the cows called the watch by their lowing in the next room. Then we would give each other a dun and say “do you hear the watch called?” Well, the time came when we must leave this happy family, and their kind treatment; and, shank the distance, seventy miles to Invergorden, a rough and rugged road, with a drove of cattle and their drovers as guides, over hills and through glens, winding round the base of mountains, crossing waters, stopping at nights in a wayside shelter, appointed for travellers, shepherds, and sailors; menu, milk and scones, oat cakes (cakes), and whisky, oatmeal porridge, with plenty of good milk, of which I could take my share. In four days we arrived at our port of shipment, and walked on board the big “Caledonia”. after the cattle was put on board we steamed away from Leith, calling on the way at Banff and Aberdeen for goods, passengers, and more cattle. Paddling away from the above-named city, we arrived in due time at Leith. From thence we trained it home to Berwick, not bringing poor old “Charlotte” back with us, but leaving her wreck and poor old bones in Loch Laxford, to be washed and bleached and whitened, with the black waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Now let me ascribe a song of praise to Him “who holds the winds in His fist and the waves in the hollow of His hand”:-

“Rendered safe by His protection,
We shall pass the watery waste,
Trusting to His wise direction,
We shall gain the port at last,
And with wonder think on toils and dangers past.”

From here I must skip over a few years, until I come to my second shipwreck, which occurred on Corton Beach Yarmouth Roads, on board the “Bedale,” of Whitby, parting from both anchors in a heavy gale from the eastward, and driving ashore. It was high water when she came to the ground, and being a dark night and thick with rain, we were not seen by the people on shore for two hours. During that time the tide had left her considerably above water, when we were rescued by the Lowestoft beachmen in one of their big yawls. Next flood tide she broke up. We were sent home by the Shipwrecked Society. I would add, the Captain promised to send the wages due to us, the men. But we never received a penny. Whether the owners paid him or not is unknown to us; if not, they are in our debt still. If this should ever meet their eye, I hope conscience will do its duty. No doubt the freight was insured with the ship – to them a gain, to us a loss. My third shipwreck happened in Skinning Grove Bay in thick weather. We saved ourselves in our own boat, pouring oil into the sea as we came towards the broken water. This was in October, 1881. I cannot say with the author of the voyage in the coal trade:

When I became a captain I thought myself a king;
And very soon I did forget the foremast man I’d been,
But that I never knew I was a sailor until I became a captain,
Nor selfishness, nor self-conceit, I ne’er was wrapt in.

And, as our truthful poet expresses, “When self the savouring balance shakes, it’s seldom right adjusted”. And, again, “Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”. I have often thought that if there is one mind more use that another, it is that man, that mind, which is all for self, and cares not how much he oppresses and tyrannises over his poor workmen, whether at sea or on shore, at the slough or at the helm, so long as he can grab all into his own bag. If there is one more than another I despise it is “Johnny Grippy” men, who are mean and base and low, whatever they may profess to be. As I am busy with recollections of the past, permit me to add a few more of my narrow escapes from a watery grave.

About two years after my first shipwreck I was washed overboard from the deck of the “Radiant”, of Blyth, in the North Sea, in mid winter, on a dark night, during a heavy gale from the SE and a heavy snowfall, fore reaching under two close reefed topsails, on the starboard tack, when a tremendous sea struck the ship on the starboard quarter, carrying away bulwarks, skylight, companion, cabin funnel, and me with them. The man at the wheel got entangled among the wheel chains. The mate, who was in the cabin at the time speaking with the captain, had some difficulty in regaining the deck. The helmsman told him I was over-board, and looking about the loe quarter, found me hanging by one arm round the timber head in the covering board outside. He dragged me to the deck quite exhausted. I found I had got hold of something and clung to it. What a wonderful deliverance!

Chained to His throne a volume lies,
With all the fates of men,
With every angel’s form and size,
Drawn by the eternal pen”.

“Keep her away before it,” I heard the captain call, and she was kept away from the Firth of Forth, where we anchored at midnight under Inchkeith, after being battered about for four days. Eventually we arrived at London, and back to Warkworth. After repairing damages sailed from Hamburg. Then from there up the Baltic, loaded a cargo of grain at Danzig for Leith, where I left the “Radiant” and shipped in the “Fanny,” of Sunderland, bound from Dover. Sailed thence to Llannelly in Wales, loaded coals for Lowestoft, from there to Sunderland, and again to the Baltic. Loaded at Danzig for Goole, where I left the “Fanny,” came to Hull, and shipped in the “Lady Seaham,” by the run to Seaham, there to cast anchor in the harbour of matrimony, moored by a golden ring of the best gold, to a finger-post more precious than the ring. There two of us made our home – man and wife.


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