Picture: Newcastle Keelmen
All through Boxing Day the east wind roared against the house and lashed the slates with sleety horizontal rain. In my attic office the noise of the wind was relentless, battering the roof, rocking the windows, so that you could be aware of nothing but the wind and the wind’s noise, on and on. I crept downstairs to a quieter room and nursed my post-festive migraine. I didn’t mind too much. We’d had a great Christmas day full of good cheer and excitement; I was ready for life to close down the shutters and say, enough.
Besides, it was freezing cold. We’re trying to reduce our fossil fuel use, and to turn on the central heating only if it is unavoidable. The house is well-insulated and snugly surrounded by other house walls, so it can withstand cold. But a south-easterly finds it out, finds every crack in the exposed wall and roof, and the house was arctic. I had my thermals on, warm tracksuit, jersey, Arran sweater….and then the fluffy dressing-gown with the hood on over it all to try and keep my head warm. Sitting at the computer, my hands started to get too cold for the keyboard.
It brought back a memory of piano practice long ago, back in my boarding school in the Scottish Borders in the 1950s. The school occupied the 18th century mansion of the Earls of Minto, who had given up on their stately home in the post-war years. It had an exquisite staircase and cupola designed by Adam and a huge ornate dining-room where plaster cherubs gazed down from the cornices on our dismal breakfasts of congealing bacon. No doubt in its glory days an army of housemaids had scurried from room to room with their coal scuttles stoking up the fires in a score of noble hearths. But by then their ghosts had vanished without trace and the house was cave-cold with that special penetrating dampness of stone houses. Sometimes in the dormitories, housed in once-gracious bedrooms with early Morris wallpapers, then filled with long lines of spring-shattered hospital beds, the water in our toothmugs would freeze on the chest-of-drawers. There were no concessions. Our uniform was a green gymslip that came to just below the knees, where it was joined by a pair of green woollen socks, held up by garters. Beneath were green flannel underpants, a green vest and a pale green blouse. That was it. If it was exceptionally cold a cardigan was allowed. Eighteenth century architecture became intimately associated in my mind with bone-chilling coldness and emotional desolation.
I took piano lessons with a fierce-beaked Scottish lady called Mrs Barclay. For the lessons, we went to an elegant octagonal drawing room with a grand piano, a room heated for Mrs Barclay’s benefit so that her hands were always ready to leap up and down the keys in dazzling glissandos. But for us children the daily grind of piano practice took place in the lower ground floor music rooms, little more than cellars with a glimpse of basement light. Within minutes of starting practice in the winter months, fingers turned white with cold and refused to move, clumsy, ungainly digits hardly able to distinguish a black note from a white. Desperation would set in, between the desire to abandon the sorry charade altogether and the fear of Mrs Barclay’s harangues.
Back in my attic, as my fingers stumbled numbly over the computer key-board, I wondered, is it time to give up and flick the switch? My husband came into the room holding a thermometer and looking grave. ‘Thirteen degrees,’ he said. We had a moment of silent complicity. He turned away and hit the booster button.
And now, in the Covid-quiet dog days between Christmas and New Year, the wind has dropped and fog is rolling in over a slow swell. The house is quiet and only mildly chilly. I am back at the computer with active fingers, ready to slip back on a centuries’ old swell into the imagined world of the novel I am working on. There, a score of colliers are running down the Tyne with top mizzens reefed, the Racehorse is setting out for the North Pole, and a Whitby ship-master is coming out of the Admiralty offices with a document in his wallet.
Already, here, in this mid-18th century world, the fossil fuel revolution is well underway. London is swallowing coal in staggering quantities, so that foreign visitors complain of the sooty air in the capital. Coal from the Newcastle and Durham coalfields is shipped down the Tyne by the keelmen to be loaded, chaldron by weary chaldron, from the rocking keels into the hold of a Whitby cat. Newcastle may have the coals, but Whitby builds the ships that carry them and apprentices the boys who work them. Life on those ships is unimaginably cold and wet; the only solace is the brandy ration. In winter, when the warp and weft of sail ropes becomes too ice-slippery for numbed fingers, there is no choice but to lay the ships up.
There are no routine sailings. Even the most experienced crews can find themselves becalmed for days on end or driven halfway to the Netherlands by a south-westerly squall. The skill of a Whitby master is to get his ship to London in as few days or weeks as the wind allows, to sneak her into dock with the minimum of charges and get the best price going for his owner’s coal. Every extra day at sea means more provisions used, less profit gained.
John Addison, my kinsman in this other world, is thirty two. He has been at sea for twenty years, has worked his way up to become a master on the Whitby colliers and has started buying shares in other ships. It is a slow hard way to make your fortune – not a fortune even, but a living. He wants more. He wants land, he wants to be a gentleman. A voter. All his hopes rest on the document now in his satchel as he walks away from the Admiralty, heading back to Deptford, heading for home.
And thanks to a twenty-first century miracle of technology I can look over his shoulder and read the document he took back to Whitby, now held in the National Archives at Kew. It is a Letter of Marque, issued after the start of the Seven Years War, the war that was to establish England for the first time as a colonial power. It licences him to use his ship, Friends Desire, to attack and capture enemy shipping for his own profit. Captures have to be brought back to London to check that they are indeed enemy ships, but once ‘condemned’ they are legitimate prizes. The profit is divided in a descending ratio between all members of the crew. There were eighty men aboard the Friends Desire, eighty would-be privateers, ordinary sailors with no military training of any kind who were ready to risk their lives for fortune with John Addison. Here are the details it lists:
Ship: Friends Desire . Burden: 400 tons. Crew: 80. Owner: John Addison
Commander: John Addison.
Lieutenant: John Broderick.
Gunner: Andrew Harper.
Boatswain: Hezekiel Newmatch.
Carpenter: John Hutchinson.
Surgeon: John Addison.
Cook: Thomas Presswick.
Armament: 10 carriage guns.
Date: 1756 July 31
This was the buccaneering world where our world began, a world of prizes, plunder, trade and colonies, where the open seas could carry men from any background to undreamed-of fortune. When they had made it, the apotheosis of their ambitions was, it seems, to come home to the sleepy acres of their country and build an enormous pile. I think of Minto House and I want to call out to John Addison across the centuries, ‘Don’t do it! It’s not worth it!’
Minto House was built on money from the East India trade; the Earls of Minto became viceroys of India. But where did it all end? The boarding school closed down soon after I left and the house became half-derelict. In the 1990s the 6th Earl of Minto, in the teeth of outraged opposition from every conservation lobby in Scotland, went ahead and demolished the entire building. When I returned a few years later to look at the house there was absolutely nothing left. A slope in the ground, some rough grass and the remains of the terraced garden. My green-knickered nine-year old self danced with joy upon the ruins. Perhaps the sixth Earl of Minto did too.