The Wreck of the Grosvenor

by W. Clark Russell


I AM complimented by an invitation to tell what I can recollect of the writing, publication, and reception of the earliest of my sea books, 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor."' I approach the subject with diffidence, and ask the reader to forgive me if he thinks or finds me unduly egotistical. 'John Holdsworth: Chief Mate,' preceded 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor."' I do not regard that story as a novel of the sea. I was reluctant and timid in dealing with ocean topics when the scheme of that tale came into my head; I contented myself with pulling off my shoes and socks and walking about ankle deep into the ripples. But in the 'Grosvenor' I went to sea like a man; I signed articles aboard her as second mate; I had ruffians for shipmates, and the stench of the harness-cask was the animating influence of the narrative. It is the first sea book I ever wrote, in the sense, I mean, that its successors are sea books: what I have to say, therefore, agreeably to the plan of these personal contributions, will refer to it.


And first, I must write a few words about my own experience as a sailor. I went to sea in the year 1858, when I was a child of thirteen years and a few months old. My first ship was a well-known Australian liner, the 'Duncan Dunbar,' commanded by an old salt, named Neatby, who will always be memorable to me for his habit of wearing the tall chimney-pot hat of the London streets in all weathers and parallels, whether in the roasting calms of the Equator, or in the snow-darkened hurricanes of the Horn. I went to sea as a 'midshipman' as it is termed, though I never could persuade myself that a lad in the Merchant Service, no matter how heavy might be the premium his friends paid for him, has a right to a title of grade or rating that belongs essentially and peculiarly to the Royal Navy. I signed for a shilling a month, and with the rest of us (there were ten) was called 'young gentleman'; but we were put to work which an able seaman would have been within his rights in refusing, as being what is called 'boys’' duty. I need not be particular. Enough that the discipline was as rough as though we had been lads in the forecastle, with a huge boatswain and brutal boatswain's mates to look after us. We paid ten guineas each as a contribution to some imagination of a stock of eatables for the midshipmen's berth; but my memory carries no more than a few tins of preserved potatoes, a great number of bottles of pickles, and a cask of exceedingly moist sugar. Therefore, we were thrown upon the ship's provisions, and I very soon became intimately acquainted with the quality and nature of the stores served out to forecastle hands.


I made, but not after the manner of Gulliver, several voyages into remote nations of the world, and in the eight years I was at sea I picked up enough knowledge to qualify me to give the public a few new ideas about the ocean life. Yet when the scribbling mania possessed me it was long before I could summon courage to write about the sea and sailors. I asked myself, Who is interested in the Merchant Service? What public shall I find to listen to me? Those who read novels want stories about love and elopements, abductions, and the several violations of the sanctities of domestic life. The great mass of readers—those who support the circulating libraries—are ladies. Will it be possible to interest ladies in forecastle life and in the prosaics of the cabin?


Then, again, I was frightened by the Writer for Boys. He was very much at sea. I never picked up a book of his without lighting upon some hideous act of piracy, some astounding and unparalleled shipwreck, some marvellous island of treasure. This writer, of a clan numerous as Wordsworth's 'little lot of stars,' warned me off and affrighted me. His paper ship had so long and successfully filled the public eye that I shrank from launching anything real, anything with strakes and treenails, anything with running rigging so leading that a sailor would exactly know what to let go when the order was given. In plain English, I judged that the sea story had been irremediably depressed, and rendered wholly ridiculous by the strenuous periodic and Christmas labours of the Writer for Boys. Had he not sunk even Marryat and Michael Scott, who, because they wrote about the sea, were compelled in due course by the publishers to address themselves exclusively to boys! The late George Cupples—a man of fine genius—in the course of a letter to me, complained warmly of being made to figure as 'Captain' George Cupples upon the title-page of his admirable work, 'The Green Hand.' He assured me that he was no captain, and that his name thus written was merely a bookseller's dodge to recommend his story to boys.

And, still, I would sometimes think that if I would but take heart and go afloat in imagination, under the old red flag, I should find within the circle of the horizon such materials for a book as might recommend it, at all events on the score of freshness. Only two writers had dealt with the mercantile side of the ocean life—Dana, the author of 'Two Years before the Mast,' and Herman Melville, both of them, it is needless to say, Americans. I could not recollect a book, written by an Englishman, relating, as a work of fiction, to shipboard life on the high seas under the flag of the Merchant Service. I excluded the Writer for Boys. I could recall no author who, himself a practical seaman, one who had slept with sailors, eaten with them, gone aloft with them, and suffered with them, had produced a book, a novel—call it what you will—wholly based on what I may term the inner life of the forecastle and the cabin.


It chanced one day that a big ship, with a mastheaded colour, telling of trouble on board, let go her anchor in the Downs. I then lived in a town which overlooks those waters. The crew of the ship had mutinied: they had carried the vessel halfway down Channel, when, discovering by that time what sort of provisions had been shipped for them, they forced the master to shift his helm for the inwards course. The crew of thirteen or fourteen hairy, queerly attired fellows, in Scotch caps, divers-coloured shirts, dungaree breeches stuffed into half wellingtons, were brought before the magistrates. The bench consisted of an old sea captain, who had lost a ship in his day through the ill conduct of his crew, and


whose hatred of the forecastle hand was strong and peculiar; a parson, who knew about as much of the sea as his wife; a medical practitioner, and a schoolmaster. I was present, and listened to the men's evidence, and I also heard the captain's story. Samples of the food were produced. A person with whom I had some acquaintance found me an opportunity to examine and taste samples of the forecastle provisions of the ship whose crew had mutinied. Nothing more atrociously nasty could be found amongst the neglected putrid sweepings of a butcher's back premises. Nothing viler in the shape of food ever set a famished mongrel hiccoughing. Nevertheless, this crew of thirteen or fourteen men, for refusing to sail in the vessel unless fresh forecastle stores were shipped, were sent to gaol for terms ranging from three to six weeks.

Some time earlier than this there had been legislation helpful to the seaman through the humane and impassioned struggles of Mr. Samuel Plimsoll. The crazy, rotten old coaster had been knocked into staves. The avaricious owner had been compelled to load with some regard to the safety of sailors. But I could not help thinking that the shore-going


menace of the sailor's life did not lie merely in overloaded ships, and in crazy, porous hulls. Mutinies were incessantly happening in consequence of the loathsome food shipped for sailors' use, and many disasters attended these outbreaks. When I came away from the magistrates' court, after hearing the men sentenced, I found my mind full of that crew's grievance. I reflected upon what Mr. Plimsoll had done, and how much of the hidden parts of the sea life remained to be exposed to the public eye, to the advantage of the sailor, providing the subject should be dealt with by one who had himself suffered, and very well understood what he sat down to write about. This put into my head the idea of the tale which I afterwards called 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor."' I said to myself, I'll found a story on a mutiny at sea, occasioned entirely by the shipment of bad provisions for the crew. No writer has as yet touched this ugly feature of the life. Dana is silent. Herman Melville merely drops a joke or two as he rolls out of the caboose with a cube of salt horse in his hand. It has never been made a serious canvas of. And yet deeper tragedies lie in the stinking harness-cask than in the started butt. There are wilder and bloodier possibilities in a barrel of rotten pork, and in a cask of worm-riddled ship's bread, than in a whole passage of shifting cargoes, and in a long round voyage of deadweight that sinks to the wash-streak.

But if I was to find a public I must make my book a romance. I must import the machinery of the petticoat. The pannikin of rum I proposed to offer must be palatable enough to tempt the lips of the ladies to sip it. My publisher would want a market, and if Messrs. Mudie and Smith would have none of me I should write in vain; for assuredly I was not going to find a public among sailors. Sailors don't read: a good many of them can't read. Those who can have little leisure, and they do not care to fill up their spare hours with yarns of a calling which eighty out of every hundred of them loathe. So I schemed out a nautical romance and went to work, and in two months and a week I finished the story of 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor."'


Whilst I was writing it an eminent publisher, a gentleman whose friendship I had been happy in possessing for many years, asked me to let him have a sea story. I think he had been looking into 'John Houldsworth: Chief Mate', which some months before this time had been received with much kindness by the reviewers. I sent him the manuscript of 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor."' One of his readers was a lady, and to this lady my friend the publisher forwarded the manuscript, with a request for a report on its merits. Now to send the manuscript of a sea book to a woman! To submit a narrative abounding in marine terms, thunder-charged with the bully-in-our-alley passions of the forecastle, throbbing with suppressed oaths, clamorous with rolling oceans, the like of which no female would ever dream of leaving her bunk to behold—to submit all this, and how much more, to a lady for an opinion on its merits! Of course, the poor woman barely understood a third of what she looked at, and as, obviously she couldn't quite collect the meaning of the remainder, she pronounced against the whole. She called it a 'catalogue of ship's furniture,' and the manuscript came back to me. I never regret this. I do not believe that this sea book would have cut a figure in my old esteemed friend's list. Publishers are well known by the public for the sort of intellectual fare they deal in. If I desired a charming story about flirtation, divorce, inconvenient husbands, the state of the soul when it has flown out of the body, the passions of the female heart whilst it still beats hot in the breast, I should turn to my friend's list, well assured of handsome satisfaction. But I don't think I could read a sea book published by him. I should suspect the marine qualities of a Jack who had run foul of, and got smothered up in, a whole wardrobe of female apparel, grinning with a scarcely sunburnt face through the horse-collar of a crinoline, the deep sea roll of his gait hampered and destroyed by the clinging folds of a flannel petticoat.


Be this as it may, I sent the manuscript of 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor"' to my old friend Edward Marston, of the firm of Sampson Low & Co. The firm offered me fifty pounds for it; I took the money and signed the agreement, in which I disposed of all rights. Do I murmur over the recollection of this fifty pounds which, with another ten pounds kindly sent to me by Mr. Marston as the whole of, or a part of, a cheque received from Messrs. Harper & Brothers, was all I ever got for this sea book? Certainly not. The transaction was absolutely fair, and what leaning there was was in my favour. The book was an experiment; it was published anonymously; it might have fallen dead. Happily for publisher and author, the book made its way. I believe it was immediately successful in America, and that its reception there somewhat influenced inquiry here. American critics who try to vex me say that my books never would have been read in this country but for what was said of them in the States, and for the publicity provided for them there by the twenty-cent editions. How far this is true I don't know; but certainly the Yankees are handsomer and prompter in their recognition of what pleases them than we are on our side. What they like they raise a great cry over, and the note of so mighty a concourse, I don't doubt, fetches an echo out of distances below the horizon.

It is many years now since 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor"' was written, and I do not very clearly recollect its reception in this country. I believe it speedily went into a second edition. But before we talk of an edition seriously we must first learn the number of copies which make it. Since this was written, my friend, Mr. R. B. Marston, of the firm of Sampson Low & Co., has been good enough to look into


the sales of 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor,"' and he informs me that down to 1891 there had been sold 34,950 copies. One of the most cordial welcomes the story received was from Vanity Fair. I supposed that the review was written by the editor, Mr. Thomas Gibson Bowles, until I learnt that the late Mr. James Runciman was the author. The critics on the whole were generous. They thought the book fresh. They judged that it was an original piece of work wrought largely out of the personal experiences of the writer. One gentleman, indeed, said that he had crossed the Channel on several occasions between Boulogne and Folkestone, but had never witnessed such seas as I described; and another that he had frequently travelled to Plymouth on the Great


Western Railway in company with sailors, but had never met such seamen as the forecastle hands I depicted. The book is considered my best—this, perhaps, because it was my first, and its reputation lies in the memory and impression of its freshness. It is far from being my best. Were it my property I would re-write it. I had quitted the sea some years when I wrote the story, and here and there my memory played me false; that is to say, in the direction of certain minute technicalities and in accounts of the internal discipline of the ship. Yet, on the whole, the blunders are few considering how very complicated a fabric a vessel is, and how ceaselessly one needs to go on living the life of the sea to hold all parts of it clear to the sight of the mind. Professionally, the influence of the book has been small. I have heard that it made one ship-owner sorry and rather virtuous, and that for some time his harness-casks went their voyages fairly sweet. He is, however, but a solitary figure, the lonesome Crusoe of my little principality of fancy. As a piece of literature, 'The Wreck of the "Grosvenor"' has been occasionally imitated. Mr. Plimsoll, I understand, has lately been dealing with the subject of sailors' food. I heartily wish success to his efforts.

drawing by Geo. Hutchinson
signed: Yours very sincerely,
Grant Allen.