Desertion and a new challenge

Runciman's first ships as an apprentice.
Runciman's first ships as an apprentice.

Walter Runciman was brought up in the coastguard cottage at Cresswell. When he was 12, he ran away and joined the brig Harperley, bound for Mozambique.

He was cabin boy and apprentice.

I put my belongings into a canvas bag...and started on a long eventful tramp to Northumberland.

Walter Runciman

He said: “I was drafted into the starboard watch, and taught to take my trick at the helm as we ran the Trades down.”

Unfortunately, the captain’s experience was wholly in the coasting trade, while the first and second mates had both served on deep-sea voyages. This made him aloof and surly, especially with the chief officer.

After an uneventful voyage through the tropics, they lost two water casks in a storm, while others were spoiled with sea-water.

The crew asked the captain to put into Durban for supplies, but he refused, punishing them with extra work when they should have been resting.

At Mozambique: “Fresh provisions and water, such as could be had, were taken on board, but these were costly and scarce.”

Their real destination was the Kuria Muria islands off the coast of Oman, specifically El Hasikiyah, described in a modern American nautical almanac as ’rocky, barren, and coloured white by guano’.

This was the object of the voyage.

“The cargo was dug and shovelled by the crew into baskets and carried to the ship’s boats, which were small....No other facilities or help existed.

“The crew had little leisure, but when they got a respite from work...employed themselves in fishing, and were happily requited, and without a doubt saved from the renewed ravages of scurvy, as their food consisted of...salt junk and duff made with rancid dripping one day, and pork and pea soup the next.

“The captain was in no degree to blame for this, nor did he fair better than his crew.

“The ship’s bottom had become foul while lying so long at anchor, and her lack of speed on the way to St Helena, where they were to call for food and water, indicated that the trouble was increasing.”

Once in the North Atlantic: “heavy westerly gales and heavy seas were encountered....Boats were stove in, salt beef and fresh-water casks, as well as the bulwarks, did not escape.”

The wind changed abruptly, and: “with a roar resembling thunder the north-wester smashed upon its westerly antagonist.

“The square foresail was blown to shreds, and the seamen said it might be a godsend.”

All the bulwarks were torn away, which actually relieved the strain on the ship, and she limped home through the English Channel.

They discharged the cargo at Hull, and after all that, the guano proved to be of poor quality.

Back in the Tyne, after months at sea, Walter was given three days’ leave.

His finances “would not stand the strain of a railway journey”, so he walked home.

There he was heartily feted, and his sisters and their friends lured him into telling his experiences. His mother and sisters washed and mended, “and by eight o’clock in the morning as fine a kit as ever a sailor was sent to sea with was on my back.”

He sailed only twice more in the Harperley.

On a return voyage from the Baltic, the captain ordered him to ‘steer by the wind’. It was gusty and constantly changing direction, and: “when he overheard me say that I could not help the wind shifting, he sprang at me like a mad cat...and simultaneously struck me between the eyes with his fist.

“This put an end to my trick at the wheel....I refused to enter his cabin again, and lived with the men in the forecastle until I deserted.”

After a failed attempt in Ireland, he eventually deserted in Scotland.

“At two o’clock in the morning, after the Harperley’s arrival at Troon, I put my belongings into a canvas bag...and started on a long eventful tramp to Northumberland.”

Taking his parents’ advice, he signed on for a four-year apprenticeship aboard a short-voyage trader, the Maid of Athens.

Two years later, and by agreement, he transferred to a ‘South Spainer’ to widen his experience.

“I began to learn navigation in the forecastle, and...with my chest lid for a table, toiled at my new studies whenever I had leisure (but it was) hard and perplexing to me, who had left school when I was twelve years old without having even the full groundwork of an elementary education.”

He qualified as AB at 17-and-a-half, and early in 1866 sailed for the Baltic in the ‘spring fleet’ aboard the collier Blake.

“This little vessel hadn’t a rope (as the sailors said) strong enough to hang a cat.”

That is, she was unseaworthy.

A storm overtook them, she began to take water, and all hands were called to the pumps.

“I observed that some of the ropes that had been thrown on to the weather deck did not wash to the roll of the ship as other gear did....I took hold of the ropes and found that they were sucked into the decks.

“As I was barefooted, I felt with my feet and discovered that about two or three feet of deck the shape of a wedge had been staved in. This wedge had not been fastened either with nail or bolt.... As I had the good fortune to discover this wicked piece of workmanship, many flattering and rugged compliments were paid to me by my shipmates.”

The men were continuously at work.

“Boots and stockings were discarded. They had salt-water cuts in their fingers, and their arms and legs were red raw with friction and salt-water boils.”

The crew and captain held a conference, and decided to run before the wind.

“There was nothing for it but to keep on scudding....An error in judgment, or the neglect of a single point in the handling would have sealed her fate.

“One forenoon, I think the 21st of February...(they saw) a barque on the starboard bow.

“Her hull was low in the water, and she was labouring heavily....It was impossible for us to give them any assistance, as our own affairs were precarious; but even if there had been a dog’s chance, it was too late.”

They finally entered Stavanger, where repairs were put in hand.

Two Swedish boys had their feet frost-bitten.

“As soon as we arrived at Malmo, the two Swedish apprentices were taken to the hospital, and the last I heard of them was that the soles of their feet were taken off. They were in an advanced state of putrefaction.”

The Blake was reported lost, but: “a few days after this announcement...a letter, part of which had been written while sailing along the Norwegian coast, was received from her in a country village.

“It was handed to my father by the postman, and the young lady who became my wife met him on the way to our home. They sat down together on the sandhill, and he gave it to her to read.”