Keelmen by James Runciman

Story type: Literature

The keel is a strange kind of barge which is only seen on three of our northern rivers. She is sharp at both ends, and her lines are extremely fine. When loaded her deck is flush with the water; yet, under sail, her speed is very great, and she is as handy as a skiff. These boats are principally used for carrying coals to and from vessels that lie out in the river; but they are often employed in conveying various sorts of goods from town to town. In the old times, when the Tyne was very shallow, the colliers were loaded from keels, and the river then swarmed with the low black craft. The keelmen formed a little commonwealth by themselves; their dress, their language, their customs were all peculiar, and they were like a foreign race planted among English neighbours. In the town of Shields alone there were three dialects–Keelish, Sheelish, and Coblish. The Keelish was spoken by the keelmen, Sheelish by the tradespeople, and Coblish by the pilots; but Keelish was the most remarkable of the three tongues. Its idiom, pitch, and pronunciation were so odd that nobody from south of the Wear could understand it well without long practice, any more than he could understand the social customs of the men who spoke it. The “Keel Row,” which is the great Northumbrian song, is written in very fair Keelish, and no south-countryman can read the original.

The old-fashioned keelman began his week on Saturday afternoon. He washed himself thoroughly, and then appeared dressed in a white flannel coat with horn buttons, loose knee-breeches, and blue worsted stockings. He it was, and not the pitman, who had a chaste fancy in the matter of bulldogs, and he rather liked seeing those interesting animals fight. He himself liked fighting too, and the keelmen’s quarter on a Saturday night used to be a very warlike region; for champions from the various streets fought for the honour of their respective districts, and the women encouraged the combatants with much energy and enthusiasm. When the new police-force was organized, it was as much as a constable’s life was worth to venture alone into Sandgate on a Saturday evening; but the place is more civilized now. After the Saturday’s drinking bout and incidental combat the keelman had Sunday in which to cultivate the graces. He lounged on the quay and made witty remarks about the passers-by; or he strolled to the Moor, in all the glory of flannels and gay stockings, to see a dog-fight. When Monday came his pleasures were at an end. His black boat was laid alongside of some grim collier, and the baskets were plied until the keel sank to the water-level. If there was any wind the sail was run up, and the keel went away merrily enough; if it was calm the sweeps had to be handled, and the craft travelled at about one mile per hour. The deepening of the rivers has altered the conditions of life a good deal for the watermen; but the race is much the same in every respect as it was eighty years ago. The Saturday combats are not so violent, and the dog-fighting is a thing of the past; but the men are like their forefathers in habits and speech. The keelman has many points in common with the pitman. He is more ignorant, because his life on the water begins very early and he is isolated for the better part of every week; so he is very simple and innocent of the world’s ways. His horizon is bounded by the black banks of his river. Of nature he knows nothing, excepting that rivers run into the sea, and that tides have to be watched. In the daytime he toils on the brown flood of the Tyne; and at night he still toils on the same flood, which is then lit into lurid brilliance by the fires of the low factory chimneys and furnaces. People who work on crowded waterways seem to acquire an extraordinary proficiency in the art of abuse, and in the said art a keelman is much superior to the Thames bargeman. His collection of epithets is large, and, since he is combative by nature, he engages freely in the war of words when engagements at close quarters are impracticable. He is no respecter of persons. The most dignified captain that ever stood on the deck of a clipper is not safe from his criticism, and even her Majesty’s uniform is not sacred in his eyes. A keel once drifted against the bow of a man-of-war, and the first lieutenant of the vessel inquired, “Do you know the consequences of damaging one of her Majesty’s ships?” The keelman was unprepared with an answer to this problem, but with characteristic flippancy he inquired, “Div ye knaw the conseekue of a keel losin’ her tide?” The keelman’s ignorance of all objects not to be seen on the river is really strange. Two worthies wanted to go on board a brig called the “Swan.” The vessel had a figure-head representing the bird after which she was named, so the keelmen hailed in the following terms, “Like-a-goose-and-not-a-goose, ahoy!” They were much disappointed by the inattention of the crew. The keelman is religious in his way, but his ideas lack lucidity. Two friends had left their keel aground up the river and were walking across a field, when they were chased by a savage bull. They fled to a tree, and the fleeter-footed man got to the first fork. The second had swarmed a fair distance up the trunk, when the bull arrived and began butting with such vigour that the tree was shaken. The climber could not get up further; so his friend, seeing the imminent danger, said, “Canst thou pray, Geordie?” The panting unfortunate answered, “Yes.” Whereupon his mate said, “Gan on then, for he’ll have thee in a minute.” The bull kept on pushing the tree; so the keelman tried a totally irrelevant supplication. He said, “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.” Teasing urchins sometimes shout after the keelman, “Who jumped on the grindstone?” and this query never fails to rouse the worst wrath in the most sedate; for it touches a very sore point. Two men were caught by a heavy freshet and driven over the bar. The legend declares that one of these mariners saw, in the dusk, a hoop floating by. The hoop was full of foam; and with swift intuition the keelman said, “We’re saved; here’s a grindstone swimming!” He followed up his discovery by jumping on to the grindstone–with most unsatisfactory results. His error has led to much loss of temper among his tribe.

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In the matter of sport the keelman’s ideas are narrowed to one point. He is only interested in boat-racing; but he makes up by fervour for his want of extended views. For weeks before a great race the Sandgate quarter is in a state of excitement, and wagering is general and heavy. The faith which the genuine keelman has in his athletic idol is almost touching. When the well-known Chambers rowed for the championship of England in 1867, an admirer shouted as the rower went to the starting point, “Gan on, Bob; I’ve putten everything I have on you.” Chambers shook his head mournfully and said, “Take it all off again, my man; I cannot win.” But the enthusiast would not accept even that excellent authority. For a long time before the last championship race the sporting keelmen put by money every week to back the Tynesider, and the melancholy result of the race desolated Sandgate. Perhaps it was well that the Englishman was beaten; for in the event of any athletic success the whole Tyneside population become very arrogant, and the keelmen insufferable. Each one of them takes credit for the victory, and the community of Sandgate becomes a large mutual admiration society.

In politics the keelman’s notions are crude. If a stranger spoke disrespectfully of the present member for Newcastle in the hearing of a keelman it is not improbable that a crowd would be called, and the critic would be immersed in the river: but the crowd could not explain lucidly their reasons for such strong political action. The fact is that the keelman has no interest in the affairs that occupy people ashore. The brown river, the set of the tides, the arrival and sailing of the colliers, the noisy gossip of water-side characters on Saturday night–these things fill up the measure of his observation. He lives out his hard-working, hard-drinking life like the stupid Englishman he is; and when he dies his fights are remembered and his prowess lauded by generous mourners.

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