REDDING’S REMINISCENCES. No. 1
For the few days Redding stayed with my family he told many tales of the sea to my daughter; which enthralled her as it did the rest of the household. Two of the stories I subjoined in my journal and I repeat here for the readers pleasure.
REDDING’S REMINISCENCES. No. 1
A SHIPWRECK On the 31st December, 1815, I was, as most sailors who have been paid off are, very anxious to obtain employment on the New Year’s Day, under the prevalent belief that they will therefore be in active service for the twelvemonth. I remember spending this evening with my sister, and drinking to the hick of the next day, and sure enough I did obtain a birth on new year’s day of 1816, having shipped on board the Sea Horse, No. 2, Transport, then lying in the Thames, and bound for Ramsgate, there to take on troops and thence to Cork.
She was a ship of about 280 tons; her Captain’s name, Gibbs; the Chief mate’s, Sullivan, by whom I was shipped, and that of the second mate, Wilson. We were in all a crew of 18 hands. After some delay we sailed for Ramsgate, and in about a couple of days received on board the skeleton of the 59th foot, just returned from France, where their numbers had been greatly reduced by the destructive carnage of the ever memorable battle of Waterloo. We received 384 rank and file, 30 women, and 40 children. The regiment was under the immediate command of Major Douglas, Colonel Halstead being happily on leave of absence.
About the end of the month we proceeded with a strong and favourable breeze down the Channel for Cork, where I understood the regiment was to be disembodied. In making land on the 29th of January 1816, a violent gale sprung up; we shortened sail, hoping to weather the storm, under close reefed topsail and foresail. At dusk in the evening, the Captain directed his chief mate, being more experienced than himself, to go to the mast head, that he might know what part of the coast we were making. Sullivan an obeyed his orders, but had scarcely reached the fore topmast-head, when slipping he missed his hold, and fell on the forecastle. I immediately ran to his assistance, and found him with scarcely an unfractured bone; he was senseless. I assisted carrying him below to his wife, who as soon as she was aware of his state became deranged, and so continued from that point on. Poor Sullivan died about 1 o’clock in that morning.
In consequence of the affecting loss of his chief mate, Captain Gibbs was very greatly annoyed during the night, and appeared to have lost much of that self-command so essentially necessary to the safety of the vessel, passengers, and crew. The storm increased, and all hands being on deck, I was ordered to keep a lookout from the lee gangway for land. About 4 o’clock in the morning I perceived what was either a fogbank or the land, and reported accordingly to the second mate, Wilson, who ridiculed the idea, and, on my persisting, called the Captain, who had been sitting for some hours on the companion, apparently lost in a reverie. They laughed at my report, and I was forced to content myself with observing that, if they kept on the same tack until morning, they would find themselves on the lee shore. I then turned in, and had scarcely been in my hammock an hour, when all hands were turned up to “clear the wreck.” On reaching the deck, I found the foretop mast gone, and one of the crew aloft, with his thigh broken, in the act of hoisting a signal for a pilot.
The poor fellow cried out for assistance, and we immediately fastened a rope’s end round his body and lowered him down. We then cut away the wreck, letting it go adrift” By this time the Captain had discovered his mistake, and was extremely anxious to stand out at sea, but the foretop mast being gone and the ship not answering to her helm, this was not practicable.
The main stay sail was then bent and set, but the sheets, stay sail, and all were carried away like so much paper. Afterwards we set the main sail, but that shared the fate of the stay sail. Several other expedients were resorted to, but in vain; and the only probable means of saving the vessel now appeared that of up-helming and bearing away for Tremore Bay, the entrance of which we at length reached, and let go an anchor, but the ship dragged, and a second was equally ineffectual to bring her up, she having struck abaft, knocking her sternpost in. Major Douglas then advised the Captain to cut away the mizzenmast, which was accordingly done. The vessel was now filling, and it was about 10 o’clock in the morning. At the time she struck, the soldiers rushed into the quarter-boats, determined on securing the first chance of saving themselves. Whilst the mizzenmast was being cut away, they were advised to leave the boats, which could no longer afford them protection, as they were rigged to the mizzenmast head, and must go over-board, to the imminent danger to those by whom they were occupied. This command, however, they refused to obey. There may have been five and twenty in each boat, and thus were fifty of these poor fellows, through their own obstinacy were dashed into the sea, with many a mangled limb, and lost. We were now in momentary expectation that the ship would founder: the sea was so heavy, and the wind so strong (on the land), that the windlass itself was snapped off, and the only stick standing was the bowsprit. All hands, or at least those who had any self-command or power of thought, were anxiously seeking the means of personal safety. One poor woman, who had been confined but the preceding night, finding the births filling, ran on deck, with her infant in her arms, and screaming for her husband. She was, indeed, distracted, as were many others, and the scene of misery which now presented itself was affecting in the extreme. Major Douglas, (whose wife, daughter of about sixteen, and son somewhat younger, were on board) came out of the cabin, and walking the deck with his hands in his trouser pockets, coolly advanced to the larboard side of the quarter deck, pulled out an elegant gold watch, and hitching the chain and seals round a belaying-pin, called out “This is for any man who lives to get on shore.” Without changing a feature, he descended into the cabin, and rejoined his wife and family. They perished together.
None, however, thought the glittering bauble worth their care, and personal preservation alone engrossed every thought.
In half an hour, none but myself and a young Captain of the regiment were on deck; but many bodies were floating between decks, and many had been washed overboard.
I was standing on the larboard side of the forecastle, supporting myself by the weather belaying pin, and whilst pensively looking towards the shore, reviewing with some regret, my past sins, and bewailing my almost certain separation from home and friends, the Captain addressed me thus:- “Well, sailor, can you swim!” “Yes Sir,” I replied, “but swimming will be of little service with this sea and wind on shore, and against an ebb tide.” Yet if we can swim, we should endeavour to save ourselves. Will you keep me company in the water?” I told him I would. He had previously striped himself to his shirt, and I could not but remark, as somewhat strange, that the only other part of his dress which he retained, was a white night-cap. He said he was ready but asked me whether it was better to keep his shirt on. I replied that it should removed, which he thus did. He jumped into the water, and I was not a minute after him. We kept company, making way towards the shore, for nearly a quarter of an hour. He proposed making towards the rocky. shore which was less than half a mile distance. To this I objected, and advised making for a sandy beach about a mile and a half off. He agreed, but almost immediately sank, and I saw no more of him. I had been a full hour and a half in the water, when I neared a raft formed of spars from the wreck and lashed together. Captain Gibbs and James Thompson, a seaman, were made fast to it, they having resorted to this shift for self-preservation, as they were unable to swim. I speedily joined them in a state of exhaustion, but an overwhelming sea almost immediately washed me beneath it. I was now fully aware of my imminent danger, and heartily glad a few seconds afterwards, to find myself clear of that which had threatened my immediate destruction. I then made for a cask which I perceived floating between me and the shore. From this I derived some assistance, but a sudden wave dashed it against my breast, and I was glad from that time to trust to my own strength as the only chance of gaining land.
A merciful providence protected and strengthened me, and I at length felt the sandy bottom of the Irish coast, and with great reason thanked God for my wonderful delivery from a danger which had been fatal to more than four hundred and fifty of my fellow creatures! I had no sooner felt the ground than two farmers on horseback dashed to my assistance; one on either side, and each catching hold of an arm, carried me, scarcely sensible, to a neighbouring inn. There a gentleman of the name of Hunt was serving out liquor, and attempting to resuscitate others in a like situation. The warmth of the fire, and plenty of good whiskey soon brought me to myself, and I have ever since been fond of Irish whiskey. Most of the very few who reached land alive, died from the cold, a consequent of the lengthened exposure in the water, at that, the coldest period of the year. The Captain, Thompson, and myself, were the only sea-faring men saved, and I do not think there were more than six of the soldiers who also survived the wreck.
We three proceeded the next morning to Waterford, about six miles distant, and experienced every kindness from Mr. Alcock, the then Mayor of that City, who raised a subscription in the Commercial Rooms for the purchase of cloths and other necessities.
I and Thompson reached Bristol with the joint stock balance of 2.1/2d. and we went into the tup of ‘The Artichoke’ public-house at Saint Augustine’s Back, then kept by Mr. Bullock and who is now the landlord of ‘The Ship,’ in Steep Street. Whilst we were considering what we could get for our money, the humane landlady gleaned a knowledge of our situation; and when we asked her for twopence halfpenny worth of bread, she enquired if we had belonged to the Sea-Horse. On receiving an answer in the affirmative, she ordered meat, beer, and bread and cheese to be set before us, provided us with comfortable beds, and the ensuing morning, before we started for London, gave us breakfast and a glass of grog each.
Reaching Bath, we applied to the Mayor for assistance on our route, which he not only refused, but threatened us with imprisonment for our impudence and (as he called it) imposition.
With some trifling difficulties and much distress, we at length reached London, terminating our troubles by looking out for and finding fresh employment.