PORTENTS OF DISASTER
Great pains are taken when first launching a vessel so as to ensure good fortune, and one of the most important portents is the ritual bottle of champagne which must break first time ( the liquid may be a substitute for the blood of a sacrifice ). It is interesting that the various ships to bear the name “Ark Royal” have always been lucky; for example when the World War 11 vessel sunk there was minimal loss of life. The original ship dated from Elizabethan times and had a crucifix placed beneath the mainmast by the captains mistress; this apparently secured the good fortune for all her successors. On the other hand there are vessels which seem perpetually unlucky, some even jinxed and quite incapable of escaping misfortune.
Brunels fine ship the “Great Eastern” was launched in 1858 after several ominously unsuccessful attempts. She ruined the man in whose yard she was built, and caused a breakdown in Brunels health he died even before her maiden voyage. And despite her immense technical advantages, she was never successful as the passenger - carrying vessel.
In 1895 she was in port in Holyhead. When the “Royal Charter” sailed by, homeward bound from Australia, the passengers expressed a desire to see her and their captain was only too pleased to oblige. However, the ship strayed off course and a wild storm blew up. The ship was wrecked, with great loss of life. Some of the trouble was attributed to the story of a riveter and his boy who were said to have been accidentally sealed to the famous double hull. Unexplained knockings were heard at various times but although searches were made, nothing was found. When the vessel was broken up at New Ferry, Cheshire, in 1888 it was rumoured that two sceletons were discovered, their bony fingers still clenched round the worn down hammers which had beaten in vain for rescue.
The “Victoria” was commissioned on Good Friday, the thirteenth of the month and if this were not ill-luck enough, the fact that her name ended in a was considered another bad sign. In 1893 she sank with heavy losses after a collision during the manoeuvres in the Mediterranean off Beirut, and interestingly, various things happened which indicated calamity: two hours earlier a fakir had actually predicted disaster, and at the time of the collision crowds had gathered at the dockyards gates in Malta, drawn by an instinctive apprehension of impending doom. At the same time during lunch at a Weymouth torpedo works the stem of a wine glass had suddenly cracked with a loud retort; and in Londons Eaton Square the ships Admiral Tryon was seen coming down the stairs at his home. He was in fact aboard the “Victoria”, where he survived the impact but made no effort to save himself. As he sank beneath the waves he is said to have lamented: “It was all my fault” and so it was, for he had given the incorrect order which led to the collision.
Generations after her loss the “Titanic” is still a byword for hubris. In 1912 the “unsinkable ship” struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and went down with 1 500 passengers and crew. Again, a variety if omens anticipated the disaster: a stewards badge came to pieces as his wife stitched it to his cap, and a picture fell from the wall in a stokers home; then aboard the ship a signal halliard parted as it was used to acknowledge the bon voyage signal from the Head of Old Kinsale lighthouse and the day before the collision rats were seen scurrying aft, away from the point of impact. After the calamity Captain Smith, who went down with the ship, is rumoured to have been seen ashore.
One cause of the “Titanic” disaster is said to have been an unlucky Egyptian mummy case. This is the lid of an inner coffin with the representation of the head and upper body of an unknown lady of about 1000 bc. Ill-fortune certainly seemed to travel with the lid first of all the man who bought it from the finder had an arm shattered by an accidental gun shot. He sold, but the purchaser was soon afterwards the recipient of the bad news, learning that he was bankrupt and that he had a fatal disease. The new owner, an English lady, placed the coffin lid in her drawing room: next morning she found everything there smashed. She moved it upstairs and the same thing happened, so she also sold it. When this purchaser had the lid photographed, a leering, diabolical face was seen in the print. And when it was eventually presented to the British Museum, members of staff began to contract mysterious ailments one even died. It was sold yet again to an American, who arranged to take it home with him on the “Titanic”. After the catastrophe he managed to bribe the sailors to allow him to take it into a lifeboat, and it did reach America. Later he sold it to a Canadian, who in 1941 decided to ship it back to England; the vessel taking it, “Empress of Ireland” , sank in the river St Lawrence. So runs the story, but in reality the coffin lid did not leave the British Museum after being presented in 1889.
The former prime minister, Edward Heath, in his book “Sailing” (1975) revealed that he too had experienced the warnings of ill omen. At the launch of the “Morning Cloud 1” the bottle twice refused to break, and at the same ceremony for the “Morning Cloud 111” the wife of a crew member fell and suffered severe concussion. This yacht was later wrecked off the South coast with the loss of two lives, and in the very same gale the “Morning Cloud 1” was blown from the moorings on the island of Jersey, and also wrecked. Meanwhile, the Morning Cloud 11” had been launched without incident and was leading a trouble free life with the Australian to whom she had been sold.
As recently as December 1987 a strange case came to light as a result of a Department of Health and Social Security enquiry into why members of a Bridlington trawler crew were spending so much time unemployed. In explanation, Derek Gates, skipper of the “Pickering”, said that putting to sea had become impossible: on board lights would flicker on and off; cabins stayed freezing cold even when the heating was on maximum; a coastguard confirmed that the ships steering repeatedly turned her in erratic circles and in addition, the radar kept failing and the engine broke down regularly. One of the crewmen reported seeing a spectral, cloth-capped figure roaming the deck, and a former skipper, Michael Laws, told how he repeatedly sensed someone in the bunk above his, though it was always empty. He added: “ My three months on the Pickering” were the worst in seventeen years at sea. I didnt earn a penny because things were always going wrong”.
The DHSS decided that the mens fears were a genuine reason for claiming unemployment benefit, and the vicar of Bridlington, the Rev. Tom Wilis, was called in to conduct a ceremony of exorcism. He checked the ships history, and concluded that the disturbances might be connected with the ghost of a deckhand who had been washed overboard when the trawler, then registered as the “Family Crest”, was fishing off Ireland. He sprinkled water from stem to stern, led prayers, and called on the spirit of the dead to depart. His intervention proved effective because the problems ceased, and furthermore the crew began to earn bonuses for good catches.
Sailors used to be very superstitious maybe they still are and greatly concerned to avoid ill-luck, both ashore and afloat. Wives must remember that “Wash upon sailing day, and you will wash your man away”, and must also be careful to smash any eggshells before they dispose of them, to prevent their being used by evil spirits as craft in which to put to sea and cause storms.
Luck was brought by:
- a gold ear-ring worn in the left ear
- a piece of coal carried
- a coin thrown over the ships bow when leaving port
- a feather from a wren killed on St. Stephens Day
- a caul
- a hot cross bun or a piece of bread baked on a Good Friday
The last three all preserved from drowning. David Copperfields caul was advertised for sale in the newspapers “for the low price of fifteen guineas”, and the woman from the port of Lymington in Hampshire offered one in “The Daily Express” as recently as 23 August 1904. One Grimsby man born with the caul has kept it to this day. When he joined the Royal Navy during World War 11 his mother insisted that he take the caul with him. Various other sailors offered him up to L20 a large sum for those days if he would part with it, but he declined.
For over two hundred years now a bun has been added every Good Friday to a collection preserved at the Widows Son Tavern, Bromley by Bow, London. The name and the custom derive from an eighteenth century widow who hoped that her missing sailor son would eventually come home safely if she continued to save a bun every Easter. Some seamen had their own version of this, and would touch their sweethearts bun (pudenda) for luck before sailing.
Other things had to be avoided because they brought ill-luck.
- meeting a pig, a priest or a woman on the way to ones ship
- having a priest or a woman aboa