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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSylvia's Lovers - Chapter I - MONKSHAVEN
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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter I - MONKSHAVEN Post by :add2it Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :2716

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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter I - MONKSHAVEN

On the north-eastern shores of England there is a town called
Monkshaven, containing at the present day about fifteen thousand
inhabitants. There were, however, but half the number at the end of
the last century, and it was at that period that the events narrated
in the following pages occurred.

Monkshaven was a name not unknown in the history of England, and
traditions of its having been the landing-place of a throneless
queen were current in the town. At that time there had been a
fortified castle on the heights above it, the site of which was now
occupied by a deserted manor-house; and at an even earlier date than
the arrival of the queen and coeval with the most ancient remains of
the castle, a great monastery had stood on those cliffs, overlooking
the vast ocean that blended with the distant sky. Monkshaven itself
was built by the side of the Dee, just where the river falls into
the German Ocean. The principal street of the town ran parallel to
the stream, and smaller lanes branched out of this, and straggled up
the sides of the steep hill, between which and the river the houses
were pent in. There was a bridge across the Dee, and consequently a
Bridge Street running at right angles to the High Street; and on the
south side of the stream there were a few houses of more pretension,
around which lay gardens and fields. It was on this side of the town
that the local aristocracy lived. And who were the great people of
this small town? Not the younger branches of the county families
that held hereditary state in their manor-houses on the wild bleak
moors, that shut in Monkshaven almost as effectually on the land
side as ever the waters did on the sea-board. No; these old families
kept aloof from the unsavoury yet adventurous trade which brought
wealth to generation after generation of certain families in

The magnates of Monkshaven were those who had the largest number of
ships engaged in the whaling-trade. Something like the following was
the course of life with a Monkshaven lad of this class:--He was
apprenticed as a sailor to one of the great ship-owners--to his own
father, possibly--along with twenty other boys, or, it might be,
even more. During the summer months he and his fellow apprentices
made voyages to the Greenland seas, returning with their cargoes in
the early autumn; and employing the winter months in watching the
preparation of the oil from the blubber in the melting-sheds, and
learning navigation from some quaint but experienced teacher, half
schoolmaster, half sailor, who seasoned his instructions by stirring
narrations of the wild adventures of his youth. The house of the
ship-owner to whom he was apprenticed was his home and that of his
companions during the idle season between October and March. The
domestic position of these boys varied according to the premium
paid; some took rank with the sons of the family, others were
considered as little better than servants. Yet once on board an
equality prevailed, in which, if any claimed superiority, it was the
bravest and brightest. After a certain number of voyages the
Monkshaven lad would rise by degrees to be captain, and as such
would have a share in the venture; all these profits, as well as all
his savings, would go towards building a whaling vessel of his own,
if he was not so fortunate as to be the child of a ship-owner. At
the time of which I write, there was but little division of labour
in the Monkshaven whale fishery. The same man might be the owner of
six or seven ships, any one of which he himself was fitted by
education and experience to command; the master of a score of
apprentices, each of whom paid a pretty sufficient premium; and the
proprietor of the melting-sheds into which his cargoes of blubber
and whalebone were conveyed to be fitted for sale. It was no wonder
that large fortunes were acquired by these ship-owners, nor that
their houses on the south side of the river Dee were stately
mansions, full of handsome and substantial furniture. It was also
not surprising that the whole town had an amphibious appearance, to
a degree unusual even in a seaport. Every one depended on the whale
fishery, and almost every male inhabitant had been, or hoped to be,
a sailor. Down by the river the smell was almost intolerable to any
but Monkshaven people during certain seasons of the year; but on
these unsavoury 'staithes' the old men and children lounged for
hours, almost as if they revelled in the odours of train-oil.

This is, perhaps, enough of a description of the town itself. I have
said that the country for miles all around was moorland; high above
the level of the sea towered the purple crags, whose summits were
crowned with greensward that stole down the sides of the scaur a
little way in grassy veins. Here and there a brook forced its way
from the heights down to the sea, making its channel into a valley
more or less broad in long process of time. And in the moorland
hollows, as in these valleys, trees and underwood grew and
flourished; so that, while on the bare swells of the high land you
shivered at the waste desolation of the scenery, when you dropped
into these wooded 'bottoms' you were charmed with the nestling
shelter which they gave. But above and around these rare and fertile
vales there were moors for many a mile, here and there bleak enough,
with the red freestone cropping out above the scanty herbage; then,
perhaps, there was a brown tract of peat and bog, uncertain footing
for the pedestrian who tried to make a short cut to his destination;
then on the higher sandy soil there was the purple ling, or
commonest species of heather growing in beautiful wild luxuriance.
Tufts of fine elastic grass were occasionally to be found, on which
the little black-faced sheep browsed; but either the scanty food, or
their goat-like agility, kept them in a lean condition that did not
promise much for the butcher, nor yet was their wool of a quality
fine enough to make them profitable in that way to their owners. In
such districts there is little population at the present day; there
was much less in the last century, before agriculture was
sufficiently scientific to have a chance of contending with such
natural disqualifications as the moors presented, and when there
were no facilities of railroads to bring sportsmen from a distance
to enjoy the shooting season, and make an annual demand for

There were old stone halls in the valleys; there were bare
farmhouses to be seen on the moors at long distances apart, with
small stacks of coarse poor hay, and almost larger stacks of turf
for winter fuel in their farmyards. The cattle in the pasture fields
belonging to these farms looked half starved; but somehow there was
an odd, intelligent expression in their faces, as well as in those
of the black-visaged sheep, which is seldom seen in the placidly
stupid countenances of well-fed animals. All the fences were turf
banks, with loose stones piled into walls on the top of these.

There was comparative fertility and luxuriance down below in the
rare green dales. The narrow meadows stretching along the brookside
seemed as though the cows could really satisfy their hunger in the
deep rich grass; whereas on the higher lands the scanty herbage was
hardly worth the fatigue of moving about in search of it. Even in
these 'bottoms' the piping sea-winds, following the current of the
stream, stunted and cut low any trees; but still there was rich
thick underwood, tangled and tied together with brambles, and
brier-rose, (sic) and honeysuckle; and if the farmer in these
comparatively happy valleys had had wife or daughter who cared for
gardening, many a flower would have grown on the western or southern
side of the rough stone house. But at that time gardening was not a
popular art in any part of England; in the north it is not yet.
Noblemen and gentlemen may have beautiful gardens; but farmers and
day-labourers care little for them north of the Trent, which is all
I can answer for. A few 'berry' bushes, a black currant tree or two
(the leaves to be used in heightening the flavour of tea, the fruit
as medicinal for colds and sore throats), a potato ground (and this
was not so common at the close of the last century as it is now), a
cabbage bed, a bush of sage, and balm, and thyme, and marjoram, with
possibly a rose tree, and 'old man' growing in the midst; a little
plot of small strong coarse onions, and perhaps some marigolds, the
petals of which flavoured the salt-beef broth; such plants made up a
well-furnished garden to a farmhouse at the time and place to which
my story belongs. But for twenty miles inland there was no
forgetting the sea, nor the sea-trade; refuse shell-fish, seaweed,
the offal of the melting-houses, were the staple manure of the
district; great ghastly whale-jaws, bleached bare and white, were
the arches over the gate-posts to many a field or moorland stretch.
Out of every family of several sons, however agricultural their
position might be, one had gone to sea, and the mother looked
wistfully seaward at the changes of the keen piping moorland winds.
The holiday rambles were to the coast; no one cared to go inland to
see aught, unless indeed it might be to the great annual horse-fairs
held where the dreary land broke into habitation and cultivation.

Somehow in this country sea thoughts followed the thinker far
inland; whereas in most other parts of the island, at five miles
from the ocean, he has all but forgotten the existence of such an
element as salt water. The great Greenland trade of the coasting
towns was the main and primary cause of this, no doubt. But there
was also a dread and an irritation in every one's mind, at the time
of which I write, in connection with the neighbouring sea.

Since the termination of the American war, there had been nothing to
call for any unusual energy in manning the navy; and the grants
required by Government for this purpose diminished with every year
of peace. In 1792 this grant touched its minimum for many years. In
1793 the proceedings of the French had set Europe on fire, and the
English were raging with anti-Gallican excitement, fomented into
action by every expedient of the Crown and its Ministers. We had our
ships; but where were our men? The Admiralty had, however, a ready
remedy at hand, with ample precedent for its use, and with common
(if not statute) law to sanction its application. They issued 'press
warrants,' calling upon the civil power throughout the country to
support their officers in the discharge of their duty. The sea-coast
was divided into districts, under the charge of a captain in the
navy, who again delegated sub-districts to lieutenants; and in this
manner all homeward-bound vessels were watched and waited for, all
ports were under supervision; and in a day, if need were, a large
number of men could be added to the forces of his Majesty's navy.
But if the Admiralty became urgent in their demands, they were also
willing to be unscrupulous. Landsmen, if able-bodied, might soon be
trained into good sailors; and once in the hold of the tender, which
always awaited the success of the operations of the press-gang, it
was difficult for such prisoners to bring evidence of the nature of
their former occupations, especially when none had leisure to listen
to such evidence, or were willing to believe it if they did listen,
or would act upon it for the release of the captive if they had by
possibility both listened and believed. Men were kidnapped,
literally disappeared, and nothing was ever heard of them again. The
street of a busy town was not safe from such press-gang captures, as
Lord Thurlow could have told, after a certain walk he took about
this time on Tower Hill, when he, the attorney-general of England,
was impressed, when the Admiralty had its own peculiar ways of
getting rid of tiresome besiegers and petitioners. Nor yet were
lonely inland dwellers more secure; many a rustic went to a statute
fair or 'mop,' and never came home to tell of his hiring; many a
stout young farmer vanished from his place by the hearth of his
father, and was no more heard of by mother or lover; so great was
the press for men to serve in the navy during the early years of the
war with France, and after every great naval victory of that war.

The servants of the Admiralty lay in wait for all merchantmen and
traders; there were many instances of vessels returning home after
long absence, and laden with rich cargo, being boarded within a
day's distance of land, and so many men pressed and carried off,
that the ship, with her cargo, became unmanageable from the loss of
her crew, drifted out again into the wild wide ocean, and was
sometimes found in the helpless guidance of one or two infirm or
ignorant sailors; sometimes such vessels were never heard of more.
The men thus pressed were taken from the near grasp of parents or
wives, and were often deprived of the hard earnings of years, which
remained in the hands of the masters of the merchantman in which
they had served, subject to all the chances of honesty or
dishonesty, life or death. Now all this tyranny (for I can use no
other word) is marvellous to us; we cannot imagine how it is that a
nation submitted to it for so long, even under any warlike
enthusiasm, any panic of invasion, any amount of loyal subservience
to the governing powers. When we read of the military being called
in to assist the civil power in backing up the press-gang, of
parties of soldiers patrolling the streets, and sentries with
screwed bayonets placed at every door while the press-gang entered
and searched each hole and corner of the dwelling; when we hear of
churches being surrounded during divine service by troops, while the
press-gang stood ready at the door to seize men as they came out
from attending public worship, and take these instances as merely
types of what was constantly going on in different forms, we do not
wonder at Lord Mayors, and other civic authorities in large towns,
complaining that a stop was put to business by the danger which the
tradesmen and their servants incurred in leaving their houses and
going into the streets, infested by press-gangs.

Whether it was that living in closer neighbourhood to the
metropolis--the centre of politics and news--inspired the
inhabitants of the southern counties with a strong feeling of that
kind of patriotism which consists in hating all other nations; or
whether it was that the chances of capture were so much greater at
all the southern ports that the merchant sailors became inured to
the danger; or whether it was that serving in the navy, to those
familiar with such towns as Portsmouth and Plymouth, had an
attraction to most men from the dash and brilliancy of the
adventurous employment--it is certain that the southerners took the
oppression of press-warrants more submissively than the wild
north-eastern people. For with them the chances of profit beyond
their wages in the whaling or Greenland trade extended to the lowest
description of sailor. He might rise by daring and saving to be a
ship-owner himself. Numbers around him had done so; and this very
fact made the distinction between class and class less apparent; and
the common ventures and dangers, the universal interest felt in one
pursuit, bound the inhabitants of that line of coast together with a
strong tie, the severance of which by any violent extraneous
measure, gave rise to passionate anger and thirst for vengeance. A
Yorkshireman once said to me, 'My county folk are all alike. Their
first thought is how to resist. Why! I myself, if I hear a man say
it is a fine day, catch myself trying to find out that it is no such
thing. It is so in thought; it is so in word; it is so in deed.'

So you may imagine the press-gang had no easy time of it on the
Yorkshire coast. In other places they inspired fear, but here rage
and hatred. The Lord Mayor of York was warned on 20th January, 1777,
by an anonymous letter, that 'if those men were not sent from the
city on or before the following Tuesday, his lordship's own
dwelling, and the Mansion-house also, should be burned to the

Perhaps something of the ill-feeling that prevailed on the subject
was owing to the fact which I have noticed in other places similarly
situated. Where the landed possessions of gentlemen of ancient
family but limited income surround a centre of any kind of
profitable trade or manufacture, there is a sort of latent ill-will
on the part of the squires to the tradesman, be he manufacturer,
merchant, or ship-owner, in whose hands is held a power of
money-making, which no hereditary pride, or gentlemanly love of
doing nothing, prevents him from using. This ill-will, to be sure,
is mostly of a negative kind; its most common form of manifestation
is in absence of speech or action, a sort of torpid and genteel
ignoring all unpleasant neighbours; but really the whale-fisheries
of Monkshaven had become so impertinently and obtrusively prosperous
of late years at the time of which I write, the Monkshaven
ship-owners were growing so wealthy and consequential, that the
squires, who lived at home at ease in the old stone manor-houses
scattered up and down the surrounding moorland, felt that the check
upon the Monkshaven trade likely to be inflicted by the press-gang,
was wisely ordained by the higher powers (how high they placed these
powers I will not venture to say), to prevent overhaste in getting
rich, which was a scriptural fault, and they also thought that they
were only doing their duty in backing up the Admiralty warrants by
all the civil power at their disposal, whenever they were called
upon, and whenever they could do so without taking too much trouble
in affairs which did not after all much concern themselves.

There was just another motive in the minds of some provident parents
of many daughters. The captains and lieutenants employed on this
service were mostly agreeable bachelors, brought up to a genteel
profession, at the least they were very pleasant visitors, when they
had a day to spare; who knew what might come of it?

Indeed, these brave officers were not unpopular in Monkshaven
itself, except at the time when they were brought into actual
collision with the people. They had the frank manners of their
profession; they were known to have served in those engagements, the
very narrative of which at this day will warm the heart of a Quaker,
and they themselves did not come prominently forward in the dirty
work which, nevertheless, was permitted and quietly sanctioned by
them. So while few Monkshaven people passed the low public-house
over which the navy blue-flag streamed, as a sign that it was the
rendezvous of the press-gang, without spitting towards it in sign of
abhorrence, yet, perhaps, the very same persons would give some
rough token of respect to Lieutenant Atkinson if they met him in
High Street. Touching their hats was an unknown gesture in those
parts, but they would move their heads in a droll, familiar kind of
way, neither a wag nor a nod, but meant all the same to imply
friendly regard. The ship-owners, too, invited him to an occasional
dinner or supper, all the time looking forward to the chances of his
turning out an active enemy, and not by any means inclined to give
him 'the run of the house,' however many unmarried daughters might
grace their table. Still as he could tell a rattling story, drink
hard, and was seldom too busy to come at a short notice, he got on
better than any one could have expected with the Monkshaven folk.
And the principal share of the odium of his business fell on his
subordinates, who were one and all regarded in the light of mean
kidnappers and spies--'varmint,' as the common people esteemed
them: and as such they were ready at the first provocation to hunt
and to worry them, and little cared the press-gang for this.
Whatever else they were, they were brave and daring. They had law to
back them, therefore their business was lawful. They were serving
their king and country. They were using all their faculties, and
that is always pleasant. There was plenty of scope for the glory and
triumph of outwitting; plenty of adventure in their life. It was a
lawful and loyal employment, requiring sense, readiness, courage,
and besides it called out that strange love of the chase inherent in
every man. Fourteen or fifteen miles at sea lay the _Aurora_, good
man-of-war; and to her were conveyed the living cargoes of several
tenders, which were stationed at likely places along the sea-coast.
One, the _Lively Lady_, might be seen from the cliffs above
Monkshaven, not so far away, but hidden by the angle of the high
lands from the constant sight of the townspeople; and there was
always the Randyvow-house (as the public-house with the navy
blue-flag was called thereabouts) for the crew of the _Lively Lady_
to lounge about, and there to offer drink to unwary passers-by. At
present this was all that the press-gang had done at Monkshaven.

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