Falmouth Packet Archives 1688-1850
SAMUEL KELLY-AN EIGHTEENTH CENTURY SEAMAN.
Edited, with an Introduction, by Crosbie Garstin. Jonathan Cape. 16s.
“ 1 have read somewhere that seamen are neither reckoned among the living nor the dead,” wrote Samuel Kelly, born in 1764, who lived his life at sea. “ Their whole lives are spent in jeopardy. No sooner is one peril over, but another comes rolling on, like the waves of a full-grown sea.”
Kelly was born at St. Ives, Cornwall, and his autobiography is a valuable document. It has been carefully edited by Mr. Garstin, and is presented in a thoroughly readable condition. The MS. was discovered, having lain in an old bureau in St. Ives for more than a hundred years; and here it is, bringing the past again to life. Kelly is a link with another age; he watched the bodies being recovered from the Royal George, and he also records that he was sent on board the “ Diomede of 44 guns, Commander Affleck, Mr. Nelson (afterwards Lord Nelson) being the first lieutenant and commanding officer on deck.” And, as Mr. Garstin says, “he saw history making in his day,
the British evacuation of New York;
the foundations of St. John's, New Brunswick;
Washington, in black velvet, addressing the Senate, `and
Lord Howe exchanging salutes with Admiral MacBride as the Grand Fleet stood down Channel to drub the French on “ The Glorious First of June.”
Without enthusiasm, his career was begun :
The greatest trouble I had in the top was attending the sails that were hoisted on a long top-gallant mast full thirty feet in the hoist, and on this mast I was obliged to haul myself up by main strength with my hands . When all sails were set, to take in and out and to send into the top, the upper sail (which was termed, in this ship, a sky-scraper) was not only a very painful and teasing employment, but also very dangerous, as this mast used to bend and spring like a coachman's whip.
His ship was taken by an American frigate, and then retaken by a British one; voyage after voyage he made; and, at the age of 21 he became mate In the coasting trade, finally figuring as master.
When, as a youngster, he was in a ship which lay at Limehouse Hole, the crew used to cut off junks of the cable, which they. sold early in the morning to the bumboats for purl (a kind of ale or beer). And one day, ashore at Tower Hill, he saw a vessel on wheels with mast and rigging. He discovered its use. The person in charge would promise simple countrymen, who happened to be standing staring at it, to show it to them for a trifle. Once inside, they were secured, as in a trap. According to circumstances, they were “ made sailors of, or let go again.”
The author had a seeing eye, and recorded his experiences with real perception of the picturesque. Whether as sea-man, mate or master, it is the same. Here he speaks as master :
"Many a long, dark, melancholy winter's night I passed in the cabin, and l believe I never went to bed but once during the passage wholly un-dressed. Sometimes my bed was so wet that I had to coil myself round like a dog on one corner of it, but notwithstanding these disagreeables I continued firm in my resolution not to run south-ward.
On our approaching the American continent, vessels leaving the land endeavoured to avoid us, supposing we were in want of provision, and one in particular I hailed till I was hoarse without
getting a satisfactory answer, she making off from us as fast as possible."
The book is an historical document of value.
(q.f. The Yachting Monthly No. 236, December 1925.. Reviews by H. Alker Tripp. Pp.115-116 )
Note: As Samuel Kelly was born in 1764, he was over 20 years old when he "saw Benjamin Franklin walking the streets of Philadelphia" - as Franklin was in France from 1776-1785, and died in 1790.