The Culture of a Victorian Coaling Station

Simon's Town coaling station. Note the coal hulks in the harbour, and the piles of unprotected coal on shore. Courtesy of Simon's Town Historical Society.

Simon’s Town coaling station. Note the coal hulks in the harbour, and the piles of unprotected coal on shore. Courtesy of Simon’s Town Historical Society.

It is well known that the late-Victorian navy was immensely popular in the public imagination and celebrated as a symbol of Britain’s power and empire. This link between the navy and the Empire very real, and the most obvious manifestation of this link was at overseas naval stations. British seamen would often seek British and European company at these stations, whether at naval clubs, hostelry or through sport, but they also had an interest in exploration and knowledge about the world. These activities were possible because when a ship coaled, it was often not a fleeting visit:

 

A ship on a foreign station, moving from port to port, offers continual opportunity for diversion, and as an abundance of leave is granted to men of good character, they have ample opportunity to visit the different towns, see the sights, and study the ways of the natives. [1]

 

Despite differences in location, geography, commercial importance, and local populations there were similarities in the experiences and activities enjoyed at stations separated by thousands of miles. As sailors would visit many stations on each commission it was the things which set an individual station apart which especially appealed to them. Exploring the culture of a station was a favourite pastime of officer and bluejacket alike. Hong Kong illustrated the breadth of interest that could be found at a foreign station. The log of the Challenger suggests that there were “few places … more interesting to the traveler from Europe than this city, furnishing as it does such a change of scenery, manners and customs, so widely different from anything he has probably seen before.” [2]

 

The China station provided sailors with an opportunity to visit the ancient temples of the Far East. Those stationed at Woosung went to Shanghai and visited its many famous temples. [3] Nagasaki was well known amongst visitors for its many thousands of Buddhas, and especially for the Temple of the Bronze Horse. [4] At Osaka sailors indulged further into Japanese culture by visiting a castle and being entertained by geisha girls and Japanese theater. [5] Sailors on the Mediterranean station also sought out religious and historic buildings and monuments. The churches of Malta were frequently visited and processions during religious festivals generally added colour to a stay there. [6] Of particular interest was the Citta Vecchia (old city), which included the cathedral, the famous catacombs, and a spectacular view of the whole island. [7] Stopping to coal at Piraeus allowed visits by train to Athens, where crews could visit ancient monuments such as the Acropolis, as well as the museum. [8]

 

The markets and bazaars of foreign ports also provided opportunities for naval men to purchase wares and immerse themselves in local maritime cultures. Sailors would often purchase reminders of most stations they stayed at: whilst the Royal Arthur was lying at Malta, “the usual invasion of vendors took place, making bargains for lace, holy stone, etc.” [9] Several cities were well known for their bazaars, in Shanghai “practically anything could be obtained, Chinese or English.” [10] Such a gathering of traders inevitably led to comments about the racial and cultural make up of ports. Bombay’s bazaars contained a “motley population,” just as Colombo’s were “teeming with every variety of oriental race and costume.” [11] Both Malta and Gibraltar contained “men of pretty well every nationality”, including Moors, Jews, Indians, Spanish, English, Portuguese, Italian, Turks, Greeks, Japanese and Chinese. [12] This diversity made these places unique, as they contained “a mixture of races, customs, and manners, such as can scarcely be found at any other place in Europe.” [13] Even at small stations such as Freemantle, Western Australia, “the streets [were] crowded with all nationalities, from a chinaman to a dirty dago.” [14] The appeal of the unique mixture of peoples, customs and cultures at these stations were frequently remarked upon by British seamen and their willingness to engage with alien cultures at stations shows an enduring interest in adventure, tourism and imperial cultures.

 

References

[1]  E. G. Anning, F. J. Bentley and Lionel Yexley, The Log of H.M.S. Argonaut, 1900-1904. China Station (London: Westminster Press, 1904), v.
[2]  W. J. J. Spry, The Cruise of Her Majesty’s Ship Challenger (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Company, 1899), 193-201.
[3]  Anning, Bentley and Yexley, The Log of H.M.S. Argonaut, 25.
[4]  A. E. Butterworth, The Commission of H.M.S. Glory, Flag Ship of Commander-in-Chief, China Station, 1900-1904 (London: Westminster Press, 1904), 8-9.
[5]  G. H. Gunns, The Log of H.M.S. Sutlej, Pacific and China Stations, 1904-1906 (London: Westminster Press, 1906), 114; 19.
[6]  “Journals of Donovan C. Roe 1911-1912”, NMM, JOD/92/2 and J. R. M. A. Brown, The Log of H.M.S. Repulse, 1902-1904. Mediterranean Station (London: Westminster Press, 1904), 16.
[7]  G. R. Parker, The Commission of H.M.S. Implacable, Mediterranean Station. 1901-1904 (London: Westminster Press, 1904), 9.
[8]  Parker, The Commission of H.M.S. Implacable, 36 and W. Wheeler, The Commission of H.M.S. Pandora, Mediterranean Station. 1901-1904 (London: Westminster Press, 1904), 25-28.
[9]  H. Callow, The Commission of H.M.S. Royal Arthur, Flag Ship, Australian Station. 1901-1904 (London: Westminster Press, 1904), 7.
[10]  Gunns, The Log of H.M.S. Sutlej, Pacific and China Stations, 1904-1906, 140.
[11]  John Anderson Dougherty, The East Station; or the Cruise of H.M.S. Garnet 1887-90 (Malta: Muscat Printing Office, 1892), 87; 115.
[12]  Brown, The Log of H.M.S. Repulse, 1902-1904. Mediterranean Station, 16.
[13]  Spry, The Cruise of Her Majesty’s Ship Challenger, 14; Gunns, The Log of H.M.S. Sutlej, Pacific and China Stations, 1904-1906, 8.
[14]  Callow, The Commission of H.M.S. Royal Arthur, Flag Ship, Australian Station. 1901-1904, 35; 38.

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One Response to The Culture of a Victorian Coaling Station

  1. Dr. Jim Birkett July 13, 2016 at 5:23 pm #

    Dear Steven,

    I have been researching the early development of desalination technology and am particularly fascinated by the little building on Malta with the inscription “Sea Water Distilling Apparatus, 1881”. I have visited it and it is featured in Malta tourist literature. However little is known of the equipment originally therein. Form what I have gleaned it was intended to supply fresh water to the coaling station and its garrison. I suspect that the equipment was of English or Scottish design and manufacture. Potential suppliers would include Normandy, Chaplin and Mirlees-Wtson. It probably was of single or multi-effect design and linked to a coal-fired steam boiler.

    If you would kindly give me your e-mail address, I will forward a recent paper of mine on Dr. Normandy, founder of “Normandy’s Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Company” which sold equipment to other coaling stations including Suez and Aden from 1858 to about 1910.

    Best regards,

    Dr. Jim Birkett

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