July is not a popular month with swans on the river Thames! Every year in the third week, men take to the river in traditional wooden skiffs, dressed in colourful garb and feather-adorned caps, to track down and pluck from the water these familiar British birds. Although this had a more sinister purpose in days gone by – to lay claim to the best birds to serve for dinner at grand banquets – today it is a more sedate and less-threatening affair.
One of Her Majesty’s Swan Upping skiffs flying her Royal cypher
For this is Swan Upping week: the annual census of mute swans that inhabit the Thames. I joined the Swan Uppers on the second day of this year’s event accompanied by cameraman Raj Yagnik to capture the ceremony for next year’s special exhibition Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames (April-September 2012) in which we will feature this ancient and peculiar rite. The event was led by David Barber, in his 19th year as The Queen’s Swan Marker, whose scarlet and gold blazer brightened up a gloomy morning at Eton riverside.
David Barber, Marker of The Queen’s Swans, being interviewed on board the press boat
Dating back to at least the 15th century, Swan Upping in the past was about claiming the right to own swans on the river. The ownership of unmarked swans belonged to the monarch, who could also grant the right of ownership to others. Some aristocratic families, institutions and guilds were given these rights which were asserted at Swan Upping when the swans would be rounded up and marked with unique notches cut into their beaks.
Today, the cutting of beaks has ceased – Queen Alexandra worried about the unnecessary pain and distress it caused – and only two City Livery Companies, the Vintners‘ and Dyers‘, maintain their right to own swans, alongside Her Majesty the Queen. At this time of the year the companies come together with the Crown, crewing six skiffs between them, to make the 79-mile journey between Sunbury in Surrey and Abingdon in Oxfordshire searching for the season’s new cygnets…
Much of my morning Swan Upping was spent in the press boat taking a leisurely journey up the Thames, admiring the quirky spectacle and taking in the beauty of a river which it is hard to believe passes through one of the busiest cities in the world. Meanwhile the Swan Uppers alongside us were rowing at a reasonable pace while keeping their eyes peeled for young swans. After turning a bend in the river one of the watermen cried ‘All Up’, and sure enough a group of swans – two parent birds and six cygnets – were spotted greedily devouring bread being offered by day-trippers on the bank. Swan Upping was once described to me as ‘all feathers and blood’ so as the men sprang into action, corralling the group between the skiffs and the bank, I expected much hissing of tongues, gnashing of beaks and beady eyes filled with terror.
Swan Upping skiffs corralling the swans against the bank
On this occasion though, the fearsome swan crooks for hooking the birds from the water (think fishing for ducks at the fairground) were not needed and the swans were relatively easily lifted from the water with little distress, few feathers and absolutely no blood shed – by swan or Swan Upper! The feet of each bird were tied to demobilize them and then they were taken ashore for ringing (which replaces beak-cutting). The cygnets were the cutest things – grey fluff and stubby wings (no ugly ducklings, Hans Christian Andersen) – and were anxiously watched by their parents (also taken from the water) as they were weighed and measured, under the direction of The Queen’s Warden of the Swans, Professor Christopher Perrins. After meeting the locals, the swans were returned to the water and the band of Swan Uppers went on its way.
Professor Perrins, The Queen’s Swan Warden, measuring this year’s cygnets, with David Barber explaining the process in the foreground
We saw very few swans in this session; apparently swans on the Thames have a more fearsome adversary this year than the men in colourful coats. Duck Virus Enteritis or ‘Duck Plague‘ has struck mute swans on the Thames and is having a significant effect on their numbers. At times like this you realise that the work of the Swan Uppers is not just about tradition and show; they fulfil a valuable conservation, education and welfare role which will help us to understand the spread and impact of this dreadful disease and to hopefully confirm the recovery of the population of these iconic birds on the river Thames.
Many passengers love to be entertained on board their ship, and with excursions at ports of call.
A Tunisian tour guide posing with his official P & O sign, Bizerte, Tunisia (P90849)
In the Exhibition there is a picture of a man holding a sign on the quay beside Viceroyof India in 1935, advertising a P&O Official Excursion at Bizerte, Tunisia; there is the rickshaw man beside a ship in 1935 in Durban, South Africa; the Waterline book includes pictures from many ports of call, including Blue Star Line’s Arandora Star at Valletta, Malta, about 1937.
A local rickshaw driver in ‘traditional’ costume, with a Union-Castle Line ship in the background (P91550)
My Father was a Junior Engineer on that ship as a young man in the early 1930s, so I have similar pictures from his photo album, and often think I am ‘following in Father’s footsteps’ when I look at his pictures and mine nowadays. Of course I don’t have a picture, like one of his, of Amundsen’s sleigh dog ‘Jacob’ in Kings Bay, Spitzbergen, about 1932!
The Exhibition shows us passenger children in the 1960s on the deck of Windsor Castle following a Children’s Hostess, or trying to catch an apple (suspended on a string) in their mouth, without using hands, on board Chusan about 1960; the book shows us children’s parties and children with Father Christmas.
Three children in the “Apple Eating” contest, possibly in the ballroom of the Chusan (P85787)
In the Exhibition I like the pictures of passengers with a splendidly-moustachioed barman on board Transvaal Castle, of Father Christmas apparently climbing down to the deck from a ship’s funnel, of lightly-clad passengers playing deck games, others enjoying a daytime deck buffet (obviously on a Union-Castle ship, to judge by the stewards’ lavender-coloured collar and cuffs), and dancing a Conga at night in a ship’s lounge in obviously sunny climes, according to the clothing. Passengers could enjoy dog racing (not real ones) or frog racing (again, not real ones) which were very popular when I was at sea. Wooden ‘frogs’ with a long string through their middle could be flapped along a course with perhaps six contestants, with bets being placed on the winner.
Passengers could be as inactive or as busy as they chose, as shown in all these Waterline photographs, and that is just the way it should be.
For a few years now each summer I have been a passenger, with friends, on various ferries and cruise ships in the Baltic, Mediterranean or Aegean Seas and we have had a fascinating time. That satisfies the lure of the sea and ships for me, especially in warm weather.
I sometimes think back to the time when man first used a tree to carry him on a river, or made dug-out canoes, or built the first wooden ships to protect our shores here in the UK, and our subsequent shipbuilding heritage of more modern times. Because we live on an island, there has always been a need to trade and thus ships also carried passengers. Nowadays we can travel on cruise ships, passenger ferries and cruise ferries, to visit fascinating destinations. I’ve enjoyed Color Magic, Funchal, Habib, Birger Jarl, Oceanic, Waverley, Perla, Maxim Gorki, Moby Drea, Queen Elizabeth 2, Saga Lejon, Ancona, and Cesme amongst others, and have met interesting fellow passengers everywhere.
The passengers shown in the Waterline Exhibition pictures are all enjoying themselves in various ways, whether visiting Copenhagen, cruising in Norway, playing deck games, or at a buffet on deck. It was just the same on the Union-Castle Mailships. Passengers were on board to enjoy themselves and they did. The Waterline picture showing a storage area on board Iberia about 1955 with many boxes of a famous brand of tea, and many boxes of a famous breakfast cereal, might make us smile now, but it meant that cruise passengers at the time were happy to find their favourite products provided on board especially for them.
A storeroom containing boxes of Tetley’s tea bags and Kellogg’s Frosties, onboard ‘Iberia’ (P87296)
Nowadays I think people are happy to travel on ships with a country of registry that is different to their own – they are likely to meet fellow passengers of another nationality and of course they can enjoy a different cuisine. When one considers that the latest cruise ships can accommodate 5,400 passengers, they have to be superbly designed and built and friends confirm it is an amazing and enjoyable experience to be on board such a vessel. We’ve come a long way since man built the first coracle…
I enjoyed seeing the Waterline pictures of passengers on various ships over the years, including Kungsholm, Gripsholm and Oriana for example, and in various ports. When I worked as a Purserette on Union-Castle Line mailships I particularly enjoyed meeting many new and interesting people, who travelled for so many different reasons.
A group of passengers with lifejackets aboard ‘Kungsholm’, undergoing life boat drill (P88247)
Not many people are aware though that our Mailships also carried enormous amounts of cargo, bringing great financial benefit to the company. Union Steam Ship was started in 1856 with little colliers bringing coal from Wales to Southampton, before sailing off to the Crimea under Government orders to deliver wooden sheds; Castle Packets began in 1876 with passengers, and both lines grew successfully, with their amalgamation in 1900 ensuring a steadily growing business as Union-Castle Line. They carried the Royal Mail under contract and because of the regularity of their service they could carry a great deal of cargo in the ships’ holds.
The celebrated English poet John Masefield is loved by many for his famous poem ‘Cargoes’, talking about a quinquireme of Nineveh rowing home to haven, and he lists a sumptuous cargo. He also describes a stately Spanish galleon and then a dirty British coaster, but each with vital cargoes, and the rhythm of the words of each of the three verses is so appropriate.
I am reminded of this poem when I think of the list of cargo that the Mailships carried. This varied from gold, diamonds, wool, vehicles, machinery, wine, and steam locomotives, to aircraft, exotic animals, steel and iron goods, fruit, copper, tea and cloves and so many other things.
Our ships regularly carried the gold mined in the South African goldfields, to the UK, before it was sent to its next destination. I was once allowed to go and see the gold (I thought it was worth being cheeky and asking) and have never forgotten the sight of all those boxes in the Bullion Room. They had to be inspected daily by the ship’s Captain, Purser, and Master-at-Arms. A long time afterwards I discovered that the quantity I saw in December 1966 was valued at £9,700,000. Cargo was valuable for so many reasons!
Four P & O cadets of the ‘Viceroy of India’ on the starboard side of the Bridge Deck with their sextants (P85348)
Deck Officers of the Viceroy of India were pictured in 1930 with ship funnels in the background, taking sights on deck with their sextants. This picture looks rather contrived, but certainly in the 1960s I remember that the Deck Officers on watch would take sights on the Bridge just before noon each day to measure the altitude of the sun and other angular distances to ensure they could pinpoint the exact position of the ship. All ships carried a supply of Admiralty charts, kept in large drawers at the rear of the Bridge and of course the current one would be on the table on the Bridge. The compass course would be marked on it based on the orders of the Master (Captain) of the ship.
Also on the Bridge would be the most up-to-date radar and other navigational equipment to ensure the safety of all on board; all the Deck Officers would be fully qualified with (or working towards) their Master’s Certificate, which included not only the navigation of the vessel but also the loading and stowage of cargo into the holds. These were the days before containers of course, when cargo came in boxes, sacks or on four feet – and more of this another time.
When I was at sea with Union-Castle Line the ships were known as Mailships because the Company had always held the Contract to carry the British Royal Mail on each voyage, hence the letters RMS (Royal Mail Ship) in front of every ship’s name.
Also on the Bridge would be the equipment enabling broadcasts to be made to perhaps First Class passengers only, or Tourist Class passengers only, or maybe the whole ship. As a Purserette I would sometimes have to make an announcement during dinner to remind passengers of the evening’s entertainment. This scripted short broadcast always went well, until the night I went onto the Bridge, I think on the Capetown Castle. Imagine my horror just after I started speaking when one of the junior Deck Officers on watch decided it would be funny to take the top off the floor-standing radar and put it on his head. The large cover looked somewhat like a bishop’s mitred hat, and I had great difficulty in remaining calm and not sounding hysterical! I think I succeeded….