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Swarbrick, William Milton


From Geoffrey Milton Donald, grandson of William Milton Swarbrick. November 2009.

The 'Alexandra', though not strictly a Hartlepool ship, was part-owned by a Captain Stevenson and was on the run down the coast to London with north-east coal and presumably other goods to make up the ballast on the way back. We believe it was registered in Aberdeen, number 5324 at 160 tonnage, as a 'Hermaphrodite Brigantine', being two-mast square rigged, but with a fore-and-aft sail at the rear. The Stevenson family we think ran the 'Harbour of Refuge' pub in Old Hartlepool.

William Milton Swarbrick (1881 to 1969) came from a seafaring family with two captains in the lineage, one of whom lost his ship in a fearful storm, was washed up on shore alive but died of exposure. Grandfather was apprenticed at the age of fourteen on the Alexandra and was expecting eventually to gain his 'mates ticket' and follow in the family tradition. He took with him a  copy of "Two Years before the Mast" which he kept all his life. In 1899 he transferred to steam-powered cargo boats (he always refused to call anything without sails a 'ship, even the Queen Elisabeth was a boat!) and covered both European ports and the Atlantic run to Charleston Carolina and Savanna Georgia.

After breaking a leg on shore he decided to leave the sea in favour of Miss Leah Clementson who became our grandmother. When she went to the docks to collect his final wage packet she was told that he owed the company two shillings and sixpence! He subsequently worked in the finance offices of William Gray's shipyards, where, apparently, Sir William would cheerily address him as 'Bill'. Amongst other pursuits he kept the books for the local branch of the Ancient Order of the Foresters mutual society and was a long-time member of the Eldon Grove bowling club. Despite several  opportunities to move they lived all their married lives in Penrhyn Street, preferring the neighbourly community where, on the occasions when the front door was locked, the key would be hanging on a string behind the letterbox. He kept near-perfect health and mind until he died in 1969 after a brief illness not far off his eighty-eighth birthday.

The following reminiscences spring from the many and oft-repeated tales I heard from him in his 'anecdotage'.

As the young apprentice and possible future skipper himself, he was in the charge of the Captain, though by no means spared any of the hard work on a sailing ship. Quite the contrary, he was expected to learn everything to do with handling it, though Captain Stevenson was wont to cut an extra slice of cheese from the barrel for him to take away. 'His' sail was usually either the fore-topsail or the fore-t'gallant and he had to take his place in all weathers along the yard to set or furl the sail, standing on the swaying rope, with "one hand for the ship and one hand for himself". He told us that it was considered not the done thing to go the easy way through the 'lubber hole' in the masthead platform, but to climb up round the outside of the rigging.

At more relaxing times when the ship was at anchor or becalmed, the crew was able to devote time to fishing for supper. On one occasion the catch included 'gurnard' which can make noises like the barking of a dog. So annoyed at this, the captain's terrier dog Peter grabbed one but unfortunately fell overboard with it. Despite launching the boat he was never found. Captain Stevenson locked himself in his cabin for a long time afterwards. Even sadder, many years later, grandfather found him picking up cigarette ends in Llyn Street.  He gave the old boy a fiver, which would be worth quite a bit in those days. There was not much in the way of pensions then.

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