A Week of Three Libraries -- Julia Jones

A coot scurried away across the basin, feet paddling furiously, a wary eye peering astern as I left the library building and paused at the edge of the dock, looking over its quiet space. I was naturally pleased to see the coot but was almost more interested in the colour of the water. Last time I was here Limehouse Basin was an unpleasant emerald green, algae visibly choking life beneath its surface. That word ‘eutrophication’ that I’ve relatively recently learned, sounds like suffocation, asphyxiation, atrophy, all in one killer blanket. There’s no beauty in water which looks like mown grass. 

View from CA library
It was worth upsetting the coot to stand still in the February drizzle when I'd finished work and welcome this (temporary?) improvement in the water colour. It’s still not blue or grey – or even caffe latte East Coast brown but it’s better than it was. (Feb 8th 2024) 

Inside the Cruising Association library I'd been picking through the shelves like a godwit plunging its beak in the mud. I was looking for books by women sailors, people with sufficient self-belief to consider their experience was worth recording – and who’d found publishers who thought the same.  Slim pickings though tasty ones. I haven’t done a scientific analysis of how many dozen book spines one scans to find a woman author’s name - 40:1 maybe?.  Today I'd checked very early editions of Lloyds Register of Yachts to count the numbers of c19th women who owned their own boats.  In 1878 (the first volume in the CA library collection) there were 4 women out of 1225 yacht owners, in 1883 16 out of 2530  -- which my maths tells me is a better % but would leave me a very hungry godwit if they were all I had to feed on.

These early owners were typically very rich women (themselves a rare species) who owned large yachts with crew but don’t seem to have troubled themselves to put pen to paper.  Other women -- wives, sisters, the rare lone women -- have done better,  The earliest cruising reminiscence I found on this occasion was from a vicar’s wife named Maude Speed whose cruising reminiscences were published in 1911 but go back to 1885 when she and her husband cruised together in a 2 ½ ton sailing canoe.
 They would remain on board for seven weeks at a time. 

My bed was a canvas mattress stuffed with corks on the floor – a brilliant idea of the skipper’s as he said it made a bed by night and a life-buoy in case of disaster, while my bolster was the jib in its little bag. I thought that the awful discomfort and sleeplessness I went through was inseparable from small boat cruising and tried heroically to harden myself into liking it, but looking back on that experience I would risk drowning twenty times over than go through it again!’ 

(A Yachtswoman’s Cruises by Maude Speed).  Perhaps the apparent absence of women from the water is not so surprising after all.

Yet every so often my beak comes up with a plump and lively lugworm or I stop pretending to be an assiduous godwit and turn into an avaricious seaside gull, as ready to snatch the chips from a picnicker's hand as to bother flying out to sea to fish for my own dinner. The Little Ship Club, tucked under Blackfriars Bridge with the Thames rushing by has a perfectly good library, an enthusiastic volunteer librarian and a chart room where I spend happy hours reading though the club journals. This week, however, I persuaded two wise women, Katy Stickland and Janet Grosvenor, to settle on the LSC classically clubroom leather sofa and just talk while I listened. I’m not normally one for audio books but when they are as interesting as those two all I wanted to do was wing it back to the chart room when they’d gone and try to write down everything they said.

Little Ship Club cabin
If you look out of the window you see the Thames

The following day I felt more like a city pigeon hopping dustily on the pavement outside the Royal Thames Yacht Club in Knightsbridge. It was actually quite hard to summon the courage to go in, but once through the plate glass doors I was swiftly ushered into the small safe space that is the RCC (Royal Cruising Club) library. There I was made as welcome as a smooth-feathered dove returning from Mount Ararat -- or at least that’s how Jane Russell made me feel as she produced the keys that unlocked the cupboards where membership lists and other archive treasures were kept. I soon forgot to coo politely and was filling my beak with the information she and vice-Commodore Tim Trafford were tossing my way.

Tim, poor fellow, was in the library trying to plan his next summer’s Atlantic cruise.  If he runs into an uncharted cave, snags his main mast on its roof then sinks with a hold full of gold, it’ll lie heavy on my conscience. (That’s the General Grant shipwreck in the Auckland Islands so don’t worry, wrong hemisphere.)  There also was a woman working steadily in the Cruising Association library, today, using charts and pilot books to plan some future passage. I love that combination of looking back to adventures of the past and forward to future voyages. I didn’t disturb her.

So, on this weather-bound February evening with rain spitting at the window and schools elsewhere closed for snow, let me share this delightful little fragment of verse which actress Nancy Price chose (or wrote?) to open The Gull’s Way, her account of a cruise with her husband and a professional skipper along the East Coast of England. It was  published in 1937.

But while upon my legs I'm free

Out in the sunshine I intend

To dine with God prodigiously.

Nancy Price (1880-1970)
Actress, author, theatre director -- and coastal sailor

'Stormy Weather' by Maude Speed, vicar's wife, sailor, artist


Susan Price said…
Julia, I am no sailor but I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! Thank you.
PS: I do like to be beside the seaside.
Julia jones said…
Thank you very much Sue. A bit random, maybe but usually a day or two before its blog day I ask myself what's on my mind and this time it was the joy of poking about in libraries and how different they are one from another -- and how much it matters that people should record their experience. I simply love hearing voices - like Maude Speed -- speaking out from the past. The statistics are depressing though
Paul Mullings said…
What fun, thanks Julia.

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