Christmas at sea

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Poster of an oven

Wilson's cooking apparatus poster. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I enjoy cooking and this weekend helped prepare a traditional Christmas meal for six at Lowlands, the Victorian mansion in Liverpool where I am a trustee.

You do not need a great deal of space to cook a good meal – I once went on a French submarine for breakfast and was amazed at the tiny galley. They dished up their own Gallic version of black puddings.

Good food is very important at sea both to seafarers and passengers and this is even more so over Christmas for those who find themselves away from traditional family gatherings.

In the past, sailing ship crews were unlikely to get much change from their everyday diet of water, bread, ship’s biscuits, salted meat, dried peas, rice, tea, coffee and sugar. The best they might expect at Christmas was a double ration of salt pork followed by plum duff (thick flour pudding).

It was not possible to have fresh food on board ocean-going ships before the advent of steam and refrigeration.

However, some innovative cooks might use the bounty of the sea or land they were passing at Christmas. There are reports of crews being dished up such delights as penguins, turtles and even porpoises.

Robert Louis Stevenson captured the atmosphere in his poem Christmas at Sea:

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

The advent of large liners transformed catering at sea for passengers. British companies manufactured top-of-the-range equipment so that ships’ kitchens could produce top class meals.

On display at Merseyside Maritime Museum is eerie film footage taken on the wreck of the Empress of Ireland which sank off Quebec, Canada, in 1914 with the loss of more than 1,000 lives.

A huge cooking range looms out of the gloom, clearly embossed with the words Henry Wilson Co Ltd, Cornhill Works, Liverpool. This company supplied and fitted most of the kitchen, pantry and bakery equipment for such ships as the Titanic, Lusitania and Empress of Ireland and many other passenger liners. Its cooking ranges for Titanic and her sister Olympic were at the time possibly the largest ever made.

This contemporary advertisement from the summer 1911 issue of Shipbuilder shows one of the huge ranges.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).