White star sailing

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black and white photograph of a man on a dais speaking at a microphone

John Masefield. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I live in West Derby - an ancient community, now part of Liverpool, with links to the famous White Star line. Near my house is beautiful Broughton Hall, now part of a school, where the company was set up over a game of billiards in 1869. White Star, owners of the Titanic, operated sailing ships before steam triumphed and dominated the seafaring world.

Ironically, the last sailing ships to be built were among the most beautiful ever constructed and marked the high point of the traditional shipbuilders’ powers. The last and largest sailing ship to be owned by White Star was the 318-ft long California, a deep-sea barque built by Harland & Wolff of Belfast in 1890. She belonged to the North Western Shipping Company whose principal shareholders also owned White Star. Possession of the White Star sailing ships was transferred to the new North Western Shipping Co in 1886.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a striking model of the 3,099-ton California, a steel-built four-master. She had relatively small cargo hatches which made freight handling slow but provided better protection from the heavy seas which frequently swept her decks. The California was sold when the North Western Shipping Co was dissolved in 1895. The ship passed through several German firms and was renamed Christel Vinnen in 1912. After the First World War she was allocated to Italy as part of war reparations. In April 1927 she became stranded near Panama and became a total loss.

Among the other last White Star sailing ships was another four-masted barque, the Gilcruix. Built in 1886, her crews included the 16-year-old John Masefield who was Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967. His wrote Sea Fever which starts with the immortal lines: 

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

Masefield’s voyage on the Gilcruix in 1894 was as an apprentice. It was his first voyage, sailing from Cardiff bound for Iquique, Chile. The ship had to negotiate the notorious Cape Horn and Masefield was so ill that he had to be hospitalised.

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 www.merseyshop.com (£1.50 p&p UK).