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Erskine Childers' log books
Among the wealth of fascinating manuscripts at the National Maritime Museum are Erskine Childers' log books. Written in a neat copper-plate, they reveal the genesis of his best-known book The Riddle of the Sands and, as Carol Fowler found out, something of the complexity of the man.
One of the many books about the author of that ever-popular novel The Riddle of the Sands is entitled The Riddle of Erskine Childers, which comes as no surprise. Childers' novel is as English as a cricket bat and after its publication in 1903 the Edwardian public took the author to its heart as someone who embodied all that they thought was best about the adventurous English character.
Britain was still smarting from the wounds of the Boer War and the death of Queen Victoria and badly needed heroes. Childers had, in fact, served in the Boer War as a volunteer and he worked as a clerk in the House of Commons.
However, between 1903 and the outbreak of World War I, Childers, whose mother was Irish and who had lived with his Irish relatives when his parents died, took up the cause of Irish Home Rule, publishing tracts, making speeches and even smuggling guns into Ireland. The minute war was declared, Childers enlisted to fight for the British Empire, only to return to the campaign for Home Rule in 1918.
Childers’ support for Home Rule was seen as treachery and a complete abandonment of all he had lived for by the English public and even by many of his closest friends. When he got caught up in the political in-fighting that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State and was court-martialled and shot by the new Irish government in 1922, this 'great noble spirit’ died reviled by both the Irish and the English.
Although he died castigated by all, most people today would see the love of adventure that made him an obsessive sailor, drove him to enlist in two great wars and permeates The Riddle of the Sands, as being exactly the same spirit that drove him to smuggle guns and take up the Irish cause.
Childers was a superb seaman, sailing small engineless craft on the East Coast, the Solent and the Baltic in the days when state-of-the-art navigation equipment consisted of a chart, a prismatic compass and a lead line.
Sailing was his great passion and he took every opportunity to get afloat. During the week he was a pillar of the establishment in his job at the House of Commons; at weekends and during holidays he would escape to his boat kept on the River Thames, persuading his friends to join him.
In 1895, he was sailing Marguerite (which he and his friends nicknamed 'Mad Agnes’) an 18 ft dayboat with a 30 in draught and his log books, written in lyrical English, present a graphic picture of a very different world, although the tricks the sea and weather can play are instantly recognisable.From a weekend trip on 4 May 1895:
…got a dead run down the Medway through the warships. No proper chart so followed a yacht. …anchored between stage and the Powder Works, two miles from Rochester. Scenery all up lovely – at first flat, later hills with red villages looking through spring green woods.
Local sailors will instantly recognise the Powder Works, which is still there and still a landmark.
Four weeks later he’s back for a six-day cruise off the Essex coast, experiencing the inevitable grounding:
…across Foulness Sands with plate up, just pulled it off but very narrowly. Touched ground once and suddenly found ourselves in deep channel to Burnham.
At Maldon they ran into a friend and returned after dinner to find the boat high and dry, Childers records:
Sleeping at an angle a new experiment but quite comfortable.
All this is familiar to any East Coast sailor, but some things do change. They sailed up Coleworth Creek and,
Left boat with Coastguard. Nice civil chaps, one of them carried our bag to Port Victoria Hotel.
He describes it as,
Most lonely spot in the world on a projecting point of a limitless marsh. Going bedwards saw that the moon had transfigured this dreary waste.
Present day Coastguards, however civil, are unlikely to offer to carry the bags for passing sailors in a scruffy dayboat, or indeed, in anything else.
In August of the same year, he heads for Cowes Week. The crowded anchorages and variety of craft sound familiar, but, happily, the Royal Navy doesn’t anticipate that we’ll be capable of navigating our way round a gunboat in action as Childers' log records.
Reached against the tide to Portsmouth Harbour skirting line of fire of practising gunboat. A medley of warships, yachts and tramps. Coming in met the German fleet from Cowes steaming in line ahead. Cowes was a bewildering spectacle. Every yard of anchorage occupied with every single sort of steam and sailing yacht. The whole edge of water filled with English and German battleships, the Hohen Zolhern conspicuous, marvellous compound of destructive force and graceful luxury.
By the end of the 19th century, Germany, under its new, young emperor, began to build a fleet to rival the British who had dominated the world’s oceans for the best part of a 100 years.
Traditionally, the threat to Britain had come from France – part of the reason why the main naval stations were all along the south coast of England – and Childers is noting the emergence of a new power, a threat which would form the central theme of The Riddle of the Sands.
The journals and logbooks that cover Childers’ sailing up to World War I are in the archives of the Royal Cruising Club and held at the National Maritime Museum. They make fascinating reading for any sailor or any fan of his novel, but for a really exciting story you can’t beat the journal of the gun-running cruise on Childers' 44 ft ketch, Asgard. On 12 July 1914, they made their night time rendezvous with a German tug in the English Channel and transferred 900 rifles and 20,000 rounds of ammunition.
So it went on through the night – still bale after bale of rifles were passed down… the saloon got full, and the cabin and the passage, and then we began to put another layer, and to pile them at the foot of the companionway hatch. The ammunition coming down in fearfully heavy boxes, stowed with infinite labour aft under the cockpit, sail lockers, fo’castle.
They became nervous about the
...effect the tremendous extra weight would have on the yacht in bad weather
but Erskine’s one thought was to take everything. The guns were built up level with the table and finally he was forced, reluctantly, to jettison three boxes of ammunition left on deck.
Asgard had been given to Childers as a wedding present by his wife's family and Molly joined him on the cruise, as did a friend, Mary Spring-Rice, and a British officer.
On the return trip to Ireland the grossly overloaded Asgard was hit by the worst storm seen in the Irish Sea for 30 years and at one point Childers had to lash himself to the wheel. They finally made Howth Harbour on the morning of 26 July and the guns were quickly unloaded by members of the Irish Volunteers. War was declared less than a fortnight later and the guns Childers smuggled in would not be used for another two years, on Easter Sunday 1916.
It is for his immortal novel, The Riddle of the Sands, published exactly 100 years ago, that Childers is best known. Although it owes a lot to the wonderful adventure novels of writers like Rider Haggard, that were a staple of Victorian Britain, The Riddle of the Sands is much more. It's the first spy novel and established a formula that included a mass of verifiable detail, which gave authenticity to the story – the same ploy that would be used so well by John Buchan, Ian Fleming, John le Carré and many others.
Reading Childers' original logs, it's clear that Riddle of the Sands is based closely on his 1897 Baltic cruise in Vixen, a 30 ft converted ship’s lifeboat. Large parts of the journal appear almost unedited in the book, including the sharp comment after being bombarded by boys in Holland, that
what this country needs is a Herod with strong views on infanticide.
At Ostmahaven, they have the sort of encounter that is also, thankfully, rare nowadays.
A gorgeous official came on board. There was a tremendous fuss because we were come last from a German port. Long inventory made of our stores, down to the salt in the little tin.
Ordinary mortals can take comfort from the entries for 29 and 30 September.
Wind came up fresh from SE with rain. We worked solely by the lead and after two or three checks anchored in only 9 ft, vague as to our whereabouts. Overslept and woke to bumpings – dashed out in pyjamas and tried to kedge off – failed and dried. Bed again.
Proving that even the best seaman sometimes gets it wrong. A few weeks later,
Woke to find the dinghy gone. One of us must have let go the painter in mistake for another rope when setting sails in the dark and storm.
On 8 October he records his first meeting with Bartels, the kindly father figure in the novel who rescues Davies after the dastardly Dollmann has managed to run Dulcibella aground in a storm. They have been waiting since 06.00 for a tug to take them through the canal to the Baltic. There is a south-west gale blowing along with heavy rain and bitter cold when at 16.00 a galliot, the local sailing barge, offers them a ride.
At last started alongside the Johannes schooner bound for Kappeln in the Baltic. Skipper Bartels a right good sort who helped us a lot… also hot punch, very welcome on that bitter day. His boy steered for us both and we had long yarns in the cabin.
One hopes they remembered to give 'the boy' the occasional warming drink.
Childers described Vixen as 'a very ugly little 5 tonner with no headroom'. This is the 'hybrid thing', the yacht Dulcibella, which in the novel so horrified the elegant urbanite, Carruthers who arrived in the Baltic with a wardrobe of impeccable white flannels and blazer, expecting to embark on a gentleman's steam yacht, complete with crew.
Although Childers named the Dulcibella after his sister, there's also a little joke in the name as the boat is neither soft nor beautiful and the first half of the novel is a beautifully observed comedy, which works through putting Carruthers into this entirely alien and sharp environment. Any small boat sailor will relate to his painful meetings with the centreboard case and the cabin roof, or that beautiful moment when Carruthers finally settles down on his bunk, only for a drop of water to fall on his nose. Carruthers' ill-disguised dislike of Dulcibella, and annoyance with Davies for, he thinks, conning him into coming on the trip, of course, start to disappear with the first swim in the invigorating and clean waters of the Baltic.
In the Baltic the colours are bright and crisp and the scenery clear, beautiful and ordered. Carruthers' ill-humour is mollified when
…sailing up a broad and straight reach which every moment disclosed new beauties, sights fair enough to be balm to the angriest spirit. A red-roofed hamlet was on our left, on the right an ivied ruin, close to the water, where some contemplative cattle stood knee-deep.
This is the scenery and atmosphere that people who have sailed in the Baltic would recognise instantly, or at least, some of the time. But part of the genius of Childers as a writer was that he was able to use his everyday observations of sea and land and give them symbolic meaning.
The freshness of the Baltic contrasts with the opening scene of The Riddle of the Sands, where Carruthers is virtually imprisoned in a dark, dirty and overheated London, while the letter from Davies, which invites him to the Baltic, arrives like a breath of fresh air. This London is hardly the vibrant centre of empire, but a nasty, degenerate place, Carruthers at one point visiting the 'shady haunts in Soho'. It sets up one of the main themes of the novel: Britain, once the most powerful and adventurous nation in the world, is now declining as a power, ignorant of the threats that are both around and within it.
This wasn’t a particularly original insight on Childers’ part as in the Boer War the cream of the British army had been defeated by what the public saw as a bunch of undisciplined farmers. There was even a fear that this moral degeneration of Britain had a physical side when it was discovered that recruits for the army had actually got smaller in between the first and second Boer wars.
As the scene shifts from the Baltic to the German Friesian islands, the environment changes yet again. They approach the Kiel Canal in a literal and metaphorical fog when Davies tells Carruthers about the 'German' sailor, Dollmann – who tried to kill him by running his ship on the sands during a gale – and Davies outlines the mystery that he thinks surrounds the sands.
On the North Sea coast, the weather is stormy, visibility restricted and the sharp division between sea and land that Carruthers noticed in the Baltic is lost in the maze of sandbanks, islands and unmarked, shifting channels.
This murky world is threatening and no part of it more so than the villain of the piece, Dollmann, who turns out not be German, but a renegade English naval officer. One of the things that really distinguished the new spy story was that enemies weren't necessarily darker than you, as in all the best adventure stories, but exactly like you. When Davies and Carruthers see Dollmann for what he really is, they see themselves peering back at them: Dollmann is the dark side of the two heroes, intellectual like Carruthers, a brilliant sailor like Davies. Childers, both intellectual and a sailor, created his heroes as the two sides of himself and he’s possibly seeing something of the darker side in himself here.
Although it is best loved as a sailing adventure and spy yarn, Childers always intended Riddle of the Sands to be 'a yachting story with a purpose'. The riddle of the sands, hidden among the islands, turns out to be a German invasion plot intended to land on England’s East Coast, which Davies and Carruthers discover in one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, when Davies pilots his boat for several miles through thick fog. The Riddle of the Sands wasn’t the first invasion scare novel – the delightfully named Battle of Dorking claimed that privilege – but it was undoubtedly the best. It was also the only one that didn’t concentrate on emotive images of British soil being 'desecrated’ and innocent British people bayoneted by brutal, jackbooted soldiers.
Childers used his knowledge of sailing on the North Sea coasts to dramatise where the threat actually lay and it is often claimed (wrongly, as it turns out) that when the novel was published the Admiralty immediately established a Naval base on the Firth of Forth to counter the threat from the German High Seas Fleet. They did, but the decision had actually been taken months before publication of the novel.
When you read both The Riddle of the Sands and his journals with the hindsight of Childers' subsequent history, you cannot help wondering whether he was always much more ambivalent about the British Empire and Britishness than he was seen to be at the time. In so many ways, the novel is a clarion call to action, a book that celebrates empire and the qualities that built it, but there are equally moments that don’t fit easily with that interpretation. There’s a particularly moving moment in Childers’ journal when he goes ashore at Als Sound in what was, until the war of the 1860s, Denmark, but in 1897 is Germany, and catches
sight of a little monument in a clump of firs. Found a graceful little gothic memorial to those killed at that spot in 1864 when the Germans forced a landing… to the memory of the dead of both nations. It seemed to me singularly dignified and touching in its exquisitely peaceful surroundings.
It's incorporated into the book when, coming across just such a memorial, Davies'
eyes flash and fill with tears. He was like a schoolboy reading of Waterloo.
What affects Childers and Carruthers, however, is that this is the other side of imperialism and in the novel the scene is obviously a warning that what happened to Denmark then could happen to Britain tomorrow. But the sympathy goes out to the conquered people, the victims of Empire and you wonder if Childers is also thinking about Ireland at this point.
But while the novel had great complexity, far more than generally acknowledged, the political and moral questions that helped make it so popular at the time are no longer burning issues. The book is still a favourite today because it’s a cracking sailing adventure and it ends, as does his logbook, with the return to Britain. 'It was now Friday night,' Childers wrote in the log,
and I had to be at the House of Commons Monday at 11… no time to reach England and none to get back to Rotterdam. Bed without deciding anything.
Despite his worst fears Childers and Vixen make it to Dover where,
illegally went ashore at once to look at trains but happily returned just before Customs officers came aboard. To town by the 8.30am. Office at 11 punctually.
By the winter of 1898 Vixen is clearly in need of some professional care. Childers' pleasure is evident when he goes to collect the boat at Bursledon ready for an Easter cruise.
The Vixen had been fitted out by Moody very well. Painted as before outside but inside the graining abolished and white and green paint substituted. Centre plate case effectively caulked. A new medium jib and new trysail. New cross trees and new halliards. All ready for sea when I arrived.
It’s the log book entry any sailor would be delighted to make.
Unusually for a cruising club, the RCC is partially itinerant. It maintains a toehold in London's Royal Thames YC where most of its library is housed, but the 400 full members and another 300 cadets and superannuated members only meet on cruises. The club administers the RCC Pilotage Foundation, a charity set up, 'to advance the education of the public in the science and practice of navigation'. Under its auspices it writes and updates pilot books covering many different parts of the world, all profits being ploughed back into the Foundation.
Last June  about 60 members in nine boats, plus a larger charter boat for older members, met in the Friesian Islands to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Riddle of the Sands. Along with RCC members were many of Childers' surviving grandchildren. The group fared rather better than the fictional heroes, being given a reception by the mayor of Norderney although the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, where Davies and Carruthers ate 'the king of breakfasts', declined to feed 60 extra breakfast guests.
Although Childers' logbooks belong to the RCC, to ensure total security they are housed in the James Caird Library at the NMM. Many thanks to the RCC for kind permission to quote from the logs.
For those with an interest in any aspect of maritime history, the NMM's Collection's Online website is an absolute goldmine. The site has won awards for ease of access and, apart from the Journal for Maritime Research, which is by subscription, it is completely free.
It holds over 4000 records and images from the collections ranging from edged weapons and firearms to jewellery, coins and commemorative medals. Hundreds of maritime oil paintings from the world’s largest collection are already online and more are being added all the time. Select a specific painting or browse by artist, title or date and zoom in to study detail.
Whether you want to study Nelson's life and times or seek out a memorial to a relative who died a century ago in battle or maritime disaster, this is where to look. The catalogue for the Caird Library, one of the world’s finest and most extensive collections, is also available.
There is also access to astronomical information at the Royal Observatory, where you can question the astronomers, explore the night sky, read the latest news and find out about courses and events. Both websites provide a wealth of learning material for all ages, from GCSE Astronomy course materials to interactive games and quizzes on Tudor Exploration. More serious researchers and students can also subscribe to the online Journal for Maritime Research.
Issue 80, December 2003
The National Maritime Museum gratefully acknowledges the commitment and cooperation of the Sailing Today editorial team and the author of the articles, Carol Fowler.