Years ago the Docks at Runcorn and Weston Point were mostly used by sailing schooners, which traded to all parts of the British Isles, the continent, and Newfoundland. The crews of these small vessels consisted of from 4 to 8 men according to the size and tonnage of the vessel. Many Runcornians sailed in these ships, some of them graduating to become Masters.
I ran away to sea at the age of fourteen and signed on to the two-masted schooner 'Weston Lass' as cook/cabin boy. We took on a cargo of coal for Mevagissey in Cornwall. We left Runcorn Docks and were towed to anchorage in the Sloyne (Mersey) After two days waiting for a fair wind we sailed out of the river and headed out to sea. The first few days at sea soon took toll of my adventurous spirit, for I was terribly seasick and wishing I was back on dry land again. This being my first sea trip the crew were very understanding and did all they could for me, forcing me to eat each time I vomited.
We had to put into Milford Haven due to the bad weather, and lay there at anchor for four days. This respite helped me to recover and I soon became acclimatised to life on board, carrying out my duties, cooking for the crew and keeping the cabins clean and tidy.
The cooking was all done in the galley situated before or aft of the main mast. The food had to be carried from the galley to the saloon in the after part of the ship, where all the crew dined. The saloon was also the chartroom and the Captain and Mate's quarters. It was quite an ordeal carrying the food from the galley to the saloon, and many a meal was lost overboard in rough weather.
The weather became fine and we again set sail, and with a fair wind we arrived in Mevagissey. The cargo had to be winched out of the hold by hand winch and tipped in to horse and carts drawn up on the quayside. For the next four years I sailed in these ships, namely the 'Mary Sinclair', 'The Duchess', 'Alert', 'Snowflake' and 'Emily Warbreck', graduating from cabin boy to Ordinary Seaman to Able Seaman, making various voyages around the coast and the continent.
My most memorable voyage was in the 'Snowflake'; we loaded a cargo of salt at Weston Point for St. John's, Newfoundland. After only twelve hours at anchor we headed out of the river, on reaching the Bar we turned south. We reached to South Stack lighthouse when the weather changed and began to blow hard. For the next seven days we got little watch below, as it was all hands on deck reefing and turning sails and making slow headway against the strong wind. We eventually put into Cork harbour and lay at anchor for five days repairing sails, ropes and other minor damage. We took on fresh food and water and sailed out of the harbour and headed out into the Atlantic. The weather was moderate and we were making a steady five and six knots. With fine weather the crew had time to carry out various tasks as washing down the decks, cleaning paintworks, and washing personal clothing. There was only two men on watch at a time; one at the helm and the other on look out. We were passed by several large ships including the 'Andania' and 'Cedric'; it was a pleasant sight to see the passengers lining the rails and waving to us. Most of the large ships would close in and hail us asking if we required anything and wishing us 'God speed'. The crossing took twenty one days and it was a pleasant sight to see the fishing fleet off the Newfoundland banks and know we would soon be in port again.
We spent six days in port discharging our cargo of salt and loading a cargo of salted herrings in barrels for La Corruna in northern Spain. During our stay in port it was a change to sample fresh food again after a diet of salt beef, pork and hard sea biscuits. We left St. John's fully refreshed after our stay in port and ready to face the voyage back across the Atlantic. The voyage across to Spain took nineteen days with a fair wind and the Gulf Stream to assist us. This was a reasonable time for this type of vessel.
After discharging our cargo of fish in La Corruna we sailed around the coast of Spain to Bilbao, where we loaded a cargo of copper ore for a home port. The passage home was uneventful and it was pleasing to see my family and friends again. The experience I gained serving in these vessels served me well in my later years and I would not have missed the experience for anything.
The conditions the crews endured would not be tolerated in this present age. Wages for a cook/cabin boy was one pound per month, and Able Seaman six pounds, sailmaker or bosun eight pounds, Mate ten pounds. These rates included accommodation. The crew, with the exception of the Captain and the Mate, were accommodated in the forecastle in the forepart of the ship, sleeping in hammocks but some vessels were fitted with bunks. The food when in port was fairly good, but at sea on a long voyage consisted of salt beef, salt pork and bacon, potatoes, dry beans, dry peas, molasses and sea biscuits.
The watches at sea were four hours on watch and four hours below with two watches of two hours each, between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. - these were called "dog watches", which alternated the middle watch from midnight to 4 a.m.. Some of forecastles were alive with vermin, bugs, lice, fleas, etc. and it was a common sight when in port to see the Port Health Authorities aboard the vessels fumigating the crew's living quarters.
In those days the Docks at Runcorn and Weston Point were full of ships both sail and steam coasters and it was possible to cross from one side of the dock to the other on the decks of the sailing vessels. Life was hard and dangerous and many local seamen lost their lives serving in these ships.
It was an experience I shall always remember and grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in this wonderful age of sail. We must all accept progress, but at the same time remember that this was an age when the ships were made of wood, but the crews who sailed in them were men of steel.