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Meet my new assistant. When he turned up he said something about being able to help me with contracts (my Japanese isn't brilliant, as you know) so I put him straight to work.

It's been a rather tiring week, with too many trips into deep Devon - a lovely county, but not when most of what's on view is the M5. Yesterday it was a 6.30am sunshiny start to Barnstaple, where I was taking part in a programme review, but never saw the sea. On Monday it was to Exeter for medical stuff, plus lunch with the great-granddaughter of Captain John Lewis (master of the St Cuthbert), who had contacted me after reading my grandfather's account of the disaster in this blog. I wonder what the stern Captain and his Fourth Officer would have thought if they could have seen us - she with a selection of Iceland lollies, I with my trusty cheese and watercress sandwich - picnicking on the dry slopes of the old castle moat? Ah, mutabilitie!

What else happened this week? Ah yes, a very interesting seminar paper on Wednesday by a lawyer colleague on the application of international law to child soldiers - including, of course, those who serve in the British army.
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If you've been following the saga of my grandfather Percy Bowman's account of the wreck of the St Cuthbert in 1908 and my subsequent attempt to donate it to the National Maritime Museum, you will know that last time I checked in, in June, they had expressed interest but that confirmation would have to wait for a meeting of Collections Development Committee. Everything went quiet for a bit after that, but I've now heard back, and I'm happy to say that my grandfather's book (complete with the Wrexham Golf Club accounts, penned by my grandmother in the back cover twenty years later) is now going to Greenwich.

According to the Museum, the memoir "relates to the key areas of maritime disasters and stowaways, and is particularly interesting as a contrast to the Naval Court’s findings of the incident on the St Cuthbert. The detail relating to the problems with the lifeboats also forms an interesting parallel with the Titanic."

This inspired me to seek out the findings of the Naval Court - which I'd somehow neglected to do before. They are here, and do indeed give a very different account of some of the significant details, generally in the direction of exonerating the senior officers at the expense of the junior ones, and still more so of the largely foreign crew.

My one disappointment is that the tweedy curators who I'd hoped would be travelling to Bristol to collect the book are too busy organizing an exhibition on Nelson, so I've got to post it. Even without the Royal Mail being privatized, that is somehow less romantic. But altogether this is very pleasing.
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Last year, as you may remember, I transcribed my grandfather's account of being wrecked on a trans-Atlantic cargo ship in 1908. At the time, [personal profile] endlessrarities suggested I donate the MS to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. It took me about a year to get round to doing so, partly because I'd been working from a typescript I'd made thirty years ago and wasn't sure where the MS had got to. However, a couple of months ago my mother dug it out, and with her permission I offered it to the Museum.

For anyone steeped in children's literature, the act of Offering Something to a Museum is a well-known ritual, the various stages of which are as well established as the Mass. First, one climbs the massive marble steps, ventures through the columned entrance, and presents oneself to the uniformed attendant just beyond. There one learns that the person to see is Professor Greengrass, who is the world's expert in this area. However, he is far too busy to see you today. Far, far too busy, except--why, here is Professor Greengrass himself, who has come up the steps a few paces behind you and heard his name mentioned. "You had better bring your find to my office," he says in a vague yet avuncular way. He ushers you down some stairs and along many twisty corridors lined with cardboard boxes, stuffed dodos and the like, and at length into a ramshackle, book-lined office. Shyly you hand over your find. Until now, Prof. Greengrass's manner has been friendly but you get the impression he's been humouring you. However, the moment he sees the Object his demeanour changes. He stiffens like a pointer. He voice comes out as a whisper. "Do - you - know - what - you've - got - here?"

With the Maritime Museum I was denied these pleasures, because these days there's an online form. There's also a warning that the Museum only takes about 10% of what it's offered. Still I thought we were in with a fair chance given that (according to its acquisitions policy) they're particularly open to material deriving from people who were ordinary sailors rather than admirals or captains. My grandfather was officially Fourth Officer on the St Cuthbert, but he was also just a 19-year-old apprentice, and the ship was a rough-and-ready affair, so I think his counts as a voice of the people.

I heard nothing for seven weeks, but today received an email expressing interest and asking for more details. This is very exciting. I believe the next step, if they decide to go ahead, is for a curator to come to us rather than for us to be summoned to Greenwich. Either way, if it happens I will report back here.

I trust that any curator who comes will at least be wearing tweed.
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In yesterday's instalment we left my grandfather, along with five other men (plus three corpses), adrift in a winter storm in the North Atlantic, in a lifeboat with no food or water, a bad leak, no rudder and just one oar. It looks bad, but if I've learned one thing from my time aboard the St Cuthbert it's that sailors are remarkably resourceful people...

Part 4 of 4 )

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In yesterday's episode, my grandfather had some trouble with stowaways, loose cargo and heavy seas. However, things were about to get a whole lot worse...

Part 3 of 4 )
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In yesterday's episode, we saw my grandfather, Percy Bowman, preparing to sail into the stormy winter Atlantic of 1908 in a ship carrying a cargo of fusel oil, benzine, rags, flamingos and matches. What could possibly go wrong...?

Part 2 of 4 )
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I seem to be in a transcribing family papers mood, and what with all the talk of the Titanic, it's about time I turned to to my grandfather's account of the destruction in February 1908 of the St Cuthbert, on which he served as Fourth Officer. As far as I know, no other account of this disaster has ever been published, beyond the newspaper reports at the time.

My mother's father was no man of letters, and this account is written in a fairly plain style, but the events it relates are more than dramatic enough to compensate. He wrote it in the 1930s, some twenty plus years after the event, at a time when he was bankrupt and thought that the story might be saleable, but seems never to have found a publisher. Then, in the 1970s my mother revived the publication idea, and the young Steepholm typed out the manuscript for her (by far my grandest typing accomplishment at that date). But she didn't pursue it either, and in those days there was no to make self-publishing a viable option.

So, here it is - "The Destruction of the St Cuthbert". I'll do it in four parts, to save my fingers, over the coming days. The really dramatic action doesn't start till part 3, but I think the first two parts are interesting too, at least if you want to know about life on an Atlantic cargo ship in the early years of the last century. It's about as far from the gleaming Titanic as you can get.

By the way, between my grandfather's not-entirely-legible handwriting and my own poor teenage typing, I'm sure there are some mistakes here (and in the parts to come), especially when it comes to proper names and nautical jargon. Any suggested corrections are welcome. For example, I can't find any mention of the Cape de Neige Islands through Google...

Part One of Four )


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