Small Craft

Late 19th & Early 20th Century British Yachting

The Sailors: Amateur British & Irish Yachtsmen Before World War One

"The Little Affair of the Thames and Medway Canal."

Herbert Knight.

With Illustrations by Donald Maxwell.

It was all Carruthers' fault as being first cause, and Malcolm because of his inveterate habit of exploration. Malcolm is, without question, the re-incarnation of some fifteenth century explorer. Possibly of Columbus himself. His whole life seems devoted to discovery. Ditch, island, bog, or cliff, all are one to him - excuses for expeditions that invariably end in disaster.

When I showed Malcolm Carruthers' laconic telegram from Sheerness: "Got Hilda here come Saturday evening cruising Sunday bring pal" - he had, without hesitation, announced himself as the "Pal." I wired back accepting. That was Thursday. On Friday morning Malcolm rang me up. He wanted to explore the Thames and the Medway canal on our way to Sheerness. "It's awfully interesting! You go to Gravesend!! Get to Higham!!! Train to Port Victoria!!!! Cross from Garrison Point!!!!! Join the Hilda!!!!!!" Almost before I knew it, I had arranged to catch the 1.23 p.m. from Charing Cross to Gravesend on the Saturday, and the three something p.m. from Higham to Port Victoria.

Then it was that Carruthers created chaos. He telegraphed (Carruthers never writes) asking me to pilot Dora and Sallie down to Sheerness. The situation was rapidly getting beyond me. I was pledged to get to Sheerness on Saturday evening, to discover the Thames and Medway Canal with Malcolm, and now to pilot Dora and Sallie to the Hilda.

I rang up Sallie, explained, regretted, and "How lovely!" she crowed; "How perfectly lovely! Dora'll be mad with excitement. We'll be at Charing Cross at ten minutes past one!"

She rang off (that's a trick of Sallie's at critical moments), leaving me shouting wildly into the mouthpiece of the instrument. Heavens! I knew Malcolm - Salle didn't.

The Hilda is Carruthets' 200-ton barge-rigged sailing-yacht with an auxiliary motor. Sallie is Carruthers' sister. Dora is Sallie's pal and the wife of some man or other whom I have met somewhere or other and forgotten; no one would think of burdening his mind with anything belonging to Dora that she was not actually wearing at the moment. Sallie I knew to be equal to any adventure; she'll stand most things a man can, and a good deal he can't. Dora I knew nothing of, outside conventional surroundings. I distrusted her walk; its very elegance was suspicious.

I decided to say nothing to Malcolm about the additions to his expedition.

A few minutes after one on Saturday, Dora drove up to Charing Cross with only a small dressing-case, I thought well of Dora for that. Five minutes later Sallie followed with a brown paper parcel, which, by arrangement, was to go into the dressing case. I was distinctly pleased about the luggage; but the hats appalled me. They were just about as suited to tramping, or Malcolm's ideas of exploration, as to a swimming bath. One was a white-winged absurdity that forced its wearer to sit forward in the railway carriage, the other a huge circle of black straw turned up all round as if to catch the rain that was about to fall. I said nothing, but waited grimly the developments that I knew would follow. Dora and Sallie were elated.

When we arrived at Gravesend, as anyone will who believes in Kismet, they were still elated! On the way down Sallie had divided her time pretty equally between describing the salient features of Malcolm's personality (Sallie had met him once), and preventing Dora from smoking in a non-smoking compartment - I have never known Dora when she did not want to smoke.

On the platform stood Malcolm, clothed in the lightest of tweeds, wearing the sunniest of smiles, and carrying the largest of sketch-books. A sketch-book under Malcolm's arm always has the effect of exaggerating his every movement, a step becomes a stride, a deliberate movement a precipitate rush. I have never been able to understand exactly why this should be. When I explained to him Dora and Sallie he was unmoved, showing far more interest in the canal than in them. "They won't be in the way," he remarked cheerfully. Malcolm has odd ways with women. When I returned from sending on the dressing-case to Sheerness, the three were chatting and laughing merrily together.

In addition to a sketch-book, Malcolm carried an umbrella. Elsewhere I have commented on his theory of description, by which speech is subordinated to action. To-day one arm was occupied with the sketch-book, consequently there was only the umbrella hand at liberty. That umbrella was for ever in our line of vision - wet, black, and flapping. Nothing escaped Malcolm and his umbrella that day. Anything of unusual local interest such as a gas-works, or a large liner passing down river brought him to a dead stop. We had to adopt strong measures. On such occasions we left him, on the principle that unwatched dogs won't fight.

Threading our way through a network of dingy streets and alleys, where Dora and Sallie's hats aroused considerable interest and some comment, past the ferry-landing, we eventually came to the locked entrance to the Thames and Medway Canal. Once a waterway from which much was expected, which was daily to bear its thousands of tons of merchandise, it has degenerated into uselessness. A few yachts seek its basin as a harbour, a gas-works finds it convenient for obtaining supplies. Some of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood use it as a swimming bath, others for fishing - that is all.

Like a deserted city that had once throbbed with life, it now wends its lonely, sorrowful way from Gravesend to Strood. It is not aged and infirm, as might be expected, for it numbers eighty-seven years. There are no untrim banks, no green weed-encumbered waters. It is still, to all appearances, youthful and capable of performing the work for which it was ordained. It has been unlucky. Several times its direction was changed during construction, and when finished the "dues" were not popular. It saved a journey of forty-seven miles round, which involved two tides; yet it failed. Among other things it is the victim of progress. The iron road has eclipsed the waterway. The North Kent Railway (now the S. E. & Chatham Railway Company), seeing a dangerous competitor, bought and strangled it, and now it remains almost forgotton, as far as its possibilities for usefulness are concerned.

Along the left bank, starting from Gravesend, stretches a well-kept cinder path, raised above the level of the surrounding marshy country. On the left a thin streak indicates the position of the Thames, which for some miles runs beside the canal at an ever-increasing distance from it. Great ships and small can be seen slowly creeping back and forth; sometimes nothing more than their smoke-stacks, spars and a portion of their hulls rising into view, producing the weird effect of vessels cutting through green fields.

For nearly half-an-hour we plodded on. Behind us, doggedly climbing the sky, came a mass of slate-coloured cloud, grumbling its discontent and flashing its anger upon us. A train rattled along on the opposite side, throwing off clouds of steam, which, for a moment, stood out lividly white against the grey-black of the sky; then, as if in a frenzy of fear, hurriedly scattering into a thousand filmy shreds, flew before the on-coming storm. It was a despairing day. On our left an irregular fringe of Territorials were practising at the butts, but with poor success. Presently the waters of the canal caught the anger of the sky and threw back their defiance. A few drops of rain spattered down, then a deluge. Dora and I sprinted for the lock-keeper's cottage ahead. I gave one glance behind me. Malcolm was striding along under the lee of Sallie, indifferent to the grey sheet of slanting rain that was fast wetting her to the skin. Both his hands were now occupied, for the umbrella was up; but he was still striving to indicate points of interest by means of short, sharp jerks of his head. The old man by the fire, the young woman ironing, the child playing inside the open door; all were rendered speechless when Dora asked for shelter. Dora is said to have an extremely attractive bearing. The young woman was the first to recover, and, evidently unaware of the existence of the rest of our party, also being young, she suggested that we might like to shelter in the washhouse. She added no directions as to where actually the washhouse stood; but, seeing a door, we opened it and went in. A fire was smoking from the grate and had already succeeded in exhausting the last remnants of oxygen. The window was not made to open, and through the door came a flood of rain, and with it Sallie and Malcolm.

"Producing the weird effect of vessels cutting through green fields."

Producing the weird effect of vessels cutting through green fields.

With cigarettes and sweets we passed the time until the worst of the storm was over, then set out again. All around us lay a drenched and gloomy landscape. Great billowy masses of cloud moved laboriously across the sky. Never was there a less auspicious day for discovery.

Continuing our way for a mile or two further, Malcolm finally announced that we had no chance of catching our train at Higham. After a lengthy conference with a man who was fishing in the canal, and a reference to his time-table, we were conducted along a slippery path, which soon disappeared into long, dripping grass. When he had got us into the middle of a particularly wet field of hay, about eighteen inches high, he became uncertain as to his direction, and gave the word to return. Obediently we retraced our steps, back to the friendly canal.

After much deliberation we found what Malcolm assured us was the right path, (we could not see it), which was punctuated by a stile at about every fifty yards. Now Dora hates stiles. She has a remarkably good figure - women confess it; but, somehow, it seems unadapted to getting her over obstacles. At the first of the series she got into sad difficulties with her skirts, and appeared so embarrassed that I had to leave her, even at the risk of her doing herself an injury.

The folly had lain in leaving the canal! We should have continued along its pleasant towing-path to Strood. Malcolm, however, mounted the railway embankment, and, telling us to follow the path that existed only in his own imagination, he left us to trudge through the sodden grass. Already we were wet to the knees. Dora made an attempt to save her skirts by lifting them but the grass was high, and Dora is, perhaps, foolishly sensitive. Sallie just ploughed through with heroic determination. From the embankment comments continued to descend upon us, mostly concerned with objects of interest outside the radius of our vision.

On we went over stiles, through the grass, slipping and stumbling. Another storm was coming up behind us, which seemed to prompt Malcolm to stay behind and make a sketch. Fortunately it was not a lengthy effort, and, urged on by the threatening clouds, we finally reached the station at Cliff. Malcolm and I went into the village a mile distant to seek provisions, and on our return Dora and Sallie held high festival on the station wall with ginger-beer, chocolate, and biscuits. But our journey had cost us our train, and there was a three-quarter-of-an hour's wait for the next. Malcolm was in great form that day. We had missed everything we had wanted to catch, and caught about everything that we had striven to avoid. Even the railway compartment into which we eventually got had an unsound roof, leaking like the heavens themselves.

Arrived at Port Victoria, we felt that we were at least near to the Hilda and supper. Carruthers has a first-rate cook. We were prepared to enjoy all that offered itself to our sight.

There lay the Medway, patient and grey, the foster-mother of the Fleet. Dotted about were some of her slate-coloured charges - battleships, cruisers, scouts, mine-dredgers, and tenders. From a stormy sky slanted shafts of evening sunlight, making golden the grey. Rain still fell. A half-hearted rainbow vainly strove to stretch its arc across the heavens. The sea was gloomy. Nothing could disguise the sinister purpose of those ominous shapes lying at anchor.

There is something in the Medway country, a blending of Nature with Art, that stamps it as individual. Over it floats a gauze of haze, rising eternally from the gravely smoking chimneys of the kilns. Grey in colour, grey in purpose; it is the country in which seeds of death are sown and nourished, through which great, murderous shapes pass to and fro perpetually, waiting only the word of command to go forth and destroy.

"On which murderous shapes pass to and fro perpetually, waiting the word of command to go forth and destroy."

On which murderous shapes pass to and fro perpetually, waiting the word of command to go forth and destroy.

The rain was still descending fretfully as we set out to walk along the dyke to Garrison Point. There, we were told, we should get a boat to take us across to the Hilda. For nearly an hour we tramped along the narrow path at the top. On the one side lay the river, on the other the flat, marshy country of the Isle of Grain. The elms stood out from the silent landscape like spectres, partially shrouded in a gossamer of mist. Occasionally we caught glimpses of shipping passing down the Thames, itself out of sight. Again, the curious effect of shipping sailing through fields.

At Garrison Point we found a soldier and his lass, seated gazing sadly out along the Causeway leading to the tower that stands like a sentinel guarding the river-approach. We enquired the time of the next boat to Sheerness.

"Seven o'clock in the morning," was the gruff response. Sallie laughed. Things that embarrass a man to the point of despair seem to afford Sallie infinite amusement.

"Can we get a boat if we signal from the coast-guard?" was our next query.

"You might if you tried!" was the reply, uttered in a voice as grey as the landscape.

"Come on" encouraged Malcolm. He set off towards the Coast-guard buildings, stern purpose in his every step. With an air of grim determination he pushed on. Malcolm is as great a genius at getting out of difficulties as he is in getting involved in them. Arrived at the gate, which was fiercely guarded by a white Pomeranian, we paused and sat on another gate opposite. Malcolm entered by the gate, still waving back to us encouragement with his umbrella. We saw him in earnest converse with three coast-guardsmen. Presently a man approached the flag locker and opened it. We watched anxiously. A minute later a string of limp, lifeless flags climbed the flagstaff, where they hung lazily, as if uninterested in the situation.

After a wait of about ten minutes, there were indications of a new movement in the enclosure opposite. A large copper lamp, the size of a ship's side-light, was produced and lighted. Immediately a bright eye commenced to blink feverishly towards Sheerness; but Sheerness remained obstinately indifferent to our needs. Ten minutes of the Morse code flashed across the river convinced everybody of its uselessness. Other means were to be tried. From out the white gate opposite came a man carrying a brass cylinder-shaped instrument, about three feet high by some ten inches in diameter, with a handle at the top and a bell-shaped trumpet in front. Another man followed with a stand to which the cylinder, was firmly pinned. The whole contrivance had the appearance of a patent fire-extinguisher. The handle was drawn upwards and pressed down again and again. There came from the trumpet a series of short and long wails. Sallie clapped her hands. Dora, who is rather sparing of movement, looked interested and pleased. Oooom- Oooom- Oooom- Ooooom; Ooooooooom- 0ooom- 0ooom- 0oooooom, it wailed. Malcolm looked on with the air of the proprietor of a first-class travelling circus. Sallie was almost mad with excitement. Dora forgot to be indifferent, and I - I was acutely miserable. That man, whom I had once met and forgotten, who belonged to Dora, would probably insist on meeting me again. Carruthers would - I dreaded to think of Carruthers' wrath; for everybody thinks a tremendous lot of Sallie, even her brother.

We searched the opposite side of the river eagerly for an answering light. There was none. Even the Navy failed us, for the Port Guard-ship refused to hand on the signal. Slowly the awful suspicion became certainty. We could not cross the river that night. "Comment faire?" There was only a local wagonette belonging to a man named Skinner supporting the reputation of Dora and Sallie. The coast-guard told us (that is about the wagonette). "Five minutes off," they added. Dora and Sallie were soaking and cold, yet not a murmur beyond that of pleasure at the novelty of the adventure! There was a hotel. The wagonette was in, and could be got ready in five minutes.

We went to the hotel, and, in her joy, Dora played a waltz; Malcolm and I span round the table, Malcolm using the polka step - I nothing in particular. Drinks and sandwiches arrived, and Rochester would arrive later. I knew the Bull Inn, and was content at the prospect. Besides, Malcolm lives at Rochester, and he would put me up, whilst Dora and Sallie could go to the Bull.

At ten o'clock we set out on our drive through the Hundred of Hoo, as the district is called.

"He that rides into the Hundred of Hoo
Besides pilfering seamen will find dirt enoo"

runs the old rhyme.

It was a strange drive through an unknown landscape. Malcolm and Dora kept up a constant flow of conversation - they have strange souls. Great, gaunt elms, seemed to step aside to let us pass; occasionally we rattled through a dimly-lighted village, or heard and answered the cheery "good-nights" of the passing country-folk or soldiers. On we went for between two and three hours. I felt Sallie gradually leaning more heavily against me. Presently her head fell on my shoulder, and her huge, wet hat lay limp and sticky against my face. She slept soundly. Presently the bright light of a passing cart awakened her. She drew away in horror at the thought of having used me as a pillow. I explained my views, and we all laughed. We should have laughed at anything. Ten, eleven, half-past eleven. We were at Frindsbury. We dismissed the wagonette and took the tram, which put us down opposite the dark, slumbering Bull Inn. It was ten minutes to twelve when the night porter opened the door. He was not surprised - nobody ever is at the Bull; the most hospitable of inns. "Yes, he could accommodate Dora and Sallie despite the absence of luggage. He lighted a fire in their room, made them tea, waited on them - this prince of night-porters. He could not provide supper without awaking the proprietor, Knowing our rights, they spared mine host, and decided on biscuits and butter. If ever a man has to be belated, let him choose the Bull Inn as his place of belatement. There he will find good cheer, such as are associated with a past age.

Malcolm and I left its threshhold regretfully, and arrived at our own sleeping quarters at half-past midnight. What happened next day at Sheerness, and how Sallie saved the situation; how the naval pinnace saved us all, is too long a story to be told here. Perhaps the editor will insist on its being narrated. Who can tell? The ways of editors are strange!

"The railway tunnel at Higham, through which the canal used to pass to join the Medway at Strood."

The railway tunnel at Higham, through which the canal used to pass to join the Medway at Strood.