Sunday 23 May 2010


'Two or three years ago there was a great run on female sailors. Every newspaper has its paragraph announcing the discovery of a female sailor. The result was a through conviction in the public mind that all sailors were female sailors - that there were no other sailors than female sailors in disguise; and now the curiosity would be the discovery of a male sailor, if such a phenomenon could be well authenticated.'From The Examiner, 25th March 1843.


In 1807 a Master Bricklayer working in Bishopsgate, London saw what he thought was a sailor boy sitting in a doorway in a very sorry state. The youth was drenched with rain, shivering with cold and weeping inconsolably.

The man questioned the boy on his situation and discovered that he had run away from a northern coal ship, now in Pool, on which he had served a four year apprenticeship. He avowed that he would rather face the hangman's noose than return on board.

The pair went to The Bull's Head for rest and refreshment, but on entering the inn the lad fainted through fatigue and hunger upon the stone floor. On loosening his neck-handkerchief and opening his shirt to aid resuscitation, the sailor's true sex became apparent.

The hostess of The Black Bull took the girl under her benevolent wing, displaying great understanding and kindness. At length the following narrative emerged:

She was a native of Whitby named Marianne Rebecca Johnson whose Father had died in the service of his country. Her Mother remarried another man and the family continued to live in Whitby. One day whilst at work in the town, her Stepfather took her away and forced her to don sailor's attire. He threatened to murder her if she ever disclosed her true sex, and he bound her up as an apprentice on the coal ship Mayflower of Sunderland, on which she served for four years without her true gender ever coming to light. She was known as William Johnson.

On the Monday prior to her discovery, she was ill and in a very delicate situation. Thinking her lazy and insolent, the mate had her severely flogged. On the Tuesday morning with cunning and determination she made good her escape.

It turned out that the girl's Father had treated her Mother in a similar way. She too had been forced into sailor's clothes, and with her hair cropped enrolled on board a ship of war .

She served for seven years before being mortally wounded in the late taking of Copenhagen(August 16th-September 5th 1807). A letter written just before her death to a friend in Whitby made clear the circumstances of her fate. She clearly preferred the hardship of a life at sea to the chance of ever meeting her brutal husband again.

Marianne Rebecca Johnson was just seventeen.

The Cabin Boy by Ralph Hedley 1891


One day in 1860 a jolly looking sailor boy calling himself Thomas Stewart took lodgings in the Royal Princess Inn, Church Street, Whitby. Several other seamen were in the bar and the drinks were flowing freely, as they do on such occasions. As the night wore on, being suitably inebriated and in pleasant company, he began to display his unusual vocal prowess.

It was all going well until the party spilled out onto Church Street. A passing police constable noticed that the lad's voice and appearance betrayed a certain feminine quality.

The constable accompanied the sailor to his lodgings, and the landlady confirmed that there were good grounds for suspicion. Being drunk and extremely foul mouthed, the sailor was locked in a cell overnight. In the morning a doctor confirmed the diagnosis.

The girl claimed to be a native of Glasgow whose Mother was dead and whose Father had drowned at sea. Having four sailor brothers, at the age of twelve she too decided on a career at sea. She enrolled on a ship bound for Australia. For five years she followed her chosen occupation, her last voyage being aboard The Morning Star.

She was brought before the Magistrate, who noted the blackness of her teeth from smoking and chewing tobacco, and her comprehensive seafaring knowledge. She was keen to obtain another voyage of eighteen months. She thought then she would have saved enough to purchase some petticoats and follow a calling more becoming of a female.

It was recommended that she was seen safely out of town and given 3 shillings out of the box. However she was reported drunk again the same evening at Upgang, and likewise the following day at Hinderwell.

She too was seventeen years of age.

A group of 19th century sailors

Thanks to Richard Locker for research and ideas.

Thursday 13 May 2010


On Rogation Wednesday, the eve of Ascention Day, the Penny Hedge or Horngarth is planted on the shore of Whitby harbour. Despite the commonly recited story of the three noblemen chasing a wild boar into a hermit's cell, killing the hermit and being required to build the hedge as pennance, the true origin of the ceremony is lost in the mists of time.

At sunrise stakes cut from hazel on Eskdaleside, using a knife bought for a penny, are carried through the town to the designated place in the harbour. The hedge should be constructed well enough to withstand three tides, however in 1981 the site was covered by eight feet of seawater and a hedge was not built thereby rightfully ending the pennance.

Nevertheless the ceremony continues. Here is a video of this year's Horngarth ritual at 9am on a sunny and pleasantly breezy Ascention Eve.

Saturday 8 May 2010


“I saw the wonder of the town in the light of the afterglow that was red in the west. The clouds blossomed into rose-gardens; there were seas of fairy green that swam about isle of crimson light; there were clouds like spears of flame, like dragons of fire. And under the mingling lights and colours of such a sky Banwick went down to the pools of it’s land locked harbour and climbed again across the bridge towards the ruined abbey and the great church on the hill”

The Happy Children

The Welsh author Arthur Machen (1863-1947) is best known as a writer of supernatural and horror fiction. A contemporary of Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde he also influenced the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and Alan Moore. His most famous books include The Great God Pan (1894), The Three Impostors (1895) and The Hill Of Dreams (1907), but it was his work as a journalist for the London paper The Evening News that would lead him to visit Whitby in November 1916.

The visit was arranged ostensibly for Machen to write an article on the town’s resurgent jet industry, which had seen a revival due to the wartime fashion for wearing mourning jewellery. But what really fascinated him was the town itself, regarding it as beautiful and unspoilt, he would later compare it favourably to seeing the view of Avignon from Rhone; ‘It was wonderful, but I do not know it more wonderful than Whitby as I saw it a few days ago’. It was this enthusiasm for the place that inspired him to writing the short story ‘The Happy Children’.

The Happy Children is a ghostly tale set in the town of Banwick, and like all Machen’s war time fiction it is a propaganda piece designed to appeal to the nation’s jingoistic mood at the time. However, unlike his most famous wartime piece ‘The Bowmen’ (a story about invoking the spirit of St George and the Agincourt archer on the blood drenched battlefields of Belgium), The Happy Children is a much more subtle story, involving such wartime tragedies as the sinking of the Lusitania and the believed atrocities committed by the German army in France and Belgium.

Machen would also have been aware that Whitby had suffered it’s own atrocities two years earlier, when it was bombarded along with Scarborough and Hartlepool by two German destroyers, killing 137 people and injuring a further 592.
As was usual for Machen’s writing, the story also has a strong religious undercurrent, referring to the Biblical slaughter of babies by Herod as is celebrated in the feast of Holy Innocents. But what is more prevalent in this piece is Machen’s own personal belief system, which together with detailed and evocative descriptions of nature and the landscape, conjures up a seemingly more magical and ancient time.

Throughout the First World War Arthur Machen was a patriot giving his full support to the war in Europe, believing that the Allied forces were fighting a just war against the evil German Empire. He was less forthcoming with his praise when it came to the battle for hearts and minds back in England though, especially after the publication of The Bowmen and the resultant ‘Angels Of Mons’ myth.

What becomes more apparent with stories like The Happy Children is that his writing takes on a more serene quality, as if Machen himself having become increasingly distressed by the utter devastation the war was causing, wants to escape along with the war’s innocent victims into a more peaceful place.

Read The Happy Children by Arthur Machen here

Written exclusively for OUT ON YE! by RICHARD LOCKER.
Thanks to Gwilym Games and Chris Corner for all their help.