More Plumbs From The Nickalls Family*

Guy Nickalls (1866–1935), the father of Gully, and a man who won 22 Henley medals, the Wingfield Sculls three times, and who, at 41, was in the Gold Medal eight at the 1908 Olympics.

6 December 2017

Tim Koch has more ditties from one of the Nickalls family.

HTBS recently published a ‘little ditty’ by ‘Anthony, An Old Oxford Oarsman’  concerning Gully Nickalls’ tale of his disposing of his mother’s ashes from Henley Bridge. It reminded me of a couple of other ‘ditties’ that I recently came across in a very old magazine article written by Gully’s father, Guy.

Guy was an occasional writer on things rowing, probably because the extra income was needed to boost his always precarious finances (for this reason possibly, he is not the most reliable of chroniclers). Notably, in 1908 he collaborated with Theodore Cook to produce Thomas Doggett Deceased, a history of the man and his eponymous sculling race. Possibly as a result of information that he gathered while writing the Doggett book, Guy penned a magazine article titled, “The Watermen of the River Thames”, a slightly disjointed history of those licensed to carry passengers on London’s river. Among the random facts given is that ‘Watermen in olden days were all buried in St Martin’s, which stands at the North-Eastern side of Trafalgar Square – it was their special privilege’.

St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square (marked with an ‘X’), a distinguished last resting place for some humble Watermen (It is the clocks of St Martin’s that feature in the opening line of George Orwell’s “1984”: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’).

Near the conclusion of his piece, Guy wrote, ‘I will close my article with two tales’. His first concerns a time when free entertainment was scarce and when the ends justified the means.

In 1758 the Government were in great want of seamen to man the fleet for the anticipated war with Spain, and…. the Watermen’s Company were commanded to find 3,000 men for the ships, and were granted impress warrants for the purpose. (Soon) half this number had been roped in, but the press-gang were at their wit’s end of how to find the remainder.

A waterman is taken by ‘The Press’. While most seamen were volunteers, during the time of war between 1664 and 1814, the Royal Navy could use ‘press gangs’ to forcibly take usually ‘eligible men of seafaring habits’ from the streets to serve a period at sea. Watermen and other portside workers were usually exempt from impressment, but, in especially desperate times, the Admiralty could declare a ‘hot press’ and waive this protection.

(Noticing that when) two large birds settled on St Paul’s Church (this had) caused a large crowd to assemble… the press-gang placed a live turkey on the top of the Monument, which, as is the way in London to this day, drew forth a great number of idle people. When the crowd was densest the press-gang got to work and quickly made up their number to the necessary 3,000.

The 1667 Monument to the Great Fire of London, pictured here in 1739. At 61 metres tall (202 feet), it could also be the world’s largest turkey baster.

Moving upriver, Guy continues with his second concluding tale:

Not many years ago, a well-known waterman, not a thousand miles from Putney, found a corpse on the Middlesex bank of the river. As the reward for such finds is heavier on the Surrey side, what more natural than to lay alongside until dark and then tow it over? [TK: The Surrey coroner gave seven shillings and sixpence, 37 1/2 pence, to those who recovered a body, but his Middlesex counterpart only proffered five shillings, 25 pence, for the same service]. The officer who grants such rewards not being available, and fearful of having his find grabbed before morning, he carried his corpse home, deposited it in his back garden and turned in. His fellow-watermen, however, had been on the watch, and when our friend awoke, the corpse was gone, and the seven shillings and sixpence pocketed by the thieves.

A tragedy for the deceased, but a bonus for the waterman.

Both of Guy’s tales, though amusing, well illustrate a time when, in the Hobbesian phrase, life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

* Guy’s autobiography, published posthumously in 1939, was titled Life’s A Pudding, a reference to the WS Gilbert lyrics, Life’s a pudding full of plumbs, Let us take it as it comes.

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