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For Turner, there was no more potent symbol of national pride than the magnificent sailing ships he saw daily on the Thames. They conjured up a world of heroism, adventure and discovery.
Turner's lifetime coincided with the golden age of sail. He witnessed not only Nelson's famous victory at Trafalgar, but also a massive expansion of sea trade with North America, the West Indies, and the Far East the building of an Empire. Closer to home, the small coastal and river traders that plied British waters, delivering passengers and cargo to inaccessible villages all over the country, were essential for a nation with no effective road or railway system. At the end of his life, Turner was to see the advent of the steam engine and feel a mixture of emotions excited by their power, but saddened by the eclipse of the great sailing ships.
From his youth in Covent Garden, Turner lived close to the centre of English commercial shipping. Every day, the Port of London bulged with river traffic. And with the expansion of British maritime might, London's docks were so overcrowded that organized pilfering and smuggling became a way of life. Between July and October the Legal Quays in the Pool of London built in the 15th century were piled eight hogsheads high with sugar, coffee and rum, presenting an open invitation to the criminal underworld of London's dockland.
While the bulk of Britain's maritime business in the late 18th century was conducted with other European countries, many greedy merchants were engaged in the 'Triangular Trade' which connected Britain with the Guinea Coast in Africa and the British West Indies across the Atlantic. Slaves were purchased in Africa, in exchange for metal goods, woven materials, guns and trinkets, then sold to plantation owners in the West Indies, where the boats were loaded with sugar and molasses for the return trip to England.
The slaves were manacled for the journey and stowed tightly on shelves only 30 inches apart. Three out of eight either committed suicide or died of 'the white flux' and had to be thrown overboard. While seamen in this lucrative but monstrous business tended to be, as one captain wrote in 1830, 'the very dregs of the community', those engaged in commerce with India and China enjoyed a more respectable and exotic reputation.
The East India Company, which had dealt exclusively with the Orient since 1601, bringing silks and tea back to Europe, established a reputation for good crew conditions and an excellence in de-sign and construction of the ships it chartered. The East Indiamen large ships of 400 to 500 tons, sometimes armed with more than 30 guns were repaired and fitted out in the Brunswick Dock. By 1820, there were several of more than twice that size. Because of their enviable reputation, competition for jobs and berths on these ships was intense.
While shipping business, ranging from whaling in Greenland to orange running from the Azores, flourished at Lloyd's underwriters in the City of London, the Royal Navy had to expand rapidly to protect the territorial interests exploited by the merchants. Every lawful seafarer came to fear the 'press'. Gangs of officers and well-built ratings armed with a warrant 'for the impressments of men' were dispatched into waterfront taverns to kidnap able-bodied fellows. Whalers, with their reputation for ruggedness and dependability, were favourite targets, while East India crews tended to enjoy a certain privileged immunity. Nevertheless, merchant ships, particularly during periods of war, often went to sea under-manned as a result of press-gang raids.
Privateers or pirates also represented a direct threat to international traders. It was quite common for a commission, or 'letters of marque' to be issued by a state to private vessels, licencing them to plunder merchant shipping of foreign countries. The French, Dutch, Americans and English all engaged in this practice and not only were the privateers allowed keeping the spoils of their plundering, but bonuses were paid by governments for each foreign sailor killed or taken. This led to ships sailing in convoy and increasing their firepower for protection.
The design and construction of British war-ships, ranging from First Rates such as Nelson's Victory, with up to 120 guns, down to Sixth Rates with 20 guns was much the same as their merchant counterparts although their crews were usually larger and occasionally included women in the sick-bays for tending the wounded. Likewise, while they remained three-masted and square-rigged with mainly oak woodwork, canvas sails and hemp ropes, they continued to grow in size in the 19th century. The major development in de-sign was seen after 1804 when round shaped bows and sterns replaced the weaker and much more vulnerable square bulkhead.
In later life, when Turner settled in his Thames-side cottage at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, he could observe a wide variety of small craft plying the g. river. The most common boat by far was the smack, a one-masted work-horse which, for river work, had its bowsprit removed to achieve greater manoeuvrability. Common on the Thames also was the ranging in size from 12 to 50 tons, which like the smack carried salt, stone, coal and farm produce along the rivers and around the shallow coastline. The hoys provided a busy ferry service up and down the Thames and the seaman's call 'Ahoy' is believed to have originated from passengers hailing these craft from the river bank.
The first steamboat appeared on the Thames in 1814 and was an immediate success. Thirteen years later another steamship crossed the Atlantic for the first time, completing the journey from Rotterdam to the West Indies in one month. These key events heralded a battle between sail and steam which continued throughout the century.
Ironically, the fierce competition from steam-powered ships, whose speed in adverse weather gave them a great advantage, inspired sailing ship builders to produce their finest vessels, such as the famous speedy frigates from the Blackwall Yard in London, which carried 50 guns and a boudoir for first-class female passengers. The passing of the leisurely lndiaman was followed by an American innovation in the form of the clipper whose racy lines helped outlawed slavers, opium traders and pirates evade capture for several decades, until steamships caught up with them.
Turner died in 1851, with the great Yankee clipper perhaps the finest sailing ship ever in ascendancy. But the commercial lifespan of the ocean-going clipper was to be short-lived, just as the improvements in roads and the growth of rail-ways in Britain were rapidly leaving sail-powered smacks and hoys high and dry.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish