Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Robert Louis Stevenson The Wrecker

In 1925, Malcolm Lowry was given a copy of Stevenson's novel as a prize by his school magazine Fortnightly at the Leys in Cambridge.

The Wrecker (1892) is a novel written by Robert Louis Stevenson in collaboration with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. The story is a 'sprawling, episodic adventure story, a comedy of brash manners and something of a detective mystery'. It revolves around the abandoned wreck of the Flying Scud at Midway Island. Clues in a stamp collection are used to track down the missing crew and solve the mystery. It is only in the last chapter that different story elements become linked.

This novel is an early example of one of the literary influences that stirred Lowry's desire to travel the world and escape the confines of his Ingelwood home in Caldy.

What also may have appealed to Lowry's imagination in Stevenson's story is that the Wirral had a long history of wrecking due to its former isolation, treacherous coastline and the abundance of shipping passing the Northern coast en route to the port of Liverpool. Lowry must have known that his birthplace was steeped in tales of wreckers and smugglers and that as he wandered over the sand dunes or beaches of North Wirral that he was stepping in the footsteps of the notorious wreckers. Perhaps that's why he chose the book as a prize?

By one of those Lowryean coincidences, one of the more famous instances of wrecking on the Wirral coast was that of the Pennsylvania in 1838, a ship who shared the same name as the one Lowry sailed to Mexico on in 1936 which was the basis of his greatest work Under The Volcano.

The above painting is inscribed as follows:

The loss of the Pennsylvania, New York Packet Ship, the Lockwoods Emigrant ship, the Saint Andrew Packet ship and the Victoria from Charleston, near Liverpool, during the hurricane on Monday & Tuesday Jany 7th & 8th 1839. Also the Ward from St Johns at anchor; the Victoria Steam Tug towing the Lifeboat and the Mountaineer steamer, with a view of Leasowe Lighthouse & Bidston Hill. This print is intended to represent the vessels shortly after they struck on the Tuesday afternoon from particulars given to the artist by Captain Sprowle of The Lockwoods; Captain Thompson of the Saint Andrew and by Captain Candler of the Victoria. Mike Kemble

Following the wreck on the Wirral coast in January 1839 of the packet ship 'Pennsylvania' en route from Liverpool to New York during a hurricane-force storm, a Liverpool newspaper commented, 'We lament to find that these infamous wretches, the wreckers, have been at their fiendlike occupation, plundering what the elements have spared, instead of seeking to alleviate the calamities of their fellow creatures. The wreckers who infest the Cheshire coast were not long in rendering the catastrophe a source of emolument to themselves. The property of the passengers and crew where plundered by them to an alarming extent.'

You can read more details of the wreck of the Pennsylvania here.

A new book on the subject of Wirral Smugglers and Wreckers has just been published:

The book is the first authoritative, illustrated, full-length account of smuggling and related activities in Wirral. Covering the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it represents the first book-length account concerning this important chapter in Wirral's heritage. Not only does it describe familiar facts in great detail - Mother Redcap and her smugglers' tavern on the Wallasey shore, the labyrinth of smugglers' tunnels stretching from the Red Noses in New Brighton throughout Wallasey, and the wreckers who used to prey upon Liverpool-bound shipping - it also covers the less well-known aspects of Wirral's piratical past, including smuggling in Parkgate and Heswall, and the swashbuckling adventures of Captain Fortunatus Wright - the Wallasey privateer.

The theme of wrecks and groundings of vessels crops up many times in Lowry's writing both in his novels, short stories, poems as well as his letters. I will return to the subject in a later post.

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