Monday, 29 March 2010

The Story of Captain Gray: Sue Purkiss

We hear and read stories all the time, don’t we? From each other, from TV, radio, and online, from books and films. But why is it that most of them will swiftly slip out of our minds, while others settle in and make themselves at home?

I have a story coming out in August. It's called Emily's Surprising Voyage, and it's set on the ss Great Britain – Mr Brunel’s beautiful ship. Built in 1843, this was the first ship to have a screw propeller, an iron hull, and a massive 1000-horsepower steam engine. She broke the previous speed record, and travelled thirty-two times around the world and nearly one million miles at sea. She was finally abandoned in the Falkland Islands, in 1937, after more than 40 years use as a floating warehouse. In 1970 an ambitious salvage effort brought her home to Bristol, where today she is conserved in the dry dock where she was originally built.

A couple of years ago, I had a friend staying, and we went to look round the ship and see how far they’d got with the conservation effort. It’s a fascinating experience, which really gives you a feel for what it must have been like to be on the ship; you get the sounds, the sights, the history – and you get the stories. Stories from long dead passengers, recorded in diaries and letters, echoing down the years – as fresh and vivid as if they were written yesterday. They tell us what it was like to travel in steerage and in first class. They tell us about the food, the entertainments, the storms, the births and deaths, the romances which blossomed among passengers thrown together, in the space between their old lives in England and their new lives in Australia.

But the story that lodged itself in my mind concerns Captain Gray. He was a very popular captain, tall and burly, with a powerful voice. He concerned himself with the well-being of all of his passengers, and would personally go down to steerage to chivvy the passengers into keeping their cramped, closed-in quarters clean and fresh, telling them to go up on deck for fresh air, telling them it was for their own good, and they must look after their health.

One morning, however, the Captain did not appear on deck. His officers went to his cabin to look for him. The window stood open; of the Captain, there was no trace. He was never seen again.

There was no means of contacting his wife and children, so when the ship arrived back in England, there they were, lined up on the quay, waiting eagerly to greet him. Imagine their faces, how their expressions would have changed; from excitement, to incomprehension, to grief.

The Captain appears in my book, but this part of his story does not. It's not essentially his story; it’s that of a boy from steerage and a girl from first class. (And no, it’s not a bit like Jack and Rose on the Titanic!) A few weeks ago, I went to see Rhian Tritton, the Director of Museum and Educational Services for the ss Great Britain, and we talked about the importance of stories in making a visit to the ship meaningful. I mentioned the story of Captain Gray, and how it has stayed with me.

And then the story continued. She told me that recently, the museum managed to discover a portrait of the Captain in Melbourne, Australia. They raised the money to buy it, and it was put on a plane – just ahead of the fires which were devastating the area. On the day the portrait was to arrive at its new home, everyone who worked at or on the ship wore grey, in honour of the kindly and much-loved Captain. And so now his portrait has a place of honour; he has come home. And his story has a face to it.


Katherine Langrish said...

What a wonderful, touching and mysterious story, Sue. And I used to work for Lloyds Register, yet this one is new to me. Glad the portrait of the Captain has come home!

Stroppy Author said...

I thought it was going to end 'but when the plane landed, the portrait had disappeared....'

What a great story - haunting. Thank you, Sue.

Sue Purkiss said...

Indignant author here - there were four comments here, but they've mysteriously disappeared!

Linda Strachan said...

This comment wasn't one of them but I was touched by the story of the Captain, Sue.
I kept wondering if some terrible devils in this kind man's head made him jump out of the window to a watery grave, perhaps because of a chance remark. Or was it an incredible sea monster whose tentacles slipped in and carried him away.
Sea mysteries are intriguing!

Sue Purkiss said...

I don't know. I'd like to know more. Incidentally, the Captain was a Shetlander, and Rhian Tritton, who works at the ss GB, is going to the Shetlands in July to give a lecture on him - at something called a 'Waehaming'? May not have that quite right!