W. W. Jacobs
In the library at school a small group of us studied French and Latin for two years in the 6th form. I sat opposite some bookshelves, and one of the books at eye level was a red hardback copy of ‘Many Cargoes’. I saw it every day, but I never took it off the shelf and read it. I wish I had. I could have enjoyed the pleasure of reading W.W.Jacobs much earlier.
Anyway, ‘Many Cargoes’ is on my favourite bookshelf now. It is well thumbed and often used.
Some years later, still before I had read any of the books, I saw a crossword clue. ‘W.W.Jacobs has a lot of them.’ It reminded me of the library at school and the book I used to stare at when my mind wandered from Latin. Later I bought ‘Many Cargoes’ and I now have over a dozen more of the novels and the collections of short stories. These are mainly red hardbacks and are all on the same shelf waiting for whenever I need them.
This was a comment of one reader of the first edition. “I have just read ‘Many Cargoes’ and I have laughed often and laughed long”. This just about sums up the short stories. Jacobs’ humour is a kind and gentle humour, understanding and cheerful, which is rare today.
My red hardback copy of ‘Many Cargoes’ was published in 1903 and this was already the twenty seventh edition. It was first published in 1896. This means that there were 27 editions in 7 years. That’s not bad. No wonder Jacobs could leave his job as a clerk and devote his time to writing.
So, it arrives on the scene just after the Holmes year of 1895. It is the time of Jerome K. Jerome too. He also has a book on my favourite shelf. We will come to that later. All in good time! In fact, my copy of ‘Many Cargoes’ has an acknowledgement to Jerome at the front.
Most of the short stories are about sailors on shore leave between voyages. Hence the titles which all have a whiff of the sea. ‘Captains All’, ‘Light Freights’, ‘Sea Urchins’, ‘Short Cruises’ and so on. Some of them are set on voyages round the coast of Britain. Many are set in the great port of London. Jacobs grew up in Wapping, and his father managed the South Devon Wharf there.
Many of these stories are about the three friends Sam Small, Ginger Dick and Peter Russet. They usually stay in a lodging house when not at sea, and soon spend or lose their hard-earned money on shore and have to sign on for another voyage much sooner than they had intended. This was the life of so many sailors of the time. They were often single and the money they earned at sea was soon spent on shore where they found it hard to resist the pleasures of the pubs and the artful methods by which the sharp-witted men on shore relieved them of their money. That was the pattern of their lives. Earn and spend, earn and spend. When they were too old for the sea many were little better off than when they had started.
Many of the stories are short romances, which usually begin with the mate or the captain being smitten. In the end, the sailor wins the girl but always after overcoming many obstacles. Take ‘An Elaborate Elopement’. Captain Lewis in his schooner ‘Thames’ is taking some monkeys and a bear from London to Aberdeen and calls in at the little port of Orford where Kate Rumbold lives with her aging father. He asks Kate to visit his ship to see the bear, and after much hesitation she agrees. When they reach the ship, the crew immediately take over and set sail. This ‘mutiny’ was in fact planned by the captain and crew together as a means of his eloping with Kate. The captain had also told Kate’s father who had agreed, glad to be relieved from being ‘not henpecked but chick-pecked’ by Kate. The ‘mutiny’ causes various misunderstandings. Then the men are non-plussed when Kate refuses to marry Lewis. Then Kate unlocks the bear’s cage, and it takes some time for the crew to recapture him. Later Kate encourages one of the crew to go into the bear’s cage to let it out.
“I ain’t going in,” said the fat sailor shortly.
“Not for me?” queried Kate archly.
“Not for fifty like you,” replied the old man firmly. “He nearly had me when he was loose. I can’t think how he got out.”
“Why, I let him out,” said Miss Rumbolt airily. “Just for a little run. How would you like to be shut up all day?”
The sailor was just going to tell her with more fluency than politeness when he was interrupted.
“That’ll do,” said skipper Lewis, who had come up behind them.
Lewis takes the helm, and Kate comes and stands by him.
“Did my father know of this?” said she.
“I don`t know that he did exactly,” said the skipper uneasily. “I just told him not to expect you back that night.”
“And what did he say,” said she.
“Said he wouldn’t sit up,” said the skipper, grinning, despite himself.
Kate drew a breath the length of which boded no good to her parent and looked over the side.
Well, there are more adventures, and Kate finally accepts Captain Lewis. But it was a close-run thing.
Get a copy of ‘Many Cargoes’, in red hardback if you can. And when you have finished that, buy ‘Captains All’. The first story is about Sam Small attempting to get married and his mates trying to stop him.
You will laugh often and laugh long!
Jacobs, W. W. (1903). Many Cargoes. McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie.