An old shellback harks back

Neil Purdon
4th September 2010, 15:18
My grandfather, the writer of the poem below served his time "before the mast" - first on the full-rigged ship CAMBRIAN HILLS and then on the four masted topsail schooner RIMAC. Some of you out there may enjoy reading it.


“When You-and I-Were Young”


by W. P. PURDON, D.S.C. (1873 – 1957)

D'ye mind o' the smell o' the pitch and the tar,
O' the rovings we used to tie ?
O' the figure-head beauties who led us along,
O' the pantiles, pea-soup and sea-pie?
O' the hashes concocted, the way they went down
When we'd spent the whole watch on a yard -
The bellying canvas nigh hurling us off -
With finger-tips bleeding and scarred;
With footropes a-swaying, the jackstays like ice;
With the martingale stabbing the foam;
With the lee scuppers under and decks all aslant,
As we threshed through the “Forties” for home ?

D'ye mind o' the “dead horse” to Davy Jones slung?
D'ye mind how we sang it to rest,
With the thought we should soon have some money in hand
For “baccy” and slops from the chest?
Let landlubbers crack up the pasties end pies
Which they to their “innards” consign;
If they'd been shanghaied on a hard-living ship
They'd have vowed, ere they got to the Line,
That “dandyfunk”, “dog's-body”, “strike-me-blind”, too,
Were as gifts of the gods to a man
When his belly was empty and letting him know
As only a starved belly can;
When a full watch below was a “something” forgot -
Small time e'en for “chewing the rag”;
When his dunnage was sodden, and never a change
Had he got in his old canvas bag!

D'ye mind o' the chanties we chorused a-main
As the last bag swung in o'er the side,
As the cable was hove short and gaskets unloosed
To sail at the turn o' the tide?
D'ye mind when the mainbrace was “spliced” on the Line -
How Neptune was there with his court?
D'ye mind o' the darned sudgee-mudgee and sand
As we brightened the “lady” for port ?
D'ye mind o' the stranger who stopped us for stores,
O' the news that was passed to and fro',
O' the songs and the yarns that the dog-watches knew,
O' the shipmates so long “gone below” ?

D'ye mind o' the islands - sea's jewels so rare -
How we climbed on the sheer-poles to view ?
How our thoughts all ran riot on treasure and such
As they faded once more in the blue ?
D'ye mind with the main lower-tops'l goose-winged
How she danced to a big Cape Stiff sea,
With the main hatch stove in and preventers taut rove,
And ice close aboard on the lee ?
D'ye mind o' the Doldrums, their flurries and calms -
Pullee-haulee with never a “let”,
And the big steamer passing, and how all hands vowed
“Ne'er again in a sailer” - and yet
Next voyage saw them taking the bait, the advance
For a voyage to the ends of the earth
Aboard of some “hunger-and-poverty” craft
Where misery mated with mirth ?

Aye, those were tough days, and the seamen tough dogs -
At a dog's wage, of bullies oft butts,
Still, as long as the bread-barge had something to give,
And the locker held rum in its guts,
They cared not a rap as she ran with the gale,
For the seas which tried hard to o'erwhelm,
For the storm-along Mate and the driving Old Man,
And the long, grinding tricks at the helm!
It's - O! for the smell o' Sargasso Sea weed,
For the sight of a clipper again -
With her tacks bowsed right down as she clung to the wind,
And her braces a-twang with the strain;
For the long watch on deck, and the short watch below;
For the “Heave her up, hearties!” - and, say,
I'd give quite a slice o' the present to have
One whiff o' the old times today:

The times when she ran from the “blue” to the “green”,
The times when the tow-rope was passed,
The times when the Mate's “That'll do you, my lads!”
Proclaimed the voyage over at last;
The times when all Sailortown for us turned out,
The times with a sweetheart or wife,
The times that we kissed with “Good-bye, fare-ye-well!”
Those old times we thought - and WERE life!

4th September 2010, 18:35
Neil, What a wonderful piece of writing. I am not and never have been a 'Man of the Sea' but, what an evocative and superb piece this is. One can almost feel the wind and the fear of being up in the yards. He must have been a lovely person to know and talk to, if he could write something like that. Regards, Beresford.

Hugh Ferguson
4th September 2010, 23:26
Excellent, Neil, I like it very much.

5th September 2010, 03:38
Very good. an enjoyable read.

5th September 2010, 03:49
A truly nautical and engaging poem


Neil Purdon
13th September 2010, 18:59
Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Sadly, I never knew him. He died when I was 3.


Neil Purdon
24th August 2012, 22:20
Postscript: The Cambrian Hills mentioned above sank without loss of life in 1905. My grandfather penned an epitaph in verse for his old ship. It's dated 14th June 1907. A while back I posted a photo of his in the Gallery of the Cambrian Hills taken around 1890 in Sydney.


Down below the restless surface
Of the ever boundless tide;
Down upon the mystic sea-bed
Where the ray and conger hide;
Down where clinging sea-weed gently
Twines around her sunken form,
On the bottom of the ocean
Lies this victim of the storm.

Masts and yards are in their places,
Every stay hangs taught and true,
Sails are sheeted to the yard-arms
As abandoned by the crew;
And the compass in its gimbals
Still points out the way to steer,
Heedless that her days are over,
Finished is her short career.

Thanks to God the great Disposer
When your final hour drew nigh,
Every soul was safely landed,
You alone were doomed to die.
Noble ship, my Alma Mater,
With fond thoughts my memory fills
Of the days you safely bore me,
Ocean rest you, Cambrian Hills.

(thanks to my cousin for forwarding this to me after years of searching)

Harry Nicholson
23rd December 2012, 16:31
Thanks, Neil. I've just read these for the first time; they are splendid, rich in feeling and a sense of the genuine.

John Rogers
23rd December 2012, 16:47
Excellent, it should be placed in the Nautical poem thread.

23rd December 2012, 16:50
That is superb and so evocative. Perhaps even those of us who served in steam and motor can relate to it, even if we never got near to facing the things that they did. I would dearly like to copy it and file it in my family archives (with due recognition of course) as I feel it would teach my grandchildren values that would be beyond price. If you read these latest post, can I have your permission?

Reg Kear
23rd December 2012, 17:54
W. P. PURDON, D.S.C. (1873 – 1957)

Now there's a man I would love to have met.

Reg .

Neil Purdon
24th December 2012, 09:08
Thanks for the kind words.

Harry Nicholson: I too just love the language - expressions and vocabulary that speak of a remantic era now long gone. (This site's not called Ships Nostalgia for nothing!)

John Rogers: I'm not sure where to find it, but if a moderator would like to move it, they're more than welcome.

Art6: Yes of course - with great pleasure. I posted it to be shared with those would appreciate it!

Reg Kear: Thanks. He did move to steam and when he retired was a master with Elder Dempster Line. He won the DSC when his ship the BENGUELA was attacked by a Uboat in 1917. They evaded the torpedo and survived the ensuing gun battle that lasted for many hours.

Merry Christmas to you all.


Jim the Sawyer
12th March 2013, 04:56
I love the history. Nothing like hearing it directly from the source.

27th October 2013, 15:49
Hello Neil. What a fantastic poem, your Grandfather must have been an exceptional man with a great talent for descriptive language, and what a wonderful and moving epitaph to his old ship, Cambrian Hills.
Having read Before The Mast by Henry Baynham many years ago, which although about the life of Naval Ratings of the 19th century gives first hand accounts of life below deck during the age of sail I have some understanding of the sort of life your Grandfather led. Its a great bit of history and should be kept alive within the family and passed on to future generations. Hope to meet up next time you are in the UK.
Kind regards
Peter Pound.
Before anyone asks, no, I am not related to Sir Dudley Pound so cant help with that thread, sorry.

28th October 2013, 00:28
good day neil purdon,m, old shellback harks back.i was reading this old thread and found your poem.its great it takes you out to sea.thank you for posting regards ben27