The Shipping Line Clock
By Alan Russell
When I was clearing out my parents’ home I inherited a wall mounted clock set in a dark wooden case.
I know the back story of how the clock arrived in our family. I should do as I had a leading role in the subterfuge and deception my father and I went through to get the clock from a street market in Lymington back to our family home near Maidenhead without Mum knowing anything about it. Then, having to hide it somewhere away from where Mum would decide to ‘spring clean’ during one of her hyper active house-proud moments until Christmas morning in five or six months’ time. We succeeded and the clock eventually hung proudly on their living room wall, wherever they lived for the next forty years.
Suffice to say this subterfuge and deception involved a couple of very long drives in an old sports car that leaked even when the roof was up, a very cold and wet night under canvas in the New Forest and a rather nasty cold the following week. That full story can wait until another time.
On the face of the clock in what can best be described as ‘Arial Bold’ is the name ‘Wilson Line’.
The clock was witness to countless family gatherings. Christmas lunches, birthdays, important announcements such as weddings and funerals and quiet evenings in front of the television. During the family gatherings the tale of how the clock came into the family became a recurring topic. As the years passed, which the clock dutifully measured with its second by second tick tock, the story was embellished as unwritten stories are until they become almost mythical. The number of times the clock was moved around the house before Christmas, grew from only once or twice to almost once a week. How my Mum developed some suspicions something was up. How the hidden presence of the clock nearly slipped into conversation.
Anything beyond my father and I buying the clock that cold and wet weekend and only having to move it once in five or six months from its hiding place is pure myth.
The name ‘Wilson Line’ became a subject of speculation. Everyone had worked out that the ‘Wilson Line’ was s hipping company but no one really knew what sort of shipping line it was. My Mum wanted it to be something like Cunard plying luxury crossings between Britain and America. My father was more down to earth and thought it might have been a minor company plying the coastal routes around Britain. I suggested it might have been freight company but my Mum was quite insistent that it was a luxury passenger line.
When I took the clock down from the wall to move it to where we live there was an envelope wedged behind it. On the front of it in my Mum’s best block capitals are the words ‘THE HISTORY OF THE WILSON LINE – WHERE THE LIVING ROOM CLOCK CAME FROM’. Then underneath in my father’s block capital; which at the time he wrote them were badly affected by his advancing brain tumour, failing sight and dementia, read as ‘OUR CLOCR’.
Inside the envelope are some pages printed from the internet. At the top in my late brother’s clear longhand is ‘Dear Mum & Dad. Thanks for a great weekend. This is about the Wilson Line off the internet’.
The Wilson Line was based in Hull on the north east coast of England. From there its ships plied the North Sea to the west cost of Norway taking freight over and bringing passengers back to England. The routes plied were all into Hull rom what is now Oslo, Kristiansand, Bergen and Trondheim with weekly schedules.
The humble potato arrived in Norway in 1750 via the rest of Europe where it had arrived from the Andes in Latin America. There was heavy resistance to this new food source, which was rumoured to carry leprosy, was overcome with religious zeal. Clergy espoused its dietary benefits and by the time of the Napoleonic Wars the potato had become an integral part of the Norwegian diet.
In 1844 in America ‘phytophthora infestans’ was identified. In 1845 it was found in France and the Isle of Wight. In the same year it was found in Ireland and Norway. The potato blight which turned the firm white starchy flesh of the humble potato into a black crude oil like mush rendering them inedible had struck Europe. Its consequences on poor rural communities such as those in Ireland and western Norway were cataclysmic in that they had become so reliant on the potato as a dietary staple they were unable to replace it as quickly as it was being devastated.
The arrival of the blight in Ireland and Norway triggered a wave of migration from those two countries to America. There were very few direct shipping routes from the west coast of Norway to the new world. This is where the Wilson Line laid the foundations of its success, by providing a feeder service for emigrants from Norway to Britain where they could join the larger passenger ships for transport across the Atlantic to America.
A further wave of migration from Norway happened when the country was ravaged by a famine that started in 1866, just a year after the American Civil War ended making living there even more attractive.
It was during the second wave of migration that the Wilson Line almost achieved a complete monopoly on its North Sea routes. It was also at that time that it previously and relatively high standards started to slip. Minor shipping companies tried to muscle in on the lucrative trade. The Wilson Line threatened to abandon the market completely and the major transatlantic lines, fearful of losing trade fed to them, stepped in and made it so that they would only carry passengers from Norway that had travelled on the Wilson Line.
There were two ways of paying for the crossings to escape famine and poverty. One was with cash. The alternative was by signing an indenture agreement with an employer in America which meant sacrificing five to seven years of paid labour. Either way the route to a better life was travelled on an expensive ticket.
In its heyday the Wilson Line was described as ‘the largest privately-owned shipping company’, ‘Hull’s biggest enterprise’ and as a company that kept its identity for nearly a century from its formation in 1830 until 1917. Then it was bought by John Ellerman and became part of the ‘Ellerman Wilson Line’.
In some ways the pages from the internet confirmed parts of all of our speculations about what the Wilson Line did as a business. It provided passenger services. It carried freight. And at one time was regarded as providing quality accommodation. What none of us ever speculated about was the tragic individual stories. The back stories, unwritten and unspoken from the dark destitution of bleak homes in non-fictional chapters of famine, disease and sheer desperation. A trilogy of chapters strong enough to drive people so desperate for escape that they risked their lives and in some cases their freedom in order to escape.