Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mariners: First Rung of the Ladder 3

Considering Bell’s Narrative of Conch, admittedly written much later in life, his level of general education is evidently good. Some historians have questioned whether he could have related the story to someone else to write down, but I don’t subscribe to that view. 

Bell's signature on a Port Office document, Natal 1861
As a merchant master having dealings with crew and cargo, he had responsibilities: he would have had some commercial grasp of proceedings. 

When Bell became Port Captain at Natal he had to write and sign passenger lists and other port documents; he made written reports on harbour matters, shipwrecks and survey expeditions along the coast. His handwriting on original documents dating to the 1850s and 60s is well-formed and there are many examples of his vigorous signature.

He was certainly literate and more than merely that. This isn’t quite what one might expect of the son of a labourer. Could he have attended school while he was working his indenture at Maryport? There’s no way of knowing whether Ritson was sufficiently motivated to nurture young mariners and craftsmen but he may well have been forward-looking and encouraged them to pursue their studies during apprenticeship. William had an enterprising nature and no doubt took opportunities for self-education.

There’s the possibility that he went to a nautical school. Such establishments provided training in aspects of seamanship and could be state-aided, or private charitable institutions often endowed by wealthy philanthropists. Whitehaven, not a million miles from Maryport, offers an example in this regard.

Whitehaven ca 1854

Matthew Piper, a Quaker, lived frugally and was thus able when he died at the age of 91 to leave a generous bequest for the founding of a school ‘for the education of sixty poor boys resident in the town of Whitehaven, or the neighbourhood, in reading, writing, arithmetic, gauging, navigation and book-keeping.’ The school, in the High Street, was built in 1818 and opened in 1822. Before being admitted every boy had to be able to read the New Testament and be above eight years of age, none being allowed to remain more than five years.

‘Although this school is intended to convey such nautical instruction as shall qualify its pupils to act as mates and masters of vessels, they are not placed under any obligation to go to sea, as the name of the institution may be supposed to imply.’

However, many did become mariners on completion of their time at Piper’s Marine SchoolAs well as the school Piper also left a £1000 bequest, from which the £50 interest created a fund used to provide soup twice per week (from the soup kitchen in Mill Street) to many families in dire need of such nourishment; this continued for over 150 years.

Pipers Court, Whitehaven, on the site of Matthew Piper's Marine School

There were probably similar nautical schools in other Cumbrian ports such as Workington and Maryport. William Bell may have been the beneficiary of a Charitable Trust like Piper's.

With the large-scale opening up of the seas for imperial trade, merchant mariners required a higher level of education in navigation, nautical astronomy and associated subjects. A coastal mariner could scrape by with slightly less formal training. It wasn’t until 1845 that a system of examination for Competency and Service was introduced for all mariners.

By then Ritson, Bell’s mentor, was dead: ‘…1844, John Ritson Esq., late ship builder, after several years’ affliction of paralysis, which he bore with great resignation, aged 67 years.’*

Ship approaching Whitehaven harbour 1847
 by Robert Salmon

Note: Merchant seamen service records from 1835 to 1857 are available to view online at

1 comment:


Mole, I had to re read your post today, because Bell's signature is both sophisticated and comfortable. I am staggered to learn that some believe he was not literate or that his level of education was compromised. How naive. It's also about time that he received his proper place in South African history, commanding the Conch under fire, unarmed, with the sole purpose of assisting soldiers with no where to turn. A hero in my book.