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Maritime Tales – trunks and chests

23 January 2007 by stepheng

wooden trunk containing a traveller's belongings

An emigrant’s trunk from the last century.
Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

When I, Stephen Guy, was a child growing up in West Derby, Liverpool, in the 1950s our neighbour had an old wooden seaman’s chest stored outside.

It was slowly rotting away but when you lifted the creaking lid another world was revealed. Inside the top was a colourful painting of a ship with billowing sails racing across an azure sea. This battered object had the power to conjure up images of distant ports and a lost way of life.

 Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest
 Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
 Drink and the devil had done for the rest
 Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum …

Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, wrote these famous lines in 1881. They capture perfectly images of ancient sea chests brimming with golden doubloons and other loot.

Merseyside Maritime Museum has a number of chests and trunks on display. Sea chests were usually made from wood then tarred or painted to keep water out.  A seaman’s chest dating from about 1880 was used by seafarer Ted Garland to carry his personal belongings while at sea.

Ditty boxes were used by mariners to keep valuable items along with letters and photographs. One on display dates from the 1930s.

There is a stylish passenger trunk owned by Gertrude Walker and her daughters Doris and Winifred, members of a wealthy family who frequently travelled on passenger liners. Gertrude first went to Chile, South America, in 1911. During the next 50 years she and her daughters crossed the Atlantic many times. The trunk, donated by Mrs JV Bucknall of Heswall, is displayed with some of the clothing and accessories it once contained – a fascinating time capsule from a bygone age.

Another is a passenger’s state room black oval bag with a Cunard White Star label still in place. The bag was used by Mrs Hadwin, a third class passenger on the Athenia sailing to Montreal on 23 July 1923.

An emigrants’ trunk from 100 years ago (shown) contains some of the simple belongings carried by people seeking a new life abroad – photographs, books, crockery and a wall plaque bearing the fitting Biblical quotation, ‘My God shall supply all your need’.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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