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Fun and fear

1 February 2010 by stepheng

Archive photo of sailors playing musical instruments on the deck of a ship

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I don’t hold with the saying that you have to be a comedian to live in Liverpool, although there are probably more here than anywhere else.

I’m convinced much of this is down to our seafaring tradition – mariners tend to have a strong sense of humour to help deal with the many challenges faced on the briny.

Ships’ crews carried out bizarre rituals at sea such as the Crossing the Line ceremony for passengers and crew going over the equator for the first time. Initiates appear before King Neptune and his court and are plunged into water and subjected to other indignities.

Two lesser-known rituals are examined in the Life at Sea gallery in Merseyside Maritime Museum. Life on sailing ships left crews with little time for recreation. Despite this, sailors developed various customs that reflected their way of life.

The ceremony of Dropping the Dead Horse originated in the 19th century when seafarers were allowed their first month’s wages in advance to pay for gear and clothing. During this month they felt they were working for nothing or ‘flogging a dead horse’.

The end of the month was marked by dragging a canvas horse stuffed with wood shavings and stones along the deck before hoisting it up the main mast and dropping it into the sea to cheers and raucous laughter.

On display is a picture of the Dead Horse being prepared for dropping overboard. It was on the John O’Gaunt while sailing to Melbourne, Australia, in 1889.

Music has always been popular at sea and crews often formed small Foo-Foo bands as a way of relaxing. These enabled musicians to disturb everyone else by making an appalling din while dressed up in ridiculous clothes.

A photograph shows a Foo-Foo band (pictured) on a British sailing ship in 1900 with members dressed in funny hats and playing an assortment of instruments including mouth organs and a squeeze box.

Once ashore fun could turn to fear for sailors on a spree. Sea ports around the world have a reputation for being violent and dangerous places. Mariners often took steps to protect themselves.

Crews paid at the end of voyages could get several months of back pay. There were many people in port ready to separate seafarers from their cash once they got ashore.

Another display features a switchback knife and leather cosh carried by sailor Robert Bruce when he was in the Merchant Navy in the early 1940s.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).

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