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Life On The Ocean Wave

Behind the salty life of The Onedin Line, behind the romances and business affairs of the Onedin family, the day-to-day living of a seaman in 19th-century England was a hard grind. Clothes, money, food, shelter were all grimly fought for. This week the series returns for a new run, and here Madeleine Kingsley picks out some of the hard facts of the life that it portrays

Life on the ocean wave

If the Charlotte Rhodes was launched on mid-19th century champagne then some more substantial fuel has kept her running on the television sets of 28 countries for a good five years since. No doubt ocean romance, the strains of Khachaturian and the salty glamour of Peter Gilmore have all played a part in the ongoing fortunes of The Onedin Line. But behind the more obvious ingredients of popular appeal there lies a solid ballast of historical authenticity much appreciated by nautical cognoscenti. Just as new novels often carry enticing plaudits by well-known critics so The Onedin Line could justifiably carry the seal of approval from real-life sailors of renown tacked on to the end of programme credits: 'Robin Knox-Johnston enjoys' or 'Sir Francis Chichester stayed home Sundays throughout each run.' Both are true testimonies, according to Howard Lang (himself a navy man for seven years), the actor who created the crusty character of Captain Baines and who still sails his own yacht out of Chichester harbour whenever he can.

Like many members of the Onedin cast Lang is steeped in the lore of Victorian sailing ships. On the tip of his tongue are such impressive sailing statistics as the 20 miles of rope rigging carried on some of the great clippers. And in true sea-dog style he had a moving tale to tell in favour of The Onedin Line's historical accuracy: 'When the series was first shown in Norway I was asked to make a personal appearance in a small shipbuilding town. As I was brought into Grimstad by sea I caught sight of huge crowds - all of 3,000 townsfolk out on the quay to greet me. I learned afterwards that I had been received as family because almost every home had an ancient photograph of an uncle, cousin or grandfather dressed and sideburned precisely as I appear on The Onedin Line.'

Financial depressions leave Elizabeth Fraser, played by Jessica Benton (right),
battling hard to keep her steamship together. But sister-in-law Sarah Onedin
(Mary Webster, left) moves up in the world - fortified, no doubt, by her League
 of Purity friends (behind) - when her husband opens a department store.

With this, the fifth series of The Onedin Line, the action moves into 1880. Members of the cast are kept au courant with current affairs of the time: Mr Gladstone has just returned to power; the Zulu Wars are ending, Boer troubles just brewing. 'The crinoline, of course, gave way to the bustle in the last series,' says actress Jessica Benton who plays Elizabeth Fraser. 'But in this series you will notice that the bustle is worn much lower. Though ladies who wished to be the last word in fashion continued to have their two bottom ribs surgically removed for the sake of hour glass waists.'

Final responsibility for the nuts, bolts and winches of The Onedin Line rests with Robin Craig, a gentleman who by profession is a lecturer in economic history at University College, London, but, since boy­hood, has been by nature a sort of nautical voyeur who spends his weekends at his Kentish home with a telescope and one eye focused on the ships that pass across the Channel. Craig is a stickler for script detail. ' Writers have a way of mentioning Oslo instead of Christiana as it was then known, or inserting a captain's promise to sail into port at some particular date, when of course no sailing ship's master would have committed himself to a date and time of arrival - because everything depended on the weather.'

Robin Craig has found that one aspect that seems to puzzle viewers a good deal is why James Onedin continues to stick to sailing ships instead of investing his capital in steam. 'In fact,' says Craig, 'steam certainly did not replace sails overnight. The last great sailship building boom took place in 1892; regular cargo runs were still in progress on the eve of the First World War and the last great grain race under sail went round the Horn in 1938.' Sail, of course, had the advantage of cheapness - a ship like the Charlotte Rhodes with a holding capacity of five or six hundred tons could cost £2,000; a steamship of equivalent size one third as much again, perhaps twice as much. Windpower, of course, was free, while the somewhat inefficient motors of the early steamships positively devoured coal, and also caused an alarmingly high number of deaths among ships' furnacemen in those early days.

Captain Baines is the crusty character created by actor
Howard Lang  - himself a navy man who sails his own
yacht out of Chichester harbour whenever he can.
When the series was first shown in Norway he made a
personal appearance at a small shipbuilding town and
3,000 townspeople crowded the quay to greet him.

In fact the stories of The Onedin Line could scarcely exaggerate the appalling conditions of Victorian life aboard ship, or indeed in port at Liverpool, where The Onedin Line is based (though in fact location shots were filmed at Milford Haven and the old docks at Gloucester). 'The Board of Trade made repeated attempts to improve the diet, at least of able seamen,' explains Robin Craig. 'Most people have heard the term limey, which stems, in fact, from the government stipulation that all sailors were to be given extra vitamin C in the form of lime juice. Much needed it was, for the staple diet, at its best, was salt pork; at the worst, it was hard tack: ship's biscuit, busy with weevils, and rationed water.'

Long voyages to Australia or South America might occupy the best part of a year.

Understandably, perhaps, able seamen returning to port with an accumulated back pay of £3 a month went on a prolonged bar and brothel junket. In this they were encouraged by the alehouse keepers, who themselves were often commissioned by shipowners to raise crews, and who therefore had a vested interest in turning the sailors about for fresh voyages as fast as possible. 'And,' says Robin Craig, 'parliamentary select committee reports reveal that all too often seamen were delivered to the quayside by cart, insensible, suffering from VD, without the least idea where they were bound and with only the clothes they had passed out in.'

This in turn worked to the advantage of a canny ship's master. 'He would often keep a slop chest on board to make a bit of extra on the side selling sou'westers and jerseys. (A captain's basic wage was £9 a month.) Captain Baines, of course, had no such head for business. In fact he only learned to read and write late in life, when Anne Onedin (James's wife who died in childbirth) took him under her wing.' But an ambitious man could manage to work his way up from able seaman to shipowner, passing Board of Trade exams, and then accumulate savings by taking charge of someone else's ship till he could go into business on his own account. 'Cheeseparing on the crew's food, taking in a little cargo at a foreign port on his own account, to carry alongside his boss's - oh, there were many fiddles a ruthless man could work to get on. Would James Onedin have done so? You may be sure of it. Every trick in the book, our Onedin would have played.'

© Radio Times
25 June - 1 July 1977

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