A word of apology to readers. The past month has had its up and downs, the first being an invasion of mallware that robbed me of the use of the Internet and of my computers while they were in quarantine. Since I have long come to mistrust the durability of computers I lost very little of my writing because I keep it in flash drives. So, to skip over everything else, here is the latest post about “Steam and Stratagem” and “Spies and Subterfuge”.
I decided to share a bit of the background of the three bachelors of “Steam and Stratagem”…the first on parade is Alfred Worthington, naval officer and engineer.
In the novels practically nothing is known about him except his rise from the Black Gang to an officer’s rank in the Royal Navy—another part of the plot that is 50 years anachronistic. However, this is Steampunk, and Steampunk makes its own rules. Just what did he do in the Black Gang and how did he get there?
But even this is not the start of his story—how did he get from the farm to the stoke hold of a ship in the first place? Yes, farm. In the course of the story action he reveals something by his Yorkshire accent—and while Yorkshire had coal mines, in the Regency it was predominantly rural/agricultural. If he started work in the mines, he must have left the farm or the village to get there.
The rule for farms at that time was that the farmers were all tenants of the land, which was owned by someone rich…in all probability a noble family. He would either have had to receive permission to leave the land, or had stolen away in the night to hide himself in one of the new industrial towns. Let’s make him legal. The landlord was sympathetic to the father’s plight—what was he to do with this son who was superfluous to the small farm and becoming a large and restless 15 year old?
He had to have had an older brother, Jack, who had already laid claim to the farm as his father’s firstborn. Young Alf was only a help when they had extra work; the rest of the time he mooned about watching the steam trains go past on the track across the valley. When father heard that the engine man in the nearest coal mine needed a strong lad he sent him off to try his luck. Alf didn’t mind…he was excited to make his way in the world…here is a pic I found when I was looking for images of stokers; he visits the farm whenever he gets leave from the Navy.
I’m worried that the reader has already formed a different image of him, but Worthington had to be a big chap to make his way in the stokehold. Here is a stoker with his mother and father and his Brother Jack, who looks a bit put out at not being the top man in the picture. (Yes, this group is a hundred years anachronistic, but where am I going to find a Regency period family picture like this?)
So Alf became the engine man’s helper, oiling the machinery, stoking the fire, fetching and carrying, and doing all the rough and dirty work that the boss didn’t care to handle. He would have done the same as the young George Stephenson and used some of his meager wages to educate himself—first to read and write and then to learn the mysteries of the new wonder of the age—steam. Within another year he was already restless again, seeing no advancement at the colliery, he heard about another engine man who had taken a contract with the navy to operate the machinery on a naval tugboat, and who needed another stoker.
At the beginning of the Royal Navy’s venture into steam propulsion there were no naval engineers or personnel in the Black Gang—they hired engine men under contract the take care of the despicable smell and grime involved in making the ship go. The engineers were civilians, not even counted as petty officers like the carpenters and other tradesmen aboard ship, they lived in the grime of their coal holes as best they could and no doubt smelled of the foul concoctions they used to lubricate the machinery. The helpers of the despised engine artificer were the lowest of the low.
Somewhere along the way Alf must have found his way into one of the first steam frigates where the engineroom staff became indispensable crew members if they had a breakdown hundreds of miles from port. He must have come under the mentorship of an artificer who valued his enthusiasm and reliability enough to make him his head helper. To rise above that he must have benefited from Commander Ripley’s foresightedness in bringing the workers of the steam directorate into the regular rank and file of the navy, as well as his insistence in having the young men admitted to an education that served their duties. (We have met Commander Ripley, an invented character, in the Admiralty offices several times.) Alfred Worthington may not have been the first of those young men to be promoted into officer’s rank, but he must have stood out among them to be appointed an inspector of steamships undergoing assessment by the Admiralty.
So here we may think of him dutifully writing his reports for the information of their Lordships and pining over a young woman who by her position must be forever beyond him.
(For much of my story of steam in the Royal Navy here I am indebted to Prof. Michael Lewis and his book “The Navy in Transition”.)