17th century waterman and poet John Taylor isn’t much discussed these days, but he came up while I was reading the spring 2018 copy of the excellent The Marine Quarterly. Sitting comfortably as I was, my attention immediately arrested by his doggerly but entertaining description of his most famour exploit: for a bet, rowing down the Thames Estuary to Queenborough in a boat of brown paper.
Taylor describes the Queenborough expedition in his poem In Praise of Hemp Seed.
He was clearly a man a self-publicist, but also an enterprising kind of man with just enough wisdom about him to preserve life, for once the bottom of his boat was gone a set of inflated bullocks’ bladders kept him and his passenger afloat. He seems to have got a bunch of drinkers from his pub to blow them up before setting off.
No, you won’t get me doing this. But I have a friend who might, I think…
In Praise of Hemp Seed
The water to the Paper being got,
In one halfe houre our boat began to rot :
The Thames (most lib’rall) fild her to the halues,
Whilst Hodge and I sate liquor’d to the calues.
In which extremity I thought it fit
To put in vse a stratagem of wit,
Which was, eight Bullocks bladders we had bought
Pust stifly full with wind, bound fast and tought,
Which on our Boat within the Tide we ty’de,
Of each side foore, vpon the outward side.
The water still rose higher by degrees.
In three miles going, almost to our knees,
Our rotten bottome all to tatters fell,
And left our boat as bottomlesse as Hell.
And had not bladders borne vs stifly vp,
We there had tasted of deaths fatall cup.
And now (to make some sport) Ile make it knowne
By whose strong breath my bladders all were blown.
One by a cheuerell conscienc’d Vsurer,
Another by a drunken Bag piper,
The third a Whore, the fourth a Pander blew,
The fift a Cutpurse, of the Cursed crew,
The sixt, a post-knight that for fiue groats gaine
Would sweare & for foure groats forsweare’t againe.
The seauenth was an Informer, one that can
By informations begger any man.
The eight was blowne vp by a swearing Royster,
That would cut throats as soone as eate an Oyster.
We had more winds then that Compasse, for we had eight seue-
rall winds in our bladders, and the 32 of the Compasse in all 40.
We being in our watry businesse bound,
And with these wicket winds encompass’d round,
For why such breaths as those it fortunes euer,
They end with hanging, but with drowning neuer ;
And sure the bladders bore vs vp so tight,
As if they had said, Gallowes claime thy right.
This was the cause that made vs seeke about,
To finde these light Tiburnian vapours out.
We could haue had of honest men good store,
As Watermen, and Smiths, and many more,
But that we knew it must be hanging breath,
That must preserue vs from a drowning death. Carefully and discreetly prouided.
Yet such we fear’d the graues our end would be
Before we could the Towne of Grauesend see :
Our boat drunke deepely with her dropsie thirst,
And quaft as if she would her bladders burst,
Whilst we within sixe inches of the brim
(Full of salt water) downe (halfe sunck) did swim.
Thousands of people all the shores did hide,
And thousands more did meet vs in the tide
With Scullers, Oares, with ship-boats, & with Barges
To gaze on vs, they put themselues to charges.
Thus did we driue, and driue the time away,
Till pitchy night had driuen away the day :
The sun vnto the vnder world was fled :
The Moone was loath to rise, and kept her bed,
The Starres did twinckle, but the Ebon clouds
Their light, our sight, obscures and ouershrowds.
The tossing billowes made our boat to caper,
Our paper forme scarce being forme of paper,
The water foure mile broad, no Oares, to row,
Night darke, and where we were we did not know.
And thus ‘twixt doubt and feare, hope and despaire
I fell to worke, and Roger Bird to prayer.
And as the surges vp and down did heaue vs,
He cry’d most feruently, good Lord receiue vs.
I pray’d as much, but I did worke and pray,
And he did all he could to pray and play.
Thus three houres darkeling I did puzzell and toile
Sows’d and well pickl’d, chafe and muzzell & moile,
Drench’d with the swassing waues and stew’d in sweat
Scarce able with a cane our boat to set,
At last (by Gods great mercy and his might)
The morning gan to chase away the night.
Aurora made us soon perceiue and see
We were three miles below the Towne of Lee.
And as the morning more end more did cleare,
The sight of Quinborogh castle did appeare.
That was the famous monumentall marke,
To which we striu’d to bring our rotten barke :
The onely ayme of our intents and scope,
The anker that brought Roger to the Hope.
Thus we from Saturday at euening Tide,
Till Monday morne, did on the water bide,
In rotten paper and in boysterous weather,
Darke nights, through wet, and toyled altogether.
But being come to Quinborough and aland,
I tooke my fellow Roger by the hand,
And both of vs ere we two steps did goe
Gaue thankes to God that had preseru’d vs so :
Confessing that his mercy vs protected
When as we least deseru’d, and lesse expected.
The Maior of Quinborough in loue affords
To entertaine vs, as we had beene Lords ;
It is a yearely feast kept by the Maior,
And thousand people thither doth repaire,
From Townes and Villages that’s neere about,
And ’twas our lucke to come in all this rout.
I’ th’ street, Bread, Beere, and Oysters is their meat,
Which freely, friendly, shot-free all doe eat.
But Hodge and I were men of ranck and note,
We to the Maior gaue our aduenturous boat ;
The which (to glorifie that Towne of Kent)
He meant to hang vp for a monument.
He to his house inuited vs to dine,
Where we had cheare on cheare, and wine on wine
And drinke, and fill, and drinke, and drinke and fill,
With welcome vpon welcome, welcome still.
But whilst we at our dinners thus were merry,
The Country people tore our tatter’d wherry
In mammocks peecemeale in a thousand scraps,
Wearing the reliques in their hats and caps.
That neuer traytors corps could more be scatter’d
By greedy Rauens, then our poore boat was tatter’d;
Which when the Maior did know, he presently
Tooke patient what he could not remedie
The next day we with thankes left Quinbroghs coast
And hied vs home on horse-backe all in post.
Thus Master Birds strange voyage was begun,
With greater danger was his mony won.
And those that doe his coine from him detaine
(Which he did win with perill and much paine)
Let them not thinke that e’re ’twill doe them good,
But eate their marrow and consume their blood.
The worme of conscience gnaw them euery day
That haue the meanes, and not the will to pay.
Those that are poore, and cannot, let them be
Both from the debt and malediction free.