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Significant Scots
Sir Walter Runciman

Sir Walter RuncimanTHE captain "kept the helm to allow the whole crew to work at the pumps until they called out ‘She sucks! ‘—the sweetest phrase of the sea. Here were men who had stood almost continuously up to the waist in water, and frequently a lump of sea would smash right over them. Their sleeves were doubled up, and boots and stockings were discarded. They had salt-water cuts in their fingers, and their arms and legs were red raw with friction and salt-water boils. Let him who may estimate, if he can, the sufferings of those who were carrying this unseaworthy vessel in their arms. These were ‘the good old times.’

There are very few British sailors to-day who can recall so many varied and adventurous voyages in the old windjammers as can that wonderful old sailor and shipowner, Sir Walter Runciman, Bart., from whose fascinating autobiography the above quotation has been extracted.

In the "Good Old Times"

The "good old times," to which Sir Walter refers, were not good in the sense of ease and comfort; their goodness lay in the quality of the seamen they produced. The sailors of the days of sailing-ships made the British Empire possible, and established the supremacy of the British mercantile marine. No specimen of British manhood is more truly characteristic of the race than the British tar; in none do we find our conception of pluck, hardihood, and daring so fully personified.

Sir Walter Runciman, born in a humble home in Dunbar on the 6th July, 1847, and reared in a hard school, owes his success entirely to his own efforts.

It seems almost incredible that anyone now living can say that his boyish ambition to go to sea was quickened by listening to stories from the lips of sailors who had fought with Nelson at Trafalgar. Yet Sir Walter Runciman can say it.

Sailor Men Relations

In 1855 three big sailor men, none of whom was less than six feet three inches in height, came to spend a few days at his parents’ house on the north-east coast. They were Scotsmen; one was his grandfather, the other two were his great-uncles, and all three had fought at Copenhagen, the Nile, and Trafalgar, and had boarded French and Spanish line-of-battle ships, cutlass in hand.

With what breathless interest did little Walter and his brothers and sisters listen to the stories these old British tars told of hand-to-hand fights, sharpshooting from the "tops," the blowing-up of enemy ships, and the death of Nelson.

Young Runciman was then between seven and eight years of age, and as he listened open-mouthed to the yarns of those ancient mariners, nothing appealed to him more than the frequent references to the "powder-monkey," the little sailor boy who carried the powder from the magazine to the guns. He resolved to become a "powder monkey" himself, and, when the old sailors took their departure, they left behind them, as their descendant tells us, "in the mind of one small boy a fixed idea that the plain duty of every Briton was to become a sailor and nothing else."

The young lad’s mother, however, did not by any means share his love for the sea. The reason why is not surprising. She had heard her father tell of his fighting under Nelson, and she could remember how, in her childhood, he had been dragged by the press-gang from the vessel he owned and compelled to join the navy, thus well nigh ruining his family. Three of her brothers, also, had been drowned at sea. Small wonder that she had resolutely declined to marry the man who became her husband until he had given up the sea and found employment on shore.

But neither his mother’s understandable prejudice, nor his own observation of the danger of a sailor’s life as illustrated by the frequent shipwrecks that occurred almost at the very door of his home, could turn Walter Runciman from his purpose:

What mysteries surround human existence! The whole of my boyhood was spent during the winter months in witnessing from time to time raging storms and shipwrecks, hearing the thunder of remorseless breakers against the cliffs, making the earth tremble; and yet what is termed the terrors and privations of sea life never diminished my longing to arrive at an age when I could take to it as a profession. Or was it some powerful influence directing me to my destiny? Whatever it was, I went to it wholeheartedly.

When he was twelve years of age Walter Runciman left the house of his parents secretly, at three o’clock in the morning, and started out to walk to the nearest seaport. Two weeks later he had actually set out on his first voyage to Mozambique as an apprentice seaman, having signed indentures which bound him for six years.

There was none of the anticipated glamour of romance about his early experiences at sea; nothing he saw or did could thrill him as his grandfather’s stories of Nelson had done. His duties included brushing and folding the captain’s clothes, scrubbing the cabin floor, polishing brass-work, cleaning knives and forks, making beds, washing crockery, and attending generally to the wants of the captain. It was not long, however, before this little sailor lad had settled down to his new life, and as his strength increased he was soon taking his share of duties more nautical than domestic.

The runaway had truly to sail a long and stormy course before, finally, he reached the post of his ambition, and became a captain, and afterwards the owner of many ships; but, as he says himself, "I would not be without my experiences if I could, terrible as they were at times."

The dangers of the sea were only too evident in the early life of Sir Walter Runciman. He had not been at sea many months when he fell out of the jolly boat, while rowing his captain ashore, and very humiliated the poor little fellow must have felt when the captain, on dragging him out, roared at him in a most furious manner: "See what a mess you’ve made of my boots and trousers, you young rascal!"

Sir Walter tells of one thrilling experience as a lad, when, after the little sailing-ship on which he served had suffered a terrific buffeting in the North Sea, the crew and the captain together decided that there was only one thing to do if they were to escape foundering, and that was to put the vessel before the hurricane.

Away she went towards the Arctic, until they were so far north that there was little or no daylight. The crew were cautioned while at the helm never to look behind, as the wheel put wrong by a single spoke might cause them to be buried for ever. A barque was seen to founder, with its crew in the rigging, without there being any possibility of attempting a rescue. Farther north, other wreckage was passed, showing where another ship had disappeared.

When the Storm Abated

When at last the storm moderated, the ship had reached 65 deg. north, and all the rigging was encased in ice, so that, before the sails could be set again, marline-spikes had to be used to smash the ice-covered knots which frozen fingers had to untie. Finally, the ship was taken into, a Norwegian harbour. Two of the crew had frost-bitten feet, which the doctor said would have to be amputated, and all the other sailors had salt-water cuts in the joints of the fingers, through which the salt of the sea had actually penetrated to the bones.

Sir Walter tells another moving story of a storm he encountered many years later, in December, 1878, when four steamers, including the one he commanded, left the Tyne together, bound for Genoa. A hundred miles west of Ushant they ran into a terrific storm. Writing of his experience on his own vessel, he says:

The hurricane seemed to lift the ship out of the sea. It was a raging tumult. I put the vessel’s head on to it at once, and for some hours she tossed the seas all over her. Then we seemed to get into tidal waters, and the wind became fiercer than ever. The sea was right up and down like a wall, and it seemed as though it would crush her into atoms.... Ultimately, a tremendous wave struck her, and before she could recover, another broke aboard, took away chart-house, compasses, boats, and half of the bridge.

Preparing for a Final Fight

Eventually all the boats were smashed, the iron bulwarks were laid flat, and the fires in the boilers on the lee-side were flooded out. The storm had lasted thirty-six hours, and Captain Runciman, believing the worst was still to come, heartened his crew for a last fight with death, and had the lee-fires lighted up again and a full head of steam raised. Then came the final onslaught:

Before twelve o’clock that night a great blast fell upon us with a vengeance that indicated doom. It blew the terrible sea flat for a time, and it lasted from two to three hours. In the annals of atmospheric disturbance, as I knew them for twenty-five years, I do not think the awful character of it had been surpassed. As I write now, and recall all that was gone through for about seventy hours, a shudder comes over me, and I wonder how it was physically possible for even strong, healthy men to survive the sleepless days and nights of our incessant exertion.

Captain Runciman brought his crippled ship through the storm, and finally reached Gibraltar, but three other fine steamers which had left the Tyne at the same time as he had were never heard of again.

Having so impetuously ran away to sea when he was only twelve years of age, young Runciman naturally discovered the handicap of an incomplete schooling when, in his ‘teens, he began to feel the stirrings of an ambition to improve his position in life. The forecastle of a sailing-ship is a rough university, but Walter Runciman, with rare resolution, pursued his studies there, the top of his sea-chest his only table, and his only tutors ships’ officers who occasionally encouraged him or explained a knotty problem.

Learning did not come easily. There were many occasions when he was tempted to abandon his perplexing studies, carried on in dog watches and in half-hours snatched from sleep, but deep down in his heart the feeling that to give up would be cowardice kept the boy at it.

Master of Seamanship

At the end of his apprenticeship, and when he was between seventeen and eighteen years of age, young Runciman had "mastered the science of navigation well enough to take a vessel anywhere." He was also rated as an able seaman, although at first he had a difficulty in persuading captains who did not know him that he was really an A.B. owing to his boyish appearance.

Even so, a seaman’s wages were then only 3 5s. a month, and our young sailor knew from hard experience on many stormy seas that years of struggle were still ahead of him before he could obtain an assured position in his profession. Nothing daunted, however, Walter had fallen in love with a bonnie girl who lived with her aunts near his own home in Northumberland. This proved just the incentive needed for even more resolute efforts towards self-advancement, and a proportion of the young A.B.’s wages was sent home regularly to be saved up against the time when he would "sit for his ticket."

When he was twenty, Walter Runciman passed the Board of Trade examination as mate; he married a year later, and at the age of twenty-two took his master’s certificate, and became captain of a fine clipper ship, a magnificent three-master, which was built of mahogany.

It was not many months later that Walter Runciman experienced perhaps the proudest moment of his life, when his father visited him on board the splendid ship he commanded. They paced the quarter-deck together, the father sixty-five years of age and his son twenty-three, both resplendent in their silk hats and frock-coats. We can well understand the pride of the youthful captain as he displayed the beauties of his magnificent barque, whose mahogany bulwarks were polished like a dining-room table while in port, and the pride of the father in his gallant seafaring son.

Sir Walter Runciman tells us that the four years during which he commanded his first Jersey-built barque were the most gladsome of his sea life.

In the seventies of the 19th century, Captain Runciman was offered the command of a steamer, a class of vessel he had never been aboard in his life, and regarding which, like other sailing-ship men, he had strong prejudices. However, as it meant higher wages he made the change, and, as things turned out, steamships ultimately made his fortune.

"It is more than 99 per cent. of a successful deal to buy when prices are low," writes Sir Walter, and although he had for long been ambitious to invest his hard-won savings, scraped together during twenty-six years at sea, by buying a vessel of his own, he purposely delayed doing so until shipping was depressed and vessels could be purchased at scrap-iron prices. This long-looked-for opportunity came in 1885, when the ports were filled with idle vessels.

Commands His Own Vessel

He bought an old steamer that had been laid up for three-and-a-half years, and with such energy and care did Captain Runciman manage his purchase, commanding the vessel himself on its voyages, that, while others owning far finer ships were doing nothing, he made good profits. This old steamer returned him its first cost three-and-a-half times over within four years, and then he sold it for double the amount that he had originally paid.

Further purchases were made, and people who knew how successful Runciman was in his management solicited the opportunity to take up shares in these vessels.

Another vessel repaid its original cost within eighteen months from the date of its purchase, in addition to what had been spent on the improvement of the machinery. There was also a steamer which Captain Runciman sold almost immediately for double the amount that he had paid for it.

Purchase of Idle Ships

Some people pretend to believe that when a capitalist makes profits like this he is hoarding up wealth in a safe or a strong room. As a matter of fact, Captain Runciman often bought ships that were doing nothing and employing no one. By his good management and enterprise, he turned vessels that were laid up into active units of the mercantile marine, providing, thereby, employment for sailors, engineers, firemen, and dockers, and using them to bring food from distant lands to our home ports. When he had saved enough from the earnings of old steamers, he ordered new ones, thus furnishing employment in other industries.

It was not many years before Runciman and his co-partners owned twelve steamers, and, in 1889, the South Shields Steam Shipping Company was formed, with a capital of 150,000. The first year a dividend of 27 per cent. was paid, a striking proof of the successful management of the undertaking.

Some time after this the company was enlarged, and its name changed to the Moor Line. At this period Captain Runciman was engaged in political and public work of various kinds, but feeling it was the wisest policy to do one thing really well, he began to concentrate entirely on business. He understood the shipping trade through and through, and it was his ambition to build up a line of steamships that would be a source of pride, and one that would play a really important part in British trade on the seas. By 1895—ten years from the time when he had bought his first vessel—he had no fewer than twenty-five steamers.

Faith in the "Turret" Steamer

He then began to order a novel type of vessel—"turret" steamer—against which there was at first considerable prejudice. Experience proved the "turret" to be a splendid seaboat, possessing advantages over the ordinary cargo vessel especially in carrying dead-weight cargo, such as wheat in bulk.

Walter Runciman usually had his new vessels built on the Tyne, at South Shields or Sunderland, and it is characteristic of the cordial relations between the Runcimans and their shipbuilders that Sir Walter says they never took more than a quarter of an hour to make a bargain, that there never was an "extra" charged for in the bill, and that the vessels were always turned out flawless. Sometimes, so great was the confidence existing between the parties, a new steamer was ordered and constructed without any documentary contract having been entered into at all.

It is a very wonderful thing that Sir Walter is able to say that, even during the worst years of shipping depression before the World War, none of his vessels ever made a losing voyage. A good deal of this success was doubtless due to the fact that he was never out of touch with his business for a single day during the long period of thirty-five years. Concentration is a mighty ally, and it was ever on the side of the great shipowner.

New Ships for Old

When a ship was becoming too old, and necessary repairs had grown out of due proportion, that vessel was disposed of and replaced by a better one. During the twenty-nine years’ history of the Moor Line and its predecessors, down to 1914, the fleet had been rejuvenated in this way several times, and yet, when war broke out, the number of vessels under the company’s flag had increased to forty. During the same period, about 120 steamers had for a longer or shorter time been under the company’s management.

When the World War began, Sir Walter Runciman, who had been created a baronet in 1906, offered the entire fleet to the Admiralty for national service, unconditionally. The offer was not accepted at the time, but later on, when the strain upon the nation’s shipping began to tell, one vessel after another was requisitioned, until almost the entire Moor Line fleet was engaged in national service. During hostilities no fewer than twenty-six of these fine cargo steamships were sunk by German submarines, and many of their gallant officers and sailors were drowned.

End of the Moor Line

After the conflict, the Moor Line Company, which Sir Walter Runciman had built up, and which had been so profitable to its shareholders, was dissolved, and its very large reserves and assets distributed among the shareholders.

Sir Walter, whose hobbies are reading and yachting, might have been expected, especially after the anxious and often harrowing experiences of war-time, to enjoy quietly his retirement. But, as he tells us, even although then over seventy, he was not yet prepared to become an idler, or to accept the placid, uneventful existence of the man who has nothing to do. He had been so long accustomed to handling big business, that to find himself at last without a single ship proved very irksome. "Too much leisure was a misery to me," he remarks.

Re-entry Into Business

So it happened that after being without vessels for two years, Sir Walter, and his only son the Right Hon. Walter Runciman, P.C., together with a few business friends, went into the shipping business again in 1921, when Sir Walter was seventy-four years of age.

A new Moor Line of cargo steamers was gradually built up, although it was done during a period of unprecedented depression in British shipping, and to-day the Moor Line, with Sir Walter Runeiman at its head, possesses more than twenty first-class modem steamships.

During the early part of the 20th century Sir Walter purchased Shoreston Hall, in Northumberland, a splendid mansion more than three hundred years old. There he found anchorage.

[Sir Walter Runciman is the author of the following books, in addition to his autobiography, "Before the Mist—and After" (1924), already referred to: "The Tragedy of St. Helena" (1911); "Drake, Nelson, and Napoleon" (1919); "Windjammers and Sea Tramps," "Sea Yarns," and "Looking Seaward Again."]

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