All posts by phil

A Letter to My Father

Obviously I know that you’re planning to vote Conservative on June 8th, because you always have. Thinking back to our Tory MP from my youth I can understand why. He turned down every offer of a government post to remain a back bencher, he proudly displayed on his election leaflets the number of times he had voted against his party when he thought it in the interests of his constituency, and I remember him telling me as a young teenager while showing me around the Houses of Parliament, about his unease at the recent Conservative landslide victory as it would mean that the party leadership would feel able to ignore the dissenting voices. He was right.

However, times have changed and these are no longer your people. Let us be frank; in the years to come the support of the NHS and the quality of social care are going to be of keen interest. If May is returned on June 8th with a working majority the challenges you faced with the care provision for your mother-in-law will be nothing compared to the hardships others will face. It is worth listening to the voices of those who actually work on the front line, like here for example:

The NHS is in crisis not because this is inevitable but because to properly fund it would reduce the opportunity for the most wealthy in this country (and other countries) to further increase their share. Now I look back I can see that we probably were not very well off while we were growing up, but I can honestly say that the thought never occurred to me at the time. Much was down to how well we were cared for by you and Mum, but partly it was because we were living through one of the most equal periods of this country’s history and there were no worries about such things as paying for education and health care.

We are one of those families where mine was the first generation to go to university, largely because for the first time all that mattered was whether I got the necessary grades. A country that understood the value of equal opportunity meant that I could go without the fear of crippling debt. Your granddaughters are not going to have that opportunity unless Corbyn is Prime Minister on June 9th. What is more, the present regime is looking to sell off the student loans to private investors who will of course be seeking to maximise their returns. This is the future the young people of this country face.

Conservative is just a name, it is the policies that matter. Many of the policies that Labour and the Greens are promising are fundamental things that were accepted by the Tories of the 50s, 60s and 70s as plain decency and common sense. In the last forty years it is the political spectrum that has shifted to the right, and what was once common ground is now labeled as dangerous extremism by those who stand to lose the most, financially, if the rest of us should win our fair share back.

May, like most Prime Ministers, loves to play the patriotic card. Well, let’s just remember that the last time Europe took a sharp turn to the right it was Britain that was one of the main bulwarks that stood in its way, and it was the Labour movement that was the mainstay of that resistance. It was they that broke the power of the British Fascists when they stopped them marching through the East End of London to intimidate their targets of hate. It is tolerance and solidarity, not division that is at the heart of British identity.

Perhaps it is Corbyn you are worried about, but has all that you think you know about him been given to you by the Daily Mail, that open, poisonous wound in our body politic? To be free is, at least in part, to think for ourselves. Just take the time to listen to some of his speeches and interviews. Probably May’s biggest mistake in calling this election is making it possible for people to actually see and hear the man himself, rather than the caricature our corporate press serve up. Listen to Caroline Lucas, who if Labour don’t get a majority will no doubt be an influential person in any alliance. These are good people who want to make this country a kinder place, and have very realistic policies to do that. The only cost is making the very wealthy less so.

Conservative, Labour, Green, these are all just names, but the policies of the last two would give my and your granddaughters’ generations hope for a better life. We must all vote with our consciences and our better natures on June 8th but please don’t just vote for a name.

With love and respect.


A Question of Proportion

I have just returned from a visit to Cuadrilla’s fracking site on Preston New Road, near Blackpool.  The event was for local councillors, or potential councillors to gain an impression of the scale of the work being undertaken.  The trip was very well organised by @teamfrackfree with a double decker bus laid on so that we could have a clear view of the site as we drove slowly up the road.

One of the things that was mentioned a number of times was that the ‘pad’ being constructed was one of the largest in the world.  Perhaps it comes from living more or less in the shadow of two nuclear power stations, but it wasn’t the size of the site itself that I found disturbing, but the scale of the police presence, both physically and psychologically.

It was clear from the moment I stepped out the car at Maple Farm nursery that all protesters’ activities are being closely monitored.  Within minutes one police officer had turned up to ask questions about the bus runs, police vehicles were passing by every few minutes and as soon as the bus arrived another officer appeared to speak to the driver.

At the site there is a heavy police presence, with at the time three police vans and a couple of police cars.  This was in response to about half a dozen protesters.  After I had completed my visit, and as I was waiting to pull out of the nursery car park I saw a number of vehicles coming slowly down the road towards the site.  As I passed them I realised it was a convoy, led by a police car and a police van, comprising about five trucks that appeared to be carrying something like quarried stone, and followed by another police van and two more police cars.  The level of protection seemed more in line with a nuclear fuel convoy than several truck loads of hardcore.

The effect of such a such a heavy presence is obviously meant to be intimidating and it is.  Perhaps most telling were the words of one local parish councillor who reported that she was the only member of her council who had agreed to come on the visit, with other members raising concerns about getting caught up in some kind of political action or conflict with the police. Those concerns were completely unfounded but the fact that democratically elected representatives were deterred from viewing the site from a public carriageway speaks volumes.

I assume that the cost of such extensive policing is being funded by Cuadrilla, and of course ultimately by British Gas, who I learned are bankrolling them to the tune of many millions.  But then if you carry out business that is in direct opposition to the people who live close by and against the decision of the democratically elected local authorities I guess you must feel somewhat insecure.

Not a free man

It seems to me that Timberlake Wertenbaker in ‘Our Country’s Good’ named her convict hangman James Freeman  with a strong sense of irony.  Freeman is a person trapped by his religion, his complicated relationship with women, (not least his late mother), and ultimately by the compromises these other entrapments lead him in to.

Freeman, it seems, received his Catholic faith at his mother’s knee, and we may suspect it came well laced with fear:

“…my mother…, may God give peace to her soul and breath pity in to the hearts of hard women…”

and it has left him with a mortal fear of death:

“When I say my prayers I have a terrible doubt.  How can I be sure God is forgiving me?  What if he will forgive me but hasn’t forgiven me yet?  That’s why I don’t want to die Sir!  That’s why I can’t die.  Not until I’m sure.”

But it is not just God that Freeman seeks the approval, and forgiveness, of but women, especially his fellow convicts.

“But it’s God’s judgment I’m frightened of…and the women’s.  They’re so hard.  Why is that?


“…it’s the women.  They’re without mercy.”

The reason that Freeman is hated by especially the women convicts is that he has agreed to become the hangman for the colony, as a way of saving his own life. It is not the first compromise he has had to make to save himself; in England he informed on his fellow coal heavers on Shadwell Dock who had rioted as part of a pay dispute in which a sailor was killed.  He blames, at least in part, his mother for his predicament as it was her that brought the family to London, away from his beloved Ireland.

“If only we hadn’t left then I wouldn’t have been there.  Then nothing would have happened.”

So is Freeman just a man trapped by circumstances?  It isn’t quite that simple.  As he recounts the story of that day on Shadwell Dock it seems he was indeed at the centre of the action and we can’t be too sure how innocent he really is. It is interesting to note, and easy to miss, how his descriptions of his involvement shift as he talks:

“I wasn’t even near the sailor who was killed.”


“But I didn’t kill him….maybe one blow, not to look stupid you know, just to show I was with the lads, even if I wasn’t, but I didn’t kill him.”


“And they found the cudgel, but I just had that to look good, that’s all!”

At best perhaps we can say that he is a man easily led, who thinks that going along with the crowd will lead to an easy life, but who is always sadly disappointed.

“And when it happened again here and I had hopes of making a good life here.  It’s because I’m so friendly see?  So I go along and then I’m the one who gets caught.”

Once again he finds himself forced in to a vicious choice between dying uncertain of forgiveness or living damned by his fellow convicts. A choice that drives him to the edge of desperation:

“But when they say to you hang or be hanged, what do you do? God had mercy on the whore, the thief, the lame…surely he’ll forgive the hang….!”

But what I think Freeman dreams of most is of being accepted and indeed loved by the women, or perhaps finding one who will love him uniquely.  He thinks he has seen a way that might happen, remembering a time when some traveling actors came to his village in Ireland:

“They were loved like the angels Lieutenant, like the angels.  And the way the women watched them, the light of a spring dawn in their eyes”

Perhaps if he can be an actor they will love him like the angels too.

There are little in the way of final answers in ‘Our Country’s Good’, but we have plenty of provisional ones.  It seems that perhaps Freeman might be saved through his role in the convicts’ play, or set on the path to salvation, but perhaps not exactly as he expected.  The convicts experience that effect central to many who collaborate to create plays; the joy of the shared enterprise and the sense of being part of something greater than oneself.  When he is faced with the crisis of being called on to hang his fellow actor, Liz Morden, he finds the choice unbearable.  The clash of brutality and intimacy when he has to measure Liz for her sentence is unresolvable.

“…I need to lift her.  You don’t mind do you Liz? …. She’s so light.  I’ll need a very long rope.”

“Goodbye Liz…..You were a very good Melinda…..No one will be as good as you.”

Freeman is desperate for some sign from Liz that she understands his predicament and perhaps even forgives him for what he feels he has no choice but to do.  There is no such forgiveness on offer, but the wall between them is instead broken down by the shared horror of seeing Harry Brewer’s final collapse. I don’t think it is lost on Freeman that Harry’s illness seems closely related to his (Harry’s) own guilt about previous hangings.

In the final scene Freeman makes a bold claim to Liz:

“I couldn’t have hanged you”

But is this a line he can hold?  The consequences of refusing to hang Liz, for a man who has taken on the role of hangman in return for a stay of his own execution, would be fatal.  Does he finally understand the reality of his compromises when faced with the person of Liz Morden who he has come to know and respect through the shared experience of the play?  Does he perhaps believe that by refusing to hang Liz he would have found the goodness and forgiveness he so desperately seeks?  Of course the fact that Liz has been reprieved means that, at least for now, Freeman’s claim remains untested.

In my as yet relatively short acting career every play has been a teacher with a unique lesson to impart. For me playing Freeman has been about realising that it is not my role to try to influence the audience’s opinion of James Daniel Patrick in any particular direction, or even indeed to judge him myself.  Freeman is a paradoxically complex yet open character.  My job is to tell his story faithfully in his own words and from his point of view.

My job is to believe him.

A Tale of Two Hangmen?

Whilst rehearsing for a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’ we have become aware of an ambiguity that has led to a somewhat strange question: how many hangmen are there in the play?

On the face of it the answer should be simple; we have James Freeman, given the nickname by his fellow convicts of ‘Ketch’, the traditional epithet of the time for a hangman, and a label that Freeman hates,

Ralph:  Get back to the camp immediately,  I’ll see you in the morning Ketch.

Ketch: Don’t call me that Sir, I beg you, don’t call me by that name.

Act 1:9

There are many other references to Freeman as the colony’s hangman, for example:

Ketch: Shhh, you’re interrupting the director

Dabby: So we are Mr Hangman!

Act 1:11

But what then are we to make of various lines of Harry Brewer, such as, when speaking of Handy Baker, a marine hanged for stealing food?:

Harry: I didn’t want to hang him, Ralph, I didn’t.


Harry: She thinks I hanged him to get rid of him, but I didn’t Ralph.

Act 1:4

And Harry’s descent in to madness seems to a large extent to be driven by his guilt over his involvement with the deaths of Handy Baker and Thomas Barrett; Act 1:4, Act 2:3, Act 2:6.

So was Harry Brewer a hangman too, handing over the role to James Freeman later, or was his involvement something else, that he nevertheless identified closely with the actual act of hanging the men?

My belief is that there is only one hangman in the story, James ‘Ketch’ Freeman, and that despite Harry’s words about hanging Handy Baker, these should be taken as metaphorical and that Brewer’s role was something different.  So what is the evidence for this?

1. James Freeman’s survival

In Act 1:3 we learn that three men have been sentenced to hang for stealing from the colony’s stores, just about the most serious crime possible in a community on the brink of starvation, (e.g. Act 1:6).  These men are Thomas Barrett, James Freeman and a marine, Handy Baker.  The colony at this point does not have a designated hangman and Governor Phillip tasks Harry Brewer with finding someone to take on the role:

Collins: I’m a Kemble man myself.  We will need a hangman.

Phillip: Harry, you will have to organise the hanging and eventually find someone who agrees to fill the hideous role.

It is perhaps at this point that the ambiguity first appears: ‘and eventually find someone….’.  Should we take this to mean that initially Harry is to assume the role and then hand it over to someone else?

However, the custom of the day was to recruit hangmen from the amongst convicted.  Since no one usually wanted to take on the hated role the easiest way was to coerce a person already sentenced to hang by offering them a reprieve if they became the executioner.  They were not pardoned but merely had their own death sentence suspended for as long as they usefully served in the role.

James Freeman had been sentenced to hang with Handy Baker and Tom Barratt but somehow he survives and they die.  What other way could this have happened except for him to have been the one who agreed to put the noose around their necks and knock away the block they were stood on?

2. Freeman’s own story

In Act 1:9 Freeman is trying to convince Ralph that he is a victim of his own circumstances; the man always in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He is also a man so scared of dying that he will do almost anything to save his own life.

Ketch: That’s why I don’t want to die Sir.  That’s why I can’t die.

Ketch:  And when it happened again here, and I had hopes of making a good life here.  It’s because I’m so friendly, see, so I go along, and then I’m the one who gets caught.  That theft, I didn’t do it.  I was just there, keeping a look out, just to help some friends you know.  But when they say to you ‘hang or be hanged’ what do you do?

The answer for Ketch is that you hang.

Ketch: Someone has to do it.  I try to do it well.

And in Act 2:6 we see him trying to do it well.  More importantly we see him and Brewer talking about the hanging of Thomas Barrett, and it seems clear that both of them were involved, but it was Freeman who did the hanging.

Harry: …You’ve hung a boy.

Ketch: That was a terrible mess, Mr Brewer, don’t you remember….  I don’t want to repeat something like that.

3. Harry’s own words

Although on a number of occasions Harry seems to claim he hanged Handy Baker and Thomas Barrett, on other occasions he seems to recognise that this isn’t literally true, but rather that, in the case of Handy Baker at least, Harry was not sorry to see him die. In Act 2:3 Harry is delusional and arguing with the dead Handy Baker.

Harry: I didn’t hang you. ‘You wanted me dead.’  I didn’t.  ‘You wanted me hanged.’  All right, I wanted you hanged.

And in Act 1:4

Harry: You don’t think I killed him then?

Ralph: Who?

Harry: Handy Baker.

Ralph: No, Harry.  You did not kill Handy Baker.

Harry: Thank you Ralph.

4. Harry’s position in the colony

In the cast list three characters have additional information indicating their official roles within the colony.  Harry Brewer’s is given as Provost Marshal.

Provost Marshal: An officer charged with the apprehension, custody and punishment of offenders – 1873

The reason that Governor Phillip tasks Harry with organising the hanging and why it is Harry who has all the information about the convicted men to hand is because it is Harry’s job to handle these affairs (Act 1:3).

So, to conclude, although Harry sometimes, but not always, speaks as though he hanged Handy Baker, and although his guilt concerning Baker and Barrett’s deaths seems to be a significant factor in his growing mental instability and eventual fatal stroke, I would suggest that the bulk of the evidence points to his role being limited to that of Provost Marshal.  It was Harry’s job to organise the hanging but it was Freeman, as ever bargaining for his life until he can be sure God has forgiven him, who put the noose around their necks.


Port Stories

This is a page for holding things to do with the interesting ‘Port Stories’ project being run by the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster.  There’s more information about the project here.

I have two undated monographs on the history of the Port of Lancaster.  One of them is by a local historian called H N Crawshaw, who also produced histories of Bare and Torrisholme. It is called:

Lancaster the Port

The other one is much more detailed and by a rather self-effacing author who doesn’t actually mention his own name, however Crawshaw may give us a clue since in his list of sources he mentions “The Port of Lancaster: A.R. Taylor – An unpublished thesis, to be recommended as an example of the work of an enthusiastic and able amateur.”

The Port of Lancaster

I hope I’m not infringing anyone’s copyright by uploading these scans but if I am then please get in touch to let me know and I will remove them.

Saving Signior Benedick

Sometimes (occasionally) life throws you such a lovely ball that you’re left wondering how it was that you were so lucky to be standing in the right place to catch it.  For me such an occasion has been the opportunity to be part of a group from Morecambe Warblers who have just created and performed a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

It was of course a crazy idea that Carol, Phil and Chris had; a directing team with no experience of directing Shakepeare, leading a cast with no experience of performing it.  What could possibly go wrong?  But, of the many interesting and valuable aspects of this process, one of the main ones has been just that, that it has been a process.

There were no auditions, just a call out to people who might be interested to turn up and see what happened.  At that first meeting (which I ended up at more or less by a chance remark from Phil, hence the luck), a largish group assembled and we tried a bit of reading.  That continued for a number of weeks in rooms above pubs and a local sports club.  The numbers turning up dwindled fast and started to look decidedly thin.  However for the group that remained something started to happen.  We moved from often not being sure how to pronounce some of the words, to starting to explore what they meant, and the world they belonged to.

We had a lot of fun trying out the different characters, and learning from each other’s ways of delivering the lines.  These strangely speaking characters on the page started to become more like real people with an interesting story ( or in fact many stories to tell).  And we each started to be drawn to some of them.

We eventually reached a point when the directing team asked who we were interested in playing, before they went in to a week long huddle, leaving us on tenterhooks waiting to find out who we would be.

I had, I admit, become quite fascinated by Signior Benedick of Padua (a place of which I will never be able to hear again without thinking of Cathy, our wonderful Hero, and how she said it in the opening scene).

Benedick who, as we first meet him, is a blustering, arrogant misogynist. Who could like him?  Why would you want to play him?

As I mentioned before, there are many story lines in MAAN; the tangled love affair of Hero and Claudio, the villainy of Don Jon and his henchman and henchwoman (in our case), the  ambivalent relationship of Benedick and Beatrice, and the fraught one between Hero and Leonato.  Weaved through all these I sensed another one that intrigued me; the redemption of Signior Benedick.

I think it is clear that Benedick and Beatrice have a history.  He has, sometime before we meet them, won her heart and lost it, almost certainly through betrayal.  He is getting older and knows that his days of soldiering, adventure and the carefree, playboy life style are coming to an end.  He also knows that he has lost the one true love of his life through his own stupidity and he won’t get it back.  He covers up this knowledge with a front of acerbic wit and a loudly proclaimed disdain for women.

So what can save Benedick?  It starts of course with the mischievous plotting of his friends, who see it as a sport to pass the time until Hero and Claudio’s wedding, to engineer for Beatrice and Benedict to fall in love.

But those ‘gulling’ scenes, as splendid as they are, (what a privilege to be allowed to attempt the ‘this can be no trick’ soliloquy – if I worked on it for another six months I might get it really right), they are only the start of Benedick’s transformation.  By the end of the scene  he has been given a glimmer of hope.  It is no surprise that he falls for the ridiculously obvious ploy, it is the thing that he most wants to believe in the world.

It is however, in the wonderful and terrible first wedding scene that so much of the emotional work of this play is done.  It is here that Benedick is brought face to face with the decisions that will change his life one way or another.  What an incredible scene!  My job was made so much easier with the intensity that, in the first part, Hero (Cathy), Claudio (Matt) and Leonato (John) brought to that heart-wrenching confrontation.

Claudio: Benedick’s closest comrade in arms.  Benedick is utterly dismayed to see the brutality of his friend’s denunciation of Hero.  You would think that Benedick would intervene here to stop the abuse, and the fact that Shakespeare doesn’t allow it is agonising when you play this scene.

Leonato: something of a mentor and surrogate uncle to Benedick, and for whom Benedick obviously has much respect and affection.  But Leonato’s rejection of Hero, driven by his pride and concern for his family’s reputation tears another rip in Benedick’s loyalties.  Benedict tries to temper Leonato’s fury (“Sir, sir, be patient”), and his gentleness with the old man near the end (“Signior Leonato, let the Friar advise you”) is touching, but Benedick by then has already made his choice…

Hero: An interesting one.  I don’t put any store by Benedick’s insulting remarks about Hero in the opening scene, I think his aim there is very much to wind Claudio up and bolster his anti-women reputation.  He obviously is a close friend of the family and would have known Hero well.  I think his response to her shaming shows that underlying all is the  feeling  of an older brother towards her.  Because of the way our script had been edited, Cathy and I noticed after we’d been rehearsing for some weeks that we never actually exchanged lines (other than her handing me the letter in the final scene).  This seemed strange to us and partly for a bit of fun, but as it turns out I think quite correctly, we decided to add a ‘moment’ in the wedding scene, as the Friar explains her plan (yes our Friar was Mandy), where they turn to each other and nod, Hero to signify her agreement with the Friar’s suggestion, and Benedick to signify that yes, he would keep her secret and play his part.  It is Benedick’s first step in his journey.  He has made the choice to side, not with Claudio and Don Pedro, or even Leonato, but with Hero.

Then of course we come to the final part of that scene, when all have left the stage apart from Beatrice (thank you Zoë) and Benedict.  If I ever had any doubts about Shakespeare’s brilliance, (and yes I admit it, I had many), this relatively short exchange removed them.  What he achieved in so few lines is amazing.

First we see Benedick’s concern for Beatrice.  Gone is all the bluster and witty reposts. He cannot stand to see her so upset; he is upset himself by what he has just witnessed.  He wants to make things right, but at first Beatrice will not let him in, her hurt and anger are too great: “It is a man’s job, but not yours”.

And there we reach the first life-changing decision Benedict makes.  Beatrice is about to walk out on him, perhaps this is the last chance he will have, and so he shows that for all his faults he lacks neither a reckless courage or a willingness to make himself vulnerable. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you!” more than half expecting his love to be thrown back at him and mocked. But instead he hears, though mixed with anger and confusion, the words that tell him that Beatrice does in fact still love him too.

The next few moments are perhaps the happiest Benedick has experienced for many years as finally Beatrice fully admits her love.  Is the redemption of Benedick complete?  Here he is, hearing words of love from the woman he thought he’d lost, surely we have reached the happy ending.  No, for now he will be faced with the perhaps the hardest decision of his life.  When, in his joy he urges Beatrice to “bid me do anything for thee”, Beatrice responds from the depths of her anger with the demand for Benedick to kill Claudio.  The idea appals Benedick, but when he refuses all of Beatrice’s rage for her cousin, and no doubt for herself engulf Benedick.  He tries to respond but has nothing that will answer Beatrice’s charges until at last he once more offers the only thing he seems to have, his love, “By this hand I love thee”.

And finally Beatrice presents him with his ultimate choice, “Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it”.  Benedick, perhaps more than Beatrice in her anger, understands the full implication of the choice she is asking him to make in that moment.  He can say no, and thus once more betray and no doubt lose Beatrice, or he can challenge Claudio, which will almost certainly end one of two ways; either he will kill his friend or be killed himself.  That last possibility is one that no production of MAAN I have seen seems to really have acknowledged and so was something I really wanted to bring out in Benedick’s final line.

Benedick tries one last time to avert the crisis and alert Beatrice to the enormity of what she is asking for, “Think you in you soul…?” but her anger and hurt are too great.

For me “Enough, I am engaged” is an anguished cry as Benedick makes his decision.  He cannot bring himself to lose Beatrice again, or else he will die trying to be loyal to her.

In the rest of the line he tries to impress upon her the likely consequences; either Claudio or he shall not survive this encounter.  He asks for some comfort to take with him, “think of me?”, and so he bids her farewell, not knowing if he will ever see her again, heading off to challenge his friend.

I think it is not important from the point of view of Benedick’s redemption that the duel is never fought.  He most sincerely challenges Claudio and I have no doubt that he would have followed through if other events had not intervened.  When we finally reach the second wedding we see the new Benedick (or the old one released from his self-imposed prison).  He may still have some difficulty in bringing himself to ask Leonato for Beatrice’s hand in marriage, but his nervousness is not going to stop him.  He cannot even wait until Hero and Claudio’s wedding is complete before proposing to Beatrice.  There may be just one or two minor obstacles to overcome (Beatrice’s reluctance to admit her love in front of everyone), but Benedick’s friends are on hand to help him complete his journey.

And so it is, I think, that amid all the other many twists and turns, laughter and tears that make MAAN so rich a story, that Signior Benedick is saved, most of all from himself.

Which leaves only perhaps one thing left to say, which is a huge thank you to all my fellow cast, the directors, the crew, and of course the audiences who bravely paid good money to see what would become of this crazy experiment.  I think the fact that we didn’t know what would become of it ourselves when we started out was what made it so special.  A truly lovely ball to catch.

Manx Sea Fishing – Resources

Whilst researching the post on Manx traditional fishing boats I came across a wealth of information buried on the IoM government website.  In particular there is a whole project around the history of sea fishing from the Island that was done for schools in the early 1990s. There is a very good teachers’ resource book, and in there is listed a whole load of other resources with more detailed information.  The problem is that quite a few bits are difficult to find (I don’t think the search function on the site works very well) and some are even misnamed.  Since this seemed rather a shame I’ve created a link to the items here.

Teachers resource book

Information Cards:

  1. Early Manx Herring Boats
  2. Herring Boats c. 1830-1940
  3. Herring Fishing in Manx Waters
  4. Manx Fishermen in Irish and Scottish Waters
  5. Nets & Equipment for Herring and Mackerel Fishing
  6. Uses of the Herring Catch
  7. Longlines & Shorelines
  8. Some Further Types of Fishing
  9. Scallops & Queenies
  10. Customs & Traditions of the Manx Fisherman
  11. Some Fish Molluscs & Crustaceans of Manx Waters A-H
  12. Some Fish Molluscs & Crustaceans of Manx Waters I-Z



When is a lugger not a lugger?

… when it’s a Manx Lugger it seems.

On a recent visit to Peel, on the Isle of Man, I was interested to see what looked like a traditional sailing fishing vessel, apparently a ketch, tied up in the harbour.  I was surprised when the friendly owner of White Heather (, Mike Clark, told me that it was a nobby.  My surprise was because, being a resident of Morecambe, I thought it was only our traditional boats, the lovely cutter-rigged Morecambe Bay prawners, that were called nobbies.

Latter in my visit to the Island I came across mention of another traditional type, nickeys, which set me off on a mission to learn more about these vessels.  Getting detailed information about the rigs and what differentiated them turned out to be harder than I expected.

I started with what seemed the obvious place, the little Nautical museum in Castletown.  The chap there was very friendly, and there are a number of interesting models but really it only added to the mystery by introducing me to another type, Manx luggers which, judging by a one model, wasn’t really a lugger as it was gaff-rigged on the main with a lug-rigged mizzen set on a bumpkin, sometimes referred to as a ‘dandy rig’ of which more later.  I did gather that the ‘luggers’ were the earliest type, followed by the nickeys, inspired by visiting Cornish luggers, and finally these were superseded by the nobbies, below is a model of one, Gladys.

Manx nobby, Gladys
Gladys (1901); Fishing vessel; Manx Nobby, Brown, Alastair, circa 1975

From this it is clear that nobbies were lugsail ketches with at least two headsails, the mizzen sheeted to a bumpkin.

In the excellent House of Mananan museum in Peel there is a lovely recreation of a port as part of an extensive display on the fishing industry.  An interactive display on the subject confirmed the ordering of the three types, but the pictures weren’t really clear enough to get a very good idea of how each was rigged.  There was some dialogue in the display of fishermen chatting about their boats, with a comment that the nickeys were fast and best for long, deep-sea fishing trips, but demanding to sail, whilst the nobbies were better for short-handed sailing as crews became harder to find in later years.

Coming home I started doing some more research and since I haven’t yet found a definitive discussion on the subject I thought I’d put this page together to summarise what I’ve found in case it’s of any interest to others, and also to encourage those more knowledgeable on the subject to add to the information.

On the Manx fishing industry in general, with much historical detail, there is, buried on the Manx government website, a fascinating Manx Sea Fishing Resource book.  On the boats it says,

[Luggers, nickeys and nobbies] were the three types of vessel used during the heyday of the Manx herring fishing in the second half of the nineteenth century. The dandy smack of the 1830s was increased in size and fully decked and was latterly known as the Lugger. In the 1840s the tonnage was 12 to 18 by 1864, 15 to 25 tons was the average. In the 1870s nickeys practically superseded the luggers but towards the end of the century this older rig returned to favour when fishing ceased to recruit young men and older crews had to cope with the sails. There was some conversion of nickeys back to the dandy rig

The best picture I’ve come across of a Manx lugger is on an Italian site:

Drawing of Manx lugger
Manx lugger.

The other drawings on here are well worth a look too.  It is clear from this that the main is gaff-rigged.

The nickeys were true luggers, copied from the Cornish luggers.  They had dipping lug sails, which explains why they were demanding to sail and needed larger crews, no bowsprit and a bumpkin for the mizzen.  Again from the resource book:

Manx boat builders copied the basic plan of the Cornish nickey but modified it to the extent of making the hull slightly larger and usually adding a mizzen staysail. The Manx nickeys were some of the largest fishing vessels used in British waters. They were 13.5 – 16.5 metres long with a beam of 4.5 metres. They were fast, achieving 10 knots in good conditions and could lie close to the wind. The nickeys were very suitable for the Kinsale fishing where the mackerel boats had to lie well out to sea and had long distances to make back to port with their catches. Nickeys carried three sets of lugsails and required disciplined seamanship both for changing sails according to weather conditions and because the fore lug had to be dipped every time a tack was changed.

I came across this lovely drawing of a Castletown nickey:

Manx Nickey, 1881, by Tony Fernandes
Nickey 1881 by Tony Fernandes, used with permission

Incidentally on the use of the name ‘lugger’, EJ March in ‘Sailing Drifters’ makes this comment (p192):

The new boats carried a fore and mizzen lug only, and as the name “lugger” had already been given – rather misleadingly – to the dandy-rigged boats, it became the custom to call the newcomers “nickeys”, possibly because so many Cornish men answered to the name of Nicholas, but an alternative is that one of the first boats to be brought to the Island was ‘Nicholas’.

The nobbies were also luggers, but smaller and with standing, rather than dipping lug sails, which required less crew to handle them.  From the resource book:

Nobbies were introduced in the 1890s. These were lighter rigged and smaller than the nickeys. The nobbies had reef points for shortening sails and no changing of sets of sails was necessary. They were 2 1/2 – 3 metres shorter and had a standing lug instead of a dipping one. In the later nobbies a round or elliptical counter stern i.e. the stern projected behind the stern post or overhung was adopted in order to provide more deck space. The stern post was sharply raked. The larger versions of the nobby went to Kinsale and the other Irish ports. Nobbies were all the vogue in the local herring fishing around 1900. They were the last of the sail fishing boats built on the Island.

The nobbies saw the return of a bowsprit with jib and staysail, but retained the bumpkin for the mizzen.  It seems to me that they are rather like the older ‘luggers’ but with a proper lug main instead of the gaff.  You can see the rig in the drawing on the White Heather site, and in many of the photos there, as well as on the model of Gladys above.  White Heather has had various rigs in her life but is now, I believe, once more lug-rigged, or is in the process of being restored to that.

Update: I’ve now found this handy sketch of the three types (although obviously not to scale as the nickey would be much bigger).  Click the image to see it full size.

A comparison of the three types of Manx herring drifters
A comparison of the three types of Manx herring drifters. From

And when is a rig ‘dandy’?

A final (for now) note on the term ‘dandy-rig’.  It seems to be one of those that has a number of interpretations in the literature.  In Kemps’ Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea’ it says,

another name for the ketch and yawl rigs, but sometimes used to describe the rig when the mizzen sail is about one-third the size of the mainsail, the true ketch rig having a mizzen-sail about half the size of the mainsail and the true yawl rig having its mizzen-sail a quarter or less.

It also mentions later in the article the use of ‘dandy-rig’ when the mizzen was sheeted to a bumpkin.

Admiral Smyth in his Sailors’ Word Book gives ‘dandy’ as’

A sloop or cutter with a jigger-mast abaft, on which a mizen-lug-sail is set.

He gives for ‘jigger-mast”

In large vessels it is an additional aftermost mast; thus any sail set on the ensign-staff would be a jigger.

Which seems to be a reasonable description of a yawl. Jenny Bennett in her Sailing Rigs – an illustrated guide, in the chapter on the yawl says,

From time to time boats were converted from other rigs to a sail plan that might, today, be described as ‘yawl rigged’ but which in earlier times would more usually be known as ‘dandy-rigged’ – where a large mainsail was cut down for ease of handling and a small mizzen mast was stepped far aft to re-establish sail balance.

In John Leather’s Gaff Rig Handbook 2nd edition on p216, referring to figures 95 and 96 of a Dunkirk ‘dandy’ herring boat says’

At first the boats were rigged with lugsails but gradually the rig changed to a gaff yawl or ‘dandy’.

So, by some definitions then a Manx lugger, which was not really a lugger, wasn’t really dandy-rigged either since it was a ketch not a yawl (mizzen forward of the rudder post, and/or more than a quarter the size of the main).  But the mizzen was far enough aft that it was sheeted on a bumpkin, so perhaps that makes it dandy-rigged.

I’m proposing a working definition of dandy-rigged as having the following features:

  • a ketch or yawl of no later than the nineteenth century and probably the first half of that.
  • gaff-rigged mainsail (bermudan rig not being widespread until after the ‘dandy’ terminology had fallen out of use).
  • a lugsail mizzen set far enough aft to be sheeted to a bumpkin.
  • Probably a bowsprit and two or more headsails.

Anyone with more information please feel free to leave a comment.

Note:  Since I’ve started researching this I’ve found a wealth of information about the history of Manx sea fishing buried in the document library of the Manx government.  Since some of the documents are much harder to find than they should be I’m working on a page of links.