22 Aug All hail, the men and women of the Blue Flue
Our popular session bitter, Deckhand, is our hat-tip to the commercial bravura that made Britain great. Specifically, to the inventiveness, perseverance, chutzpah and sheer hard work of a unique family and their employees who, between them conquered the eastern sea lanes and helped Britain bestride the world.
Take a bow, you men and women of the Blue Funnel Line and its remarkable owners, the Holt family.
Indeed, it is our link to the family which inspired Deckhand, owning, as we do, the delightful West Tower, one of the Holt family’s redoubts atop Clieves Hills in Lancashire, with its far-reaching views across Liverpool Bay and the Mersey to the west.
Popular legend has it that a servant would be sent atop the home’s crenelated tower to keep watch for returning ships, informing the master in time for him to bestride his horse and gallop headlong to the docks to oversee unloading and assess the captain’s log.
All we’ll say about that is he must have had a bloody good telescope, but we like the tale so we’ve let it run, so to speak.
But what really caught our imagination about ‘Blue Flue’ – aside, of course, from the sheer derring-do that saw it claw its way in to the vastly profitable far eastern routes after the demise of the East India Company – was the company’s foresight as an employer.
It was the first British shipping company to employ female engineers and, after that, deckhands. Victoria Drummond MBE was the world’s first female marine engineer and the first female member of the Institute of Marine Engineers and was the vanguard of female advancement in male-dominated jobs.
She got her break thanks for Lawrence Holt, who honoured the promise of a deceased member of his team to provide Drummond with a job on completion of her apprenticeship in Dundee. She was given the job of assistant engineer on the 10,000 tonne passenger liner Anchises in August 1922 and never looked back.
When war broke out Britain’s merchant navy was requisitioned for war service but the British navy’s social attitudes weren’t quite as enlightened as Blue Funnel Line’s and Drummond struggled to find work, eventually taking second engineer roles on a series of foreign-registered ships.
In some respects this was fortuitous: The Blue Funnel Line sustained heavy losses during the war, losing 30 ships (to add the 16 sacrificed in defence of our realm during the First World War). But Drummond was still in the thick of things, earning the Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea and her MBE after safeguarding her ship, Bonita, during 35 minutes of persistent attack by Condor bombers on its way to Norfolk, Virginia, with a cargo of Cornish china clay. The ship’s First Mate, Warner, described her as “about the most courageous woman I ever saw.”
Perhaps more importantly, she set a marker down in a male-dominated industry that females could cut the mustard and be valuable members of crew. It wasn’t long before Britain’s merchant navy began to see female Deckhands, too, and each owes a debt to the pioneering Drummond.
We, the drinkers of Britain, can raise our pint-pots to such bravery and foresight, meanwhile. Deckhand is our way of acknowledging that the freedom we enjoy today is, in part, due to their sacrifice.