Colin Tucker uncovers two stories by the Lewis-born policeman Norman Morrison, who painted a vivid picture of life on Dunoon Pier a century ago, when the town was bustling with trippers and tourists.
Possibly the last place you would expect to find a reference to Clyde steamers would be in the autobiography of a policeman who later became an expert on snakes. But this is where I came across two vignettes on ‘steamer life’ which are reproduced below.
Norman Morrison wrote of his experiences in the Argyllshire police, from which he retired on grounds of ill-health in 1922. He was born in 1869, and it can therefore be assumed that the incidents took place some time between the 1890s and 1922. These two stories are included in his autobiography, entitled simply ‘My Life’, which was published in 1937.
Rushing the Gangways
I have witnessed great excitement and confusion on the pier at Dunoon during excursion days and at the close of the Glasgow Fair holidays, when the holidaymakers were returning home. The duty of the police in regulating the traffic of trippers, in keeping them from rushing the gangways and in preventing accidents, was trying and even hazardous. Often I had to hang on to the gangways like grim death to prevent people being pushed over the pier. The steamers were all licensed by the Board of Trade to carry a certain number of passengers. If they took more than their quota, the captain was reported for overcrowding.
When there was a big crowd waiting to get away, the captain, in order to keep within the law, would have two men at each gangway counting the passengers, and, when the requisite number were on board, the order to slip the gangways would be given from the bridge. Generally, as soon as the crowd heard this order, a mad rush was made for the steamer. Women and children were often knocked down by the rush of the crowd from behind. A regular pandemonium of shouts and yells, intermingled with decorative adjectives, would arise, and the police, of course, in trying to stem the seething crowd, came in for a good deal of uncomplimentary remarks.
I have often seen matters look so ugly that the merest trifle would have created a riot. Women would shout and plead to the captain ‘For God’s sake to let them on board for their children’, while several men would attempt to clamber on to the paddle-box or perchance slip between the pier and the steamer. But strange to relate, I have never seen any fatal accidents happen during these incidents. The captain would hasten to get his ship away from the pier and steam off amidst a chorus of hoots and execrations. Today, due to the passengers being formed into a queue, there is no rushing of gangways.
A Samaritan Act
I remember observing an incident at the departure of the Glasgow steamer which made a profound impression on my mind. As the passengers were going on board, a man, very much the worse of drink, leading a young boy by the hand, or rather being led by the boy, came towards the gangway. There was a large crowd of people going away with the steamer, and consequently the area about the gangway was rather congested. Just then someone jostled him and evidently roused his temper. He turned on the crowd about him with a volley of abusive and obscene language, challenging anyone in the crowd to fight. The boy began crying and tried his best to get his father on board, but he was now out for blood and positively refused to leave the pier until he had downed somebody.
I happened to be near at the time, and in order to get him away quietly I walked over and urged him to go on board. It was no use: he would listen to no persuasions, and soft words made no impression on him. I saw that unless I got him on board I should have to take him into custody, and I felt very sorry for the youngster, who was hanging on to his father, crying bitterly and beseeching him to come along. At last I took him by the arm and tried to lead him towards the gangway.
As he was resisting me, one of the porters on the pier came up behind me and slipped a shilling into the man’s hand, remarking that it would pay his fare to Glasgow. The porter thought that the trouble was due to the man being unable to pay his fare, and that I was preventing him from boarding the boat. By an admixture of humour, persuasion and firmness tactfully administered, I managed to get the recalcitrant visitor on board.
Reverting again to the porter, I must say that in all my career I have never witnessed a more spontaneous Samaritan action. The simplicity and opportuneness of the act demonstrated how deep-rooted the gospel of the brotherhood of man was in the heart of this poor labourer. Be it noted here that the belligerent visitor was a total stranger to this porter, and that he had possibly a wife and family of his own to support on a meagre pay. Consequently he could ill afford to part with even a shilling.
These facts, therefore, will surely entitle this noble deed to be staged as a modern counterpart of the widow’s mite [a Biblical parable, signifying that the value of a gift should be gauged according to the means of the giver]. I should also like to mention that there were hundreds of other people looking on at the time, probably much wealthier than he, but like the priest and the Levite of old they passed by on the other side and left this poor working man to exhibit with dazzling splendour the noble and humane side of manhood. Years have passed since I witnessed this act, but the incident is still fresh in my memory.
A photograph of Norman Morrison, with accompanying details about his career, can be found here in a fascinating blog by David Powell. CRSC was alerted to this by John MacLeod, one of Morrison’s surviving relatives, who points out that the Lewis-born policeman was a central figure in the creation of the National Police Federation, and won a PhD for a thesis about adders.
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MORE BY COLIN TUCKER:
By Sea to Portree (Members Only)
Colin Tucker’s memoir of life aboard the 1947 Loch Seaforth can be read in the 2013 edition of Clyde Steamers, CRSC’s annual magazine.
Published on 24 January 2021