Chapter Four: THE COCKENZIE BOYS

Geordie was the eldest of a sturdy brood of dark, dark, curly-haired, apple-cheeked children born to Peter and Helen Johnston of New Street, Cockenzie.

Sixteen miles from Edinburgh along the Firth of the Forth, Cockenzie lies between Prestonpans and Port Seton, in the Parish of Tranent.  The famous battle was fought in and around all four places.

The local people have reason to be proud of the part played by their ancestors in that particular page of British history. As soon as the fighting was over, Highlanders and Lowlanders joined as brothers to gather up the wounded.  They were carried to New Street where they were tended with great compassion – in striking contrast to the bloody butchery of Culloden, and other battles of those days.  The surrounding coast is flat and sandy, but the villages of Cockenzie and Port Seton stand upon a rock.  A barrier of rock runs out from Cockenzie into the Firth,  It seems as if the rugged strength of those rocks stiffened the character of the men who went out daily through them to their fishing, and, swam off them as boys.

The lives of the women too were dominated by the rocks six days of the week, as they watched for the safe return of their men. Only on the seventh day there was rest for anxious eyes, for the Cockenzie folk were devout, God-fearing people who loved their Church and kept the Sabbath.  Faith, courage and compassion were their virtues: the men loving husbands and fathers, the women faithful and tireless in their devotion to the menfolk, though not so easily given to singing as the men; for waiting and watching are sad pastimes and soon carve anxious lines on young faces.

In winter the men went oyster-dredging and fishing for cod, whiting, flounder and other white fish for the Edinburgh market.  The rich oyster scalps had been over-dragged, and white fish were very scarce along the coast in the 1830’s when Geordie was a boy, so that many of the men had to go whaling in summer.  One year the whaling ships were trapped by the ice up in Baffin’s Bay through the long Polar night.  Their suffering through the cruel months of darkness, for which they were unprepared, were very terrible, but the old account says: “The conduct of the Cockenzie sailors during the long night was most praiseworthy; they devoted a portion of each day to religious exercises, and awaited with calm resignation the will of Providence.”

At length the ice broke up and the ships were freed.  In Cockenzie the houses were typical of any Scottish fishing village. Built of grey stone with slate roofs, they ran door, window, door, window, all the way along both sides of the street. On the Johnston side, the back door and the kitchen window faced the north, and the wild seas that surged up the Forth from the North Sea.  A wooden  stepladder led from the kitchen up to the boys‘ attic and the loft. This loft was a communal one running through the whole block of houses, so that the fishing gear could be dried and mended and the hooks baited under cover, by the light of lamp or candle.  The fishing lines had 1200 hooks on them. Men and women rose each morning at two o’clock, and while the men prepared their boats and gear, and ate their bowls of porridge, the women baited the hooks.  Then off the men would go to their day’s fishing, out into the Firth or beyond.   There were about two hundred fishermen in the village.  They shared thirty-one boats, from seven to sixteen tons‘ burden. They were solid, clinker-built, open-decked boats, beautifully made, suitable for the distant North Sea fishing grounds. These boats, and the fishing gear, were in constant need of care to be in top condition to face the weather, day in and day out, along that coast. In summer those who didn’t go whaling followed the herring around the top of Scotland:

“West of these

Out to seas

Colder than the Hebrides…”

Cockenzie, like the rest of Scotland, gave its children the best of schooling. The Johnstons and their cousins, the Ritchies, the Donaldsons and the Barclays, went to Stiell’s Hospital, a fine school built by a successful Edinburgh builder about a mile and a half from their homes. Here they were given an excellent education, and a warm midday meal.  They studied hard, and after a long day at their books, as soon as their fathers came in from the sea they had to go “hooping the lines”, stripping all the remaining bait from the hooks.  They all went to Church on Sundays, and the men were all great singers; music and harmony seemed born in them.   An account of George Johnston’s life speaks of his “sweet but powerful voice” as a man, and his lovely soprano as a boy.  The 107th Psalm was a great favourite of his in after years on the river, and in the little Cockenzie church he must often have sung those lovely words:

“Who go to sea in ships, and in great waters

trading be,

Within the deep these men God’s works

And His great wonders see…”

Over a long period the oyster scalps were reduced to almost nothing, but in the earlier part of last century Cockenzie men were still able to make a living from them, and while at work dredging close inshore, they sang strange, weird-sounding songs that some say had been handed down from their remote Viking ancestors.  At sea they sang psalms, hymns, sea shanties, the latest songs picked up in the taverns at night.  Great singers they were, and swimmers too.  Because of the fine stretch of sand at Port Seton, with deep pools among the rocks at high tide, the lads soon learnt to swim and dive.  Geordie Johnston was the strongest swimmer of them all.  Later in his life he saved so many people from drowning that he became known as “the water-spaniel of the River Murray”.

The first coal in Great Britain was discovered in the outcrops of Cockenzie, back in the twelfth century A.D. The whole history of coal-working, its romance and its infamy, was born at Cockenzie; and the fate of the collieries had a direct bearing on the development of Goolwa.  In the early days the coal was taken from the pitheads to the old harbour at Cockenzie on horseback.  In 1722 an English company constructed a wooden waggonway 15 feet wide and three miles long for carrying the coal, and this was the first approximation to a railway ever built.   The wagons, which held two tons of coal each, were pulled by one horse.  Towards the end of the eighteenth century new lairds came to Cockenzie. The Cadells bought the Winton estates of Tranent with the mines and the saltpans. They lived right in the village, at Cockenzie House, and were a typical family of industrialists: hard-headed, shrewd, businesslike Scots who soon became as much a part of Cockenzie as the fishermen themselves.  The head of the family, Hugh Francis Cadell, introduced reforms which gradually made life easier for the people, while greatly increasing his profits.  In 1815 he built the first iron railway, replacing the old wooden waggonway with iron rails. He later rebuilt the Cockenzie harbour and also enlarged it to cope with the rapidly expanding trade. This harbour was a great boon to the fishermen and must have had a lot tofio with the affection and loyalty they felt for the Cadells.  The fishermen of Cockenzie were a different breed from the colliers and the salters. They had always been free. They were men of great courage and fine bearing, for theirs was a proud heritage. Their heredity and environment — the influence moulding the characters of these Cockenzie lads – were to leave their mark on the history of the River Murray.

When George Johnston was born in 1829, young Francis Cadell was eight years old, a slim fair-haired boy, the apple of his parents‘ eyes: spoilt, wilful, charming, handsome and brave.  He was a great favourite with the fishermen. When the men went fishing close inshore they often took him with them, and he was particularly attached to Peter Johnston, father of George, who first taught him to swim. All the Cadells loved ships and the feel of the sea. The Laird spent much of his time down at the harbour.  His wife worried about her headstrong son, but Cadell told her he would take no harm with the fishermen until he went away to school.   Later, Francis went to sea as a midshipman on an East Indiaman, and took part in the siege of Canton and the capture of Amoy in the first Chinese War of 1840. He gained the rank of lieutenant, received an officer’s share of the prize money, and then was discharged for insubordination.

Back he came to Cockenzie, and his father sent young Francis to study shipbuilding and engineering on the Clyde and Tyneside. Then he sent him off trading with one of his ships to Europe, then to North and South America. Once he reached South America he seems to have abandoned his ship – this was to become quite a habit of his – and gone wandering up and down the Amazon, a rolling stone incapable of gathering moss in any part of the world. Eventually he turned up in Port Adelaide in January 1849 from Cape Town. His ship, the ‘Royal Sovereign‘ must have been yet another of his father’s ships, because having very little cargo and being sadly out of funds he tried to recoup his fortunes by raffling her.  It was while he was in Port Adelaide that he first made contact with William Younghusband, who became his shipping agent.  Younghusband had been in the colony since 1841, originally to represent the trading interests of his father’s firm.  However being an energetic and ambitious man he soon branched out on his own and by 1849 he had already become a power in the community both as a merchant and as a politician. He was a member of the first Legislative Council and a close friend of the Governor Sir Henry Fox Young, and later he was to become Chief Secretary. The Governor was intensely interested in the development of the River Murray.   When Younghusband heard of Cadell’s experiences on the Amazon, his knowledge of shipbuilding as well as navigation, he thought immediately of Sir Henry’s wish to put steamers on the Murray, and it seems likely that Cadell discussed the whole project with Younghusband, and possibly with the Governor, on that first brief visit to South Australia.  Sir Henry had been advocating a canal from Goolwa to Freeman’s Knob (later Port Elliott) to help develop the river trade. It was only after Cadell’s visit that there was any mention of a railway. And it seems too much of a coincidence that the first horse-powered railway in the British Isles was at Cockenzie and the first one in the Commonwealth should be at Goolwa.   The plan to link the river with a sea-port by railway must have originated with Cadell, who passed it on to Younghusband who then planted the seed in the Governor’s fertile mind, from which grew the Goolwa—Port Elliott railway.

One can imagine their making a trip to “the Goolwa” together, standing on the high point of the bank where Admiralty Terrace now runs, and Younghusband’s solid house still stands; the two of them discussing the River, where the coloured reflection of Hindmarsh Island lay in the mirror-like surface across the wide channel.

“Just beyond there lies the Mouth,” said.Younghusband, (and even with the calm they could just hear the roar of the breakers). “The idea is that if a canal were built from here to the sea-coast, it would by-pass the dangerous Bar, and shallow-draught steamers could bring goods right down the Murray to the sea. There are some who think they could even go in and out the Mouth itself.”

“So there’s not a single boat trading on the Murray as yet?” said Cadell. “It seems madness not to use this wonderful stretch of water. ‘When I think of the Mississippi and the Amazon…I wonder how far upstream it is navigable? I wonder…”

As he stood there gazing across at Hindmarsh Island and up the wide channel that led to the Lake, he imagined a fleet of steamboats owned by Cadell and Younghusband passing by laden with wool and produce from the back country of this enormous continent.

“It’s a wonderful place, Australia,” he added. “So much space…and the clear light, you can see for miles and   miles.” “Aye,” Younghusband agreed. “Now that my house is finished in North Adelaide, I’m tempted to build here so that my wife and the children can stay here in the hot weather.  Adelaide can be very trying in summer…Just here I’d like to build, where we’re standing..”

“If you and I were to run boats on the river, you could keep an eye on them from here,” Cadell said. “You’d certainly have a grandstand view!”

“You could do worse than marry and bring your wife here to live.”

“I’ll never marry’. I’m too much of a rolling stone,” said Cadell abruptly, “But I know lads who would come here and take boats up the river, and bring wives out from.  Home to settle here in Goolwa.” He began to tell Younghusband about the tough Cockenzie fishermen and his father’s boat-building yards, his Scottish accent growing noticeable as he rolled his R’s in his excitement.

“The furrst coal in the wurrld was mined in Cockenzie – aye and the furrst railway built, frae the mines to the harbour. They were wooden rails; it was my father put doon iron rails- the horses can pull twice the load… Noo then! A railway would be cheaper and easier than a canal, would it not, between here and yon porrt?”

“It’s certainly an idea,” said Younghusband. “I must talk to Sir Henry about it. He believes in the river, you know”

“And the Colony needs the River! It can be done. A railroad to take the big cargoes of wool to Port Victor, and shallow draught steam-boats, and men skilful enough to brring them doon! – Come, build your house here Mr Younghusband, and I’ll build the boats, and together we’ll make our fortunes.”

“Meanwhile, Captain Cadell, you’d best get that ship of yours away,” said Younghusband drily, “for I have little money to spare and I’m thinking that you have less.”

“My father will help me. My Cockenzie lads will come out with me…” The wind had changed, as it so often does in the afternoon. It had gone round to the south. There were catspaws rippling the river’s surface, breaking up the orange and ochre reflections.  Over the sandhills the surf thundered on the beach, and the wind brought the sound of the great breakers at the Mouth with a foreboding roar.

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