EUTERPE - DEAD HORSE DAY
Nineteenth century voyages could be tedious. Passengers and crew spent long months at sea in a too-small ship with too many people, and any excuse for kicking up their heels was welcomed. The diarists in the sailing ship Euterpe on the voyage of 1879 have left us many anecdotes about what they got up to.
One occasion was Dead Horse day, so-called because sailors were paid a month's wages in advance on signing on for the voyage. They worked that month "for nought" and called it working for the dead horse. When the month was up they celebrated by making a horse out of straw, "about the size of a donkey and very like a goat only it had a long tail" reported diarist George Lister. It was put up for auction, netting about fifteen shillings which was shared among the crew.
Then one of the sailors appeared, dressed like an old man with a long white coat and a long beard made of towed rope. He climbed onto the horse, which was led in procession around the deck, after which a rope was fastened around both man and horse and threaded through a pulley on the end of the lower yard on the main mast. They were then "drawn over the side of the ship and swung about for a while", no doubt to cheers from the onlookers. The rider then loosed the horse from under him and it fell into the sea. Throughout the whole ceremony a blue light was kept burning and the sailors sang the song of the Dead Horse, after which "all sorts of amusements were carried on until very late."
Amusements came in many guises. There was dancing most nights to music provided by the passengers themselves. There were sports and concerts. Practical jokes were popular, if a little juvenile sometimes. One night passengers in the fore-cabin were woken at 3.30am by "someone rolling a large biscuit barrel down the fore hatchway into the cabin below, when they all thought the masts had gone by the board. They turned out in a great hurry but when they saw the trick they went back to their bunks in better spirits." (Better than mine would have been in the circumstances.)
Birthdays were celebrated in cabins or in the saloon, sometimes with too much drink. Joshua Charlesworth wrote that "drinking was carried on to a large extent so that the serving out of beer & spirits had to be stopped by order of the Captain." And James Martin complained that "just after I got in bed, Hartley came in drunk and after a good pulling about got into bed and began lifting the boards of my bunk [with his feet]. Several others were nearly drunk, one with whom I was arguing total abstinence with about a fortnight since, and," James continued virtuously, "he said then that no one ever saw him the worse for drink." A month later James reported that at about midnight he was disturbed by [cabin mates] who were drunk and making a noise which woke Beecroft, and a row ensued. I thought there would be a fight but it quelled."
Photo of Euterpe's wheel courtesy of Mike Wood Photography