“The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
– The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
In 1917, in the midst of war in Europe, those at home were doing their best to raise both the spirits of those left behind, and funds for the war effort. In March 1917, the Ancient Mariners of Victoria organised a concert at the Melbourne Town Hall coinciding with ‘Sailors’ Week’ to raise funds for organisations relating to marine and naval activities, including the: Navy League for the benefit of dependants of Naval Officers, Seamen and Mariners who have been lost or disabled in action during the war; Ladies’ Emergency Committee for relief to Naval Prisoners of War; Lord Charles Beresford fund for the Merchant Service; Mine Sweepers’ Comfort Fund; and the Royal Australian Navy Families’ Relief Fund.
The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (R.H.S.V) holds a copy of the original programme for the 1917 performance, which includes background information on the Mariners themselves, the stories to be featured throughout the evening, and the “sea chanties” to be performed on the night. The R.H.S.V also holds letters from Ships Husband, Thos. H. Flere, the organiser of the event. These documents came into the collection through the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (R.G.S.A) collection, given to the R.H.S.V when they amalgamated.
The programme itself begins to reveal the nature of the Ancient Mariners, with the first page clearly spelling out in capital letters “NO GROG ALLOWED”. The humour increases with the description attached to the first order of business “A Few More or Less Relevant Remarks by the Skipper – Councillor Frank Davies” which was apparently named differently in past programmes. The description reads “this is perhaps not exactly the colloquial expression by which this item was referred to in a previous Programme, but censorship has so increased in rigor that it has even invaded the Programme.” The censor again reared their ugly head in item 6, in which it appears they removed an item from the programme altogether, along with “the author as well – nearly”. The Mariners continue to poke fun at the censor, including “(cuss word here)” in their description of their censorship. The Interval is even given a lengthy paragraph of comedic banter after someone suggested it be removed as “they saw no use for it”. This statement is followed by a list of useful things that could be done during and interval such as “see a man about a dog” and “see if it’s likely to rain”.
From newspaper articles describing their acts, the Ancient Mariners of Victoria were known for supporting associations and groups pursuing activities that encouraged people to take to the seas, supporting those working at sea (and their families), and raising funds for the war effort during the First World War2 The group was made up of sailors who were no longer actively engaged at sea, a requirement of membership (partially waived during war time).
Little documentation is available online on the Ancient Mariners of Victoria outside of newspaper articles available on Trove, and a letter sent to the Melbourne City Council in September of 1914. In this letter they requested permission to parade down streets of Melbourne in a motor lorry fitted up as a ship to raise funds for the Lord Mayor’s Patriotic Fund, a stunt they pulled many times over the coming years3. From these few documents, in conjunction with the documents held at the R.H.S.V, we can begin to form a picture of these collection of men, who were, by all accounts, good humoured and willing to put their efforts towards a good cause. They were responsible for a number of shows put on at theatres around Melbourne to raise money for organisations relating to the sea, maritime trade, and naval personnel and their families, and helped establish the first Victorian Sea Scouts in Albert Park (providing them with their first boat called “The Ancient Mariners”). 4
The Ancient Mariners’ good-humoured nature is reflected in pieces written on the organisation. According to an article in the Punch newspaper on the 14th of July 1916, the Ancient Mariners of Victoria rigged a motor lorry (again) to look like a pirate ship with a full sail, and dressed as Pirates (in costumes provided by Messrs J. C. Williamson and Co. from the Gilbert and Sutherland play Pirates of Penzance). Assisted by the Sea Scouts they paraded through the city to levy a tribute for the French Red Cross Fund, taking a number of bankers hostage and demanding a ransom to the fund for their release.5 They did this again in 1917 on Sailors’ Day where they rigged a motor lorry to look like the Marco Polo, a ship that sailed from Liverpool in 1860. According to the programme held at the R.H.S.V they dressed as the original crew and picked up and donated “any unconsidered trifles lying about” to the Sailors’ Day cause.6
Image Source: The Argus Newspaper (24 Mar 1917) via Trove.
In the Argus, the Ancient Mariners were said to have converted a basement apartment of the Overseas Club in the Empire Arcade on Flinders Street into a very realistic ship’s deck for a “Nautical Ceremony” to celebrate their new headquarters. The ship was complete with the correct caulking, wheel, stern, anchor and sales. They added to the ambiance of the apartment by painting skies above the ‘ship’ and with clear seas to the starboard and port sides. The apartment ship was christened “The Ancient Mariner” by the wife of Captain Charles Atkins, the group’s president. Many songs were sung, including ‘Blow the Man Down’ as the main topsail was hoisted and the ship set off on her maiden voyage. The Lord Mayor even attended to declare the ship duly launched, welcoming the Ancient Mariners to their new quarters.7
When they were not raising funds (or havoc), the Ancient Mariners of Victoria seem to have helped when issues arose relating to the use of the sea for trade and transportation. Two of the letters held by the R.H.S.V talk about the Ancient Mariners of Victoria helping with conflict resolution between shipowners and wharf workers when nationwide strikes began in August 1917.8The first letter is an open letter from Ships Husband Thos. H. Flère, addressed to “Old Barnacle”, which acted as a call to arms to help shipowners unload their ships and resolve their union dispute. The second to a Mr Robertson, also from Flère, explains that he cannot, nor can any others from his society, attend an R.G.S.A meeting as they have volunteered to help to unload ships that had been affected by the strikes.
The League of Ancient Mariners of NSW still function, celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2003, however the Victorian branch seem to have disappeared from the records after 1930. They are briefly mentioned in 1931, apparently taken on a sea voyage by the Shiplovers’ Society of Victoria during their first bay picnic in Portarlington, but even the Shiplovers have no records of the Ancient Mariners today.9This mysterious group of men clearly made a difference to Victorian society through setting up the sea scouts, through their charitable acts for various nautical causes, through their good humour and through volunteering their time to helping solve crisis in the shipping sector. How a society so active in the community disappeared with little trace, and where they disappeared to, I do not know, but I do hope to discover where the Ancient Mariners of Victoria sailed off to.
Researched and Written by Tessa Occhino
1 Poetry Foundation.The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (text of 1834). Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43997/the-rime-of-the-ancient-mariner-text-of-1834
2 Trove. Digitised newspapers and more. Retrieved from https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/result?q=%22ancient+mariners+of+victoria%22&sortby=dateDesc
3 eMelbourne. Letter from A E Rane (Ancient Mariners of Victoria). Retrieved from http://www.emelbourne.net.au/objects/D00000947.htm
4 SEA SCOUTS. (1914, June 2). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 13. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article7259104
4ANCIENT MARINERS. (1914, August 4). The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article239074934
4 Ancient Mariners Help the Navy. (1916, April 10). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article155076090
5 UNDER THE RED CROSS. (1916, July 13). Punch (Melbourne, Vic. : 1900 – 1918; 1925), p. 30. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article121077643
6 OUR SAILORS’ DAY IN MELBOURNE: THE “MARCO POLO” IN THE STREETS. (1917, March 24). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1606047
7 ENTERED OUTWARDS. (1915, October 19). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1572467
8 COMPLETE CESSATION OF WATERSIDE WORK. (1917, August 14). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article155145427
9 In Town and Out (1931, February 16). The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article242882050