By D S Powell
His given name was Henry: Henry Brewis of Limehouse, but everyone called him “Beau” on account of his good looks and popularity with young ladies.
Together we made the trip from Tyneside to Poplar Dock once a week, and Beau Brewis acquired a reputation in both of those places as a bit of a dandy. Beau took a fastidious interest in his appearance. He sported a large, fashionable moustache, the ends of which he kept waxed. He was particular about the cleanliness of his clothes, when not on duty, having in his ditty bag always a fresh-pressed shirt and trousers, and a cake of soap.
Brewis had a rival on our boat: another stoker called Shepherd, who also fancied himself, and these two had competed with each other in good-humored contention for a couple of years. That was until the inevitable happened, and they both fell in love with the same girl: Margaret O’Dwyer, a barmaid at The White Horse public house in Poplar High Street.
Margaret O’Dwyer was uncommonly pretty. She’d had a father in the merchant marine (drowned when his ship sank in the Sumatran Sea) and knew the ways of sailors.
In the beginning, they took it in turns to court her, the other keeping away, hoping she would make up her mind—but she never did (or had decided that she liked the both of them at her beck and call), and what had been good-natured, shifted to something bad.
I remember that it all came to a head one night after loading at South Shields. I’d been in the hold, trimming the load so that the boat sat well in the water, when I heard a ruckus from the crew quarters.
Brewis and Shepherd had finally come to blows. By the time I arrived, it was over. Brewis had laid Shepherd out with a couple of punches and was now rearranging his hair in his hand mirror.
“He wouldn’t step aside,” he said by way of explanation when I had piled down the companionway to see what all the noise was about.
Shepherd lay on the floor, his nose broken and his face bloodied. I went to help him up, but he shook me off and stalked off without saying a word.
I heard he went to the second mate and Brewis got fined for fighting—not that he cared; as long as he had enough to keep him in moustache wax and soap, he was happy.
A couple of weeks later, we were on a return leg to London, there was a gale blowing, and we weren’t making much headway. Both Brewis and Shepherd were at the furnace, and I was feeding them coal when they called for it. Keeping the furnace burning evenly and at the right temperature was a job that required skill, and I was learning from both of them.
A big swell was building, and sometimes the boat seemed to jump backwards rather than maintain forward momentum. When the screw came out of the water, we heard the engine racing away fit to burst, but they didn’t slow their feeding of the furnace. The fire doors were open, and with the flames roaring and the incredible heat, I saw Brewis and Shepherd, stark against the inferno—two devils stoking the fires of Hell.
The chief engineer called down to us that we were putting into Great Yarmouth to wait until the gale had blown itself out. Brewis and Shepherd were working in tandem, so they weren’t getting in each other’s way, but they appeared to be competing as to who could shift the most coal.
I was having trouble keeping up with them, and as I turned away to the bunker once more, I heard a popping followed by hissing. I knew what had happened without having to look.
Brewis had caught a jet of steam full in his face, just as he was about to shovel a load into the furnace. Shepherd had been out of the way, and I couldn’t be sure that I saw him drop the ten- pound hammer onto the floor—I thought I saw it fall, but not with enough certainty for a man’s life to depend on it.
The jet of steam had pinned Brewis back against the casing of the number one expansion engine, where he stuck like a steak to a hot griddle.
When we carried him upstairs, he was still living—poor devil. His face, which had caught the full force of the escaping steam, looked like a piece of boiled brisket. The moustache he’d been so proud of was seared off in the heat. It was an awful thing to see for a man to go from full health to a ruin within the space of a few seconds.
At the inquest, they said the valve had failed under the extreme conditions in the engine room, and we were all exonerated and even praised for reacting quickly and saving further injury.
Officially, the verdict was “death by scalding” due to the unforeseeable failure of a steam release valve.
If Shepherd thought he had cleared the field of rivals, he was mistaken. When Margaret O’Dwyer heard about Beau Brewis, she’d left the pub, and later, I heard she’d married a coal-merchant from Whitechapel and had a brace of children.
I worked with Shepherd for a year after the accident, but he never said anything about it, even though sometimes I thought he wanted to get something off his chest.
Brewis was put into the ground at the church near The White Horse. The company paid for his interment as he had no family. I paid my respects if I was passing. Someone always left fresh flowers on his grave, but whether that was Shepherd or Margaret O’Dwyer, I never found out.