‘Pacing the deck of a Flushing steamer’

An admission – I had always imagined a ‘Flushing steamer’ to be a steamer of a particular kind, following the usual landlubber’s rule of assuming that a strange word in use alongside something ship-sounding must be a proper noun of unknown provenance.

But this turns out to have been idiotic. Flushing is the English vernacular for the Dutch port of Vlissingen, which should have been obvious given there is a district of Queens in New York with the same name.

A Flushing steamer, then, is nothing more than a steamer to Vlissingen. This is what the place looks like today, courtesy of wikipedia.de.

Vlissingen - Stadtstrand und Boulevard mit Hotel- und Appartmentgebäuden

A hundred years ago, this was a thriving port. The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Vlissingen/Flushing thus:

FLUSHING (Dutch Vlissingen), a fortified seaport in the province of Zeeland, Holland, on the south side of the island of Walcheren, at the mouth of the estuary of the western Scheldt, 4 m. by rail S. by W. of Middelburg, with which it is also connected by steam tramway and by a ship canal. There is a steam ferry to Breskens and Ter Neuzen on the coast of Zeeland-Flandres. Pop. (1900) 18,893. An important naval station and fortress up to 1867, Flushing has since aspired, under the care of the Dutch government, to become a great commercial port. In 1872 the railway was opened which, in conjunction with the regular day and night service of steamers to Queenborough in the county of Kent, forms one of the main routes between England and the east of Europe. In 1873 the great harbour, docks and canal works were completed. Yet the navigation of the port remains far behind that of Rotterdam or Antwerp, the tonnage being in 1899 about 7.9% of that of the kingdom. As a summer resort, however, Flushing has acquired considerable popularity, sea-baths and a large modern hotel being situated on the fine beach about three-quarters of a mile north-west of the town. It possesses a town hall, containing a collection of local antiquities, a theatre, an exchange, an academy of sciences and a school of navigation. The Jakobskerk, or Jacob’s church, founded in 1328, contains monuments to Admiral de Ruyter (1607-1676) and the poet Jacob Bellamy (1757-1786), who were natives of Flushing. The chief industries of the town are connected with the considerable manufacture of machinery, the state railway-workshops, shipbuilding yards, Krupp iron and steel works’ depot, brewing, and oil and soap manufacture. The chief imports are colonial produce and wine, wood and coal. The exports include agricultural produce (wheat and beans), shrimps and meat.

This, then, is Carruthers’s first stop in continental Europe. But how does he get there? The journey is surprisingly straightforward: by train from Victoria station to Queenborough in Kent, and then by steamer to Flushing. The station at Queenborough was right next to the pier – Carruthers would not have had far to go, a porter presumably staggering under the weight of a pile of luggage which included a Rippingille stove!


The steamer service from Queenborough was operated by Stoomvaart Maatschappij “Zeeland” (SMZ – the Zeeland Steamship Company in English), which began operating a service in 1875 using two former Confederate blockade runners, the Southern and the Northern, which were renamed the Stad Middelburg and the Stad Vlissingen. The new route became possible because the London, Chatham and Dover railway had opened a new branch line from Sittingbourne to Sheerness. This caused another peculiar little echo for me – the conclusion of my first novel, The English Monster, took place in Sheerness. And the London, Chatham and Dover railway had two lines running into London: one to Victoria, and one to Holborn. They joined at Herne Hill, my local station.

Queenborough itself is on the River Swale, the waterway which divides the Isle of Sheppey from the mainland, and which opens out into the River Medway, and then into the Thames estuary at the region known as the Nore, the ancient muster point for England’s navies. Nelson is said to have learned his nautical craft in the waters off Queenborough, and rumour has it that he and Emma Hamilton kept a house there for illicit trysts alongside the creaking masts.

Barely a century after Nelson’s dalliances with Lady Hamilton, daytime and overnight steamship services were being operated by the SMZ – Carruthers takes the 10.30 sailing for Flushing/Vlissingen on September 25, which would have arrived at just before six the following morning. There is a rather beautiful passage of writing at this stage in the book, too:

An air from the west, cooled by a midday thunderstorm, followed the steamer as she slid through the calm channels of the Thames estuary, passed the cordon of scintillating lightships that watch over the sea-roads to the imperial city like pickets round a sleeping army, and slipped out into the dark spaces of the North Sea.

Carruthers may be a pampered brat, but he certainly has a nice turn of phrase.

As for the ship he took, there are several possibilities, according to Simplon Postcards, the passenger ship postcard website: the Prins Hendrik (1880-1902), the Willem Prins der Orange (1883-1909), the Duitschland (1886-1916), which was later renamed the Zeeland, the Engeland (1887-1910) and the Nederland (1886-1910).

The Zeeland in wartime use as a hospital ship, with black-and-white ‘dazzle’ camouflage. Source: simplonpc.co.uk
The Zeeland, after the First World War. Source: simplonpc.co.uk


The Zeeland in wartime use as a hospital ship. Source: Simplon Postcards, simplonpc.co.uk
The Zeeland in wartime use as a hospital ship. Source: Simplon Postcards, simplonpc.co.uk


I like to think Carruthers took the Duitschland, if only because the ship was renamed in 1916 in the middle of the First World War, so this is another of those odd little pre-echoes. And I like to think he was humming something like this as he went.

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