This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Ship's Orchestra

18 May 2019

Once upon a time a man's mustache
was evidence of maturity
and a mark of a gentleman.
Cultivating lip hair to an impressive length
was a requirement to be part of the masculine community.
A fine mustache required hours minutes
of shaving, trimming, and grooming,

(Unless one had the misfortune to be a smooth-faced clarinettist.)

Society took notice of those who did not conform.
If your mates had mustaches
then fashion rules dictated
that you should sport one too.
And if your nation had a traditional style
then common practice required that your mustachio
should be twisted, waxed, and curled to the imperial standard.

It made a striking effect
for a group of musicians
dressed in the livery of a ship's orchestra.

One day long ago
ten musicians arranged themselves for the camera,
five strings – double bass, viola, and 3 violins
with two cornets, flute, clarinet, and trombone.
The leader sits center
holding a cornet and a conductor's baton.
They are outdoors on the deck of a ship
which we know because there is
a bearded sailor just behind them.

It's a large photo that is without any marks
as to where or when it was taken.
However the men's mustaches give us an era
of roughly 1890 to 1915.

But there is one tiny useful clue.

mbroidered on the hat band
of the sailor's cap is the ship's name


If the sailor would only turn his head
we might see the first letters,
but as he is unlikely to cooperate
we must use the clues we have.

His uniform with its flat cap, dark tunic and tied collar
is not the dress of a sailor in the navy
but of a seaman in the merchant marine.
The orchestra musicians and the seaman
are on board some kind of passenger ship,
one that has a double name
spelt _  _ NS Castle.

It was part of the fleet
of the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Line
for travel between Great Britain
and South and East Africa and Mauritius.

The African Monthly
December 1908

A Union-Castle ship left Southampton every Saturday
for South Africa with calls at Teneriffe and Las Palmas
in the Canaray Islands and sometimes stopping
at St Helena and Ascension Islands in the South Atlantic.
The outward bound voyage took about 18 days to Cape Town,
and the return from Durban was about 22 days.

Of the 37 ships in the Union-Castle fleet
22 are named   * * * - Castle.
But only one has a first name
ending with the letters NS,
the R. M. S. “Kinfauns Castle”

Union Castle Liner, R. M. S. "Kinfauns Castle"
Source: the internet
The Royal Mail Ship Kinfauns Castle was 515 feet in length and 59 in breadth. Built in Glasgow in 1899, she was powered by two coal fired quadruple expansion steam engines that turned twin four bladed manganese bronze propellers. The Kinfauns Castle and her sister ship the Kildonan Castle displaced nearly 10,000 tons and provided accommodations for 300 first class, 160 second class, and 200 third class passengers. The ship was fitted with 100 electric lights and 23 blowing and exhausting fans to ventilate its saloons, corridors, and cabins. In October 1899 a reporter for the Dundee Courier traveled on the Kinfauns Castle from London down to Southampton on its maiden voyage. He wrote:

Space will not permit of a detailed description of the rich mahogany and satin wood paneling and the exquisite carved work of the first class saloon, splendidly lighted by large square windows with hinged brass frames and by a handsome central dome, which is a special feature both in its size and from. Then there is the drawing-room, a lofty and spacious apartment designed in the modern English Renaissance style, paneled in sating wood, inlaid with tulipwood, and furnished with a Broadwood grand piano and with sofas and lounges of dark mahogany sumptuously upholstered in silk. The devotees of My Lady Nicotine were loud in their praise of a smoking-room which is designed after the manner of an old Dutch interior. The second saloon, situated on the upper deck, is framed in oak, and, like the first class saloon, it possesses a piano and is luxuriantly fitted up. Separate up-to-date libraries are provided for first, second, and third class passengers, and in the main saloon a large beautiful painting of the port of London by Colin Hunter, A.R.A., is shown.

(I include that last bit because Colin Hunter (1841–1904) was a Scottish artist who lived in London on Melbury Road right next to the Sylvester family featured in my story from February 2014 entitled Miss Sylvester's Violin. Hunter painted a striking portrait of Winifred Sylvester's father, army surgeon John Henry Sylvester dressed in his Indian army uniform, which I included in the story.)

There was a terrible storm brewing in late September 1899 when the Kinfauns Castle started on its first voyage. It was heading directly into the eye of the Boer War. This conflict between the British Empire and the two Boer states: the Republic of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, would last from October 1899 to May 1902.

So when the Kinfauns Castle arrived in Southampton in September 1899 it was immediately requisitioned by the Royal Navy for use as a troop ship to the conflict in South Africa. Most of the passengers were officers, but there were also units of army engineers, medical corps, and service corps assigned to the steerage cabins. The engineers brought on equipment for gas balloons. The soldiers and officers must have been thrilled at their good fortune to embark on this wartime journey on such a new luxury liner. The scene was recreated by the maritime artist Charles John de Lacy (1856–1929) with a crowd of people at the dockside waving farewell as the gallant lads cheer from the aft deck of the Kinfauns Castle.

The 'Kinfauns Castle' as a troopship
by Charles John De Lacy
Source: Wikimedia
Over the next several months hundreds of steamships would be appropriated for the war effort in  South Africa. Ships like the Kinfauns Castle would transport thousands of soldiers, horses, guns, munitions, equipment, and supplies 8,100 miles from Southampton to Cape Town. Little did they know the great price this foolhardy war would cost. The British forces took almost 100,000 casualties and saw 22,092 men killed in the two years of war.  The Boers suffered 6,189 men killed in action and 26,370 Boer women and children who perished in concentration camps. The financial debt incurred by the British government was estimated at £211,156,000, equivalent to about £202 trillion in 2014 monetary value.  

The Kinfauns Castle survived the Boer War and after 1902 returned to normal passenger ship work between England and South Africa. In 1914 the ship was again appropriated for another war, one that lasted much longer than the Boer War, and one that put all shipping at tremendous risk for attacks by German submarines. Yet by 1919 the Kinfauns Castle survived the Great War too and continued as a passenger liner until being sold for scrap in 1927.

Though its possible that there were musicians hired for that first maiden voyage of the Kinfauns Castle in 1899, I suspect the war removed any space available for musical instruments. So it seems more likely that this photo of the ship's orchestra dates from the inter-war period of peace that followed and probably is closer to 1902 that 1914. The mustache styles suggest several Germans are in the ensemble with some English and Scottish too, so the photo was not taken after July 1914.

Of the 37 steamships in the Union-Castle fleet, I suspect all had at least a small piano trio to play music at mealtimes if not a ten-piece orchestra like the one in my photo. The larger ships like the Kinfauns Castle needed to entertain a very large number of people, many with families, for several weeks at sea. Music provided one way to calm the spirits of people on troubled waters, so an orchestra was required for any dancing and theatrical entertainments. As many string musicians of this era could double on wind instruments, and visa versa, the musicians also likely played band music on deck to accompany the ship's daily events and activities. It was demanding work that would challenge any musician to maintain his musicianship in all kinds of weather, not to mention a wife and family back home. I doubt musicians were given luxury berths and the pay was probably not as good as theater work. But it was a steady job and you got to see the world, or at least whenever the ship was in port.

So here's my question.
Is mustache wax resistant to salt-water?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every ship has its day.


Avid Reader said...

Interesting post. I knew the name of the Boer War, but little else.

Funny about the facial hair conformity.

DawnTreader said...

It's amazing where the study of little details in a photo can lead you sometimes!

Barbara Rogers said...

Glad to see another scholarly post of our history...and musicians! As to mustache wax...I wonder what it was made from...bees? probably not, or they might have followed the lads around wanting it back!

ScotSue said...

I wondered how you would link ships and musicians , but never thought of ship orchestras - though few of them look happy to be at sea!

Anonymous said...

Hi, very pleased to see photographs of ship musicians from the early 20th century. My gt uncles were on ships during that time. I've checked a few merchant lists and returns to see when during the period you think it may be, there were 10 piece bands on that ship. So far, 1901, 1903, 1906, 1907, 1908. Other years up to 1914 had 7 piece bands. This 10 piece included a bugle player and they all doubled as stewards, apart from the bandleader. On that note and following those dates - the bandleader in this picture could be either Richard Jeremy, born London 1876 or William Perrior also born London, in 1873. I've seen a picture of Richard's brother from WW1 and there is a similarity. But of course, I could be wrong as he also had a fine mustache... :-)


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