The Hammers I - Frindsbury, Kent, 1786

Amy Lowell

   Tap-a-tap!  Rap!
   All through the lead and silver Winter days,
   All through the copper of Autumn hazes.
   Tap to the red rising sun,
   Tap to the purple setting sun.
   Four years pass before the job is done.
   Two thousand oak trees grown and felled,
   Two thousand oaks from the hedgerows of the Weald,
   Sussex had yielded two thousand oaks
   With huge boles
   Round which the tape rolls
   Thirty mortal feet, say the village folks.
   Two hundred loads of elm and Scottish fir;
   Planking from Dantzig.
   My!  What timber goes into a ship!
   Tap!  Tap!
   Two years they have seasoned her ribs on the ways,
   Tapping, tapping.
   You can hear, though there's nothing where you gaze.
   Through the fog down the reaches of the river,
   The tapping goes on like heart-beats in a fever.
   The church-bells chime
   Hours and hours,
   Dropping days in showers.
   Bang!  Rap!  Tap!
   Go the hammers all the time.
   They have planked up her timbers
   And the nails are driven to the head;
   They have decked her over,
   And again, and again.
   The shoring-up beams shudder at the strain.
   Black and blue breeches,
   Pigtails bound and shining:
   Like ants crawling about,
   The hull swarms with carpenters, running in and out.
   Joiners, calkers,
   And they are all terrible talkers.
   Jem Wilson has been to sea and he tells some wonderful tales
   Of whales, and spice islands,
   And pirates off the Barbary coast.
   He boasts magnificently, with his mouth full of nails.
   Stephen Pibold has a tenor voice,
   He shifts his quid of tobacco and sings:
       "The second in command was blear-eyed Ned:
          While the surgeon his limb was a-lopping,
       A nine-pounder came and smack went his head,
          Pull away, pull away, pull away!  I say;
          Rare news for my Meg of Wapping!"
   Every Sunday
   People come in crowds
   (After church-time, of course)
   In curricles, and gigs, and wagons,
   And some have brought cold chicken and flagons
   Of wine,
   And beer in stoppered jugs.
   "Dear!  Dear!  But I tell 'ee 'twill be a fine ship.
   There's none finer in any of the slips at Chatham."

   The third Summer's roses have started in to blow,
   When the fine stern carving is begun.
   Flutings, and twinings, and long slow swirls,
   Bits of deal shaved away to thin spiral curls.
   Tap!  Tap!  A cornucopia is nailed into place.
   Rap-a-tap!  They are putting up a railing filigreed like Irish lace.
   The Three Town's people never saw such grace.
   And the paint on it!  The richest gold leaf!
   Why, the glitter when the sun is shining passes belief.
   And that row of glass windows tipped toward the sky
   Are rubies and carbuncles when the day is dry.
   Oh, my!  Oh, my!
   They have coppered up the bottom,
   And the copper nails
   Stand about and sparkle in big wooden pails.
   Bang!  Clash!  Bang!
       "And he swigg'd, and Nick swigg'd,
          And Ben swigg'd, and Dick swigg'd,
       And I swigg'd, and all of us swigg'd it,
          And swore there was nothing like grog."
   It seems they sing,
   Even though coppering is not an easy thing.
   What a splendid specimen of humanity is a true British workman,
   Say the people of the Three Towns,
   As they walk about the dockyard
   To the sound of the evening church-bells.
   And so artistic, too, each one tells his neighbour.
   What immense taste and labour!
   Miss Jessie Prime, in a pink silk bonnet,
   Titters with delight as her eyes fall upon it,
   When she steps lightly down from Lawyer Green's whisky;
   Such amazing beauty makes one feel frisky,
   She explains.
   Mr. Nichols says he is delighted
   (He is the firm);
   His work is all requited
   If Miss Jessie can approve.
   Miss Jessie answers that the ship is "a love".
   The sides are yellow as marigold,
   The port-lids are red when the ports are up:
   Blood-red squares like an even chequer
   Of yellow asters and portulaca.
   There is a wide "black strake" at the waterline
   And above is a blue like the sky when the weather is fine.
   The inner bulwarks are painted red.
   "Why?" asks Miss Jessie.  "'Tis a horrid note."
   Mr. Nichols clears his throat,
   And tells her the launching day is set.
   He says, "Be careful, the paint is wet."
   But Miss Jessie has touched it, her sprigged muslin gown
   Has a blood-red streak from the shoulder down.
   "It looks like blood," says Miss Jessie with a frown.

   Tap!  Tap!  Rap!
   An October day, with waves running in blue-white lines and a capful of wind.
   Three broad flags ripple out behind
   Where the masts will be:
   Royal Standard at the main,
   Admiralty flag at the fore,
   Union Jack at the mizzen.
   The hammers tap harder, faster,
   They must finish by noon.
   The last nail is driven.
   But the wind has increased to half a gale,
   And the ship shakes and quivers upon the ways.
   The Commissioner of Chatham Dockyard is coming
   In his ten-oared barge from the King's Stairs;
   The Marine's band will play "God Save Great George Our King";
   And there is to be a dinner afterwards at the Crown, with speeches.
   The wind screeches, and flaps the flags till they pound like hammers.
   The wind hums over the ship,
   And slips round the dog-shores,
   Jostling them almost to falling.
   There is no time now to wait for Commissioners and marine bands.
   Mr. Nichols has a bottle of port in his hands.
   He leans over, holding his hat, and shouts to the men below:
   "Let her go!"
   Bang!  Bang!  Pound!
   The dog-shores fall to the ground,
   And the ship slides down the greased planking.
   A splintering of glass,
   And port wine running all over the white and copper stem timbers.
   "Success to his Majesty's ship, the Bellerophon!"
   And the red wine washes away in the waters of the Medway.

The British warship HMS Bellerophon was built at Frindsbury. During the Napoleonic wars, the ship fought at the Glorious First of June off Brittany and in Nelson's great victories at the Nile and at Trafalgar. In 1815, Napoleon surrendered to the Captain of Bellerophon and was imprisoned on the ship.