20. Two Men In A Boat
Two men stood on the deck of the SS Minnetonka at the Port of London. It was 23rd July, 1913. Shortly, the ship would set sail to Ellis Island, New York: a seven-day voyage and the start of a new life in America. The two men were Henry Daubney, my great uncle; and James Hamlet Daubney, his eighteen-year-old son.
The passage was difficult, but convivial. For the most part, the passengers were treated no better than the cargo. Resentment and envy dripped from every single one of the jealous crew. All the passengers were embarking on a thrilling adventure – a new beginning in the New World and the crew hated them for that. Under normal circumstances, Henry Daubney’s Irish blood would have boiled at such treatment and his fists would have been put to good use, but on this voyage, the bitterness of others mattered not one jot. The drink had been plentiful and his anticipation of what lay ahead rendered redundant any displeasure at their treatment from the crew. The same could be said for the younger man, James Hamlet Daubney. He was in good spirits. Cut from the same cloth as his father, he held no truck with men who were consumed by petty jealousies. Besides, he was thoroughly enjoying nautical life. By the evening of the second day aboard, he had successfully persuaded a gorgeous Italian serving maid, who had been flirting outrageously with him at an impromptu below-decks dance, to partner him in a private horizontal hornpipe. What man could fail to feel satisfied at such good fortune?
In the afternoon of the 26th, having tended to their toilet in their third-class cabin, Henry and son were taking some whiskey on the south deck. Henry was composing a short letter to his beloved Elizabeth, whilst James Hamlet had lost himself in daydreams of his new life ahead on Rhode Island. Neither man had noticed the middle-aged couple who had sat down beside them on rickety deckchairs. Only the perfume of some freshly opened Bourbon aroused the interest of Henry. The couple introduced themselves as Mr and Mrs Lionel Archer, from Bournemouth, England. They were travelling to visit their son, Mr Walter Archer, who had settled in America during the exceptionally cold winter of 1909. This was their first trip overseas and today was their first venture outside of their cabin, having finally found their sea legs. Mrs Lionel Archer was a martyr to her digestion and had been left prostrate for three days and three nights. Henry was particularly interested to register the news that the Archers had needed several tumblers of Dutch courage to get them this far. He anticipated a pleasurable, thirst-quenching afternoon ahead. Having read his father’s thoughts, James Hamlet smiled and poured each of his new travelling companions several fingers of Ireland’s finest. Mrs Lionel Archer affected a display of declining, but James Hamlet knew that she was playing her own little comedy and encouraged the Archers to ‘knock it back in one’. The Daubneys burst into a generous round of applause as the Archers succeeded with their challenge and Henry took this opportunity to suggest to Mr Lionel Archer that he share around his bottle of Bourbon. Mr Lionel Archer’s response couldn’t have been kinder.
Lighting his pipe, James Hamlet felt a sudden splash of water hit his back. He turned around in suspicion, to see the beautiful Italian serving girl waving impishly at him. James Hamlet had never seen a more gorgeous woman. She had a natural, confident, Mediterranean beauty that would have been unheard of in Brentford. He knew that her seniors would not permit her to join in with the passengers’ revelry. She had implored him, the night before, to keep their tryst a secret, for fear of instant dismissal. At this moment, James Hamlet was harbouring a hankering for having his horn piped again; and there would be plenty of other occasions during the passage for more communal drunkenness. He formed a plan.
“Father, I fear I may be getting a fever. I wonder whether a short nap in the cabin might revive me? I throw down a challenge to you, Father. I am sure that the superb Archers would be desirous of hearing your tales of your many adventures with Alfred the Great.”
“Alfred, the great?” enquired Mrs Lionel Archer.
James Hamlet continued his Pootering performance:
“Not any old Alfred, dear Mrs Lionel. The Alfred to whom I refer is Mr Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in all of America. It is to his palatial home that my father and I are now travelling. He and my father are bosom buddies, from way back.”
Mr Archer scoffed:
“The fever and the liquor are unhealthy bedfellows. I swear that this story is a load of old Mrs. Worthington’s grouts. Such tosh does not become you, young man.”
James Hamlet was offended and this would usually have led to a fist fight, but he could feel a pleasurable anticipation causing growth behind his fly-buttons and he was determined that his father should play along with his diversion.
“Perhaps another miniscule dram to oil my vocal cords,” suggested Henry, with a barely concealed wink.
James Hamlet smiled too. He was keenly aware that his father needed no prompting to tell the world about his friendship with the great millionaire and how he had taught the American everything he knew about getting the best out of a carriage-racing horse. James Hamlet would listen attentively for five minutes in a display of loyalty and then quietly slip away to his cabin for some sport of his own.
Henry drained the last of his drink and held out his glass towards Mr Archer for a refill. He gestured to his audience for them to draw their deckchairs closer.
“It was 1899, it was. I had been a groom and carriage-driver for many a year. I had my sweet little Elizabeth at home, looking after the three nippers, as we had at the time. We had Henry junior, young James Hamlet here, and the baby, Claude. When you’re a horseman, you have to get yourself out and about and that can be hard for the family, back home. Although I was often away for weeks at a time, there was always food on the table. I won’t hear any man say otherwise.
It’s right simple, you see. You’re either good with an ‘orse, or you ain’t. And I’ve always had a natural affinity with the ‘orses, since I was a little lad. I was better with ‘orses than I was with people, as my old mother used to say. And she was right enough. Wouldn’t give humans the shit off me shoes. If you tell an ‘orse to go left, they’ll always go left. If you tell a man or a woman to go left, they’s want to know why they’re going left. Always got a question or a reason not to do what you’re asking. Ain’t that right, James Hamlet? James? The bugger’s gone off. Can’t say that I blame him. He’s heard this tale, many a time….
When I were a nipper, my old man worked in the slaughterhouse. Many a day, he took me and my sister, Mary-Jane to work with him. She loved it; got right stuck in. Me, I hated it. I know that some sod has got to do it, but it wasn’t my idea of honest work to go about killing animals. I wasn’t soft, don’t misunderstand me, but I was more interested in what they could do when they were alive. I vowed then, that if I was going to do anything with my life, it would be about bringing out the best in an animal. I quickly learned that it was with ‘orses that I could do this best.
Anyway, there I was. One of the best judges of horseflesh in all the land. I had been working as a groom at the Albany. I was the man they called upon whenever an ‘orse got a bit uppity. ‘Where’s Henry? He’ll calm the blighter down,’ they would say. This particular day, I had been sent to some fox-hunting function, out at Syon House. I was tending to a beautiful, frisky grey, out front, whilst the nobs were having their dinner inside. And all the time that I was working, there was this grand nob, sitting on the grass, not taking his eye off me. I’d be having a little chat with this grey stunner and I’d look back around, and there he was, still watching me out. I was getting a bit narky, as it happened. A man don’t want an audience from no stuck-up nob.
So, I calls him out. Asked him what he thought he was looking at. I told him that if he didn’t mind his own business, I’d have to assist him to sling his effing hook. And do you know what the flash sod did? He laughed at me. Not a quick laugh that is over in seconds, but a bloody marathon chuckle. I was about to lamp him one, nob or no nob. But then he pulls out this hip flask from his jacket and he pours me a large one. Fills the glass to the brim. Same stuff as this. A healthy drop of Bourbon. So, I’m drinking his drink and thinking that he might not be such a bad sort after all, and he shakes my hand, and says,
‘The name is Alfred. And it’s a great honour to make your acquaintance.’
He had a funny voice. Deep, but a bit of a twang, like he was plucking a banjo. I asked whether he was from these parts and he said, no, he was from America, which explained the banjo.
Over a couple more bourbons, or five, he tells me that he is looking for a good trainer and after watching me for the past hour, he reckons that he’s found the perfect man for the job. I told him to watch his lip, but he said that if he’d learned one thing from his business travels, it was to trust his instinct. And how about it? Was I on board? Was I as good a stableman as he thought? Well, I thought, Mr American nob, you don’t have the monopoly on instinct. I’d worked out that he seemed a pretty, decent sort, and looking at the cut of his outfit, there might be a decent bit of money in it for me. So, I said, yes.
That were fourteen years ago and we’ve been inseparable ever since. Me, the Irish rogue, and him, the Yankee swell. It’s him who has paid for this journey. I’ve done the trip about five times before, but a few months back, we were in the stables and he said,
‘Henry, my old mucker. This just won’t do, any longer. How about you move out to America? Permanently. Come on your own to begin with, and if you find you can settle, bring the rest of your family out later. I’ll cover the fares and the housing for them all. The more the merrier. What do you say, old chap?’
What do you say? I was as keen as mustard, and so was James Hamlet. Where the chuffing hell has he gone? The missus wasn’t too sure at first, but she’s come round to the idea now. It’s my eldest that is full of hesitation. And I worry about my sister. She’s a widow woman after her husband drowned in the Thames, but she’s got herself a new man, so I think she will be alright. So I said yes and here we are.
All those years. He never said as much, but I swear that he saw me as his right-hand man. I would never let any scoundrel get the better of him, not that he hasn’t got the brain to spot a wrong ‘un. He spent many of his days in England. He was into his Coaching, as it is called. All the toffs and nobs, in their shiny coaches, haring it down from London Bridge to Brighton. I’ve seen some sights in those races that would make your hair curl. Of course, he had the money for the best horses. Everyone knew Mr Alfred. What with him having the best ‘orses and his money and his good looks. He could attract the women, no mistake. I’d never seen a collection of ‘orses so fine. Purebreds, every one of them. Magnificent creatures and I had the honour of looking after them. Makes a man real proud when he sees his ‘orses and his master, winning by a country mile. Yep. That nob. Alfred Vanderbilt. He’s done alright for me and my family.”
Henry had been talking for over an hour, during which several more glasses had been drunk. Mrs Lionel Archer fell off her deckchair with a resounding thud. Not many yards away, in one of the Minnetonka’s cabins, an eighteen-year-old adventurer let out a yell of immense pleasure.
Three days later, the ship docked at Ellis Island. Two men called Daubney were collected personally by Mr Alfred Vanderbilt and taken to a drinks gathering at his apartment, to celebrate their arrival. From there, sated, and full of soak, father and son retired to their new homes, in America.
The Daubneys did settle in America. Two years later, in 1915, Henry’s wife, Elizabeth and two of their sons, Claude and Lesley, joined Henry. In 1919, Henry’s eldest son, Henry junior, completed the transition of all of Henry senior’s sons. Finally, in 1920, Henry junior’s wife, Ethel, their three children, and Ethel’s cousin, Annie, braved the journey and now the entire Daubney family were settled in America. James Hamlet married Marjorie in 1916 and they settled and raised their family in Massachusetts.
On 7th May 1915, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was travelling home from England on HMS Lusitania. Just off the coast of Ireland, the ship was torpedoed by a German U Boat. The huge liner sank within twenty minutes. Alfred Vanderbilt was preparing to escape onto a lifeboat, when he noticed a young mother carrying her baby. The woman didn’t have a lifejacket, so Alfred gave her his. Alfred Vanderbilt was not one of the survivors. He was 38.
The 1940 American census reveals that Claude Daubney, son of Henry Daubney and the younger brother of James Hamlet, was employed as a butler to the nephew of Alfred Vanderbilt.
Alfred Vanderbilt was responsible for the relocation of twenty-one members of the Daubney family to Rhode Island, America. Four generations later, the Daubney family continues to thrive in the USA.