Alfred George Henry Lay (1869-1958) Life and Labour Part 1

The title on Alfred’s first diary entry epitomises his life, an ‘Adventure’. From his diary entries we get to see how far Alfred traveled whilst at sea but also the trials and tribulations that he had to face along the way.

              Hester Blum states ‘sailors are concerned with describing the places and people they encounter only to a secondary degree: the main impetus of their narratives is to describe the local culture of the ship, as well as its material demands’ (Blum, 2012, 3). Alfred’s narrative in his first entry follows this to the extent that he gives us a detailed portrayal of his time aboard the Spencer, as well as his time spent in London.

              The first of these trials gives us a good sense of the person Alfred was. Whilst trying to acquire a new steamer he tells us that ‘the prospect did not look very bright but nothing daunted we had set our mind on having a steam launch and we were not the men to give up without a good deal of trying’ (3). Alfred was a man of determination, who fought for what he wanted and needed in order to succeed in life. We find out that trying to find the right steam launch can be an arduous task, Alfred states that after ‘clambering about launches and messing about with greasy engines we began to look like two tramps’ (7). Here we get a sense of Alfred’s working-class background.and what his profession entailed. He must get his hands dirty in order to achieve what he needs in order to make a living.  We find out that the ‘proprioritess did not wish us to come there’ (7), reinforcing his class. The owner of the hotel where he was staying did not want to ruin her establishments reputation by allowing people with Alfred and Jack’s appearance to stay there.

              The next trial that Alfred faced was trying to get his newly acquired vessel from London to Grimsby. We get a sense of how dangerous it can be at sea. ‘I caught hold of the main steam pipe wich burnt my hand and I let go quick and fell against the fire box and received a worst burn on my arm’ (8). This shows how unpredictable it can be whilst at sea, the weather has caused the ship to lurch and in turn cause Alfred bodily harm.

The River Thames with barges and a steam-powered paddle-wheeler

              After an accident at sea which results with a ‘tremendous crash breaking the stern rail sinking the boat and filling the engine room partly full of water’ (10). Alfred shows us how important this vessel is to him. ‘It seem very hard to lose her after spending our money in her money that had taken years to save and many a hard time and many a gale of wind hand been wethered during it accumulation after all the time we had spent in London which was no pleasure to us and after all we had got to leave her and go back to the same trade that we had tried hard to get from’ (10). Alfred has had to work hard for many years, doing something that he has not enjoyed in order to make the money he needs to move trade. He is in no position to give up ‘the spencer’ (7) so easily, he must work to ensure that it lasts the journey.

              Towards the end of the journey we get to see the toll that it has taken on Alfred when he states that he ‘was tired and stiff and nearly froze to deth and as hungry as a hunter and nothing to eat only wet bisket’ (16). Not only does being a sailor put you in danger, it massively effects your body and health. You are constantly at the mercy of the elements whilst also putting your body through strenuous circumstances. Alfred finishes the entry by telling us that this is a trip he is ‘in no hurry to undertake in the inter time again in a boat so small’ (20).


Blum, Hester. The View from the Masthead: Maritime imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. North Carolina: UNC Press Books, 2012.  

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