Alfred George Henry Lay (1869-1958) An Introduction

Alfred George Henry Lay was born on the 12th February 1869 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Alfred and four other children were placed in an Aylesbury orphanage by his father, Samuel William Lay, after the death of his mother, Sarah, in 1877 after the birth of a daughter. At the age of 16 Alfred went on to gain an apprenticeship in Grimsby on the 6th June 1883. His apprenticeship with Robert William Roberts, master of the fishing smack the ‘Silvery Spray’, lasted 6 years until he gained his Mate’s Ticket in 1893. During this time Alfred married Kate Short in 1892, with whom he had four sons- Alfred, Edgar, Stanley and Frank, all of which became orchardists. In 1899, Alfred became the master of the steam trawler, ‘Vampire’, and continued as a fisherman until he emigrated to New Zealand in 1914, where he made Hastings his home. Alfred became a contractor for haymaking and cartage before his death on the 18th April 1958.

              Alfred’s diary is a rather short one that does not give us any detail on things like his family, his early childhood or on his emigration to New Zealand. Instead we are given an account of his voyages at sea, detailing the trials that he underwent. Due to the fact that the diary entries all involve moments on his journey where he has had to overcome a problem you get the sense that these where wrote as a way to reflect and learn.

               The first part of his memoir titled, ‘Adventure’ gives us an insight into a journey that he took from London to Grimsby in a steam launch called the Spencer which Alfred tells us ‘was by no means what we wanted nor did it look very seaworthy to go a sea voyage of 200 miles’ (7). We get to see the struggles that Alfred and his Mate had to undergo on their ‘Adventure’ and how hard they had to work to make it to Grimsby in a trip that Alfred was ‘in no hurry to undertake in the winter time again in a boat so small’ (20). I think that Alfred sees this journey as an adventure as he looking to start a new profession.

                The second part of his memoir titled, America, details the time after he had finished his apprenticeship. We find out that he travelled from Liverpool to New York on a boat called ‘the Egypt’ p21. During this part of Alfred’s memoir, we learn that he had a difficult time on his way to New York and during his time spent there, before he was able to find work on another boat. During his time in America we find out that Alfred travelled to places like Philadelphia, New Jersey and Florida before his diary ends abruptly.

Grimsby Dock Tower pictured in late 1800s – a time when Grimsby’s fishing industry was booming (2007)

                The last two parts of Alfred’s memoir detail two of his trips on a steamer called ‘Vampire’. Both entries highlight the unpredictability a catch can be for a fisherman. He tells us that ‘Year ago we could not get but little fish in the daytime but now thing is changing this trip we cannot git so much fish in the dark as in the daylight (32). The seas are changing making it more challenging for Alfred to earn a living. At one-point Alfred makes an admission that ‘there don’t seem any prospects of getting a trip down here’ (34) before giving us a detailed list of the expenses that he had to pay for the S.S. Vampire on the 12th November 1901.

                 I think this memoir is worth reading as it gives us an insight into the life of a working-class Victorian man trying to make something of himself. We see Alfred start out with literally nothing due to being orphaned at a young age before making a daring decision to go to America, struggle to get by and then manage to make something of himself. Throughout his memoir we get a deep insight into all the trials and tribulations he faced whilst at sea and how he was able to overcome them.

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