In my family there are sailors and ship-wrecks, pirates and bandits, some splendid characters, and always, everywhere, the sea. So many threads, so many stories – who could imagine that family history is dull?
I think about the fisherman who was born in 1658 into a family teeming with masters and commanders – was he overwhelmed? There was the tragedy of Baker Phillips, a Royal Navy lieutenant who was unfairly court martialled for negligence during the War of the Austrian Succession when a French gun-ship attacked unexpectedly at short range. He was only twenty seven when he was ceremoniously shot on the forecastle of the Princess Royal at Spithead in 1745.
|Dr Maitland King|
Great great grandfather Samuel Gibson, master mariner, was part of New Zealand history when he brought the Egmont carrying Bishop Harper to Christchurch in 1856. Nine years later he sailed from Sydney in the Margaret Mitchell and lost the ship and his life, it was assumed to pirates, in the South China seas.
My grandmother sailed from England to Japan to marry her cousin, another master mariner, in 1895 and remained there until the beginning of the second world war. Widowed only twenty years after the wedding and raising four children without much money, she never learned the language, although all her children and grandchildren were bi-lingual.
Her up-for-anything daughter drove a Studebaker hell-for-leather through the Malayan jungle with bullets whining all around her, visited the burning ghats of India, and dressed in men's clothes to explore the red light district of Hong Kong. During world war II she ran almost single-handedly the lifeboat rescue service, and one night fended off a drunken soldier when her flat was bombed open by telling him that she was too busy entertaining his commanding officer.
Great grandfather Robert Aurelius King commanded an opium ship and might have been an old wretch with a sense of humour. He once wrote "retired opium smuggler" on a census form and seemed, in retirement, to have dabbled in various ventures including the Imperial Salt Company, the National Provincial Bank of England, and a strange matter regarding the patent for improvements to circular saws. He was in court more than once.
So was his wife, Dr Maitland King. She met and married Captain King in Shanghai in 1856 and had eight children. She called herself a doctor and ran a clinic near Grosvenor Square for "upper and wealthy classes", offering electro-medicated baths and treatments for corpulence. She bustled her way into royal circles, told whopping lies about her age and background, and was described as "the most interesting woman in London". One of her grandchildren remembered her in old age fishing from a dinghy on the Thames, smoking cigars and swigging rum.