Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"They always said I would never make a steward."

Captain W.R.D. Irvine commanded the RMS Berengaria for much of the 1920s and was definitely a mariner of the highest quality. He also holds, however, the distinction of being perhaps one of the most peculiarly eccentric men to have ever commanded a Cunard ship. Commodore Robert G. Thelwell described him as one "who would accept no criticism, even implied, of anything that happened on any ship he commanded." This in itself is not too odd. Many others have certainly felt the same way about their vessels over the years - particularly of the great liners. But Commodore Thelwell then elaborates and explains why the nickname "Haughty Bill" stuck to Captain Irvine like glue:
[He] cared as little for the rank-and-file as he did for shipowners, managers and passengers. Pickets with sticks at Southampton determined once to prevent Berengaria from sailing because of a strike. Irvine drove to the dock gates in a taxi which was immediately surrounded by a milling crowd of men, their eyes full of menace. The captain alighted and surveyed the jostling throne with something like contempt. 'Stand back,' he shouted suddenly. 'You don't seem to realize that I am the captain of the Berengaria.' I doubt whether such tactics would be successful to-day but they were then. The pickets fell back and Haughty Bill was able to board his ship unmolested.

Commodore Thelwell then adds:

Passengers, too, sometimes caught of whiff of his contempt for the world at large. A short-sighted American woman passenger saw the erect uniformed figure of Haughty Bill on the promenade and unpardonably imagining him to be a steward ordered him to take her tea tray away. He was a man of the quickest possible reactions. He took the tray and dropped it deliberately a yard away from the passenger. 'They always said I would never make a steward,' he remarked as he strode away.

Many years later after Captain Irvine's retirement, the future Commodore Thelwell was looking through the Berengaria's chart room and came across an order book that bore his signature. The style of the writing "reminded [him] vividly of [Haughty Bill's] jutting chin and imperious manner." References: Commodore Robert G. Thelwell, I Captained the Big Ships, comp. Robert Jackson (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1961), 56-57.

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