Wednesday, 9 May 2012

H.M.S. Proteus

H.M.S. Emerald at Shanghai June 1927

Lowry refers to a British Warship named H.M.S Proteus in his short story 'China' whose crew play cricket with the merchant seamen of the narrator's ship in Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War in 1927. The ship is called H.M.S. Proteus.
To date, the only ship with that name I have found was a Parthian-class submarine designed and built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering in Barrow-in-Furness for the Royal Navy, and launched on 22 August 1929. Like other submarines in her class she served in China before the war. But this would have been after Lowry was in the Far East aboard the Blue Funnel line ship Pyrrhus. Nor does this fit with Lowry's description of the ship in the story; "We were moored nose on to the English battle-cruiser, H.M.S. Proteus". Blue Funnel line boats usually moored across the Yangste River at the Butterfield and Swire berths opposite the Bund.

Ships across the river at Shanghai 1927

One intriguing possibility is that Lowry may have seen a British Pathe news item about the launch of H.M.S. Proteus in 1929 while he was writing the story which may have provided the name and link to China.

Hoellischer Proteus

Lowry also may have been alluding to Greek mythology - Proteus is an early sea-god, one of several deities whom Homer calls the "Old Man of the Sea". Some who ascribe to him a specific domain call him the god of "elusive sea change," which suggests the constantly changing nature of the sea or the liquid quality of water in general. Read more on Wikipedia

However, further research has shown that during the period when Lowry would have been in Shanghai in late June1927 (he was definitely in Singapore on June 1927 en route to Shanghai - the Royal Navy would have had several ships from the "China Station" at Shanghai in response to the  crisis caused by the Chinese Civil War. You can see another news item on British Pathe news about the ships at Shanghai.

I have managed to find a full list of the ships from all nations which participated in the response according to the Times Naval Correspondent for 4th June 1927:

GREAT BRITAIN - Hawkins (flagship), Emerald (cruisers); Keppel (flotilla leader); Petersfield (minesweeper), Cockchafer, Cricket, Mantis, Widgeon (gunboats); Wishart (destroyer) ; and at Woosung, Despatch (cruiser) and Argus (aircraft-carrier); total 11.

UNITED STATES - Pittsburg (flagship), Richmond (flagship) (cruisers) ; Bulmer, Hart, Noa, Parrott, Paul Jones, Pillsbury, Pope, Preble, Preston, Pruitt, Truxton (destroyers); Black Hawk (destroyer tender); Elcano (gunboat); Chaumont and Henderson (transports); and at Woosung, Marblehead (cruiser) ; total, 18.

JAPAN - Tone (flagship), Hirado, Tenryu, Yahagi, Yakurno (cruisers); Kashi, Take (destroyers); Torpedo-boats 10, 16, 18; Seta, Toba (gunboats); Tsurumi (oiler); total, 13.

FRANCE - Jules Michelet (cruiser, flagship), Cassiopee, Craonne, Marne (dispatch vessels); total, 4.

PORTUGAL - Republica (sloop).

SPAIN - Blas de Lezo (cruiser).

ITALY - Libia (cruiser); E Carlotto (gunboat); Volta (submarine depot) total, 3.

There is no "Proteus" among the list. The only British cruiser was the Emerald. Given the number of ships at Shanghai - it is possible that the ships were "nose" to "nose" as described by Lowry in his 'China' story.

According to Times Naval Correspondent, a further 2 British cruisers - Durban and Vindictive - where upstream from Shanghai at Hankow. By coincidence, the crew of the Durban had a cricket team and played a match at Hankow Race Course on 11th June 1927.

For further details - see H.M.S Durban, China Station, 1926-28

The above details demonstrate that there was considerable naval activity in Shanghai during Lowry's visit which probably inspired the mention of the cricket match in his short story.

Lowry refers to the same incident in his novel Ultramarine in which he calls the ship H.M.S Danae.

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