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A look-out on Christmas eve

Wednesday 14 December 2016

For a greeting card this summer solstice I have chosen this wood engraving from 1866. It may prompt us to lift our minds up from the Christ­mas carols, Christ­mas shop­ping, Christ­mas presents, Christ­mas drinks, Christ­mas pud­ding​—​to spare a thought for (ahem) Christmas Island.

Oops, sorry. I’m not supposed to talk about politics or religion at a Christmas gathering. Let’s just enjoy the picture and the text. The scene was drawn by J A Pasquier, an obscure artist. His work, and the work of the even more obscure engraver who signed with a monogram on the bottom-right, is a morally-up­lift­ing tale of devotion to duty, suitable for warming the hearts of respectable folk at Christmas time.

James Abbott Pasquier, ‘A look-out on Christmas-eve’, wood engraving published in the Christmas supplement to the 22 December 1866 issue of The Illustrated London News.

I’ll let the editor of the magazine explain what the picture is about:

At this season of the year, when wrecks are frequent around our stormy coasts, the men at the different life-boat stations, and others whose duty it is to watch for vessels in distress, are more than usually vigilant; and if the sun goes down in a lowering sky, with a tempestuous wind blowing landward, a good look-out is sure to be kept at all points where help or succour is likely to be needed. Our engraving on page 609 represents one of the curious lofty structures erected by the beachmen of Great Yarmouth to overlook the Scroby Sands and watch for signals in the roadstead. These “Look-outs,” as they are called, are six in number, and are each owned by a company of twelve beachmen, com­manded by a captain, who also acts as cashier, and squares up all accounts at Christmas. Each company also possesses one or more yawls and other boats, in which the hardy beachmen are ever ready to brave the dangerous surf, and they frequently risk their lives in efforts to save ships and men. The beachmen of Yarmouth are a bold and gallant body, of whom many acts of bravery and en­dur­ance are recorded. Between the different companies a notable rivalry exists, which frequently leads to deeds of great daring, and sometimes gives rise to an exciting race, the goal being some stranded vessel, with its benumbed and perishing crew straining their eager eyes to catch a glimpse of their coming deliverers. All honour to the brave hearts who are looking out for the distressed at this blessed Christmas tide! and as we give a hearty “Good-night!” to the old fellow who is ascending the ladder with a supply of Christmas cheer for himself and his mates, let us hope that their night-watch may be disturbed by no worse sounds than the roar of the sea or the howling of the bitter wind.

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