Friday 12 November 2021

Received Ideas: Ballast

If you go for a tour around Topsham , Swanage or Fowey, your guide will point out an exotic building material that was brought over as ballast. For some reason, these stories have a romantic appeal, but a little thought will raise doubts. I suspect them all on principle.

The Swanage follies (bits of old London) were “brought over as ballast” by contractors John Mowlem and George Burt. (They scavenged – or salvaged – the architectural fragments while building in London in the 19th century.) In World War II, the battered American comic books available in England had come over as ballast (said George Orwell, and the story was still current in the 80s). Japanese imari plates came over as ballast in tea clippers. The yellow brick road of the Land of Oz derived from yellow bricks brought over by Dutch ships, which were used for roads by the first inhabitants of Peekskill, New York. Bricks from England built St John’s Cathedral, Belize. The ancient bricks of the oldest building in Walberswick were brought over in trading ships from the Low Countries.

Shingle and soil from Ireland supports Ullapool. The rubble from the San Francisco earthquake ended up in Newcastle, Australia. The ash heaps of Kings Cross were exported to St Petersburg (built on a marsh). FDR Drive in New York City is built on rubble from the Bristol blitz. Manhattan’s East Side is built on rubble from the Liverpool blitz. (There's a plaque.)

See also Dutch bricks that built houses in Topsham (Devon) and Fowey (Cornwall); Venetian tiles round fireplaces in Fowey; cobblestones that paved the streets of New York; exotic igneous rocks that built Museum Place, Cardiff; agates from Brazil en route to the lapidaries of Oberstein, Germany (imported in the regular way, says the Internet); fossil coral and chunks of quartz on the banks of the Thames; blue glazed bricks that pave the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico; blue-and-white tiles that decorate buildings in São Luís, Brazil; cobblestones that pave Nantucket streets; exotic seashells adorning Scott’s Grotto, Ware... you guessed it. All cobblestones are exotic.

But when people say “brought over as ballast”, maybe they are using the term loosely. They don’t mean “slung into the deepest hold”, but “added as an extra cargo to make up the weight”. “Makeweight” is a nautical term. The Dutch bricks of US Colonial-era buildings – were they ordered by builders? Surely no ship-owner would dump useful building material on the quayside? And besides, wouldn't it get in the way? New York was paved with “flat oblong granite, known as Belgian block, which was brought in as ship ballast” ( Wikipedia says Belgian block is another name for granite setts, manufactured for road making and unlikely to be given away. Just as Belgian block is not necessarily imported from Belgium, are “Flemish bricks brought over as ballast” a misunderstanding of “Flemish bond”, a style of bricklaying? Another authority says that the “bricks from England” that built colonial-era mansions were manufactured nearby – why spend a fortune on importing brick and stone? And it would be impractical to wait for ballast to arrive on the off-chance until you had enough materials to build your structure.

Mudlark Lara Maiklem points out that carboniferous fossils on the Thames foreshore probably arrived in loads of coal from the northeast.

There’s a Ballast Quay at Greenwich, but it was for ships taking on ballast (sand and gravel), not dumping it. There’s a Ballast Island in Porthmadog Harbour in Wales, where you can find stones from all over the world, and rare plants and flowers whose seeds hitched a ride. Allegedly.

There are many more urban legends and internet myths in my book What You Know that Ain't So.

More myths here, and links to the rest.

No comments:

Post a Comment