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‘The Cruise of the Tomtit’ is an account of a 12-day sailing trip from Weston-super-Mare in Somerset to the Scilly Isles in the last two weeks of September 1855 made by Wilkie Collins and his close friend Edward Francis Smyth Pigott (1824-1895). The plan was probably hatched in the last week of August when Collins was staying in Folkestone with Charles Dickens and Pigott visited them and stayed the night. On 2 September Collins wrote to his mother

"we are to start about the 10th, and, if we can manage it to include in the trip a ten days cruise in the Bristol Channel, sailing ultimately to the Scilly Islands. I shall not be back for good, most likely, before October." (The Letters of Wilkie Collins 1999 I 143)

And he wrote to Pigott a few days later

"Now about the yacht trip—Everything very jolly, except the tremendous consideration of the Equinox. I find by my Almanack that it begins on the 23rd September. Surely we shall not have time for the Scilly Islands, starting only on the 18th or 19th? And as for returning in an Equinoctial Gale in a boat of 8 tons, with one able seaman on board, is that not rather "tempting Providence" by making a toil of a pleasure? Had we not better make a brief burst upon the Welsh coast, and get back before Boreas can overtake us?" (The Letters of Wilkie Collins 1999 I 145)

Collins’s fears were overcome – perhaps because the boat they used was heavier and they engaged three crew – and they did sail to the Scilly Isles. The timetable seems to be that Collins and Pigott left London on Thursday 13th and went to Bristol where they bought supplies and stayed the night, possibly with the land agent Edwin Fox. The next day. Friday 14th, they travelled 11 miles to Brockley Hall, Yatton – one of two homes of Edward’s brother, John Hugh Wadham Pigott. They stayed there three nights, plundering the place for supplies. On Monday 17th they travelled the seven miles to Weston-super-Mare, which Collins appropriately calls Mangerton-on-the-Mud. The town is in the Bristol Channel, the broad mouth of the estuary of the river Avon. When the tide goes out the whole estuary is a sea of mud. After a busy day plundering supplies and visiting the local doctor, Joseph Stringfield, they stayed the night at the Grove – the other home of Pigott’s brother. They started on their voyage on Tuesday 18th anchoring off the Welsh coast that night and off the Somerset coast the following night. They visited Ilfracombe on 20th and Clovelly on 21st, sailed past Hartland Point on 22nd and Longship’s Lighthouse off Land’s End the next day, 23rd. They arrived at Hugh Town in the Scilly Isles on 24th staying one night in Tregarthen’s Hotel owned by Captain Frank Tregarthen and two nights with the leaseholder and reformer of the islands, Augustus John Smith (1804-1872) at his house on Tresco. They left the islands at noon on 27th and are carried the whole 200 miles home in 43 hours by strong favourable winds, arriving back at Weston at seven in the morning on 29th. That day Collins wrote a letter to Dickens with an account of his trip and Dickens replied on September 30.

"Welcome from the bosom of the Deep! If a hornpipe will be acceptable to you at any time (as a reminder of what the three brothers were always doing), I shall be…‘happy to oblige’…Kind regards to Pigott." (The Letters of Charles Dickens Pilgrim VII 711)

‘The Cruise of the Tomtit’ is a jolly romp but contains two significant passages. Near the start Collins sets out his writing principles which he stuck to throughout his career.

"I am going to tell things just as they happened. What some people call smart writing, comic colouring, and graphic describing, are departments of authorship at which I snap my fingers in contempt."

And later he sets out a political principle. There were five men on board the boat Pigott, Collins and three sailors — the Brothers Dobbs. But they lived in Collinsian unconventionality.

"In the first place, let me record with just pride, that we have solved the difficult problem of a pure republic in our modest little craft. No man in particular among us is master—no man in particular is servant. The man who can do at the right time, and in the best way, the thing that is most wanted, is always the hero of the situation among us… So we sail along; and such is the perfect constitution of society at which we mariners of England have been able to arrive."

Although Collins was proud that he and the wealthy Pigott lived as equals with three common sailors, he parodied the experience just a few months later.

This passage in ‘Tomtit’

"Our freedom extends to the smallest details. We have no stated hours, and we are well ahead of all rules and regulations We have no breakfast hour, no dinner hour, no time for rising, or for going to bed. We have no particular eatables at particular meals. We don’t know the day of the month, or the day of the week; and never look at our watches, except when we wind them up. Our voice is frequently the voice of the sluggard; but we never complain, because nobody ever wakes us too soon, or thinks of interfering with our slumbering again. We wear each other’s coats, smoke each other’s pipes, poach on each other’s victuals."

Becomes a few months later in The Dead Secret

"It was breakfast-time with Mr. Treverton--that is to say, it was the time at which he felt hungry enough to think about eating something. In the same position over the mantel-piece in which a looking-glass would have been placed in a household of ordinary refinement, there hung in the cottage of Timon of London a side of bacon. On the deal table by the fire stood half a loaf of heavy-looking brown bread; in a corner of the room was a barrel of beer, with two battered pewter pots hitched onto nails in the wall above it; and under the grate lay a smoky old gridiron, left just as it had been thrown down when last used and done with. Mr. Treverton took a greasy clasp-knife out of the pocket of his dressing-gown, cut off a rasher of bacon, jerked the gridiron onto the fire, and began to cook his breakfast."

Although Collins told Pigott just before the trip "I must work every morning, having a new iron in the fire, which I will tell you about when we meet" (Letters of Wilkie Collins 1999 I 145), he did not in fact seem to be very busy. The only imminent publication was ‘The Monktons of Wincot Abbey’ which appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in November and December 1855. But this story had in fact been written in 1852 and rejected by Dickens for his weekly periodical Household Words because its theme of hereditary insanity would be too upsetting for his family readership. It is possible that Wilkie was revising it for publication but that would hardly qualify as "a new iron in the fire." He was not writing anything for The Leader – his last piece for the radical weekly had appeared on 25 August. His most recent story in Household Words has been published in July and his next, for the Christmas number on December 15, was not begun until he returned. Perhaps he was already starting on ‘Uncle George or the Family Mystery’ published in The National Magazine in January 1856.

Soon after his return from the trip he found time to write the 9300 word account of the voyage as ‘The Cruise of the Tomtit’. It was his first non-fiction piece for Household Words and he was paid the going rate of 10s-6d a column, a total of £10 for the eighteen columns and seven lines it filled. Collins had started writing for Household Words in 1852 and had contributed six stories before ‘The Cruise of the Tomtit’. Dickens liked it. He wrote to Pigott on 12 December "He has written a charming paper since, about your Cruise. Nothing can be more pleasant, easy, gay, and unaffected. Full of plain story-telling merit besides. I have just now read the Proof." (The Letters of Charles Dickens Pilgrim VII 763). It was published on 22 December 1855 as the third of five pieces in the 24 page issue.

The account was republished in 1861, with some small revisions, as a postscript to a new edition of Collins’s account of his 1850 trip round Cornwall, Rambles Beyond Railways. In the preface dated March 1861 Collins gave his own view of his six year-old work. It was

"written, I am afraid, in a tone of somewhat boisterous gaiety—which I have not, however, had the heart to subdue, because it is after all the genuine offspring of the ‘harum-scarum’ high spirits of the time. The ‘Cruise of the Tomtit’ was, from first to last, a practical burlesque; and the good-natured reader will, I hope, not think the worse of me, if I beg him to stand on no ceremony, and to laugh his way through it as heartily as he can."

Note on transcript
This e-text is a character for character transcript of the original version published in Household Words XII No.300 22 December 1855 pp490-499. It differs slightly from the 1861 version which Collins, despite his protestations, did revise. All the original spelling and punctuation has been retained, even where it is – or seems – wrong in 21st century usage.

I am grateful to Amanda Martin, curator of the Isles of Scilly Museum, for her help with details of Scilly residents, life, and weather in 1855.

Baker and Clarke The Letters of Wilkie Collins Macmillan 1999
Graham Storey et. al. The Letters of Charles Dickens Pilgrim Edition Oxford University Press 1965-2002

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A printed version of this text is in a limited edition is available from the Wilkie Collins Society

Paul Lewis 2003

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