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23 Jan 2024
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Le grand cycle aléatoire (ou L'incroyable Internet)

"It is never hard", wrote P G Wodehouse, "to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine."

Yet what sort of grievance could this young Scotsman possibly have against anyone or anything?

Gone are the thick overalls and heavy boots of his apprentice days. Or the eyeshades and celluloid cuffs of the draughting office.

Here is a young man on the cusp of a new career on a new continent, with a delightful fiancée about to travel 6000 miles to join him.

And yet he has the expression of a man who has just lost a guinea and found but sixpence of it.

Welcome to the world of Robert Waddell, naval architect and the safest pair of hands (now concealed) in the shipyard business.

Robert Waddell in the 1910s

On the occasion of a wonderful surprise party to celebrate my cousin James's 60th birthday, his elder son Samuel most kindly offered to send me some material which he had assembled in connection with the paternal grandfather Robert whom James and I have in common, as regards Robert's foray into the USA just over a century ago. I accepted with alacrity and here are the first fruits, so to speak.

Hi Robin,

Following our conversation yesterday [20 Apr 2013], I'm forwarding you an email I wrote a year ago to the Waddells of [Normandy], while I was starting my research on Robert Waddell Grand-Senior. Unfortunately it is in French, but the most interesting for you will be some of the attachments, in particular the scanned version of the 1911 List of alien passengers. On row #6 is what I think is Robert himself. I might be wrong, but at least it's very ressemblant: a naval engineer called Robert Waddell from Glasgow who was 27 on July 2nd 2011 (two days before his birthday!). You will also find the picture of the skyline I was referring to. …


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Samuel Waddell
Date: Monday, 20 February 2012
Subject: Le grand cycle aléatoire (ou L'incroyable Internet)
To: …

> Alors,
> En investiguant un peu plus, j'ai trouvé un Robert Waddell qui semble correspondre... pas sûr que ce soit lui mais pourquoi pas? En revanche pas de Hanna Findlay qui puisse correspondre. Serait-elle arrivée par un autre port... peut-être à Boston?
> Le 2 juillet 1911 à New York, débarquait Robert Waddell un ingénieur écossais de 27 ans. Il était l'un des 248 passagers de seconde classe du California de la Cunard, un beau bateau à vapeur et à voile de 150m pour 8500 tonnes, construit à Glasgow en 1907. Lui mesurait 1,75m, en bonne santé, les cheveux bruns, les yeux gris. Pour l'état civil, il était célibataire. Il indiqua sa mère comme étant la personne la plus proche, elle demeurait au 19 Kelvinside Gardens à Glasgow.
> Au personnel de la douane il déclarait que le but de son voyage était de rejoindre un ami, William H. Todd, qui travaillait sur le chantier naval "Robins Dry Dock & Repairs Company" à Brooklyn.
> (Voir la photo de Robert Waddell, les extraits des listes d'Ellis Island en PJ, ligne 6 "Robert Waddell" du document 1911_RW_List of alien passengers.GIF, la photo du California)
> Fin 1911 à Seattle, le Marine Repair Shop de Robert Moran était transformé en Seattle Construction & Dry Dock Company. Au bord de la faillite en 1918, cette dernière fut acquise par William H. Todd qui entre-temps avait fondé sa société William H. Todd Shipyards en 1916. En Février 2011 à Seattle, la société Vigor Industrial acquérait la société William H. Todd Shipyards pour $130M.
> Mais en Juin 1914, l'Archiduc François Ferdinand fut assassiné à Sarajevo sur le pont Latin. La Première Guerre éclata, Robert Waddell rentra en Grande-Bretagne avec ses projets d'Amérique dans ses bagages (raisons précises à confirmer). On ne sera donc jamais Américains. Ni grand-papa, ni papa, ni Simon ni moi.
> > En Août 2010, en visite sur le Pont Latin, probablement mû par un force surnaturelle à l'odeur de casserole, je décidais sans comprendre vraiment pourquoi de faire une sorte de pied-de-nez à l'Histoire. Ou plutôt un "doigt-de-nez" vengeur.
> Et puis voilà, en novembre 2011 à 27ans, j'apprends que je passerai un bout de l'année suivante à New-York, un peu par hasard en fait.
> Peut-être Robert Waddell n'avait-il pas dit son dernier mot?
> Avec 15cm de plus et 100ans d'écart, arriverais-je à retrouver d'o` vient cette skyline prise en photo?

My own rendering of the forwarded email into English, probably lacking in both accuracy and nuance, is as follows (as usual, square parentheses indicate an intrusion on my part):


While investigating a little further, I found a Robert Waddell who appears to match – not sure that this is [definitely] him, but [then again] why not? On the other hand, nothing about Hannah Findlay who might have matched – did she arrive by another port, Boston perhaps?

On 2 July 1911 in New York, Robert Waddell, 27 year old Scottish [Scotch!] engineer, disembarked. He was one of 248 second-class passengers on the [Anchor Line] Californian, a fine vessel, both steam- and sail-powered, 150 metres in length and 8500 tonnes displacement, built in Glasgow in 1907. He himself measured 5' 9½" in height, [and was] in good health, with brown hair and grey eyes. As then a bachelor, he cited his mother as next of kin, resident at 19 Kelvinside [Terrace] in Glasgow.

To the customs officers he declared his intended purpose in America as being to rejoin his friend William H Todd, who was working in the Robins Dry Dock & Repairs Company in Brooklyn.

At the end of 1911 in Seattle, the Robert Moran Marine Repair Shop [sold-off in 1906 by Robert Moran after a terminal diagnosis – though he lived another 37 years!] was transformed into the Seattle Construction and Dry Dock Company, which formally ceased operations in 1918 … It [was] ultimately acquired by William H Todd, who operated the company as a subsidiary of the Todd Pacific Shipyards Corporation, founded in 1916 as the William H Todd Corporation. Other companies operated by Todd included the Robins Dry Dock & Repair Company of Erie Basin, Brooklyn, New York [which brings us full circle as regards Robert Waddell himself, who, perhaps advised by the meteoric William Todd himself, moved on in fairly short order from Brooklyn to Seattle, as outlined by U Sandy].

In February 2011, [almost a century later,] William H Todd Shipyards were themselves acquired by Vigor Industrial, [the leading shipbuilding, shiprepair, and industrial service provider in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.]

[But Robert's involvement in all this feeding frenzy of carnivorous capitalism was brief.] In June 1914 the Archduke [Franz] Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on the Latin Bridge. The First World War had started. Robert Waddell returned to Great Britain with [details of] his American projects in his briefcase (for reasons yet to be established). We should never now be Americans – neither Grandpapa, nor Papa, nor Simon nor I.

In August 2010, on a visit to this Latin Bridge, probably drawn by some supernatural force towards the [savoury] aroma of casserole, I decided, without really knowing why, to sort of thumb my nose at History [see picture!] by way of revenge.

And then, out of the blue, in November 2011 aged 27, I learned that I would spend the turn of the year in New York.

… Perhaps Robert Waddell had not yet had the last word???

… 6" taller [than Robert] and 100 years down the line, would I rediscover where the skyline had been taken from in his photograph???


The California

The California, a stalwart of the Anchor Line
The California

As photographed by Robert from the California,
approaching New York by dawn's early light
Passenger list (left)

(Left-hand page) Robert's personal details are on row 6 …
Passenger list (left)

(Right-hand page) Robert's personal details continue on row 6
Passenger list (left)

Sam cocks an aleatoric snook at (or actually, away from)
the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo

There's that word again – and what does it signify in such a context as this? Perhaps Sam was reflecting on the random consequences of human actions – that two pistol-shots near a bridge in faraway Bosnia-Herzgovina should cause Robert to leave his new career in the American northwest and return to war-torn England. And, indeed, generally speaking, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

And to me, the supreme irony of the event is that the wielder of the pistol should merely die of tuberculosis, unpleasant admittedly, in prison some years later, during which time millions of men suffered horrific deaths or injuries on the battlefield or at sea, and entire populations came close to mass starvation. If only Gavrilo Princip had gone back for a second sandwich …