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A Floating Gold-Mine

By F.R.Temple.                  Extracted from the Wide World Magazine – May 1907

This article deals with an extraordinary American Millionaire, who has lived for nearly twenty years on board a palatial steam-yacht moored in an Essex river. Occupying some part of his time by giving away large sums of money to certain proportion of the scores of applicants who besiege him day and night. Sometimes this eccentric gentleman even bestows hundreds of pounds upon lucky persons without them asking! This seemingly incredible state of affairs is described below.

How many readers of the Wide World Magazine, possessing an ocean going steam yacht and blessed with an abundance of riches, would elect to constantly reside on the vessel, moored in one spot, for nearly twenty years – and that spot an anchorage in an exposed East Coast estuary, where the ordinary contrast between the English winter and the attractions of sunnier climes is often strongly accented?

Such is the strange procedure of an American owner, whose steamship, the Valfreyia, has long been a familiar object in the River Colne, Essex, where he furnishes what are probably unique contributions both to the annals of yachting, and the records of philanthropy. It is now about nineteen years since Mr Bayard Brown’s yacht, the Lady Torfrida (afterwards sold to the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, and replaced by the Valfreyia), terminated an extended cruise by dropping anchor a few hundred yards of the small Essex seaport of Brightlingsea, where the Colne is about half a mile wide, near its confluence with the North Sea. There Mr Brown has ever since remained, the big yacht being in continual use as a marine house-boat summer and winter.

Valfreyia, originally owned by Sir Wm. Pearce, Bart. Is a fine screw steamer of seven hundred and thirty five tonnes, handsomely appointed, with modern equipment, electric light, auxiliary steam and electric appliances, steam launch, etc., and was constructed at a cost of about forty thousand pounds, apart from the expense of decorating and furnishing. Besides spacious quarters for owner and friends, she provides accommodation for a crew of about three dozen men. Although in the nineteen years since the Valfreyia was launched there have been great developments in yacht construction, as in all branches of marine architecture, there are today but few privately owned vessels of larger size afloat; and among the fleet of big yachts seen every season on the Colne yachting station none presents more graceful or smarter lines.

bayardbrown.gif (27123 bytes)For a long time after Mr. Brown’s arrival steam was constantly kept up and a full crew maintained, ready to start for any destination at the shortest notice. These unusual circumstances, with others, directed public attention to the yacht, and numerous stories were in circulation, many of them unfounded rumours, with regard to the vessel and its owner. But when the scale on which Mr Brown remunerated persons who rendered him little services ashore, and distributed largess among even those who did not, became know, passing attention quickly developed into eager interest and speedily culminated in popular excitement.

People of the district almost tumbled over one another in their rush for the millionaire’s yacht, and not a few received substantial donations, in some cases amounts largely exceeding their highest expectations. An immediate result was the advent of hold hunters not only from very many districts of Essex and Suffolk, but from London and places even more distant, all intent on obtaining relief from financial embarrassment or the immediate exchange of a daily routine more or less uncongenial for a future of leisured affluence.

These included visitors who tenaciously claimed kin with the millionaire, some of them taking up temporary residence in the locality to press the claim, and proving a source of annoyance through their unfortunate delusions.

It is not surprising to find, therefore, that the visits of the suppliants were after a little time severely, if somewhat capriciously, discouraged. Local boatmen received subsidies of one pound a week each, on condition that they did not ferry people to the yacht, and for days, even weeks at a time, the Valfryia’s owner would take no notice of the flotilla of boats in waiting. This soon weeded out the long distance applicants, who, with all their zeal, could not afford the uncertainty of the game, even though aware that, occasionally, Mr Brown, relenting, gave distributions of cash on a more than lavish scale. But the pursuit of the millionaire by many people of the adjacent districts, and by numbers from a greater distance who have managed to get a place on the list of those to whose personal applications he responds (occasionally, if not regularly), continues till the present time. And so, while the conveyance of suppliants to the yachts forms the chief occupation of most of the local boatmen, the pilgrimage to the Valfreyia to solicit the bounty of its owner has long been one of regular industries of the district.

A very large number of persons have participated for years in Mr Brown's benefactions, and to a surprising extent. Nor are they simply the poor and destitute. They include labourers, boatmen, gardeners, artificers, and foremen in various trades, yachtsmen and sailors, ex-public servants (and wives and other female relatives of these), with a liberal admixture of publicans and innkeepers, shopkeepers and other traders, and a sprinkling of farmers, salaried officers of large corporations, etc. Even professional men and persons who are owners of freehold property of material extent have received cash gifts of large amount.

Many cottagers have long been in receipt of one pound and more per week, while some of the other classes get several pounds – even ten pounds and upwards frequently – and all occasionally have extra donations of considerably greater sums. Local agricultural labourers earning thirteen shillings a week have been handed as much as fifty pounds at one time – equal to eighteen months wages; donations to other astonished recipients have run into hundreds at a time. Some of these sums, incredible as it may sound, have been given unsolicited to traders and professional men with whom the millionaire has had some personal dealings. To a local curate he sent three hundred pounds, intended as a wedding present; and there are various substantial farmers and others in the immediate neighbourhood who admit receiving from him in two or three recent years several hundred pounds or more each. Some have even got as much as a thousand pounds at one time.

Most of Mr brown’s disbursements are on a scale of princely munificence. The captain of his yacht, apart from periodical gifts, has for many years enjoyed a salary of one thousand pounds per annum, and it may, perhaps not be without interest to mention that the earliest of the transactions which transformed the Valfreyia into a floating gold mine in local estimation was the payment by the owner of ten pounds to a small innkeeper for driving him some three miles to the shore at the close of an evening walk.

At one time the sums donated on board the yacht must have reached two thousand pounds monthly. They are now much less, but it has been computed that, since his arrival in the Colne, Mr Brown’s distributions to individuals have aggregated something like a quarter of million pounds sterling.

Practically every day, summer and winter, some boats are ranged round the yacht; sometimes twenty of thirty are assembled at one time. Containing sixty or seventy people. Of these the majority are women some of whom walk five or six miles to the shore, hire a boatman (paid partly by results), and trudge home again afterwards; and this they will do on several consecutive days, even in bad weather, until, in their own phraseology they "get paid".

Early in the afternoon the boats assemble in groups round the yacht the occupants prepared with wraps and refreshments for the contingency of a protracted wait. From the shore the boatmen watch for signs on the yacht – distant some three or four hundred yards – that the owner is astir, while their prospective passengers shelter close at hand.

Mr Brown is not an upholder of the early rising convention, and, like his celebrated countryman, Mr T.A.Edison, does not see why people go to bed merely because it is night; so the afternoon is sometimes very far advanced before he quits his private apartments. If he has not appeared by five or six 0’clock the curious assembly begins to disperse, some having trains and other conveyances to catch, but a number will occasionally remain for hours later.

When the millionaire does appear on deck in the afternoon he may cause it to be announced that he has nothing to give, and act accordingly for a time, at least; or he may remain apparently oblivious of the presence of the flotilla. Perhaps he will at once approach the side and raise his hat to the suitors, when a number of the more favoured applicants then ascent the gangway in Indian file, receive their gifts from him personally, make their bows, and descent. This is the work of a few minutes. The gangway is drawn up and Mr Brown retires below or paces the deck above a row of upturned disappointed face. Ere long his is listening over the side to the stories and appeals of individuals, some of whom may be invited on board to talk over their cases. A supplementary distribution often ensues, the donations being dropped down into the boats – sometimes, it is said between the boats, the yacht owner pretending to share in the consternation of the suitor as the gift, or part of it, sinks from sight, but invariably making the loss good. At last a halt is called and the afternoon visitors depart, as a rule; but unsatisfied applicants sometimes cling on for hours, joined later by the contingent of "locals" who attend only at night, and who often have prolonged interviews with the owner on boat till midnight or even the small hours, That some of the applicants seem to think they have acquired prescriptive right to Mr Brown’s bounty is evidenced by their noisy explosions of impatience now and then. They even venture upon remonstrance’s, not very mildly expressed a procedure which usually appears to amuse the unconventional philanthropist.

Persons ignorant of what constitutes a legal claim have actually sued to compel payment of money gifts alleged to have been promised, one actually obtaining judgement through the proceedings being undefended, so that the millionaire, to the great surprise of the district, was afforded the unwonted experience of a couple of years ago of having the county court bailiffs in temporary possession of his yacht!

It will be apparent that the methods of Mr Brown’s benefactions are not exactly in consonance with those customarily adopted by practical philanthropists. Nor is he a great supported of charities through the usual channels, although several local clergymen receive sums from him annually for the poor of their parishes. For this some, at least go out like the other applicants, as it is understood that no notice is taken of written appeals, and so a vicar of the Church of England may be seen among those who patiently wait in boats to see the millionaire. The protracted waits now frequently imposed on many who formerly receive their gifts almost immediately they arrive is locally regarded as a sign that Mr brown is tiring of the everlasting attentions of those who diurnally watch his movements and shiver by the hour at his gangway. Lately many of the regular participants in his bounty have attended for five consecutive days before receiving anything for the week. In that period some of the women occupied fifty to sixty hours, and walked over fifty miles in quest of one week’s dole. With whatever feeling the suppliants originally embarked in this enterprise, there is very little diffidence exhibited nowadays, although the promptitude with which attempts to photograph the assembled boats is resented points its own tale, The spectacle presented by the stream of importunate suitors is not one comforting to Anglo-Saxon pride and the violent rush for his bounty can scarcely have enhance whatever opinion of the average Briton Mr Brown entertained at the time of his arrival. On the other hand, there is a firm conviction among the more discriminating in the district that the exercise of the millionaire’s benevolence in the manner described has had a detrimental local effect, and that the status and prospects of many of his pensioners, and of their families, will not be ultimately benefited by what may at present appear to be their good fortune. During recent years the owner of the Valfreyia, it is understood, has received more than one large bequest, under wills of relatives, and he is reputed to be a millionaire several times over. Formerly he went somewhat frequently to London and other places on business and social visits, also walking and driving in the neighbourhood. But now though occasionally going to London for a day, he rarely leaves his yacht, sometimes not even going ashore for months. The only other occupants of the steamer being the skipper and a dozen hands (local men, periodically of duty ashore0, possibly the extraordinary pursuit maintained by the people provides not altogether unwelcome interruptions to solitude which might, perhaps, be appreciated by the student, writer, painter, or inventor - to none of which classes, however, does this eccentric recluse appear to belong.