Mark Twain passes through Tilbury
Essex is not the sort of place anyone would immediately associate with Mark Twain who was born Samuel Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri, and more than a century later still remains the USA’s most popular classical author. But the county and the man from Hannibal did come together on one memorable occasion.
Twain arrived in Essex quite late in his adventurous career. It was 1907, and he had just three years left to live. By now, he was one of the most famous literary figures in the world. His tales of life along the 0l’ Mississippi river struck chords with readers around the world, and his books had sold in millions, making him a very wealthy man.
Yet Twain was not a happy man. His writing talent had dried up, and he knew it. His beloved wife Olivia had died in 1904, and his own health had begun to wane. Without Olivia to accompany him, he decided to give up travel.
Then in 1907, came an invitation that changed his mind. Oxford wanted to confer an honorary degree on him. Twain accepted instantly. “It is my final credential for immortality,” he told his publisher. It is the loftiest distinction conferrable. For that Oxford degree, I would be willing to-travel to Mars.” In June, he boarded the cruise ship the Minneapolis for England. But it was Tilbury, of all places, that restored his passion for life.
Twain knew he was due to be feted by everyone from the King and Queen down, but he was not prepared for the very first reception committee that greeted him on his arrival in England.
It consisted of. the ordinary working men on the Tilbury waterside. Dockers downed tools, stevedores (the men who loaded the ships) climbed down from their cranes, shipping clerks emerged .from their offices and together they formed a great, impromptu cheering crowd to’ greet the famous author.
It wasn’t just his fame and his classic stories they loved. Many of them felt that Twain was a fellow spirit. Men who earned-their livelihood from the Thames estuary felt an affinity with the Mississippi, that other great, muddy, legendary, working river.
“He is a fellow spirit,” one docker told a London newspaper. “He has steered great ships. He has river water in his veins.” Twain responded to all this with elation.
Appearing at the ship’s rails, dressed in one of his famous white suits, he acknowledged the crowd. Then, borrowing the captain’s loud-hailer, he delivered an off-the-cuff speech. The years rolled away. Twain, who had begun his literary career as a humorous-lecturer, rediscovered his old ability to make crowds roar with laughter. The 72-year-old told the crowd he was going to Oxford to show students “what a real American college boy looks like”. Explaining why he carried a cotton umbrella, he said “it’s the only kind of umbrella the English won’t steal .in this rainy climate”.
The crowd loved: it. But Mark Twain also loved the crowd.
Writing to his daughter just a few-hours later, he declared “the stevedores’ warmth was the most precious kind of love because it came. from the people, my own class.” He, too, recognised a particular affinity between himself, the old riverboat skipper, and the wharfmen and tugboat men of the Essex river. Later that same night he was a guest of honour at the exclusive Savage Club in London. Twain gave a speech and told the captivated audience of his warm welcome in Essex: “When I came ashore at Tilbury the stevedores on the dock raised the first welcome,” he said. “It was a good and hearty welcome from the men who do the heavy labour in the world and save you and me from having to do it. “They are the men who with their hands build empires. They received me with a ‘hurrah’ that went to my heart.”
When he returned to America at the end of his trip to England ‘Twain again left from Tilbury Docks onboard the SS Minnetonka passenger liner. He took a special train from St Pancras, London to Tilbury, where again, at the railway station, a great crowd amassed to bid him farewell.
This item is based on extracts from an article by Emma Palmer that appeared in the Echo newspaper March 6, 2023.