‘Bread upon the Waters’

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)

An introductory note

As with other notes for this collection of stories, the starting point has been those prepared by our predecessors for the Old Reader’s Guide (ORG) edited by Reginald Harbord. It has seemed to this Editor that the great majority of what was written for the ORG has remained relevant, and so, where this text is substantially that of the ORG, it appears in black type. However, the great difference between writing for the ORG and for this new Guide is that the ORG had a very limited circulation, whereas, thanks to the Internet and the Word-wideWeb, our new readership comprises people from all over the world, for many of whom English is not their first language. It has therefore seemed expedient to interpret rather more of Mr. McPhee’s Scots speech than was done 45 years ago. Similarly, for the generations who have never known long-distance sea travel, additional material relating to those aspects of the story have been added.


This story should not be confused with an earlier story of the same title (but without the quotation marks) which appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette of March 14th 1888. (This will be reported on with the “Uncollected” stories elsewhere in this Guide; Ed.)
The present story first appeared in the London Graphic Christmas Number in 1896, and in the same month in McClure’s Magazine.
It was collected in:

  • The Day’s Work in 1898.
  • Scribner’s Edition, Vol. XIV.
  • The Sussex Edition, Vol. VI, Page 291.
  • The Burwash Edition, Vol VI.

It is recorded that the following illustrations appeared with this story on its first publication, but the compiler cannot confirm this:-
A full page illustration by (Sir) Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956, RA 1919) in the Graphic; also two illustrations by W. Louis Sonntag, Jr. in McClure’s Magazine, which appear in the McClure, Doubleday edition of The Day’s Work.

The story

McPhee, Chief Engineer of the shipping line of Holdock, Steiner and Chase is sacked, unreasonably, for refusing to force his ship, the Breslau, to make timings she cannot keep. He is proved right when she breaks down, and has to be towed to port. Meanwhile, McPhee has been given the job of Chief Engineer of a smaller ship, belonging to McNaughton and McRimmon.

McPhee keeps tabs on the doings of Holdock’s line, and finds out that they are intending to send a big freighter, the Grotkau, to sea with a great crack in her propeller shaft, and he tells McRimmon of this. McRimmon withdraws his own ships from the trade, allowing Holdock’s to pick up all the valuable cargo.

When the Grotkau puts to sea, McPhee’s ship the Kite (her skipper, Bell, acting under McRimmon’s orders) trails the Grotkau in heavy weather, down the Irish Sea, and round Ireland, until somewhere off Dingle Bay, the Grotkau is disabled when her propeller falls off. Providentially, the crew are rescued by a Mail steamer, which is not allowed to tow, leaving the Kite to pick her up and tow her to safety. The Kite‘s crew get salvage money, Holdock’s are ruined, and McPhee becomes very reasonably rich.

Kipling’s grasp of matters technical

Some commentators have thought that Kipling was referring to this story when he wrote in Something of Myself (page 212): “Luckily men of the sea and the engine-room do not write to the press, and my worst slip is still underided.” But none of the discrepancies observed in this story qualify for Kipling’s own description. Readers, however, may judge for themselves when they have carefully studied the text and the accompanying notes. Incidentally, it seems to be unanimously agreed that the few and trifling errors detected in “Bread upon the Waters” detract very little from the enjoyment of the story, even by men of the sea.

It may with some justice be claimed, since the publication of the Kipling Journal for December 1962, that there can no longer be any doubt as to the identity of the “worst slip“, which can be found on page 124 of Captains Courageous.(see the notes in the current guide on Captains Courageous – Chapter V)

In the December 1962 KJ, a letter over the initials P.W.I. (Mr. P.W. Inwood) identified the egregious error as being the description of Harvey Cheyne as being as proud as any Chief Engineer when he was recording the We’re Here’s noon position, making the point that the Chief Engineer had nothing to do with the ship’s navigation. Fifteen years later, in the KJ for March 1977, Mr. Inwood repeated this, but in June 1977, in ‘Notes and News’ the then Editor set out some differing views, but without positively contradicting Mr. Inwood, nor suggesting any other serious slip (I emphasise the ‘serious’).

However, this Editor is of the view that the Captain’s Courageous ‘error’ might be much less of an error than would appear. For a start, the We’re Here was an unpowered vessel, and Kipling would have been well aware that any reference to Engineers in this context would have stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. His use of the phrase, in this context, has to be deliberate. And, although Mr. Inwood was perfectly correct in saying that Engineers have nothing to do with the navigation of a ship, the Chief Engineer was concerned to know the noon position each day, to determine the day’s run (how many miles the ship had travelled in the last 24 hours). That position was recorded in the Engine Room register of Royal Navy ships (and very likely in many merchant ships): from the day’s run the Engineer could determine such things as; coal consumption per mile run; the efficiency of the engines (number of revolutions made to attain the distance travelled); etc. It is suggested that Kipling had probably observed this being done in one or other of the ships in which he had travelled, and had mentally filed it away for future use. The present Editor speaks from experience of being asked for the “noon position” by the Engineer of the Watch.

A comedy of revenge

This story may be said to be one of Kipling’s stories of revenge. In it, the hero, McPhee, who has been treated unjustly by his employers, a grasping firm of ship-owners, has his revenge, bringing them to financial ruin, aided by another ship-owner (hard but fair). But whereas in, say, ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ (Limits and Renewals), the revenge is definitely bitter, here there are overtones of comedy, initiated in the first sentence by the reference to “my improper friend Brugglesmith”, whose story, “Brugglesmith” in Many Inventions, is pure comedy, if not farce.

Click here for a summary of the ships in the tale, and their officers.


©Alastair Wilson 2006 All rights reserved