With the Night Mail

Notes on the text

These notes, edited by John McGivering, are partly new, and partly based on the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of Actions and Reactions, as published and frequently reprinted between 1907 and 1950.


[Page 111, line 2] G.P.O. the General Post Office.

[Page 111, line 3] mail towers mooring-masts were used for airships but the craft were exposed to the weather.

[Page 111, line 4] Postal Packet Packet can mean both an item of mail – a small parcel, etc. – and, historically, the vessel that carries it. The Falmouth Packets ran a world-wide mail service from their port in Cornwall

[Page 111, line 7] caisson another word with several meanings and pronunciation – some say cassoon and some say caisson !
It signifies a boat-shaped vessel used as a dock gate, a watertight compartment for work under water, a device used in raising wrecks and an ammunition-wagon or chest.

[Page 112, line 15] Highgate a delightful area on the Northern outskirts of London.

[Page 112, line 17] pigeon-fanciers’ lofts racing pigeons enter their quarters through a small gate that can be arranged to ring an electric bell to advise the owner of their arrival.

[Page 112, line 21] coach in this context, borrowed from horse-drawn vehicles and railways, here used for the structure containing the mail which locks onto the craft as described on page 114, line 20.

[Page 112, line 27] trim in this context, the attitude at which a vessel floats in the water and here used for what we know as a spacecraft; the trim is adjusted by pumping ballast from one tank to another as in line 30 below.

[Page 113, lines 4-7] crack liner … Cyclonic an expression used of first-class steamships at the time, and here referring to such an aircraft.

[Page 113, line 15] port or starboard nautical terms for ‘left’ and ‘right’ respectively and used in aircraft today.

[Page 113, line 26] dirigible balloons cigar-shaped balloons, usually filled with hydrogen, and with an engine and rudder, and capable of being steered; what our fathers of the second quarter of the 20th century would have called an “airship”.

[Page 114, line 17] coamings – usually singular – a raised barrier round an opening in the deck of a ship to prevent water getting below.

[Page 115, line 3] colloid many familiar substances such as butter, milk and cream are colloids, which were studied by Thomas Graham (1805-1869) from 1861 onwards; Kipling has borrowed the word to signify a strong transparent substance such as Perspex which was not produced until 1930.
David Page (Editor of the Kipling Journal) writes: he may have built up the word ‘Colloid’ from ‘Collodion’ or ‘Celluloid’. Both of these materials were first made around 1860-70, and both can be in the form of transparent films. The only non-liquid colloid that I can remember is gelatin, and somehow this doesn’t strike me as being a realistic proposition for the formation of imagined windows. [D.P.]

[Page 115, line 17] the bridge in this context, an elevated platform with an all-round view from which a mechanically-propelled vessel is controlled.

[Page 115, line 26] easterly draught generally speaking, in the Northern hemisphere winds are deflected to the right by the rotation of the earth.

[Page 115, line 30] a hundred fathoms a fathom is six feet (1 ·8 metres) – an obsolete measure for depth of water and here applied to the air.

[Page 115, line 33] Sheerness seaport and former naval dockyard in Kent at the mouth of the River Medway, 52 miles east of London by road. See “The First Sailor” (A Book of Words), where Kipling refers to it as ‘Sheer Necessity’.

[Page 116, line 5] dip-dial presumably the equivalent of an altimeter

[Page 116, line 10] Æolus god of the winds.

[Page 116 line 15] theatrical gauze a curtain of transparent material for special effects in the theatre.

[Page 116 line 20] Bristol city and seaport on the River Avon,118 miles west of London.
Cardiff city and seaport 154 miles west of London.

[Page 116 line 23] Coventry city in Warwickshire near the centre of England.

[Page 116 line 26] the Leek with the daffodil, leeks are national emblems of Wales.

[Page 116 line 27] Saint David’s Head on the coast of Pembrokeshire, South Wales.

[Page 117 line 7] Piccadilly an important street in central London.

[Page 117, line 12] Holy Island there are several – this is probably on the coast of Yorkshire.

[Page 117 line 13] St. Bees a headland on the coast of Cumberland.

[Page 117 line 18] The Shamrock Trifolium repens or T. minus, the national emblem of Ireland.

[Page 117, line 19] Cork port in the county of the same name, in south-west Ireland.

[Page 117 line 30] Valencia there are several places of this name in the world – this one is an island of the south-west coast of Ireland where the Atlantic cable comes ashore.

[Page 118 line 1] Dingle Bay Co. Kerry, south-west Ireland.

[Page 118, line 7] International …. General Communication dial possibly radio telephony and a universal language

[Page 118 line 14 and 16 ] Flores … Fayal Islands of the Azores, in the Atlantic south-west of Portugal.

[Page 119 line 16] every thirty knots Here Kipling is using the knot as a unit of distance; today, however, it is used as a unit of speed – that is to say one knot is one nautical mile (1•85 Km) per hour.
(See the note to p. 141 lines 21-34.)

[Page 119, line 33] ‘bell’ in this context, what is known as ‘cavitation’ in fluids.

[Page 120 line 18] turbillons whirling motions in fluids with a cavity in the center, investigated by Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) and others.

Philip Holberton writes: With his love of all things French, I wonder whether he was remembering Alphonse Daudet’s “Lettres de Mon Moulin”, where in a dream the Curé of Cucugnan sees one of his late parishioners in Hell: au milieu d’un epouvantable tourbillon de flamme.

[Page 121 line 26] ‘boort’ This is a reference to “bort” or “boart”, small granular diamonds, used as an abrasive (so it would make a poor bearing surface indeed!). The word derives from the Dutch boort. (We are indebted to Sean Willard for this explanation; Ed.)

[Page 123 line 4] tramp usually a vagrant or hoboe, but in this context a cargo-vessel that does not run to a timetable but picks up cargo as and how she can.

[Page 123 line 7] ‘barbette’ an armoured platform mounting guns in early warships.
conning-tower the primary command position, with an open bridge on top of it, in battleships or cruisers.

[Page 123 line 9] a policeman’s lantern in 1905 the police used oil lamps with a shutter for obscuring the beam – ‘dark lanterns’.

[Page 123 line 25] Postey still a familiar form of address to a postman, but here uncalled-for rudeness.

[Page 123 line 27] Disko the island off the coast of Greenland where Disko Troop, captain of the We’re Here in Captains Courageous was born.

[Page 123 line 31] a wulli-wa a circular wind found in the southern hemisphere, producing a waterspout if over the sea.

[Page 124, line 1] conjuror’s watch a classic trick – the conjuror borrows a watch from a member of the audience (or perhaps a stooge) breaks it up and exhibits the pieces to the audience to the consternation of the owner; the watch is then miraculously produced unharmed.

[Page 124, line 10] St. John’s seaport and capital of Newfoundland.

[Page 124 line 14] the Banks mark Boat, George this has produced an amusing error, of which ORG (Volume 6, p. 2827) says: the artist Seppings-Wright illustrates an airship with “Mark Boat George” in large letters on her side. Her official name was “Banks Mark Boat”.

[Page 125, line 22] shunt the lift out of him knock him out !

[Page 126 line 16] the ship’s kitten there is a long tradition of men risking their lives to save pets in disasters at sea.

[Page 127 line 1] pith her the humane method of slaughtering cattle is to sever the ‘pith’ or spinal cord. See”Fairy-Kist” (Limits and Renewals, p.168, line 14)

[Page 127 line 25] inflators they are explained on page 127 and advertised as ‘flickers’ on page 160


[Page 129 line 5] a lace-maker’s pillow on which the threads and bobbins are arranged under tension

[Page 129 line 23] a globe of pale flame this is an electrical discharge known as St. Elmo’s Fire or ‘corposants’ which appears on the masts and spars of ships.

[Page 130 line 4] krypton an odourless and colourless gas discovered by Ramsay and Travers.

[Page 131 line 2] pitch-poling Philip Holberton writes:

Pitch-poling is a whaling term, described by Frank Bullen in The Cruise of the Cachalot, Chapter XXII:

The harpooner made a ‘pitchpole’ dart: that is he hurled his weapon into the air where it described a fine curve and fell point downward on the animal’s back just as he was disappearing.

Herman Melville also describes pitch-poling in Chapter 84 of Moby Dick. The falling part of the curve is well-described by Kipling at p. 136 line 24:

“Hello! Here’s a fifteen-hundred-foot drop at fifty-five degrees! We must have been standing on our heads then, George”

[Page 130 line 30] corposant St. Elmo’s fire (129 line 23 above.)

[Page 131 line 15] fierce sparks static electricity.

[Page 132, line 10] he laughed see Kiplings verse “The Nurses.”

[Page 133 line 14] Rimouski drogher the former is a port and river in Canada, the latter a West Indian craft – Kipling presumably intends this somewhat unlikely combination to be the equivalent of the (usually) Dutch salvage-tugs who put to sea in bad weather looking for vessels in distress.

[Page 133 line 20] kittiwakes a genus of gulls – Rissa tridactyla.

[Page 135 line 33] ‘Transportation is Civilization’ the motto of The Aerial Board of Control which is developed and explained in “As Easy as A.B.C” (A Diversity lf Creatures).

[Page 136 line 9] mate a tea made from an infusion of the South American shrub Hex paraguayensis.

[Page 136 line 11] the Banks the Grand Banks, an extensive area of shallow water off Newfoundland and scene of most of the action of Captains Courageous. Once an apparently inexhaustible cod fishery but now only a very short season is permitted. See Charles Boardman Hawes, Gloucester by Land and Sea (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1923)

[Page 137 line 3] Trinity Bay Newfoundland.

[Page 137 line 19] The dawn-gust see “The Dawn-Wind”.

[Page 138 lines 2 – 4] Joshua … Vale of Ajalon Then spake Joshua …. Sun, stand thou still … and thou , Moon, in the valley of Ajalon…. And the sun stood still and the moon stayed. Joshua, 10, 13.

[Page 139 lines 3 – 5] Oh, ye winds of God, …. from “Benedicite Omnia Opera” (O all ye works of the Lord bless ye the Lord..) a Canticle to be sung at Morning Prayer in the Church of England.

[Page 139 line 22] Frederikshavn On the south west corner of Greenland, now known as Paamiut.

[Page 139 line 25] consumptives People suffering from tuberculosis. See Dr Sheehan’s notes.

[Page 139 line 29] tops of hills a somewhat sarcastic reference to hill-stations in India for which see Plain Tales from the Hills and other Indian stories.

[Page 140 line 9] Hudson Bay the historic hunting-ground in northern Canada of the Hudson Bay Company founded in 1670.

[Page 140 line 11] Bonavista Bay, Cape and town in Newfoundland

[Page 140 line 12] Keewatin a District of north-west Canada.

[Page 140 line 14] Trepassy a port in Newfoundland.
Blanco a cape on the west coast of Africa.

[Page 140 line 28] ore-flats American usage for railway-wagons built to carry minerals and here aircraft for similar use.
Ungarva the Labrador peninsula, Quebec, in eastern Canada.

[Page 140 line 33] Nain on the coast of Labrador.
Hebron a town in Palestine with others elsewhere including Labrador and Nova Scotia.

[Page 141 line 4] Athabasca A vast area of north-west Canada.

[Page 141 line 7] St. Lawrence the great river of Canada.

[Page 141 line 14] Yokohama an important city in Japan

[Page 141 lines 21-34] Elsinore… ORG Verse (Vol 1, p. 5412) notes that this ‘chantey’ is not collected other than within this tale. As he does earlier, Kipling refers to ‘ninety knot an hour’, using the expression as a measure of distance. (See 119/16 above)
Alastair Wilson writes:

‘Seamen are now agreed that a “knot” is a unit of speed, viz., one nautical mile per hour, and that “knots an hour” is therefore a gross error. This does not seem to have become dogma until about 1890, and for some time after that date “knots an hour” continued to be used by many authorities; in fact, it appears that the Admiralty itself used it in 1897.’ [A.W.]

Thus in 1905, in this particular matter, Kipling was not abreast of the latest usage.

[Page 142 line 11] hostlers or ostlers – stablemen at an inn in charge of the horses – here used for the maintenance men who took care of the engines in harbour.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved