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CHAPTER ONE. 1750-1850. From Kinneddar to Dundee
As once, long since, when all the docks were filled With that sea beauty man has ceased to build. .. . MASEFIELD.
GLANCING through the earliest records of the Stephens, one discovers that "John Steven, farmer, in Kinnedore, Parish of Drainie," married Elspet Wilson in 1689, while his brother, "Alexander, farmer in Ardifet, matrimonially contracted with Katherine Russel in 1683." Both farms are still in existence, and bear their original names, though now spelt "Kinneddar" and "Ardivot."
John Steven was succeeded at Kinneddar by his son, William, born in 1690. William had two sons, William, born in 1720, a farmer at Kinneddar, and Alexander, who began building ships at Burghead, probably about 1750, or soon after the '45 Rebellion, which ended at Culloden, not far from Drainie. This may be regarded as the beginning of the shipbuilding business of the Stephens, known first as "Alexander Stephen," then as "William Stephen and Sons," and finally as "Alexander Stephen and Sons." Little is known of the Burghead establishment, which probably confined itself to the construction of small coasting and fishing vessels.
The second William, who, being carried off by the Jacobite Army, was an unwilling spectator of the battle, shortly afterwards married Isobel Edward of Stotfield, the old name for Lossiemouth, and appears to have moved to Aberdeen.
With the removal, sometime in the seventeen-fifties, this branch of the family severed their direct connexion with Kinneddar, their home for more than a hundred years. The farm, situated about a mile south-west of Lossiemouth, owes its name to the fact that until the 16th century the sea flowed inland right up to Spynie, leaving Kinneddar, "a point between the waters." Mary Queen of Scots is said to have sailed up to Spynie, where the ruins of the Bishop's Palace are still standing. Close by, on the north, once stood the Abbey of Kinneddar, of which nothing now remains save the graveyard, and even this was despoiled of most of its older stones during the Great War. During recent alterations to the Stotfield Hotel one of the front door steps was found to be a gravestone, possibly commemorating one of the old farmers of Kinneddar. The third William, third son of the second William, was born at Footdee, Aberdeen, in 1759, and is the only one of his family about whom much is known. Both his diary and portrait are in existence, and from these a great deal may be gleaned.
The diary he calls "A short account of some passages in my life, with my different views of religion. Also some account of my experience and the Lord's dealings with me in providence and grace." It is mostly taken up with descriptions of his religious feelings and struggles with his own backslidings.
In a long dedication to his children, he explains that his object in this composition was to let the knowledge of his experiences serve as a guide to them, and ends by expressing a fear lest they should be separated in the next world. "0 that I and my partner on the day of accounts may have the unutterable pleasure, and the distinguished honour, to appear before Thee with all our little ones, saying, 'Here are we and the children thou hast given us.'" He describes his father as "like men in general, when young, careless and sinful, but was brought to the Lord when about thirty years of age." In 1777 his father sent young William back to Burghead to be apprenticed to his uncle, Alexander. In his diary the new apprentice records surprise at finding that although the latter was an elder of the Kirk, he cursed and swore freely in the shipyard!
In 1787 William returned to Aberdeen and entered into the following agreement with James Cochar, whose business in shipbuilding descended to his son-in-law, Alexander Hall, whose family have made it one of the leading firms in Aberdeen.
ABERDEEN, 10TH OCTOBER 1787.
SIR, I DO HEREBY OBLIGE MY SELF TO PAY YOU THE FEE OF THREE POUND STERLING MONEY FOR TEACHING ME THE ART OF SHIP DRAFTING AS YOU PRACTICE IT YOURSELF, THE ONE HALF WHEN ENTERED TO SAID DRAFTING AND THE OTHER WHEN I CAN LAY DOWN A DRAFT BY MY SELF.
I ALSO BIND MY SELF TO TEACH NO OTHER PERSON THE SAME UNDER THE FINE OF TEN POUND STERLING MONEY.
I ACKNOWLEDGE TO HAVE RECEIVED YOUR LETTER AGREEING TO THESE TERMS AND TO RENEW THEM ON STAMP PAPER WHEN REQUIRED.
SIR, I AM YOURS
(SIGNED) WILLIAM STEPHEN
After this preparation he determined to establish a branch of the business in Aberdeen, where he began building in 1793.
For the first few years he found things very difficult, but later began to prosper, and persuaded his uncle Alexander to leave Burghead and join him in Aberdeen. Alexander, however, left one of his sons behind him to carry on the Burghead business, and this yard appears to have been still under the control of Alexander junior in 1826.
By 1813 William had established at Footdee what was, for those days, quite a substantial business as a shipbuilder, employing over thirty men. During the few years preceding this date he had built ten wooden ships, mostly brigs, with the exception of the ship Elizabeth. He found English oak better than Aberdeenshire, and so imported a certain amount from the Thames; American oak was also extensively utilized. He also helped to build the new pier from the headland on the north side of the harbour, and owned one or two ships which he managed himself, including the Bolivar and Unicorn.
In the same year he took up on his slip the ship Oscar, lengthening the vessel by cutting her in two and building in sixteen feet amidships, a feat that the other shipbuilders had declared to be impossible! Unfortunately, on leaving the harbour, she went ashore on Girdleness and was lost with almost all hands.
During the Napoleonic Wars his eldest son, William, was captured and held prisoner by the French. After his release, in 1814, the latter did not join the family in Aberdeen, but leased a yard for himself, at Arbroath.
Old William Stephen owed his success largely to the considerate way in which he treated his hands. A letter, describing his methods of gaining their goodwill, says that the other shipbuilders found it difficult to understand how he obtained so much work from his men.
Twice a week, during very hot weather, he would order the brewery to send a cask of ale to the yard, to be distributed during working hours. He was firmly convinced that it was highly dangerous for a man, when warm, to drink cold water. On one occasion he ordered a bottle of whisky and a bucket of water to be brought into the yard, and proceeded to mix each man a drink with his own hands. Once, when a ship went ashore on Belhelvie sands, William set out to salve the vessel, arranging to lodge his men at a farm-house for the night, in charge of a foreman. Before he left, he greatly astonished the farmer's wife by inspecting each man's bed to see that it was provided with sufficient clothing!
Not content with care of the body, he also undertook to safeguard the soul, and would often go up to the shed during the men's dinner-hour to give them a short religious address. Sometimes he had not finished when the bell rang, and the men would move off to begin work. This was not at all to William's liking, and he often called them back with a "Na, na, lads, you're in my time now — stay where you are." Then he would keep them listening to him for another quarter of an hour or more. Occasionally the apprentices attempted to prolong this welcome extension of the dinner-hour by asking awkward questions and quoting relevant portions of the Scriptures, but as a rule he was not to be drawn. At least one apprentice remembered these hours with affection, for, on his death-bed, years later, in another part of the country, he made a friend promise to tell William Stephen that though James Smart had been one of his most mischievous apprentices, he had derived great benefit from this teaching and his last message to Mr. Stephen was "not to give up speaking to his men although they should use him as ill as he had done."
In 1824, Alexander, the second son, who had joined his father in the Aberdeen yard some years before, commenced keeping a yard-diary, which he continued for over thirty years. In this he records not only the work of the yard, but also various domestic events.
In the early 'twenties trade was good, but about 1825 it commenced to decline. While the Aberdeen yard contrived to keep its head above water, the son at Arbroath became involved in difficulties and William, senior, was forced to sign a bond making himself responsible for the debts of William, junior.
1826 was a disastrous year for the family. The brig Unicorn, commanded by William's youngest son, James, was lost with all hands off Balankelly, on the Irish coast, while on a voyage to Trieste. Of two other sons, whose business in Aberdeen failed, one died and the other emigrated to Canada.
Finally, the Arbroath yard lost a lawsuit and the creditors took it over, calling upon William Stephen to implement his bond. Unable to do this in full, he was declared bankrupt on 1st January, 1828, at the age of sixty-nine.
His Aberdeen business was taken over by his son, Alexander, and the name of the firm, which had been changed to "William Stephen and Sons," reverted again to "Alexander Stephen and Sons." Alexander not only took charge of the business at Aberdeen, but also shouldered his father's debts, the Arbroath yard, and the responsibility of a lawsuit that was pending. He finally paid off the debts over a period of seven years, and settled up for the lawsuit, which he lost in the Court of Session in 1832.
Meanwhile, the eldest son, after his failure at Arbroath, died and was buried there, his own blacksmiths making a most elaborately-bound coffin, proof against the depredations of the body-snatchers.
Shortly after his bankruptcy, old William Stephen and his wife moved to Edinburgh, where they stayed with their son John, who looked after them for about ten years, though they paid frequent visits to Aberdeen and Arbroath until 1838, when John died. It is recorded that after his funeral in Aberdeen the mail-coach was snowed up, and the Arbroath party had to walk most of the way home.
Old William Stephen then moved to Arbroath, but did not survive the change very long. He too died in 1838, on 21st November, and was buried in the family burial ground in Footdee churchyard, Aberdeen. His life was eventful, but rather tragic, in that the success he won was entirely undermined by the failures of his family, and he was obliged to spend the last ten years of his life as a guest of one of his younger sons.
We gather that he bore his misfortunes with gentleness and resignation. His wife, apparently, had at first some difficulty in forgiving him for his failure but, in a later letter from Edinburgh, John declares that she appeared to be showing more affection for his father. The old lady, who had a somewhat sharp- featured face, was probably rather trying. However, those of his family who remained were very much attached to the old shipbuilder, especially John, who was devoted to his father. While in Edinburgh John had his parents' portraits — which are still extant — painted, on commission for Alexander, who paid six guineas for the pair.
We have already seen how Alexander came to take over his brother William's yard at Arbroath, in 1829. Deciding, apparently, that it was too much for him to run the two yards single-handed, he relinquished the one in Aberdeen. As it was then customary for shipbuilders to lease their yards, leaving a yard did not always involve selling; the Stephen yard at Footdee was thus leased, from year to year, at an annual rental of seventy pounds.
Finally, in 1830, Alexander moved to Arbroath, where he carried on a continually-expanding business, taking over, soon after his removal, the yard of a Mr. Blair, who had failed in the trade.
In 1824 the Aberdeen yard employed 18 journeymen, 8 apprentices, 2 sawyers and 2 blacksmiths — a total of thirty hands. In 1830, when Alexander moved to Arbroath, the number had fallen to twenty-five, but rose to thirty again in 1834, and to forty-eight in 1843, when he left Arbroath. In those days the wages varied from 13/6 to 15/- a week on new work, and from 16/- to 20/- on repair-work. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars trade was still very bad, the lowest point being touched about 1832.
In 1826 the number of shipbuilders in Aberdeen fell from ten to eight, each of whom had two ships on stocks, unsold, while every year until 1835 is described as a very dull one for shipbuilding. After this date it improved, especially on the west coast, where a number of steamboats were being built. As many workmen were in consequence attracted to the Clyde yards, the east coast builders were obliged to raise their wages. Prices of ships at this period ranged from about £10 to £11 10s. per gross ton.
The Arbroath yard was continually being improved by additions, such as steam-engines to drive the saws, and a new joiners' shop. In 1840 Alexander moved his family into a large new house at Lady Loan, overlooking the yard; this residence is still standing. The year following this removal was shadowed by the tragic death of his small daughter, Elizabeth, who was killed by a circular-saw while playing in the shipyard.
In 1840 trade again declined and remained at low ebb for the following three years, causing several yards to fall vacant in Dundee. In 1842 Alexander Stephen, undismayed by the depression, took over the lease of one of the Dundee yards, moving his business thither in 1843.
One reason for leaving Arbroath was the new railway, which passed through the back yard. Although compensation was paid for the ground thus utilized, the innovation naturally made the yard rather inadequate. It is curious to recall that the local residents won an action prohibiting the railway directors from running trains on Sunday.
During the twelve years at Arbroath Alexander built thirty-two ships, though the greater part of his trade consisted of repair-work, which included the restoration of the Inchcape Bell boat.
At Burghead, Aberdeen and Arbroath the ships built were almost entirely small coasting vessels, ranging up to about 150 tons, for trading in the North Sea; the majority of these were for local owners, who often bought the ships when building on the stocks. But at Arbroath several larger vessels, of from two hundred to four hundred tons, were built, including several for Glasgow owners.
One of the most important sides of the business was the purchase of timber, and for this purpose Alexander bought the brig Leipzig, of 223 tons measurement, at Hull in 1838, for £1,550. Captain Barron was engaged for her, but arrived drunk! She made voyages chiefly to the Baltic, St. Petersburg and Archangel, for Russian woods, to Moulmein for teak, and also to the Black Sea.
A picture of the Leipzig entering Naples Bay now hangs in the firm's office. Apparently the captain had recovered, as he is seen on the quarter-deck, looking very smart in a top hat!
In 1841 this vessel was taken on the slip at Arbroath, cut in two and lengthened by 13 feet. She continued to make successful voyages, carrying timber, until at least 1851, and her owner declares that he saved much money in this manner.
Holidays in those days were regulated by the old Saints' days, a survival of Roman Catholic festivals, and some by even older traditions. New Year's Day was not observed on 1st January, but on 12th January, which is described as "Old New Year's Day," while "Old Christmas Day" was observed on 6th January. Between 1830 and 1842 these two old holidays were replaced by one or two "play-days," given on 1st or 2nd January. Old St. Thomas's Day, or St. Thomas's Market, on 20th July, was also kept as a holiday, while the two sacramental Fast Days on the Thursday before the spring and autumn Communion Services were always observed. A curious point is that while Christmas was kept in Aberdeen, no notice was taken of either Christmas Day or Easter at Arbroath!
Work was also suspended on various public holidays and days of prayer, such as the Reform Bill Procession, in 1832, the Fast Day decreed by the Church, owing to the threatened disruption, in 1841, and the Queen's Fast Day, for the failure of the crops, in 1847.
Launches were regarded as very important occasions, a "play-day" being always given on the day afterwards, until 1840, when this practice ceased. An amusing incident concerns a launch in 1830, when Alexander Stephen records that, returning from a day's business trip to Aberdeen, he was astonished, not to say angry, to find the foreman had launched a ship on his own initiative! This seems somewhat surprising to-day, as the launching of such small ships is now regarded as a comparatively simple matter.
Apprenticeship was considered exceptionally important, and the proportion of apprentices to journeymen was very large. As a matter of interest, a copy of the indenture of Alexander Stephen, as apprentice to his father, is given:
INDENTURE 'TWIXT ALEXANDER STEPHEN AND WILLIAM STEPHEN 1809.
IT IS CONTRACTED, FINALLY ENDED AND AGREED UPON, BETWIXT ALEXANDER STEPHEN, SON OF WILLIAM STEPHEN, SHIP CARPENTER, IN FOOTDEE, WITH CONSENT OF HIS FATHER ON THE ONE PART, AND THE SAID WILLIAM STEPHEN ON THE OTHER PART, AS FOLLOWS, VIZ.: THE SAID ALEXANDER STEPHEN WITH CONSENT FORESAID HEREBY FEES AND CONDUCES HIMSELF AS AN APPRENTICE AND SERVANT TO THE SAID WILLIAM STEPHEN, HIS FATHER, FOR LEARNING THE BUSINESS OF A SHIP CARPENTER, AND THAT FOR THE SPACE OF SEVEN FULL AND COMPLEAT YEARS FROM AND AFTER THE TWENTY-FOURTH DAY OF NOVEMBER, ONE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED AND SEVEN, WHICH IS HEREBY DECLARED TO HAVE BEEN THE COMMENCEMENT OF HIS APPRENTICESHIP, NOTWITHSTANDING THE DATE HEREOF, DURING WHICH SPACE THE SAID ALEXANDER STEPHEN BINDS AND OBLIGES HIMSELF FAITHFULLY, HONESTLY, AND CONSTANTLY TO SERVE THE SAID WILLIAM STEPHEN, AND NOT TO ABSENT HIMSELF FROM HIS SAID SERVICE AT ANY TIME BY NIGHT OR BY DAY, WEEK DAY OR SABBATH DAY, WITHOUT LIBERTY ASKED AND GIVEN UNDER THE PENALTY OF PAYING HIS SAID MASTER THREE SHILLINGS STERLING OR SERVING HIM TWO DAYS AT THE EXPIRY HEREOF, FOR EACH DAY'S ABSENCE IN HIS MASTER'S OPTION: TO ABSTAIN FROM ALL GAMING, DRINKING, AND ALL IMMORAL AND DEBAUCHED COMPANY, DURING HIS APPRENTICESHIP: HIS MASTER'S LAWFUL SECRETS TO CONCEAL, PREVENT HIS LOSS, AND PROMOTE HIS INTEREST TO THE UTMOST OF HIS POWER. AND THE FORESAID ALEXANDER STEPHEN, THE APPRENTICE, HIS HONESTY, FIDELITY SURE REMAINING AT HIS SERVICE AND IMPLEMENTING AND PERFORMING THE WHOLE PREMISES ALEXANDER MARR, SHIP CARPENTER IN FOOTDEE, AND WILLIAM CLARK, IRON MONGER, IN ABERDEEN, BIND AND OBLIGE THEMSELVES CON JUNCTLY AND SEVERALLY AS CAUTIONEERS, SURETIES, AND FULL DEBTORS, FOR, AND WITH THE SAID ALEXANDER STEPHEN FOR THE WHICH CAUSES; AND ON THE OTHER PART, THE SAID WILLIAM STEPHEN BINDS AND OBLIGES HIMSELF TO TEACH AND INSTRUCT THE SAID ALEXANDER STEPHEN, THE APPRENTICE, IN THE BUSINESS OF A SHIP CARPENTER AND SHIP BUILDER AS PRACTISED BY HIM; AND FURTHER TO MAINTAIN AND UPHOLD THE SAID ALEXANDER STEPHEN AT BED AND BOARD DURING HIS APPRENTICESHIP; LASTLY, BOTH PARTIES BIND AND OBLIGE THEMSELVES TO IMPLEMENT AND PERFORM THE PROMISES TO EACH OTHER, UNDER THE PENALTY OF TWENTY POUNDS STERLING, TO BE PAID BY THE PARTY FAILING TO THE PARTY PERFORMING, OR WILLING TO PERFORM BY AND ALLOW PERFORMANCE, AND FOR THE MORE SECURITY, THEY CONSENT TO THE REGISTRATION HEREOF IN THE BOOKS OF COUNCIL AND SESSION, OR OTHERS COMPETENT, THEREIN TO REMAIN FOR PRESERVATION; AND, IF NEEDFUL, THAT LETTERS OF WARNING ON SIX DAYS CHARGE AND ALL OTHER EXECUTION NEEDFUL MAY PASS AND BE DIRECT HEREON IN FORM AS APPEIRS. AND THERETO CONSTITUTE THEIR PROCURATORS, ETC. IN WITNESS WHEREOF THEY HAVE SUBSCRIBED THESE PRESENTS WROTE UPON PAPER DULY STAMPED BYJOHN DUTHIE, ADVOCATE IN ABERDEEN, AS FOLLOWS, viz., BY THE SAID ALEXANDER STEPHEN, WILLIAM STEPHEN AND ALEXANDER MARR, AT FOOTDEE, THE FOURTH DAY OF JULY, ONE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED AND NINE YEARS, BEFORE WITNESSES JOHN McKENZIE, VINTNER, IN FOOTDEE, AND THE SAID JOHN DUTHIE AND BY THE SAID WILLIAM CLARK, THE FIFTH DAY OF JULY AND YEAR AFORESAID ONE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED AND NINE BEFORE WITNESSES DAVID STEPHEN, APPRENTICE TO THE SAID WILLIAM CLARK AND THE SAID JOHN DUTHIE.
(SGD.) JOHN DUTHIE, WITNESS.
JOHN McKENZIE, WITNESS.
DAVID STEPHEN, WITNESS.
JOHN DUTHIE, WITNESS.
(SGD.) ALEXR. STEPHEN.
THIS IS TO CERTIFY THAT ALEX. STEPHEN WITHIN MENTIONED HATH SERVED OUT THE WITHIN MENTIONED TIME OF SEVEN YEARS IN A REGULAR AND ATTENTIVE MANNER — BOTH AS TO THEOREY AND PRACTICE FOR WHICH HE IS HEREBY DISCHARGED BY ME HIS FATHER THIS SECOND DAY OF JANRY. EIGHTEEN HUN. AND FIFTEEN.
(SGD.) WM. STEPHEN.
The usual weekly rates of pay for apprentices varied from 5 in the first year to 7/- in the fifth. As long ago as 1833, pay day was changed from Saturday to Friday, upon which day it remained for many years.
A curious custom, celebrated in the shipyards at this period, was that known as "Washing the apprentices' heads." The master of the yard presided at the somewhat roughly performed ceremony, which can hardly have been very pleasant for the victims, who were expected to give a guinea to be divided among the other apprentices. On one occasion the water used must have been too hot, for an unfortunate boy's head was scalded, though his companions refused to admit their blame.
The shipwrights, or carpenters, who formed a large proportion of the men employed, were early grouped into a strong trade union, the Aberdeen branch being established in January, 1825. The strength of this branch was early apparent, as the masters were soon compelled to combine in order to present a united front to the union.
The Dundee branch, which was also of considerable strength, formed the idea of running a yard of its own. In 1831 its members were taking the idea seriously, as Alexander Stephen offered to sell them his slip-gear. By 1847 their plans had matured and fifteen union carpenters formed the Tay Shipbuilding Company. But this attempt did not survive for very long. It is curious to note that when a trade union or a body of workmen in an industry, such as shipbuilding, make an attempt to compete with private enterprise, the result is almost always a failure. The Dundee branch also objected to carpenters from other districts working in the city, and struck to enforce their objection. It was finally settled that strangers should be allowed to work for five months without joining the union.
Another difficulty with which masters and men were faced in those days was the Press Gang. Ships' carpenters were particularly suitable for the Royal Navy and the best place to find them was naturally in the vicinity of the various shipyards. On one occasion the Gang raided the Arbroath yard for certain men, and searched the place thoroughly without success. When they had gone Alexander Stephen crossed over to the large steam box (used for steaming ships' planks), from which a gentle trickle of steam was still issuing, and, flinging open the door, exclaimed, "Ye can come out now, lads!". The wanted men crawled out, none the worse for their steaming!
When Alexander left Arbroath he handed over the lease of the yard to his nephew, William, the only son of his brother William, founder of the Arbroath business. Young William made quite a successful start, and in three or four years had repaid his uncle four hundred pounds of the money he had been obliged to borrow. By 1850 William was able to buy Alexander's house at Arbroath for £750, but in 1857 he died suddenly, at the age of thirty-nine.
When Alexander Stephen moved to Dundee, in 1843, trade was at a very low ebb and new ships practically unsaleable. He had already been forced to commission and run for himself one of his own ships, the Britannia, of 370 tons. The rent of the Dundee yard was £150 a year; £550 was paid for the engine shop and buildings.
Undaunted by the general depression, Alexander at once proceeded to reorganize the new yard, erecting fresh sheds and a joiners' shop. Fortunately he made a good beginning with repair-work and was able to find purchasers for two of the ships on the stocks. By the end of 1844 trade was reviving and he had from fifty to seventy men employed.
Alexander had now three ships at sea, the Leipzig, Whitby and Britannia. The two former were used chiefly for importing timber, while the latter made several voyages to India and Burma. In 1846 he sold the Britannia and also the Whitby. Later he purchased the Alexander, which he sold in 1850.
By 1845 shipbuilding had improved and repair-work was plentiful. The boom continued until September, 1847, when an 8 per cent bank rate and a good crop stopped trade and brought freights down. Wages rose as high as 21/- and 24/- after the six-week strike in 1846, but fell again to 19/- and 21/- in 1847. As a result of this strike, the masters decided to make fuller use of apprentices and foremen.
During these years the yard was further improved by the installation of a 12h.p. engine and a new shed, 180 feet in length, built over one of the berths to give cover to the ship building below. This shed, the second of its type in the kingdom (the other being at Smith's yard, on the Tyne), was erected at a cost of £450. Another instance of enterprise was the purchase, in 1844, of a floating dock, which must have been one of the first of its kind.
Although shipbuilding languished during 1848 and 1849 the depression did not prevent further extensions in the yard, of which a new seven-years' lease at £170 had been taken. A brick counting-house and a dwelling-house were built, also a shed 120 feet long, with a moulding loft above.
Larger ships were now built, the two most important being the Asia and Europe, both vessels of nearly Goo tons. The former was constructed by Alexander on his own account.
In 1850, although trade was still difficult, a new office and smiths' shop were commenced, while more ground was added to the yard between Marine Parade and Victoria Dock. Repair-work, however, was still good, and, with his sons beginning to learn the business, Alexander Stephen began to visualize a new yard on the west coast. The Dundee venture having prospered rapidly, his active mind was again alert for further developments.