Archive for the ‘Historical postcards’ Category
The Shell oil tanker Pyrula – formerly the White Star liner Cevic, ex Admiralty oiler Bayol/Bayleaf and one-time decoy battleship HMS Queen Mary – left New York on 21st August 1925 for a new life in Curacao in the Dutch West Indies.
She was manned by a mainly Dutch skeleton crew of 16, including three catering staff and four South American “firemen” (stokers) being repatriated to Maracaibo in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. The young master’s only officer – and the only other Brit on board – was his Scottish chief engineer, George Andrew of Airdrie.
Pyrula was a 30-year-old British steamer with a nominal horsepower of 708 and a working crew of 50, but after four years rusting off Staten Island as a floating oil depot for the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company, she faced a final journey of nearly 2,000 nautical miles (3,500 km) down the east coast of the US and across the Caribbean at the peak of the hurricane season, to a small Dutch island possession 40 miles north of Venezuela.
The voyage, the crew agreement notes, was to last for a period not exceeding six months and the sailors were to stand by until the ship was safely moored.
Rocky, dry Curacao was booming. The refinery had opened in 1918 and by 1925 beside the growing tank park, water plant and pending drydock, a little wooden Dutch town had sprung up with its own club house, tennis courts and golf course. Every four days a “mosquito fleet” of tiny tankers poured in from Venezuela with the oil bonanza discovered under shallow Lake Maracaibo, and by July the Isla was processing 5,500 tons of crude a day.
As the oil trade expanded internationally, increasing numbers of tourist steamers too were calling at Curacao, which was handily placed for the Panama canal and the Pacific, and Willemstad was starting to rival Amsterdam for ships and tonnages handled.
Once again,Shell needed Pyrula for bunkering. From the main harbour in the Schottegat lagoon she would eventually move out and round the coast, east to Caracas Bay, as a floating oil pump to the bigger ships unable or reluctant to traverse the narrow St Anna channel between the pretty Dutch gables.
And there she would end her career, overseen by a new master, Willem Hendrikse, and his growing family from a comfy stone bungalow built at the waterside. No more Shell wives made their homes among the old panelled staterooms of the former passenger ship, with their electric fans and bells to the pantry.
Hendrikse would eventually have two retired British steamers in his charge. Satoe was one of eight shallow-draft Royal Navy Monitor-class gunships bought up by the Curacaosche Scheepvaart Maatschappij after the first world war. As Monitor 24, Satoe had seen service on the Dover Patrol in 1918 and in the White Sea in northern Russia during the allied intervention after the October revolution, but the “flat irons” as the Dutch called them, were so unsuited to the tropics that the Chinese stokers used to faint from the heat in the holds, he said.
No ship’s log survives in the tidy blue cardboard folder in the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, where Pyrula’s particulars for 1925 have lain crisp and apparently unvisited since the merchant navy records were carved up in the 1970s. The two pages for certificates and endorsements are blank.
Lloyd’s List reports she was one of 13 ships to leave New York that day, and the only one bound for Curacao. So the first hint of anything untoward on Pyrula’s last long passage south is a single undated line on the front of the crew agreement, where her chief officer/acting master, Hubert Stanley Sivell, my grandfather, has added: “Vessel in tow and not under own steam” .
Arrived in Curacao “to be a hulk”, reported Lloyd’s baldly on September 8th.
Twenty-four hours later the men were paid off – in dollars. A small fortune in dollars: $744, worth £153 at the ambitious new exchange rate set that April by the chancellor, Winston Churchill, when Britain disastrously rejoined the gold standard.
Although Pyrula’s crew agreement was the standard UK form, with the usual pre-printed scale of provisions (a pound of salt pork on Monday, a pound and a quarter of salt beef on Tuesday, preserved meat on Wednesday, plus lime juice “as required by the Merchant Shipping act”) and the usual puny 5 shilling fines for everything from possession of firearms to mutiny, Bert’s sailors that trip were not on standard National Maritime Board rates.
Instead of £9 a month – a rate controversially reduced from £10 only that August, and still not including clothing, bedding or time ashore – the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company paid Bert’s seamen an astonishing $62.50 a month. £12 15s. His firemen were on $67.50, or £13 15s.
In fact the chief steward, H Mulder, 25, who had signed on as humble mess room steward at $50 a month and been promoted to $120 a month before the ship even left New York, was earning only £2 a month less than the Old Man himself – although young Captain Sivell did not advertise the fact. The column for pay against his name in the crew agreement is prudently blank.
Over in North Shields, in the north of England, the British crew of the Shell tanker Acasta – which was shortly to arrive off Curacao to collect Bert Sivell and two other “spare” Anglo-Saxon officers and take them home – would have been highly interested in the pay aboard Pyrula.
Acasta’s pantry boy, 20-year-old Albert Black of Dene Street, North Shields, was on £3 10s a month. He took a £1 15s advance when he signed up, probably to buy oilskins and bedding as he was listed as a “first tripper”, and set up a £1 15s “allotment” to his mother, which left not much. In Tilbury, forty days later, he would be paid off with just nine shillings.
Throughout September seamen with families had run the gauntlet of pickets and opprobrium at dock gates and railway stations up and down the UK to sign on for the new low rate. There were 1.2 million registered unemployed that autumn, but on £9 a month even fully employed seamen found themselves needing to apply for “relief” between ships.
A letter to the editor from a seaman’s wife in Hull in July demands to know how she is expected to pay rent, insurance, coal and “keep respectable” on £1 6s 3d a week. “Now then, all you sailors and firemen, buck up,” she wrote, the night before the cut came in. “What do you pay 1s weekly to your union for, and never one word of protest from none of you? Buck up some of you. Scandalous such treatment for a British sailor.”
By the time Bert Sivell paid off his crew in Willemstad with their wedge of dollars in the second week of September, British shipping was in chaos.
There were pickets on wharves from Southampton to Glasgow, and unemployed men from Cardiff to the Tyne waiting in tugs in the Bristol Channel and off the Isle of Wight to make up numbers as ships sailed shorthanded.
Across the Dominions thousands of British seamen had walked off their ships – 2,500 in Sydney alone – leaving steamers, mail and precious perishable cargoes, including refrigerated meat, maize and 15 million oranges, laid up from Wellington to Durban SA. Thousands of seamen were camped in meeting halls and private homes, fed by the generosity of local families and unions, while the Australian and New Zealand courts sentenced hundreds at a time to jail with hard labour.
And all for the sake of £1 and a vote.
The dispute had begun very low-key on August 1st, when pay on British ships was cut overnight by 10% in an agreement struck between the shipowners and Joseph Havelock Wilson, the president and founder of the National Sailors & Firemen’s Union. It was the seamen’s fourth pay cut in four years, but there was no vote on it, neither for the NSFU membership nor for men in smaller unions not represented on the official national Maritime Board.
When the cut was announced there had been protest meetings and speeches. Letters to local papers outlined the long hours and poor conditions aboard British ships (“only fit for seamen of an Eastern nation…”) and in Hull a disorderly NSFU meeting carried a vote demanding Mr Havelock Wilson’s resignation, which the union officers ruled out of order.
On “Red Friday”, July 31st, as the coal and rail unions were celebrating victory over the government of Stanley Baldwin, 200 seamen in Hull voted to strike.
The miners and railway workers were big hitters who had threatened a general strike over the mine owners’ plans to cut pay, (which was £3 a week in Staffordshire and up to 13s a day in Scotland) and faced with the prospect of the country being brought to a standstill Baldwin had backed down. He agreed to subsidise the industry for nine months, pending an inquiry (- which would lead to the general strike in May 1926, when the royal commission came back with a recommendation to cut the miners’ pay anyway, but by then the government had emergency plans in place – and volunteers on standby to drive buses and trains.)
But there was no similar support for the seamen. The NSFU stood by its sweetheart deal with the shipping companies, so the TUC – and even the breakaway Amalgamated Maritime Workers’ Union – considered the action “unofficial” and would provide no fighting fund. Within weeks, seamen refusing to sign on at the lower rate were deemed “unavailable for employment” and cut off from the dole.
Newspaper reports of the meetings of the workhouse guardians record debates about basic food relief, to prevent the wives and children of strikers “actually starving”. The men, it was agreed, should get nothing.
On August bank holiday weekend the Hull Daily Mail’s man at the dockside described the crowds of happy day trippers who piled unmolested onto the steamers Whitby Abbey and Duke of Clarence, despite the seamen’s strike. “There was no disturbance beyond a fight between two small dogs; a policeman on duty yawned continually, apparently bored with the inactivity of the ‘strikers’,” he sneered.
Up and down the country for the first three weeks of August ships sailed, and wherever men refused to sign on at the lower rate there were plenty of others hungry take their places.
Times were hard. The first world war had cost Britain her export markets. As the chancellor, Winston Churchill, wrestled with reparations and repayments, his overambitious return to the gold standard was having a depressing effect on Britain’s balance of trade. (Nations united by the gold standard, he had said that April, would “vary together, like ships in harbour whose gangways are joined and who rise and fall together with the tide…” Eurozone countries please note.)
Struggling to compete on price, British manufacturers cut pay. And kept cutting.
Even on the Isle of Wight unemployment was rising, from 1,000 in January 1925 to 1,538 by Christmas, but the situations vacant column in the local paper there (mainly seeking servants) was still three times the length of the situations wanted. Niton needed a gas lamplighter, the County Press reported, and a married woman teacher in Dorset had won a ruling in Chancery preventing the school governors terminating her employment, “even though there were single women teachers wanting for work”.
Seamen were largely casual labour, and even on £10 a month often could not lay enough by to feed, clothe and house a family during the growing gap between ships. To strike against the NSFU, cut off both from unemployment relief and union support, meant hardship.
By the middle of August it looked like the strikers might be starved out. But industrial relations took an unexpected turn when the first British ships started arriving in Australia after the three-week passage, and an energetic seamen’s union recently victorious in its own battle over pay and conditions took up the cause.
By the time Pyrula arrived in Curacao, the strike had taken a grip in the UK itself.
“Two thousand three hundred passengers, practically all Americans, booked to sail tomorrow morning from Southampton to New York on the White Star liner Majestic were at their wits’ end today,” the New York Times correspondent TR Ybarra cabled on September 1st, “trying to find out whether the Southampton seamen’s strike would force the Majestic to postpone her sailing.” Bristol, Hull and Liverpool were also affected, he said.
In South Africa, desperate fruit growers clubbed together to pay the disputed £1, just to get their oranges away. “The fruit interests are emphasising that for a matter of £70 in wages in this ship Roman Star £300,000 worth of fruit is being jeopardised, which if lost, will mean the ruin of many small producers,” the Western Morning News reported.
In Avonmouth, 30 boilermakers working on an Eagle Star tanker in dry dock downed tools. The San Dunstano needed enough work to keep 300 men employed until Christmas, they said, but they were being asked to just make her seaworthy to reach Rotterdam, where the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company had already sent the US-built Ampullaria. With 400 men locally unemployed it was “not right to send three months work to the Continent”.
“A MILLION TONS HELD UP BY SEAMEN’S STRIKE”, shrieked the NY Times on the 17th.
With the country’s maize and citrus exports rotting on the wharves, the South African government tried to mediate – mooting a six-month inquiry, as put in place for the miners, but the shipowners said no. Union Castle began to recruit “lascar” crews in Bombay, but India and South Africa both protested – though for different reasons.
As well as their £1 back, and paid overtime, and an end to the NSFU’s closed shop deal with the ship owners, the strikers wanted a ban on cheap Chinese and “lascar” crews.
Wartime restrictions on enemy aliens living in the UK had been extended after the war, limiting employment rights for foreign nationals and barring them from certain jobs (including the civil service). The act had particular impact on foreign seamen working on British ships, and was encouraged by British trade unionists fearful of the cheap competition for jobs. [It was expanded again in 1925 by the Special restriction (coloured alien seamen) order, and even more shamefully not repealed until 1971]
Under so called “lascar agreements” big British firms like Union Castle signed up Asian crews as a job lot for a round trip, under a serang. They did not have to be paid British rates, because they were not signed in British ports, and they were expected to put up with grossly inferior conditions for reasons that can only be described as racist.
Acasta’s white British crew had themselves taken the place of 38 Chinese seamen and firemen who were signed off in South Shields on September 10 after 11 months’ service between Trieste, Malta, Panama, Montreal, Las Palmas and Marseilles.
These men were all registered to boarding houses in the same three streets in Rotterdam – Atjehstraat, Delistraat and Veerlaan, and their pay per month of the trip cost Shell even less, an average of only £3 a head.
Many Chinese had appeared in the tiny docklands peninsula of Katendrecht in 1911, signed up in secret by Dutch ship owners as strikebreakers to work the big passenger liners to and from the Dutch East Indies. They had no unions, only “shipping masters”, who allocated ships and rented beds in their boarding house between jobs.
The Chinese had a reputation as hard workers. They did not drink, were docile with their pipes and mahjong (“less troublesome than a white crew,” said Bert), and were willing to work for little pay.
They were also expected to eat less than a white crew, according to a typed “Scale of Provisions (Chinese)” tidily appended to Acasta’s crew agreement by Captain G. Croft-White. Although the same document shows fireman John Sow had to be left behind in hospital in Marseilles that trip suffering suspected beri-beri.
Shell’s Chinese seamen were entitled to 7lbs of beef, pork or fish each per week, against 8lbs allocated for white crews, and they got 10 and a half lbs of rice, instead of 11lbs of potatoes, biscuit, oatmeal and rice. They got less coffee, marmalade, bread, sugar and salt, more tea and dried vegetables, and no dried fruit, suet, mustard, curry powder or onions at all.
Capt Croft-White was clearly a belt and braces sort of chap, for above the scale of provisions is also gummed a paragraph from a printed document outlining the National Maritime Board’s absolute jurisdiction over pay board his ship, including its ability to retroactively impose cuts.
“It is agreed that notwithstanding the statements appearing in Column 11 of this Agreement the amounts there stated shall be subject to any increase or reduction which may be agreed upon during the currency of this Agreement by the National Maritime Board …”
Bert spent a month in Curacao, handing over and sorting out paperwork, but no letters survive. Only Acasta’s crew agreement shows that he was picked up “at Sea” on October 20th with two other British officers from Dutch lake tankers, and conveyed home to Tilbury.
He arrived back in Britain in November 1925. The strike was over. The seamen had lost.
From Australia came reports of violent clashes between police and British strikers in Fremantle, but after 107 days the men there too gave up and started trying to sign up for a ship home.
It was the loss of trade that eventually beat the seamen’s strike, as farmers and woolmen facing ruin eventually turned on the cuckoos in their nest. Lost, delayed and diverted trade was estimated to have cost £2 million. The shipowners claimed it was a Red Plot.
On December 8th, the Western Argus in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, ranted: “The anti-British character of the strike was plainly shown by the action of the agitators who fomented it in Australia. They professed sorrow and indignation over the unhappy British seaman, compelled to starve on a miserable pittance of £9 a month, but they said nothing about the German seamen working for £4 4s. All their efforts were directed to holding up the British shipping trade, while foreign vessels were allowed to come and go unhindered…”
After more than four years away Bert hurried home the Isle of Wight for a rare Christmas with the wife he had not seen for a year and the baby daughter he had never met at all. His furlough pay as chief officier was £24 10s a month.
“The old Clam is up to her tricks again: early this week she decided to take a sudden list, after standing perfectly upright for over two months. We had to chop through a foot of frozen snow and ice to get to the tank lids and then we had to use a crowbar to get them open. She was not leaking, so I do not know the cause of her latest crankiness.”
Bert Sivell, officer-in-charge Shell depot ships Pyrula and Clam, New York, January 1925
In the winter of 1925, the East River in New York froze, trapping the ferries. One morning Bert Sivell found he could almost walk from his home on the former passenger liner Pyrula at Stapleton NJ to his support tanker, the 3,500 ton Clam, across the ice that stretched half a mile into the bay.
The steam was off, there was no oil cargo aboard either vessel, and no ships calling for bunkers. The Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company (fleet arm of the 1907 merger of Royal Dutch Petroleum with the “Shell” Transport & Trading co.) was shedding its old tankers and both vessels were up for sale – for £25,000.
Pyrula was just an old passenger steamer, converted to an oil tanker by the Admiralty during the first war when she had seen action as a dummy warship, but Clam – though older – was a pioneer: a bit of Shell history.
The Clam was a proper oil tanker, purpose-built to carry lamp oil in bulk a decade before the word “tanker” was even invented, in the days before ordinary householders could dream of electric lighting and when gasoline was still a worthless byproduct being run off into rivers from Pennsylvania to Azerbaijan.
Launched in 1893, the Clam was older than her newly-wed young officer-in-charge, and older even than the old square-rigged sailing ship in which he had served his sea apprenticeship.
She was the last of the very first “Shell” tankers; the fourth of four sister ships designed in secret in 1892 to challenge the monopoly of American oil and its “Octopus Standard Oil by carrying Russian kerosene in bulk to the burgeoning markets of the East through the Suez Canal.
Murex, Conch, Turbo and Clam were a sideline to the rice and case oil business of a self-made British family, the Samuel brothers; a bow drawn at venture, rather like the workshop Samuel senior had founded, sticking exotic shells on tricket boxes for the booming Victorian seaside souvenir trade.
They were not the first purpose-built bulk oil tankers* - a distinction that belongs to either the Belgian Vaderland (1872), the Swedish Zoroaster (1878) or the German Gluckauf (1886), depending on your definition – but they had reinforced bulkheads up, down and across creating multiple separate tanks; cofferdam “buffers” fore and aft, isolating the fiery boiler room and coal bunkers; and expansion tanks to contain the expanding cargo in hot weather and prevent it shrinking and lurching in cold. They had water ballast tanks, to empty in case of grounding; electric fans to expel explosive gas vapours; integral pumps; and steam pipes for cleaning between wet and dry cargoes (!) - for purpose-built or not, the Samuels could undercut the competition if their oil tankers carried a cargo of tea back.
The ships were leak-proof, collision-proof and as far as possible fire-proof, and in August 1892 Murex made history as the first bulk oil carrier ever to pass through “the ditch” and into the Red Sea, bound for Thailand. She carried with her a little murex shell, presented to the master by Marcus Samuel from his own collection.
The Samuels were not Rockefellers. They were Whitechapel Jewish importers of rice and grain, semi-precious stones and shells, but they had inherited a network of trading agents across the far east and together they set up a syndicate to build onshore storage tanks that eventually stretched from Shanghai to Batavia (Jakarta), and from Bombay to Kobe. They worked in secret, because the ruthless Standard Oil had ways of seeing off competition – until it was finally forcefully broken up by US anti-trust laws in 1911.
Gradually, the eponymous rusty blue-green of Devoe’s Brilliant case oil tins – which had built itself into the very fabric of villages across the East as raw materials for everything from roofing tin to toys – gave way to shiny red ones, manufactured on the spot, and in 1897 the Samuel brothers struck oil of their own, in eastern Borneo, north of an unspoiled little fishing village called Balik Papan – (now an oil city of half a million souls.)
The following year, when the “Shell” syndicate began converting its tank steamers to burn its own thick fuel oil, Clam was first.
By 1925 only the Clam was left. Conch was wrecked off Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1903; Turbo went down in the North Sea in 1908; Murex was torpedoed outside Port Said in 1916. But the Clam – requistioned by the Admiralty for service as RN oiler No. 58 and torpedoed in the Irish Sea by UB64 – limped into port and returned to work.
By 1925, there had been a hundred and twenty-seven “shell” tankers, including Murex (2), Conch (2) and Turbo (2). Marcus had been knighted for services to the Admiralty, and then raised to the peerage as Lord Bearsted. The “Shell” syndicate had merged with the Royal Dutch and oil was big business from Indonesia to Venezuela, producing all manner of oils, thick and thin, including the once despised gasoline and new aviation fuel.
The Clam was an antique - old and cranky, flip-flopping at her moorings in the ice and fog off New York, minded by a young officer-in-charge apparently whiling away his time with prize crosswords and letters to his wife far away in the UK, and a young engineer juggling three girlfriends. (“… He met them at a dance hall he goes to. He takes them all out on different nights and has been buying them presents too. I think they are soaking him good…”)
America was still supposed to be “dry” and at Christmas the manager of the Asiatic Petroleum co. [Shell's management arm] had brought them a basket of fruit and some cigars, which Bert shared with his last few Chinese sailors. “Their forecastle will be all right tonight with cigar smoke and opium,” he commented. He saw in the New Year out at the moorings with Clam, listening to all the ships around him rattling their whistles. (“Not a sound from Pyrula, not even the bell.”)
Up in New York, the Ford Motor company was pulling crowds with a two week exhibition at its showroom on 54th and Broadway, where you could watch twenty-five workers assemble a motorcar they themselves could afford to buy – start to finish in 20 minutes flat.
Bert joined the gawpers. “They build them on a moving conveyor,” he wrote. “The men never move from their positions but just do their bit to each machine as it comes to them. Finally the machine rests on its own wheels and they start the engine and drive it away. It really is a wonderful piece of organisation.”
The (free) show included entry to a prize draw to win your own car. Bert managed three trips, and three entries to the draw. He was already scouring the local paper his parents sent him for a house with a garage. “I made up my mind some time ago that I would have a car during the first leave after I go master.” That would be 1928, by his calculation.
Although he had passed his master’s ticket in 1919, promotion in the “Shell” depended on seniority. Every company man kept a jealous eye on the men above and below him on The List, and the only bearable part of the drudgery and boredom of minding Pyrula and Clam that final year was the fact that it all counted. “The old idea about sea experience is dead in this era of steamships,” he grumbled, ungratefully.
Once a week he left the pier and caught a vaudeville show off Broadway. “There’s a new idea at the Liberty now,” he wrote in January. ”On Monday and Tuesday there is no vaudeville, but two pictures (movies) instead, admission 25c and 35c. Wednesday night is Opportunity night when the local talent give the vaudeville and prizes are awarded by the audience’s applause. We get the two pictures as well, admission 40c over all. Some of the local talent is terrible.”
Once a week he lunched at Yeong’s Chinese restaurant, where he would listen to the jazz bands and watch the dancing, wandering back to Pier 14 via the bookshop on the eighth floor of Wanamaker’s in Washington Square.
The American Sugar refining company turned up in February, looking for a Cuban depot ship “if the price was right”, followed in March by two more Italian gents (“because they gave me a cigar”) and a firm of Danish ship breakers. Both made offers and both sought Bert’s services as master to sail and tow both vessels back to Europe. But the Anglo-Saxon said no.
It said no again when a German shipbreaking firm in Hamburg bid £23,500. (“As luck would have it we were both in our overalls and pretty black. I have all the boats turned inside out and Andrew has part of the main engines adrift ready to go to sea, so we had quite a decent show for him.”)
By now six of the war generation tankers had been sold that Bert knew of: Caprella (ex War Gurkha), Conia (War Rajput), Melona (Elmleaf), Prygona (Aspenleaf), Strombus (RN oiler 4) and Cardium. Bigger ships were on the stocks. Bert boxed up four years of clutter and destroyed all Ena’s early letters, ready to go home. And nothing.
The baby was born in March, but in April he was still showing prospective buyers around Pyrula and Clam, without success. “It is pretty evident now that the ASP have abandoned the idea of selling these ships for operating tonnage and they are now looking for the best price for junk.”
The Clam was eventually sold to Petrolifera Esercizi Marittima of Venice in 1926 and renamed Antares. The following year Shell launched a 7,400 ton Clam (2). Pyrula was moved to Curacao, still as a depot ship, and scrapped in 1933. Antares/Clam outlasted them all. She finally ended her long career after she was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Alagi in 1942. She was refloated but scrapped the following year.
By then, Bert was dead. He never did get his motorcar.
* In 1861 the first recorded ship to carry (US) oil in bulk, the tiny two-masted sailing ship Elizabeth Watts, sailed for England with a drunken, crimped crew – no sober volunteers having been found willing to risk their lives with such a hazardous cargo.
The White Star liner Homeric arrived just in time to see through the sleet and spray the last of the 38 men of the Raifuku Maru swept to their deaths in the Atlantic.
It was 10.55 New York time and the exhausted Japanese crew had been clinging to the railings since the force 9 NNE gale shifted their grain cargo at 5 am, their ship listing ever deeper into the sucking, surging seas. The British sailors - who had battled for five hours to reach the distressed freighter - were distraught. Out on the pitching deck of the big mail liner, their passengers were horrified. In the narrowing gap between the ships, men drowned.
“Many of the passengers exclaimed from time to time, ‘there’s a man floating. I see a head!’ But as the wreckage drifted nearer the stern of the Homeric we could see that some of the objects that looked like human heads were only sacks,” said Mr George J Heatherton, of 553 Broome Street, New York.
When the ship docked in New York all hell broke loose. “No heroic effort was made to rescue those men,” marine insurance broker Paul E. Alberti told a waiting reporter and Amos RE Pinchot, brother to the governor of Pennsylvania, expressed his outrage across six columns of the New York Times. “I personally saw several men in the water, either swimming or being carried by the current,” he claimed. “It is hard to see how [the master] could have done less to save them.”
A hundred and twenty-three of Homeric’s passengers disagreed, and signed a testimonial backing Captain John Roberts – sharing his “regret and sorrow that the terrible conditions prevailing at the time rendered his efforts unavailing”, but the row rumbled on.
On the waterfront in New Jersey, the slur against an honest colleague was taken personally. Bert Sivell, young officer-in-charge of the Shell depot ship Pyrula, was disgusted.
“There has been a terrible shipping disaster in the Atlantic, but I expect you read about it in the home papers,” he wrote home. “A Japanese freighter foundered with all hands during a bad gale. The Homeric arrived on the scene an hour before she sank but had not time to rescue anyone. That vessel is a big lump to handle in heavy weather. He got as near as he could and pumped oil overboard but could not get sufficient quantities out to do any good. It would require a proper tanker to cope with that situation.
“In today’s papers some of the passengers have told a story to the reporters that no efforts were made to effect a rescue. There are columns of this attack on the captain. It is positively disgusting. No ship will desert another in trouble at sea, nor is any effort spared to save life at sea. The captain of the Homeric has been at sea for probably 30 years. When chief officer he was instrumental in saving 1,200 from another Atlantic wreck so he knows how to handle a ship’s lifeboat and if he says it is impossible for a lifeboat to live in a sea such as was running at this time, then that should be sufficient for anyone. However some people will do anything to get their name in the paper.”
The gist of Pinchot’s complaint was not that lifeboats had not been launched - Capt Roberts had three swung out as they approached and even Pinchot expressed “grave doubts” as to whether such small boats could have survived in such tremendous seas. It was not even that Homeric had not fired lines (ropes) across to the stricken vessel, because he accepted she had no equipment to do so. His objection was that no rafts were dropped, and that Capt Roberts had steered his bucking, heaving 774ft, 35,000 ton passenger liner and the 944 lives aboard away from the submerged wreckage and spreading flotsam too soon.
As he arrived in Quarantine in New York, the master told the waiting reporters wearily: “I was busy on the bridge manoeuvring my ship and I did not spend as much time looking at the freighter probably as some of the passengers.” He himself had seen only half a dozen survivors, and by the time he had managed to work his ship round to the lee side of the wreck where he might have picked them up, he could see no signs of life, neither on what was left visible of the deck nor in the water.
The ship’s owners, Kokusai Kisen, sent a telegram thanking him for his efforts – which White Star judiciously published.
Raifuku Maru had left Boston bound for Hamburg four days earlier, but she was only 400 miles out – barely two days’ steaming from Boston – when her new young wireless operator, Masao Hiwatari, sent his SOS. The message was relayed from Halifax NS. Homeric was the nearest ship, 70 miles away, blown off her own course by the gales and foul weather.
Down in Homeric’s stokeholds men sweated, shovelling mountains of coal into the furnaces, piling on speed until every rivet and gauge on the liner rattled. But all the while the crippled ship, now listing 40 degrees, was being swept away southwards. “Coming as fast as possible, twenty knots. Now seventy miles from you,” Homeric signalled. Other ships were also on their way. The Greek liner King Alexander (former SS Bremen) reportedly arrived in New York with one passenger “dead of excitement” having lost lifeboats, ventilators and several saloon windows before she called off her attempt to reach Raifuku Maru through the gales, after Homeric reported she’d sunk.
“We didn’t know our position and [Raifuku Maru] didn’t know her position,” said Captain Roberts later, “and we were able to get her direction only from her radio. We got signals from from the Japanese freighter for quite a long time. When we got the last message we were 45 miles from her. She was in pretty bad straits, and her last message was ‘we are waiting for lifeboats’… Water was pouring into her funnel when we arrived.” He had come 111 miles in just five hours.
Three of Homeric’s passengers said they saw men trying to launch a lifeboat, which was immediately smashed by the sea. As Homeric pumped out oil, lawyer Ralph Crews of 55 Wall Street watched three big waves sweep the surviving crew off the railings. “We could see them swimming around for a minute, but they quickly disappeared,” he said.
Sadly, when reports of the loss reached Japan, Amos Pinchot’s protests struck home. The Japanese press cried racism. The Japanese seamen’s union in Kobe, aghast to think their colleagues had been abandoned, appealed to the international community, and the emperor issued 300 yen payments to the bereaved relatives.
Meanwhile in the US, the media frenzy stoked by Amos Pinchot ensured the tale of the Raifuku Maru was not forgotten. Somewhere in the telling Hiwatari’s last message became “Danger like dagger now … come quick”, unleashing tales of mysterious water spouts (and spawning its own college-boy band). In fact, the 29-year-old wireless operator had lived in the US for several years, his English was good, and any deficiencies in his transmissions can more readily be ascribed to haste, fear and exhaustion as he risked his life below decks tapping away hour after hour to guide Homeric’s radio direction-finders. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Nowadays, if you google Raifuku Maru, you end up – bizarrely – in the Bermuda Triangle, thanks to the US linguist Charles Berlitz, who claimed her as an unsolved vanishing in his bestseller of the same name in 1974. The book sold 20 million copies in 30 languages.
The sighs of Captain John Roberts and his men, who did their best to no avail at Lat 41 43N Long 61 39W – off Nova Scotia, Canada – echo down the years.
The visiting tanker captains had egged him on: “Get married,” they said. “Grab the chance while you can.”
Bert Sivell, writing from the master’s quarters of his first “command” – a redundant passenger steamer serving out her days as an oil depot ship off New York in 1922 – took the plunge. “Come out and marry me,” he urged his love, far away in the UK.
The American master of the oil tanker Pearl Shell was the envy of all the Shell masters that winter. He had his wife in Philadelphia, an hour and a bit away by train from the ship, and he trotted off home every night.
“He told me I was a fool for not having you over here months ago,” Bert wrote. “He had not seen his home for two years before he came here, and had not seen his wife for eight months, although she had gone over to ‘Frisco and elsewhere in the States whenever he came to US ports.”
“Come out and marry me,” he urged. “Gossips in Ryde will be busy about conventions and rubbish, but don’t let that worry you. Trust me.”
So the little milliner from Ryde boldly left the town where she was born and caught the White Star liner Homeric from Southampton in December 1922, carrying in her trunk the homemade trousseau she’d been stitching for three years. Her young man gave her £60 of his savings – which was more than she earned in a year – and for half of it she shared a windowless cabin in second class with a girl called Florence Ayers. (No point paying for a port hole, Bert had said knowledgeably; at that time of year the crossing would be too rough to open it anyway…) Florence and Ena were to remain friends for the rest of their lives.
She’d thought it was wishful thinking when Bert first raised the idea in February, in a throwaway line about needing a secretary for all the paperwork the Asiatic Petroleum office was throwing at him.
She had expressed pity that he was darning his own socks. “You had better come over right away, my dear,” he wrote. ”I have a whole pile of mending of all sorts, even my jacket is falling to pieces, but I have had no time lately.”
Bert was marooned a mile off Brooklyn, pumping oil through the worst snowfall the US east coast had seen since the 1880s, and fighting for access to the motor launch which was his lifeline to shore.
Across New York bay the great transatlantic steamers came and went, carrying his mail and knocking Pyrula about in their wake. He had nothing much to write about except work.
“I have not been inside a picture house since Christmas, although I fail to see what that has to do with the Asiatic anyway,” he wrote, aggrieved, after rumours in the office that he spent too much time ashore or visiting other ships. “They all forget that our day consists of 24 hours and even if we are not actually working, we live in the midst of it and that is as bad. All last night I spent on deck with the worry of being helpless if she broke adrift and today (Sunday) the 2nd Engineer and I put in four solid hours in the snow cutting out the burst steampipes ready to be sent ashore tomorrow morning. If their ideas were in operation we’d need a wooden crew.”
But in March it all changed, when Pyrula was allowed to chip out her frozen chains and come ashore to Pier 14, Stapleton, NJ. Suddenly Manhattan was only a ferry ride away. They had neighbours and mains electricity and Bert was promised a telephone. He began to enjoy the job.
Out of the blue, the Asiatic announced they might be wanting him to stay on. For another year. In great excitement, he wrote to Ena.
“It would be detrimental to my career in this company to refuse to stay. So, my dear, the point is this: if such an event as the postponement of my leave should occur, will you be willing to come over here and get married and live aboard the ship?”
He had it all figured out, the British consul, the ceremony. He would pay for her passage over. It would be cheaper for Ena, he said, “considerably cheaper, because you can dispense with your wedding dress…”
Bless her, Ena took it on the chin. After months planning a wedding in Ryde, checking rental properties and buying household linen, the letter cost her a sleepless night, but she was game. Her friend Vi Trent had just got married and moved to Leeds, and she’d got quite fed up of the newspaper coverage of the Princess Mary’s sumptuous wedding the previous month. She consulted a fortune teller, who saw a journey and a long life (Ena did not inquire about Bert, perhaps just as well), and then she set about acquiring a passport.
Bert kitted himself out in new clothes, American style — straw hat, wasp waisted suit and new tie, and took himself off to explore the sights of New York, bombarding her with postcards. He also repainted the ship from stem to stern, hung out the flags for her birthday, and began buttering up the local vicar with regular Sunday church attendance.
At numbers 32 and 110 High Street, Ryde, their parents were less happy. ”I can understand your people kicking a bit against the idea, because you are a girl and need looking after —!! (ahem! —!! don’t smack me),” Bert wrote. “But why my parents should object I don’t know. I suppose it is because I am the only one.” Bert’s dad had written an angry letter, the gist of which appeared to be that Bert had not asked his consent to marrying abroad – although it probably had more to do with them only having heard of their son’s plans from local gossip. “I wrote back and said that as I was marrying you, I considered you were the only one I should consult.”
Shell too was not thrilled. The group permitted overnight visits by officers’ wives in port – and their agents in New York, Furness Withy, even allowed wives (though again, only officers’ wives) to accompany their husbands on short voyages. But Bert Sivell had grown up in sail.
Generations of masters’ wives of all nations once made their homes in the saloons of their husbands’ sailing ships, generally doing a lot of sewing and letter writing, but learning to take a noon sight or a trick at the wheel, just in case. They were there because shipboard discipline depended on masters remaining aloof – even from their junior officers – and because sailing ship masters were small businessmen often with a financial stake in their ship and no spare cash for idle investment in a house ashore. The wife’s comfort was not a prime consideration. “I have occasionally had to hint to him that my name is not down in his ship’s articles…” wrote one emancipated captain’s chattel in 1873.
It seemed a matter of course to Bert that Ena should live aboard Pyrula with him. A perk of the job. Vivid in his mind was the fate of the chief engineer who had arrived in New York with him the previous year to be met by the news that his wife had died, leaving his four young children in the sole care of the eldest, aged 14. “I shall probably never get such a long spell in port again.”
And he got his way. On 8th November 1922, the head office of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company in St Helen’s Court, London, cancelled the home leave due to the young officer-in-charge of the oil tanker Pyrula at the urging of its partner, Asiatic Petroleum, and granted permission for his bride to join him aboard – at 3/6 a day. “As you are aware, this procedure is not a rule of the Company and you should, therefore, regard it as a concession,” said Shell, firmly.
A month later, Bert was on the quay when Homeric pulled in. By noon he and Ena were bowling down Broadway in a taxi, heading for the Staten Island ferry and the church of St John, Rosebank, where the vicar was standing by to wed them. By two o’clock they were onboard Pyrula, man and wife. Bert even organised a tiered cake, so that Ena could post slices home to her friends – proof that the proprieties had been attended to.
The wedding photograph shows a rather lumpy young woman smiling shyly in a sensible two-piece suit and a feathered hat that dwarfs her groom. Bert, ramrod straight in his best uniform, beams stiffly, his mouth tight shut on his bad teeth.
They got themselves a dog called Buster and a black kitten they christened Microbe, and they made a home together at Pier 14, taking in the shows and the sights of New York whenever Bert’s work permitted. Vaudeville was on its way out, elbowed aside by the flickering silver screen. But Ena loved the vast and glittering Hippodrome, on 6th Avenue – with its performing seals, midgets and minstrels, and she acquired a stack of 10 cent programmes, with their adverts for fashion houses and ice-cream and perms and even Perrier water. They went to see Hollywood’s darling, the silent movie heartthrob Douglas Fairbanks, in The Thief of Bagdad at the Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street as soon as the film opened in 1924, and they made friends ashore, socialised and for almost two years just enjoyed being together.
And then, Ena found she was pregnant and abruptly the honeymoon was over. Ena packed up her playhouse programmes and her souvenir guides of New York and went home. Anglo-Saxon did not allow children on the ship and she had to go back to the Isle of Wight, to set up house and have the baby, alone. Bert had to stay. He did not see his daughter until the baby was more than a year old. Though they did not know it, most of their days together were over.
Every Sunday for the rest of his life he wrote to Ena, date stamping the envelopes so that she might read the letters in order, and every year on December 9th a telegram would arrive from somewhere in the world, reading “Shimmer shine. Bert.” This, deciphered out of nautical telegraph code, meant: “Another anniversary of our marriage. How happy we have been, love”.
There was no telegram in December 1941.
# # #
America had been “dry” for eighteen months when the Shell oil tanker Pyrula dropped anchor off New York in autumn 1921 under the stern, sober eye of Miss Liberty.
In Times Square legitimate restaurants and bars had closed, and special investigator Izzy “the human chameleon” Einstein and his straight man Moe Smith were already hundreds of arrests into their extravagant career as prohibition agents – sniffing out under the counter liquor in a variety of plausible disguises, from expansive cigar salesmen to thirsty longshoremen.
It was the age of the speakeasy, just “ask for Joe”. There were several thousand underground drinking dens in Manhattan already by that winter, varying from dingy doorways behind which tired bar girls pushed illegally stilled liquor and the lure of sex, to glizy private social clubs peopled by flappers and dapper men in spats. Here, the cocktail grew up, to hide the taste of bad booze. It was the era of jazz, and racketeers and movies.
But the British crew on Pyrula were not destined to see much of the bright lights of the Big Apple. By the time the first snows fell that winter, Bert found himself moored in the open roads off Brooklyn, three miles from the nearest landing stage, as officer-in-charge on a floating fuel pump.
Pyrula was a big ship - 520ft long and “as wide as Union Street,” as Bert wrote to his people back home in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. She had started life as the White Star steamer Cevic, one of the ”cattle boats” carrying livestock and immigrants between the US and Europe. She had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty in 1914 and she saw action as a decoy warship – a dummy Queen Mary, with cylinder tanks built into her holds to carry oil. The Anglo-Saxon Petroleum had bought her after the war and Bert had joined her as Mate in Barcelona in September 1921.
They were bound for New York via Tampico, Mexico, through the hurricane belt. There were 70 officers and crew aboard, all housed over three decks amidships, and his room was the most luxurious he had ever had in all his ten years at sea. It was the size of the sitting rooms in the houses along the street where he had grown up, with electric lights, a fan for hot weather and a bell to the steward’s pantry.
The master was an old sailing ship man who was delighted to discover his new first officer had served his time in sail.
Captain Baxter was nearly 60 and had been 20 years in sail before he and his ship were taken over by Shell. Dolbadarn Castle had been demasted and converted to a motor ship, Dolphin Shell, and Baxter had just returned from three years’ service with her in the Far East. Pyrula was his first steamer.
He knew the ship to which Bert had been apprenticed at 16, and had met the captain, James Donaldson, in ‘Frisco in 1893. Bert for his part had not a bad word to say about the gentlemanly old sea dog — not even when he brought aboard two tiny chinchilla monkeys, which ran amok among Bert’s fresh paintwork with dirty paws.
“Every evening after tea the old man comes up on the bridge and we have a yarn about the old sailing ship days,” he wrote home in his weekly letter to his waiting sweetheart. “He is really very interesting. Some of the places he has taken his ships need considerable skill to get in. He bought a couple of monkeys in Gibraltar. They are the queerest looking things that ever I saw, very lively and climb all over the place. One has a special liking for my shoulder and when walking up and down the bridge this little article will suddenly spring off the top of a door and land on me. They are quite small, not much bigger than a squirrel. I don’t know how they will stand the cold. We have also a couple of cats this trip, stowaways from Gibraltar.”
The orders had been to collect a cargo of oil from Tampico in Mexico and take it to New York, where Shell was keen to grab a slice of the city’s booming 796,000 barrel a year bunkering fuel market. With the US price of oil off the wharf at $1.85 a barrel, the group’s accountants had worked out that they could make over a dollar a barrel profit shipping it up from Mexico, even including freight and handling and the Mexican government’s 14 cents a barrel tax.
For some time, the directors had been casting about for a site in New York harbour to build a shore depot with fuel tanks. In February 1921 proposals were “laid on the boardroom table”, as the company minutes show, to buy and develop a 22 acre site which had been found on the New Jersey waterfront opposite Staten Island. It needed dredging and a pier, and was to have cost an estimated $665,000, but by late summer the scheme had been rejected amid doubts over the vendor’s title to the land and it was decided instead to make do with a cheaper option: an elderly depot ship and a young officer-in-charge.
That August Bert was offered the job – and the prospect of a pay jump from £26 to £35 a month, which was most welcome to an ambitious chap saving up to marry his girl as soon as his first leave was due, in eleven months’ time. He was 26, and had been with Shell for two years.
At home, unemployment was rising. Demand for British coal, steel and woollens slumped after the war. The empire’s markets were in tatters. On both sides of the Atlantic ships were being laid up. Men were being laid off. The old industries struggled, and in the midst of it all a much younger industry, oil, grew strong.
In ten days after leaving Gibraltar they sighted only four ships, even along the US coast. “It shows that the Yankee trade depression is just as heavy as our own because in normal times this coast is alive with shipping, mostly American coastal traffic it is true but even coastal traffic means work for someone,” Bert wrote.
Bert reported 600 vessels idle in Newport News, VA. Worse than any port in England, he said. And New York and Philadelphia were said to be the same.
The men who had deserted the Red Duster for big Yankee wages during the war were on the beach too. “The few American ships running will only carry Americans. None of the crews of British vessels calling here ever desert their ships now, so there is no chance of the stranded ones getting away.”
He had scant sympathy. He had served the war in sail, running saltpetre from Chile for the munitions industry and Jarra wood from Australia for pit props. He had endured low pay, bad food and rough men, but it had taught him his trade and in the summer of 1919 he had been very happy to exchange his crisp new sailing ship master’s “ticket” for a dry berth on oil tankers and three square meals a day.
He was a qualified captain, but it had taken him nine months to climb back to first officer. Officer-in-charge of an oil depot ship was another step up, but it was hard work.
Some weeks Bert was on his feet for 63 hours at a stretch, taking oil from the tankers that ranged alongside them in the deep roads, and discharging it into smaller lighters that tendered among the big ships along the Chelsea piers where the White Star liners and Cunarders docked. Tossed by the backwash of the great Atlantic passenger ships that brought him his mail, far from the bright lights on shore, he watched the immigrants arriving from the old world, huddled at the railings for a glimpse of the new.
There was no telephone aboard. If he needed to talk to the agents he had to take the motor launch ashore and phone from the quay. He visited the office in Manhattan twice a week, taking in lunch at his favourite Chinese restaurant up town. It had an orchestra and dancing, which he watched. He loved jazz and occasionally took in a show or a movie. If he enjoyed other diversions, he did not mention them in the letters and cards he fired off to his fiancee, Ena Whittington, on the Isle of Wight.
Marooned on Pyrula, a mile offshore, with a mainly Irish and Scandinavian skeleton crew of fourteen, prohibition made little impression on Bert, although he was not himself was not averse to a tipple, as he admitted as he nursed himself through the ‘flu that laid waste to New York in January 1922. For several days he had lived on hot malted milk and rum — “shocking, and in a prohibition country too,” – and many a ship master shared a dram of the real McCoy with him after the oil had been pumped across, for it was a cold job.
When a Sinn Fein flag, ensign of the Irish free state, appeared on the bulkhead in the crew quarters he prudently ignored it, but when one of the firemen (stokers) succumbed to what Bert suspected were the effects of “moonshine” he had him packed off to hospital ashore, smartly. The authorities tended to ask unwelcome questions about where booze had come from. But the patient was outraged to discover his pay was stopped while he was laid up and threatened to sue. On discharge he refused to return to the ship, and he died of alcohol poisoning in another hospital two weeks later, one of thousands of victims across the US. (“So that settles his lawsuit,” wrote Bert, unsympathetically.)
By the beginning of February the snow was 2ft deep on the deck, and all the pipes were frozen up. As the ice melted, it trickled into his rooms in 26 places. Between ships, the stowaway little black cat that had survived the hurricane was his constant companion. It followed him around the deck like a dog and sat on the safe in his room as he worked, growling at its own reflection in the wardrobe mirror.
Unable to get ashore, Bert’s pay had never quite reached the £35 a month he had been promised; the ASPCo deducted meals at 3s 6d a day for each man. Overtime rates had been abolished the previous October (“though we still have to work overtime, or face the sack…”) and in March, the pay itself was cut by £2 4s a month, the second time in a year. In May it was to go down a third time, they were told, by £1 2s. “We shall soon be going to sea for our health,” he wrote dolefully, but to his surprise only one of his crew quit.
By now, Bert was counting the months until his leave, when he was to go back to the island to get married and set up a home of his own ashore. He had been at sea since he was 15 and never home for more than a few weeks until the summer he’d met Ena.
However, at the end of March, all his plans were thrown into the air. After months at anchor, Pyrula was moved to a permanent berth beside a pier on Staten Island. Pier 14, Clifton, had power lines from the shore and Bert got a telephone in his room. Trains and trams ran past the pier gates straight to the Manhattan ferry and the shows, and in the evenings after work, he was able to take a walk.
By late spring Bert was writing chattily home about the 25 cent movies, the talent nights at the local palais and several sightseeing trips he’d enjoyed in a friend’s automobile.
Life on the pier was a bustle of activity, with “noise and all sorts of things going on” day and night. One week a small steamer turned up and discharged a cargo of cork, lemons, sardines, and almonds into the shed beside the tanker. All day the scent of lemons hung strong about the wharf. Pyrula had just taken on coal, but Bert uncharacteristically left his ship black with dust from stem to stern rather than risk dirty water running off and spoiling the fruit.
Some shore life diversions were less welcome: one night they were burgled, together with the Standard Oil tanker lying beside them, and a four-masted schooner nearby. While Bert slept, the thief or thieves bypassed several night watchmen and the catches on all the doors. “When I woke up at 6am I found my room like a shambles and clothing lying around everywhere.” They had taken his watch, chain and binoculars, plus an overcoat from the steward’s room and shore-going clothes from the other tanker, but missed Pyrula’s pay roll, which was in Bert’s safe, and a gold watch he had brought as a present for Ena.
At home, Ena was busy sewing for the wedding, amid much envy and ribbing from her mates at the milliner’s in Ryde where she now worked. On Pier 14, Pyrula shifted record quantities of bunker oil, the young officer-in-charge was mentioned in letters to head office, and Bert made a momentous decision. His leave was fast approaching. He’d been away three years. He was entitled to go home. But it was rumoured that the agent wanted him to stay.
“If I am ordered to remain here it would be very unwise to kick,” he wrote. “Because I would only prejudice my career in this company.” He would lose Pyrula and his next ship might be out east, where Ena could not follow.
“Come out and marry me,” he telegrammed.
The White Star steamer Cevic disguised as the battleship Queen Mary in 1914, note dummy first and third funnels with no smoke
“During the afternoon the wind increased. My word, it did howl, it just shrieked past us and the rain came down in torrents unceasingly. A mountainous sea rose and the Pyrula, big ship that she is, was tossed around like a cork. Soon after 4pm four 10 gallon drums of coal tar got adrift in the fore ‘tween deck and then the fun commenced.
“She was capering around so much that she just threw them clean out of the lashings. The bosun managed to rescue two before they came to harm, but was a bit late with the other two. The bungs came out and oh! what a mess. Coal tar spread itself all over the deck and ran out of the scupper holes from where the wind whirled flying tar all over the place. Then, a heavy plank that was chocking off some drums of red lead and other paint in the lower fore peak collapsed, while in the top peak a barrel containing 500 weight of white paint got adrift. During a mad career around the deck it spilled half its contents and collided with a 10 gallon drum of black, so there was another queer mixture.
“It was impossible through all that rain to see further than the forecastle head. We were nearest the centre of the hurricane around 7 pm, after which the barometer began to rise. The sea was terrible – huge waves coming along from all sides. The vessel was buried in spray, but she did not ship a single sea until 7.30pm when she took a beauty. It came aboard practically the whole length of the vessel at the same time. One lifeboat was smashed, the galley skylight was washed off, several awning spars carried away and two beams buckled on the fore deck. To give you an idea of the size, let me say that the boats are all 45 ft above the water. A lot of water went down the engine room skylights and I expect some of the engineers thought their last day had arrived. After that things began to improve, although there was a tremendous sea running for 24 hours afterwards. When daylight came next morning I found my poor lifeboat sitting on top of a steam winch.”
Bert Sivell to Ena Whittington, from the Anglo-Saxon oil tanker Pyrula off Florida, October 1921
The unnamed hurricane, a category 4 with winds of up to 140mph, landed off the Caribbean near Tampa on 25 October and swept eastwards across Florida, causing widespread destruction as it slowed, although only six people were killed. Florida was still a sparsely populated fruit growing belt. Aboard Pyrula, rolling and twisting 150 miles away in the hurricane’s wake, one of the two stowaway kittens they’d picked up in Gibraltar was lost overboard.
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.”
- from The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth,
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1863
In July 1921, after five months out of work, Stanley Algar of Middlesbrough got a job as 3rd mate on an elderly coal-burning steamer ferrying oil from the US to Europe and found himself in Port Arthur, Texas, gazing at a Shell tanker moored nearby. His own ship was covered in coal dust and ashes, but the Mytilus – for it was she – was spotless. “She was a picture,” he recalled, years later when he was a Shell man himself.
“All the brass work was gleaming, the paintwork was fantastically clean, the woodwork on the bridge sparkled with good quality varnish, there was no rust to be seen, not even over the side, and the wooden bridge deck and poops were as clean as a hound’s tooth. The crew were Chinese and the British officers were in clean uniforms, not shabby old lounge suits as on our ship.
“I looked at our vessel, with the ashes from the stokehold and the galley refuse stoked up on deck, and was filled with disgust.”
Stan was 23. He had joined his first ship at 15 in 1915, during the first world war. Small for his age – just 4ft 10 – the Shipping Federation office had deemed him too puny for an apprenticeship in any of the big shipping companies, so his dad found a local firm that was not so fussy and he had been packed off to sea on a dirty old coal-fired tanker to fuel the navy at Scapa Flow for £7 a year. The master drank, the mates were very old and those of the crew who had sailing ship experience were contemptuous of those who had not.
Stan’s war was in many respects more exciting than his contemporary Bert Sivell’s. He’d had to jump for his life after a collision off the Orkneys, had been mined in Swansea bay and torpedoed off Le Havre after discharging aviation fuel, all for £1 5s a month plus the apprentice rate war bonus of £1 a month.
After the armistice, they both came home to sit exams, hoping for promotion. But while Bert passed his master’s ticket and joined Shell as 3rd officer in 1919, by 1920 jobs were not so easily come by. Stan passed his 2nd mate’s ticket at first attempt and in September joined the Royal Mail – as temporary third mate on a German vessel impounded as part of the allies’ heavy-handed war reparations settlement. Stan was present when the ship was handed over to the British in Leith. “A curt naval commander, representing the UK government, made the Germans open their cases as they left, depriving them of anything that belonged to the ship,” he wrote in the copious diaries he kept all his long life. But in January 1921 that vessel too joined the hundreds being laid up along the Tyne.
By then the pits had been on strike for three months. Unemployment everywhere was rising, and Stan was competing for ships against men with many more years at sea than he had. But his father’s pay was low and his younger brother was earning only a few shillings a week as an apprentice engineer, so the family needed his wages.
“I called at the offices of all the local shipowners and was received with scant courtesy by junior clerks and office boys. More and more ships were being laid up,” he wrote. Men with master’s tickets were accepting work as able seamen.
By the time Stan got his first job with Shell in 1922, he had again been unemployed for some time. He was offered a berth “out East” as 3rd officer on the Adna – familiar to Bert as the converted War Patriot. “I borrowed £20 from a friend, gave my mother half, bought myself a new suit for £5 and joined the P&O ship SS Kalyan as a passenger for Singapore with £5 in my pocket and a smile on my face.”
Stanley Algar and Bert Sivell both went on to careers as masters in Shell. Perhaps they even knew each other; but in March 1941, in the middle of the Atlantic, in the middle of a second world war, their stories diverge.
Twenty-four hours apart, on March 22nd and 23rd, both came under enemy attack, but while the Shell tanker Agnita encountered the auxiliary cruiser Kormoran commanded by Kapitän zur See Theodor Detmers, the Shell tanker Chama was hit by torpedoes from U97, commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Udo Heilmann. One man and his crew lived; one ship went down with all hands.
Stanley Algar lived.
For the further adventures of Gefangene 100040 in Milag Nord read Goodbye Old Chap, by Stan’s son, the journalist Philip Algar, from which the above is an extract.
Suez to the Shatt al Arab light vessel took the oil tanker twelve days nine hours and they arrived in the mouth of the Euphrates at 2am on 19 May 1921. “We have seen nothing but sand – mountains of it, since we left,” Bert wrote, as they waited for the pilot to cross the bar. “When daylight came in I looked round for the land but failed to see any. The surrounding country is flat and swampy and the lightship is too far out to see it.
“I suppose we had been going again for an hour and a half when I looked out and saw land – and to my utter astonishment everything was green with plantations of date palms. However, as the two banks converged one could see that the green only lasted for a mile from the water’s edge. In fact, at Abadan it is less than a hundred yards wide.”
Bert Sivell, chief officer of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum oil tanker Mytilus, was ill. For a month he had lived on beef tea and milk. He’d seen a doctor in Suez, and in Abadan the 2nd mate was sent ashore to fetch another, a dour Scot from Aberdeen, who diagnosed a kidney infection and issued the master with a letter to the Anglo-Saxon head office in London, prescribing two months sick leave. Bert’s letter is sprinkled with exclamation marks, but he knew he wasn’t going home. They were three months out of Rotterdam, and relations between Captain Hill and his 1st mate were at an all-time low.
“Captain Hill has funny little ways,” Bert had commented, as they crossed the Mediterranean in vile weather. He wanted four star observations left on the chartroom table each morning, to work out the ship’s position for himself. But Bert left them with the maths done, “to show him I could.”
Then there were the charts, which Hill would let no one but himself touch. “Personally, when we are going along near land I like to take cross bearings now and then, lay them off on the chart and see if the vessel is keeping her course properly. That is as much for the safety of the ship as anything else. But the first time I put bearings on the chart I was told about it, so after that I used to call him up about twice during my watches, to take bearings. He soon got tired of that and has now given me permission to not call him unless the ship is out of position. The 2nd and 3rd have not that authority, so apparently I have scored a point.”
The Rock of Gibraltar had been invisible through the rain and the oil tanker had to heave to for 24 hours level with Malta – bows into a gale, battered by hailstones, engines on full ahead. “Talk about the blue Med…” Bert snorted. But it meant the painting wasn’t done.
In the narrow Suez canal south of Port Said, Mytilus got stuck, blown into the bank as they gave way to laden tankers coming the other way. They ran ropes ashore and tried to heave the ship off, but the wind was too strong. “After about an hour of this I got tired of it and wandered along to the bridge to suggest pumping some ballast out of one of the forward tanks, to lighten her nose and clear the bank that way. It struck me as rather strange that the order had not been given from the bridge as soon as she struck, especially as the old man has been in tankers for years…”
They remained tied up all night, further battered by a sandstorm. By Suez, there was a huge row. Bert was running a fever and the master said Mytilus was a “—-ing pigsty”. Bert had been saying it himself for a fortnight, but he didn’t relish the reprimand. A chief officer was responsible for the painting. The tanker looked all right from a distance, he wrote, after an afternoon in the ship’s boat, teaching the apprentices how to row.
There was a strike at the refinery in Ismailia, and ship’s crews were doing the pumping. While Captain Hill and the chief engineer disappeared off to Cairo to see the pyramids, Bert saw a doctor, who diagnosed sunstroke. There were half a dozen Shell ships in port, and his old master, Captain Harding, dropped by. “It was quite like old times to have him sitting in my room for a yarn. He is so different to the one we have now. I got quite a lot of news from him.”
From Suez, Mytilus went north again, to Marseilles, another bad passage. Bert was still ill. In the desert canal all his new paint got covered with fine red sand several times and rough seas in the Med took off what was left. They arrived in France streaked with rust …
In Marseilles the benzine pumping station they were hooked up to 500 yards away exploded in flames, killing the pumpman, and Mytilus had to be yanked off the wharf by Acasta, which had fortunately been discharging fuel oil just outside the benzine dock. Bert shut down in a hurry, disconnecting the pipes and moorings, raising steam and all the while keeping the water hoses plying the main deck, to keep the temperature down. “If we had gone on fire it would have been goodbye Marseilles, town, docks and everything.”
They shifted to St Louis de Rhone, on the Camargue marshes. It was a dead show, he said. Just a village. But then he had been discharging day and night since they arrived and had not been ashore, so could not tell. Shell’s superintendant had been aboard and complimented him on “having one of the cleanest ships in the company”, he reported wearily. He spent 19 hours on his feet on his birthday, and they were delayed again when the mistral blew them into the canal bank.
The gossip from France was not good. Bert’s pay had been cut by £2 15s a month, and the superintendent said forty ships were being laid up. Tucker, Bert’s predecessor as chief officer on Mytilus, who had left to be master of War Patriot (Adna), had had to revert to chief officer again - the second time it had happened to him. ”Things must be pretty serious when a firm like the ASPCo are laying up their vessels because they have no work for them.”
He was taken bad again in Abadan, and burning up as they crossed the Red Sea heading for home again. He was still not eating, and one night the captain had to take half his watch. By Suez, Hill threatened to put him ashore, and by Gibraltar he said Bert would never get another ship again, “in this company or any other.” Off Spain they fell out over the colour of the regulation paint.
“The men have worked well but the weather has been against me – my usual luck again when painting the ship,” wrote Bert. ”Last Monday was fine, so we painted down the masts, funnel and adjacent ventilators. That was a very good stroke of work. I am afraid a present day ‘white’ crew would not do as much. Tuesday was also fine, and we painted right round the bulwarks – another splendid stroke. They lost two days to bad weather and then on Friday, being some Chinese holiday, the crew did nothing, and it was a beautiful day too. Then Saturday was a half day but I managed to get a little done and that ends the week.”
Captain Hill and his ailing chief officer parted company in Lisbon in June, Bert leaving for the UK bearing in his pocket a terse letter of “reference”. (“Mr HS Sivell has served on board the SS Mytilus as chief officer from December 1920 to present date and is now going on leave. Conscientious in his work, his services have been quite satisfactory.”)
He was braced for a long wait for the next ship or perhaps demotion to 2nd mate, but by August he was in North Shields, fully recovered, and signing on as chief officer with the Shell tanker Euplectela on £26 8s a month – with a view to joining the depot ship Pyrula in Barcelona on £28 12s and remaining with her to New York, where he would become officer-in-charge on £35 a month. It would be his first command.
Ya boo sucks, little Hill.
Bert Sivell saw in New Year’s Day 1921 in drydock in Rotterdam, as officer in charge of the Shell oil tanker Mytilus – surrounded by the company’s new “war” boats having their names changed to shells.
Absia was there (ex War African), and Anomia (War Expert), and Marinula and Melania, and the four-masted Speedonia. The War Rajput (soon to be Conia) was due in and War Matron (Acasta), and his first ship, Donax. His last one, Orthis, had just sailed.
“There’s a big slump in cargo steamers just now and many are laying up, but ours cannot get around fast enough,” he wrote. In Britain, a national coal strike had erupted in October.
“No dear, the coal strike will not delay our docking,” he had written to Ena when it started. ”It has done something far worse: it has driven the job out of this country altogether. Did you read in the paper a day or so back about a big ship repairing contract being transferred from North Shields to Rotterdam? That was this firm. They had five Monitors at Shields, being converted into tankers*, but owing to labour troubles in the ship yards and coal mines they towed them over to Rotterdam to finish converting. Think of the amount of work going out of the country, and the money…”
Britain had emerged from the first world war millions of dollars in debt to the US and with its overseas markets in tatters. Pent up domestic demand masked the damage briefly, but as the men poured home to their civilian jobs, suddenly there were too many men and not enough jobs. Wages began to slip. During a flying trip home in January with the ship’s accounts, Bert passed down Oxford Street on the breezy top deck of a double decker bus and noticed various groups of unemployed ex soldiers including a band of veterans busking for pence outside Selfridges. Trade was bad, he noted.
But out along the Heijplaat in Rotterdam business was booming. Tiny neutral Holland had emerged relatively unscathed from the war between its big neighbours - give or take the thousands of Belgian refugees and the rationing and the Spanish ‘flu.
Bert had arrived in the Netherlands aboard Orthis in December, still dodging sea mines and funnel still sparking “like a Chrystal Palace display”. He saw in the new year from a pontoon in the Maas, on the wrong side of the river from the centre of Rotterdam. The Dutch kept up new year properly, he reported, all work having stopped at 1pm and not due to restart until Monday. Cafés, bars, picturehouses and theatres were all open, however, and there were lively crowds on the streets, including several fights, which he dodged. “I did not fancy a night in jail.” He did not like Rotterdam, nor the Dutch much.
Within weeks, however, the harbour was heaving with Shell ships and Bert found himself surrounded by new ships and old friends. “I have just had one of the best weekends since I have been in Rotterdam,” he wrote.
“In my last letter I told you that the four-masted barque Speedonia belonging to this company had arrived. Naturally, being fresh out of sail myself, I was interested in the vessel, so on Saturday afternoon I went round to her. I just drifted aboard casually and saw a man holding up the cabin doorway. It struck me I should know him so I started to yarn, and in the course of our conversation I tumbled to where we had met: he was 3rd mate of the four-masted barque Grenada and we were together in Newcastle NSW in July and August 1913, and again in Gatico and Tocopilla (Chile) from October to December of the same year. I had not heard anything of him since. We went ashore together on Saturday evening and I piloted him round the sights.
“Sunday morning I was busy doing accounts when the Donax appeared on the scene. Naturally there was no more work that day and after dinner [lunch. Ed] I dressed and went round to her. She was lying at the installation, only about a mile away as the crow flies, but five miles when one has to walk it. It was a lovely day and I quite enjoyed the walk. I got round about 3.15pm and strolled along to the messroom, where I found the chief engineer playing draughts with the Marconi operator. He was very surprised to see me, because they all thought I was still on the Orthis. We adjourned to his room and give each other all the news and then the Chinese boy came in with the chief’s tea. He nearly dropped the cup when he saw me and got a ‘ten cent’ wriggle on to bring me one. After about an hour with the chief I blew along to see Captain McDermid.
“When passing through the saloon I ran into my own former boy. His face broke into a big oriental smile immediately and he started bowing and saluting alternately. It was really very amusing. Then I got into the old man’s room and his first question was if I was married yet. We had a long yarn about everything and he fished out a bottle of port.”
Captain McDermid said Shell was negotiating building forty more Donax-type ships in the US (“just think of the masters’ jobs”) on top of twenty-six already under construction at yards around the world. Thirteen were due to be commissioned that year, he told him.
McDermid was senior Shell man and he predicted great things for Bert; the company’s eye was on him, he said. Sailing ship qualifications were the golden ticket.
But Bert’s rapid progess had not passed unnoticed lower down the pecking order either. The 2nd mate on one of the other tankers challenged him to his face: why was Bert chief officer on a bigger ship after only 18 months in the company?
By late February, when Mytilus’s new master Captain (“Little”) Hill stepped aboard, Bert had been in Rotterdam for four months and he was ready to go, but it was still a shock when the orders came for Abadan.
*Renamed Anam, Ampat, Delapan, Doewa, Lima, Tiga, Toedjoe and Satoe
“I often get a yarn with the ‘old man’ on the same old topic – marriage. His chief argument is that marriage is no good for a man going to sea, because he is seldom home. He says it is only keeping another man’s daughter, but I argue what could be better than for a man to come home from a voyage and find his wife waiting with outstretched arms to greet him, because if a girl really loves a man she is willing to put up with her man being at sea most of his time and will make the most of him while he is home. Am I not right, darling?”
Bert Sivell to Ena Whittington, December 1919
The “old man’s” view of women was jaundiced. Captain McDermid – all of 35 - had been engaged once himself, he told Bert during their first trip with the Shell oil tanker Donax. But his girl had spent her last penny to get a fur coat. When he saw that he turned her down, he said, because if she would spend her own money like that, what would she be like with his?
But McDermid’s bark was worse than his bite. Though unmarried himself, he was happy to wire ahead so that the 2nd Engineer’s wife could be waiting on the pier head as the ship came alongside in Shellhaven on their return from the Baltic, and three days later when the tug took her and the chief engineer’s wife off again as Donax left for the States, he had three long blasts blown on the ship’s whistle as a farewell to the ladies. (“The tug replied by giving a series of blasts, trying to make Hip Hip Hurrah, so the wives had a good send off. There were four British steamers lying at anchor there and I expect they wondered what had gone wrong.”)
In a “home” port, like Shellhaven in the Thames estuary, Shell’s married officers – and married officers only – were permitted to have their wives living aboard with them. ”They have to pay their own expenses, but the firm makes all the arrangements, which is very good of them,” Bert wrote, enviously.
He himself managed only snatched evenings on a sofa at Ena’s digs in Tunbridge Wells, arriving at 6pm and running for the 10.10pm train for Charing Cross, Tilbury, and a midnight walk back to the ship. Once he managed a trip to his parents on the Isle of Wight. Donax had arrived at Thameshaven at 2pm, they were tied up by 5pm, he’d hailed a tug to Gravesend, and run for the ferry to Tilbury just in time to catch the London train. He had got to Ryde as the clocks were chiming 3.3oam.
Small wonder he was envious of married colleagues. ” Here is another chance you have missed,” he wrote in April 1920. ”You could have met the ship yesterday afternoon and stayed on board until tomorrow morning. A little spell like that about twice every two months and the drydocking every six months will not make married life so bad after all, eh! sweetheart, and there is always the prospect of the three months furlough.”
The cranky former RFA Oakol, latterly the Shell oil tanker Orthis, to which he was transferred that May offered even more opportunity for the men to see their wives (“… The 2nd mate’s wife was aboard almost before the anchor was down…”) due to the time she spent in Millwall dock and Shellhaven while the engineers struggled with her engines. Bert managed many more trips to Tunbridge Wells after work, and several to Ryde – taking Ena with him on the night train.
“It will be a taste of what is in store for you in future, dearest, when we are married and you have to suddenly fly off to Glasgow or somewhere else on receipt of a wire. You will get quite used to night travelling.”
Captain Harding had his own wife aboard Orthis as often as possible and was generous with time off for his unwed chief officer. The likelihood of transfer “out East” hung over them all, if not to Palau Bukom in the Singapore Straits, where the Shell group had historic concessions, then at least to Batoum on the Black Sea, where a pipeline delivered oil from the Anglo-Persian’s newly acquired Caspian wells. The cosy brief domesticity in Shellhaven or even Millwall or Rotterdam was a rare interlude, to be grabbed with both hands, spurred by the arrival of charts for Batoum that May.
When the company tried to ban wives, the men were outraged. “There is a new ruling coming out in the firm that no wives are to be allowed on a vessel with benzine in,” Bert reported. ”Some fanatic, I suppose, thinks it dangerous, but I have an idea that rule will be broken a few times or many will leave the firm.”
And they cheered the master of a Belgian time-charter ship who let go from the wharf and anchored in the stream when ordered to put his wife ashore while loading. “The installation manager was aboard within an hour, asking him to resume and saying his wife could stay.”
Time snatched with husbands aboard oil tankers was not an unmixed blessing, at least for the wives. “They have been trying to kill us all just lately here by letting go a lot of gas,” wrote Bert from Shellhaven in August. “They purify petrol by passing some acid through it. This acid is then run into the sea and the end of the pipeline is not far from us. They run this stuff away in the middle of the night and the ‘sniff’ is thick enough to cut. Nearly all the Europeans on board are bad through it. Last night it nearly turned me up and I have been queer all day.”
Summoned by telegrams, expected to park children and leap onto trains at little or no notice, and then kick their heels on wharves in strange ports until someone had time to pick them up, the lot of a merchant officer’s wife was not as simple as it had been in the days of sail. Then, each ship was a small business venture, and it was common for a master to own a part share. Property ashore was idle money, so many captains simply took their wives with them – resulting in children born and raised at sea. As late as the 1920s, there were still wives in sail.
When Bert Sivell joined his third Shell oil tanker, Mytilus, in Rotterdam shortly before Christmas 1920, Captain Jackson had both his wife and his little daughter living on board. Bert couldn’t wait to be married himself.