Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 1. Beginning, middle and end

with 14 comments

Captain Hubert Stanley Sivell

Captain Hubert Stanley Sivell

My sailor grandfather vanished at sea in 1941, lost with his oil tanker and all hands in the chaos of war. I never knew him, and – worse – nor did his son, my father. My grandmother hoped against hope that he had somehow survived, scouring the blurry newspaper snaps of returning PoWs long after the war was declared over, refusing to mourn him or let her children mourn him for more than a decade. “The children and I have not given up hope,” she would reply stiffly to the well-meant notes of condolence that dropped through the door. She only gave up and agreed to have him declared dead in 1952, by which time the boy with his father’s face had left home for a life of his own, riding the wild winds in aeroplanes as his father had in sail.

This is the story of a career in ships, uncovered in a thousand yellowing letters from a chest by an old woman’s bed when her house was cleared after her death; it is the story of a boy who ran away to sea a hundred years ago. He sailed in the rigging of the last windjammers, survived mutiny and war and Prohibition and the great economic depression, and – probably, yes – died in the burning sea round a Shell oil tanker in a second war, watched by enemy eyes.

These are the stories my grandfather would have told me … found in margins and in pencil marks of records he never knew were kept, the personal flotsam and jetsam of an ordinary man and his perfectly ordinary, extraordinary life at sea in the first half of the 20th century.

This is for Bert Sivell.

A sailor’s life – 2. Runaway, 1910


14 Responses

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  1. Fascinating, your story has similarities with my own.
    -Family Roach from Isle of Wight
    -Grandfather apprenticed on a Barque Zinita 1905 to 1909.
    -Captained but survived both wars, died in 1952. I never met him.
    -I have his diaries from his apprenticeship days and offical ships logs from the Zinita.
    Look forward to reading through your tale, …

    Peter Roach

    January 30, 2011 at 5:38 am

    • Dear Peter, Lovely to hear from you! How far have you got with your grandfather’s experiences? I’d be very interested to read them. I believe that around 1900 one in every five British men earned his living from or connected with the sea… There are alot of us around. Good luck. Please keep reading. Jay

      Jay Sivell

      January 30, 2011 at 10:22 am

      • The diaries and notes are in a pdf document. I had originally put all together for the family, but interest in it is small. Like yourself, as I suspect, I am at loss as to what to do with it. A book?? The diaries are well written and stories, at least to me are really good. But as a book I believe I need to develop a skill at filling in areas such as character development, and to make up conversations, without which the reading tends to be off interest to only those who also had read Villier’s, Bone’s, Jone’s and Barker’s books of sailing on square riggers.

        All of the books listed above tend to suffer from the same malise, as does the diaries. Little expression of thoughts and fears, and big on descriptions with little actual conversations.

        One thing with the diaries though is the way it comes in his writing, how my Grandfather develops from a naive youth to a young man. What surprised me was how I could recognize in him the same youth as I see in the younger men I now supervise and training at work. I ended up believing there is not as much difference from his generation and todays. I could really identify with him as youth. My parents had told me that if he were still alive we would have little to talk about or relate with. I disagree with that, after reading his diary.

        I very much look forward to reading through your blog, maybe I should do the same, but I fear you are a far better writer and organizer than myself.

        Are you or your family still on the Isle of Wight? Our family used to run the Mill at East Medina, but nowadays there is only a small number remaining. They mainly left and went overseas-Africa, Australia and Canada.


        Peter Roach

        January 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm

      • Hi Peter, Nope, none of my branch of Sivells left on the Isle of Wight. I’m in London. Not sure about being well organised though it’s taken me fifteen years to get writing. But I can thoroughly recommend blogging. Beautifully ephemeral. And if anyone reads it, so much the better… History may be written by the victors but even among them only by the survivors. I feel happy that my grandfather’s story is out there. Let me know if you publish anything. I’d be very interested to read it. Nothing wrong with showing how your grandfather grew up though surely?.A lot changed in his lifetime. Best wishes Jay

        Jay Sivell

        January 30, 2011 at 10:06 pm

  2. I doubt if anything will ever be published (though I really do want to give a crack at it), and I have no problem with you reading the diaries, I could send the pdf file to you, but it is 10mb.

    I am not happy with the arrangement of what I have done, and really feel it needs a complete overhaul, so if that doesn’t scare you off… How do I get it to you?

    Peter Roach

    January 31, 2011 at 2:16 am

  3. Dear Peter (if I may)

    This is a lovely blog, and completly fascinating.

    You have a priceless historical archive, and I’d really urge you to make sure that a suitable repository, like the National Maritime Museum, gets at least copies of the letters when you are finished working on them. It would be a tragedy if the material was ever lost.

    If I could ask a couple of questions reflecting my own research interests
    -did your grandfather express views on the seamen’s trade unions and their leaders?
    -was he affected by the August-October1925 British seamen’s strike?


    Jonathan Hyslop

    Jonathan Hyslop

    November 29, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    • Dear Jonathan, Many thanks for your encouraging message. Would you by any chance be the author of Steamship Empire? And if so, do you know where I might find a copy? I’m afraid my grandfather was not big on unions, or at least he did not think to entertain my grandmother with political talk… I’m afraid he was in the States in 1925, and on a passenger ship to Singapore during the General Strike in 1926. I am currently researching the recession years, when he was out east. I’ll keep a weather eye out for union comments. Best wishes,

      Jay Sivell

      November 29, 2011 at 10:49 pm

  4. Dear Jay
    Just to say that my old cousin now deceased ,was an apprentice on the Monkbarns ,1920-1924 he left a day to day precise diary,and photos of crew and ports visited also newspaper cuttings.

    Nicholas Eveleigh

    May 10, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    • Dear Jay
      I cant help feeling disappointed in the way that you have portrayed my distant cousin Eugene in your report,at every opportunity you have, you choose to put him down,forgetting that it was him who wrote the diary and took all the photos that you have used(on his expensive leica camera)I cant understand why you want to have a go at him when he has given you so much.
      You portray him as being a loafer and a passenger he was not he went thro the joys and hardships with the rest of them,I think that you have abused the true value of his contribution.
      You could have kept me informed.I feel awful and I know that he would as well.

      Nicholas Eveleigh

      November 14, 2016 at 10:45 pm

  5. Dear Mr. Sivell,

    I was just reframing a picture of my grandfather, Raymond Baise on the Monkbarn in 1925, when I decided searching the Internet for the word Monkbarn. I found your story and my grandfather’s name. He was Belgian citizen and sailed with the English merchant marine until 1939, at least I think so. I have known my grandfather very well and very much like to think back of him.
    Best regards,
    Agnès Pierret, Lugano, Switzerland

    agnès pierret

    January 17, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    • Dear Agnes, Many thanks for your lovely response! I would be very interested to know more of Raymond Baise, and his experiences with the merchant navy. There are many mention of him in Eugene’s diary. And photographs. Perhaps we could exchange information? What happened to him after 1939?
      Best wishes
      Jay Sivell (Ms), London

      Jay Sivell

      January 17, 2013 at 5:49 pm

      • Dear Jay,

        I will try to get some information together and send it to you so you can use it if you wish.
        I have to do some research at home. How can I send you pictures? Can you give me an e-mail address?
        The one thing I can already tell you is that he was a war prisoner in Germany, Bayern (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oflag_VII-B) during the entire war. We were never told clearly, but by now I believe that when he came back to Brussels he went through a severe nervous breakdown. Back in our childhood we were told that he had to change job after the war as by 1945 sailing ships had been taken out of service and he did not want to work on a steam ship. I don’t know how credible this is, but that is what we were told.
        Best regards,
        Agnès Pierret, Lugano.

        agnès pierret

        January 17, 2013 at 6:03 pm

  6. Hi Jay, my name is Mick O’Brien I live in Clifton Springs, Victoria Australia. I have a very large collection of nautical books, my main interest is Tall Ships I purchased a second-hand book recently when a letter fell out, it turned out to be a letter from you to a Mr J.I. Davies in Conwy dated 7th June 1998 how it found it’s way to Australia who knows? have you written the book about your grandfather Mr. Bert Sivell If so please let me know so I can purchase one from you. I have a lot information regarding Monkbarns. Hope this finds you well Cheers Mick

    Mick O'Brien

    May 20, 2013 at 7:28 am

    • Dear Mick,
      How wonderful to hear from you, and how amazing that my letter dropped out of a book in Australia. You must have picked up part of Mr Davies’ personal book collection. I am still working on my grandfather’s story (a young family and need to earn a living rather got in the way…) however, one day. And it is nice to know there are readers out there waiting for it. Are you a historian yourself, or a collector or a book dealer? I would be most interested to know any information you have about Monkbarns. Have you come across any of the logs/crew lists that went missing when the RSS disbanded the collection in the ’70s? Does an Australian seaman called Dudley Turner feature anywhere in your collection? I am currently writing a little book about Monkbarns’ final voyage in 1926 – after the blog brought an apprentice’s unpublished words and photos to my hand. Dudley also wrote a diary about the last trip before the old ship was hulked, and I would like to include his view.
      I would be very grateful for any help or suggestions you might be able to offer tracing Dudley’s Australian heirs for permission to use his diary.

      Once again, many thanks for your interest. I am delighted to hear from you.
      Very best wishes, Jay

      Jay Sivell

      May 20, 2013 at 8:36 am

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