Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 4. Monkbarns, 1908

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Monkbarns, one of Britain's last commercial square-riggers, and dog-eared ship's medical guide

Monkbarns, one of Britain's last commercial square-riggers, and dog-eared ship's medical guide

Young Joe Ash joined his first ship with three other apprentices on June 16th 1907. She was the iron-hulled Liverpool-registered Monkbarns, a three-masted, square-rigged freighter bound for San Francisco round the Horn. But two weeks out of Antwerp he fell ill with a raging fever, and was ordered to his hard, skinny bed in the boys’ tin bunkhouse amidships, where the Old Man treated him with a tincture of chloroform and morphia, and bathed his temples with drops of ammonia. The master noted in the ship’s log that although he gave the treatment prescribed by the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide, he had halved the doses “as the boy is only 14 years old”.

Four days later Ash was delirious, seeing “impossible things”. The first mate was turned out of his quarters aft and Ash was moved into isolation. He was watched constantly. Suddenly, each day’s record is signed by not just the master and the mate, but also the steward and chief apprentice. They were feeding the boy on thin porridge, beef tea and powdered milk, which was all he could swallow. After two weeks at sea fresh milk was a distant memory. Monkbarns was a sailing ship with only fire for heat and light, and only flags for signalling.

Eventually, the captain diagnosed typhoid fever and changed the treatment in accordance with his battered medical guide. Solids could kill the patient, the book warned. Instead, lead and opium pills, tincture of steel and turpentine fomentations were prescribed. Also carbolic solution, and lots of scrubbing. Scrupulous cleanliness was essential, as the disease was highly infectious, it said.

By now they were out in the Atlantic, but Madeira lay only two days south and the captain resolved to detour there for medical advice. However, when they sailed into Funchal Bay, no help came. A pilot steamer ordered Monkbarns to the anchorage, but the tide was against them and the baffling winds under the lee of the island made tricky manoeuvring under sail. Unwilling to risk his ship and reluctant to incur the crippling expense of a steam tug, the master held his ship offshore, flags flying, signalling for a doctor to be motored out. In the mate’s bunk, the sick boy tossed and moaned.

No doctor came. After four hours the captain gave up and sailed away – scrawling angry words in the log about seeking an explanation from the consul in Funchal as to why requested assistance had not been forthcoming. But typhoid fever never lasted less than three weeks, his guide said, and he reckoned the boy was over the worst.

Joseph Edward Ash sank into unconsciousness and died at 7am three weeks later, probably from a perforated bowel, judging by the log. Within an hour his bed and clothes had been burned, to prevent infection, and he was buried at sea at noon just north of the equator, sewn into a weighted canvas bag and watched by his fellow apprentices until he sank out of sight.

Page 27 of Monkbarns’ log for 1908 is taken up entirely with the list of his possessions, packed into his brand new sea chest. The boy had seaboots and oilskins, three pairs of dungarees, two guernseys, a white muffler, three pairs of gloves and no fewer than six pairs of socks. He had sheets, a blanket and pillow case for his bed, matches, white collars, and polish and brushes for his shore shoes. He even had two pairs of spare underpants and a Bible.

Young Ash lacked nothing an anxious mother could supply. Yet the incubation period for typhoid fever is two weeks and he had almost certainly carried it aboard with him, as no one else fell ill. “Typhoid is frequently met with,” said the guide. “It is fostered and promoted by overcrowding, bad ventilation, insufficient food etc, and actively propagated by lice…”  In the margin of the log the master calculated the monies owed to the boy’s family for a very brief sea career: one month and 26 days. It came to 12s 7d.

Four months later when he totted up the wages owed to the seven seamen who deserted in San Francisco, the abandoned effects of one Adolf Eriksen took up seven lines rather than 14. Eriksen had only one pair of drawers, but unusually for a fo’c’sle hand he had a stack of books. As he failed to collect either them or his pay before he disappeared it is possible he lived to regret venturing ashore without the stout knuckleduster they found hidden in his spare cap.

A sailor’s life – 5. The smuggler’s grave


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