Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 7. Cabin boy: RMS Oruba 1910

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RMS Oruba, September 1910, postcard

RMS Oruba, September 1910, postcard

One black-and-white postcard survives of Bertie Sivell’s first voyage in 1910, evidently sent ashore with the pilot in Southampton. It is a picture of the Royal Mail steam packet Oruba. “Enjoying myself so far. Plenty of animals aboard – but no tips,” reads the pencil scrawl.

Oruba was not one of the Royal Mail’s grand modern liners. Oruba was an old single-screw steamer built to carry masts and sails. On Bertie’s first trip she brought back 250 tons of frozen meat from Venezuela as part of a ten-week trial. She had none of the rakish looks of the new ships, but she was popular with passengers and carried 646 in three classes of accommodation over two decks, with baggage, children and servants “in proportion”, according to the RMSP official guide.

And they did not travel light, these early tourists. Lady Helen Boyle, Countess of Shannon, who notwithstanding the best efforts of the ship’s doctor died at sea aged forty that spring and was “buried with due ceremony” at sea off Lexicoes, Portugal, had so much baggage that the inventory took up two pages of the ship’s log. There was gold and diamond jewelry, a monogrammed cigarette case, and toiletries in tortoise shell, ivory and silver, all terribly Agatha Christie. There was a leather trunk, several crocodile-skin suitcases, a writing case and a hat box, with hats. Her footwear alone took up half a page, and she had small change from Mexico, Malacca and Ceylon.

The Spanish emigrant who died in his third class bunk below decks the same trip left two gold coins knotted in a hanky. Of him the captain recorded only that he was committed to the deep “with the usual rites of the Church of England”.

Postcard view of St Thomas, WI, marked with 'X' where boy's ship anchored, 1910

Postcard view of St Thomas, WI, marked with 'X' where boy's ship anchored, 1910

As well as her 646 passengers, Oruba carried 169 crew, including an army of pastry and vegetable cooks (“English and foreign”) producing four meals a day “on the most liberal scale,” the guide book said. Besides the stokers, seamen and electricians driving the ship, there were waiters (ordinary 1st, 2nd and 3rd class, and French), stewards and stewardesses, bandsmen, barmen, a barber and, as the ship pounded across the sparkling seas between the islands, a Marconi operator to send telegrams. Even the master and mates had their own personal servants.

Bert’s job in the bustle of this big floating hotel was to run messages, carry the drink “chits” from the deck chairs to the barman, and walk the lap dogs – and any other pets acquired during the voyage.

In each port of call little “bumboats” swarmed around, selling fruit and curios, including livestock. There was no quarantine, no worry about endangered species, and precious little concern for animal welfare. The Rev. Charles Kingsley (he of The Water-Babies) wrote of an alligator which the doctor on one steam packet housed in a tub in his cabin, and a tarantula that the chief engineer kept in an iron box. One night someone’s kinkajou escaped, to the consternation of a stewardess who mistook it for a cat and tried to stroke it. Most homeward passages featured wild parrots and monkeys being brought back as gifts. Some of the unfortunate creatures survived, but the more exotic ones usually died en route, either from starvation — like the anteater Kingsley describes brought from Panama without a supply of ants — or sheer cold, once their ship turned north beyond Tenerife.

The mail packets were more like a bus service than a cruise ship. They called at many places, but did not stop longer than it took to land the post bags and passengers and take on coal and fresh food and more mail and new passengers. Often enough they only dropped anchor in the bay. On 12s a month Bertie could not afford the price of the launch to the quay, but the hours in port were the crew’s busiest anyway and working men did not expect to go sightseeing. Besides what he could spy of the towns with a glass, Bert will have seen what was visible from the ship’s railing: the dark skinned boatmen who ferried out the coal, the laughing girls and women with their gay souvenirs, and the little boys who dived for silver thrown from the ship. It was a world away from small town Ryde and organ recitals at St James’s church.

It was December and freezing when Bert returned to England that first year, but he had seen Barbados lush and green, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, emerging from the mangrove swamps along the coast; he had sniffed craggy Jamaica “spice-scented in the hot black velvet night” and seen the water change from the blue seas of the Windward Isles to the foul bottle green of mainland South America, with the mighty Cordilleras in the distance. He had been to Colon and Havana, and glimpsed the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour through a heaving thicket of funnels and spars, and he still had £1 5s 8d jingling in his pocket.

Four days after arriving back in Southampton, Bertie Sivell was off out to sea again. He did not stay for Christmas.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 8. Rolling down to Rio: RMS Nile, 1911

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll


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