Lost at sea

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

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

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RMS Nile leaving Southampton, postcard sent 1911

RMS Nile leaving Southampton, postcard sent 1911

I’ve never sailed the Amazon,
I’ve never reached Brazil;
But the Don and Magdalena,
they can go there when they will!
Yes, weekly from Southampton,
great steamers, white and gold,
Go rolling down to Rio
(Roll down, roll down to Rio)
And I’d like to roll to Rio
some day before I’m old

From The Beginning of the Armadillos, Just So Stories, 1902

Five months after running off to sea with the Royal Mail steam packets from Southampton, Bertie Sivell, still only fifteen years old, changed ships and at last rolled down to Rio as Rudyard Kipling had described, crossing the equator en route.

The RMS Nile had been purpose-built for the Argentine run with four promenade decks and nearly as many passengers in saloon class as in steerage. She shuttled from Southampton to Buenos Aires and back every eight weeks, crossing the Atlantic from St Vincent in the Cape Verde islands to Pernambuco (now Recife) in Brazil, and calling at Lisbon, Bahia (now Salvador), Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo.

The RMSP’s hefty Guide to Brazil and the River Plate for the year 1904 reports of St Vincent that it was very healthy, due to stringent quarantine regulations, but that there was not much to do ashore except take amusing photographs “of the coloured people and their numerous children”. Pernambuco, too, was picturesque, (“especially to the traveller who has not seen tropical scenery before”), and it benefited from restaurants and even a music hall. Although “to the lady of fashion neither the drapers nor the milliners establishments would form much attraction”, the guide warned. Somewhere between the two Bertie crossed the Line.

St Vincent, Cape Verde - view of harbour and Bertie's 'X' where RMS Nile lay, 1911

St Vincent, Cape Verde - view of harbour and Bertie's 'X' where RMS Nile lay, 1911

He sent six picture postcards from Lisbon, all blank, and twelve from St Vincent, showing the harbour, the market and a view of naked children around a mud hut, inscribed “this shows the general mode of living in these islands”. One marked where the ship lay in the bay, and one a church he could either see from the moorings or had visited. But nothing was found from Pernambuco.

In Rio, where the Sugar Loaf mountain loomed over picturesque forts, the ship threaded its way through a mass of shipping and Brazilian men-of-war to anchor off an island opposite the city. There, “fussy steam launches blowing their whistles” would race up, bringing family and friends too impatient to wait on shore, the guide said. The guide did not say that in Rio and Buenos Aires desertions among the crew were rife because both had rip-roaring sailor towns full of cheap booze and whores, and a nasty reputation for crimping or press-ganging, which remained widespread until the First World War. In Buenos Aires Bert bought coloured cards, but again did not write on them.

If Bert ever told the son he hardly knew what had happened to him that first trip across the Line, the boy did not remember it and if the teenager on Nile wrote letters, they were not kept.

The only record is Nile’s log, which shows that three days out of Southampton, Bertie Sivell, one of two page boys on board, was promoted to Captain’s Servant at £1 per month, backdated. Logs were only preserved if they recorded a death or illness, discipline problems or, more rarely, a marriage or birth. Nile’s log for 1911 survived because several men, including the “Jews’ waiter”, deserted the ship in Buenos Aires.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 9. Crossing the Line


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  1. […] on: A sailor’s life – 8. Rolling down to Rio: RMS Nile, 1911 Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)A sailor’s life – 5. The smuggler’s […]

    • Hello Jay

      I have come across your book while seeking information in the course of my own research about a great aunt of mine who went to Rio in late 1910 – on a mail packet called the SS Nile. Would this be the same ship as the SMS Nile? I would be very grateful for any light you can throw on this. And incidentally, I am finding your book very interesting.


      Jenni Kelly

      March 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

      • Hi Jenni, Lovely to hear from you. How exciting if your aunt was one of the passengers on Nile when my grandfather was a boy. It is certainly likely to be the same ship, it is the right run. I only have the crew lists, but ancestry.co.uk may have a record of your aunt’s passage, if you have full name, date/place of birth or date of sailing… I’m a member if you want me to look. Was she a rich tourist or emigrating? Happy hunting! Jay

        Jay Sivell

        March 3, 2011 at 6:48 am

  2. Hi Jay

    My great aunt Adelaide Stace, sailed from Southampton on the SS Nile on 2 December 1910. Is this before your relative sailed there?

    To put you in the picture, she was a second class passenger who, it appears, might have been travelling alone. My grandmother, Adelaide’s much younger sister, always believed she went out with her English employers as a nannie but it seems, from Census records, that this was not so. I have reason to believe she may have a worked for an American family called Huntress who were in Rio at this time.

    Adelaide’s family lost touch with her during WW1 and got the Salvation Army to track her down when it was over. By this time she had left her employment and was married, to a Portuguese man we think, with two children. She was not allowed to speak to the person from the Consulate and her family in England were told that she was well but that she should be left to live her new life. They never heard any more from or about her.

    I have managed to acquire basic dates about her whereabouts at different times in England, thanks to the various genealogy sites (and thanks to the hard work and help of other researchers)but her reason for going to Rio is not known – other than a theory that she was crossed in love. To go to the other side of the world seems an extreme reaction to me!

    Like you, I plan to write a book – although an awful lot of mine will have to be down to my imagination. I am just trying to get together as many facts as I can to pin my story on.

    Thank you so much for responding. I guess it’s too much to hope that Bertie and Adelaide were actually on the same boat! Weird that they were both runaways.


    Jenni Kelly

    March 3, 2011 at 6:24 pm

  3. Hi Jay

    I am not sure whether I am using this site correctly and whether or not you have read the reply I sent on the 3rd. Am I notified of your replies in my own e-mailbox, or do I need to keep checking on this website? Hope you don’t mind me asking!


    Jenni Kelly

    March 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

    • Dear Jenni,
      Sorry for the delay replying – I’d filed my notes on the steam packet years and had to dig them out again. Sadly, Bert was NOT a member of Nile’s crew when your great aunt sailed to Rio in December 1910. I am gutted. What a fascinating story you have though. I am not clear from your email whether you have tried ancestry.co.uk for passenger lists for Nile. You’d need her birth date of course. Although as you’ve the date of sailing, perhaps not. I’m happy to do it, if you wish – just cos I’m incurably nosy. You could try googling history bloggers in Rio?
      As to how the email responses work, I’m not sure. This one is from the website. Please let me know where it ends up…
      Happy hunting. Jay

      Jay Sivell

      March 6, 2011 at 11:35 am

      • Dear Jay

        It seems that, if I request an email confirmation, I do get one. I just have to remember to ask! It also works if I just check the website.

        I am also gutted. Although I thought it was unlikely, as Bertie wouldn’t have had much of a turn around in Southampton if he had travelled on the Nile on the 2nd. I do have the passenger lists for that date, but didn’t have the crew. Just out of interest, could you let me know the date he did travel?

        I know Adelaide’s whereabouts in England for most dates, including 1891 and 1901 but by 1911 she was in Rio – and that’s where the trail goes cold. I know it wouldn’t have made any difference to my search if she had been on the same ship as Bertie – but I would have liked it if she had been. Would you allow me to weave Bertie into the (as yet unwritten story) of her journey to Brazil? Adelaide left younger brothers behind her – all that remains of her correspondence to England is the first page of a letter she wrote to one of them in 1913.

        I will continue through ‘A Sailor’s Life’ – although as far as Adelaide is concerned, it is obviously the earlier part that is of particular interest to me. I find it very easy to read and so interesting. Like me, you are moved to write about someone you never met – you are so lucky to have come across all those letters.

        Thank you for checking for me – and good luck with the remainder of your project.


        Jenni Kelly

        March 6, 2011 at 11:54 am

  4. Hi i have found an old photo album in my nanas posesions and dont have a clue how it relates to my family, but it seems to be of a theatre group and one of the photos is taken of the group on the s.s. Nile in 1911. My email address is laureenj@aol.co.nz if you are interested in the photo. thanks Laureen Jones.


    September 28, 2011 at 7:49 pm

  5. A relative, probaby Mr and Mrs Johnson travelled to Rio on the RMS Nile and I have their ‘Diner Adieu’, or goodbye menu for Friday August the 4th 1905. I am trying to get more details of where they went but I think they got to board possibly in Lisbon having been to Teneriffe first on the ship Arapon.?
    If any one has a Passenger list for that time I would be very interested to have a copy please! Thanks David Farrar

    David Farrar

    October 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

  6. Dear Jenni

    Fascinating to read this, as I have been researching the life of someone who emigrated from Southampton to Buenos Aires in 1905 on the Royal Mail ship Magdalena. Your article suggests that they did a complete turn round every 8 weeks, so presumably the journey time from Southampton was about 3 weeks or so?

    Best wishes


    Tony Whittaker

    September 20, 2017 at 8:45 am

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