A sailor’s life – 10. Below decks: RMS Nile, 1911
Several ship’s logs for the Royal Mail steamers Nile and Oruba for 1911 survive in the Public Record Office at Kew. Though no more than a basic note by busy officers, they provide a rather blunter take on life at sea than the pictures of leisure and pleasure painted by the passengers and the shipping company guides.
Injuries figure large, particularly the burns, which were an occupational hazard among the stokers sweating in the bowels of the steam packets, endlessly shovelling coal into the furnaces; above decks, winches and other machinery took their toll of extremities. On one crossing Oruba’s master recorded, beside the usual desertions on the South America run, five crew laid up with various fractures, tonsillitis and rheumatic fever.
Both steamers either had to put sailors ashore for medical treatment, or had them put aboard by the consul for repatriation to the UK. Ordinary merchant ships did not carry a doctor, just the captain with a St John Ambulance certificate and a copy of the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide. If a man became too ill to be treated aboard, the ship put him ashore as soon as it could – and sailed on. Time and tide wait for no man. Money owed for the days worked was left for him, but his pay stopped until he went back to sea again. When the money ran out, he became a job for the local consul. Such men had their own shorthand presence in the logs: DBS, for distressed British seaman.
The voyage marked by the death of Nellie Thompson, Countess of Shannon, saw eight DBSs put on board Nile by various consuls for conveyance back to Southampton. Between them, they had typhoid, small pox, tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, neuralgia, and severe burns in various limbs. The passenger ship doctor who had treated the countess’ pneumonia with “poultices, milk diet, digitalis, strychnine, sponging etc” recorded of the working men only that he had put the typhoid and the small pox cases on “saloon fare” and dosed the bronchitis and the TB with cod liver oil.
For this, the logs record an experienced seaman on Nile earned £4 a month, and a coal trimmer, (which was the nastiest job in the engine department) £3 15s. The waiters, rushing between decks with four meals a day for 600 passengers, supported themselves and their families ashore on £2 10s a month. Even the first officer – who would have studied at his own expense for years, coming ashore to sit each ‘ticket’- received only £16 a month.
Amid the comforts of the passenger liners, the discrepancy between the haves in saloon and those who laboured below and around them was sharp. The Manchester Guardian that year noted: “… on the average, seamen and firemen [stokers] are worse paid, worse lodged and probably, even to-day, worse fed than Englishmen doing comparable work ashore.”
Shipboard discipline, at the sole discretion of the master, added to the financial squeeze. Crispino dos Santos, a 3rd class waiter on Nile, was fined 5s* for quarrelling with the passengers — which was nearly three days’ pay to his family. The bosun’s mate and a firemen were fined 5s each for being drunk off duty, and the fireman subsequently lost a further day’s pay for “insolence” to the 3rd Engineer. Even the 3rd Mate was fined, for calling the 2nd Mate “a damned liar”.
“It is not that shipowners are an exceptionally rapacious class of employers,” wrote the Guardian, “but that the seafaring trades are cosmopolitan … Apart from the great passenger steamers, which run between the same ports with the regularity of express trains, the world’s shipping trade is carried on by vessels ready to go anywhere, carry anything, and employ anyone, irrespective of race, who is able to fire a marine boiler or do a seaman’s work, and it inevitably follows that the standard of pay and comfort for the crews tends to fall to that of the world’s labour market rather than rise to that of prosperous countries like England and the United States.”
At the end of May 1911, the Southampton Times carried a report from the Lancet on the “crowded, damp, dark and dirty” living conditions on Britain’s merchant ships and the “crying need of sailors” for ventilation and proper washing facilities. Special interest attached to this, the newspaper explained, in view of the mounting industrial tension among seamen.
*(20 shillings to the £)