Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 10. Below decks: RMS Nile, 1911

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Bertie Sivell, 1911 - promoted to £1 a month

Bertie Sivell, 1911 - promoted to £1 a month

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.

RMS Nile, 1911

RMS Nile, 1911

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 £)

Read on: A sailor’s life – 11. For the record: ships logs


9 Responses

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  1. […] on: A sailor’s life – 10. Below decks: RMS Nile, 1911 From: Here, There and Everywhere by Lord Frederic Hamilton Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

    • My Grandfather, Albert (Diver) Macey was a stoker on RMS Nile from December 1910 to June 1911. Your piece on “Below Decks” is both fascinating and illuminating. Thank you very much.

      Ian Jones

      December 18, 2012 at 12:08 am

      • Dear Ian, thank you! How exciting. Did you grandfather leave any record or tales? Did he indeed move to Australia? Would love to hear more.
        Best wishes, Jay

        Jay Sivell

        December 18, 2012 at 8:46 am

  2. Hi Jay
    I was a “baby boomer” when my parents brought me to Australia, so my memories of Grandpa “Diver” are weak, and probably distorted. At that time he worked for a toothpaste company in Southampton, and was probably very happy to stay “on shore” in his comfortable environment. None-the-less, the family history research that has returned me to Southampton at the turn of the 19th century is fascinating, and strangely familiar. I rely heavily on stories that have been handed down by those who knew him better than me; I left him when I was five, and he 70, and he would have had many tales to tell before he passed away at the age of 90 in 1970. Of course, I would never have appreciated his story as a teenager, and probably not even in my middle age. He only spent a dozen or so years at sea, but those years would have been memorable. His sailing history:
    Jun 1902 – Mar 1904; MAGDALENA; West Indies mail
    Mar 1904 – Jun 1907; SAXON; Cape mail
    Jun 1907 – Aug 1907; ARAGUAYA; Brazil
    Aug 1907 – Feb 1908; MAGDALENA; Brazil
    Feb 1908 – Jun 1908; NILE; West Indies mail
    Jun 1908 – Aug 1908; SABOR; Cuba, Mexico
    Sep 1908 – May 1909; NILE; Brazil
    May 1909 – Jul 1909; ASTURIAS; Brazil
    Oct 1909 – Dec 1909; TAGUS; West Indies
    Jan 1910 – May 1910; NILE; New York
    Jul 1910 – Nov 1910; TAGUS; New York
    Dec 1910 – Jun 1911; NILE; ?
    Jul 1911 – Sep 1911; OLYMPIC; New York (Sister ship to TITANIC)
    Oct 1911 – Nov 1911; NILE; ?
    Jan 1912 – Aug 1914; ARCADIAN; yachting Norway, Mediterranean, Bermuda
    Sep 1914 – Dec 1914; POTARO; River Plate
    Jan 1915 – Apr 1915; THESPIS; Troop transport
    Apr 1915 – Sep 1917; HMHS VALDIVIA; hospital ship
    I would give my right arm to sit down and talk with him now!

    Ian Jones

    December 18, 2012 at 11:16 am

    • Dear Ian, Wow! What a list of the RMS’s great steamers (even if not, by then, in Kipling’s “white and gold”). And war service too. How wonderful that there are stories to be handed down by people who knew him. You are lucky. I know exactly what you mean about not having asked the questions when you were younger… Are you putting together a book? If so, I’d be interested to read it. And it might be worth checking with the PRO in Kew for the war records of Thespis and Valdivia. All the rest will (probably) be in Canada – it would speed retrieval though if you have the ship numbers. Happy hunting. I’m curious – why Diver? What was your grandfather’s job in the toothpaste factory? And what was his career before he went to sea? 22 is quite old for a first tripper. Though maybe it was different in the stoke hold. Best wishes Jay

      Sent from my iPad

      Jay Sivell

      December 19, 2012 at 8:15 am

  3. Hi again Jay,
    I am not writing a book about “Diver”, just fleshing out some characters in the family tree for the Grandchildren so that they will have anecdotes to go with the names.
    Some ancestors perhaps deserve a biography, but that will have to wait. There are at least nine transported convicts on my wife’s direct ancestral line, so that story is begging to be told first. They really did it tough! I have already written short stories on those nine and some of their descendants in Australia. The whole thing is slowly being cobbled together and placed into an historical perspective. It might turn out to be a book, but that is secondary to informing the Grandchildren about their heritage. If you have ever worked on a family tree you will appreciate that it is a time consuming, often frustrating and slowly progressing endeavour.
    I do not know why Grandfather Macey was nicknamed “Diver”. Of his six children, only 97 year old Aunt Joan is left to hopefully answer that question. As kids we took most things on face value and never really thought to ask. I will let you know if I find out.
    All the best for the festive season,

    Ian Jones

    December 20, 2012 at 4:30 am

    • Well, Joan has responded! She believes that Albert had the nickname “Diver” from his youth. Apparently he picked it up on the football field; something about his style of play. Anyway, it is interesting stuff for my family tree project, even though he did not “dive” for pearls off the Western Australian coast as I had hoped.


      Ian Jones

      January 6, 2013 at 3:26 am

      • Hi Ian, Actually, I think the idea of him as an ardent, dedicated footballer adds rather than subtracts to the image – although a pearl diver would be an asset to any family tree. Perhaps he wanted a sporting career but had to make do with going to sea… Have fun! Jay

        Jay Sivell

        January 6, 2013 at 8:32 am

  4. […] Passenger lists show KM arriving at Southampton from Yokohama, Japan, on 3 May 1906, on the Nile. […]

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