Lost at sea

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

A Sailor’s Life – 13. Apprenticeship

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The sailing ship indenture signed by Bertie Sivell in 1911, a snap of his ship, Monkbarns, and the Sunday school prize that sent him to sea

The sailing ship indenture signed by Bertie Sivell in 1911, a snap of his ship, Monkbarns, and the sea yarns of Frank T Bullen, a Sunday school prize awarded to Bert in 1909

In an outpost of the British Library, among the bound back copies of the Isle of Wight County Press and a thousand other provincial news sheets, the word “Sivell” leaped out one afternoon from a crumbling page damaged by bombs and nibbled by mice.

It appeared that during the summer of 1911 the firm of Cotton, Palmer & Sivell, of Ryde, had advertised for an apprentice in the Situations Vacant column. The advert, for a “strong lad for coach body-making, at once,” ran for several weeks, jostling with appeals from bakers, grocers, drapers and dressmakers, all looking for apprentices.

In June it was withdrawn, but on July 1st, three days after Bert got back to Ryde, it was back. On August 14th Thomas Sivell’s signature appears beside a huge red seal on a sea-stained document binding his only child for four years to a dour elderly Scottish captain in sail and Monkbarns, a three-masted square rigger obsolete the day her keel was laid.

The indenture survives: a folded wad of waxed canvas, annotated in waterproof pencil on the back in subsequent years. On it that August, John Stewart & Co of Fenchurch Avenue, London undertook to teach Hubert Stanley Sivell “the business of a seaman”. The company pledged to provide “sufficient” meat, drink and lodging, (washing is firmly scored out in thick black ink), and pay to the said Apprentice “the sum of £ –– (that is to say,) NIL”.

Which, as a contemporary put it, meant he was to work for four years for nothing and be taught nothing which his own wit didn’t grasp or the sails and gales didn’t blow into him.

In return, Bert promised to serve his master faithfully, obey his lawful commands, keep his secrets, and not frequent “taverns or alehouses”. He was also to provide for himself “all sea-bedding, wearing apparel and necessaries (except such as herein-before agreed).”

Thomas paid £10 surety and negotiated from the outset that Bert would be paid £2 10/-, rather than the going rate of £1 a month, if the four-year contract should happen to expire while the ship was at sea.

And that was that. The carriage builder’s boy went to sea and some other teenager took his place in the coach works behind the High Street in Ryde.

Winston Churchill in 1904

Winston Churchill in 1904

There were riots in Liverpool that August and warships patrolling the Mersey. In the port of London, the home secretary, Winston Churchill, was preparing to send in troops to break the deadlock with striking dockers. Monkbarns, however, was in Hamburg, bound for Australia and not due back for a year, or more if trade was good.

Bertie joined her there. He had been home for less than five weeks. He was 16.

Read on: Monkbarns apprentice
Previously: Coronation and seamen’s strike, 1911


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