Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 20. Pommie boys and Aussie girls, Newcastle NSW 1912

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Monkbarns from Nobby's head, Stockton NSW, Australia - the photograph Jessie Walker kept on her wall all her life

Monkbarns from Nobby's head, Stockton NSW, Australia - the photograph Jessie Walker kept on her wall all her life

From Hamburg that first trip, Monkbarns circled the globe, sailing first across the Atlantic with the north-east trade winds and down the east coast of South America to Santos in Brazil; then south-east through the Roaring Forties and round the Cape of Good Hope to continue in the prevailing westerly winds across the Southern Oceans to Australia. From there, after two months, they moved on eastwards across the Pacific to Taltal on the west coast of South America in Chile, before rounding the vicious Cape Horn backed by the westerly gales again, bound for home.

From Millwall, on the Thames in London, Bert Sivell scribbled a postcard to his pa on December 6th 1912: “Please write soon.” He had been away for a year and four months.

But the log shows the ship had been at sea for only half that – leaving long days in each port while the Old Man struggled to hang onto enough men to work the ship. In Santos, two of the Danes and the Austrian deserted, and after 66 days at sea the boys enjoyed six weeks dallying round the anchorage on the edge of the forest. “Fine bathing here,” Bert wrote.

Monkbarns boys and a Mission charabanc outing, Stockton NSW. Private collection of Walker family, Australia

Monkbarns boys and a Mission charabanc outing, Stockton NSW. Private collection of the Walker family, Australia

In Newcastle NSW, three months at sea later, two more men crept off the ship never to return, and Monkbarns’ log begins to lengthen with Captain Donaldson’s attempts to maintain discipline. Wages in the Australian coastal trade were temptingly higher than anything he could afford to pay, with fewer gales and icebergs.

For the boys, the painting, cleaning and mending continued from 6am till 6pm. Time off ashore (“Liberty” days) were at the Master’s discretion, particularly in South America, where there was a danger of Yellow Fever. But there was usually plenty for the boys to see, even at anchor in the roads, and rowing the officers about was one of the apprentices’ more welcome chores. They had to wait by the boat, rather than go into town, but there were usually work boats from other ships tied up there too and other boys to “yarn” with. Every day brought new arrivals and departures among the thicket of masts.

In Newcastle, Australia, however, beside the picture house and other luxuries beyond an apprentice’s pocket, there was also a lively Seamen’s Mission on the riverfront at Stockton. With a steam launch to pick up all comers, and an army of hospitable volunteers, the Reverend Forster Haire laid on free Sunday teas and concerts and charabanc trips for the visiting sailors. There was dancing, and magic lantern shows — as well as the church services, which the ungrateful young pups ducked out of wherever possible.

Jessie Walker, nee Fairless, at 16

Jessie Walker, nee Fairless, at 16

In Stockton, big-hearted families who had never seen Europe held open house for apprentice boys from “the old country” with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and their tender-hearted daughters lined the breakwater to sob goodbye when they sailed. “Some days you couldn’t get on the breakwater for girls waving goodbye,” recalled Jessie Walker, a former Mission girl, aged 92, tracked down through the library there. Girls wishing to help entertain the sailors were interviewed for suitability, said Mrs Walker.

Jessie herself had married a Monkbarns boy who turned up back on her parents’ doorstep in 1924, blinded in one eye by ice round the Cape. In the nursing home in the converted mission building in Stockton where she ended her days, surrounded by her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, a photograph of Monkbarns still took pride of place on the wall. Framed against a gathering storm, the ship is frozen in time heading out to sea off Nobby’s Head, where the bonny girls were still waving. Two tiny figures can be glimpsed high up on her yards, busy releasing the sails.

I never met Jessie Walker, or her family, but I can vouch that their generosity and hospitality remained undimmed three-quarters of a century later when I wrote asking for information.

Bert spent two months in Australia in spring 1912, sending home dozens of annotated postcard views of Newcastle and Stockton and a photograph of what looks like himself, sitting among the crowd at the old “tin” Mission with his arm daringly close to a decorous young lady in a large hat. There are pictures of the ships moored along the Dyke, where the coal was loaded; and the beach where the apprentices hung out; and the country estate at Toronto, Lake Macquarie, outside Newcastle, where the hospitable Castleden family went to live.

Shipping scene, postcard Newcastle NSW

Shipping scene, postcard Newcastle NSW, 1912

In a postcard to his grandfather from Newcastle the year after his first visit, when Monkbarns was again in town for two months chasing cargo and crew, Bert wrote “… Last night when we left the mission a large crowd off other ships came down to the wharf to see us off in the launch. As we were leaving they cheered us and the nine of us answered as well as possible. Then we sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow” till we were hoarse. I have never heard any other ship’s crowd of apprentices cheered before, except as last voyage. That shows that the Monkbarns is a very popular ship in Newcastle. Goodbye from Hubert S. Sivell.”

Monkbarns left Newcastle in April 1912, the day after Titanic was lost. The first headlines were just emerging. Loss of life was reported to be great. Bert sent a view of Stockton church ashore with the tug, inscribed only “Just off to Taltal”.

Read on: Too late: Harry Fountain
Previously: Monkbarns and the sail-maker’s palm

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


3 Responses

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  1. […] Read on: Pommie boys and Aussie girls, Newcastle NSW 1912 […]

  2. […] They were disappointed that they weren’t going to Newcastle, NSW, where there were lots of ships and girls and parties. “There was much searching of atlases,” wrote […]

  3. Dear Jay,

    I’m a member of the Stockton Historical Society and just found your wonderful blog!! Would you be interested in perhaps writing up something based on this post that we might be able to put into our quarterly journal? I would also be interested in talking to you about any of your postcards which might show or reference Stockton?


    Michelle Watson

    August 21, 2013 at 11:42 am

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