Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 21. Monkbarns apprentice: Harry Fountain

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Harry Fountain, Monkbarns apprentice 1920

Harry Fountain, Monkbarns apprentice 1920

There was a new crop of apprentice boys in the tin bunkhouse amidships by the time Monkbarns arrived back in Newcastle NSW, Australia, in November 1920, after the end of first world war; new faces in the patchy mirror on the bulkhead and new views of “home” pasted to the walls of each narrow bunk. Many of the old sailing ships had been lost, but not “lucky” Monkbarns.

There were four other British square riggers in port too, they remembered, with 37 apprentices between them, plus boys from the French Champagne and Danish Viking. The Monkbarns apprentices were given the afternoon off to hear a concert at the Seamen’s Mission in Stockton and for most of the next month had time off to lounge about the beach, play tennis and go on picnics with the pretty girls, while they waited for repairs to one of the masts.

“We made our own amusement,” wrote Harry Fountain, in The Cape Horner magazine. “There was probably a theatre, there must certainly have been picture houses, but they were ever beyond us with our few pence. I seem to remember that was soon spent in the Niagara Café on banana splits at 9d a plate.”

Monkbarns boys and tennis party Stockton NSW

Monkbarns boys and tennis party Stockton NSW, 1920, private collection Walker family

Captain Harry Fountain, one of many dozens of boys who passed through Monkbarns’ half deck over the years, served the sea all his life and lived to the ripe old age of 95. What became of “Tich” Copner, Reg Bannister (“who snored like hell”) and the Belgian, Marcel Emil Brough, I never discovered, but Fountain never lost touch with his old shipmate Lionel Walker, who had settled on the other side of the world with the Aussie mission girl he had gone back to find.

Jessie Walker’s family gave me his last known address when I traced them – a damn fool Pom grandchild still doggedly hunting witness accounts of life on Monkbarns three-quarters of a century later – and with typical generosity they heaped on me newspaper cuttings and photographs of the charabanc trips and tennis parties. But my letter to Harry in Boston, Lincolnshire, was returned by his executors: Captain Fountain, retired harbour pilot and sometime pub landlord, was finally at rest under the handsome headstone he had bought and gleefully visited for many years on his daily walk to the docks. He told his local paper the secret of his longevity had been cold showers, bread and dripping, and 20 Senior Service cigarettes a day.

The solicitor put me in touch with one of the old man’s friends. “He would have loved to have talked to you,” they both said. I had missed him by four months.

Read on: The nitrate coast, Chile, 1912
Previously: Pommie boys and Aussie girls, Newcastle NSW 1912


3 Responses

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  1. I’ve recently begun a small blog based on Dinas Cross at http://www.tegfan.net. In connection with this I’ve been thinking about the lives of the many sea captains who lived in this tiny but very ambitious village in North Pembrokeshire. When I was there last week I started taking photos in the graveyards of the memorial headstones of sea captains and found ‘Thomas Williams’ , commander of the barque Garnet Hill who died in Taltal (Chili) on 29th July 1910. Until I read your blog I had no idea of the reality of his life and death. I would love to use one of your postcards in my short post and refer to your piece. Any objection?


    December 3, 2013 at 9:54 am

    • Dear Sue,
      I’d be delighted! You’re in a lovely part of the world and you are going to find lots of sea-faring links … If you come across any other graves, please let me know. The master, mate and 2nd on Monkbarns’ last voyage all came from Nefyn – which is tiny, but big in shipping history.
      Happy hunting!

      Jay Sivell

      December 3, 2013 at 10:08 am

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