Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 50. The girl next door

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Postcard view of Union Street, Ryde - from gallery at Isle of Wight Family History Society

Postcard view of Union Street, Ryde - from Isle of Wight Family History Society

They also serve who only stand and wait
Milton, Sonnet 16

It was high summer 1919 when Bert Sivell came home to the street where he grew up, in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, after nine years away at sea and met Ena Alice Whittington. Young people everywhere were dancing. The war in Flanders was over; the Spanish ‘flu a distant nightmare. Men were pouring home, and those who had survived the mud and blood and gas of the trenches wanted to forget. In northern France, gangs of Chinese coolies were collecting up and burying bodies, and in the skinny columns of the Isle of Wight County Press the list of local sons and fathers “killed, previously reported missing” began to lengthen.

Letters to the editor might voice concern that there were no jobs for disabled ex-servicemen, but there were pages and pages more on the rallies and regattas, and sports days and agricultural shows and tea dances and tennis.

By August bank holiday the island and the beaches were heaving. In Ryde, there were burlesques on the pier, Ellen Terry in the picture house and bathing machines strung out among the waves. There was jazz, and picnics and sunshine, and it was good to be alive.

The Whittington sisters, Dolly, Ena and Marge - 1919

The Whittington sisters, Dolly, Ena and Marge - 1919

Ena Alice Whittington was 23 and overshadowed by a prettier, livelier younger sister at home when she was introduced to an old school chum of her brother’s, a neighbour, that month during her scant summer break from the workshops of a large fashion emporium in genteel Tunbridge Wells.

Ena was a milliner, one of three daughters of a tailor with a shop at the narrow top end of Ryde High Street, where socks and ties hung in the window side by side with flat caps and homburgs. Unlike her Auntie Clarrie, who still lived with grandpa Whittington round the corner in Arthur Street, making straw hats for 2/6d – Ena had left the town where she was born and the extended family on the Isle of Wight, to make big hats in velvet and silks for Kentish ladies of conservative tastes. She’d wanted to be a pianist, but she had to leave school at 14 to work.

Ena was a plain girl with a long face, and neat hair pulled into a conservative bun. Bert was short and weatherbeaten, with empty gums after years on salt beef and pork, and a wooden smile because he kept his mouth clamped shut to avoid showing the gaps.

Within a month of meeting they were engaged. By letter.

Fred Whittington and his youngest daughter outside their gent's outfitters on High Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight, about 1902

Fred Whittington and his youngest daughter outside their gent's outfitters on High Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight, about 1902

A questionnaire filled in by 130 British merchant seamen in the 1970s* revealed that two thirds had married local girls living within ten miles of where they, the men, had grown up – which was not necessarily near the sea. Although a small majority of ship’s engineers were from big cities or ports, only half the deck officers had any prior link to the sea.

Of the 59 wives in the survey, all but three had had a career before marriage, and most had set up home somewhere they might have daily contact with their mothers or sisters. The pace of their married lives might be dictated by the business of their husbands’ ships – a trawlerman is ashore more often than an oil tanker man, a passenger liner more predictable than a cargo carrier –  but their social lives revolved around family and their own friends. (Although most kept in touch with at least one other seaman’s wife if there happened to be one in her area, they said.)

The men had chosen the sea long before they thought of a wife or family. They were apprenticed in their early teens and spent their formative years far from home, sharing with strangers in cramped, noisy spaces much like boarding school or prison, where each task had a rank, and a rigid caste system dictated who lived fore or aft, who above deck and who below, even who ate with whom and what and where. In the girlfriend stakes, engineers tended to fare better than deck officers, as their apprenticeships were shore based, in the dockyards, so they shipped out later and thus met more young ladies before they went. The survey found engineers also tended to marry younger, be less middle class and spend more time with their relatives and neighbours when ashore. But then, when Bert Sivell was a boy, engineers ate segregated from both officers and crew, and even chief engineers did not make captain.

Of the men who rose through this system, the middeaged master mariners of the merchant fleet, Rear Admiral Kenelm Crighton wrote in 1944: “Their small talk is generally nil, their speech usually abrupt, confined to essentials and very much to the point… They uphold discipline by sheer character and personality – for their powers of punishment under Board of Trade Regulations are almost non-existent.”

Bert had been away for a third of his life by the time he came home that summer of 1919. He had left a boy and returned a man, with his master’s ticket in his pocket and good career prospects. Ena was bright-eyed and gentle and not too scary, being from just up his street. She was also a skilled worker, independent and capable of managing money. She had begun as a shop girl in Ryde but had left home to train as a milliner, which was a respectable occupation for a small tradesman’s daughter, although it did not pay very well and in the slack times – like summer, for hats were seasonal – hat makers were often laid off and expected to return to their father’s household.

Ena was perfect sea wife material, and before she and Bert had so much as held hands he cycled from Ryde to Tunbridge Wells and pledged himself to her, with her parents’ blessing.

That Ena Alice knew nothing of the sea was neither unusual, nor considered a problem.

Read on: “Why do you want to know about the wives?”
Previously: Clan Line, or Shell

*I only ever found one survey on seafarers’ wives; historically, neither owners nor unions have seemed much concerned with the impact on the “watch ashore“. If there are other studies, I’d be interested to hear.

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  1. […] Coming next: Floating sea mines, burning funnels – SS Donax, 1919 Previously:  The girl next door […]


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