A sailor’s life – 51. The wives’ tale
“Why do you want to know about the seamen’s wives?” the librarian’s voice had asked down the phone at one of the bigger maritime museums. “All they had to do was sit back, collect the money every fortnight and mind the children. Actually, I knew one who didn’t even do that – she went out every night to the pub, parked her kids with neighbours. She did not bother to pay the mortgage either and eventually the house was repossessed. She was a real character. Why do you want to know about the wives?”
The sea is hard on sailors’ wives. The money is good, but loneliness is in the job description. Even nowadays, marriage to a sailor means papering your own ceilings and putting up your own shelves, and endless missed birthdays and Christmases, but once upon a time eyes would slide sideways at the sight of a mother holidaying alone, and although her children might find playmates on the beach, fellow hotel guests kept their distance. “They presumed my husband was in prison,” one trim captain’s wife confided of holidays in the 1960s, when I – having drawn a blank among books and archives – set out to learn about my grandmother’s life from the women still living it.
“My husband was terrible at writing,” another former master’s wife admitted, cheerfully. “He wrote to his mother more often than to me.” And she told of the parcel of letters that had turned up with the post one day many years ago. They were her letters, written to her husband at sea care of various ports but found washed ashore on a beach near Dover. They were returned to her, carefully dried and pressed, with a covering letter from the finder – desperately concerned that the condition of the letters meant bad news. She looked pointedly at her husband, a senior BP man, who grinned at me, unabashed. “Well, we had to keep our luggage to a minimum for the trains,” he said. “So when we got to the end of a long trip, a mile or two into the English Channel, we used to tie up the letters and dump them over the side. Less to carry…”
In Ena Alice Whittington’s day, during the last years of sail and the rise of oil, marriage to a foreign-going seaman meant a lifetime apart, measured in weekly letters that arrived months late. Bert Sivell navigated by sextant and in 1940 Ena was still waiting to be connected to the ‘phone. In Ena’s day, marriage to a merchant seaman meant lugging your own coal and raising your children alone for years between a husband’s visits – three years, in her case, for that was how long Shell signed for. In between, the men might spend years coasting out in the Far East – too far away for their families to follow. And when they did happen to call at a British port, only officers were allowed to have their wives aboard. Children were discouraged on oil tankers.
Bert Sivell’s letters reveal that when he left home for the last time in December 1940 to return to his ship, his ten-year-old son had only met him four times and that, counting all the days and hours they had together, my grandmother’s marriage amounted to barely three years.
Bert’s letters filled a sea chest. Unopened for half a century, forgotten snaps and faded cuttings slipped out from between the crisp sheets. A hand drawn menu, a page from a magazine, an unfiled receipt. Bert’s letters, from all over the world; hundreds of them, telling first of birds and whales and floating mines and counting the days and weeks until he might see his love again, and then later of tonnages pumped and tanks cleaned, delays and disputes, and lonely glimpses of the beloved island as his ship passed by in the night.
Beneath Bert’s letters the chest we found beside my grandmother’s bed was empty. There were no letters from Ena. The firelight sketches Bert had laughed over, the snippets of poetry, news of friends and the daily trivia of coughs and colds in the little family he replied to were all gone. Had he not kept her letters? It seemed oddly unlike the man who emerged from the mass of precise, tight written sheets.
Had Ena destroyed her own letters during her forty years of widowhood? Or had she given them up earlier, for the war effort? Hers, but not his. During the second world war, the slimline Isle of Wight County Press had constantly exhorted its readers to turn in their paper. Either way, it seemed the crumpled, bow-legged little woman I had known, living on the hill in the house full of nick-nacks where nothing might be knocked or moved, had kept her youth in a sea chest by her bed all those years and we never knew. Too late, I wanted to know what her life as a sailor’s wife had been like.
The stories I could not find in any book poured out of the “watch ashore”, and their children. “My mother hated the sea…” “My mother said if she had her time over, she would never have married a seaman…” “My mother loved the ships…”
This is my grandmother’s story too.