A sailor’s life – 57. The wife’s tale II
“I never liked the sea,” said Dolly Thomas, daughter and granddaughter and wife and mother of British merchant seaman, looking back over three-quarters of a century. “Even when I lived near it, I never went to look at it.”
When Dolly married 5th Engineer Jim Thomas in 1942, when she was 22, her mother had warned her: “Don’t expect sympathy. No one will understand.”
Dolly’s father was master of one of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary oil tankers that service the navy, and he used to be away for so long and so often that she did not remember meeting him until she was five years old. Jim had followed his father-in-law into the RFA and when Dolly herself became a mother his tanker happened to be in port for repairs, so he could come to her, but he was recalled to the ship within hours of the child’s birth and didn’t see his second son until the little chap was walking. “I missed our first seven Christmases,” said Jim, wryly.
For all the years Jim was at sea, Dolly had made the decisions. She had raised the boys, managed the money, even bought their first house. Yet Dolly and Jim had been married for 56 years when I met them in the bungalow deep inland, where they had retired to live near their grandchildren when Jim finally came ashore. There was a noisy grandmother clock in the hall, and a single framed photograph of an oil tanker – Jim’s last – on the wall. All her married life, said Dolly, she had kept a suitcase packed.
The little suitcase is retired now, and Jim is dead, but for forty years Dolly kept it ready in the corner of her bedroom in South Shields, with a pressed blouse and change of clothes – all set to go to him whenever the telegram arrived saying he was in port for a day or two somewhere in the British Isles. This, and the three weeks leave every two years, was her early married life, and that of all the other seamen’s wives of her generation.
“You’d get a telegram: ‘Ship arriving so-and-so’,” she said, “and you had to lock the house up, you had to get the children all organised, and you had to get them over to whoever was having them for you. The men didn’t think, they’d just send a telegram and expect you to be on the jetty. They didn’t realise the journey you might have, or that you got there and the ship had gone somewhere else, which happened. You were always tugged both ways, you had to leave your children to go to your husband. I can remember my mother saying, ‘If you don’t go, someone else will’… It was hard on the children, but we hadn’t much choice.
“We were brought up with it,” said Dolly. “My uncles all went to sea. Jim’s father died at sea. That was our life. Father never wanted a shore job; he never wanted to come home. Nor did my husband.”
Jim had merchantmen’s medals for the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Borneo and Korea, and a photograph of his men on deck with their protective gloves and geiger counters just after the last nuclear test off Christmas Island in 1958, where they were refuelling the destroyers patrolling the exclusion zone. They had been sealed in the engine room – but let themselves out after the blast because of the unbearable heat. The mushroom cloud had, he said, faded in the sky behind them. He remembered fishing in the bay for weeks afterwards, and the crew popping down to the Naafi on the island for a beer of an evening. He hadn’t suffered any ill effect, he said, though he knew of others who had.
When I met them, Jim had been retired for 18 years, and they were living near the son who had not gone to sea, collecting china together in Berkshire. “No, I never liked the sea,” said Dolly, smiling impishly at her husband across the spotless living room.
Did Jim miss it, I enquired. Jim grunted, and shrugged. What was to miss? As an engineer, he had spent most of his time below decks anyhow, he said. His only comment was disgust that their accommodation ashore was no bigger than it had been aboard ship in later years, when he was chief engineer. By then they’d had beds big enough for two and the wives were allowed to come with them a couple of times a year, but that was the 1970s. Things were very different for sea wives before.
“When I married Jim,” said Dolly, “my mother told me, it is no use crying or feeling sorry for yourself, you’ll get no sympathy from me. You married a sailor, you get on with it. She was a hard woman, my mother, but she was right. She was hard, because my father had had to leave her alone such a lot when she was a young wife.”
Dolly’s mother, Nell Card, was one of four children of a Shetland trawlerman who was knocked overboard by a ship’s boom in Aberdeen harbour in 1902 when she was two months old. His body was never recovered. His oldest child was only seven. From the day Nell could hold the big needles she helped her widowed mother and sister knit the great Fair Isle jumpers that had to feed the family until the two boys were old enough to follow their dead father to sea.
“That was what there was on Shetland then, knitting or the sea,” said her daughter.
Nell was not yet 18 when she met a young English man from Kent, the mate of a ship that had called at Lerwick for repairs at the end of the first world war. They met at the hotel where Nell was working and he had wooed her by telegram for six months.
Nell Card had never seen a bus or a tram until the night she was wed and she set off on the long journey south to meet her husband’s people. “I think she wanted to get away from Shetland,” said Dolly. She was appalled, however, on arrival in Maidstone on the Sunday evening, to find her mother-in-law darning socks. Shetland islanders still kept the Sabbath. What kind of a family had she married into, Nell wondered. That was 1920.