Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 57. The wife’s tale II

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Sailor's wife and child, monument, Odessa

Monument to sailors’ wives, Odessa

“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.

Fishermen's Wives memorial gloucester US

Fishermen’s wives memorial, Gloucester, US

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.

Mujer Marinera Lloret de Mar, Spain

Mujer Marinera Lloret de Mar, Spain

“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.

Waiting on shore, Sligo, Ireland

Waiting on shore, Sligo, Ireland

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.

Seafarer's wife memorial, Galaxidi, Greece

Seafarer’s wife memorial, Galaxidi, Greece

“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.

*Names changed

Read on: In sickness and in health, Mytilus 1921
Previously: Wives on wharves


7 Responses

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  1. Its really hard adapting to the lifestyle of becoming a seafarer’s wife. Even if communication and technology is readily available for us, it only subdues the longing for a few hours. My husband just went on board four months ago and even though we always talk online, I just want to fast forward the months so that we can be together again. Yes, I can provide so much for our family but coming from a very closed-knit family, I find it hard to adjust to family life wherein I have to handle almost all responsibilities on a daily basis. I know though that my husband worked his ass off from the countless offshore trainings that he had so that we will have a better life and I support him100%. BUt sometimes, money is not always enough. Sigh.


    January 7, 2013 at 2:16 am

    • Dear Cory,
      Lovely to hear from you – though sad that despite the technology, nothing has really changed. (And I’m told it’s worse when your own children follow their father to sea…)Where is your husband’s ship? Do you get to meet up anywhere during the four months? Wishing you strength, patience, good family & friends, – and happy honeymoons!

      Jay Sivell

      January 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

      • I think that despite the humble intention of technology in bringing families closer, I think that there are some points in our lives (especially in our case) where it becomes the cause of misunderstanding. Our mantra though is that we rely on technology and it is inevitable that will have glitches so we must accept the fact that there will be days wherein we won’t be able to see each other. WE made a pact already that if ever this happens, nothing will change and thank god, we have remained true to our mantra.

        Currently, my husband’s ship is Europe-bound, as of the moment, they are in Corsica, i think. We don’t really meet up during the months that he’s away because it’s too expensive and impractical, especially now that everything’s moving fast; and, I have to attend to our family here. I just wait for him when he finishes his contract and after all, his vacation is long (usually 1-2 months) so somehow, it makes up for the long absence. But really, I still want more–I want him to stay with me (physically of course.)

        I wish the same for you and your family too Jay. Keep strong and optimistic.


        January 7, 2013 at 7:38 am

      • Dear Cory, So many questions. Did you know what you were letting yourself in for when you married a seaman? Does he come from a sailing family? Do you come from a seafaring family? And do you keep in touch with other seafarers’ wives? Is the leave ‘scheduled’ and do ships turn up ‘on time’ these days – or do the families still have to wait on wharves, or drop everything and catch a train? Corsica is beautiful. I hope he gets to see some of it. Very best wishes.

        Jay Sivell

        January 7, 2013 at 8:31 am

      • Whoa.. that’s a lot of questions there Jay! But sure, let me try to answer it one-by-one.

        Of course, I knew what I was going into when I married him. We were college sweethearts when he was taking Marine Transportation and I was taking Accountancy. I knew and stressed form the very beginning that he wants to become a seafarer and i totally support his decision; so in a way, he kinda prepared me for our future too. I thought that it will be easier for us to surpass this chapter in our live since he laid out the expectations but once the reality came, we were smacked in the face but in the end, we figured, we’ve together a long time and through a lot to back out now so with conviction and trust with each other, we got married.

        No, he does not come from a sailing family. It was his decision to become a seafarer and although they lived near the sea when he was a kid, his he said that it was his dream to become a seafarer and to travel the world.

        No, I do not keep in touch with other seafarer’s wives;’ and although I know that there are a lot of forums and organizations that meet to talk about their experiences, I believe that I should live my life as a young wife, after all, I also want to move forward with my career; and I have other friends to take care of that department. And, I would like to believe as well that our years of being together has made us strong individuals and stronger partners that even though we are apart, its just distance that separates us. We trust each other completely and I wouldn’t want to do something that would jeopardize our marriage.

        Yes, the leaves are scheduled as stated in their contracts. Usually, he is away for 6 months or more and then he will have a rest time (for 1 or two months) before he gets another assignment and yes, ships turn out on scheduled time these days. I don’t really wait for him on the port (that’s so 1900’s!) or wharves, usually, he would just come home and I’ll be waiting for him at home. If I have enough time, that’s the time that go to the port and fetch him.

        PheeW! That’s a lot of words for a comment! Anyway. thanks for asking and I hope that you learn something from me. See you soon.

        Cory Josue

        January 7, 2013 at 9:39 am

      • Dear Cory,
        What a lovely honest reply. Thank you for adding another piece of the picture. I am delighted to hear seafarers’ wives nowadays have careers of their own. My grandmother was expected to keep house, raise children and be ‘on the wharf’ in the nearest port whenever my grandfather happened to be passing. Which, due to the Depression and then the war, wasn’t often. I don’t think she had the slightest idea what she was letting herself in for when she married him – and she didn’t socialise much with other sailors’ wives. The wife’s tale seems an overlooked part of the whole seafaring lifestyle…
        With my very best wishes for your continued happiness. Jay
        PS If you come across any interesting seafarer’s (or wives…) blogs that you can recommend, I’d be fascinated to hear of them and happy to link.

        Jay Sivell

        January 8, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      • It’s my pleasure to tell you my story. I think that it is also important that wives should have careers these days, and I am not talking just about seafarer’s wives. In the Philippines, my husband’s salary is enough to support our family and needs but I do not want to settle for less. I want to have my own career too so that I will not be bored and to keep my mind off from worrying for my husband. In a sense, it’s my diversion.

        Honestly, I’ve been looking for a “sensible” seafarer (or wives) blog but no one really passed my standards. And those that are kinda good are more on the technical side and I really don’t speak “seafaring” so I stay away from that. Anyway, if I come across something good, I will surely recommend it to you.

        Cory Josue

        January 9, 2013 at 1:10 am

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