Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 70. Monkbarns sails on

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Monkbarns on the wharf in Australia, 1918

Monkbarns on the wharf in Australia, 1918

Whatever may have become of the hulk of three-master Monkbarns after she was demasted and towed to Corcubion, Spain, in 1927, the old ship still sails on across the 21st century – on the internet.

Though obsolete the day she slipped into the Clyde at Dumbarton in 1895, square-rigged and wind-driven in a world of steam and early oil-fired engines, the name of Monkbarns still resonates down the years among generations who will never know the smell of Stockholm tar, boiled coffee or wet oilskins.

For those of us who came after, a whiff of adventure seems to cling to the tales of the last windbags that no accounts of scurvy teeth or salt water boils and split fingers can mar. Many descendants of the men and boys who crewed Monkbarns in the last days of sail have come forward since I began this blog. Around the world, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand, grandchildren like me are digging, sifting yellowed newspaper clippings, piecing together lives so recent yet so brutally alien from our own pampered digital age.

Snail mail and various nautical magazines traced Lionel Walker‘s family, Francis Kirk‘s and Harry Fountain. But it was email and Facebook that whistled up Victor Fall‘s son, Captain Donaldson’s great grandson, and Laurence O’Keeffe‘s niece-in-law, belatedly mourning a gallant young life lost at sea. Most recently Bert’s blog received an overnight email from the diaspora of a Finnish family many thousands of miles away. The word Monkbarns had appeared on a grandfather’s Australian naturalisation papers, outward bound from New York in 1916. Google had done the rest. Had Bert Sivell and Axel Skärström perhaps sailed together, she asked.

Victor Fall on Monkbarns Newcastle 1920

Victor Fall aboard Monkbarns, Newcastle NSW 1920. Fall family collection

As always, the crew lists provided pay dirt. Young Skärström, a 22-year-old Finn registered to a boarding house at 18 Great George Square, Liverpool, joined Monkbarns as an ordinary seaman in June 1915 on £5 10s a month. It was not his first ship. The ship’s papers note he had previously served on a Russian vessel, although Captain Donaldson had not concerned himself to record which.

Aboard Monkbarns, Axel Skärström lived in the fo’c’sle, among a crowd of mainly young Scandinavian hands: four Finns, three Swedes, two Norwegians, a Dane, a Swiss and four English teenagers – all willing to work for a pittance on the dwindling number of sailing ships to rack up experience for their square-rig “ticket” (plus ça change…) – and two fifty-something Welshmen, old sea dogs unable or unwilling to learn new tricks.

Bert Sivell, only 20 himself that trip, had set sail from Garston, Liverpool, as one of the eight unpaid apprentices sharing the “boys” house amidships, though he was promoted to able seaman two months later in mid-Atlantic as soon as his indentures expired.

From Liverpool he and Axel had sailed together to New York and from New York they sailed with general cargo for Australia, where in March 1916 in Port Adelaide, after a month hanging around, Bert sat and passed his 2nd Mate’s exam and Donaldson recorded that Axel deserted.

It came as no surprise to the Skärström family. “Dad always said he’d jumped ship,” pinged back the email.

Axel Skarstrom and Ada Loveday December 1925

Axel Skarstrom and Ada Loveday December 1925
“My grandmother wrote on the back, ‘this is the man I left home for’…”

What did come as a surprise was the name on the line below Axel’s on Monkbarns crew list: another, younger, Skärström, only 19, but registered to the same boarding house in Liverpool, and also off a Russian ship.

Little brother Johan Wilhelm – for it was Axel’s brother – did not jump ship in Australia. He helped finish loading the 34,000 sacks of wheat they picked up at Wallaroo for Cape Town, and arrived back in England just before Christmas 1916.

JW was paid off in Avonmouth with £81 17s 11d, after what was evidently a very abstemious two years. He didn’t sign on for Monkbarns next trip. Eventually he returned to Finland and became harbourmaster in Hango. Meanwhile, Axel found work in Adelaide and ten years later met and married an Aussie girl who walked past the wharf each day. In 1914, with war coming, Axel’s mum in Finland had advised him not to come home. So he didn’t.


Around the world, more emails are pinging. Johan’s grandson far away in Finland has been alerted. More digging is going on. Monkbarns has entered the canon of yet another family’s history, and another piece may shortly be added to the jigsaw of lives played out around the last days of sail.

Post script: Axel died in 1941, falling from the rigging of the steamship MV Minnipa, and is commemorated on the Australian merchant navy memorial. But Johan is buried in the family plot in Hango, in southern Finland, surrounded by generations of seafaring Skärströms. And there, each Christmas eve, candles are still lit on his grave as Finns up and down the country flock through the snow to remember the past at Christmas. Nice one.

Now, how about George Barnaby, born in King’s Lynn in 1895, who deserted in New York in 1915? Or Bill Aplin, Graham Cheetham and Ted Chown*, the out-of-time apprentices who helped put down the mutiny round Cape Horn in 1918? Or the five ringleaders who were jailed in Newport, Gwent, in 1918 – Fausto Humberto Villaverde (born about 1896, Callao, Peru), Charles H Moore (approx. 1897, Chicago, US), Thomas O’Brien (1877, Dundalk, Ireland), David Thomas (1873, Swansea, South Wales) and Edvard Henriksen (1896, Arendal, Norway)?

Answers on a postcard, please – or watch this space.

* William Gilbert Nigel Aplin, 1897, Bloxham, Oxford; Edward John Chown, 1899, Teddington, Middlesex; Gilbert Robert Cheetham, 1899, Wrexham.

Coming next: The General Strike, RMS Karmala and Bert goes East

Previously: In Memoriam

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