Lost at sea

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

Archive for the ‘1. Family and RMSP Co, 1910-1911’ Category

A sailor’s life – 69. In memoriam

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Old Caird library NMM Greenwich

The old Caird library at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

In the hi-tech glass box that is the new library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, you rarely see a pencil or a piece of paper – just acres of clear desks and blinking computer screens, and iPads.

The old brown Caird library with its panelled walls and stately glass-fronted bookcases of fusty tomes is gone. The little round desk staffed by erudite geeky librarians never at a loss to point out some unmined seam of inquiry or an overlooked treasure on the crammed shelves, has been replaced by electronic gates and scanners.

The books available for general reference now are ranged from ankle to hip height around the windows, beyond which the rolling grass of Greenwich park stretches out and up, following the ant line of tourists toiling up and down the escarpment to Flamsteed’s pretty observatory and the best view in London. It is hard to browse without going down on hands and knees. So I don’t.

So much of Bert Sivell’s life was found here for me. First, his master’s certificate, with attendant paperwork that revealed he was a little man – 5ft 4 inches tall – with grey-blue eyes, like mine. Then the copy of AG Course’s book The Wheel’s Kick and The Wind’s song, which triggered the hunt. (“You know about the mutiny, of course,” the librarian had nodded across the circular desk. We did not.)

Here were the card indexes and envelopes of cuttings; the lists of surviving crew agreements and logs, and where to ask for them; a case full of Lloyd’s Registers, sail and steam, year by year, giving the all-important ship numbers, as well as ownership, tonnages and build. The old passenger guides to the Royal Mail steamship packets. And above all, the yards of Sea Breezes – a whole long shelf – bound and indexed and brimming with first hand tales of the ships Bert had sailed on and the men who might have sailed with him.

Caird library reading room National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The new hi-tech Caird library reading room

In my quest to understand the life that emerged from the sea chest full of letters by my grandmother’s bed I have amassed my own stacks of books and magazines, and interviewed old sea dogs and their wives up and down the country. I have learned to use a sextant – rocking on my heels to mimic the lurching horizon at a local study centre in Erith; blagged my way aboard a Shell oil tanker at Thameshaven and seen the traditional little shell in its case in the messroom, just as my grandfather described.

I have crossed the Atlantic in March aboard a container ship, watching the black water rear and coil around the vessel like a serpent, and heard the shriek of the wind in the rigging. I have even laid a wreath, cast into the dark in the dead of night with 53 names on paper slips at 47N 19W, as near as I could get to where Bert’s last ship was reported lost.

And I could not have done any of it without the Caird library, and the patient, well-read, imaginative souls who inhabited it. So this, belatedly, is a thank you to them all.

The new maritime library in Greenwich is very beautiful, and the computer index is probably no more confusing than the dog-eared old paper system was. On-site storage is bigger and retrieval faster, they say. Certainly, the fancy book scanner is a boon. Take a USB flash drive…

Oh brave new world.

Coming next: Bert goes East, 1926
Previously: Seamen’s strike 1925


A sailor’s life – 68. Pyrula and the seamen’s strike, Curaçao 1925

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Curacao, St Annabaai – showing the growing Shell refinery and tanker port in the Schottegat, from www.hetgeheugenvannederland.nl

Curacao, St Annabaai – showing the growing Shell refinery and tanker port in the Schottegat, from http://www.hetgeheugenvannederland.nl

The Shell oil tanker Pyrula – formerly the White Star liner Cevic, ex Admiralty oiler Bayol/Bayleaf and one-time decoy battleship HMS Queen Mary – left New York on 21st August 1925 for a new life in Curacao in the Dutch West Indies.

She was manned by a mainly Dutch skeleton crew of 16, including three catering staff and four South American “firemen” (stokers) being repatriated to Maracaibo in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. The young master’s only officer – and the only other Brit on board – was his Scottish chief engineer, George Andrew of Airdrie.

Pyrula was a 30-year-old British steamer with a nominal horsepower of 708 and a working crew of 50, but after four years rusting off Staten Island as a floating oil depot for the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company, she faced a final journey of nearly 2,000 nautical miles (3,500 km) down the east coast of the US and across the Caribbean at the peak of the hurricane season, to a small Dutch island possession 40 miles north of Venezuela.

The voyage, the crew agreement notes, was to last for a period not exceeding six months and the sailors were to stand by until the ship was safely moored.

Rocky, dry Curacao was booming. The refinery had opened in 1918 and by 1925 beside the growing tank park, water plant and pending drydock, a little wooden Dutch town had sprung up with its own club house, tennis courts and golf course. Every four days a “mosquito fleet” of tiny tankers poured in from Venezuela with the oil bonanza discovered under shallow Lake Maracaibo, and by July the Isla was processing 5,500 tons of crude a day.


Shell oil depot ship Pyrula – formerly the White Star steamer Cevic, Admiralty oiler Bayol/Bayleaf and decoy Queen Mary

As the oil trade expanded internationally, increasing numbers of tourist steamers too were calling at Curacao, which was handily placed for the Panama canal and the Pacific, and Willemstad was starting to rival Amsterdam for ships and tonnages handled.

Once again,Shell needed Pyrula for bunkering. From the main harbour in the Schottegat lagoon she would eventually move out and round the coast, east to Caracas Bay, as a floating oil pump to the bigger ships unable or reluctant to traverse the narrow St Anna channel between the pretty Dutch gables.

And there she would end her career, overseen by a new master, Willem Hendrikse, and his growing family from a comfy stone bungalow built at the waterside. No more Shell wives made their homes among the old panelled staterooms of the former passenger ship, with their electric fans and bells to the pantry.


Shell tanker Satoe - former Monitor 24, from http://www.helderline.nl

Hendrikse would eventually have two retired British steamers in his charge. Satoe was one of eight shallow-draft Royal Navy Monitor-class gunships bought up by the Curacaosche Scheepvaart Maatschappij after the first world war. As Monitor 24, Satoe had seen service on the Dover Patrol in 1918 and in the White Sea in northern Russia during the allied intervention after the October revolution, but the “flat irons” as the Dutch called them, were so unsuited to the tropics that the Chinese stokers used to faint from the heat in the holds, he said.

No ship’s log survives in the tidy blue cardboard folder in the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, where Pyrula’s particulars for 1925 have lain crisp and apparently unvisited since the merchant navy records were carved up in the 1970s. The two pages for certificates and endorsements are blank.

Lloyd’s List reports she was one of 13 ships to leave New York that day, and the only one bound for Curacao. So the first hint of anything untoward on Pyrula’s last long passage south is a single undated line on the front of the crew agreement, where her chief officer/acting master, Hubert Stanley Sivell, my grandfather, has added: “Vessel in tow and not under own steam” .

Arrived in Curacao “to be a hulk”, reported Lloyd’s baldly on September 8th.

Twenty-four hours later the men were paid off – in dollars. A small fortune in dollars: $744, worth £153 at the ambitious new exchange rate set that April by the chancellor, Winston Churchill, when Britain disastrously rejoined the gold standard.

Although Pyrula’s crew agreement was the standard UK form, with the usual pre-printed scale of provisions (a pound of salt pork on Monday, a pound and a quarter of salt beef on Tuesday, preserved meat on Wednesday, plus lime juice “as required by the Merchant Shipping act”) and the usual puny 5 shilling fines for everything from possession of firearms to mutiny, Bert’s sailors that trip were not on standard National Maritime Board rates.

Instead of £9 a month – a rate controversially reduced from £10 only that August, and still not including clothing, bedding or time ashore – the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company paid Bert’s seamen an astonishing $62.50 a month. £12 15s. His firemen were on $67.50, or £13 15s.

In fact the chief steward, H Mulder, 25, who had signed on as humble mess room steward at $50 a month and been promoted to $120 a month before the ship even left New York, was earning only £2 a month less than the Old Man himself – although young Captain Sivell did not advertise the fact. The column for pay against his name in the crew agreement is prudently blank.

Shell tanker Acasta, undated. Helderline collection

Shell tanker Acasta, undated. Helderline collection

Over in North Shields, in the north of England, the British crew of the Shell tanker Acasta – which was shortly to arrive off Curacao to collect Bert Sivell and two other “spare” Anglo-Saxon officers and take them home – would have been highly interested in the pay aboard Pyrula.

Acasta’s pantry boy, 20-year-old Albert Black of Dene Street, North Shields, was on £3 10s a month. He took a £1 15s advance when he signed up, probably to buy oilskins and bedding as he was listed as a “first tripper”, and set up a £1 15s “allotment” to his mother, which left not much. In Tilbury, forty days later, he would be paid off with just nine shillings.

Throughout September seamen with families had run the gauntlet of pickets and opprobrium at dock gates and railway stations up and down the UK to sign on for the new low rate. There were 1.2 million registered unemployed that autumn, but on £9 a month even fully employed seamen found themselves needing to apply for “relief” between ships.

A letter to the editor from a seaman’s wife in Hull in July demands to know how she is expected to pay rent, insurance, coal and “keep respectable” on £1 6s 3d a week. “Now then, all you sailors and firemen, buck up,” she wrote, the night before the cut came in. “What do you pay 1s weekly to your union for, and never one word of protest from none of you? Buck up some of you. Scandalous such treatment for a British sailor.”

By the time Bert Sivell paid off his crew in Willemstad with their wedge of dollars in the second week of September, British shipping was in chaos.

National Seamen and Firemen's Union poster. National Maritime Museum collection

National Seamen and Firemen's Union poster. National Maritime Museum collection

There were pickets on wharves from Southampton to Glasgow, and unemployed men from Cardiff to the Tyne waiting in tugs in the Bristol Channel and off the Isle of Wight to make up numbers as ships sailed shorthanded.

Across the Dominions thousands of British seamen had walked off their ships –  2,500 in Sydney alone – leaving steamers, mail and precious perishable cargoes, including refrigerated meat, maize and 15 million oranges, laid up from Wellington to Durban SA. Thousands of seamen were camped in meeting halls and private homes, fed by the generosity of local families and unions, while the Australian and New Zealand courts sentenced hundreds at a time to jail with hard labour.

And all for the sake of £1 and a vote.

The dispute had begun very low-key on August 1st, when pay on British ships was cut overnight by 10% in an agreement struck between the shipowners and Joseph Havelock Wilson, the president and founder of the National Sailors & Firemen’s Union. It was the seamen’s fourth pay cut in four years, but there was no vote on it, neither for the NSFU membership nor for men in smaller unions not represented on the official national Maritime Board.

When the cut was announced there had been protest meetings and speeches. Letters to local papers outlined the long hours and poor conditions aboard British ships (“only fit for seamen of an Eastern nation…”) and in Hull a disorderly NSFU meeting carried a vote demanding Mr Havelock Wilson’s resignation, which the union officers ruled out of order.

On “Red Friday”, July 31st, as the coal and rail unions were celebrating victory over the government of Stanley Baldwin, 200 seamen in Hull voted to strike.

The miners and railway workers were big hitters who had threatened a general strike over the mine owners’ plans to cut pay, (which was £3 a week in Staffordshire and up to 13s a day in Scotland) and faced with the prospect of the country being brought to a standstill Baldwin had backed down. He agreed to subsidise the industry for nine months, pending an inquiry (- which would lead to the general strike in May 1926, when the royal commission came back with a recommendation to cut the miners’ pay anyway, but by then the government had emergency plans in place – and volunteers on standby to drive buses and trains.)

But there was no similar support for the seamen. The NSFU stood by its sweetheart deal with the shipping companies, so the TUC – and even the breakaway Amalgamated Maritime Workers’ Union – considered the action “unofficial” and would provide no fighting fund. Within weeks, seamen refusing to sign on at the lower rate were deemed “unavailable for employment” and cut off from the dole.

Newspaper reports of the meetings of the workhouse guardians record debates about basic food relief, to prevent the wives and children of strikers “actually starving”. The men, it was agreed, should get nothing.

On August bank holiday weekend the Hull Daily Mail’s man at the dockside described the crowds of happy day trippers who piled unmolested onto the steamers Whitby Abbey and Duke of Clarence, despite the seamen’s strike. “There was no disturbance beyond a fight between two small dogs; a policeman on duty yawned continually, apparently bored with the inactivity of the ‘strikers’,”  he sneered.

Up and down the country for the first three weeks of August ships sailed, and wherever men refused to sign on at the lower rate there were plenty of others hungry take their places.

Times were hard. The first world war had cost Britain her export markets. As the chancellor, Winston Churchill, wrestled with reparations and repayments, his overambitious return to the gold standard was having a depressing effect on Britain’s balance of trade. (Nations united by the gold standard, he had said that April, would “vary together, like ships in harbour whose gangways are joined and who rise and fall together with the tide…” Eurozone countries please note.)

Struggling to compete on price, British manufacturers cut pay. And kept cutting.

Even on the Isle of Wight unemployment was rising, from 1,000 in January 1925 to 1,538 by Christmas, but the situations vacant column in the local paper there (mainly seeking servants) was still three times the length of the situations wanted. Niton needed a gas lamplighter, the County Press reported, and a married woman teacher in Dorset had won a ruling in Chancery preventing the school governors terminating her employment, “even though there were single women teachers wanting for work”.

Seamen were largely casual labour, and even on £10 a month often could not lay enough by to feed, clothe and house a family during the growing gap between ships. To strike against the NSFU, cut off both from unemployment relief and union support, meant hardship.

By the middle of August it looked like the strikers might be starved out. But industrial relations took an unexpected turn when the first British ships started arriving in Australia after the three-week passage, and an energetic seamen’s union recently victorious in its own battle over pay and conditions took up the cause.

By the time Pyrula arrived in Curacao, the strike had taken a grip in the UK itself.
“Two thousand three hundred passengers, practically all Americans, booked to sail tomorrow morning from Southampton to New York on the White Star liner Majestic were at their wits’ end today,” the New York Times correspondent TR Ybarra cabled on September 1st, “trying to find out whether the Southampton seamen’s strike would force the Majestic to postpone her sailing.” Bristol, Hull and Liverpool were also affected, he said.

In South Africa, desperate fruit growers clubbed together to pay the disputed £1, just to get their oranges away. “The fruit interests are emphasising that for a matter of £70 in wages in this ship Roman Star £300,000 worth of fruit is being jeopardised, which if lost, will mean the ruin of many small producers,” the Western Morning News reported.

In Avonmouth, 30 boilermakers working on an Eagle Star tanker in dry dock downed tools. The San Dunstano needed enough work to keep 300 men employed until Christmas, they said, but they were being asked to just make her seaworthy to reach Rotterdam, where the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company had already sent the US-built Ampullaria. With 400 men locally unemployed it was “not right to send three months work to the Continent”.

“A MILLION TONS HELD UP BY SEAMEN’S STRIKE”, shrieked the NY Times on the 17th.

With the country’s maize and citrus exports rotting on the wharves, the South African government tried to mediate – mooting a six-month inquiry, as put in place for the miners, but the shipowners said no. Union Castle began to recruit “lascar” crews in Bombay, but India and South Africa both protested – though for different reasons.

As well as their £1 back, and paid overtime, and an end to the NSFU’s closed shop deal with the ship owners, the strikers wanted a ban on cheap Chinese and “lascar” crews.

Asiatic seamen in the Strangers Home, West India Dock, London. Collection: Memorial University Newfoundland

Asiatic seamen in the Strangers Home, West India Dock, London. Memorial University Newfoundland website

Wartime restrictions on enemy aliens living in the UK had been extended after the war, limiting employment rights for foreign nationals and barring them from certain jobs (including the civil service). The act had particular impact on foreign seamen working on British ships, and was encouraged by British trade unionists fearful of the cheap competition for jobs. [It was expanded again in 1925 by the Special restriction (coloured alien seamen) order, and even more shamefully not repealed until 1971]

Under so called “lascar agreements” big British firms like Union Castle signed up Asian crews as a job lot for a round trip, under a serang. They did not have to be paid British rates, because they were not signed in British ports, and they were expected to put up with grossly inferior conditions for reasons that can only be described as racist.
Acasta’s white British crew had themselves taken the place of 38 Chinese seamen and firemen who were signed off in South Shields on September 10 after 11 months’ service between Trieste, Malta, Panama, Montreal, Las Palmas and Marseilles.

These men were all registered to boarding houses in the same three streets in Rotterdam – Atjehstraat, Delistraat and Veerlaan, and their pay per month of the trip cost Shell even less, an average of only £3 a head.

Many Chinese had appeared in the tiny docklands peninsula of Katendrecht in 1911, signed up in secret by Dutch ship owners as strikebreakers to work the big passenger liners to and from the Dutch East Indies. They had no unions, only “shipping masters”, who allocated ships and rented beds in their boarding house between jobs.

The Chinese had a reputation as hard workers. They did not drink, were docile with their pipes and mahjong (“less troublesome than a white crew,” said Bert), and were willing to work for little pay.

They were also expected to eat less than a white crew, according to a typed “Scale of Provisions (Chinese)” tidily appended to Acasta’s crew agreement by Captain G. Croft-White. Although the same document shows fireman John Sow had to be left behind in hospital in Marseilles that trip suffering suspected beri-beri.

Shell’s Chinese seamen were entitled to 7lbs of beef, pork or fish each per week, against 8lbs allocated for white crews, and they got 10 and a half lbs of rice, instead of 11lbs of potatoes, biscuit, oatmeal and rice. They got less coffee, marmalade, bread, sugar and salt, more tea and dried vegetables, and no dried fruit, suet, mustard, curry powder or onions at all.

Capt Croft-White was clearly a belt and braces sort of chap, for above the scale of provisions is also gummed a paragraph from a printed document outlining the National Maritime Board’s absolute jurisdiction over pay board his ship, including its ability to retroactively impose cuts.

“It is agreed that notwithstanding the statements appearing in Column 11 of this Agreement the amounts there stated shall be subject to any increase or reduction which may be agreed upon during the currency of this Agreement by the National Maritime Board …”

Bert spent a month in Curacao, handing over and sorting out paperwork, but no letters survive. Only Acasta’s crew agreement shows that he was picked up “at Sea” on October 20th with two other British officers from Dutch lake tankers, and conveyed home to Tilbury.

He arrived back in Britain in November 1925. The strike was over. The seamen had lost.

From Australia came reports of violent clashes between police and British strikers in Fremantle, but after 107 days the men there too gave up and started trying to sign up for a ship home.

It was the loss of trade that eventually beat the seamen’s strike, as farmers and woolmen facing ruin eventually turned on the cuckoos in their nest. Lost, delayed and diverted trade was estimated to have cost £2 million. The shipowners claimed it was a Red Plot.

On December 8th, the Western Argus in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, ranted: “The  anti-British character of the strike was plainly shown by the action of the agitators who fomented it in Australia. They professed sorrow and indignation over the unhappy British seaman, compelled to starve on a miserable pittance of £9 a month, but they said nothing about the German seamen working for £4 4s. All their efforts were directed to holding up the British shipping trade, while foreign vessels were allowed to come and go unhindered…”

After more than four years away Bert hurried home the Isle of Wight for a rare Christmas with the wife he had not seen for a year and the baby daughter he had never met at all. His furlough pay as chief officier was £24 10s a month.

Read on: In Memoriam
Previously: Cabinned, cribbed, confined

A sailor’s life – 12. Coronation and seamen’s strike, 1911

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Commemorative postcard for the coronation of King George V, June 22nd 1911

Commemorative postcard for the coronation of King George V, June 22nd 1911

Hammering and stitching on parade floats and fancy dress was in full swing up and down the British Isles, commemorative medals had been struck, and “meat teas” were being cooked up for the deserving poor. By the time Bertie Sivell, cabin boy, left Pernambuco in Brazil on 2 June 1911 bound for Southampton aboard the RMS Nile, the coronation of George V was barely three weeks away.

In the Solent, ships were gathering – hundreds of ships, private yachts and warships, cheek by jowl. Ticket sales for steamer trips round the assembled fleet were booming; from 1s 6d the week before the grand coronation fleet review, to a week’s pay – £1 10s  – on the day. For an extra 6d, trippers could enjoy an hour aboard the visiting US battleship Delaware “by kind permission of the commander”.

No one expected the motley collection of nationalities crewing the ships to be able to unite in common cause for the seamen’s strike threatened on the 14th. No one expected a docks strike that would bring Britain to a juddering halt. But down in Southampton the trouble kicked off early, among the coal porters called to fuel the first of the White Star’s state-of-the-art new ocean liners for her maiden voyage.

Titanic was still under construction in Belfast, but her huge twin, Olympic, was bound for New York, booked solid to bring back half a hundred American millionaires for the coronation spectacle. If it seems an insane moment for the shipping companies to chance their arm with their workers, that’s because it was.

The coal porters were labourers, working in filthy black gangs of five men for up to twelve hours a day lifting mountains of coal into ships of all sizes for a penny halfpenny a ton. They had been called to standby the grand new Olympic at 6am the day after Nile left Brazil, but were kept waiting, unpaid, for five hours. When they were at last allowed to start work at 11am, they asked for a “monetary consideration” for the half day lost, suggesting five shillings each. When it was summarily refused, the men downed tools.

Coronation fleet review, Southampton 24 June 1911

Coronation fleet review, Southampton 24 June 1911

By mid afternoon, the colliery firm had realised its mistake and revised its response, offering first three shillings, then four, and eventually the full five. But by then the coal porters had thought of other grievances and conditions, and more men were joining them. By Tuesday, the strike was declared official and a  union organiser arrived from London – together with the first contingent of blackleg labour.

Harry Orbell had 28 years’ experience of industrial disputes. He opened the meeting by thanking the authorities for letting the men meet behind the Seamen’s Mission, and he called for calm – no rowdyism, no causing trouble in town, he said, and he urged the strikers to remember  that “whatever happened” the police were only carrying out the laws made by representatives of the people themselves. He didn’t blame the heads of the colliery firm, Russell Rea and his son, whom he said he knew personally and had always found to act as gentlemen (“hear, hear” roared a voice from the crowd). No, he said, the fault lay with the whippersnappers who got their pay rises by “winking at the boss’s daughter”.

The demands Orbell eventually laid before Rea & Co were for an extra halfpenny a ton per man, plus 7s 6d to work through the night, 6 shillings for working Sunday mornings, (4s for Sunday afternoons), and reasonable notice for overtime. Union recognition was almost an afterthought, but the firm still said no.

By Thursday the strike had spread to the steamers and yachts gathering in Southampton Water to run coronation cruises, after their owners too refused to pay the higher coaling rates. The striking coal porters waived their own picket lines for two vessels: one of which had put into port in distress and on fire, and the other “so as not to inconvenience the general public” as it contained only household coal, the Southampton Times & Hampshire Express reported. Reports of the strike were well back in the paper, on page 10.

But time was running out for the liner companies.  Seamen on the US liner St Paul were offered $750 dollars to coal the ship themselves, even the ship’s stewards were approached, but they all refused. In New York there were railway presidents and bankers waiting to be picked up. All the £800 state rooms for the return passage were booked.  Olympic’s maiden voyage – carrying the directors of both the White Star line and the ship builders Harland & Wolff – looked doomed. (Both they and Olympic’s commander, Captain Edward Smith, should have taken note. All three sailed on Titanic’s maiden voyage the following year. Only one survived.)

So, White Star capitulated. And then the seamen seized their chance, “heartened,” as the local paper reported, by the coal porters’ success. On the morning of the day the international seamen’s strike was to be declared, Olympic’s crew struck, demanding parity of pay with the rival Mauretania – and the White Star directors settled again, allowing Olympic to finally steam out of Southampton at noon on June 14th, leaving seething industrial unrest in her wake. The New York Times reported: “Strike of seamen ordered for to-day. Has already begun at Antwerp. English owners appear unconcerned.” Men refusing to board their vessels in the US would be deported and jailed, it said.

By evening the unionist leader Tom Mann in Liverpool had “declared war” on the shipping companies for £5 10s a month minimum wage and union recognition, but not before the Liverpool organisers had issued a message dismissing the strike in Southampton as premature. “This probably explains why some of the London papers did not awake to the fact that there was a strike until Thursday morning,” wrote the Southampton Times, sniffily. Premature or not, a week before the coronation thousands of seafarers in all the large ports had responded, and the strike had spread to the shore gangs. Atlantic sailings were cancelled, and even the cross-Channel service was threatened.

As ship after ship arrived in  port, more seamen joined the strike. The stewardesses on the Union Castle liner Briton joined, the ship’s bandsmen followed, and on shore even ships’ printers were agitating for more pay. In the commotion, the Union Castle laundry girls – who worked  nine hours a day for a pittance of 6s a week – approached their manageress for news of their own outstanding claim. When she rather rashly responded that the officials were far too busy to consider “such a matter as that”, they too walked out, leaving the linen for several thousand bunks unwashed.

It rained in Southampton on the day of King George’s coronation, a steady drizzle. As wet processions trailed through the town, the negotiations continued.

Having bowed to force majeure twice, White Star had jibbed and withdrawn its liner Majestic from the coronation pageant, ceding her place to St Paul, whose crew, because signed in the US and therefore not yet discharged, could be compelled to sail. Majestic had been laid-up in the river, where she was now joined by other laid-up liners as scheduled sailings began to be cancelled and cargoes diverted. Four days before the Coronation, the frantic managers of the Royal Mail and Union Castle made it known that they were offering “liberal terms” to anyone willing to crew the ships in the review that Saturday, but the seamen refused, pointing out that it was more important to be adequately paid for all the other days of the year.

The talking continued right up to the afternoon before the review, and White Star was the last to settle. At ten past two on Saturday 24th June 1911, the Southampton seamen’s strike was over: the shipping companies having agreed to a pay rise of 10s a month for deck hands and men in the stoke hold, and the shore gangs all getting an extra 1s 6d a week.

Olympic arrived back packed to the railings with millionaires. Forty or fifty of them, with an “aggregate wealth of £60m!” reported the Southampton Times. But it was too late for the Royal Mail, which had had to pull four fully-booked ships out of the royal parade, including Asturias and little Oruba. Four Union Castle ships had also been pulled, including the Armadale Castle.

Postcard of illuminations at naval review, found in Bertie Sivell's collection

Postcard of illuminations at naval review, found in Bertie Sivell's collection

Bertie Sivell arrived back in England that evening,  just in time for the illuminations. Four days later he was laid off, when a national docks strike was called, crippling trade through every port up and down the country. Nile’s next sailing was cancelled, so on June 28 1911 Bertie went home to his mam and dad on the Isle of Wight.

By August he was apprenticed – in sail.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 13. Apprenticeship
Previously: For the record, finding ships’ logs

A sailor’s life – 11. For the record: ship’s logs

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Bertie Sivell's list of his ships - starting September 1910, from steam to sail to oil tankers

Bertie Sivell’s list of his ships – starting September 1910, from steam to sail to oil tankers

Tracing British merchant ship logs and crew agreements is infuriating. British registered ships were required by law to keep official logs after 1850, and at the end of each voyage any involving deaths, births, desertions or disciplinary offences were filed, together with agreements and crew lists, with the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff.

However, in 1966 the RSS ran out of storage space and it was decided to pension off all records over fifty years old – which were taking up some six miles of shelves. Negotiations began with various museums and archives, but no one had room for the while lot, so it was decided to split the collection. What resulted was a dog’s breakfast.

The National Archives in Kew ended up with all surviving records including logs up to 1860, a random 10 per cent (every tenth box, for heaven’s sake!?) from 1861 to 1938, plus all surviving documents from 1902 to 1919 (except 1913 …) and from 1939 to 1950, plus any papers pertaining to ‘celebrity’ ships (Except the Cutty Sark and SS Great Britain, who hung onto their own.) The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich took the remaining 90 per cent for 1861 and 1862, plus its own ten per cent sample: all years ending in 5, except 1915 and 1945 (see above). The rest — logs, crew lists and all — went into limbo for a time, while it was thought they were to be pulped, and rumour has it anyone who applied to see a document was given it to keep. Local archives had a field day. So, apart from needing to know the name and official number of the ship your subject sailed on, and the date that any relevant voyage ended, you also need to know where the vessel was registered, in case any records might have strayed there too.

At the eleventh hour the Memorial University of Newfoundland stepped in (Thank you!), and made room for the remaining 6,439 metres … Which is why modern day researchers must email Canada to trace and buy copies of Britain’s maritime history. Much is missing. Explanations of what is where, and why, vary considerably between the big three repositories and 45 regional ones.

However, thanks to a bunch of dedicated enthusiasts there is now a chart for record hunters – or at least some navigation lights. The wonderful Crew List Index Project (CLIP) provides a welcome steer on what might be where, and is still growing. Anyone can join in. Happy hunting!

Read on:  Coronation and seamen’s strike, 1911
Previously: Below decks, RMS Nile, 1911

A sailor’s life – 10. Below decks: RMS Nile, 1911

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Bertie Sivell, 1911 - promoted to £1 a month

Bertie Sivell, 1911 - promoted to £1 a month

Several ship’s logs for the Royal Mail steamers Nile and Oruba for 1911 survive in the Public Record Office at Kew. Though no more than a basic note by busy officers, they provide a rather blunter take on life at sea than the pictures of leisure and pleasure painted by the passengers and the shipping company guides.

Injuries figure large, particularly the burns, which were an occupational hazard among the stokers sweating in the bowels of the steam packets, endlessly shovelling coal into the furnaces; above decks, winches and other machinery took their toll of extremities. On one crossing Oruba’s master recorded, beside the usual desertions on the South America run, five crew laid up with various fractures, tonsillitis and rheumatic fever.

Both steamers either had to put sailors ashore for medical treatment, or had them put aboard by the consul for repatriation to the UK. Ordinary merchant ships did not carry a doctor, just the captain with a St John Ambulance certificate and a copy of the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide. If a man became too ill to be treated aboard, the ship put him ashore as soon as it could – and sailed on. Time and tide wait for no man. Money owed for the days worked was left for him, but his pay stopped until he went back to sea again. When the money ran out, he became a job for the local consul. Such men had their own shorthand presence in the logs: DBS, for distressed British seaman.

RMS Nile, 1911

RMS Nile, 1911

The voyage marked by the death of Nellie Thompson, Countess of Shannon, saw eight DBSs put on board Nile by various consuls for conveyance back to Southampton. Between them, they had typhoid, small pox, tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, neuralgia, and severe burns in various limbs. The passenger ship doctor who had treated the countess’ pneumonia with “poultices, milk diet, digitalis, strychnine, sponging etc” recorded of the working men only that he had put the typhoid and the small pox cases on “saloon fare” and dosed the bronchitis and the TB with cod liver oil.

For this, the logs record an experienced seaman on Nile earned £4 a month, and a coal trimmer, (which was the nastiest job in the engine department) £3 15s.  The waiters, rushing between decks with four meals a day for 600 passengers, supported themselves and their families ashore on £2 10s a month. Even the first officer – who would have studied at his own expense for years, coming ashore to sit each ‘ticket’- received only £16 a month.

Amid the comforts of the passenger liners, the discrepancy between the haves in saloon and those who laboured below and around them was sharp. The Manchester Guardian that year noted: “… on the average, seamen and firemen [stokers] are worse paid, worse lodged and probably, even to-day, worse fed than Englishmen doing comparable work ashore.”

Shipboard discipline, at the sole discretion of the master, added to the financial squeeze. Crispino dos Santos, a 3rd class waiter on Nile, was fined 5s* for quarrelling with the passengers — which was nearly three days’ pay to his family. The bosun’s mate and a firemen were fined 5s each for being drunk off duty, and the fireman subsequently lost a further day’s pay for “insolence” to the 3rd Engineer. Even the 3rd Mate was fined, for calling the 2nd Mate “a damned liar”.

“It is not that shipowners are an exceptionally rapacious class of employers,” wrote the Guardian, “but that the seafaring trades are cosmopolitan … Apart from the great passenger steamers, which run between the same ports with the regularity of express trains, the world’s shipping trade is carried on by vessels ready to go anywhere, carry anything, and employ anyone, irrespective of race, who is able to fire a marine boiler or do a seaman’s work, and it inevitably follows that the standard of pay and comfort for the crews tends to fall to that of the world’s labour market rather than rise to that of prosperous countries like England and the United States.”

At the end of May 1911, the Southampton Times carried a report from the Lancet on the “crowded, damp, dark and dirty” living conditions on Britain’s merchant ships and the “crying need of sailors” for ventilation and proper washing facilities. Special interest attached to this, the newspaper explained, in view of the mounting industrial tension among seamen.

*(20 shillings to the £)

Read on: A sailor’s life – 11. For the record: ships logs

A sailor’s life – 9. Crossing the Line

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RMS Oruba crossing the line

Neptune and his court, RMS Oruba passengers crossing the line circa 1900, from jnvlieland.blogspot

“All the traditional ceremonies and good-natured horseplay were scrupulously adhered to, and some twenty schoolboys and five adults were duly dosed, lathered, shaved, hosed and then toppled backwards into a huge canvas tank of sea-waters,” wrote young Lord Frederic Spencer Hamilton, homeward bound from Cape Town aboard a Royal Mail Steam packet ship in 1910.

For hundreds of years sailors have marked a boy’s first crossing of “the Line” between the northern and southern oceans with a ritual ducking in the sea. Rope would be frayed for wigs, and lockers and stores raided for robes and crown. Then Neptune and his queen, a dame with large loose bosoms and ill-concealed stubble dabbed in flour, would appear over the side of the ship in mid ocean and advance on any so called “first trippers” to lather, dose and dunk them. At the end of their baptism, the new boys were presented with the right to sail the seven seas, and could look forward to being on the delivering end of the brutalities next trip.

Crossing the line ... cruise ship passengers anno 2009, still paying their respects to Neptune

Crossing the line ... cruise ship passengers anno 2009, still paying their respects to Neptune in style, from Johnhealds.blog

The tradition had flourished on passenger ships, because it broke the monotony of long idle days for strangers bored with each other and themselves and writing letters. The ghastly Lord Fred was obviously a hoot, recording riotous goings-on apparently initiated by choice spirits among the saloon crowd, with him playing Neptune “in an airy costume of fish-scales”. A star of the South African music hall had played the queen, he wrote, with a flow of risqué gags that had their audience in stitches.

“Just as we crossed the Line, the ship was hailed from the sea, her name and destination were ascertained, and she was peremptorily ordered to heave to, Neptune naturally imagining that he was still dealing with sailing ships. The engines were at once stopped, and Neptune, with his Queen, his Doctor, his Barber, his Sea Bears and the rest of his Court, all in their traditional get-up, made their appearance on the upper deck, to the abject terror of some of the little children, who howled dismally.

“The proceedings were terminated by Neptune and his entire Court following the neophytes into the tank, and I am afraid that we induced some half-dozen male spectators to accompany us into the tank rather against their will, one old German absolutely fuming with rage at the unprecedented liberty that was being taken with him.”

Read on: Below decks: RMS Nile, 1911
Previously: Rolling down to Rio

From: Here, There and Everywhere by Lord Frederic Hamilton

A sailor’s life – 8. Rolling down to Rio: RMS Nile, 1911

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RMS Nile leaving Southampton, postcard sent 1911

RMS Nile leaving Southampton, postcard sent 1911

I’ve never sailed the Amazon,
I’ve never reached Brazil;
But the Don and Magdalena,
they can go there when they will!
Yes, weekly from Southampton,
great steamers, white and gold,
Go rolling down to Rio
(Roll down, roll down to Rio)
And I’d like to roll to Rio
some day before I’m old

From The Beginning of the Armadillos, Just So Stories, 1902

Five months after running off to sea with the Royal Mail steam packets from Southampton, Bertie Sivell, still only fifteen years old, changed ships and at last rolled down to Rio as Rudyard Kipling had described, crossing the equator en route.

The RMS Nile had been purpose-built for the Argentine run with four promenade decks and nearly as many passengers in saloon class as in steerage. She shuttled from Southampton to Buenos Aires and back every eight weeks, crossing the Atlantic from St Vincent in the Cape Verde islands to Pernambuco (now Recife) in Brazil, and calling at Lisbon, Bahia (now Salvador), Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo.

The RMSP’s hefty Guide to Brazil and the River Plate for the year 1904 reports of St Vincent that it was very healthy, due to stringent quarantine regulations, but that there was not much to do ashore except take amusing photographs “of the coloured people and their numerous children”. Pernambuco, too, was picturesque, (“especially to the traveller who has not seen tropical scenery before”), and it benefited from restaurants and even a music hall. Although “to the lady of fashion neither the drapers nor the milliners establishments would form much attraction”, the guide warned. Somewhere between the two Bertie crossed the Line.

St Vincent, Cape Verde - view of harbour and Bertie's 'X' where RMS Nile lay, 1911

St Vincent, Cape Verde - view of harbour and Bertie's 'X' where RMS Nile lay, 1911

He sent six picture postcards from Lisbon, all blank, and twelve from St Vincent, showing the harbour, the market and a view of naked children around a mud hut, inscribed “this shows the general mode of living in these islands”. One marked where the ship lay in the bay, and one a church he could either see from the moorings or had visited. But nothing was found from Pernambuco.

In Rio, where the Sugar Loaf mountain loomed over picturesque forts, the ship threaded its way through a mass of shipping and Brazilian men-of-war to anchor off an island opposite the city. There, “fussy steam launches blowing their whistles” would race up, bringing family and friends too impatient to wait on shore, the guide said. The guide did not say that in Rio and Buenos Aires desertions among the crew were rife because both had rip-roaring sailor towns full of cheap booze and whores, and a nasty reputation for crimping or press-ganging, which remained widespread until the First World War. In Buenos Aires Bert bought coloured cards, but again did not write on them.

If Bert ever told the son he hardly knew what had happened to him that first trip across the Line, the boy did not remember it and if the teenager on Nile wrote letters, they were not kept.

The only record is Nile’s log, which shows that three days out of Southampton, Bertie Sivell, one of two page boys on board, was promoted to Captain’s Servant at £1 per month, backdated. Logs were only preserved if they recorded a death or illness, discipline problems or, more rarely, a marriage or birth. Nile’s log for 1911 survived because several men, including the “Jews’ waiter”, deserted the ship in Buenos Aires.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 9. Crossing the Line