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

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A sailor’s life – 54. Flaming funnels, Orthis 1920

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Orthis callactis Dalman, 1828

Orthis callactis Dalman fossil, 1828

“This morning a box arrived on board marked ‘fragile’ and on opening it what do you think I found? A glass case containing a couple of Orthis shells mounted on a piece of pearl and the vessel’s name engraved on another piece of pearl, the whole lot set off on blue plush. All the ships of the fleet have a similar case. It is supposed to be placed on the saloon sideboard, but as we have no saloon it will have to go in the messroom.”

26 May 1920, Millwall dock, London

The Shell tanker Orthis started life as the 1,144 grt creosol class harbour oiler Oakol, bought cheap from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary during the oil group’s post-war shopping spree in 1919.

Shell tanker Orthis formerly Oakol

Shell tanker Orthis, formerly RFA Oakol - Helderline collection

Named apparently after a Paleolithic fossil by someone in the company with a sense of humour, Orthis was small and scruffy, a dwarf against the purpose-built Donax and a fleabite to the 18,000 tonners being built in the US for Eagle Oil. She was a mess, and as new first mate it was Bert Sivell’s job to knock her into shape, supervising the new Chinese crew painting her into the company’s livery, and scouring and steaming the tanks until they were clean enough to carry benzene.

“What d’you think to the old yacht?” the marine superintendent at Shellhaven had said, inspecting the vessel in June 1920, after a month’s hard graft. For once Bert was tactful, blandly ignoring the little ship’s tendency to shoot flames out of her funnel, fifteen or twenty feet high, which the refinery staff seemed to find unnerving.

(“The shore people will not let us run our dynamo now in case a similar thing should happen, so we have to stop pumping at 9pm before we can have lights aboard.”)

In two years flat the company was to snap up 32 surplus vessels, ranging from ex-RN oilers and dry goods carriers built for the Admiralty and the wartime Shipping Controller, to an old Canadian train ferry (Limax) and two halves of a refloated wreck (Radix). The Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co. alone bought sixteen of the 416 government-commissioned “War” range of standard ships, six of the emergency wartime construction “Leaf” freighting tankers that had had to be put under civilian management because of the US neutrality act, and several former RFA “Ol” oilers, including little Orthis-Oakol.

War Expert became Anomia

War Expert became Anomia

By late 1920, these ships were starting to take their places in the burgeoning Shell fleet: War African became Absia, War Expert the unlovely Anomia (“Captain Cass her skipper says he’s going to call her Amonia, it’s the only way he can remember it…”), Aspenleaf, Briarleaf, Dockleaf and Elmleaf became Prygona, Lacuna, Litopia and Meloma, – the biggest of them only 7,550 grt.

Meanwhile, Orthis’s engineers had spent the early summer twiddling and tweaking in Millwall dock, trying to tame the old oiler’s combusting engines and wayward steering gear. (Judging by the dents in her hull, a long-standing problem, Bert mused.) He didn’t repine though. Twice he managed a dash to see his parents on the Isle of Wight, once whisking Ena with him on the night mail; twice he managed a snatched evening with her in Tunbridge Wells after work, arriving at 6pm and running for the London train again at 10pm; and at Whitsun they achieved one glorious sunny weekend in each other’s arms on the cliffs at Minster, where two weeks later he was sluicing the last of a load of dirty benzene out of his tanks into the Thames in a way that would give modern marine authorities a fit.

Rotterdam postcard harbour panorama 1920

Rotterdam postcard harbour panorama 1920

Twice Orthis went to Rotterdam too, but all he ever saw was the tanks of the installation. “There was a little village about ten minutes walk from the ship, but it was not worth while going ashore,” he wrote. “In any case, I have quite enough to do on board. I still have an awful lot of writing as well as the ordinary work of running the ship and her crew and in addition I have to look after the victualling of the ship for which I receive the large sum of £3 per month as an extra.”

With that and the £3 war bonus and overtime, he was earning per month about three-quarters of what Ena earned per year – £40 making hats. Shell paid well.

In June they went to Helsingfors (Helsinki), via the Kiel canal, still dodging sea mines even in the North Sea but now with the added hazard of the erupting funnel.

kiel canal postcard 1920

Kiel canal postcard 1920

“Just before entering Holtenau lock at the Kiel end of the canal our funnel went afire at 1am and being a pitch black night of course everything was well lit up by the glare. All the Germans in the vicinity, including our pilot, got the “wind up” badly, but we are getting used to these little happenings. They are quite harmless as long as no benzine is about.”

On the return journey, while navigating Brunsbuttel lock, another eruption managed to ignite one of the lifeboats. “We caused great excitement among the shore community,” wrote Bert.

After Finland, when Bert and Captain Harding enjoyed two illicit evening trips ashore together, listening to the bands in the park, visiting the zoo, and not getting back to the ship until 1am – “when it was still light enough to read a newspaper” – the real work started. Up and down they ran to Hull and Granton, outside Edinburgh; 45 hour trips, pumping as soon as they were alongside and sailing again as soon as they’d done. Bert barely got his clothes off and the overtime was ratcheting up nicely, but there were no flying visits to Tunbridge Wells, just more paperwork for dented jetties – and an inquest.

(En route back from Scotland a fire had broken out in the “European” galley, fatally injuring the Chinese chief cook. They swung the tanker into the wind to prevent the flames spreading and Bert doctored the all-too conscious victim with carron oil and opium, swaddling him in wadding, lint and sheets. But the poor man was too far gone. The tanker put back into Leith, and the cook was ferried ashore in a lifeboat, and Bert went with him in the horse drawn ambulance over the cobbles. But the doctor said it was a hopeless case. An enquiry ensued.)

“My dearest sweetheart, I am so sorry you only had one letter from Thameshaven but on these short runs I don’t seem about to fit in the time for much letter writing. We were only 15 hours in Hull and a few minutes under 24 hours at Thameshaven, so you can imagine how much spare time the ‘poor’ mate gets after he has finished with cargo and the thousand odd jobs in getting ready for sea again … The spring-clean  is going on very, very slowly. It will be some weeks before I can make this thing look anything like one of the ‘Shell’ line vessels and I expect as soon as I have finished the job I shall get a transfer to another old rattle box.”

shell letter tanker mytilus

Shell's (unusually chatty) official letter appointing Bert Sivell to its oil tanker Mytilus

The transfer when it came, came quickly. In December 1920 Bert was appointed acting chief officer of the 5,000 tonner Mytilus. Captain McDermid of Donax, whom he met in Rotterdam that January, took all the credit and fished out a bottle of port to celebrate.

“He told me that when I was with him he had had special orders to watch me and report back accordingly. He says Donax is altogether a different ship since I left.” Shell was negotiating the building of 40 more Donax-type ships in US, according to McDermid – on top of twenty-six (he said) already under construction all over the world. Thirteen were due for commission that year. “Think of the master’s jobs…”

McDermid predicted Bert would be master himself in three years.

Read on: Dublin and the troubles, 1920
Previously: Christmas at sea, Donax 1919

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to death by U97

A sailor’s life – 53. Christmas at sea, 1919

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Traditional Christmas pudding

Traditional Christmas pudding

Christmas dinner 1919 aboard the Shell oil tanker Donax was a feast beyond the wildest imaginings of a boy from a windjammer, raised on the regulation pound of salt gristle and pint of stewed peas.

The previous year, Bert Sivell had been in the tropics, a very young and rather uncompromising mate under sail in the Indian Ocean aboard the old three-master Monkbarns.

Christmas dinner then had been half a dozen Australian chooks, picked up by the “Old Man” in Bunbury WA during the Armistice celebrations and eaten three to a bird, with plum duff for afters and an impromptu concert on the foredeck as night fell. Among the teenage apprentices – for whom Bert made Christmas eve hideous by setting them the filthy chore of “tarring down” the rigging – the memory of their subsequent slap-up Christmas day “feed” had glowed undimmed and still written about fifty years later.

On Donax, Christmas began at 11am in the middle of the cold grey Atlantic, when the captain mustered them for port wine and cake in the saloon. Officers only, of course. Bert did not record what libations were offered to the Chinese crew. In the saloon there had been toasts to the king and to “our loved ones at home” – with much sly winking at Bert, newly engaged with a framed photo of my grandmother shyly smiling on his desk which they’d all been to inspect.

Christmas dinner à la Shell had featured hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, lamb cutlets and peas, chicken and boiled ham, plum pudding flaming with brandy, and fruit, all washed down with claret, beer, stout or lemonade.

“After dinner we all sat around smoking. The old man was a little merry and gave us two songs, the Bandoliers and Land of Hope and Glory. It would have been better had he had a voice…” wrote Bert. By 10pm the party was over and everyone was back to work. As 2nd mate Bert’s watch was midnight till 4am.

Bert, then 23, had joined the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company in September 1919 as 3rd officer, notwithstanding the crisp new master’s certificate in his pocket, but by Christmas nine weeks later he had been promoted and a new man fresh from the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. had moved into his old quarters. The new junior was three years older than Bert with only a 1st mate’s certificate “and a steamship one at that”, wrote Bert, smugly. “He’s a bit swanky, but he’ll soon lose that in a tanker.”

nautical charts

Nautical charts

As 2nd mate, Bert was now in charge of the tanker’s charts – inking in the Admiralty’s monthly list of corrections to lights, rocks and shoals on any of the 1,000 maps Donax carried. But the years in sail had taught him skills the more pampered steamship men could only gape at. He became the ship’s unofficial barber (“Europeans only”), and drew regular audiences too as he stitched up a rip, darned a sock or patched his boots.

When the 3rd engineer banged his head and went into violent convulsions in Helsinki, Bert had been the only officer aboard with first aid training and he nursed the injured man on the messroom table for five hours (!) until the Finnish doctor arrived aboard. (“The 1st and 2nd mates both lost their heads, so I kicked them outside for a start, and put the chief engineer out in the snow also as he wanted to faint.” )

When the patient was ordered to hospital ashore, Bert and the 4th engineer gleefully obliged. It was the first time they’d set foot on dry land since leaving the UK, as they’d been too busy minding the pumps during the oil tanker’s brief dockings at Philadelphia, Copenhagen and Reval (Talinn). On the way back to the ship in the taxi, they treated themselves to a sneaky detour. “It was fine walking on the crisp snow. There were plenty of one-horse sleighs plying for hire, and all the boys had their toboggans. I saw some beautiful shops, but neither of us had any money.”

Only later did they discover how badly ill the 3rd engineer was. His sea career was finished. “He can never take charge of running engines after having fits,” wrote Bert. The man was only 26 and married.


Bermuda Tamarind vale postcard 1920

Bermuda Tamarind Vale postcard 1920 - unscheduled stop due to engine trouble

Donax spent New Year 1920 in Louisiana, rattling the ship’s whistle into the empty night 35 miles up the swampy, flat mosquito-plagued Mississippi, where a handful of wooden houses clustered round a general store near a single oil well on the edge of a large sugar plantation. Bert knew it as Good Hope, but it was to become better known as Norco – today an oil town of 4,000 souls still labouring under the unlovely acronym of the New Orleans Refining Co.

From Louisiana the oil tanker set off back into the Gulf Stream bound for Europe, laden with best quality Water White kerosene for Sweden, but the engine trouble that had dogged Donax since they left Rotterdam struck again.

Although the company was already experimenting with ocean-going diesel engines, seven-year-old Donax had oil-fired steam reciprocating engines, and Bert wasn’t impressed. (“We were stopped an hour and a half while the engineers were tinkering up the machinery to make it go,” he wrote, less than a week out. “It’s not all honey apparently in a steamer.”) The breakdowns continued the whole trip, averaging about once a week, “and always on my watch,” Bert noted, dourly.

Then a boiler split. It was the disadvantage of oil-fired steamers, or so he said. The bunker oil picked up in the US burned hotter (280F) and less uniformly than coal and cooled dramatically each time pressure was lowered for the many brief ports of call, causing the metal to crack.

Stockholm harbour 1920 postcard with airship

Stockholm harbour 1920 postcard with airship - or 'dirigible' as Bert Sivell knew it, writing home that February

One day out of New Orleans they were “leaking like a basket”. When the second boiler came out in sympathy five days later off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the Old Man and the chief engineer held a council of war. Limping back to the UK for a week of repairs and a spot of unscheduled home leave was no longer an option. The master decided to head for Halifax, Nova Scotia, 450 miles north, and whistled up his 2nd Mate to dig out the charts.

“My job was soon over,” wrote Bert, Halifax NS was one of the very few places in the world the tanker did not have charts for, but as he arrived on the bridge to report, he found the Old Man and the chief engineer still calculating headwinds and fuel consumption.

Sail-trained Bert was amazed. It seemed immediately obvious to him that the limping tanker would do better to head not north towards the Arctic against the winds but south with the swell behind them, aiming for Bermuda –  300 miles back the way they’d come, but with fairer weather all the way. Being Bert he also said so.

Pre-prohibition bar, Port Arthur Texas, postcard 1920

Port Arthur Texas, 1920 - on a rare trip ashore that March, Bert found prohibition had struck and the bar, pictured left, was dry. Instead, he attended a jazz exhibition at the fire station. "A terrible row..."

“I nearly had to laugh out loud at the look of amazement on their faces. They had not thought of that. We had been steering for Halifax for half an hour by then, and immediately the vessel was turned round and course set for Bermuda. Fancy the 2nd mate of a vessel telling the captain where to get his repairs done, and engineering work at that.

“So now we are crawling to Bermuda at about 6 knots. We are unable to go faster because we cannot keep steam, the boilers are leaking so badly that cold water has to be constantly pumped into them to keep them full…”

Captain McDermuid was suitably grateful: after one more trip to Texas and back, Bert was promoted – to another ship.

McDermuid had served in sail himself, a single year in the four-masted Juteopolis (later Garthpool), but it cut little ice with his snippy 2nd mate. (“He’s a steam boat man,” wrote Bert, “although he would like you to believe he had been years at sea in sailing ships. He often tries to tell me how things were done in sail, but he gets very muddled. He was never there long enough to learn anything…”)

Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Oakol letter

Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co letter promoting Bert Sivell to the former RN oiler Oakol - about to be renamed Orthis

On arrival in London a letter from the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co. was waiting.

Dear Sir,
We hereby beg to appoint you acting chief officer of our MV Oakol at present lying in the East India dock, London. Your wages in this position will be £27 4s a month, promotion and increased pay to date from 1st May. You are to proceed on board immediately to take up your appointment, handing this letter to the captain by way of introduction, Yours faithfully, etc

Read on: Flaming funnels, Orthis 1920
Previously: War and peace, Donax 1919

A sailor’s life – 52. War and peace: Donax, 1919

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Shell oil tanker Donax, about 1919, from Bert Sivell's collection

Shell oil tanker Donax, about 1919, from Bert Sivell's collection

The first world war was supposed to be over by the time Bert Sivell set off across the Atlantic from Holland in his first oil tanker in September 1919. But the young wireless officer tap-tapping away to invisible ships in his cubby hole on the monkey island reported different.  

There were sea mines everywhere. Great iron beasts – allied and enemy – ripped loose by gales and left drifting, like lethal horned slugs, just below the surface of the shipping lanes. Emerging from the English channel, Donax had to change course to avoid one sighted south of Land’s End. “It seems the war has not finished with us yet,” he wrote.

In the US, he passed a mammoth shipyard in the Delaware river, churning out ships half a dozen at a time to replace the vessels lost.

“There is no doubt about this country being go-ahead,” Bert wrote from Philadelphia that autumn.  “Just below where we are now lying is what the Yanks claim to be the largest ship-building yard in the world. There are 50 slips in a row on the river bank and each one is a steamer in the process of building. They turn ships out like Ford cars, and probably about as much use. The Americans are making a great shout about there being no more war, but I notice they have an immense dockyard here building all classes of warships and also making very large drydocks. That looks like no more war, does not it?”

Hog Island shipyard on the Delaware

Hog Island shipyard 1919. (JD Andrew jnr)

He had joined Donax in Rotterdam, where a little German steamer flying an ensign as big as itself tempted him sorely as he navigated the busy waterway. (“I would very much have liked to have run him down, only it is not worth risking my ticket over it.”)

From Philadelphia they returned to Europe laden with oil for Finland, passing through the North Sea and over the top of Denmark and the site of the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval clash of the first world war. (“Of course there is no trace of it now,” wrote Bert, although they did come upon a Norwegian steamer piled high with timber impaled on a wreck south of Copenhagen.)

500lb 'horned' sea mine sunk by HMS Violent off Reval in 1921

500lb 'horned' sea mine sunk by HMS Violent off Reval in 1921. From naval-history.net

Almost every day the new wireless brought reports of drifting mines, punctuated by an occasional SOS. All the way up the Baltic they zig-zagged between minefields, and lying at anchor between the snowy islands in the Gulf of Bothnia overnight that November, waiting for a pilot, they listened to the boom of loose mines exploding around them against the rocky islets.

“We have had six reported to us from different sites today, and this afternoon we passed a big one,” he wrote. “The ‘old man’ was up on the bridge potting at it with his revolver, but the bullets were not heavy enough to explode it.”

Copenhagen had been like a British naval depot, he said, and there were British destroyers too in Reval (now Tallinn) where Britain was backing Estonia’s fight for independence, and Helsingfors (Helsinki, in the newly independent former Russian grand duchy of Finland). “Apparently a large portion of the British fleet is knocking about up this way. They have been having a go at the Bolsheviks,” he wrote. And that was it.

The politics being played out around the Baltic following the Russian revolution, the bitter struggle for Estonia, even the deadly civil war between “white” and “red” Finns, he did not mention it.

Postcard view of harbour at Abo, in Finland, sent by Bert Sivell 1919

Postcard view of harbour at Abo, in Finland, sent by Bert Sivell 1919

“It is the custom in this country to have women working on the wharves handling cargo etc,” he wrote from Turku in Finland, which he knew as Abo. “A crowd of girls and women were at work unloading wood off trucks right alongside us, so of course some of us could not resist the temptation to pelt them with snow balls. They replied with ‘rapid fire’ and we had a pitched battle there for about twenty minutes. It was great sport. I went up town yesterday afternoon and was shaved by a lady barber. That is another novelty of this country.

“We left Abo this morning and got about 30 miles on our homeward journey when we had to anchor for fog and there we are till morning. We are coming along a different route now, so as to cross the Gulf of Bothnia and strike the Swedish coast. We are still amongst islands, but tomorrow will be amongst mines again. Sounds cheerful, does not it, dearie?”

It was -8C (18F) and the oil tanker and the world around it were a mass of snow and ice. All the deck water pipes were solid and in port they had to keep the winches running, and the windlass and the steering gear and blow their whistle every hour or so to avoid icing up.

It was so cold his face almost froze off but he loved Finland, and the landscape of little rocky islands close enough to step onto as Donax threaded through them at 11 knots (13mph). He loved the summer residences under their wintry blanket, and the dormant boat houses, and the noise as the tanker crunched through the sea ice. “I can understand why people take their holidays cruising around the fjords (mind your jaw) in this part of the world. The scenery is grand now with everything covered with snow, but it must be ten times better in mid summer. When I get my shore berth we will have to spend a vacation over here, what say you, dearest?”

A shore berth was by now looming larger in his plans. After nine years trotting off to sea without a backward glance, there was now a girl to be home for. By early December, when Donax docked back in Shell Haven, Essex, Bert had decided to quit. Notwithstanding the pay, the disadvantages of the oil trade had begun to tell: the lack of time in port – pumping as soon as the ship was alongside, and sailing again as soon as they’d done; the ban on wives if the ship was discharging benzine; and the chance of a lonely posting “out East” for two years or more.

He liked his fellow officers and meals were “one roar of laughter from beginning to end”, but as he motored Captain McDermuid ashore to collect the mail Bert told him his bags were packed. He had decided to put his name down at Trinity House for the London pilot service.

It never happened. By the time the master came back, Bert had been promoted. To 2nd Mate, with immediate effect. On £21 10s a month, with war bonus and overtime “thrown in for luck”.

Bert thought about it for several hours and capitulated. He would stay with Shell.

Coming next: Christmas at sea, 1919
Previously: The wives’ tale

A sailor’s life – 51. The wives’ tale

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Ena Alice Whittington, 1919

Ena Alice Whittington, 1919

“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…”

Ena Sivell, wartime registration documents and Well Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight

Ena Sivell alone

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.

Well Street, Ryde, view undated

Well Street, Ryde, view undated

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.

Read on: War and peace, Donax 1919
Previously:  The girl next door

A sailor’s life – 50. The girl next door

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Postcard view of Union Street, Ryde - from gallery at Isle of Wight Family History Society

Postcard view of Union Street, Ryde - from Isle of Wight Family History Society

They also serve who only stand and wait
Milton, Sonnet 16

It was high summer 1919 when Bert Sivell came home to the street where he grew up, in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, after nine years away at sea and met Ena Alice Whittington. Young people everywhere were dancing. The war in Flanders was over; the Spanish ‘flu a distant nightmare. Men were pouring home, and those who had survived the mud and blood and gas of the trenches wanted to forget. In northern France, gangs of Chinese coolies were collecting up and burying bodies, and in the skinny columns of the Isle of Wight County Press the list of local sons and fathers “killed, previously reported missing” began to lengthen.

Letters to the editor might voice concern that there were no jobs for disabled ex-servicemen, but there were pages and pages more on the rallies and regattas, and sports days and agricultural shows and tea dances and tennis.

By August bank holiday the island and the beaches were heaving. In Ryde, there were burlesques on the pier, Ellen Terry in the picture house and bathing machines strung out among the waves. There was jazz, and picnics and sunshine, and it was good to be alive.

The Whittington sisters, Dolly, Ena and Marge - 1919

The Whittington sisters, Dolly, Ena and Marge - 1919

Ena Alice Whittington was 23 and overshadowed by a prettier, livelier younger sister at home when she was introduced to an old school chum of her brother’s, a neighbour, that month during her scant summer break from the workshops of a large fashion emporium in genteel Tunbridge Wells.

Ena was a milliner, one of three daughters of a tailor with a shop at the narrow top end of Ryde High Street, where socks and ties hung in the window side by side with flat caps and homburgs. Unlike her Auntie Clarrie, who still lived with grandpa Whittington round the corner in Arthur Street, making straw hats for 2/6d – Ena had left the town where she was born and the extended family on the Isle of Wight, to make big hats in velvet and silks for Kentish ladies of conservative tastes. She’d wanted to be a pianist, but she had to leave school at 14 to work.

Ena was a plain girl with a long face, and neat hair pulled into a conservative bun. Bert was short and weatherbeaten, with empty gums after years on salt beef and pork, and a wooden smile because he kept his mouth clamped shut to avoid showing the gaps.

Within a month of meeting they were engaged. By letter.

Fred Whittington and his youngest daughter outside their gent's outfitters on High Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight, about 1902

Fred Whittington and his youngest daughter outside their gent's outfitters on High Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight, about 1902

A questionnaire filled in by 130 British merchant seamen in the 1970s* revealed that two thirds had married local girls living within ten miles of where they, the men, had grown up – which was not necessarily near the sea. Although a small majority of ship’s engineers were from big cities or ports, only half the deck officers had any prior link to the sea.

Of the 59 wives in the survey, all but three had had a career before marriage, and most had set up home somewhere they might have daily contact with their mothers or sisters. The pace of their married lives might be dictated by the business of their husbands’ ships – a trawlerman is ashore more often than an oil tanker man, a passenger liner more predictable than a cargo carrier –  but their social lives revolved around family and their own friends. (Although most kept in touch with at least one other seaman’s wife if there happened to be one in her area, they said.)

The men had chosen the sea long before they thought of a wife or family. They were apprenticed in their early teens and spent their formative years far from home, sharing with strangers in cramped, noisy spaces much like boarding school or prison, where each task had a rank, and a rigid caste system dictated who lived fore or aft, who above deck and who below, even who ate with whom and what and where. In the girlfriend stakes, engineers tended to fare better than deck officers, as their apprenticeships were shore based, in the dockyards, so they shipped out later and thus met more young ladies before they went. The survey found engineers also tended to marry younger, be less middle class and spend more time with their relatives and neighbours when ashore. But then, when Bert Sivell was a boy, engineers ate segregated from both officers and crew, and even chief engineers did not make captain.

Of the men who rose through this system, the middeaged master mariners of the merchant fleet, Rear Admiral Kenelm Crighton wrote in 1944: “Their small talk is generally nil, their speech usually abrupt, confined to essentials and very much to the point… They uphold discipline by sheer character and personality – for their powers of punishment under Board of Trade Regulations are almost non-existent.”

Bert had been away for a third of his life by the time he came home that summer of 1919. He had left a boy and returned a man, with his master’s ticket in his pocket and good career prospects. Ena was bright-eyed and gentle and not too scary, being from just up his street. She was also a skilled worker, independent and capable of managing money. She had begun as a shop girl in Ryde but had left home to train as a milliner, which was a respectable occupation for a small tradesman’s daughter, although it did not pay very well and in the slack times – like summer, for hats were seasonal – hat makers were often laid off and expected to return to their father’s household.

Ena was perfect sea wife material, and before she and Bert had so much as held hands he cycled from Ryde to Tunbridge Wells and pledged himself to her, with her parents’ blessing.

That Ena Alice knew nothing of the sea was neither unusual, nor considered a problem.

Read on: “Why do you want to know about the wives?”
Previously: Clan Line, or Shell

*I only ever found one survey on seafarers’ wives; historically, neither owners nor unions have seemed much concerned with the impact on the “watch ashore“. If there are other studies, I’d be interested to hear.

A sailor’s life – 49. Clan Line, or Shell?

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Shell tanker Donax 1919, private collection Bert Sivell

Bert Sivell, formerly Mate of the sailing ship Monkbarns, joined the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co (Shell) in autumn 1919 with a crisp new Master’s ticket in his pocket barely a fortnight old.

He was 24, with hands-on experience of shipwreck, war and mutiny, but he signed on as humble 3rd mate in the oil tanker Donax for £18 5s 6d a month, ”all bedding, linen and uniform accessories to be supplied by the Company”.

He had arrived back in Britain just in time for the national peace day celebrations that July – parades and bunting and industrial unrest. After nine years at sea studying by kerosene lamp between watches, sitting scrambled tests in ports around the world for hurried promotions, he was to spend some weeks with his parents on the Isle of Wight, attending college on the mainland each morning, and relaxing at the weekends cycling through the country lanes or tramping miles across the chalk downs with friends. (“Girls, of course,” he wrote to the girl who would be my grandmother.)

Peace day postcard

Peace day postcard

When he graduated top of his class with 89% marks after seven weeks, he was offered a job immediately, as 4th officer on a steamer departing for India that night. But he turned it down, saying “he was on holiday and had a few more girls to see.”

He posted off an application to the Clan Line of Glasgow, a comfortable, regular passenger-cargo steamship service to India, and then kicked himself when the Clan’s job offer finally caught up with him in Rotterdam two weeks later, in what was to be the first of many thousands of dreary out-of-town Shell oil refinery berths. But he didn’t repine at taking Shell’s shilling. Or not much.

The wave of national rail and coal strikes that racked Britain that summer almost as soon as the celebration bunting came down would have prevented him joining the ship, or so he reasoned.

And by then he was also discovering some of the advantages of life in the growing Shell oil tanker fleet. “A man can make money here,” he wrote home.

The food and pay were good, he said, and he had a comfy bed and a Chinese “boy” to bring him tea in the mornings and clean his shoes. “It seems to me life is one continuous meal aboard here. In the last ship we used to get one meal a week.”

Monkbarns had been 267 feet long and 23 feet wide, with a very old Old Man, two very young mates, sixteen teenage apprentices and a barely competent crew of a dozen or less, depending on desertions. Shell’s oil-fired steamer Donax by comparison was 348ft long and 47ft wide (… “half the length of Guildford Road, and about as wide…”) with a young master, four ambitious mates, a chief engineer with five junior officers of his own, a Marconi wireless operator, and more than thirty Chinese firemen and crew.

floating sea mine

Sea mines still menaced the shipping lanes in 1919. "When they float high out of the water, they are supposed to be 'dead'. Personally I have no desire to poke one of them to see," wrote Bert.

Life on Donax too was a world away from conditions aboard the old windjammer. Third officer Bert Sivell had his own clean, modern quarters with fitted cupboards, a writing desk and and armchair, electric lights and a fan, “and a dozen other things that one would never dream of in sail,” he wrote. The Chinese “boy” woke him at 7.30am each morning with hot buttered toast (“Real butter. Not margarine…”), and polished his boots until they shone like glass. Captain McDermuid was a jolly fellow, only 34 himself, who had welcomed his new juniors aboard with a bottle of wine. And the day the ship took on stores, Bert wrote in wonderment: “More stores have been sent to this vessel for a fortnight’s trip than would have arrived on the last one for a year.”

On top of the good pay, Shell offered a provident fund – 10% of salary, matched by 10% from the company plus a 15% annual bonus; three months holiday on half-pay every three years; and a £3 a month war bonus – because of the many sea mines still adrift undetected in the shipping lanes around Britain.

Above all, prospects for promotion were good. Anglo-Saxon Petroleum was expanding. Rapidly. In 1919 alone the company bought no fewer than 23 ships, to replace the eleven lost during the war. They were a mixed bag of former RN oilers built for the Admiralty and converted dry cargo carriers managed by the wartime Shipping Controller, but the company was agitating for permission from the National Maritime Board to raise its salaries by a further 40% (according to Bert’s new captain) to man them all.

It had been a snap decision to join Shell, but Bert never again left the booming oil giant, nor the girl – my grandmother – whom he had equally hastily met, wooed and won that August.

Read on: The girl next door
Previously: Oil tanker apprentice, 1919

A sailor’s life – 48. Oil tanker apprentice, 1919

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Tilbury docks, 1920s

Tilbury docks, 1920s. Collection: National Education Network

Most of Britain’s sailing ships had been sunk or sold by the time Bill Jefferies was old enough to go to sea in 1919. So he signed on with the British Tanker company and became devoted to oil tankers instead. (“Remarkable ships, in many ways” he murmured, half to himself, as he committed his memories to a tape recorder at the end of his life.)

He remembered the “lovely women” who had brazenly boarded his ship during the month he as a “first tripper” had spent in Trinidad in 1919 waiting for cargo. The crew had dropped lines over the side to haul the girls up, and sold the shirts off their backs when their money ran out. By the time the ship got to Port Arthur, Texas, where the Americans inspected every man jack of them, there were less than a dozen men aboard who had not got VD, he recalled.

Oil tanker in channel outside Port Arthur, Texas, undated

Oil tanker in channel outside Port Arthur, Texas, undated

The captain had forcibly seen to it that the three apprentices kept their noses, and everything else, clean. “He put his big fist under each of our chins and shoved our heads back. And he said, ‘If I catch any of you boys going with any of these women, I’ll smash your faces in so your mothers never recognise you…” Then he took them to the hospital and made them look under the dressings at the ulcerated, seeping genitals of a seaman he knew who was dying there. Bill said: “I told my mother seven months later, when I got home, and she said Thank God for that captain.”

Bill’s mother was a doughty woman who had signed her younger son’s indentures and paid the bond as soon as shipping firms began to recruit apprentices again after the war. Bill’s brother Alf had been an apprentice on John Stewart’s barque Lorton with Algie Course and was one of the crowd of boys in Newcastle NSW with Bert Sivell in September 1913, revelling in the tennis, tea dances and charabanc trips organised by the mission while their ships lay along the Dyke. Bill recalled the excitement he had felt as a ten-year-old being rowed out to his brother’s ship at Tilbury when a wave splashed over him, and the burly seamen nodded sagely and said “that means you’ll go to sea too, lad”.

Apprentices from sailing ship Lorton, Sydney 1911

Apprentices from the sailing ship Lorton, Sydney 1911 - including AG Course, second right, front. From The Wheel's Kick and The Wind's Song, by AG Course

When Lorton was “sold foreign” in 1914, Alf  transferred to the barque Edinburgh. But in 1916 she was captured by the raider Möwe. The Germans had hauled out the crew and two live pigs and sent the old barque to the bottom of the sea with all sails set. The tropical night had been so clear, Alf Jefferies used to claim, that they could see her canvas shimmering whitely under the water after she’d vanished. Even the enemy commander was supposed to have sighed “Beautiful even in death”. Among the prisoners below decks, the squeals of the pigs being hoisted aboard the raider were reported to have given rise to the rumour that the Edinburgh’s captain had his wife with him, and that she was hysterical.

By the time Bill Jefferies went to sea, it was a much lonelier life than Alf had sketched. The old square-riggers’ crowd of apprentices had dwindled to just three on Bill’s oil tanker, and even before these greenhorns reached their ship a plausible bloke posing as the shipping agent managed to relieve them of their luggage so they had to be kitted out from the slop chest. Once underway they got seasick and the mate, an old sailing ship man, sent them down the hold to scrape paint pots while the tanker heaved and plunged in a south-westerly gale. After they’d been sick, to windward — another mistake they did not make twice, he ordered them to shift stores. For two days they were kept constantly on the move. But it worked. Bill never suffered sea sickness again.

“They really were a motley crowd, seamen of all nations except our enemies,” said Bill aged 90, remembering that first ship in 1919. “We had a British bosun, a Belgian carpenter – a tall man with fierce whiskers who used to cause a lot of trouble when he was drunk. We had Latvians and Estonians, two Chinese cooks, and a Dutch chief steward. The average seaman in those days was either very old or a foreigner.” The fierce Welsh captain who kept his apprentices out of trouble had been torpedoed five times, or so he claimed.

But by 1920, US production of gasoline (petrol) alone was 116 million barrels (42 US gallons per barrel) – from less than 7 million barrels in 1901. Across the world the oil industry was booming.

Coming next: Clan line or Shell?
Previously: In Remembrance


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