Lost at sea

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

Archive for the ‘4. The war at sea, 1939-’ Category

A Sailor’s Life – 78. Flowers in Hong Kong (Medals in the post III)

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A Cypriot-registered container ship with German master and Philippino crew, and a Belgian florist's biodegradable wreath, with inscription for the 38 Chinese men lost with my grandfather, then master of the Shell oil tanker Chama, but not commemorated on the Tower Hill memorial

Wreath to the men of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost in the Atlantic on 23 March 1941, including the 38 Chinese crew

It is cold in the Atlantic in March at 2am and 57 names take a long time to scatter one by one. The wind whipped round my oilskins, snatching at the slips of paper that filled both pockets as I read each name before releasing it to the sea. “Hubert Sivell”, who left a wife who liked to sing and two bright children he hardly knew, and a row of winter cabbages where his lawn had been.

Did Chong Fai the pumpman, 44, have a wife? Did Tiew Khek Guon the carpenter, 41, leave a child far away who would never know what became of him? Did the parents of Foo Yee Yain, 23, the pantry boy, ever know their son had not willingly abandoned them?

Even now, 70 years after the end of the second world war, no one can tell me precisely how many merchant seamen were killed. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates 36,507, but it admits records in occupied countries were lost or destroyed and that some figures may overlap.

Canada commemorates 1,437 Canadian merchant men lost at sea. Occupied Norway, Denmark and Belgium account for approximately 6,513, not including those who died in captivity. The Netherlands records, on top of the 1,914 Dutch casualties, 1,396 “lascars, Chinese, Indonesians and other foreigners” lost from its ships. America honours 5,302, including its merchant navy gunners. And so forth.

Counting those who died of injuries ashore or in prisoner of war camps, the total is 47,000 at the very lowest estimate*, or roughly 10 men for each and every allied ship lost, commemorated in cemeteries or memorials from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Pacific.

CWGC cemetary Hong Kong

The CWGC memorial in Hong Kong, opened in 2006 and inscribed with the names of the 941 Chinese casualties of the First World War and 1,493 from the Second World War, whose graves are not known.

It had taken me a long time to realise the 15 names on the brass panel I had been taken to see on Tower Hill in London as a child could not be the whole crew of my unknown grandfather’s last ship, the Shell oil tanker Chama. And longer still to realise the missing ones were almost all Chinese.

The men who died with Bert Sivell that murky night in March 1941 are commemorated separately on at least six different memorials to men with “no grave but the sea”: in London, Liverpool, Plymouth, Chatham, the military cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey, and Hong Kong, where an arch erected in 1928 was amended to include the Chinese who died “loyal to the Allied cause” in both world wars.

In 2006, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission set up a new memorial in the Stanley Military Cemetery, Hong Kong, inscribed with the names of 941 Chinese casualties of the First World War and 1,493 from the Second World War whose graves are not known. Yet Shell alone lost 1,008 Chinese merchant sailors between 1939 and 1945, according to WE Stanton Hope’s Tanker Fleet, published in 1948. Two of Shell’s Chinese seamen were awarded Distinguished Service Medals, 17 merited British Empire Medals, nine were officially commended or mentioned in dispatches, a pumpman called Chan Chou was awarded the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea, three were given the Lloyd’s Bronze Medal for Meritorious Service, and three were awarded Bronzen Leeuwen by the Dutch government in exile.

Memorials maintained by the CWGC in Bombay and Chittagong commemorate in Hindi and Bengali respectively some 6,000 Indian, Adenese and East African merchant seamen with no known grave. Many of them too served on the oil tankers that kept RAF planes in the air, and on cargo vessels bringing in food and passenger liners transporting troops. Only a very few are included under the name of the ship they went down with at Tower Hill. Yet they were – as the Queen put it, opening the sunken garden in 1955 – part of the “splendid company of brave men and women from many nations… who served in fellowship under the red ensign”.

Their exclusion is administrative, apparently. After the war everyone wanted their own memorial, according to the CWGC, which records the particulars of some 1,767,000 commonwealth country casualties of both world wars.

The memorial arch at the entrance to the botanical gardens in Hong Kong.

The memorial arch at the entrance to the Botanical Gardens in Hong Kong, commemorating Chinese lost serving ‘the Allied cause in two world wars’.

Tower Hill was extended to commemorate the men and women of all nationalities who were lost serving on ships registered to or chartered by Britain and the Commonwealth and were registered living in Britain. The panels include Asian and Arabic names, Dutch, Norwegians and Greeks, as well as Trinidadians, South Africans and New Zealanders.

Chama’s men, though, cut off from their families in Hainan and Xiamen after the Japanese invasion in 1935, were registered to boarding houses in Singapore and not technically domiciled in Britain. Like lost souls they ploughed to and fro across the Atlantic, unable to go home.

“It wasn’t their war,” one old merchant sailor told me when I asked about the Chinese shipmates who had shared his lifeboat.

In 1952 my grandmother reluctantly had Bert Sivell declared dead. She still did not know what had happened to him, and the convoy records revealing the ship’s final distress message and position did not open until 1971. She had been dead herself for nearly 20 years when fiddling on the internet one evening I found a Cyprus-registered container freighter that crossed the Atlantic almost exactly where Chama was lost. That it was a German-owned vessel with a German master seemed only poignantly appropriate.

Research often takes on a life of its own. Belated curiosity about my grandfather’s life, and his death, and his ship, and the men he sailed with opened unexpected cans of worms: segregation, racism and discriminatory pay and conditions for Chinese crews being just the start. They were paid half the rate of white crews and in the US armed “Bogarts” prevented them even going ashore. In the UK, they faced union hostility as cheap labour for “under-cutting” pay, but when they unionised and struck back they often found themselves blacklisted by the shipowners. Back home, civil war raged between the Kuomintang and the Communists, cutting families off from the breadwinners far away. The seamen stayed put, trapped. Some found consolation and set up new families in Limehouse and Liverpool, but in 1946 as Britain’s troops demobbed, the extra foreign labour was deemed surplus and the Chinese seamen were “repatriated”, by force. There’s a group of half-Chinese children in Liverpool who never knew what happened to their fathers. One day the men simply vanished, rounded up in the street and put on waiting ships, surplus seamen sent “home” to Singapore. Union activists (or “undesirable elements”) were prevented from returning, although some made it back in the 1950s – to a mixed welcome from the women who thought they’d been abandoned.

Interviewing an old British seaman one afternoon, I learned that in the late 1930s my grandfather had ordered his junior officer to remove and destroy any red letters in the Chinese crew mail. He didn’t want “communist” propaganda coming aboard, but I was aghast wondering how many lonely men had been ruthlessly denied messages in lucky red envelopes from the loved-ones far away. Curiosity about the families led me to the group in Liverpool and their bitter-sweet tales of tracing – or not – their missing Chinese dads.

And that’s partly why, 60 years after the battle of the Atlantic was won I went to sea aboard a container freighter, with a biodegradable wreath of twigs and flowers, and a full list of the names of my grandfather’s men.

Flowers commemorating the Chinese crew of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands March 1941

Flowers laid by the family of Captain Sivell, commemorating the Chinese crew of the Shell oil tanker Chama, who shared his fate in the Atlantic in March 1941

My local vicar and the Seamen’s Mission in Liverpool suggested suitable psalms which I murmured into the wind and spray. A friend had phoned Hong Kong for advice from funeral directors on appropriate words or prayers for the Chinese crew, but they could suggest none. So, reluctant to let me go out empty-handed, one of the fathers in my daughter’s primary school class wrote a poem in Mandarin which he delicately inked on to paper ribbon and they taught me how to say “We shall remember” in Cantonese. It was not much of a funeral service, and it was 62 years late, but it was the first time all my grandfather’s men had been commemorated together.

So far I have not made it to Hainan or Xiamen or even Singapore, but in March 2015, one of Bert’s great granddaughters – passing through Hong Kong on her gap year travels – sought out the ancient arch at the entrance to the Botanical Gardens and placed fresh flowers and a message in English and Chinese that the florist kindly translated for her: “In memory of the Chinese crew of the oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands on March 23rd 1941. From Captain Sivell’s family.”

It is a start.

*

 

Full list** of the officers and men of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost 23 March 1941:

HS Sivell, Master, 45
Alfred Gray, Chief Officer, 26
William Howard Hume, 2nd Mate, 23
Ian Cyril Cunningham, 3rd Mate, 22
Alfred Leonard Francis Williams, Chief Engineer, 40
Joseph Emmerson Black, 2nd Engineer, 41
Andrew Hughes McKnight, 3rd Engineer, 28
Frank Cameron Miller, 4th Engineer, 25
Peter Hammill Manderville, 5th Engineer, 20
John Walker, 5th Engineer, 20
Frank Wellings, 5th Engineer, 19
Richard James Hilhouse, apprentice, 18
Rothes Gerald Novak, apprentice, 18
Cornelius William McCarthy, W/O, 42
Michael Timothy Murphy, 2nd W/O, 24

Message in Chinese on the memorial in Hong Kong

Message in Chinese on the memorial in Hong Kong

Tow Siong Kong, 42, Bosun
Ngai Ah Sai, 44, Storekeeper
Ah Tee, 33, Quartermaster
Wong Ah Chong, 36, Quartermaster
Leng Ah Moy, 35, Quartermaster

Lee Ah Chay, 29, Quartermaster
Juan Seng, 35, Chief steward
Joe Tin Fatt, 28, 2nd steward

Wong Ah Tay, 33, sailor
Tang Siew Luk, 24, sailor
Lin Loon, 31, sailor
Ee Ong Fatt, 30, sailor
Lim Sin Keng, 41, sailor
Kin Kwang, 24, sailor
Chao Ah King, 30, sailor
Ting Meng, 28, sailor
Teong Ah Tay, 32, sailor
Chan Sun Sang, 23, sailor

Tan Tian Teck, 40, Chief cook
Mew Po Heng, 33, 2nd cook
Ling Ah Chaw, 34, Sailors’ cook

Wong Choo, 30, Firemen’s cook
Wong Tung Kuam, 21, Sailors’ Boy
Tiew Khek Guon, 41, carpenter

Chong Song, 38, no 1 fireman
Choung Hee, 25, no 2 fireman
Li Kan, 42, no 3 fireman
Thoe Foon, 27, donkeyman
Chong Fai, 44, pumpman
Mik Kia, 37, fireman
Lan Kan, 37, fireman
Siong Wah, 40, fireman
Chong Wo Fook, 31, fireman
Fung Kim, 27, fireman

Lee John San, 32, mess room boy
Ee Muay, 35, mess room boy
Foo Yee Yain, 23, pantry boy
Sim Tie Jong, 26, saloon boy

Albert Victor Wincup, RN, 44, Chief Petty Officer (DEMS gunner) – Chatham Naval Memorial
Bertram Smith, RN, 20, Able Seaman (DEMS gunner) – Plymouth Naval Memorial
James Kennedy, 22, British Army, Fusilier (DEMS gunner) – Brookwood Memorial
Daniel Holmes, 21, British Army, Fusilier (DEMS gunner) – Brookwood Memorial

*Re national figures for merchant navy losses – all information gratefully received.

**Including two not on the Registry of Shipping and Seamen list.

Previously – The Medals in the Post ii/ Medals in the Post

Next – A doctor aboard (1913)

Read from the start:
A sailor’s life – beginning, middle and end

A Sailor’s Life – 76. Medals in the post

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Ships gather in the Clyde, Scotland, in the 1940s. Photograph: rememberingscotlandatwar.org.uk

Ships gather in the Clyde, Scotland, in the 1940s. Photograph: rememberingscotlandatwar.org.uk

For a long time after Bert was lost his letters had continued to straggle home, as if nothing were amiss.

Money for his daughter’s birthday had arrived from the Clyde, where he had kicked his heels while that final convoy gathered, and even after they had sailed, older letters with strange stamps posted in Texas and Curacao the previous trip kept arriving – for a time. When they stopped, my grandmother did not immediately realise it was final.

My dearest wifey, Here I am again, safe and sound but very tired. I do not know what is going to happen now because I have seen no one from the agents, but the orders will eventually come along. I have been trying to get the mail sent out to us but have been unsuccessful so far. The authorities seem to overlook the fact that we who go to sea are human and would like news of our homes as soon as possible on arrival after a voyage…”

Eventually, at the end of April, a different envelope came; from the shipping company. “… Subjected to enemy attack last March … Missing, presumed drowned …” Did she destroy it in her grief, I wonder, or did it simply fall apart from constant use – presented to one authority after another, as she pleaded for information? It wasn’t among the bundles laid aside in the sea chest.

“Please rest assured that I do sympathise with you in your anxiety more than I can say,” a kindly official at the Mercantile Marine Service Association had written by return of post in the early days, “but I hope and trust that in due course some good news will reach you to the effect that Captain Sivell and his crew were picked up and are prisoners of war. There have been quite a number of such cases of late … I am very sorry that I have no means of obtaining any special information for you …”

The Atlantic Star, the 1939-1945 medal and the King George VI medal - sent to a widow

The Atlantic Star, the 1939-1945 Star and the King George VI war medal – as sent to Bert Sivell’s widow

The Admiralty or the Ministry of Shipping would let the ship’s owners know as soon as they knew, said Mr Albert Wilson, and he gently suggested she did not write to either authority herself. Wait, he advised.

Ena waited. The blossom on the pear tree in the garden appeared and then fell in great snowy drifts across the cabbages Bert had planted on his last leave, and still no news came. She wrote to the Red Cross. Beyond the gate, sticks of bombs fell, shattering roofs and windows.

Some nights, they could see the glow of London burning 100 miles away. In Liverpool, where Bert should have been, 1,741 people died in a seven-night blitz on the docks. Things were bad, too, in other ports and big industrial cities, they heard in whispers. Grief lapped into many households.

Out in the Atlantic, two ships a night were being sunk every night, faster than Britain’s shipyards could build them, and the U-Boat men saw the sea cloudy with spilled goods.

But at home convoy movements were hush-hush. Every week Bert and Ena’s local newspaper, the Isle of Wight County Press, ran on its front page an In Memoriam column with the names of the armed forces’ latest dead and missing, headed The Island and the War. In May 1941, though rationed to six broadsheet pages, the editor decided to offer inclusion free “for islanders who die on active service or of their wounds”. Soldiers were listed, and airmen, and naval ratings – there was not a land or sea battle that did not touch local families. The loss of the battleship HMS Hood alone lost the island 18 men.

In June, the family opposite Ena at 26 Well Street lost a son in the RAF during the evacuation of Crete. In July, a neighbour from 24 Well Street was reported missing in the Middle East. The column grew and grew, but no mention was made of the mounting losses among the civilian merchant men out in the Atlantic, even as housewives queued for unexpectedly scarce commodities.

In July the Red Cross wrote to 23 Well Street saying that they had cabled Geneva for Ena. “We feel we must warn you, however, that these enquiries take a considerable time, and that you must not be disappointed if there is no news that we can send you for some time to come … our sympathy in your anxious time of waiting …”

Eventually the news of Bert’s disappearance did begin to circulate, but Ena snubbed the well meaning expressions of condolence. “The children and I have not given up hope,” she wrote, in prim little notes. She refused to mourn Bert or let her children mourn him. He was alive somewhere, she was certain.

That July, a young naval stoker from nearby Newchurch lived up to his parents’ faith by turning up on their doorstep months after being reported lost. In August, a merchant seaman sunk by an enemy raider off West Africa that March also resurfaced, and the County Press ran at some length his story of survival for five nights on an upturned table in the sea. He had been picked up by a passing neutral and landed at Tenerife. Ena continued to hope that Bert, too, would be found.

In August, the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company wrote again, the words strictly confidential underscored at the top of the page. “In accordance with the promise we made to you … the Ministry of War Transport state they have received information that the vessel in question was torpedoed towards the end of March last. It is with the greatest regret that we convey this news to you and we feel sure we may rely upon you to treat it as strictly confidential…” The words blur. “The only information we have been able to glean so far”, bla, bla, “continuing to pursue our enquiries”, bla, bla. And then the punch – “Whilst we have not given up hope that the staff and crew have been taken prisoners-of-war, we feel you will concur that in view of the long time that has elapsed…”

She kept that letter, and the many others. She drew on all her contacts. Her brother in the Canadian forces wrote to the High Commissioner, a retired neighbour with naval connections wrote to the Admiralty. A lifetime later I found traces of their efforts, like messages in invisible ink, in scraps and notes among official records long unopened and fading.

Letter from Anglo-Saxon Petroleum to an anxious merchant navy widow, Ena Sivell, in 1945

Letter from Anglo-Saxon Petroleum to an anxious merchant navy widow, Ena Sivell, in 1945

For Ena months stretched into years. Eventually, there was a letter from the King. “The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow…” and a scroll that Ena never framed. “… May his sacrifice help to bring the peace and freedom for which he died…” And one day, much later still, a small brown paper package turned up in the post.

Inside, were three medals in twists of greaseproof paper, awarded for war service in the Atlantic to one of the many who had not come back. They were not sewn on to their ribbons, not arranged for display. Just shoved in a box, with a form letter, and three frayed scraps of coloured ribbon.

My grandmother’s pent up anger and pain poured out of that box nearly sixty years later, when my father opened it again and told me the story.

*

Continued – The Medals in the Post II

Previously – Sniffing Stockholm Tar

Or read from the start – Beginning, Middle and End

A sailor’s life – 73. In Remembrance: Save our Ships

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Trees and plaques - young oaks in the merchant navy convoy at the NM Arboretum, Alrewas

Trees and plaques – young oaks in the merchant navy convoy at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, in August 2013

People called it the Phoney War – the autumn and winter of 1939, when gas masks were issued and children evacuated but nothing much else happened, apart from injuries in the blackout. Yet there was nothing “phoney” about those first months of the second world war for those at sea.

Less than nine hours after Neville Chamberlain’s radio broadcast to the nation at 11am on September 3rd (“No such undertaking has been received, and consequently this country is at war“), the unarmed passenger liner SS Athenia was attacked at dusk by U-30 and sunk – killing 99 passengers and 19 crew, including four stewardesses.

By May 1940, when Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, an estimated 177 British merchant ships had been lost. “We shall fight on the beaches … on the landing grounds … in the fields and the streets …” in the air and on the seas and oceans, Winston Churchill told the Commons in June. “We shall never surrender.” But far out at sea, merchant ships risking their all to feed and fuel the “war effort” continued to be quietly lost in ever greater numbers – unreported by the newspapers, to protect morale. In vain, my grandmother searched for crumbs of news. By 1945 the toll of merchant vessels lost to enemy action was well over 2,500.

My grandfather, Bert Sivell, master of the Shell oil tanker Chama, and and all 54 officers and Chinese crew aboard his ship were among the estimated 35,000 merchant men and women who never came home again. Most of them have no grave. Many have not even a known spot far out at sea where they may be remembered.

merchant navy convoy, national arboretum 1998

Then … the merchant navy convoy ‘forest’ in Staffordshire, as it was in 1998

Which is why the merchant navy “convoy” at the National Memorial Arboretum is so important to their families: 2,535 little oak trees, one for each ship lost, planted in straight lines stretching to the sunlit grasslands beyond. It is a moving,  breathing memorial to the men who braved the Atlantic and the Arctic in mismatched convoys to keep the lifelines open – a rare sort-of resting place to visit.

Fifteen years ago, I bought an £80 plaque and travelled into Staffordshire to attend the dedication of this infant forest on behalf of my widowed grandmother, who hoped against hope, my father, who never had a father, and Bert’s great grandchildren – because oak trees take a hundred years.

Nowadays the National Memorial at Alrewas is a slick park, with broad paths, architect-designed monuments and a cafe, coach park and gift shop. There are hundreds of memorials, from the Shot at Dawn to the army dental corps, and thousands of wreaths and visitors.

But in 1998 it was a muddy field, with a few gallant old men hobbling along duck boards to a damp marquee, and all there was to see of their convoy was a knee-high patch of rabbit-proof tubes containing 2,535 twigs none of us would live to see full grown. Old, old men jangling with medals from the Atlantic and Russian convoys.

merchant navy convoy 2013

… and now, the merchant navy convoy all grown up – and facing the chop – at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire

We were told then that the trees would be spaced out. It seems we misunderstood.

This autumn felling will start, because the little trees, now high over my head, are too close together. Many are already suffering from lack of light. My grandfather’s tree is dead, the plaque for Chama marking a forlorn stump in its row. It seems the symbolic 2,535 oaks will from now on be “thinned” until eventually only about 700 remain. Even the infinity sightlines cannot be maintained.

“Can’t you replant?” I wailed down the phone to the assistant curator of grounds. No. That many mature oaks would require a space “half the size of Yorkshire”, he said. Or at least the whole 150 acres of the arboretum.

So the convoy as it grows must shrink, tree by tree, ship by ship, as indeed convoys were wont to do at dawn and dusk. For the moment the stumps still stand, maintaining their formation, but soon the lines will break.

It was after the dispersal of ships from convoy OG56 that my grandfather, ploughing alone into the Allies’ undefendable “Gap” in mid-Atlantic, bound for Curacao with only an ancient WWI Japanese gun for protection, was overtaken and picked off by U-97.

Plaque to the oil tanker Chama, lost 23rd March 1941

Plaque to the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost 23rd March 1941

It was a grand idea, our merchant navy convoy. Maybe not practical. But very precious to the memory of those who have no grave but the sea. I am glad I saw it as it was intended.

I am also glad the old shipmates with the jangling medals will not see what is to come.

Lest we forget.

 

 

Dedication of the merchant navy convoy, 1998

Dedication of the merchant navy convoy, 1998

Read on – Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?

Previously – Death of a master

A sailor’s life – 71. ‘A small man, tubby…’

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Captain Hubert Sivell - 'a small, tubby man, who  liked his beer'

Captain Hubert Sivell – ‘a small, tubby man, who liked his beer’ – aboard Pomella, in tropical whites, and with Ena in the garden at 23 Well Street, Ryde

For ten years after first reading my grandfather’s letters, I wrote letters of my own: to Sea Breezes, and Saga and the Shell pensioners’ association, to magazines for the seafarers’ unions RMT and Numast, and even to the readers’ editor of the Daily Telegraph. I contacted libraries and museums and sound archives. I was looking for the men, old by then, who could explain what I had found.

The response was breathtaking. Letters and telephone calls poured in. For months on end I entertained old sailors in pubs up and down the country or was invited to dainty lunches and teas in sunny sitting rooms, where amused wives pressed homemade goodies on me while their grey-haired husbands laughed and lit up with remembered youth from the deep easy chairs by their snug firesides. My tape recorder whirred, catching the stories the families no longer bothered to ask.

The old men told me about the war, and the shipmates who didn’t come back. They told me about the fear they ignored as their ships crept across the grey-green wastes where a U-boat might hide behind every wave. They told me about never closing a door, never showing a light or clanging the steel grating, and the daft things they kept close, to save if the call came to abandon ship – the ballgown for a long-forgotten girlfriend sown into a lifejacket, the plan of a dream yacht never built, the teetotal Welsh chapel boy’s bottle of whisky.

Deck hockey, MAC ship Amastra

Deck hockey, probably on the MAC ship Amastra. ‘We were young. The war years were the best time of our lives…’ Private collection

They rolled their heads back on the crisp antimacassars and laughed and remembered their early years at sea: the first glimpse of engine rooms large as cathedrals, the sea sickness and the tough, sail-trained mates and masters who taught them their business.

They told me about the places they had been, places Bert had been, and the mischief they got up to there. So many stories.

It came as a surprise – a shock, even – the first time one of them turned out to have actually known Bert.

Harold Barnet-Lamb had served as 3rd Mate under Bert when he was 23. His wife had egged him on to write to me after an acquaintance, chatting about an appeal he’d seen in a travel magazine for the active elderly, had turned to Harold at some Rotary club do. “You knew Captain Sivell, didn’t you?” I had rung him immediately, sick with excitement, the questions racing through my mind, and down the telephone line had come Harold’s voice, quietly amused — “Oh yes, I knew old Hubert. I can see him now… we used to call him old moneybags.”

Harold had served as a captain himself on the Atlantic convoys later, and had become entangled in the cold war later still, but he remembered the ‘old man’ he had served on Pomella sixty years previously. “I can see him now, coming along the flying bridge in his brass hat [the one with all the gold braid],” he said. “He wasn’t stern. You had to do things the right way, let’s put it that way. He didn’t interfere with you at all unless there was something that he had a beef about. Lay a course off wrong, or write the log book out wrong. Something serious. But I used to do the same.”

Pomella Shell asphalt Helderline

The Shell asphalt carrier Pomella – ‘I can see him now, coming along the flying bridge with his brass hat on. We used to call him old moneybags’

“He was a small man, tubby, used to have a bit of a tum. He used to say: ‘That cost me a lot of money’. He drank a lot of beer, yes, why not? He used to have his beer, and gin. He was never the worse for it. He never used to go to bed before midnight. He’d probably come up about half past ten or eleven and chat to you for about an hour or so. About general things. He was very interested in his stocks and shares. He said there was only one which had ever let him down and that was a brewery. ‘It was a bloody brewery,’ he said. ‘I don’t drink enough’…” Harold laughed.

Harold and Myra Barnet-Lamb had been in their early 80s when I met them in yet another sunny sitting room in a bungalow deep in the Kent countryside; he, an old man still with the bearing of the giant he had once been, and she an amused, gracious lady, every inch the captain’s wife. It turned out that Harold had served eight months under Bert aboard the asphalt tanker Pomella. In the end he had left Anglo-Saxon Petroleum to get a command, and left the sea because, he said, of the “monotony” of the tankers’ endless circuit. He had gone into the shipyards to learn engineering and became a marine consultant.

“That’s one thing,” he said, from the depths of a comfy wingchair far from the sea and his Northumberland roots, “Old Hubert didn’t get on well with his engineers. The engineer used to call him a swivel…” Looking inward across the years at the few surfacing memories of the little captain, he grinned to himself, and refused to elaborate. “Heh, heh…”

Just an old sailing ship man? I asked.

“Oh, he was all right,” he said. “He was a good shipmaster.”

Coming next: 1926 – Bert goes East

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