Lost at sea

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

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Lost at Sea – 82. The sailmaker’s tale

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Monkbarns at sea, October 1925 - Old Man (Captain William Davies) Russell at helm and 'Sails', Henry Robertson

Monkbarns at sea, October 1925 – the Old Man (Captain William Davies), Ian Russell AB at helm and ‘Sails’ Robertson, private collection E. Bainbridge

One of the rare surviving photos of everyday life aboard Monkbarns shows a handsome man in a cap and leather waistcoat sitting on a low bench on the aft deck surrounded by folds and billows of canvas. His tools and twine are laid out in a neat “housewife” beside him, and both hands are busy as “Sails” looks up from his work to smile at the camera.

The master perches on the saloon skylight nearby in jacket and bow tie, having insisted on changing into his good shore-going gear for the occasion. In the background, a youth at the wheel studiously minds the sails overhead. The sea is calm and the sun is high.

Henry Robertson was 70 when the image was recorded in 1925 by the ship’s final English apprentice, Eugene Bainbridge, who brought a fresh eye and a Leica aboard with him.

“Sails” was a grizzled widower from the east coast of Scotland. He liked his own company and staring into the middle distance with his pipe, the master’s son recalled*, and would recite chunks of Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion to himself whenever he thought no one was listening.

He had been at sea all his life, the son of the court clerk of Montrose who’d died when he was six, leaving the family to experience “what it was like to have the sheriff officer in the house to take away the clock to pay for poor rates,” as he put it.

Back in Scotland were four grownup children, three daughters and a son, born at five year intervals to the pretty housemaid he’d met at a dance in Montrose in his thirties. She had died of tuberculosis in 1907, leaving the baby to be raised by her eldest daughter and younger sister. “Sails” was devoted to them all and wrote frequently to his daughters, but he preferred to stay afloat.

'Sails' Henry Robertson

Henry Robertson with his son and daughters in Dundee, 1920. Photograph private collection.

The girls concurred. A studio portrait from 1920 shows a handsome family, happy and relaxed around a proud father. But the girls were resilient and resourceful as well as beautiful; sea voyages were long and mails irregular, and for eight months after their mother’s death they’d forged her signature on their father’s allotment note, to keep receiving Henry’s pay and keep the family together. They also embroidered the truth a little locally, making out that he was a ship’s master rather than a sailmaker, and had run away to sea rather than follow in the footsteps of his stuffy town clerk father and grandfather.

In a letter written the year after his wife died, Henry describes being swept overboard in oilskins and seaboots that March during seven weeks of fearful bad weather south of Cape Horn and only narrowly escaping with his life by hanging onto the line he’d been repairing. “All I thought of when in the sea, ‘my bairns are Motherless now they are to be Fatherless’ – but God has had more for me to do, and saved me from a watery grave for a time.”

Ditton had endured “gale after gale, and the wind like to blow the old ship to pieces,” he wrote to his daughters. “I was in the sea a good while before anyone knew I was overboard, so when they did come to pull me up, I could not hold on so away I went again, I was so numbed with the icy seawater … The skipper says he never pulled so hard in his life as he did getting me on board.” The mountainous seas had also smashed the chart and wheel houses and carried away two of the lifeboats, he said.

Full rigged ship Ditton

Ditton – steel full-rigged ship built in 1891, sailed from Hamburg to Santa Rosalia, on the Pacific coast side of Mexico, in 180 days in 1907

It is an account that seems to offer little reassurance for 18-year-old Nell left caring for her three-year-old brother, but when Henry briefly attempted life ashore, his youngest daughter, Jean, later looked back on it as the worst two years of her life. The girls were used to doing things their own way, and Henry hated living on dry land. So back to sea he went. And at sea he remained.

He and Monkbarns were off Chile when the first world war began far away in Europe, and for five years they were kept busy carrying nitrates for explosives, and flour for troops – dodging enemy raiders and submarines and hunger and mutiny described elsewhere. In 1919, Monkbarns finally struggled home manned largely by apprentices. The old master and the young mate, my grandfather, quit. The “Old Man” – as masters are always called – retired to Australia, and Bert Sivell abandoned sail for oil tankers.

“Sails” hung on, and continued hanging on – patching and mending – as the ship and new young crew spent the next two years trying to beat steamers to peace-time cargoes. When Monkbarns was towed to Belgium in 1921 to be laid up alongside some of the world’s other surplus antiquated tonnage, “Sails” signed on as cook and bottlewasher. The master and mate were obliged to be aboard, but “Sails” was there, the master’s son wrote, “because he had no wish to be anywhere else”.

As the three tugs pushed and pulled them across the Channel in thick fog that September, Henry, leaning on the ship’s rail, puffing on his short black pipe as was his habit, will have passed the remains of HMS Vindictive still visible off the mole at Zeebrugge, and the deserted tangles of barbed wire in the sand dunes along the coast. Inland lay a lunar landscape of dead tree stumps, shell holes and trenches.

The U-boat shelters in Bruges

The U-boat shelters in Bruges, June 1919 – photograph: Australian War Memorial

Monkbarns came to rest in Bruges, seven miles from the sea, beside a row of concrete U-boat pens in an outer dock a mile’s walk and a tram ride from the great medieval cathedral and picturesque canals. Beside and behind her were three other laid-up ships, including Laeisz’s Perim and H. Hackfeld, confiscated from the Germans by the Allies as war reparations to the Italians. The ink was barely dry on the treaty of Versailles, ending the first world war, and around them Belgium was a wasteland.

Pretty Bruges itself, however, had survived the war largely unscathed as an enemy-occupied marine base, where German frontline troops came for brief R&R from the mud and blood of Ypres and Passchendaele, billeted on local families or in schools and churches. Officers of the Kaiser’s army came from miles around asking to see the town’s collection of Flemish Primitive paintings. The main damage was “friendly fire” from Allied attacks, parried by the new German Flugabwehrkanonen (Flak).

By Christmas 1921, there were lights and decorations, bright shops spilling light and warmth onto the cobbles, and fantastic chocolate confectionary too amazing to eat, according to Captain William Davies’ son, Ifor, who had arrived for the school holidays in the station cabbie’s horse-drawn landau. His mother and younger brother were already living aboard.

Ifor remembered fondly the warm welcome the Welsh family received from their “well-fed” Flemish butcher and his wife and daughter in the Grand’rue and the genteel patissier where they bought their bread, cakes and groceries. Mijnheer Lobrecht produced cigars for Captain Davies and thick slabs of chocolate for the children, while Monsieur Fasnacht – “a tall slender gracious old man with a sparse imperial beard and gold-rimmed spectacles” – conjured up steaming cups of hot chocolate.

At the moorings, too, a small convivial international community had formed, with lots of visiting. Captains Graziano, da Costa and Mazzoni poured mysterious drinks in tiny glasses and their wives introduced the family from Nefyn to ravioli. Communication was fractured, but no one minded.

During the summer, Sails could watch from the rail as the children played football on the concrete floor of the old German barracks, or rowed on the canal. Sometimes they took a trip on one of the barges plying the waterway to the sea, or helped local farmers picking fruit – returning with bags of fresh produce. In winter the dock froze, and they played on the ice around the ships until Mrs Davies called them in to eat. If the weather was bad, they hung around the warm galley, watching the old Scot prepare their meals, or huddled in the sail locker to watch him pushing the big needle to and fro through the mountains of canvas with his leather sail-maker’s palm.

Laid-up or not, the work of mending the standing rigging and patching and “roping” the sails – sewing on hemp bolt-rope edges for strength and identification – continued.

Arbroath from the harbour

Arbroath on the east coast of Scotland, immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in The Antiquary as “Fairport” (Private postcard)

Monkbarns spent 16 months in Belgium but Henry was only lured ashore once, on Christmas Eve, and then only came out of courtesey to Mrs Davies because, as her son put it, “he was a gentleman”. Mostly he kept himself to himself, refusing invitations to join the family in the saloon and settling instead in the warmth by the galley stove with his pipe. He was a keen reader with a rich booming voice, and loved to recite to himself for hours on end. He knew by heart enormous stretches of narrative poems like Marmion and The Lady of the Lake (“Where shall he find, in foreign land, so lone a lake, so sweet a strand…)

“Most of the time, we respected his privacy,” Ifor recalled. “But once in a while Dick [the mate] would tempt us after supper to leave the saloon and tiptoe towards the galley so that we could hear Sails. If we knocked at the door he would courteously invite us in, tell us to make ourselves at home, and then, without a trace of self-consciousness or condescension, continue where he had left off.”

To Henry, the works of Sir Walter Scott were not merely pleasant recreation but also a link with home. Monkbarns is the main character in Scott’s third Waverley novel, The Antiquary; a well-to-do collector living in an ancient house Scott based on Hospitalfield, Arbroath, the leprosy hospice founded in the 13th century by the monks of Arbroath abbey. Scott had stayed there as a guest. When Sails signed on with Monkbarns he gave his address as 24 Allan Street, Arbroath.

The ship Monkbarns was one of three commissioned for a prominent local canvas manufacturer. He named them Monkbarns, Fairport (as Scott called Arbroath in the novel) and Musselcrag – the abbey’s old fishing village, Auchmithie.

Steam-powered shipping was already cutting the demand for sailcloth by 1895, when Monkbarns was launched, but there was still a living to be made in sail, where the wind was free and labour cheap, and Arbroath was a mass of saw-tooth factory roofs and chimneys to prove it.

Charles Webster Corsar could have invested in steamers to bring in the Russian flax his factories needed, but the last surviving son of the weaver with the vision to buy James Watt’s engine chose instead to build sailing ships, and with a wry flourish he named them after a historical romance.

Henry Robertson and Josiah Arthur

Newspaper cutting from 1925 with Monkbarns ‘old-timers’ Sails Robertson and the ship’s cook, Josiah Arthur

ship's cook

Monkbarns’ cook, Josiah Arthur, photographed by Eugene Bainbridge. (Copyright)

A newspaper cutting from 1925 again shows Henry Robertson sitting on Monkbarns’ deck surrounded by canvas, now with the ship’s black cook, Josiah Arthur, posed beside him. The journalist describes them as “the knight of the needle and the cracker-hash king … survivors of types the world will soon know only in history”. There was hardly a square foot of Monkbarns’ canvas that had missed Henry’s palm and needles in 14 years, he wrote, and Arthur claimed to have cooked more cracker-hash, dandy-funk, and lob-scouse than any ship’s cook left in active service.

‘“No steam-boats for me, massa,” said Josh of Jamaicy,’ runs the toe-curling prose. ‘“I’ve always been used to serving out lime-juice and trimming salt-junk, and at my time ob life, massa, I don’t feel like turning on ham and eggs and peaches and cream for steam-boat sailors.”’

The crew list for that voyage reveals Josiah was in fact from from Barbados not “Jamaicy”, and that Henry had sheared ten years off his age. He still looked good. He could get away with 60.

Four years later, however, the old Scot was dead. Captain Davies, too, was dead, probably of stomach cancer. He fell ill on what was to be Monkbarns’ final rounding of the Horn and was buried in Rio. Monkbarns herself had limped back to the UK only to be sold for a coal hulk. The boy with the camera failed his sight test and never sailed again.

Monkbarns sailmaker Henry Robertson and his leather sailmaker's "palm", in the Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath

Monkbarns sailmaker Henry Robertson and his leather sailmaker’s “palm”, in the Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath

After a lifetime at sea, Henry Robertson finally went home to his children and grandchildren, and he lies buried with his Kate in Sleepyhillock cemetery, Montrose.

His sailmaker’s palm, a last tangible link with the ship, sits on a glass shelf in the Signal Tower museum in Arbroath – beside one last view of Henry surrounded by billows of canvas, stitching in eternal sunshine aboard Monkbarns.


*J Ifor Davies, Growing Up Among Sailors, 1983



A sailor’s life – 38. A walk among the spars

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Victor George Fall, aged 16

Monkbarns apprentice Victor George Fall, July 1918, aged 16, from the collection of John Fall, Australia

“One after another the new apprentices swung into the shrouds and, slowly at first, mounted the ratlines until they reached the futtock-shrouds to the ‘top,’ a small platform at the top of the lower mast,” wrote former Monkbarns apprentice Victor Fall, years later.

He and nine other teenagers had been posted out to Brazil from Britain after the infamous mutiny around the Horn in June 1918. They joined the ship in Rio de Janeiro in September and on their first afternoon aboard, the young chief officer, Bert Sivell, gave them permission to go aloft.

“The futtock shrouds, like a small ladder, project outwards from the mast, so one has to climb more or less on one’s back – like a fly on the ceiling – until one has got over the edge. Rather an ordeal for a new hand. Then, glowing with a sense of achievement, you can pause and look around. Just below was the huge main yard, 92ft long and weighing three tons, supported by lifts and a big steel hook and held to the lower mast by a metal band, allowing it to be swung fore or aft by ‘braces’ from the deck below through a tackle at the yard arms.

The futtock shrouds to the 'tops', which aren't - and involve hanging like a 'fly on the ceiling'

"Climbing like a fly on the ceiling" - the futtock shrouds to the 'tops' (Photograph: squarerigsailing.com)

“Strung below the yard on wire strops was the footrope, on which men stood when laid-out on the yard furling or reefing the sail. Along the top of the yard ran a steel rail, with wire ‘grommets’ at intervals, rather like large coits; through them an arm could be thrust in time of need,” remembered Fall.

Below on deck figures moved to and fro doing incomprehensible things; on the dockside locomotives fussed about shunting trucks, while beyond lay the blue water, the islands and the anchored ships. It was all rather pleasant, but this was really only the start of the climb.

“From the top, on either side of the mast were narrow, nearly vertical wire ladders, the topmast shrouds, which led to the topmast cross-trees. On the way up you passed the huge spar of the lower topsail yard, and just above it, supported by wire lifts and held to the mast by a metal parral, the upper topsail yard. This was hoisted when the sail was set, rising another thirty feet above the yard below.

“On reaching the cross-trees, the climb was still not nearly done, as from them ran upwards another ladder, quite vertical this time, leading to the head of the topgallant mast. On this mast were two more yards, positioned much as the larger topsails below. Above the topgallant masthead the mast rose for another 35 feet to the royal yard. When the royal yard was hoisted and sail set the only way to reach this was by climbing, hand over hand, up the iron chain of the royal halyards, until you could swing a leg over the royal yard and site astride it, or stand on the footrope.

“To reach the absolute top of the mast – the truck – required a hand over hand climb. However, even when lowered, the royal yard was about 150ft up, and the view was marvellous. The men below were tiny figures, the locomotives toys, while the wider view stretched right across the harbour.”

Monkbarns new apprentices were pleased with themselves. They, who had never been away from home before, had travelled across the Atlantic in armed convoy, and now they’d been right up the main mast to the royal yard.

“Soon they would be going up and down, day or night, as a matter of routine,” wrote Fall. “Barefoot most of the time, but in heavy weather in clumsy sea boots and oilskins. ”

On this first attempt, the boys had descended with care, finding coming down more difficult than going up, and had arrived back on deck with an “ill-concealed air of pride”.


Next day the “business of the sea” which John Stewart & Co had promised to teach each of them started in earnest, as they were set to work washing down decks, coiling gear, and helping “bend on sail” – hoisting the heavy canvas from the deck to its appropriate yard, sidling along the yards on the footropes and then learning how to lash the sails to the jackstay  and pass rope gaskets around them for a neat stow. Then, there were halyards to reeve and buntlines.

After three days of this, Monkbarns was towed out of drydock and lighters came alongside with stones for the ballast. The stones were swung aboard in baskets and tipped down the hatches. John Stewart & Co didn’t do engines – the boys believed there had been one ill-fated experiment in the past, after which the old sailing ship captain had banned them – so down in the steamy holds the apprentices sweated, dragging the slimy stones out to the sides, balancing the ship, shovelling the smaller stuff till their hands blistered.

After three more days of that – broken only by a spell on deck sending aloft the cro’jack yard, which had been ashore for repairs – there were sails to be bent on until every yard had its canvas aloft and they were all ready to set sail.

Now the 3rd Mate went to fetch the Old Man from shore, and returned with the news that the ship had a charter for Bunbury, in Western Australia, to load jarrah wood.

The boys and the young mates looked at each other. Nobody had heard of Bunbury. They were disappointed that they weren’t going to Newcastle, NSW, where there were lots of ships and girls and parties. “There was much searching of atlases,” wrote Fall.

He didn’t know it, but he was about to emigrate.

From: One Cargo of Jarrah, by VG Fall

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A sailor’s life – 36. Monkbarns, Rio 1918

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Postcard views of Rio, sent by Bert Sivell 1918

Postcard views of Rio, sent by Bert Sivell 1918

Bert Sivell marked his seventh anniversary aboard the sailing ship Monkbarns in Rio, with a big cigar and a trip up the Corcovado mountain — three years before building began on the 130ft figure of Christ the Redeemer. It was August 1918 and a postcard view marks the empty summit with an arrow.

He had been to church, he wrote to his father (as you do), and was developing quite a taste for the cheap local cigars, of which he was laying in a stock.  Monkbarns was in dry dock across the bay in Nictheroy, undergoing repairs, a big grey rust-streaked hull dwarfed by her three tall masts – the main being 192ft from truck to keelson. She could set twenty-three sails, and needed twenty-four hands to work her. “Who would have thought when I joined her that I would be mate before being six years at sea,” Bert wrote. He was 23.

Rio harbour during the first world war was a magnificent sheet of water ringed with jungle-clad peaks and big city sprawl, and dotted with palm islands. There were ships of every sort, from cruisers and destroyers to Atlantic liners and little steam coasters, and between them all tall sailing ships, barques, brigs and schooners, loading or unloading cargoes, and bobbing at the farewell buoys.

View towards Rio de Janeiro from Nictheroy, 1920s

View towards Rio de Janeiro from Nictheroy, 1920s

Captain James Donaldson, his young officers and the four remaining apprentices had been left kicking their heels in Rio for two months since Monkbarns’ mutinous crew were convicted at a trial on HMS Armadale Castle that June, and they were to remain for one more month while the boys’ half-deck house was enlarged. The cargo of flour had been whisked north by a Lamport and Holt steamship and John Stewart & Co were sending out ten new little apprentice boys to work the ship home. Never again would Monkbarns’ fo’c’sle hands outnumber the officers.

Next: John Stewart & Co’s new apprentices
Previous: Crimes and punishment

A sailor’s life – 35. Monkbarns: crimes and punishment

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RMS Armadale Castle, pre-war, from collection at histarmar.com.ar

RMS Armadale Castle, pre-war, from collection at histarmar.com.ar

What ordinary seaman Fausto Humberto Villaverde thought of his trial aboard the HMS Armadale Castle in June 1918 was not clear. Charged with “combining to disobey lawful commands” – or mutiny, as his officers saw it, the evidence had to be translated into Spanish for him, and even the translator appeared to have struggled with his replies. The Peruvian’s defence is given as one line: he had “illness in the stomach”.

The Dane Soren Sorensen had been heard first. Unlike the other men, he was accused only of insubordination – for having answered back when Monkbarns’ master, Captain James Donaldson, criticised his steering. He denied using bad language. He claimed the master had sarcastically asked what time he, Sorensen, would be able to steer the ship and that when he had complained he was feeling sick Donaldson had threatened to “smash him in the face”. The only witness on the poop at the time was the young 2nd Mate, Aplin, who did not support this version of events.

As Sorensen had technically already been punished, by the imposition of the five shilling fines – which was all the authority Donaldson had under British maritime law – he was found guilty but no further action was taken.

The Irishman Thomas O’Brien was called next by the impromptu naval court in Rio bay and was asked to explain his refusal to grease down a mast when ordered to do so. His defence that he was starving met short shrift from both British ship captains officiating. “You don’t look like a man that had been starved,” they said.

They wanted to know why, if the food was so bad, O’Brien had bothered to steal more of it during the voyage from Melbourne, as he admitted. He claimed he had only disobeyed orders because he was “played out from starvation” and too weak to work, “except where it was necessary”. But his judges jumped on the rider.

Was he to be the judge of that, asked the president. “Suppose you were ordered aloft to furl a royal [sail], am I to understand that you wouldn’t go unless you thought it necessary? Who is the best judge of what is necessary, you or your properly appointed officers?”

When the American, Charles Moore, also complained about the food, and particularly the substitution of grease for butter the president exclaimed “Butter! Do you expect to get butter in wartime. Margarine is considered a luxury in London.”

The Welshman David Thomas’ evidence is the most poignant. “I thought I was going home,” he told the hearing. Perhaps Captain Donaldson – desperate to replace deserters in Australia – had been a little economical with the truth. By the time the ship left Melbourne their cargo of flour was destined for New York, not wartorn Europe.

At 45, Thomas was the oldest man in the fo’c’sle, and he had suffered rheumatism and cramps from sleeping in a wet bunk during the long, stormy passage round the Horn. Though only rated able seaman on Monkbarns, he had done two voyages as bo’sun on his previous ship, he said, which showed he was not of such bad character as painted. He had not been looking for “any bother”. He had gone aloft when he could. His handwriting in the crew list is shaky like an old man’s and there is no year against his last ship.

He was scathing on the subject of the pantry however. The food was so bad it made him sick, he said, and he had seen some of the boys in the ship so hungry they would get a cup of flour and fry it in fat in the galley to have something to eat.

The mate (Bert Sivell) half stuck up for him, telling the court that Thomas would usually go aloft to make sail fast, although he had refused to do so for the greasing, but the president wasn’t having any of it. “Well, if he can go aloft to take in sails he can go aloft to grease down the mast,” he said, firmly.

Thomas and O’Brien were found guilty of continued wilful disobedience. Moore, Henriksen and Villaverde were found guilty of combining to disobey.

All five men were sentenced to twelve weeks in prison in the UK and the cost of their “board” on the passage home, which was calculated at three shillings a day for 38 days. Thomas and O’Brien were also fined six days pay, and O’Brien was further charged £2 for the food he had admitted stealing. They set off in convoy under lock and key aboard the Armadale Castle in July and arrived in Newport, Wales, after an uneventful crossing on August 4th.

Sub-lieutenant George Frost’s last sight of them was handcuffed together on the railway platform at Newport, waiting for a train to take them to prison. They had six weeks of their sentence left to serve. For them, the war was over.

Read on: John Stewart & Co sends out new apprentices
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