Lost at sea

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

Archive for the ‘Seafarers’ wives’ 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.



A Sailor’s Life – 77. The medals in the post II

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Flowers commemorating the Chinese crew of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands in the Atlantic at 11pm on 23rd March 1941.

Flowers commemorating the Chinese crew of the Shell oil tanker Chama, lost with all hands in the Atlantic on 23 March 1941. Placed at the memorial arch in Hong Kong by Captain Sivell’s great granddaughter, March 2015

It is 74 years tonight since Captain Hubert Sivell of the oil tanker Chama and all his 52 British officers and Chinese crew vanished into the cold mid-Atlantic. On the “winter garden” of U97 the lookout watched the tanker sink, burning, stern first into the sea and the commander, Udo Heilmann, noted “Laufe mit sudlichen, dann westlichen Kurs ab…” (depart on southerly, then westerly course).

Three months later an empty life boat was picked up west of Ireland and brought into Cork. It had “Chama” on its transom.

There were no survivors.


For more than half a century after the end of the second world war, merchant seamen were not included in Britain’s national commemoration of those who had laid down their lives for their country.

When veterans of the army, navy and air forces marched down Whitehall in London past the Cenotaph taking the royal salute each November, the “civilian” seafarers who had kept the lifelines open were not invited.

They had not been under command, the survivors of Murmansk, Malta and the grey Atlantic “gap” were told.

Tower Hill memorial: two minutes silence, September 2009

Tower Hill memorial, two minutes’ silence for those with no grave but the sea, September 2009

So, they and the families of their dead shipmates gathered instead for their own dedicated merchant service ceremony every September 3rd in the sunken garden on Tower Hill in east London, among the names of 24,000 British sailors with no grave but the sea, and they commemorated together the first day of the war and the 119 lives lost when the liner SS Athenia was torpedoed within nine hours of Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast. They made a crowd of a few hundreds rather than thousands, singing For Those in Peril on the Sea over the roar of the traffic along the A100 past the Bloody Tower.

When the Cenotaph ceremony was opened up in 2000, I decided to open too the scrappy little cardboard packet stamped On Her Majesty’s Service that my grandmother could not bear to look at.

Under an unheaded and unsigned pre-printed letter from the Minister of Transport expressing his “sorrow” lay three frayed bits of loose ribbon and two bronze stars and a medallion in greaseproof wrappers: the 1939-1945 Star, the Atlantic Star and the King George VI war medal – sent to my widowed grandmother in pieces, like her life. It seemed a cruelly disrespectful token. A shoddy, crass way to honour a man who had given everything.

Vivien Foster, president of the Merchant Navy Association (centre) with daughters and granddaughters of seafarers, Horse Guards Parade 2003

Vivien Foster, president of the Merchant Navy Association (centre) with daughters and granddaughters of seafarers, Horse Guards Parade 2003 (author in brown coat)

Finally, sixty years too late, I shook the medals out, stitched them together and pinned them on – me, by then Bert Sivell’s oldest surviving descendant.

At the invitation of the Merchant Navy Association, I arrayed them across the wrong side of my best coat and marched them down Whitehall to the Cenotaph, to take the salute for Bert under the eyes of the television cameras and the world. I was surprised at the time how many other daughters and granddaughters were doing the same.

There is a complex etiquette to wearing medals not one’s own – and it took me an afternoon to work out how to display the two medals awarded to Bert for his service in the first world war with the three he never knew about for the second. Big Ben was striking 9am as I walked up Victoria Embankment feeling slightly embarrassed, muffling the clank of the medals in my scarf.

The year was 2003 and there were crash barriers everywhere, gunmen on the rooftops, and ranks of TV vans, bristling with aerials and crews sipping coffee. A tourist whose hat was blown over the barricade behind the Downing Street gardens as I queued to get onto Horse Guards Parade was firmly dissuaded by serious looking soldiers from shinning over the fence to retrieve it.

Merchant navy veterans line up on Whitehall, November 2002

Merchant navy veterans line up on Whitehall, November 2003

The MNA rallying point was E17 and we were allocated stations like the ships in Chama’s final convoy out of Greenock: Sivell was row 2 position 4, right behind the association’s president, Vivien Foster, the wife, daughter and granddaughter of seafarers, and herself wearing her father’s medals over a sequinned black jacket. Around us a sea of sprightly old men heaved and surged. Wheelchairs and walking sticks crunched across the gravel. Lived-in faces lit up at the sight of old chums. A hip flask was doing the rounds, keeping out the nip in the air. Like many convoys, “station-keeping” was a bit wayward.

Many of these men had gone to sea as teenagers, recruited into a reserved occupation from which there was no release. The youngest of the merchant navy dead were 14, too young to vote or have sex or serve in the army. The two oldest had been 74, one of them killed rescuing troops off Dunkirk. We remembered them, our breath hanging in puffs.

It was a long, tiring morning. Hours of waiting followed by a slow, cold shuffle up Whitehall; everyone present remembering someone who wasn’t.

But up at Tower Hill, away from the cameras, bronze plaque 27 still only listed 15 men under MV Chama. It had taken me a long time to realise how many must be missing, and longer still to trace the names. Thirty-eight young Chinese sailors, far from home.

The box of medals was open, but the job wasn’t finished.

[To be continued.]

Previously: The medals in the post

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.


(To be continued)

Previously – Sniffing Stockholm Tar

Next – The medals in the post II

A sailor’s life – 67. Cabined, cribbed, confined

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Ryde Parish Church baptism card, May 1925 - and family snaps of Ena and the babe

Ryde Parish Church baptism card, May 1925 – and family snaps of Ena and the babe

Ena Sivell didn’t have the vote when she married her sailor sweetheart in 1922 aged 26. She didn’t have a home or signing powers on her husband’s bank account, and when she gave birth to their first child 3,000 miles away from her husband in a nursing home in Ryde, Isle of Wight, three years later he did not meet the baby until it was learning to walk.

Anglo-Saxon Petroleum (Shell) – having permitted the young first officer in charge of its New York depot ship Pyrula to keep his bride aboard ship with him for two glorious years – had ordered Ena off at the first sign of pregnancy and she took her bump and her souvenir Broadway programmes and went back to the town where she was born, to make a temporary life in rented rooms, dependent on her father-in-law for paying her bills until her husband came home, which tried her sorely.

But Bert stayed on. And on.

Tradesmen’s families like Bert’s and Ena’s did not have telephones, and communication between husband and wife was by letter – two weeks out, and two back by the great transatlantic liners that swept to and fro between Hamburg, Southampton and New York in the days before air travel.

The baby was born in March, too weeks overdue. Ena – flat on her back in bed with her knees tied together, in the approved treatment of her day for a torn perineum – sent off a telegram to the States.

Bert was hugely relieved and rang all their American friends at their places of business from the ship’s phone line, fixing himself up with dinner and a trip to the Hippodrome with Ena’s chum Florence in the process.

His first letter reached her two weeks later. “I’m really a little disappointed that a girl has come along,” he wrote, with jaw-dropping insensitivity. “I would have liked a boy. But as Mrs Franke Snr told me Monday – I cannot change it now!! Mrs Mercer says I must try again …!!”

And he was no better at reassurance for his stretched little wife’s sagging self-esteem. Dismissing the rupture in his next letter with all the carelessness of a man who has never tried to pass a watermelon, (“Never mind, you’ll soon be alright again”), he added: “I cannot quite agree with the doctor that you are decidedly on the small side, my dear, although if he says so we ought to be glad you are no bigger.” Nearly 90 years later I still want to hit him.

Shingled hair, newspaper advert 1925

Shingled hair, newspaper advert 1925

Bert Sivell was a conservative, with a big and little C. An only child who had run away from home aged 15, he had grown up at sea, far from “decent girls,” as he put it, except for the Mission families in Australia, and the master’s daughter, Jeanie Donaldson, who made one trip with Monkbarns as stewardess in 1917. He didn’t approve of women shingling their hair, or wearing trousers.

His was a man’s world. A month after his daughter’s birth his letter home was full of the five new oil tankers that Furness Withy had ordered from German shipyards. They had offered British firms substantially more to take the work, he reports. “But owing to the labour conditions, the British firms could not take the offer. I am rather surprised that the ASP have placed orders for four new tankers* with British firms, because they are paying through the nose for them,” he wrote.

“By the way, dear, you have still not told me yet what the baby’s name is going to be…”

If the baby had been a boy Ena had suggested John Thomas, which Bert had vetoed by return of post. It was slang for penis, familiar to readers of DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the third of three versions of a story that Lawrence would publish three years later in 1928, although it was 35 years before it could be openly sold in the UK. “The name John Thomas is unsuitable,” wrote Bert, “although you should not know what it means.”

When he finally got home in November, he carried in his trunk a well thumbed copy of Dr Alice Bunker Stockham‘s pioneering sex guide Karezza, recommended by a chum and bought at Wanamaker’s wonderful bookstore in New York. He had read it cover to cover.

They had also acquired Dr Marie Stopes equally controversial Married Love, which he had persuaded a reluctant Ena to have sent to the house in a plain brown wrapper.

“When I get home again we are going to be as happy as happy can be, aren’t we, darling?” he had written. “Especially with this new information I have gathered. We were going at things in a wasteful sort of way before…”

Read on: The seamen’s strike 1925
Previously: Clam, a moment in history

*[These would be the 10,000 DWT Bullmouth, Bulysses, Patella and Pecten; another six orders went to Dutch yards]

A sailor’s life – 63. To have and to hold, Pyrula 1922

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Bert and Ena Sivell, wedding day 1922

Bert and Ena Sivell, wedding day Staten Island 1922

The visiting tanker captains had egged him on: “Get married,” they said. “Grab the chance while you can.”

Bert Sivell, writing from the master’s quarters of his first “command” – a redundant passenger steamer serving out her days as an oil depot ship off  New York in 1922 – took the plunge. “Come out and marry me,” he urged his love, far away in the UK.

The American master of the oil tanker Pearl Shell was the envy of all the Shell masters that winter. He had his wife in Philadelphia, an hour and a bit away by train from the ship, and he trotted off home every night.

“He told me I was a fool for not having you over here months ago,” Bert wrote. “He had not seen his home for two years before he came here, and had not seen his wife for eight months, although she had gone over to ‘Frisco and elsewhere in the States whenever he came to US ports.”

“Come out and marry me,” he urged. “Gossips in Ryde will be busy about conventions and rubbish, but don’t let that worry you. Trust me.”

RMS Homeric postcard, wedding card 1922

RMS Homeric postcard, wedding card and newspaper announcement, 1922 – all very proper

So the little milliner from Ryde boldly left the town where she was born and caught the White Star liner Homeric from Southampton in December 1922, carrying in her trunk the homemade trousseau she’d been stitching for three years. Her young man gave her £60 of his savings – which was more than she earned in a year – and for half of it she shared a windowless cabin in second class with a girl called Florence Ayers. (No point paying for a port hole, Bert had said knowledgeably; at that time of year the crossing would be too rough to open it anyway…) Florence and Ena were to remain friends for the rest of their lives.

She’d thought it was wishful thinking when Bert first raised the idea in February, in a throwaway line about needing a secretary for all the paperwork the Asiatic Petroleum office was throwing at him.

She had expressed pity that he was darning his own socks. “You had better come over right away, my dear,” he wrote. “I have a whole pile of mending of all sorts, even my jacket is falling to pieces, but I have had no time lately.”

Bert was marooned a mile off Brooklyn, pumping oil through the worst snowfall the US east coast had seen since the 1880s, and fighting for access to the motor launch which was his lifeline to shore.

New York bay 1922

New York bay 1922, Bert Sivell snowed in aboard Shell’s floating oil depot Pyrula

Across New York bay the great transatlantic steamers came and went, carrying his mail and knocking Pyrula about in their wake. He had nothing much to write about except work.

“I have not been inside a picture house since Christmas, although I fail to see what that has to do with the Asiatic anyway,” he wrote, aggrieved, after rumours in the office that he spent too much time ashore or visiting other ships.  “They all forget that our day consists of 24 hours and even if we are not actually working, we live in the midst of it and that is as bad. All last night I spent on deck with the worry of being helpless if she broke adrift and today (Sunday) the 2nd Engineer and I put in four solid hours in the snow cutting out the burst steampipes ready to be sent ashore tomorrow morning. If their ideas were in operation we’d need a wooden crew.”

But in March it all changed, when Pyrula was allowed to chip out her frozen chains and come ashore to Pier 14, Stapleton, NJ. Suddenly Manhattan was only a ferry ride away. They had neighbours and mains electricity and Bert was promised a telephone. He began to enjoy the job.

Out of the blue, the Asiatic announced they might be wanting him to stay on. For another year.  In great excitement, he wrote to Ena.

5th Avenue, New York, posted 1922

5th Avenue, New York, – bustling Sunday morning – posted 1922

“It would be detrimental to my career in this company to refuse to stay. So, my dear, the point is this: if such an event as the postponement of my leave should occur, will you be willing to come over here and get married and live aboard the ship?”

He had it all figured out, the British consul, the ceremony. He would pay for her passage over. It would be cheaper for Ena, he said, “considerably cheaper, because you can dispense with your wedding dress…”

Bless her, Ena took it on the chin. After months planning a wedding in Ryde, checking rental properties and buying household linen, the letter cost her a sleepless night, but she was game. Her friend Vi Trent had just got married and moved to Leeds, and she’d got quite fed up of the newspaper coverage of the Princess Mary’s sumptuous wedding the previous month. She consulted a fortune teller, who saw a journey and a long life (Ena did not inquire about Bert, perhaps just as well), and then she set about acquiring a passport.

5th Avenue and Flat Iron building NY, posted 1922

5th Avenue and Flat Iron building NY, posted 1922

Bert kitted himself out in new clothes, American style — straw hat, wasp waisted suit and new tie, and took himself off to explore the sights of New York, bombarding her with postcards. He also repainted the ship from stem to stern, hung out the flags for her birthday, and began buttering up the local vicar with regular Sunday church attendance.

At numbers 32 and 110 High Street, Ryde, their parents were less happy. “I can understand your people kicking a bit against the idea, because you are a girl and need looking after —!! (ahem! —!! don’t smack me),” Bert wrote. “But why my parents should object I don’t know. I suppose it is because I am the only one.” Bert’s dad had written an angry letter, the gist of which appeared to be that Bert had not asked his consent to marrying abroad – although it probably had more to do with them only having heard of their son’s plans from local gossip. “I wrote back and said that as I was marrying you, I considered you were the only one I should consult.”

Brooklyn Bridge and NY skyline, posted 1922

Brooklyn Bridge and NY skyline, posted 1922

Shell too was not thrilled. The group permitted overnight visits by officers’ wives in port – and their agents in New York, Furness Withy, even allowed wives (though again, only officers’ wives) to accompany their husbands on short voyages. But Bert Sivell had grown up in sail.

Generations of masters’ wives of all nations once made their homes in the saloons of their husbands’ sailing ships, generally doing a lot of sewing and letter writing, but learning to take a noon sight or a trick at the wheel, just in case. They were there because shipboard discipline depended on masters remaining aloof – even from their junior officers – and because sailing ship masters were small businessmen often with a financial stake in their ship and no spare cash for idle investment in a house ashore. The wife’s comfort was not a prime consideration. “I have occasionally had to hint to him that my name is not down in his ship’s articles…” wrote one emancipated captain’s chattel in 1873.

It seemed a matter of course to Bert that Ena should live aboard Pyrula with him. A perk of the job. Vivid in his mind was the fate of the chief engineer who had arrived in New York with him the previous year to be met by the news that his wife had died, leaving his four young children in the sole care of the eldest, aged 14. “I shall probably never get such a long spell in port again.”

And he got his way. On 8th November 1922, the head office of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company in St Helen’s Court, London, cancelled the home leave due to the young officer-in-charge of the oil tanker Pyrula at the urging of its partner, Asiatic Petroleum, and granted permission for his bride to join him aboard – at 3/6 a day. “As you are aware, this procedure is not a rule of the Company and you should, therefore, regard it as a concession,” said Shell, firmly.

Officers of Pyrula and Clam - with Ena Sivell, Bert right

Officers of Pyrula and Clam – with Ena Sivell, Bert right

A month later, Bert was on the quay when Homeric pulled in. By noon he and Ena were bowling down Broadway in a taxi, heading for the Staten Island ferry and the church of St John, Rosebank, where the vicar was standing by to wed them. By two o’clock they were onboard Pyrula, man and wife. Bert even organised a tiered cake, so that Ena could post slices home to her friends – proof that the proprieties had been attended to.

The wedding photograph shows a rather lumpy young woman smiling shyly in a sensible two-piece suit and a feathered hat that dwarfs her groom. Bert, ramrod straight in his best uniform, beams stiffly, his mouth tight shut on his bad teeth.

Ena Sivell, Buster and the Microbe, aboard Pyrula

Ena Sivell, Buster and the Microbe, aboard Pyrula

They got themselves a dog called Buster and a black kitten they christened Microbe, and they made a home together at Pier 14, taking in the shows and the sights of New York whenever Bert’s work permitted. Vaudeville was on its way out, elbowed aside by the flickering silver screen. But Ena loved the vast and glittering Hippodrome, on 6th Avenue – with its performing seals, midgets and minstrels, and she acquired a stack of 10 cent programmes, with their adverts for fashion houses and ice-cream and perms and even Perrier water. They went to see Hollywood’s darling, the silent movie heartthrob Douglas Fairbanks, in The Thief of Bagdad at the Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street as soon as the film opened in 1924, and they made friends ashore, socialised and for almost two years just enjoyed being together.

And then, Ena found she was pregnant and abruptly the honeymoon was over. Ena packed up her playhouse programmes and her souvenir guides of New York and went home. Anglo-Saxon did not allow children on the ship and she had to go back to the Isle of Wight, to set up house and have the baby, alone. Bert had to stay. He did not see his daughter until the baby was more than a year old. Though they did not know it, most of their days together were over.

New York Hippodrome, 6th Avenue

New York Hippodrome, 6th Avenue, postcard view

Every Sunday for the rest of his life he wrote to Ena, date stamping the envelopes so that she might read the letters in order, and every year on December 9th a telegram would arrive from somewhere in the world, reading “Shimmer shine. Bert.” This, deciphered out of nautical telegraph code, meant: “Another anniversary of our marriage. How happy we have been, love”.

There was no telegram in December 1941.

#            #            #

Read on: Majestic and her sisters
Previously: New York, New York

2013: The Fishwives Choir – seamen’s widows to release fundraising single


A sailor’s life – 62. New York, New York

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New York, Liberty by night

New York, Liberty by night - postcard sent 1922

America had been “dry” for eighteen months when the Shell oil tanker Pyrula dropped anchor off New York in autumn 1921 under the stern, sober eye of Miss Liberty.

In Times Square legitimate restaurants and bars had closed, and special investigator Izzy “the human chameleon” Einstein and his straight man Moe Smith were already hundreds of arrests into their extravagant career as prohibition agents – sniffing out under the counter liquor in a variety of plausible disguises, from expansive cigar salesmen to thirsty longshoremen.

It was the age of the speakeasy, just “ask for Joe”. There were several thousand underground drinking dens in Manhattan already by that winter, varying from dingy doorways behind which tired bar girls pushed illegally stilled liquor and the lure of sex, to glizy private social clubs peopled by flappers and dapper men in spats. Here, the cocktail grew up, to hide the taste of bad booze. It was the era of jazz, and racketeers and movies.

But the British crew on Pyrula were not destined to see much of the bright lights of the Big Apple. By the time the first snows fell that winter, Bert found himself moored in the open roads off Brooklyn, three miles from the nearest landing stage, as officer-in-charge on a floating fuel pump.

Pyrula was a big ship – 520ft long and “as wide as Union Street,” as Bert wrote to his people back home in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. She had started life as the White Star steamer Cevic, one of the “cattle boats” carrying livestock and immigrants between the US and Europe. She had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty in 1914 and she saw action as a decoy warship – a dummy Queen Mary, with cylinder tanks built into her holds to carry oil. The Anglo-Saxon Petroleum had bought her after the war and Bert had joined her as Mate in Barcelona in September 1921.

Shell oil tanker Pyrula 1921

Shell oil tanker Pyrula 1921 - Bert Sivell collection

They were bound for New York via Tampico, Mexico, through the hurricane belt. There were 70 officers and crew aboard, all housed over three decks amidships, and his room was the most luxurious he had ever had in all his ten years at sea. It was the size of the sitting rooms in the houses along the street where he had grown up, with electric lights, a fan for hot weather and a bell to the steward’s pantry.

The master was an old sailing ship man who was delighted to discover his new first officer had served his time in sail.

Captain Baxter was nearly 60 and had been 20 years in sail before he and his ship were taken over by Shell. Dolbadarn Castle had been demasted and converted to a motor ship, Dolphin Shell, and Baxter had just returned from three years’ service with her in the Far East. Pyrula was his first steamer.

Dolbadarn Castle, Dolphin Shell - photo Kees Helder

Dolbadarn Castle, Dolphin Shell - photo Helderline.nl

He knew the ship to which Bert had been apprenticed at 16, and had met the captain, James Donaldson, in ‘Frisco in 1893. Bert for his part had not a bad word to say about the gentlemanly old sea dog — not even when he brought aboard two tiny chinchilla monkeys, which ran amok among Bert’s fresh paintwork with dirty paws.

“Every evening after tea the old man comes up on the bridge and we have a yarn about the old sailing ship days,” he wrote home in his weekly letter to his waiting sweetheart. “He is really very interesting. Some of the places he has taken his ships need considerable skill to get in. He bought a couple of monkeys in Gibraltar. They are the queerest looking things that ever I saw, very lively and climb all over the place. One has a special liking for my shoulder and when walking up and down the bridge this little article will suddenly spring off the top of a door and land on me. They are quite small, not much bigger than a squirrel. I don’t know how they will stand the cold. We have also a couple of cats this trip, stowaways from Gibraltar.”

The orders had been to collect a cargo of oil from Tampico in Mexico and take it to New York, where Shell was keen to grab a slice of the city’s booming 796,000 barrel a year bunkering fuel market. With the US price of oil off the wharf at $1.85 a barrel, the group’s accountants had worked out that they could make over a dollar a barrel profit shipping it up from Mexico, even including freight and handling and the Mexican government’s 14 cents a barrel tax.

New York, Gay White Way 1922

New York, Gay White Way - postcard sent 1922

For some time, the directors had been casting about for a site in New York harbour to build a shore depot with fuel tanks. In February 1921 proposals were “laid on the boardroom table”, as the company minutes show, to buy and develop a 22 acre site which had been found on the New Jersey waterfront opposite Staten Island. It needed dredging and a pier, and was to have cost an estimated $665,000, but by late summer the scheme had been rejected amid doubts over the vendor’s title to the land and it was decided instead to make do with a cheaper option: an elderly depot ship and a young officer-in-charge.

That August Bert was offered the job – and the prospect of a pay jump from £26 to £35 a month, which was most welcome to an ambitious chap saving up to marry his girl as soon as his first leave was due, in eleven months’ time. He was 26, and had been with Shell for two years.

At home, unemployment was rising. Demand for British coal, steel and woollens slumped after the war. The empire’s  markets were in tatters. On both sides of the Atlantic ships were being laid up. Men were being laid off. The old industries struggled, and in the midst of it all a much younger industry, oil, grew strong.

US destroyers laid up at san diego, california, 1922

US destroyers laid up at San Diego, california, circa 1922 - collection Naval Research Center

In ten days after leaving Gibraltar they sighted only four ships, even along the US coast.It shows that the Yankee trade depression is just as heavy as our own because in normal times this coast is alive with shipping, mostly American coastal traffic it is true but even coastal traffic means work for someone,” Bert wrote.

Bert reported 600 vessels idle in Newport News, VA. Worse than any port in England, he said. And New York and Philadelphia were said to be the same.

The men who had deserted the Red Duster for big Yankee wages during the war were on the beach too. “The few American ships running will only carry Americans. None of the crews of British vessels calling here ever desert their ships now, so there is no chance of the stranded ones getting away.”

He had scant sympathy. He had served the war in sail, running saltpetre from Chile for the munitions industry and Jarra wood from Australia for pit props. He had endured low pay, bad food and rough men, but it had taught him his trade and in the summer of 1919 he had been very happy to exchange his crisp new sailing ship master’s “ticket” for a dry berth on oil tankers and three square meals a day.

He was a qualified captain, but it had taken him nine months to climb back to first officer. Officer-in-charge of an oil depot ship was another step up, but it was hard work.

nassau street, new york

Bustling crowds on Nassau Street, New York, posted 1920s

Some weeks Bert was on his feet for 63 hours at a stretch, taking oil from the tankers that ranged alongside them in the deep roads, and discharging it into smaller lighters that tendered among the big ships along the Chelsea piers where the White Star liners and Cunarders docked. Tossed by the backwash of the great Atlantic passenger ships that brought him his mail, far from the bright lights on shore, he watched the immigrants arriving from the old world, huddled at the railings for a glimpse of the new.

There was no telephone aboard. If he needed to talk to the agents he had to take the motor launch ashore and phone from the quay. He visited the office in Manhattan twice a week, taking in lunch at his favourite Chinese restaurant up town. It had an orchestra and dancing, which he watched. He loved jazz and occasionally took in a show or a movie. If he enjoyed other diversions, he did not mention them in the letters and cards he fired off to his fiancee, Ena Whittington, on the Isle of Wight.

Marooned on Pyrula, a mile offshore, with a mainly Irish and Scandinavian skeleton crew of fourteen, prohibition made little impression on Bert, although he was not himself was not averse to a tipple, as he admitted as he nursed himself through the ‘flu that laid waste to New York in January 1922. For several days he had lived on hot malted milk and rum — “shocking, and in a prohibition country too,” – and many a ship master shared a dram of the real McCoy with him after the oil had been pumped across, for it was a cold job.

When a Sinn Fein flag, ensign of the Irish free state, appeared on the bulkhead in the crew quarters he prudently ignored it, but when one of the firemen (stokers) succumbed to what Bert suspected were the effects of “moonshine” he had him packed off to hospital ashore, smartly. The authorities tended to ask unwelcome questions about where booze had come from. But the patient was outraged to discover his pay was stopped while he was laid up and threatened to sue. On discharge he refused to return to the ship, and he died of alcohol poisoning in another hospital two weeks later, one of thousands of victims across the US. (“So that settles his lawsuit,” wrote Bert, unsympathetically.)

Shell tanker Pyrula, master's sitting room, 1922

Shell tanker Pyrula, master's sitting room, 1922 - time exposure with cat in foreground, probably growling

By the beginning of February the snow was 2ft deep on the deck, and all the pipes were frozen up. As the ice melted, it trickled into his rooms in 26 places. Between ships, the stowaway little black cat that had survived the hurricane was his constant companion. It followed him around the deck like a dog and sat on the safe in his room as he worked, growling at its own reflection in the wardrobe mirror.

Unable to get ashore, Bert’s pay had never quite reached the £35 a month he had been promised; the ASPCo deducted meals at 3s 6d a day for each man. Overtime rates had been abolished the previous October (“though we still have to work overtime, or face the sack…”) and in March, the pay itself was cut by £2 4s a month, the second time in a year. In May it was to go down a third time, they were told, by £1 2s. “We shall soon be going to sea for our health,” he wrote dolefully, but to his surprise only one of his crew quit.

By now, Bert was counting the months until his leave, when he was to go back to the island to get married and set up a home of his own ashore. He had been at sea since he was 15 and never home for more than a few weeks until the summer he’d met Ena.

However, at the end of March, all his plans were thrown into the air. After months at anchor, Pyrula was moved to a permanent berth beside a pier on Staten Island. Pier 14, Clifton, had power lines from the shore and Bert got a telephone in his room. Trains and trams ran past the pier gates straight to the Manhattan ferry and the shows, and in the evenings after work, he was able to take a walk.

By  late spring Bert was writing chattily home about the 25 cent movies, the talent nights at the local palais and several sightseeing trips he’d enjoyed in a friend’s automobile.

Life on the pier was a bustle of activity, with “noise and all sorts of things going on” day and night. One week a small steamer turned up and discharged a cargo of cork, lemons, sardines, and almonds into the shed beside the tanker. All day the scent of lemons hung strong about the wharf. Pyrula had just taken on coal, but Bert uncharacteristically left his ship black with dust from stem to stern rather than risk dirty water running off and spoiling the fruit.

Some shore life diversions were less welcome: one night they were burgled, together with the Standard Oil tanker lying beside them, and a four-masted schooner nearby. While Bert slept, the thief or thieves bypassed several night watchmen and the catches on all the doors. “When I woke up at 6am I found my room like a shambles and clothing lying around everywhere.” They had taken his watch, chain and binoculars, plus an overcoat from the steward’s room and shore-going clothes from the other tanker, but missed Pyrula’s pay roll, which was in Bert’s safe, and a gold watch he had brought as a present for Ena.

At home, Ena was busy sewing for the wedding, amid much envy and ribbing from her mates at the milliner’s in Ryde where she now worked. On Pier 14, Pyrula shifted record quantities of bunker oil, the young officer-in-charge was mentioned in letters to head office, and Bert made a momentous decision. His leave was fast approaching. He’d been away three years. He was entitled to go home. But it was rumoured that the agent wanted him to stay.

“If I am ordered to remain here it would be very unwise to kick,” he wrote. “Because I would only prejudice my career in this company.”  He would lose Pyrula and his next ship might be out east, where Ena could not follow.

“Come out and marry me,” he telegrammed.

Read on: To have and to hold, Pyrula 1922-1924
Previously: Hurricane at sea

White Star Cevic as dummy Queen Mary

White Star Cevic, future oil tanker Bayleaf-Pyrula, as dummy Queen Mary

The White Star steamer Cevic disguised as the battleship Queen Mary in 1914, note dummy first and third funnels with no smoke

A sailor’s life – 57. The wife’s tale II

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Sailor's wife and child, monument, Odessa

Monument to sailors’ wives, Odessa

“I never liked the sea,” said Dolly Thomas, daughter and granddaughter and wife and mother of British merchant seaman, looking back over three-quarters of a century. “Even when I lived near it, I never went to look at it.”

When Dolly married 5th Engineer Jim Thomas in 1942, when she was 22, her mother had warned her: “Don’t expect sympathy. No one will understand.”

Dolly’s father was master of one of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary oil tankers that service the navy, and he used to be away for so long and so often that she did not remember meeting him until she was five years old. Jim had followed his father-in-law into the RFA and when Dolly herself became a mother his tanker happened to be in port for repairs, so he could come to her, but he was recalled to the ship within hours of the child’s birth and didn’t see his second son until the little chap was walking. “I missed our first seven Christmases,” said Jim, wryly.

Fishermen's Wives memorial gloucester US

Fishermen’s wives memorial, Gloucester, US

For all the years Jim was at sea, Dolly had made the decisions. She had raised the boys, managed the money, even bought their first house. Yet Dolly and Jim had been married for 56 years when I met them in the bungalow deep inland, where they had retired to live near their grandchildren when Jim finally came ashore. There was a noisy grandmother clock in the hall, and a single framed photograph of an oil tanker  – Jim’s last – on the wall. All her married life, said Dolly, she had kept a suitcase packed.

The little suitcase is retired now, and Jim is dead, but for forty years Dolly kept it ready in the corner of her bedroom in South Shields, with a pressed blouse and change of clothes – all set to go to him whenever the telegram arrived saying he was in port for a day or two somewhere in the British Isles. This, and the three weeks leave every two years, was her early married life, and that of all the other seamen’s wives of her generation.

“You’d get a telegram: ‘Ship arriving so-and-so’,” she said, “and you had to lock the house up, you had to get the children all organised, and you had to get them over to whoever was having them for you. The men didn’t think, they’d just send a telegram and expect you to be on the jetty. They didn’t realise the journey you might have, or that you got there and the ship had gone somewhere else, which happened. You were always tugged both ways, you had to leave your children to go to your husband. I can remember my mother saying, ‘If you don’t go, someone else will’… It was hard on the children, but we hadn’t much choice.

Mujer Marinera Lloret de Mar, Spain

Mujer Marinera Lloret de Mar, Spain

“We were brought up with it,” said Dolly. “My uncles all went to sea. Jim’s father died at sea. That was our life. Father never wanted a shore job; he never wanted to come home. Nor did my husband.”

Jim had merchantmen’s medals for the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Borneo and Korea, and a photograph of his men on deck with their protective gloves and geiger counters just after the last nuclear test off Christmas Island in 1958, where they were refuelling the destroyers patrolling the exclusion zone. They had been sealed in the engine room – but let themselves out after the blast because of the unbearable heat. The mushroom cloud had, he said, faded in the sky behind them. He remembered fishing in the bay for weeks afterwards, and the crew popping down to the Naafi on the island for a beer of an evening. He hadn’t suffered any ill effect, he said, though he knew of others who had.

When I met them, Jim had been retired for 18 years, and they were living near the son who had not gone to sea, collecting china together in Berkshire. “No, I never liked the sea,” said Dolly, smiling impishly at her husband across the spotless living room.

Waiting on shore, Sligo, Ireland

Waiting on shore, Sligo, Ireland

Did Jim miss it, I enquired. Jim grunted, and shrugged. What was to miss? As an engineer, he had spent most of his time below decks anyhow, he said. His only comment was disgust that their accommodation ashore was no bigger than it had been aboard ship in later years, when he was chief engineer. By then they’d had beds big enough for two and the wives were allowed to come with them a couple of times a year, but that was the 1970s. Things were very different for sea wives before.

“When I married Jim,” said Dolly, “my mother told me, it is no use crying or feeling sorry for yourself, you’ll get no sympathy from me. You married a sailor, you get on with it. She was a hard woman, my mother, but she was right. She was hard, because my father had had to leave her alone such a lot when she was a young wife.”

Dolly’s mother, Nell Card, was one of four children of a Shetland trawlerman who was knocked overboard by a ship’s boom in Aberdeen harbour in 1902 when she was two months old. His body was never recovered. His oldest child was only seven. From the day Nell could hold the big needles she helped her widowed mother and sister knit the great Fair Isle jumpers that had to feed the family until the two boys were old enough to follow their dead father to sea.

Seafarer's wife memorial, Galaxidi, Greece

Seafarer’s wife memorial, Galaxidi, Greece

“That was what there was on Shetland then, knitting or the sea,” said her daughter.

Nell was not yet 18 when she met a young English man from Kent, the mate of a ship that had called at Lerwick for repairs at the end of the first world war. They met at the hotel where Nell was working and he had wooed her by telegram for six months.

Nell Card had never seen a bus or a tram until the night she was wed and she set off on the long journey south to meet her husband’s people. “I think she wanted to get away from Shetland,” said Dolly. She was appalled, however, on arrival in Maidstone on the Sunday evening, to find her mother-in-law darning socks. Shetland islanders still kept the Sabbath. What kind of a family had she married into, Nell wondered. That was 1920.

*Names changed

Read on: In sickness and in health, Mytilus 1921
Previously: Wives on wharves


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