Archive for the ‘Seafarers’ wives’ Category
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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
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.
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…”
*[These would be the 10,000 DWT Bullmouth, Bulysses, Patella and Pecten; another six orders went to Dutch yards]
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
# # #
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
The White Star steamer Cevic disguised as the battleship Queen Mary in 1914, note dummy first and third funnels with no smoke
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“I often get a yarn with the ‘old man’ on the same old topic – marriage. His chief argument is that marriage is no good for a man going to sea, because he is seldom home. He says it is only keeping another man’s daughter, but I argue what could be better than for a man to come home from a voyage and find his wife waiting with outstretched arms to greet him, because if a girl really loves a man she is willing to put up with her man being at sea most of his time and will make the most of him while he is home. Am I not right, darling?”
Bert Sivell to Ena Whittington, December 1919
The “old man’s” view of women was jaundiced. Captain McDermid – all of 35 – had been engaged once himself, he told Bert during their first trip with the Shell oil tanker Donax. But his girl had spent her last penny to get a fur coat. When he saw that he turned her down, he said, because if she would spend her own money like that, what would she be like with his?
But McDermid’s bark was worse than his bite. Though unmarried himself, he was happy to wire ahead so that the 2nd Engineer’s wife could be waiting on the pier head as the ship came alongside in Shellhaven on their return from the Baltic, and three days later when the tug took her and the chief engineer’s wife off again as Donax left for the States, he had three long blasts blown on the ship’s whistle as a farewell to the ladies. (“The tug replied by giving a series of blasts, trying to make Hip Hip Hurrah, so the wives had a good send off. There were four British steamers lying at anchor there and I expect they wondered what had gone wrong.”)
In a “home” port, like Shellhaven in the Thames estuary, Shell’s married officers – and married officers only – were permitted to have their wives living aboard with them. “They have to pay their own expenses, but the firm makes all the arrangements, which is very good of them,” Bert wrote, enviously.
He himself managed only snatched evenings on a sofa at Ena’s digs in Tunbridge Wells, arriving at 6pm and running for the 10.10pm train for Charing Cross, Tilbury, and a midnight walk back to the ship. Once he managed a trip to his parents on the Isle of Wight. Donax had arrived at Thameshaven at 2pm, they were tied up by 5pm, he’d hailed a tug to Gravesend, and run for the ferry to Tilbury just in time to catch the London train. He had got to Ryde as the clocks were chiming 3.3oam.
Small wonder he was envious of married colleagues. ” Here is another chance you have missed,” he wrote in April 1920. “You could have met the ship yesterday afternoon and stayed on board until tomorrow morning. A little spell like that about twice every two months and the drydocking every six months will not make married life so bad after all, eh! sweetheart, and there is always the prospect of the three months furlough.”
The cranky former RFA Oakol, latterly the Shell oil tanker Orthis, to which he was transferred that May offered even more opportunity for the men to see their wives (“… The 2nd mate’s wife was aboard almost before the anchor was down…”) due to the time she spent in Millwall dock and Shellhaven while the engineers struggled with her engines. Bert managed many more trips to Tunbridge Wells after work, and several to Ryde – taking Ena with him on the night train.
“It will be a taste of what is in store for you in future, dearest, when we are married and you have to suddenly fly off to Glasgow or somewhere else on receipt of a wire. You will get quite used to night travelling.”
Captain Harding had his own wife aboard Orthis as often as possible and was generous with time off for his unwed chief officer. The likelihood of transfer “out East” hung over them all, if not to Palau Bukom in the Singapore Straits, where the Shell group had historic concessions, then at least to Batoum on the Black Sea, where a pipeline delivered oil from the Anglo-Persian’s newly acquired Caspian wells. The cosy brief domesticity in Shellhaven or even Millwall or Rotterdam was a rare interlude, to be grabbed with both hands, spurred by the arrival of charts for Batoum that May.
When the company tried to ban wives, the men were outraged. “There is a new ruling coming out in the firm that no wives are to be allowed on a vessel with benzine in,” Bert reported. “Some fanatic, I suppose, thinks it dangerous, but I have an idea that rule will be broken a few times or many will leave the firm.”
And they cheered the master of a Belgian time-charter ship who let go from the wharf and anchored in the stream when ordered to put his wife ashore while loading. “The installation manager was aboard within an hour, asking him to resume and saying his wife could stay.”
Time snatched with husbands aboard oil tankers was not an unmixed blessing, at least for the wives. “They have been trying to kill us all just lately here by letting go a lot of gas,” wrote Bert from Shellhaven in August. “They purify petrol by passing some acid through it. This acid is then run into the sea and the end of the pipeline is not far from us. They run this stuff away in the middle of the night and the ‘sniff’ is thick enough to cut. Nearly all the Europeans on board are bad through it. Last night it nearly turned me up and I have been queer all day.”
Summoned by telegrams, expected to park children and leap onto trains at little or no notice, and then kick their heels on wharves in strange ports until someone had time to pick them up, the lot of a merchant officer’s wife was not as simple as it had been in the days of sail. Then, each ship was a small business venture, and it was common for a master to own a part share. Property ashore was idle money, so many captains simply took their wives with them – resulting in children born and raised at sea. As late as the 1920s, there were still wives in sail.
When Bert Sivell joined his third Shell oil tanker, Mytilus, in Rotterdam shortly before Christmas 1920, Captain Jackson had both his wife and his little daughter living on board. Bert couldn’t wait to be married himself.