Archive for the ‘WWI’ Category
Much of what we know about the dying days of sail was recorded after the First World War, when most of Britain’s last old sailers had been sunk or ‘sold foreign‘.
Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race and Elis Karlsson’s excellent Pully-haul were published as late as the 1950s and ‘60s, both about what were by then Finnish-owned vessels – the Moshulu, now a restaurant (!) in Philadelphia, and the Herzogin Cecilie, a wreck off Salcombe, Devon.
But in the summer of 1913, when the Liverpool-registered square rigger Monkbarns arrived off Australia from South America with a state-of-the-art Cinematograph movie camera provided by the Kineto film company of Wardour Street, London, “Everything that could be filmed about life aboard had been filmed,” the resident amateur cameraman noted.
Dr Dudley Stone was a keen yachtsman and junior doctor at St Bart’s hospital London who had joined Monkbarns in Gravesend that February determined to chronicle what was even then obviously the end of an era, from “swinging the ship” for correcting the compass before they sailed to the shanties round the capstan as they weighed anchor. His commission was to “obtain pictures of the ocean in its angry moods”. It was Kineto’s second attempt, after the chap it sent out the previous year had found himself vilely incapacitated by seasickness.
Over the months that followed, as Monkbarns crossed the Atlantic to Buenos Aires with a cargo of cement and then headed back eastwards in ballast round the Cape of Good Hope to Sydney, he shot 9,000 feet of film: of the men hauling and chipping, of the view from the yards, of big seas and the master in his oilskins. He developed it in his cabin and dried it all in strips festooned around a lazarette under the fo’c’sle head.
“I have cinematographed with no gloves and with oilskins and top boots on from aloft from almost everywhere.” Dating and developing it all had taken up to five hours a day, he wrote from Newcastle NSW.
Sadly, this nearly two miles of film seems to have disappeared. It is mentioned in the Australian newspapers of the time and was picked up years later by Captain “Algie” Course during the fireside yarns with fellow Cape Horners that formed the basis of his account of Monkbarns in The Wheel’s Kick and The Wind’s Song, but of the actual film there is no trace, not in the National Maritime Museum collection, nor the British Film Institute, nor the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney. Shot from a heaving deck over 100 years ago, washed in saltwater, dried in a dusty locker and exposed to sulphur fumes when the ship was fumigated in Newcastle, it is unlikely any of it has survived.
Dr Stone’s unfinished diary, however, did survive – in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich – and even without moving images it provides a rare glimpse of working life aboard one of the last British full-rigged ships a full 16 years before Alan Villiers and his ill-fated colleague Ronald Walker immortalised Grace Harwar, the last full rigger in the Australian trade.
Stone and his friend and patient, the Honourable John Gilbert Eveleigh-de Moleyns, aged 34, fifth son of the 4th Baron Ventry, were an odd couple aboard a working ship; de M’s condition is not identified but he lay down every afternoon, and usually played Euchre with the Mate for matches in the evenings or made quoits, which he played on deck when the weather permitted. Meanwhile, Stone was out along the yards or down the holds in all weathers with his Cinematograph, filming, or learning to take a noon sight and wrestling with calculations of the ship’s position and progress.
Neither did any actual work aboard, apart from “tailing on” occasionally.
But they roamed at will armed with a Videx Reflex and a Brownie, and Stone’s eye was keen. He noted the pilfering of stores by the ever-hungry apprentices, rough justice for a suspected thief who was given a hiding by his shipmates and booted ashore in Buenos Aires, and the stowaway “discovered” drinking tea in the fo’c’sle after they sailed. The Mate hadn’t known he was aboard, but the master did. Desertions had left him shorthanded. Two “stowaways” appeared after the ship had sailed, and both were entered on the articles at £1 per month.
Patrick Haggerty was an Irishman from Queenstown, Cork, red haired, blue eyed and popular. A fine shantyman, said Stone. He claimed to be off an Italian barque that had gone ashore near Buenos Aires and had only the dungarees, socks, cap and shoes he stood up in. After he was found half frozen at the wheel one night, the ship had a whip-round for him: the Mate gave him a shirt and an old oilskin, de M donated pants and socks, Stone rooted out an ancient spare jersey.
Stone’s surviving diary begins as they leave Buenos Aires.
A doctor was a familiar sight on passenger steamers, schmoozing the saloon crowd and keeping at bay any unpleasantness from steerage. Naval vessels too usually had a surgeon, to patch up battle injuries. But merchant ships knocking about the world with cargoes of nitrate or guano rarely enjoyed the luxury of trained medical assistance.
In the days of sail, physicking the crew was the responsibility of the “Old Man”, supported by a dog-eared copy of the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide and a case of pre-mixed bottles and papers labelled Solution No. 5 and Powder No. 3. Far from land, way off the steamer tracks and with no wireless to call for help or seek advice, the master had to rely on common sense and caution. Any ailment that didn’t involve actual blood loss was potentially malingering, and logs show intervention was rarely rushed. It is hardly surprising then that the presence of a bona fide doctor aboard Monkbarns was greeted with enthusiasm by her crew.
They set off from BA with all seven apprentices and three of the fo’c’sle down with diarrhoea, due to “the change of water”, the master diagnosed, and throughout what was to prove a very rough passage Dr Stone was kept busy.
Within a week storms were raking the ship. It was hard to sleep, wrote Stone. The main royal broke loose and tore both sheets out. The foresail ripped the starboard reefing jackstay clean off the yard, and the fore topmast staysail chafed most of the way through its bolt rope. In the store room all the pickles and a case of kerosene were lost. The following morning Stone watched the steward and two of the apprentices leaping about among the stores trying to catch tumbling tins. “Some had burst (I only hope they are the ‘blown’ ones I saw and that we will be saved from Ptomaine poisoning)”.
The fore hold was a jumble. There was rope everywhere, hanging over the edge of the ‘tween decks and tumbled below. The ship had acquired a list to starboard, and was rolling badly. The skipper had told him the squalls had been hurricane force 11 to 12, and that they might not have survived the night if the ship had been loaded. The boys’ half-deck had flooded.
Stone, who did not have to get up in the night to clamber aloft replacing blown-out sails, or sleep on a wet bunk in wet clothes, was amused to note that all the master’s drawers had shot out and his rug had spontaneously rolled itself up, but he was less pleased that the loss of the oil meant lights out at 9pm. There were only four candles aboard (his and de M.’s) and the ship was “badly found for matches”.
As paying passengers Stone and de M. occupied separate cabins in the saloon aft, with a porthole and two bunks each for all their gear. This left Leslie Beaver, the out-of-time apprentice acting 3rd mate, relegated to the lower bunk in the 2nd mate’s cabin.
“The Mate’s and 2nd mate’s cabins were like store rooms for nick-nacks and old rubbish. Their doors being opposite each other the contents of both cabins were well mixed. I just missed being hit by a camp stool paying a flying visit from 1st to 2nd’s quarters. Beaver had the much used water in their basin, the contents of a water jug and a tin of Swizo milk spilt into his bunk. He borrowed rug etc from de M. for night ”
More seriously, one of the ABs was injured. “Whole gale, hurricane squalls. Tremendous big NW Sea,” recorded the mate. “W Chapman knocked down and hurt.”
On June 7, Stone saw six “patients”, including Chapman, whose leg was skinned from knee to ankle. My own grandfather, then an apprentice of 18, sidled into the narrative with a tap at the doctor’s cabin door that evening. Stone noted an inflamed ligament, painful to the touch and prescribed iodine.
Captain James Donaldson was not pleased, though whether it was the molly-coddling or the lèse majesté is unclear. On June 11, Stone noted: “9.30 Went the rounds of the fo’c’sle at skipper’s invitation – a gentle hint that he does not like my going there on my own.”
Chapman’s raw leg was much better, a swollen knee was down and young Sivell was back at work again, against medical advice – (fed up with doing nothing, noted Stone.) Meanwhile, there was a strained shoulder to inspect (“nil to be seen. I’m safe…”), and the 3rd Mate had been shot into the scuppers on his stomach during a particularly heavy roll, resulting in appalling bruises but fortunately no internal injuries.
And still the glass continued to fall, down to 28.58. The fore lower topsail carried away.
At 3.30am, on a page labelled Hurricane, Stone recorded: “Broached to on port tack – my top row of bookshelf showered its contents on my head and then continued across cabin. Got up and collected them. 4 Very heavy squall carried away fore topmast staysails and new No 1 canvas sail. 7 de M came over to me and I produced LGCL book on meteorology and we tried to make out what position we were in with not much success. 7.30 Hot coffee went the rounds. 8 Broached to on port – more things going to leeward – thank goodness the ballast remains a fixture. This is as heavy a blow as any of ship’s officers have been in. I certainly cannot imagine more wind or a bigger sea. I heard that at 3.30am the 2nd mate and a hand went aloft to see to upper fore topsail and that on coming down he stepped into lee scuppers, which were full up with water. He is a short fellow and was up to his neck. That I think gives me some idea of the sea shipped on broaching to, and we in ballast.”
The Old Man – who was 64 and had been up all night – was laid up with cramp in the chart house, and the foremast staysail was a rag.
The hurricane squalls and strong gales continued for three weeks, almost without let up. Stone and de M. would tell the newspaper reporters waiting in Newcastle that they were both “ardent lovers of the sea” but neither of them ever wished to undergo such an experience again.
Monkbarns was one of five sailing vessels that arrived at Newcastle on the weekend of 5th July 1913, including the full-rigged Ben Lee, which had sailed from Buenos Aires two weeks before her. All had suffered. Ben Lee’s lower topsail had carried away and the foresail was blown to pieces. Kilmallie, from Santos, lost a lifeboat and her ballast shifted. The barque Lysglimt, from Natal, was knocked onto her beam ends when her ballast shifted, and the crew spent three death-defying days in the hold trying to right her, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Despite or possibly thanks to the hurricane, Monkbarns had made the passage in 52 days, to Ben Lee’s 67. Our man on the docks reported that two of Monkbarns’ crew had been injured and had been “attended by Dr M Stone, a passenger”.
Up in Newcastle, (where they went because there was smallpox in Sydney and the city was about to be quarantined), the Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate produced a much juicier report, headlined “An interesting visitor”.
Dr Stone, it said, had been imprisoned by Germany for spying the previous year (shades of Erskine Childers‘ The Riddle of the Sands). Dr Stone did not deny it. He had been one of a party of five well-to-do British yachtsmen – including the marine artist Gregory Robinson and the engineer William Richard Macdonald, who happened to have patented a nifty bit of submarine technology. They had attracted unwelcome attention from the German military authorities by happily photographing naval installations along the Kiel canal. It had taken them five days to talk themselves out of jail.
During the war that broke out less than a year after Monkbarns’ arrival in Newcastle, Stone would serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He became an eminent radiographer, with an obituary in the British Medical Journal in 1941.
The Kineto company, however, folded in 1923 and de M died in New Zealand in 1928, the year after Monkbarns was hulked off Corcubion, in northern Spain.
Stone carried on yachting all this life. Perhaps he even shot more films. But what became of his footage of working life aboard a British ship in the last days of sail remains a mystery.
An edited version of this article appeared first in The Cape Horner magazine, the journal of the International Association of Cape Horners. August 2015.
Photographs by Eugene Bainbridge, who was Monkbarns’ last apprentice during her final voyage, 1924-26. He joined her in Newcastle NSW, having steamed out from the UK third class aboard the P&O passenger ship Barrabool. He was then 19, the privately educated only son of a maritime insurance broker from Surrey. He had a Leica camera and for two years he kept a diary and took pictures of life aboard. Neither the diary nor the photographs were ever published and Eugene never went back to sea. These previously unseen views are made available by kind permission of his family.
Previously – Flowers in Hong Kong, Medals in the Post iii
Read from the start:
A sailor’s life – beginning, middle and end
Whatever may have become of the hulk of three-master Monkbarns after she was demasted and towed to Corcubion, Spain, in 1927, the old ship still sails on across the 21st century – on the internet.
Though obsolete the day she slipped into the Clyde at Dumbarton in 1895, square-rigged and wind-driven in a world of steam and early oil-fired engines, the name of Monkbarns still resonates down the years among generations who will never know the smell of Stockholm tar, boiled coffee or wet oilskins.
For those of us who came after, a whiff of adventure seems to cling to the tales of the last windbags that no accounts of scurvy teeth or salt water boils and split fingers can mar. Many descendants of the men and boys who crewed Monkbarns in the last days of sail have come forward since I began this blog. Around the world, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand, grandchildren like me are digging, sifting yellowed newspaper clippings, piecing together lives so recent yet so brutally alien from our own pampered digital age.
Snail mail and various nautical magazines traced Lionel Walker‘s family, Francis Kirk‘s and Harry Fountain. But it was email and Facebook that whistled up Victor Fall‘s son, Captain Donaldson’s great grandson, and Laurence O’Keeffe‘s niece-in-law, belatedly mourning a gallant young life lost at sea. Most recently Bert’s blog received an overnight email from the diaspora of a Finnish family many thousands of miles away. The word Monkbarns had appeared on a grandfather’s Australian naturalisation papers, outward bound from New York in 1916. Google had done the rest. Had Bert Sivell and Axel Skärström perhaps sailed together, she asked.
As always, the crew lists provided pay dirt. Young Skärström, a 22-year-old Finn registered to a boarding house at 18 Great George Square, Liverpool, joined Monkbarns as an ordinary seaman in June 1915 on £5 10s a month. It was not his first ship. The ship’s papers note he had previously served on a Russian vessel, although Captain Donaldson had not concerned himself to record which.
Aboard Monkbarns, Axel Skärström lived in the fo’c’sle, among a crowd of mainly young Scandinavian hands: four Finns, three Swedes, two Norwegians, a Dane, a Swiss and four English teenagers – all willing to work for a pittance on the dwindling number of sailing ships to rack up experience for their square-rig “ticket” (plus ça change…) – and two fifty-something Welshmen, old sea dogs unable or unwilling to learn new tricks.
Bert Sivell, only 20 himself that trip, had set sail from Garston, Liverpool, as one of the eight unpaid apprentices sharing the “boys” house amidships, though he was promoted to able seaman two months later in mid-Atlantic as soon as his indentures expired.
From Liverpool he and Axel had sailed together to New York and from New York they sailed with general cargo for Australia, where in March 1916 in Port Adelaide, after a month hanging around, Bert sat and passed his 2nd Mate’s exam and Donaldson recorded that Axel deserted.
It came as no surprise to the Skärström family. “Dad always said he’d jumped ship,” pinged back the email.
What did come as a surprise was the name on the line below Axel’s on Monkbarns crew list: another, younger, Skärström, only 19, but registered to the same boarding house in Liverpool, and also off a Russian ship.
Little brother Johan Wilhelm – for it was Axel’s brother – did not jump ship in Australia. He helped finish loading the 34,000 sacks of wheat they picked up at Wallaroo for Cape Town, and arrived back in England just before Christmas 1916.
JW was paid off in Avonmouth with £81 17s 11d, after what was evidently a very abstemious two years. He didn’t sign on for Monkbarns next trip. Eventually he returned to Finland and became harbourmaster in Hango. Meanwhile, Axel found work in Adelaide and ten years later met and married an Aussie girl who walked past the wharf each day. In 1914, with war coming, Axel’s mum in Finland had advised him not to come home. So he didn’t.
Around the world, more emails are pinging. Johan’s grandson far away in Finland has been alerted. More digging is going on. Monkbarns has entered the canon of yet another family’s history, and another piece may shortly be added to the jigsaw of lives played out around the last days of sail.
Post script: Axel died in 1941, falling from the rigging of the steamship MV Minnipa, and is commemorated on the Australian merchant navy memorial. But Johan is buried in the family plot in Hango, in southern Finland, surrounded by generations of seafaring Skärströms. And there, each Christmas eve, candles are still lit on his grave as Finns up and down the country flock through the snow to remember the past at Christmas. Nice one.
Now, how about George Barnaby, born in King’s Lynn in 1895, who deserted in New York in 1915? Or Bill Aplin, Graham Cheetham and Ted Chown*, the out-of-time apprentices who helped put down the mutiny round Cape Horn in 1918? Or the five ringleaders who were jailed in Newport, Gwent, in 1918 – Fausto Humberto Villaverde (born about 1896, Callao, Peru), Charles H Moore (approx. 1897, Chicago, US), Thomas O’Brien (1877, Dundalk, Ireland), David Thomas (1873, Swansea, South Wales) and Edvard Henriksen (1896, Arendal, Norway)?
Answers on a postcard, please – or watch this space.
* William Gilbert Nigel Aplin, 1897, Bloxham, Oxford; Edward John Chown, 1899, Teddington, Middlesex; Gilbert Robert Cheetham, 1899, Wrexham.
Coming next: The General Strike, RMS Karmala and Bert goes East
Previously: In Memoriam
The Shell oil tanker Pyrula – formerly the White Star liner Cevic, ex Admiralty oiler Bayol/Bayleaf and one-time decoy battleship HMS Queen Mary – left New York on 21st August 1925 for a new life in Curacao in the Dutch West Indies.
She was manned by a mainly Dutch skeleton crew of 16, including three catering staff and four South American “firemen” (stokers) being repatriated to Maracaibo in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. The young master’s only officer – and the only other Brit on board – was his Scottish chief engineer, George Andrew of Airdrie.
Pyrula was a 30-year-old British steamer with a nominal horsepower of 708 and a working crew of 50, but after four years rusting off Staten Island as a floating oil depot for the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company, she faced a final journey of nearly 2,000 nautical miles (3,500 km) down the east coast of the US and across the Caribbean at the peak of the hurricane season, to a small Dutch island possession 40 miles north of Venezuela.
The voyage, the crew agreement notes, was to last for a period not exceeding six months and the sailors were to stand by until the ship was safely moored.
Rocky, dry Curacao was booming. The refinery had opened in 1918 and by 1925 beside the growing tank park, water plant and pending drydock, a little wooden Dutch town had sprung up with its own club house, tennis courts and golf course. Every four days a “mosquito fleet” of tiny tankers poured in from Venezuela with the oil bonanza discovered under shallow Lake Maracaibo, and by July the Isla was processing 5,500 tons of crude a day.
As the oil trade expanded internationally, increasing numbers of tourist steamers too were calling at Curacao, which was handily placed for the Panama canal and the Pacific, and Willemstad was starting to rival Amsterdam for ships and tonnages handled.
Once again,Shell needed Pyrula for bunkering. From the main harbour in the Schottegat lagoon she would eventually move out and round the coast, east to Caracas Bay, as a floating oil pump to the bigger ships unable or reluctant to traverse the narrow St Anna channel between the pretty Dutch gables.
And there she would end her career, overseen by a new master, Willem Hendrikse, and his growing family from a comfy stone bungalow built at the waterside. No more Shell wives made their homes among the old panelled staterooms of the former passenger ship, with their electric fans and bells to the pantry.
Hendrikse would eventually have two retired British steamers in his charge. Satoe was one of eight shallow-draft Royal Navy Monitor-class gunships bought up by the Curacaosche Scheepvaart Maatschappij after the first world war. As Monitor 24, Satoe had seen service on the Dover Patrol in 1918 and in the White Sea in northern Russia during the allied intervention after the October revolution, but the “flat irons” as the Dutch called them, were so unsuited to the tropics that the Chinese stokers used to faint from the heat in the holds, he said.
No ship’s log survives in the tidy blue cardboard folder in the National Maritime Museum archives in Greenwich, where Pyrula’s particulars for 1925 have lain crisp and apparently unvisited since the merchant navy records were carved up in the 1970s. The two pages for certificates and endorsements are blank.
Lloyd’s List reports she was one of 13 ships to leave New York that day, and the only one bound for Curacao. So the first hint of anything untoward on Pyrula’s last long passage south is a single undated line on the front of the crew agreement, where her chief officer/acting master, Hubert Stanley Sivell, my grandfather, has added: “Vessel in tow and not under own steam” .
Arrived in Curacao “to be a hulk”, reported Lloyd’s baldly on September 8th.
Twenty-four hours later the men were paid off – in dollars. A small fortune in dollars: $744, worth £153 at the ambitious new exchange rate set that April by the chancellor, Winston Churchill, when Britain disastrously rejoined the gold standard.
Although Pyrula’s crew agreement was the standard UK form, with the usual pre-printed scale of provisions (a pound of salt pork on Monday, a pound and a quarter of salt beef on Tuesday, preserved meat on Wednesday, plus lime juice “as required by the Merchant Shipping act”) and the usual puny 5 shilling fines for everything from possession of firearms to mutiny, Bert’s sailors that trip were not on standard National Maritime Board rates.
Instead of £9 a month – a rate controversially reduced from £10 only that August, and still not including clothing, bedding or time ashore – the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company paid Bert’s seamen an astonishing $62.50 a month. £12 15s. His firemen were on $67.50, or £13 15s.
In fact the chief steward, H Mulder, 25, who had signed on as humble mess room steward at $50 a month and been promoted to $120 a month before the ship even left New York, was earning only £2 a month less than the Old Man himself – although young Captain Sivell did not advertise the fact. The column for pay against his name in the crew agreement is prudently blank.
Over in North Shields, in the north of England, the British crew of the Shell tanker Acasta – which was shortly to arrive off Curacao to collect Bert Sivell and two other “spare” Anglo-Saxon officers and take them home – would have been highly interested in the pay aboard Pyrula.
Acasta’s pantry boy, 20-year-old Albert Black of Dene Street, North Shields, was on £3 10s a month. He took a £1 15s advance when he signed up, probably to buy oilskins and bedding as he was listed as a “first tripper”, and set up a £1 15s “allotment” to his mother, which left not much. In Tilbury, forty days later, he would be paid off with just nine shillings.
Throughout September seamen with families had run the gauntlet of pickets and opprobrium at dock gates and railway stations up and down the UK to sign on for the new low rate. There were 1.2 million registered unemployed that autumn, but on £9 a month even fully employed seamen found themselves needing to apply for “relief” between ships.
A letter to the editor from a seaman’s wife in Hull in July demands to know how she is expected to pay rent, insurance, coal and “keep respectable” on £1 6s 3d a week. “Now then, all you sailors and firemen, buck up,” she wrote, the night before the cut came in. “What do you pay 1s weekly to your union for, and never one word of protest from none of you? Buck up some of you. Scandalous such treatment for a British sailor.”
By the time Bert Sivell paid off his crew in Willemstad with their wedge of dollars in the second week of September, British shipping was in chaos.
There were pickets on wharves from Southampton to Glasgow, and unemployed men from Cardiff to the Tyne waiting in tugs in the Bristol Channel and off the Isle of Wight to make up numbers as ships sailed shorthanded.
Across the Dominions thousands of British seamen had walked off their ships – 2,500 in Sydney alone – leaving steamers, mail and precious perishable cargoes, including refrigerated meat, maize and 15 million oranges, laid up from Wellington to Durban SA. Thousands of seamen were camped in meeting halls and private homes, fed by the generosity of local families and unions, while the Australian and New Zealand courts sentenced hundreds at a time to jail with hard labour.
And all for the sake of £1 and a vote.
The dispute had begun very low-key on August 1st, when pay on British ships was cut overnight by 10% in an agreement struck between the shipowners and Joseph Havelock Wilson, the president and founder of the National Sailors & Firemen’s Union. It was the seamen’s fourth pay cut in four years, but there was no vote on it, neither for the NSFU membership nor for men in smaller unions not represented on the official national Maritime Board.
When the cut was announced there had been protest meetings and speeches. Letters to local papers outlined the long hours and poor conditions aboard British ships (“only fit for seamen of an Eastern nation…”) and in Hull a disorderly NSFU meeting carried a vote demanding Mr Havelock Wilson’s resignation, which the union officers ruled out of order.
On “Red Friday”, July 31st, as the coal and rail unions were celebrating victory over the government of Stanley Baldwin, 200 seamen in Hull voted to strike.
The miners and railway workers were big hitters who had threatened a general strike over the mine owners’ plans to cut pay, (which was £3 a week in Staffordshire and up to 13s a day in Scotland) and faced with the prospect of the country being brought to a standstill Baldwin had backed down. He agreed to subsidise the industry for nine months, pending an inquiry (- which would lead to the general strike in May 1926, when the royal commission came back with a recommendation to cut the miners’ pay anyway, but by then the government had emergency plans in place – and volunteers on standby to drive buses and trains.)
But there was no similar support for the seamen. The NSFU stood by its sweetheart deal with the shipping companies, so the TUC – and even the breakaway Amalgamated Maritime Workers’ Union – considered the action “unofficial” and would provide no fighting fund. Within weeks, seamen refusing to sign on at the lower rate were deemed “unavailable for employment” and cut off from the dole.
Newspaper reports of the meetings of the workhouse guardians record debates about basic food relief, to prevent the wives and children of strikers “actually starving”. The men, it was agreed, should get nothing.
On August bank holiday weekend the Hull Daily Mail’s man at the dockside described the crowds of happy day trippers who piled unmolested onto the steamers Whitby Abbey and Duke of Clarence, despite the seamen’s strike. “There was no disturbance beyond a fight between two small dogs; a policeman on duty yawned continually, apparently bored with the inactivity of the ‘strikers’,” he sneered.
Up and down the country for the first three weeks of August ships sailed, and wherever men refused to sign on at the lower rate there were plenty of others hungry take their places.
Times were hard. The first world war had cost Britain her export markets. As the chancellor, Winston Churchill, wrestled with reparations and repayments, his overambitious return to the gold standard was having a depressing effect on Britain’s balance of trade. (Nations united by the gold standard, he had said that April, would “vary together, like ships in harbour whose gangways are joined and who rise and fall together with the tide…” Eurozone countries please note.)
Struggling to compete on price, British manufacturers cut pay. And kept cutting.
Even on the Isle of Wight unemployment was rising, from 1,000 in January 1925 to 1,538 by Christmas, but the situations vacant column in the local paper there (mainly seeking servants) was still three times the length of the situations wanted. Niton needed a gas lamplighter, the County Press reported, and a married woman teacher in Dorset had won a ruling in Chancery preventing the school governors terminating her employment, “even though there were single women teachers wanting for work”.
Seamen were largely casual labour, and even on £10 a month often could not lay enough by to feed, clothe and house a family during the growing gap between ships. To strike against the NSFU, cut off both from unemployment relief and union support, meant hardship.
By the middle of August it looked like the strikers might be starved out. But industrial relations took an unexpected turn when the first British ships started arriving in Australia after the three-week passage, and an energetic seamen’s union recently victorious in its own battle over pay and conditions took up the cause.
By the time Pyrula arrived in Curacao, the strike had taken a grip in the UK itself.
“Two thousand three hundred passengers, practically all Americans, booked to sail tomorrow morning from Southampton to New York on the White Star liner Majestic were at their wits’ end today,” the New York Times correspondent TR Ybarra cabled on September 1st, “trying to find out whether the Southampton seamen’s strike would force the Majestic to postpone her sailing.” Bristol, Hull and Liverpool were also affected, he said.
In South Africa, desperate fruit growers clubbed together to pay the disputed £1, just to get their oranges away. “The fruit interests are emphasising that for a matter of £70 in wages in this ship Roman Star £300,000 worth of fruit is being jeopardised, which if lost, will mean the ruin of many small producers,” the Western Morning News reported.
In Avonmouth, 30 boilermakers working on an Eagle Star tanker in dry dock downed tools. The San Dunstano needed enough work to keep 300 men employed until Christmas, they said, but they were being asked to just make her seaworthy to reach Rotterdam, where the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company had already sent the US-built Ampullaria. With 400 men locally unemployed it was “not right to send three months work to the Continent”.
“A MILLION TONS HELD UP BY SEAMEN’S STRIKE”, shrieked the NY Times on the 17th.
With the country’s maize and citrus exports rotting on the wharves, the South African government tried to mediate – mooting a six-month inquiry, as put in place for the miners, but the shipowners said no. Union Castle began to recruit “lascar” crews in Bombay, but India and South Africa both protested – though for different reasons.
As well as their £1 back, and paid overtime, and an end to the NSFU’s closed shop deal with the ship owners, the strikers wanted a ban on cheap Chinese and “lascar” crews.
Wartime restrictions on enemy aliens living in the UK had been extended after the war, limiting employment rights for foreign nationals and barring them from certain jobs (including the civil service). The act had particular impact on foreign seamen working on British ships, and was encouraged by British trade unionists fearful of the cheap competition for jobs. [It was expanded again in 1925 by the Special restriction (coloured alien seamen) order, and even more shamefully not repealed until 1971]
Under so called “lascar agreements” big British firms like Union Castle signed up Asian crews as a job lot for a round trip, under a serang. They did not have to be paid British rates, because they were not signed in British ports, and they were expected to put up with grossly inferior conditions for reasons that can only be described as racist.
Acasta’s white British crew had themselves taken the place of 38 Chinese seamen and firemen who were signed off in South Shields on September 10 after 11 months’ service between Trieste, Malta, Panama, Montreal, Las Palmas and Marseilles.
These men were all registered to boarding houses in the same three streets in Rotterdam – Atjehstraat, Delistraat and Veerlaan, and their pay per month of the trip cost Shell even less, an average of only £3 a head.
Many Chinese had appeared in the tiny docklands peninsula of Katendrecht in 1911, signed up in secret by Dutch ship owners as strikebreakers to work the big passenger liners to and from the Dutch East Indies. They had no unions, only “shipping masters”, who allocated ships and rented beds in their boarding house between jobs.
The Chinese had a reputation as hard workers. They did not drink, were docile with their pipes and mahjong (“less troublesome than a white crew,” said Bert), and were willing to work for little pay.
They were also expected to eat less than a white crew, according to a typed “Scale of Provisions (Chinese)” tidily appended to Acasta’s crew agreement by Captain G. Croft-White. Although the same document shows fireman John Sow had to be left behind in hospital in Marseilles that trip suffering suspected beri-beri.
Shell’s Chinese seamen were entitled to 7lbs of beef, pork or fish each per week, against 8lbs allocated for white crews, and they got 10 and a half lbs of rice, instead of 11lbs of potatoes, biscuit, oatmeal and rice. They got less coffee, marmalade, bread, sugar and salt, more tea and dried vegetables, and no dried fruit, suet, mustard, curry powder or onions at all.
Capt Croft-White was clearly a belt and braces sort of chap, for above the scale of provisions is also gummed a paragraph from a printed document outlining the National Maritime Board’s absolute jurisdiction over pay board his ship, including its ability to retroactively impose cuts.
“It is agreed that notwithstanding the statements appearing in Column 11 of this Agreement the amounts there stated shall be subject to any increase or reduction which may be agreed upon during the currency of this Agreement by the National Maritime Board …”
Bert spent a month in Curacao, handing over and sorting out paperwork, but no letters survive. Only Acasta’s crew agreement shows that he was picked up “at Sea” on October 20th with two other British officers from Dutch lake tankers, and conveyed home to Tilbury.
He arrived back in Britain in November 1925. The strike was over. The seamen had lost.
From Australia came reports of violent clashes between police and British strikers in Fremantle, but after 107 days the men there too gave up and started trying to sign up for a ship home.
It was the loss of trade that eventually beat the seamen’s strike, as farmers and woolmen facing ruin eventually turned on the cuckoos in their nest. Lost, delayed and diverted trade was estimated to have cost £2 million. The shipowners claimed it was a Red Plot.
On December 8th, the Western Argus in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, ranted: “The anti-British character of the strike was plainly shown by the action of the agitators who fomented it in Australia. They professed sorrow and indignation over the unhappy British seaman, compelled to starve on a miserable pittance of £9 a month, but they said nothing about the German seamen working for £4 4s. All their efforts were directed to holding up the British shipping trade, while foreign vessels were allowed to come and go unhindered…”
After more than four years away Bert hurried home the Isle of Wight for a rare Christmas with the wife he had not seen for a year and the baby daughter he had never met at all. His furlough pay as chief officier was £24 10s a month.
“MAJESTIC, WORLD’S BIGGEST SHIP, HERE”, shouts the headline on the undated newspaper clipping. “White Star Liner Makes First Trip in 5 Days, 14 Hours, 45 Minutes.”
Bert Sivell was hugely excited when the steamer Majestic passed him in the New York narrows on 16 May 1922, at the end of her maiden voyage from Cherbourg. Yellowed cuttings spill from his letter that week.
Majestic docked in the north river at 18th Street, where a crowd was waiting on the pier head. Her passengers included the chairman of the White Star line, Harold Arthur Sanderson, and the executive head of Harland & Wolff, Henry Harland.
“Everything in the lower and upper bays and the Hudson with steam power greeted the great ship vaporously,” wrote the unnamed New York reporter, “to show the gallant Briton that they believed in welcoming nautical genius, even if it did happen to be of German origin.”
The White Star leviathan Majestic started life as the Hamburg-Amerika line’s Atlantic challenger Bismarck, allegedly extended six foot during construction to outdo Cunard’s Aquitania and ensure her the title of biggest ship in the world. Unfortunately for Germany, she came down the slips a bare month before the outbreak of the first world war and remained unfinished in dock in Hamburg for the duration, gently taking on water. In 1919 she was handed over to Britain as war reparations, and was eventually completed (reluctantly and slowly) by the German workforce under the eye of Harland & Wolff’s engineers, who failed to prevent her being delivered for sea trials in the original HAPAG colours. It was not the Germans’ sole mute protest.
“There was aboard the Majestic not a complete spirit of forgiveness for the talented Teutons who had put the hull of the splendid liner together,” Bert’s clipping records. “The Britons, mostly in a humorous spirit, recalled that just before the ship had left Hamburg, German painters had daubed in red lead on her hull many skulls and crossbones to show that they did not exactly wish the new ship a fine first trip.”
No bombs were discovered in remote corners, the report notes, slightly regretfully.
“The Majestic made a swift run from Quarantine to her dock and ten tugs assisted her in straightening out and heading for the pierhead at the foot of Eighteenth Street, North River. A great throng was there to greet her. For a moment they thought that the Majestic had decided to cut a trench across Manhattan Island … The sharp and lofty prow of the big ship was arrested, but not before she had stove in a twelve foot section of the corrugated pier shed and driven the startled group into confused flight.”
Bert was in hoots. Taking a chunk off the wharf was a rookie mistake. But Majestic’s tribulations were not over. Swishing past Pyrula again as she left New York outward bound for Europe later that week, one of the 800 steerage passengers jumped overboard and was lost.
The huge ship stopped in the narrows to search for him, but no body was ever found. It cost White Star thousands of dollars in fuel, “wear and wages”, the papers reported, and Majestic’s commander Sir Bertram Hayes felt constrained to issue a public statement after the New York Herald cheekily wired him to find out if he’d run aground.
Bert carefully cut out the story for Ena, but sadly he didn’t bother with the second column, tantalisingly headlined on the clipping: “Cocaine Worth $5,000 Found Under American Flags Aboard the America.”
America was the former HAPAG liner Amerika, seized in Boston when the US joined the war in 1917. Vaterland was caught in New York when war broke out, impounded and put into US service in 1917 as Leviathan. By the time Ena arrived in New York aboard the White Star’s new liner Homeric (formerly Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Columbus) in late 1922, HAPAG’s Imperator too was established as Berengaria – all taken as part of the allied countries’ crippling 132bn gold mark war reparations.
“During the afternoon the wind increased. My word, it did howl, it just shrieked past us and the rain came down in torrents unceasingly. A mountainous sea rose and the Pyrula, big ship that she is, was tossed around like a cork. Soon after 4pm four 10 gallon drums of coal tar got adrift in the fore ‘tween deck and then the fun commenced.
“She was capering around so much that she just threw them clean out of the lashings. The bosun managed to rescue two before they came to harm, but was a bit late with the other two. The bungs came out and oh! what a mess. Coal tar spread itself all over the deck and ran out of the scupper holes from where the wind whirled flying tar all over the place. Then, a heavy plank that was chocking off some drums of red lead and other paint in the lower fore peak collapsed, while in the top peak a barrel containing 500 weight of white paint got adrift. During a mad career around the deck it spilled half its contents and collided with a 10 gallon drum of black, so there was another queer mixture.
“It was impossible through all that rain to see further than the forecastle head. We were nearest the centre of the hurricane around 7 pm, after which the barometer began to rise. The sea was terrible – huge waves coming along from all sides. The vessel was buried in spray, but she did not ship a single sea until 7.30pm when she took a beauty. It came aboard practically the whole length of the vessel at the same time. One lifeboat was smashed, the galley skylight was washed off, several awning spars carried away and two beams buckled on the fore deck. To give you an idea of the size, let me say that the boats are all 45 ft above the water. A lot of water went down the engine room skylights and I expect some of the engineers thought their last day had arrived. After that things began to improve, although there was a tremendous sea running for 24 hours afterwards. When daylight came next morning I found my poor lifeboat sitting on top of a steam winch.”
Bert Sivell to Ena Whittington, from the Anglo-Saxon oil tanker Pyrula off Florida, October 1921
The unnamed hurricane, a category 4 with winds of up to 140mph, landed off the Caribbean near Tampa on 25 October and swept eastwards across Florida, causing widespread destruction as it slowed, although only six people were killed. Florida was still a sparsely populated fruit growing belt. Aboard Pyrula, rolling and twisting 150 miles away in the hurricane’s wake, one of the two stowaway kittens they’d picked up in Gibraltar was lost overboard.
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.”
– from The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth,
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1863
In July 1921, after five months out of work, Stanley Algar of Middlesbrough got a job as 3rd mate on an elderly coal-burning steamer ferrying oil from the US to Europe and found himself in Port Arthur, Texas, gazing at a Shell tanker moored nearby. His own ship was covered in coal dust and ashes, but the Mytilus – for it was she – was spotless. “She was a picture,” he recalled, years later when he was a Shell man himself.
“All the brass work was gleaming, the paintwork was fantastically clean, the woodwork on the bridge sparkled with good quality varnish, there was no rust to be seen, not even over the side, and the wooden bridge deck and poops were as clean as a hound’s tooth. The crew were Chinese and the British officers were in clean uniforms, not shabby old lounge suits as on our ship.
“I looked at our vessel, with the ashes from the stokehold and the galley refuse stoked up on deck, and was filled with disgust.”
Stan was 23. He had joined his first ship at 15 in 1915, during the first world war. Small for his age – just 4ft 10 – the Shipping Federation office had deemed him too puny for an apprenticeship in any of the big shipping companies, so his dad found a local firm that was not so fussy and he had been packed off to sea on a dirty old coal-fired tanker to fuel the navy at Scapa Flow for £7 a year. The master drank, the mates were very old and those of the crew who had sailing ship experience were contemptuous of those who had not.
Stan’s war was in many respects more exciting than his contemporary Bert Sivell’s. He’d had to jump for his life after a collision off the Orkneys, had been mined in Swansea bay and torpedoed off Le Havre after discharging aviation fuel, all for £1 5s a month plus the apprentice rate war bonus of £1 a month.
After the armistice, they both came home to sit exams, hoping for promotion. But while Bert passed his master’s ticket and joined Shell as 3rd officer in 1919, by 1920 jobs were not so easily come by. Stan passed his 2nd mate’s ticket at first attempt and in September joined the Royal Mail – as temporary third mate on a German vessel impounded as part of the allies’ heavy-handed war reparations settlement. Stan was present when the ship was handed over to the British in Leith. “A curt naval commander, representing the UK government, made the Germans open their cases as they left, depriving them of anything that belonged to the ship,” he wrote in the copious diaries he kept all his long life. But in January 1921 that vessel too joined the hundreds being laid up along the Tyne.
By then the pits had been on strike for three months. Unemployment everywhere was rising, and Stan was competing for ships against men with many more years at sea than he had. But his father’s pay was low and his younger brother was earning only a few shillings a week as an apprentice engineer, so the family needed his wages.
“I called at the offices of all the local shipowners and was received with scant courtesy by junior clerks and office boys. More and more ships were being laid up,” he wrote. Men with master’s tickets were accepting work as able seamen.
By the time Stan got his first job with Shell in 1922, he had again been unemployed for some time. He was offered a berth “out East” as 3rd officer on the Adna – familiar to Bert as the converted War Patriot. “I borrowed £20 from a friend, gave my mother half, bought myself a new suit for £5 and joined the P&O ship SS Kalyan as a passenger for Singapore with £5 in my pocket and a smile on my face.”
Stanley Algar and Bert Sivell both went on to careers as masters in Shell. Perhaps they even knew each other; but in March 1941, in the middle of the Atlantic, in the middle of a second world war, their stories diverge.
Twenty-four hours apart, on March 22nd and 23rd, both came under enemy attack, but while the Shell tanker Agnita encountered the auxiliary cruiser Kormoran commanded by Kapitän zur See Theodor Detmers, the Shell tanker Chama was hit by torpedoes from U97, commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Udo Heilmann. One man and his crew lived; one ship went down with all hands.
Stanley Algar lived.
For the further adventures of Gefangene 100040 in Milag Nord read Goodbye Old Chap, by Stan’s son, the journalist Philip Algar, from which the above is an extract.
Bert Sivell saw in New Year’s Day 1921 in drydock in Rotterdam, as officer in charge of the Shell oil tanker Mytilus – surrounded by the company’s new “war” boats having their names changed to shells.
Absia was there (ex War African), and Anomia (War Expert), and Marinula and Melania, and the four-masted Speedonia. The War Rajput (soon to be Conia) was due in and War Matron (Acasta), and his first ship, Donax. His last one, Orthis, had just sailed.
“There’s a big slump in cargo steamers just now and many are laying up, but ours cannot get around fast enough,” he wrote. In Britain, a national coal strike had erupted in October.
“No dear, the coal strike will not delay our docking,” he had written to Ena when it started. “It has done something far worse: it has driven the job out of this country altogether. Did you read in the paper a day or so back about a big ship repairing contract being transferred from North Shields to Rotterdam? That was this firm. They had five Monitors at Shields, being converted into tankers*, but owing to labour troubles in the ship yards and coal mines they towed them over to Rotterdam to finish converting. Think of the amount of work going out of the country, and the money…”
Britain had emerged from the first world war millions of dollars in debt to the US and with its overseas markets in tatters. Pent up domestic demand masked the damage briefly, but as the men poured home to their civilian jobs, suddenly there were too many men and not enough jobs. Wages began to slip. During a flying trip home in January with the ship’s accounts, Bert passed down Oxford Street on the breezy top deck of a double decker bus and noticed various groups of unemployed ex soldiers including a band of veterans busking for pence outside Selfridges. Trade was bad, he noted.
But out along the Heijplaat in Rotterdam business was booming. Tiny neutral Holland had emerged relatively unscathed from the war between its big neighbours – give or take the thousands of Belgian refugees and the rationing and the Spanish ‘flu.
Bert had arrived in the Netherlands aboard Orthis in December, still dodging sea mines and funnel still sparking “like a Chrystal Palace display”. He saw in the new year from a pontoon in the Maas, on the wrong side of the river from the centre of Rotterdam. The Dutch kept up new year properly, he reported, all work having stopped at 1pm and not due to restart until Monday. Cafés, bars, picturehouses and theatres were all open, however, and there were lively crowds on the streets, including several fights, which he dodged. “I did not fancy a night in jail.” He did not like Rotterdam, nor the Dutch much.
Within weeks, however, the harbour was heaving with Shell ships and Bert found himself surrounded by new ships and old friends. “I have just had one of the best weekends since I have been in Rotterdam,” he wrote.
“In my last letter I told you that the four-masted barque Speedonia belonging to this company had arrived. Naturally, being fresh out of sail myself, I was interested in the vessel, so on Saturday afternoon I went round to her. I just drifted aboard casually and saw a man holding up the cabin doorway. It struck me I should know him so I started to yarn, and in the course of our conversation I tumbled to where we had met: he was 3rd mate of the four-masted barque Grenada and we were together in Newcastle NSW in July and August 1913, and again in Gatico and Tocopilla (Chile) from October to December of the same year. I had not heard anything of him since. We went ashore together on Saturday evening and I piloted him round the sights.
“Sunday morning I was busy doing accounts when the Donax appeared on the scene. Naturally there was no more work that day and after dinner [lunch. Ed] I dressed and went round to her. She was lying at the installation, only about a mile away as the crow flies, but five miles when one has to walk it. It was a lovely day and I quite enjoyed the walk. I got round about 3.15pm and strolled along to the messroom, where I found the chief engineer playing draughts with the Marconi operator. He was very surprised to see me, because they all thought I was still on the Orthis. We adjourned to his room and give each other all the news and then the Chinese boy came in with the chief’s tea. He nearly dropped the cup when he saw me and got a ‘ten cent’ wriggle on to bring me one. After about an hour with the chief I blew along to see Captain McDermid.
“When passing through the saloon I ran into my own former boy. His face broke into a big oriental smile immediately and he started bowing and saluting alternately. It was really very amusing. Then I got into the old man’s room and his first question was if I was married yet. We had a long yarn about everything and he fished out a bottle of port.”
Captain McDermid said Shell was negotiating building forty more Donax-type ships in the US (“just think of the masters’ jobs”) on top of twenty-six already under construction at yards around the world. Thirteen were due to be commissioned that year, he told him.
McDermid was senior Shell man and he predicted great things for Bert; the company’s eye was on him, he said. Sailing ship qualifications were the golden ticket.
But Bert’s rapid progess had not passed unnoticed lower down the pecking order either. The 2nd mate on one of the other tankers challenged him to his face: why was Bert chief officer on a bigger ship after only 18 months in the company?
By late February, when Mytilus’s new master Captain (“Little”) Hill stepped aboard, Bert had been in Rotterdam for four months and he was ready to go, but it was still a shock when the orders came for Abadan.
*Renamed Anam, Ampat, Delapan, Doewa, Lima, Tiga, Toedjoe and Satoe