Lost at sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Continued – The Medals in the Post II

Previously – Sniffing Stockholm Tar

Or read from the start – Beginning, Middle and End

A sailor’s life – 75. Sniffing Stockholm tar

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SV Tenacious, snapped through the mist from SV Stavros S Niarchos in Dieppe docks, September 2014

SV Tenacious, snapped through the mist from SV Stavros S Niarchos in Dieppe docks, September 2014

In my sailor grandfather’s footsteps I have blagged my way into an oil refinery and onto a Shell tanker, I’ve crossed the Atlantic by container freighter and dropped a wreath into the night black sea at 49° 35’N, 19° 13’W where he and his final crew were lost – I have even traced and befriended the last old man of the U-boot crew that killed him.

For nearly 20 years I have read letters and diaries, rooted through archives, pored over photographs and asked damn fool questions of elderly seafarers who have shared their yarns with gentle amusement. But I remained an armchair sailor, sitting in the warmth, reading about a life beyond my understanding.

It was on a wet day in Liverpool docks that I ran into the Stavros S Niarchos, a dinky, modern sail training brig – square rigged on two masts, a charity venture providing outdoor challenges to young people.

And also, it transpired, to the not so young. Anyone up to 80 could have a go, said a grey-haired woman on the quayside. Was I too old to climb out along the yards, I asked – to try to experience what 16-year-old Bertie Sivell had seen and felt when he first went aloft a hundred years ago? Certainly not, she said, she had.

The author - beyond the crosstrees, heading for the t'gallants and royals.

The author – climbing past the fore t’gallant (right) to the royal beyond, where photographer is perched (see boot).

Anyone who ever read Treasure Island under the bedclothes and fell asleep dreaming of clambering among the spars of a tall ship will understand (and we who read by torchlight in the old days before duvets and Kindles know who we are). To swing up the swaying ratlines and out along the foot-ropes, and see “my” ship splice the waves 120ft below; to roll along a pitching deck, at one with the swell, dodging sheets of spray; and to lie down each night tired but buzzing and be rocked to deepest sleep?

I signed on.

Stavros is not Monkbarns. For a start she is smaller, with two masts not three and fewer yards and sails. She also has two engines, GPS, refrigeration – and heat and light and hot showers and plenty of fresh water and good food. In fact, my grandfather would scoff that my so-called experience in sail bears more resemblance to glamping than the conditions he endured when he began his career at sea as an apprentice in Monkbarns in 1911.

What a difference 100 years makes. The barrels of pork and beef gristle in brine are gone. The yawning cargo hatches and mountains of coal or guano, or slimy stone ballast, that had to be winched in or out basket by basket are gone. Nowadays safety lines snake up the ratlines and along the yards, where there was once only a boy’s own grip. The old cry of “One hand for the ship and one for yourself,” is not quite so scary when you’re wearing a stout harness and clip-on carabiners. Monkbarns suffered countless injuries, as well as losing two young lives overboard in just three years in the early 1920s – Laurence O’Keeffe off the jib-boom and apprentice Cyril Sibun in a fall from the fore upper t’gallant. They were 18 and 19.

Harbour stow in half a gale. Lower topsail.

Author (centre) on lower topsail carrying out a harbour stow in half a gale.

On Stavros clean, dry pipe cots with reading lights and lockers fill the t’ween decks where Monkbarns’ apprentices would have shovelled and sweated to trim (balance) the cargo, and out along her bowsprit net “sailor strainers” prevent accidents. But working a sailing ship is still not for the faint hearted.

I have shuffled out along the yards, muscles cracking as I wrestled to haul up and lash down the heavy clew of the sail high out over the waves. I have swung one-armed under the great steel yards, groping for gaskets blowing in the wind, and tied knots one-handed up and down the jackstays.

I have tailed on and hauled “with a will” among ill-assorted strangers until my shoulders strained in their sockets and the hairy hemp lines blistered my office softy palms, and rolled into my bunk sound asleep at 8pm to rise again fully clothed at midnight, to relieve the watch on the open bridge, donning gloves, scarf and waterproofs against the cold summer night. In a week the motley novice “crew” – paying travellers of all shapes and sizes – find themselves fused into a team. A ship’s crew. (Although our professional merchant navy officers probably think fondly of the days when a sailing ship cargo lay inert in the hold for the duration and didn’t need wetnursing.)

English Channel, 10 knots

English Channel, 10 knots

Together we have seen sails silhouetted against the stars – more stars than most of us city dwellers ever imagined, and the milky way arching overhead from horizon to horizon. We have sailed into the sunset and watched for dawn, eyes peeled for the pin prick lights of the fishing fleet. We have learned the ropes, and the buoys and the markers.

So far I have not been out of sight of land for more than a week, much less braved day after relentless day of gale-force winds, or icebergs round the Horn, but I have felt the pitch and roll of a tall ship doing 10 knots under sail and watched the horizon tilt and tip under the solid curl of the mainsail. I know the sound of the seas crashing past the scuppers and have tasted salt in the spray.

I may be just paddling in the shallows of my sailor grandfather’s life, but I have sniffed Stockholm tar.

Suddenly, the dusty records have colour and movement. This winter I shall abandon the archives again and join the paint gang aboard Stavros in Liverpool docks, chipping and cleaning, learning “my” ship from the rivets up, and next spring with a crisp CRB certificate in my pocket I hope to sail as volunteer crew – as cook’s assistant, if that’s what the ship needs.

Somewhere, my grandfather is laughing.

Stavros S Niarchos, Brixham 2014, showing safety nets on jib-boom

‘My’ ship: Stavros S Niarchos, Brixham 2014

Previously – Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?

Next – The medals in the post

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

 

A sailor’s life – 74. Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?

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The iron-hulled three-master Monkbarns, built 1895

The iron-hulled three-master Monkbarns, built 1895

She was obsolete the day she slipped into the Clyde in June 1895: a steel-hulled, full-rigged, three-masted windjammer launched into an age of engines barely two years before Rudolf Diesel changed the world of shipping forever.

The flax mill owner who had commissioned her, Charles Webster Corsar of Arbroath, named her Monkbarns after a local character from a Walter Scott novel (The Antiquary) and demanded everything of the best. The decking and rails were of teak, the accommodation for officers and crew particularly fine. “Her outfit includes all the modern appliances for the efficient working of such a vessel,” reported the Lennox Herald, the Saturday after she was floated.

As a final touch, Corsar even gave her a little white Pegasus figurehead – which would make Monkbarns and her “Flying Horse line” sisters, Fairport and Musselcrag (1896), recognisable around the world. It was not whimsy but canny branding: Corsar’s flax mills and manufactory in Arbroath supplied the sailing ship canvas sold by the family’s cadet branch, D. Corsar of Liverpool – every bolt of it stamped with their trade name, Reliance, and a little flying horse.

The Lennox Herald did not mention the figurehead, nor any further detail, merely remarking that the naming ceremony was carried out by Mrs David Corsar, Jnr, of Cairniehill, Arbroath.

The launch, reported in the Lennox Herald, West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, in June 1895

The launch of Charles Corsar’s full-rigged ship Monkbarns, reported in the Lennox Herald, West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, in June 1895

In fact, the launch by Messrs Archibald McMillan & Son (Limited) merited only a single paragraph in a round-up of Dumbarton news that week, wedged between reports about two men being fined 20 shillings each for driving without lights and a rumour in the Glasgow Herald that the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand was buying five new steamers, possibly from Dennys of Dumbarton, which had “built the greater number of vessels for the line, and will probably run a good chance of getting at least some of the work”.

The reporter’s description of Monkbarns having “all modern appliances”, however, echoed down the years. Frank C. Bowen wrote in 1930 that she had “every modern labour-saving device for working the cargo and sails” (Sailing Ships of the London River), and most subsequent authors took him at his word. Yet Monkbarns’ apprentice boys might have considered the matter rather differently.

Like every other sailing ship of her age, she had neither light nor heat. The White Star liner Majestic, completed five years before Monkbarns, catered for 4,100 passengers with an à la carte restaurant and Pompeian swimming pool. But Monkbarns had kerosene lamps and the galley fire (weather and cook permitting). There was no electricity for refrigeration. Fresh vegetables and fruit barely lasted out of sight of land. Potatoes were stored in the dark and given a haircut every week or so. Meat was “preserved” in casks of brine. Margarine came in tins. Coffee was drunk black. Even the water was rationed.

The boys were trainee officers – set apart from the sailors in the fo’c’sle and their masters in the saloon aft by virtue of being unpaid. They lived in the “half-deck”, an iron bunkhouse amidships, which on Monkbarns latterly consisted of two rooms and a corridor with doors either end so that entry could always be from the lee side of the ship while at sea. It was an ice box in the winter and an oven in the tropics, but it had a skylight exit and a “monkey bridge” to the poop that was popular in heavy seas, when the decks were often awash to a depth of two feet or more.

Monkbarns half deck. Eugene (right) and John Davies. Jim Holmes in bunk. Private collection E. Bainbridge

Monkbarns half deck. Apprentices studying. Private collection E. Bainbridge

Monkbarns’ half-deck had bunks around the walls on three sides; a bare deal table with raised sides in the middle – flanked by boot-marked benches; a pot-bellied iron stove fed with coal filched from the cargo; and a battered cupboard in the corner divided into lockers, with fancy knotted rope tails for handles. There was a mirror, mottled with damp, and a single smelly kerosene lamp swinging in gimbals.

The bunks were narrow, with high boards along the open side to stop the sleeper rolling out as the ship pitched, and coloured pictures – often of girls, sometimes a country scene – pasted to the surrounding bulkhead by previous occupants. By some hung a canvas “tidy”, containing needles and cotton for repairs. The apprentices had to do all their own own mending, darning and cobbling. Laundry had to be done in salt water, in precious time off and only when there was chance of the garment drying.

New boys would arrive each trip with shop-smart dungarees and new straw mattresses, which the old hands in patched gear would regard balefully. Their own bunks were bare except for blankets, and within weeks the new boys learned why, when the “donkey’s breakfasts” had to be tossed overboard crawling with bed-bugs. Wet oilskins stayed wet, and chafing salt water boils were endemic.

Caleta Buena, Chile, 1913

Caleta Buena, Chile, 1913

Aboard Monkbarns “all modern appliances” did not include a donkey engine until the mid-1920s, and in many ports her cargo was loaded and discharged by hand – the boys shovelling Australian coal out through the hatches basket by basket to waiting lighters off the coast of Chile, until the dust grated in their lungs and ground itself under their skin. As the last basket was hoisted out there would be shanties and a well-earned tot of whisky – unless the Master was a teetotaller.

Then work would begin again, scouring out the filthy holds for the arrival of saltpetre, 200lbs a sack, which had to be swung aboard and stacked one by one in pyramids below. Monkbarns took about 3,000 tons, or 34,000 bags. The air would be like soup. Out in the Chilean anchorages, in holds lifting and falling in the long Pacific swell, the evaporation from the bags was known to kill rats and even woodlice, and ship’s cats would lie down in dark corners and not wake up.

Guano was considered worse, a throat-catching green 
powder of ancient bird droppings scraped off rocky
 outcrops further north, off Peru. But nowadays 
potassium nitrate is considered too dangerous to 
handle, let alone breathe.

Priwall - four-masted barque built by F. Laeisz of Hamburg for the nitrate trade - had steam winches and shore staff

Priwall – four-masted barque built by F. Laeisz of Hamburg for the nitrate trade – had steam winches and shore staff

The beautiful four and five-
masted barques that set records and made fortunes 
for A.D. Bordes of Bordeaux and F. Laeisz of Hamburg shifted up to 5,500 tons of nitrates in eleven days flat, but they had steam winches – four to a hatch – and a small army of cadet officers and shore staff. Monkbarns did not.

Monkbarns boy Eugene Bainbridge, rowing around the bay visiting the other ships in Iquique in 1924, wrote enviously: “Priwall, which we went on next, was the antithesis of the Rhone, being spotlessly clean. She had every modern fitting – brace-winches (motor), halliard apparatus for two men to raise the halliards with ease, and a derrick on the jigger. Two wheels amidships with cable connection aft, where there are two more wheels under the poop. The Third Mate showed us the Captain’s saloon, decked up with light polished wood round the walls and carpet on the floor. She also carried plenty of spare spars etc. […] There was a bunk in the chart house for the Old Man, and a crowd of English charts used on the voyage round the Horn. We had a look at the log book, which registered one week nothing but 12 and 14 knots!”

Notwithstanding the
 rise of the oil industry by the
1920s, Corsar was not alone
 clinging to canvas in 1895.
 Many of the names familiar 
to us from the last days of 
sail were built after Monkbarns, including Penang and Pamir (both 1905), Peking and Passat (both 1911).

Laeisz had in fact only completed Priwall four years previously, in 1920, having been interrupted by the First World War. (In 1939 she arrived Valparaiso just in time to be trapped by the Second World War. She was interned, and 1941 was donated to the Chileans to avoid her falling into allied hands. Renamed Lautaro, she continued in the trade until she
 caught fire and burned out in 1945 while 
loading a cargo of nitrate off
 Peru.)

Monkbarns Valparaiso bay ships Peru Queen of Scots

View of Valparaiso bay from Naval School. Ships left to right: Peru, Santiago, Monkbarns, Taltal, Queen of Scots (white hull) and Valparaiso in dock. Extreme left: barque California. E. Bainbridge collection

Though most sailing ships were less well equipped than the ships of the Flying P-line, they were still holding their own against steamers on the longer routes, to Chile and Australia, because of the price of coal – and the demand for sail-trained officers that would continue in motor-ships and oil tankers for many years to come.

Boys were cheap, British ships indentured them for four years largely unpaid and by 1919 (following a mutiny aboard) Monkbarns had expanded her deck housing to accommodate a dozen of them. They often made up half the crew. Steamers couldn’t afford to hang around, but sailers could. And hang around they did, for months at a time by the end, waiting for a charter.

Monkbarns left Valparaiso with her last cargo under sail in early 1926: a load of guano salvaged from another victim of Cape Horn, Queen of Scots. After they had sailed, the boys spent several days trimming the ship, wheeling the filthy stuff down the deck from the fore hold to the hatch aft. The ABs had refused, but the boys couldn’t.

As is recorded elsewhere, it was to be a weary voyage; Captain William Davies died – probably of stomach cancer – and they put into Rio, they were becalmed, suffered baffling winds and ran out of food.

They finally arrived in the Thames under tow after 170 days out and anchored off Gravesend, amazed at the sheer volume of traffic, big and small steamers passing in a continuous stream. Fresh meat and veg were delivered aboard and dinner that night was sausages and boiled potatoes.

“I can say that never was a meal so appreciated,” wrote young Bainbridge. The following morning they began heaving up the anchor at about 8.30am, to the shanty Rolling Home followed by Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her, for the final leg to Charlton Buoys.

“All hands joined in with a will, even the pilot, so that the echo went ringing over the river and a large crowd gathered on the shore to listen,” wrote able seaman Dudley Turner in the fo’c’sle. “The pilot even grabbed a capstan bar and tramped around with us singing In Amsterdam There Lived a Maid.”

It was July 1926, and Monkbarns was the first full-rigged ship to come into the Port of London for eight years, “a wandering and lonely ghost which we may not see again,” wrote The Star. The Times called her “a picture out of the romantic past”.

Chips the ship’s carpenter was more prosaic. “I’ve had six meals since I came ashore 16 hours ago,” he told the Westminster Gazette, “and I’m still hungry.” Monkbarns was to find only one more cargo – Welsh coal, which she delivered under tow, to her new Norwegian owners off Corcubion in northern Spain the following March. She finished her life as a coal hulk to the whaling industry – the last British full-rigged ship to sail round Cape Horn, according to Alan Villiers (Sea-dogs of To-day, 1932), still bunkering passing steamers as late as 1954.

Monkbarns' final voyage - at Corcubion, northern Spain, from Sea Breezes, Vol 10, p65, June 1927

Monkbarns’ final voyage – at Corcubion, northern Spain, from Sea Breezes, Vol 10, p65, June 1927

My last sighting is from a personal letter. Brian Watson, later senior pilot/deputy harbour master at Montrose, was then a nosy British steamship apprentice in the Baron Elibank. In 1954 he spotted a name in raised letters on the nearby bunkering hulk after his ship had sought refuge in Corcubion bay during bad weather. He recognised she was an old Britisher and climbed aboard for a look round.

In 1999 he wrote: “We berthed alongside a coal hulk and I could clearly see her name Monkbarns the metal letters still visible on her counter stern.” He said the masts had been cut down to stumps and he thought the bowsprit had been cut away, most of the deck and poop cabins had been stripped, a rusting galley stove had been moved into the poop accommodation.

Unfortunately, he was spotted by the steamer’s Mate and chased back to work before he could check the bows for the little white horse. Sadly, I can find no further trace of what became of Monkbarns.

© Jay Sivell

Is there anyone among our readers who can put Jay in touch with a reliable Spanish or even Basque maritime museum or historian? It is likely the old ship was broken up at Ferrol, Biscay.

This article appeared first in The Cape Horner magazine, the journal of the International Association of Cape Horners. August 2014, V2 No 65

Next – Sniffing Stockholm Tar

Previously – In Remembrance: Save our Ships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

merchant navy convoy, national arboretum 1998

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

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

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

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

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

merchant navy convoy 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lest we forget.

 

 

Dedication of the merchant navy convoy, 1998

Dedication of the merchant navy convoy, 1998

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

Previously – Death of a master

A sailor’s life – 72. Death of a master, 1926. Monkbarns’ last trip

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Monkbarns apprentice Eugene Bainbridge August 1924

Monkbarns apprentice Eugene Bainbridge August 1924

He was the teenage only son of well-to-do parents, with uncalloused hands and a yen for real life. Mother and Father – a marine insurance broker – were off on a world cruise for their health, so they packed him off on one of the last British windjammers.

And that was how Eugene Bainbridge, ex-Marlborough College, joined the motley crowd in the half deck of Monkbarns with his expensive Leica in Newcastle NSW in 1924 and set sail for two years on what would turn out to be the old square-rigger’s very last trip.

Bainbridge père paid £38 for Eugene’s third class berth out on the P&O passenger ship Barrabool – which was nearly five months’ pay for the men in Monkbarns’ fo’c’sle. John Stewart & Co apprentices, of course, as their indenture papers firmly stated, received “NIL”.

But even with half the hands working unpaid, the sums for the old windbags were no longer adding up. One by one, John Stewart’s fleet had been sold for scrap. Monkbarns was among the last four, and she had been laid up in Bruges for over a year until a lucky cargo of rock salt brought her out of retirement in 1923 one more time.

By Christmas 1925, she was in South America, in Chile, and the “boys” in the half deck saw in New Year 1926 stowing half a cargo of guano picked up from a derelict in Valparaiso bay – another old sailer that would never see Europe again.

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

Monkbarns at sea, October 1925 – Captain William Davies, Ian Russell AB at helm and ‘Sails’, Henry Robertson – private collection E. Bainbridge. “The Old Man went below to put on a clean collar”

They left in mid January, bound for home via the rough passage round the Horn. So far the voyage had already claimed two lives since the ship left Liverpool three years earlier – an apprentice lost overboard off one of the yards in a gale and a suicide by morphine overdose in Newcastle NSW – and now the master was dying of stomach cancer, but the seven apprentices didn’t know that.

Two days out of Valparaiso, Eugene wrote in the diary his dad had given him:

“23.1.26 Saturday. Washed half deck with John [Davies]. Took wheel 12-2pm. It struck me again what an advantageous point of view the wheel is. Everything puts on a more pleasing aspect as one views the quarter deck, and shipmates busy with some uninteresting job seem to hold an enviable position. The beautiful silence which reigns as you keep one eye on the weather leech of the top gallant sail. The sea is covered with little ripples today but would otherwise present a flat surface. The breeze is not bad, though considerably less than yesterday and the courses are drawing well. The breeze has dropped again but at 1.30 tonight it suddenly livened up and clouds appeared on the port quarter. Hall [seaman] came on to the lookout and started to talk about the copra trade before the high duties in Sydney. He said that it was on account of one or two fires that high duties were put on, and now there is no trade to speak of, the main bulk going to USA.

Monkbarns, Captain William Davies, E. Bainbridge private collection

Monkbarns, Captain William Davies, E. Bainbridge private collection

“24.1.26 Sunday. Oiled my second pair of oilskins and hung them out to dry. Turned in in the afternoon. Still making westerly and no sign of change.

“25.1.26 Monday. Finished chipping anchor chain and tarred some of it. Very little wind and still going to the westward. A fair wind (NW) is about the last thing that anyone would expect and we shall soon be in Australia like this!

“26.1.26 Tuesday. Wheel 8-10. Nothing to do but watch the sails. Wind gradually dying out and ship starting to roll slightly. Fine day and sun very strong. No clouds about. Wind disappeared and rolling at times. Finished the port anchor chain and lowered it into the locker. Hove starboard chain up on deck ready to scrape. Beautiful evening and Dave [cabin boy] joined me on the lookout from 8-9.30. I told him I wouldn’t be entertaining but he managed to get through a fair amount of talking, as usual, and was evidently satisfied. We discussed Goethe’s Faust, or at least, he did, and then he praised Scarlatti and Chopin.

Monkbarns, chipping chains, photo by E. Bainbridge

Monkbarns, chipping chains, photo by E. Bainbridge

“27.1.26 Wednesday. Flat calm and very hot (85 degrees in shade). Sleeping on main hatch where the night air is refreshing. Scraped the starboard anchor chain, tarred and stored it. This evening, the mate gave me a bucket to put a new rope handle on. I did it after referring to the book and put the usual “simple Mathew Walker” on. He praised them next day.

“28.1.26 Thursday. Flat calm and water like a sheet of glass. Saw big shark off the side of the ship but it went when we got the hook ready. It did not turn when it came to eat some offal which had been thrown overboard!! Started to trim the cargo in the forehold and taking it in barrow to the after hatch to dump. I had the job of standing by the hatch to tip the barrows. Played Langford [sailor] at chess. Slept out on the main hatch. Heavy dew. There are no apples or peaches in the ship, only prunes!”

For three weeks, as the ship made its way slowly out into the Pacific, the port and starboard watches chipped, tarred and stowed the mooring chains, and trimmed the cargo in the forehold, wheeling the stinking choking stuff barrow by barrow to the after hatch to dump. They reeved off new buntlines, downhauls, clewlines and braces. Chips made new blocks, and Eugene stood his trick at the wheel.

By the first week in February they’d swung SSE with the Easterlies and were heading for the Horn, the sea was becoming heavier and the skies had turned grey.

“6.2.26. The Old Man is bad today, and everything is done to stop the ship from rolling,” Eugene noted. “The mate changed course three times tonight for that reason.” In the half deck, a heavy tin of jam fell out of the apprentices’s locker onto Eugene’s head, inflicting damage.

Monkbarns, view from aloft - E. Bainbridge estate

Monkbarns, view from aloft – E. Bainbridge estate

“8.2.26 Monday. The atmosphere is the dampest that I have ever known and the horizon is blurred with mist. Sea and sky are grey alike and the wind from the northward is fairly strong, bringing with it a heavy swell. It was cold at the wheel at 12 o’clock today… The Old Man was a little better today and enjoyed a joke. The mate is very pale and together with overstrain and overwork has not slept for over 48 hours. No sights have been taken owing to the dullness but the mate took some stars last night. Lookouts are kept night and day and a sharp lookout for ice is to be kept. We are standing by all the time now, ready to attend brace or take in sail. When we were doing about 9-10 knots this afternoon and I was at the wheel a school of large Black Fish was keeping up with us. They jumped a little from the crests of the waves and could be seen black beneath the surface quite close. I should guess 12-14 feet would be their length and they had fairly pointed noses and a big thick dorsal fin.”

The temperature fell, day by day. “10.2.26. Wednesday. The temperature today was 45 degrees but it appeared to be much colder aloft and the steel yards stung when gripped. The old man is much better and cracking jokes.”

As they got closer to the Horn, lookouts were posted day and night. They were racketing along at 12 knots, a hell of a speed to hit an iceberg. “Boiled some pitch for the Mate this evening to do the chartroom deckhead. The chartroom and in fact the whole poop is leaking. The heavy sea having strained the seams aft. The two Johns relieve each other and, with the time-keeper, watch over the old man at night. He is not so well tonight. We should round the Horn tomorrow with a fair breeze.”

The Horn was passed in thick mist, shortened down to topsails only, and with their eyes peeled for icebergs. Jock Scott warned Eugene to go to bed fully clothed, “to be ready if anything should happen, so we did.”

Monkbarns half deck. Eugene (right) and John Davies. Jim Holmes in bunk. Private collection E. Bainbridge

Monkbarns half deck. Eugene (right) and John Davies. Jim Holmes in bunk. Private collection E. Bainbridge

The temperature was 6°C (44° F), mild. There were albatross, mollyhawks, stormy and great petrels, and even a penguin around the ship. (“Sails revealed they are always met with down in the South Pacific and Atlantic, and sometimes hundreds of miles from land! This one was a dark brownish grey with a bright yellow streak across the eye. He was up an down after fish and squeaked not unlike the flapping topmast staysail.”)

Once past the Horn, the weather cleared. The ship “steered like a bird, with three spokes either way”, wrote Eugene ecstatically. There were four pairs of albatross following the ship, and a school of Cape Horn white-bellied and white tailed porpoises. Their breathing under the bows made Eugene realise he was not alone on his lookout. He saw and heard several whales. ” The Old Man is much better and has taken to growling at his nurses again in the old style. He has told the mate not to call anywhere or even stop a ship, if sighted. He is certainly an optimist. The position is about 54S 56W”

By the end of the month, it was 70°  in the shade and the wind had dropped to 2 knots. The Old Man was being nursed day and night, injected rectally with milk and brandy because he could no longer keep any food down. One apprentice from each watch was set to watch over him. Eugene complained that his friend Jean Seron had been banned from studying navigation in the master’s quarters – a light novel was less distracting. “What hard luck as he never gets a chance to study now, wasting every watch in the Old Man’s room doing nothing. He wants to go for his ticket at the end of the voyage…”

Eugene was not posted to the sickroom. Instead, he was kept busy painting, or bending on sails.  Off watch, he sketched, fished for sharks and worked on his model of the ship. The food was now also running low. “Traditional, for a sailing ship,” wrote Eugene. “Grub seems very scarce and uninteresting; beans every day, everywhere substitutes.” They caught and ate a dolphin, boiling the meat for tea. “The cook made a very bad job of it.”

Monkbarns - Sails, Henry Robertson. Portrait by E. Bainbridge

Monkbarns – ‘Sails’, Henry Robertson. Portrait by E. Bainbridge

The Mate was at his wits’ end. He’d decided to countermand the master’s orders and head for Rio, or Bahia – whatever port they could reach with the prevailing wind and currents. The Old Man was dying. But by the middle of the month they were still 900 miles from Rio and the ship was becalmed. The weather grew hotter and hotter. The Old Man could no longer bear any noise. Singing was banned, and the accordion. It was 90°F (33C). The Mate rigged a funnel from the skylight to Captain Davies’ bedside, made “of weather cloth and and bucket hoops.”

But the ship still had to be worked. One of the senior apprentices, Raymond Baise, was promoted to acting 3rd Mate. The 2nd, Mr Williams, who had started the voyage as able seaman, took over many of his chief’s tasks and watch after watch they braced the yards, tacking, wearing ship – trying to catch the slightest breath of wind, while the exhausted Mate kept his eye on all, scouring the Ship Master’s Medical Guide for instructions on how to ease the dying man.

They sighted land (Cape Frio) on the 25th of March.

“26.3.26 Friday. Wore ship every watch and made scarcely any ground through doing so. All the courses are of course hauled up to make the handling of the yards easier. Cape Frio was in sight all the time during the day and the light was clearly visible during the night. Several steamers passed the lighthouse and cape during my lookout, and I reported their lights in turn as they came in view. The wind dropped and there was a dead calm before morning. All the ground we made was done in crab-fashion and owing to the Great Brazilian Current, which drifts southward. The wind is a dead muzzler from the west and the ship’s head (steering compass) is S by W on one tack and NW by N on the other.”

On the 28th they sighted the Sugar Loaf, and by evening the Old Man had been taken off to hospital. The 29th, Eugene whizzed through his chores (cleaning brasswork, washing down the decks, getting a sail up out of the locker through the choking ammonia fumes) and tried to go ashore in the launch at 5pm as the Mate arrived back from the hospital. The Mate said “no”, Rio was under martial law.

The following day he tried again, but the Mate didn’t want to share the launch with him. “He saw me coming and had his answer ready, which was that I could not go in the launch with him as it cost money. I asked him how much it would be and he said that he did not know and that anyway he had too many worries to be bothered with people going ashore for pleasure […] He left the ship at 8.30 with the two Johns and I remained on deck gesticulating and whistling to every launch and bum-boat that appeared within hailing distance.”

Rio de Janeiro, Municipal Theatre, March 1926. Private collection E. Bainbridge

Rio de Janeiro, Municipal Theatre, March 1926. Private collection E. Bainbridge

By 10.20am Eugene was ashore, taking tea and refreshments in the Alvear Cafe on the Rua Rio Branco, before strolling on past the Municipal Theatre, (“very like the Opera House in Paris”) and the Senate. He took a tram part way up the Corcovado, but found there was a two-hour wait for the next train to the top – where the famous Christ the Redeemer statue was still only a pile of bricks. Instead, he marvelled at the lizards, a spider the size of his hand and three people with long nets catching six-inch blue butterflies (“They make beautiful ash-trays”). After that he caught a taxi and went to the Botanical Gardens, where he admired the famous avenue of 100 palms, and then treated himself to an icecream soda before returning to the ship in a bum-boat under its own sail, for 10 Milreis (about  6 shillings, or a day’s pay for a sailor). “And arrived back five minutes before the Mate. There was a loud shout from all hands as I hove in sight.”

Captain William Davies died in the night, aged 61. The telegram to his wife with the first indication that he was ill followed the next day by a second, with the shocking news of his death.

All the apprentices and “Sails”, Henry Robertson, were invited to the brief funeral in Rio’s English cemetery, but there is no description of it in Eugene’s diaries. Only six of them were needed to collect the body from the hospital. Eugene, left to kick his heels in the agent’s office for an hour with Bill and old Sails, recognised a passing Old Marlburian by his school tie, and struck up a chat.

Monkbarns left Rio the following morning in dripping rain and thick cloud under a new Captain Davies, the former 1st Mate, waved off by the agent’s clerk, Eugene’s old school crony Sharpes, who came aboard for a fine display of shantying up the anchor. “An appreciative audience makes a world of difference and I have never heard shanties sung so well aboard the ship,” wrote Eugene. “Bill and Mac supplied most of the solos and the choruses were all hearty.”

The new master was determined to keep spirits up. They were bound for home – across the Line.

For the further adventures of Eugene Bainbridge esq.– supported by the newly discovered letters of Raymond Baise (!!) – find me a publisher.

Next – In Remembrance: Save our Ships
Previously – A small man, tubby

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deck hockey, MAC ship Amastra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pomella Shell asphalt Helderline

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

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

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

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

Just an old sailing ship man? I asked.

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

Coming next: 1926 – Bert goes East

A sailor’s life – 70. Monkbarns sails on

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Monkbarns on the wharf in Australia, 1918

Monkbarns on the wharf in Australia, 1918

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.

Victor Fall on Monkbarns Newcastle 1920

Victor Fall aboard Monkbarns, Newcastle NSW 1920. Fall family collection

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.

Axel Skarstrom and Ada Loveday December 1925

Axel Skarstrom and Ada Loveday December 1925
“My grandmother wrote on the back, ‘this is the man I left home for’…”

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