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.
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.
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.
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.
Read on – Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?
Previously – Death of a master
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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
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
In the hi-tech glass box that is the new library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, you rarely see a pencil or a piece of paper – just acres of clear desks and blinking computer screens, and iPads.
The old brown Caird library with its panelled walls and stately glass-fronted bookcases of fusty tomes is gone. The little round desk staffed by erudite geeky librarians never at a loss to point out some unmined seam of inquiry or an overlooked treasure on the crammed shelves, has been replaced by electronic gates and scanners.
The books available for general reference now are ranged from ankle to hip height around the windows, beyond which the rolling grass of Greenwich park stretches out and up, following the ant line of tourists toiling up and down the escarpment to Flamsteed’s pretty observatory and the best view in London. It is hard to browse without going down on hands and knees. So I don’t.
So much of Bert Sivell’s life was found here for me. First, his master’s certificate, with attendant paperwork that revealed he was a little man – 5ft 4 inches tall – with grey-blue eyes, like mine. Then the copy of AG Course’s book The Wheel’s Kick and The Wind’s song, which triggered the hunt. (“You know about the mutiny, of course,” the librarian had nodded across the circular desk. We did not.)
Here were the card indexes and envelopes of cuttings; the lists of surviving crew agreements and logs, and where to ask for them; a case full of Lloyd’s Registers, sail and steam, year by year, giving the all-important ship numbers, as well as ownership, tonnages and build. The old passenger guides to the Royal Mail steamship packets. And above all, the yards of Sea Breezes – a whole long shelf – bound and indexed and brimming with first hand tales of the ships Bert had sailed on and the men who might have sailed with him.
In my quest to understand the life that emerged from the sea chest full of letters by my grandmother’s bed I have amassed my own stacks of books and magazines, and interviewed old sea dogs and their wives up and down the country. I have learned to use a sextant – rocking on my heels to mimic the lurching horizon at a local study centre in Erith; blagged my way aboard a Shell oil tanker at Thameshaven and seen the traditional little shell in its case in the messroom, just as my grandfather described.
I have crossed the Atlantic in March aboard a container ship, watching the black water rear and coil around the vessel like a serpent, and heard the shriek of the wind in the rigging. I have even laid a wreath, cast into the dark in the dead of night with 53 names on paper slips at 47N 19W, as near as I could get to where Bert’s last ship was reported lost.
And I could not have done any of it without the Caird library, and the patient, well-read, imaginative souls who inhabited it. So this, belatedly, is a thank you to them all.
The new maritime library in Greenwich is very beautiful, and the computer index is probably no more confusing than the dog-eared old paper system was. On-site storage is bigger and retrieval faster, they say. Certainly, the fancy book scanner is a boon. Take a USB flash drive…
Oh brave new world.
Coming next: Bert goes East, 1926
Previously: Seamen’s strike 1925
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.
Ena Sivell didn’t have the vote when she married her sailor sweetheart in 1922 aged 26. She didn’t have a home or signing powers on her husband’s bank account, and when she gave birth to their first child 3,000 miles away from her husband in a nursing home in Ryde, Isle of Wight, three years later he did not meet the baby until it was learning to walk.
Anglo-Saxon Petroleum (Shell) – having permitted the young first officer in charge of its New York depot ship Pyrula to keep his bride aboard ship with him for two glorious years – had ordered Ena off at the first sign of pregnancy and she took her bump and her souvenir Broadway programmes and went back to the town where she was born, to make a temporary life in rented rooms, dependent on her father-in-law for paying her bills until her husband came home, which tried her sorely.
But Bert stayed on. And on.
Tradesmen’s families like Bert’s and Ena’s did not have telephones, and communication between husband and wife was by letter – two weeks out, and two back by the great transatlantic liners that swept to and fro between Hamburg, Southampton and New York in the days before air travel.
The baby was born in March, too weeks overdue. Ena – flat on her back in bed with her knees tied together, in the approved treatment of her day for a torn perineum – sent off a telegram to the States.
Bert was hugely relieved and rang all their American friends at their places of business from the ship’s phone line, fixing himself up with dinner and a trip to the Hippodrome with Ena’s chum Florence in the process.
His first letter reached her two weeks later. “I’m really a little disappointed that a girl has come along,” he wrote, with jaw-dropping insensitivity. “I would have liked a boy. But as Mrs Franke Snr told me Monday – I cannot change it now!! Mrs Mercer says I must try again …!!”
And he was no better at reassurance for his stretched little wife’s sagging self-esteem. Dismissing the rupture in his next letter with all the carelessness of a man who has never tried to pass a watermelon, (“Never mind, you’ll soon be alright again”), he added: “I cannot quite agree with the doctor that you are decidedly on the small side, my dear, although if he says so we ought to be glad you are no bigger.” Nearly 90 years later I still want to hit him.
Bert Sivell was a conservative, with a big and little C. An only child who had run away from home aged 15, he had grown up at sea, far from “decent girls,” as he put it, except for the Mission families in Australia, and the master’s daughter, Jeanie Donaldson, who made one trip with Monkbarns as stewardess in 1917. He didn’t approve of women shingling their hair, or wearing trousers.
His was a man’s world. A month after his daughter’s birth his letter home was full of the five new oil tankers that Furness Withy had ordered from German shipyards. They had offered British firms substantially more to take the work, he reports. “But owing to the labour conditions, the British firms could not take the offer. I am rather surprised that the ASP have placed orders for four new tankers* with British firms, because they are paying through the nose for them,” he wrote.
“By the way, dear, you have still not told me yet what the baby’s name is going to be…”
If the baby had been a boy Ena had suggested John Thomas, which Bert had vetoed by return of post. It was slang for penis, familiar to readers of DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the third of three versions of a story that Lawrence would publish three years later in 1928, although it was 35 years before it could be openly sold in the UK. “The name John Thomas is unsuitable,” wrote Bert, “although you should not know what it means.”
When he finally got home in November, he carried in his trunk a well thumbed copy of Dr Alice Bunker Stockham‘s pioneering sex guide Karezza, recommended by a chum and bought at Wanamaker’s wonderful bookstore in New York. He had read it cover to cover.
They had also acquired Dr Marie Stopes equally controversial Married Love, which he had persuaded a reluctant Ena to have sent to the house in a plain brown wrapper.
“When I get home again we are going to be as happy as happy can be, aren’t we, darling?” he had written. “Especially with this new information I have gathered. We were going at things in a wasteful sort of way before…”
*[These would be the 10,000 DWT Bullmouth, Bulysses, Patella and Pecten; another six orders went to Dutch yards]