Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘cabin boy

A sailor’s life – 80. Worse things happen at sea: the steward’s story

leave a comment »

sailing ship walsh bay sydney

Monkbarns unloading nitrates in Walsh Bay No 10 Sydney, May 1925 (Copyright estate of Eugene Bainbridge)

David Morris called himself a journalist, a writer. He’d been on the lookout for a job on a square rigger for months before he heard of Monkbarns in Sydney in June 1925. He wanted “atmosphere” for some historical sea stories he was preparing to publish, he told the Newcastle Sun as the ship loaded Australian coal for South America. He wanted thrills, he wanted to “see the Pacific at its worst”.

Around him on deck, eyes slid away. “Some of the crew, with that superstition born in seamen, are inclined to regard him us a hoodoo,” the reporter noted.

Three weeks earlier Morris had shot across to Walsh Bay, Sydney, where the ship was discharging nitrate, and buttonholed the mate, offering himself in any capacity at a nominal wage. The mate had said “Nothing doing”, but as he trudged off down the gangway, they’d had a rethink. If he really wanted the experience, said the master, he could come along as a general helper at £2 a month (about £1,000 per annum today.)

Was it a cheap shot they’d expected him to refuse? Morris called himself the Captain’s steward, though he appears on the crew list as Cabin Boy, but pay for a seaman was £10 a month, not £2. Then again, as steward or “boy” he didn’t have to go aloft in all weathers or stand his trick at the wheel. He was a housekeeper, minding stores and dispensing first aid.

“Yesterday Morris was caught sewing his shirt, with stitches that would disgust a housewife, on the steps leading to the poop deck. He is a well-built man of 25, but he looks more like 30. The small moustache on his upper lip, and the tan shoes and the tweed suit already soiled by work in the galley, looked strangely out of place there,” said page 6 of the Newcastle Sun.

Movie poster

Movie poster for The Ship from Shanghai released in 1930 (http://adventures-of-the-blackgang.tumblr.com/

London-born Morris had visited most ports in the world as a passenger, and had slept in some of Australia’s best hotels and its least inviting parks in his quest for “atmosphere”, readers learned. He had been inspired to join Monkbarns by the runaway success of a sea thriller published the previous year by another young Australian journalist, Dale Collins. Ordeal is based on a round-the-world trip Collins made aboard the motor yacht Speejacks as historian to the US cement magnate Albert Younglove Gowen, who happened to be on his (second) honeymoon. The novel – about seamen turning on their idle rich passengers – was filmed in 1930 as The Ship from Shanghai, with Louis Wolheim as the ship’s crazed steward who holds them all hostage.

Morris was quite frank about what he was up to; there were men on Monkbarns who had had remarkable experiences, he told the newspaper, and he wanted to “chase up” some of those real-life stories. But he seems to have fallen short on listening. This may have been a world of horny-handed hard cases risking life and limb in all weathers aloft, but they still wouldn’t set sail on a Friday, or whistle for fear of challenging the wind, or even say “pig” out loud.

Of the 28 men and boys who had left Liverpool in March 1923, two were dead – including a 19-year-old apprentice lost lashing down an escaping sail during a hurricane – and two more would die before they dropped anchor back in the Thames in 1926.

storm in sail

Monkbarns 1923 securing lifeboats under heavy seas off the cape (probably photographed by 3rd mate Malcolm Bruce Glasier)

By June 1925, only the captain, the mate, “Sails” and the older apprentices remained of the original company. It was they who had faced down disaster on the passage out, when a hurricane south-west of Good Hope knocked them so badly that the cargo shifted. With the lee side of the ship 12ft under and green seas raking the deck, it was they who had risked their lives deep in the hold, shovelling rock salt uphill for three days to try to right her. Young Cyril Sebun was lost off the upper topgallant yardarm while they laboured. But nothing could have been done to save him. The boats were all smashed.

Eventually, they put into Cape Town in distress – a first for Captain William Davies. “During my forty years of service in sailing ships I have never had an experience that can in any way compare with this recent one, and to be quite frank, I should not like to pass through a similar ordeal again.”

On arrival in Australia, three seamen deserted – abandoning their pay – and Morris’s predecessor killed himself with an overdose of chloroform. He had been drinking heavily, the inquest noted. He was buried in Stockton NSW, where some of his former shipmates from the SS Argyllshire called the following spring. They sang Welsh hymns at his grave, and laid artificial flowers. They knew.

So, it was not surprising that Morris’ taste for ill winds made his shipmates uncomfortable and by the time Monkbarns had been at sea for two months, things had turned nasty.

Three entries from the diary kept by one of the apprentices, Eugene Bainbridge, offer a snapshot: 23.8.25. Sunday. Played Bridge all day and was 600 up to finish. It has been quite parky lately and it was anything but warm at the wheel from 12-2 tonight. Course ENE, on starboard tack. Shaved David Morris’s beard in half deck after putting him forcibly on the floor. He seemed a bit peevish and didn’t play ‘Vingt et un’ very well afterwards. The job we made of his beard wasn’t very good.

24.8.25. Monday. Clear, calm, sunny, fresh. Doing about 2-3 knots. Course ENE. ‘Maurice’ came in for about two minutes tonight. He seemed to know that there was something in the air and beat it.

Pelican Society

The Pelican Society photographed by Eugene Bainbridge – Newcastle-Callao 1925 (Copyright estate of Eugene Bainbridge)

25.8.25. Tuesday. A night of revelry of a peculiar sort. The subject was ‘Maurice Moscovich’. Notices were posted on the half deck doors inviting you to a singsong to be held in the fo’c’sle at 6.30pm. The Mate was particularly asked to refrain from blowing 2 whistles and when told why, was quite sympathetic. At 6.30 sharp, we met and the subject [Morris] had wandered into the gay party.

 It was a bluff. He was to be seized in the middle of its proceedings and tried by the chief Pelican and his confederates. All passed off as planned and the victim was found guilty of not supplying the fo’c’sle with molasses and duly sentenced to have his port beard and starboard ‘tache shaved off. Cold water was used to emphasise the gravity of the act, and Bill Hughes, the Court Hairdresser, operated. 

But worse was to come, because Morris evidently put up resistance to the assault, verbally if not physically. Bainbridge, a 21-year-old ex-boarding school boy from Maida Vale, London, records that the victim was deemed to have been “unduly insolent” to his tormentors – and a vote for death by dropping over the after part of the poop was passed.

Maurice Moscovitch

Maurice Moscovitch as Shylock at the Royal Court, London, 1919 (From: http://exhibitions.europeana.eu/exhibits/show/yiddish-theatre-es/jml-las-obras/item/130)

It is possible that there was more than a little anti-Semitism in this “hazing” as Maurice Moscovitch was a well known Russian Jewish stage actor that summer wowing Australian audiences with his Merchant of Venice and Morris’s middle name was inscribed on the crew list as Isidor. Bainbridge had been to see Moscovitch at the Criterion theatre while Monkbarns was in Sydney.

More worrying still, the punishment meted out – for poor stewardship of the few treats that made the ship’s diet of salt meat and pulses bearable – apparently had the backing of the Master and the Mate. Bainbridge writes: We next trussed him up in a sack etc and took him aft for the mate’s inspection.

The procession marched solemnly back singing ‘For it’s a Lie’. Prisoner was next trussed up again (more securely) and taken forth to his execution. Maurice was marched up on to the fo’c’sle head and lowered away over the break. The wash tub was underneath and someone was making a noise like water. The stunt worked so far and when about a foot off the deck, the word was given and Maurice was dropped!!! He arrived in a heap at the side of the ‘donkey’ [steam winch] amid cheers and benedictions from the High Priest.

Had Morris believed his hostile playmates were actually dropping him gagged and bound into the Pacific? It seems more than possible, but he showed his mettle by joining them in the fo’c’sle, where proceedings continued as a “sing song”, and reciting a chunk of Kipling for the company. Whereupon everyone joined in a hearty chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and peace descended. Bainbridge wrote: The Old Man and Mate were both observed to be enjoying it uncommonly.

Many years later, “Bill the Court Hairdresser” – by then Captain William Hughes, sir – remembered David Morriss [sic] and his quest for atmosphere. “He got it all right, and I’m sure that what he went through before reaching London would fill two or three books,” he told AG Course, chronicling the history of the John Stewart ships for his book The Wheel’s Kick and The Wind’s Song.

Valparaiso harbour

View of Valparaiso harbour with Monkbarns marked by apprentice Eugene Bainbridge with an arrow at the bottom (copyright estate of Eugene Bainbridge)

Two months later, just outside Valparaiso, he was still annoying the apprentices (Dave joins us, and we are bored to a standstill with his platitudes!) but he’d graduated from ‘Maurice’ to Dave. And in port, Dave showed a pleasing openhandedness with the ship’s stores as the apprentices rowed around visiting and being visited by boys from neighbouring ships. (Dave got us some stores and there was plenty of scoff. He unfortunately spoilt this good turn by telling some of his tall yarns.)

However, as soon they put out to sea again and rationing restarted, the moans resume. 9.3.26. Dave wants to substitute sugar for molasses instead of substituting jam. This is not a fair exchange as sugar doesn’t go well with bread and butter! 5.5.26. Dave has been making mistakes with the weighing out of the butter and the tins containing so painfully small a quantity we complained and found we were getting less than our whack!

Happily, nine months after Morris’s sentencing by the Pelican Club, the horseplay had become rather more inclusive, if no less rough. By then, Captain William Davies was dead in Rio de Janeiro, the Mate was the new Old Man and the ceremony as Monkbarns passed Lat 0° 00’ 00” was a more or less welcome letting off steam after a very trying few months fighting their way round the Horn with the dying man refusing to put into port.

Young Bainbridge had a ringside seat. 9.5.26. Sunday. Crossed the Line last night. We all ‘felt the bump and noticed that the ship was going faster downhill!!’ At 1.30, I was let into the secret by Bill that we ‘offenders’ had to ‘go through it’. The Old Man had made some pills of ginger, glycerine and several other ingredients and covered them with sugar (of which there is a very large quantity aboard from Rio.) Jim had made some very ‘choice’ mixture of tar, tallow, soap, Melado (molasses) and red lead.

crossing the line Monkbarns

Monkbarns, Neptune’s court May 1926 – crossing the Line. Neptune and wife right, Dave Morris and Eugene Bainbridge among the tarred six on the left (copyright estate of Eugene Bainbridge)

In time honoured tradition, Neptune appeared over the side clad in oakum and bearing a huge trident made from the mast of the for’rard boat, accompanied by his Wife, his Barber, his Parson – in a lead foil cassock and paper collar – and his Doctor carrying the bag of pills. They set up court on the main hatch.

Bainbridge and Morris were among six “first trippers” the god of the sea wanted to inspect for fitness.

I was first blindfolded and then marched to the main hatch, falling over several ‘lines’ drawn across the deck. We had made the washhouse door fast and they had to break the handle off to get in. I was first asked by Neptune why I had done this and if I had crossed the Line before and why I hadn’t been ‘put through it’!

I then kissed his wife’s foot, which was covered with tar and was then shaved using the mixture, getting plenty of it in the mouth. I received the pills and spat them out. At a second shot, I managed to conceal one behind my tongue but before I could remove it my mouth was sore! I finished up being tipped backwards into a tub of water and then liberated. After I had seen two or three others done I went onto the boom and caught a 24lb bonito, which we had for tea. The proceedings broke up with all hands ‘splicing the main brace’.

They were back in the northern hemisphere after three years away, and “home” suddenly seemed closer. But Monkbarns’ adventures were not over. Progress was slow. Supplies ran out. By 450 miles off the Lizard they were down to rice and ersatz bread, but once into the shipping lanes an obliging German steamer provided relief.

ship's cook

Monkbarns’ cook, Josiah Arthur (copyright estate of Eugene Bainbridge)

They brought the boat alongside and the provisions pulled aboard: three sides of bacon, two hams, two cases of spuds, three sacks of flour and about 16 tins of Argentine boiled beef (we had some for tea and it was excellent), a certain amount of margarine and butter for the cabin, also lard and Dutch evaporated milk. Then the Cook gave us curry and rice for breakfast!!!!!!!! It was nearly the last of him.

But two weeks later they were still 12 miles off Portland Bill, and “reduced to rice, tea and a little jam and bread”, according to another unpublished diary of that voyage, by able seaman Dudley Turner. Not had a smoke for weeks, which makes matters a lot worse.” And the Old Man was refusing to flag down any more ships.

When they picked up the pilot off Dungeness and it was discovered he handed out cigarettes for good steering – the first tobacco seen aboard for weeks – there was a rush to relieve the wheel frequently. “Never had such good steering been seen before by the old ship,” wrote Course. But they were so undernourished that the tug crew had to help them haul the hawser aboard.

 At 6pm on 10 July 1926, Monkbarns dropped anchor off Tilbury. The pilot presented them with a sack of potatoes and Bainbridge records a “memorable feed of sausages and boiled spuds!!! Never was a meal so appreciated”.

Monkbarns 1926

Monkbarns in the Thames at Charlton Buoys (copyright estate of Eugene Bainbridge)

The following day they were towed up to Charlton Buoys, a vessel from a bygone age gathering crowds on the banks, and there the crew were paid off.

And there the story ends. Monkbarns was sold “foreign”, and towed to Corcubion in northern Spain to end her days as a whalers’ coal hulk. Eugene Bainbridge abandoned the apprenticeship for which his father had shelled out £42 and never went to sea again. What became of David Morris I cannot tell. Bill Hughes thought he’d gone in to radio in Melbourne. If he ever wrote up his historical sea stories, neither AG Course nor I could find a trace.

Bizarrely, the real thrill-seeker aboard Monkbarns that trip turned out to be the youngest apprentice, 17-year-old Len Marsland of Brisbane. After rounding the Horn in sail, in 1929 he pops up as a member of Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australian Antarctic expedition. He worked as a prison guard in Canada, chased the explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins across the Atlantic in an attempt to sign up for his submarine expedition under the polar ice, reappeared in Reykjavik, erecting a signal station, and then back at sea as an officer on an icebound freighter in the Baltic and facing down machineguns in a Russian Black Sea port. Tragically, Marsland’s adventurous career was short. While working as a stuntman for Sir Alan Cobham’s famous flying circus in 1935 his parachute failed to open. He fell 1,000 feet and died in Esher, Surrey, aged just 27.

Previously: A doctor aboard 1913



A Sailor’s Life – 13. Apprenticeship

with one comment

The sailing ship indenture signed by Bertie Sivell in 1911, a snap of his ship, Monkbarns, and the Sunday school prize that sent him to sea

The sailing ship indenture signed by Bertie Sivell in 1911, a snap of his ship, Monkbarns, and the sea yarns of Frank T Bullen, a Sunday school prize awarded to Bert in 1909

In an outpost of the British Library, among the bound back copies of the Isle of Wight County Press and a thousand other provincial news sheets, the word “Sivell” leaped out one afternoon from a crumbling page damaged by bombs and nibbled by mice.

It appeared that during the summer of 1911 the firm of Cotton, Palmer & Sivell, of Ryde, had advertised for an apprentice in the Situations Vacant column. The advert, for a “strong lad for coach body-making, at once,” ran for several weeks, jostling with appeals from bakers, grocers, drapers and dressmakers, all looking for apprentices.

In June it was withdrawn, but on July 1st, three days after Bert got back to Ryde, it was back. On August 14th Thomas Sivell’s signature appears beside a huge red seal on a sea-stained document binding his only child for four years to a dour elderly Scottish captain in sail and Monkbarns, a three-masted square rigger obsolete the day her keel was laid.

The indenture survives: a folded wad of waxed canvas, annotated in waterproof pencil on the back in subsequent years. On it that August, John Stewart & Co of Fenchurch Avenue, London undertook to teach Hubert Stanley Sivell “the business of a seaman”. The company pledged to provide “sufficient” meat, drink and lodging, (washing is firmly scored out in thick black ink), and pay to the said Apprentice “the sum of £ –– (that is to say,) NIL”.

Which, as a contemporary put it, meant he was to work for four years for nothing and be taught nothing which his own wit didn’t grasp or the sails and gales didn’t blow into him.

In return, Bert promised to serve his master faithfully, obey his lawful commands, keep his secrets, and not frequent “taverns or alehouses”. He was also to provide for himself “all sea-bedding, wearing apparel and necessaries (except such as herein-before agreed).”

Thomas paid £10 surety and negotiated from the outset that Bert would be paid £2 10/-, rather than the going rate of £1 a month, if the four-year contract should happen to expire while the ship was at sea.

And that was that. The carriage builder’s boy went to sea and some other teenager took his place in the coach works behind the High Street in Ryde.

Winston Churchill in 1904

Winston Churchill in 1904

There were riots in Liverpool that August and warships patrolling the Mersey. In the port of London, the home secretary, Winston Churchill, was preparing to send in troops to break the deadlock with striking dockers. Monkbarns, however, was in Hamburg, bound for Australia and not due back for a year, or more if trade was good.

Bertie joined her there. He had been home for less than five weeks. He was 16.

Read on: Monkbarns apprentice
Previously: Coronation and seamen’s strike, 1911

A sailor’s life – 12. Coronation and seamen’s strike, 1911

with one comment

Commemorative postcard for the coronation of King George V, June 22nd 1911

Commemorative postcard for the coronation of King George V, June 22nd 1911

Hammering and stitching on parade floats and fancy dress was in full swing up and down the British Isles, commemorative medals had been struck, and “meat teas” were being cooked up for the deserving poor. By the time Bertie Sivell, cabin boy, left Pernambuco in Brazil on 2 June 1911 bound for Southampton aboard the RMS Nile, the coronation of George V was barely three weeks away.

In the Solent, ships were gathering – hundreds of ships, private yachts and warships, cheek by jowl. Ticket sales for steamer trips round the assembled fleet were booming; from 1s 6d the week before the grand coronation fleet review, to a week’s pay – £1 10s  – on the day. For an extra 6d, trippers could enjoy an hour aboard the visiting US battleship Delaware “by kind permission of the commander”.

No one expected the motley collection of nationalities crewing the ships to be able to unite in common cause for the seamen’s strike threatened on the 14th. No one expected a docks strike that would bring Britain to a juddering halt. But down in Southampton the trouble kicked off early, among the coal porters called to fuel the first of the White Star’s state-of-the-art new ocean liners for her maiden voyage.

Titanic was still under construction in Belfast, but her huge twin, Olympic, was bound for New York, booked solid to bring back half a hundred American millionaires for the coronation spectacle. If it seems an insane moment for the shipping companies to chance their arm with their workers, that’s because it was.

The coal porters were labourers, working in filthy black gangs of five men for up to twelve hours a day lifting mountains of coal into ships of all sizes for a penny halfpenny a ton. They had been called to standby the grand new Olympic at 6am the day after Nile left Brazil, but were kept waiting, unpaid, for five hours. When they were at last allowed to start work at 11am, they asked for a “monetary consideration” for the half day lost, suggesting five shillings each. When it was summarily refused, the men downed tools.

Coronation fleet review, Southampton 24 June 1911

Coronation fleet review, Southampton 24 June 1911

By mid afternoon, the colliery firm had realised its mistake and revised its response, offering first three shillings, then four, and eventually the full five. But by then the coal porters had thought of other grievances and conditions, and more men were joining them. By Tuesday, the strike was declared official and a  union organiser arrived from London – together with the first contingent of blackleg labour.

Harry Orbell had 28 years’ experience of industrial disputes. He opened the meeting by thanking the authorities for letting the men meet behind the Seamen’s Mission, and he called for calm – no rowdyism, no causing trouble in town, he said, and he urged the strikers to remember  that “whatever happened” the police were only carrying out the laws made by representatives of the people themselves. He didn’t blame the heads of the colliery firm, Russell Rea and his son, whom he said he knew personally and had always found to act as gentlemen (“hear, hear” roared a voice from the crowd). No, he said, the fault lay with the whippersnappers who got their pay rises by “winking at the boss’s daughter”.

The demands Orbell eventually laid before Rea & Co were for an extra halfpenny a ton per man, plus 7s 6d to work through the night, 6 shillings for working Sunday mornings, (4s for Sunday afternoons), and reasonable notice for overtime. Union recognition was almost an afterthought, but the firm still said no.

By Thursday the strike had spread to the steamers and yachts gathering in Southampton Water to run coronation cruises, after their owners too refused to pay the higher coaling rates. The striking coal porters waived their own picket lines for two vessels: one of which had put into port in distress and on fire, and the other “so as not to inconvenience the general public” as it contained only household coal, the Southampton Times & Hampshire Express reported. Reports of the strike were well back in the paper, on page 10.

But time was running out for the liner companies.  Seamen on the US liner St Paul were offered $750 dollars to coal the ship themselves, even the ship’s stewards were approached, but they all refused. In New York there were railway presidents and bankers waiting to be picked up. All the £800 state rooms for the return passage were booked.  Olympic’s maiden voyage – carrying the directors of both the White Star line and the ship builders Harland & Wolff – looked doomed. (Both they and Olympic’s commander, Captain Edward Smith, should have taken note. All three sailed on Titanic’s maiden voyage the following year. Only one survived.)

So, White Star capitulated. And then the seamen seized their chance, “heartened,” as the local paper reported, by the coal porters’ success. On the morning of the day the international seamen’s strike was to be declared, Olympic’s crew struck, demanding parity of pay with the rival Mauretania – and the White Star directors settled again, allowing Olympic to finally steam out of Southampton at noon on June 14th, leaving seething industrial unrest in her wake. The New York Times reported: “Strike of seamen ordered for to-day. Has already begun at Antwerp. English owners appear unconcerned.” Men refusing to board their vessels in the US would be deported and jailed, it said.

By evening the unionist leader Tom Mann in Liverpool had “declared war” on the shipping companies for £5 10s a month minimum wage and union recognition, but not before the Liverpool organisers had issued a message dismissing the strike in Southampton as premature. “This probably explains why some of the London papers did not awake to the fact that there was a strike until Thursday morning,” wrote the Southampton Times, sniffily. Premature or not, a week before the coronation thousands of seafarers in all the large ports had responded, and the strike had spread to the shore gangs. Atlantic sailings were cancelled, and even the cross-Channel service was threatened.

As ship after ship arrived in  port, more seamen joined the strike. The stewardesses on the Union Castle liner Briton joined, the ship’s bandsmen followed, and on shore even ships’ printers were agitating for more pay. In the commotion, the Union Castle laundry girls – who worked  nine hours a day for a pittance of 6s a week – approached their manageress for news of their own outstanding claim. When she rather rashly responded that the officials were far too busy to consider “such a matter as that”, they too walked out, leaving the linen for several thousand bunks unwashed.

It rained in Southampton on the day of King George’s coronation, a steady drizzle. As wet processions trailed through the town, the negotiations continued.

Having bowed to force majeure twice, White Star had jibbed and withdrawn its liner Majestic from the coronation pageant, ceding her place to St Paul, whose crew, because signed in the US and therefore not yet discharged, could be compelled to sail. Majestic had been laid-up in the river, where she was now joined by other laid-up liners as scheduled sailings began to be cancelled and cargoes diverted. Four days before the Coronation, the frantic managers of the Royal Mail and Union Castle made it known that they were offering “liberal terms” to anyone willing to crew the ships in the review that Saturday, but the seamen refused, pointing out that it was more important to be adequately paid for all the other days of the year.

The talking continued right up to the afternoon before the review, and White Star was the last to settle. At ten past two on Saturday 24th June 1911, the Southampton seamen’s strike was over: the shipping companies having agreed to a pay rise of 10s a month for deck hands and men in the stoke hold, and the shore gangs all getting an extra 1s 6d a week.

Olympic arrived back packed to the railings with millionaires. Forty or fifty of them, with an “aggregate wealth of £60m!” reported the Southampton Times. But it was too late for the Royal Mail, which had had to pull four fully-booked ships out of the royal parade, including Asturias and little Oruba. Four Union Castle ships had also been pulled, including the Armadale Castle.

Postcard of illuminations at naval review, found in Bertie Sivell's collection

Postcard of illuminations at naval review, found in Bertie Sivell's collection

Bertie Sivell arrived back in England that evening,  just in time for the illuminations. Four days later he was laid off, when a national docks strike was called, crippling trade through every port up and down the country. Nile’s next sailing was cancelled, so on June 28 1911 Bertie went home to his mam and dad on the Isle of Wight.

By August he was apprenticed – in sail.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 13. Apprenticeship
Previously: For the record, finding ships’ logs

A sailor’s life – 10. Below decks: RMS Nile, 1911

with 9 comments

Bertie Sivell, 1911 - promoted to £1 a month

Bertie Sivell, 1911 - promoted to £1 a month

Several ship’s logs for the Royal Mail steamers Nile and Oruba for 1911 survive in the Public Record Office at Kew. Though no more than a basic note by busy officers, they provide a rather blunter take on life at sea than the pictures of leisure and pleasure painted by the passengers and the shipping company guides.

Injuries figure large, particularly the burns, which were an occupational hazard among the stokers sweating in the bowels of the steam packets, endlessly shovelling coal into the furnaces; above decks, winches and other machinery took their toll of extremities. On one crossing Oruba’s master recorded, beside the usual desertions on the South America run, five crew laid up with various fractures, tonsillitis and rheumatic fever.

Both steamers either had to put sailors ashore for medical treatment, or had them put aboard by the consul for repatriation to the UK. Ordinary merchant ships did not carry a doctor, just the captain with a St John Ambulance certificate and a copy of the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide. If a man became too ill to be treated aboard, the ship put him ashore as soon as it could – and sailed on. Time and tide wait for no man. Money owed for the days worked was left for him, but his pay stopped until he went back to sea again. When the money ran out, he became a job for the local consul. Such men had their own shorthand presence in the logs: DBS, for distressed British seaman.

RMS Nile, 1911

RMS Nile, 1911

The voyage marked by the death of Nellie Thompson, Countess of Shannon, saw eight DBSs put on board Nile by various consuls for conveyance back to Southampton. Between them, they had typhoid, small pox, tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, neuralgia, and severe burns in various limbs. The passenger ship doctor who had treated the countess’ pneumonia with “poultices, milk diet, digitalis, strychnine, sponging etc” recorded of the working men only that he had put the typhoid and the small pox cases on “saloon fare” and dosed the bronchitis and the TB with cod liver oil.

For this, the logs record an experienced seaman on Nile earned £4 a month, and a coal trimmer, (which was the nastiest job in the engine department) £3 15s.  The waiters, rushing between decks with four meals a day for 600 passengers, supported themselves and their families ashore on £2 10s a month. Even the first officer – who would have studied at his own expense for years, coming ashore to sit each ‘ticket’- received only £16 a month.

Amid the comforts of the passenger liners, the discrepancy between the haves in saloon and those who laboured below and around them was sharp. The Manchester Guardian that year noted: “… on the average, seamen and firemen [stokers] are worse paid, worse lodged and probably, even to-day, worse fed than Englishmen doing comparable work ashore.”

Shipboard discipline, at the sole discretion of the master, added to the financial squeeze. Crispino dos Santos, a 3rd class waiter on Nile, was fined 5s* for quarrelling with the passengers — which was nearly three days’ pay to his family. The bosun’s mate and a firemen were fined 5s each for being drunk off duty, and the fireman subsequently lost a further day’s pay for “insolence” to the 3rd Engineer. Even the 3rd Mate was fined, for calling the 2nd Mate “a damned liar”.

“It is not that shipowners are an exceptionally rapacious class of employers,” wrote the Guardian, “but that the seafaring trades are cosmopolitan … Apart from the great passenger steamers, which run between the same ports with the regularity of express trains, the world’s shipping trade is carried on by vessels ready to go anywhere, carry anything, and employ anyone, irrespective of race, who is able to fire a marine boiler or do a seaman’s work, and it inevitably follows that the standard of pay and comfort for the crews tends to fall to that of the world’s labour market rather than rise to that of prosperous countries like England and the United States.”

At the end of May 1911, the Southampton Times carried a report from the Lancet on the “crowded, damp, dark and dirty” living conditions on Britain’s merchant ships and the “crying need of sailors” for ventilation and proper washing facilities. Special interest attached to this, the newspaper explained, in view of the mounting industrial tension among seamen.

*(20 shillings to the £)

Read on: A sailor’s life – 11. For the record: ships logs

A sailor’s life – 8. Rolling down to Rio: RMS Nile, 1911

with 10 comments

RMS Nile leaving Southampton, postcard sent 1911

RMS Nile leaving Southampton, postcard sent 1911

I’ve never sailed the Amazon,
I’ve never reached Brazil;
But the Don and Magdalena,
they can go there when they will!
Yes, weekly from Southampton,
great steamers, white and gold,
Go rolling down to Rio
(Roll down, roll down to Rio)
And I’d like to roll to Rio
some day before I’m old

From The Beginning of the Armadillos, Just So Stories, 1902

Five months after running off to sea with the Royal Mail steam packets from Southampton, Bertie Sivell, still only fifteen years old, changed ships and at last rolled down to Rio as Rudyard Kipling had described, crossing the equator en route.

The RMS Nile had been purpose-built for the Argentine run with four promenade decks and nearly as many passengers in saloon class as in steerage. She shuttled from Southampton to Buenos Aires and back every eight weeks, crossing the Atlantic from St Vincent in the Cape Verde islands to Pernambuco (now Recife) in Brazil, and calling at Lisbon, Bahia (now Salvador), Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo.

The RMSP’s hefty Guide to Brazil and the River Plate for the year 1904 reports of St Vincent that it was very healthy, due to stringent quarantine regulations, but that there was not much to do ashore except take amusing photographs “of the coloured people and their numerous children”. Pernambuco, too, was picturesque, (“especially to the traveller who has not seen tropical scenery before”), and it benefited from restaurants and even a music hall. Although “to the lady of fashion neither the drapers nor the milliners establishments would form much attraction”, the guide warned. Somewhere between the two Bertie crossed the Line.

St Vincent, Cape Verde - view of harbour and Bertie's 'X' where RMS Nile lay, 1911

St Vincent, Cape Verde - view of harbour and Bertie's 'X' where RMS Nile lay, 1911

He sent six picture postcards from Lisbon, all blank, and twelve from St Vincent, showing the harbour, the market and a view of naked children around a mud hut, inscribed “this shows the general mode of living in these islands”. One marked where the ship lay in the bay, and one a church he could either see from the moorings or had visited. But nothing was found from Pernambuco.

In Rio, where the Sugar Loaf mountain loomed over picturesque forts, the ship threaded its way through a mass of shipping and Brazilian men-of-war to anchor off an island opposite the city. There, “fussy steam launches blowing their whistles” would race up, bringing family and friends too impatient to wait on shore, the guide said. The guide did not say that in Rio and Buenos Aires desertions among the crew were rife because both had rip-roaring sailor towns full of cheap booze and whores, and a nasty reputation for crimping or press-ganging, which remained widespread until the First World War. In Buenos Aires Bert bought coloured cards, but again did not write on them.

If Bert ever told the son he hardly knew what had happened to him that first trip across the Line, the boy did not remember it and if the teenager on Nile wrote letters, they were not kept.

The only record is Nile’s log, which shows that three days out of Southampton, Bertie Sivell, one of two page boys on board, was promoted to Captain’s Servant at £1 per month, backdated. Logs were only preserved if they recorded a death or illness, discipline problems or, more rarely, a marriage or birth. Nile’s log for 1911 survived because several men, including the “Jews’ waiter”, deserted the ship in Buenos Aires.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 9. Crossing the Line

A sailor’s life – 7. Cabin boy: RMS Oruba 1910

leave a comment »

RMS Oruba, September 1910, postcard

RMS Oruba, September 1910, postcard

One black-and-white postcard survives of Bertie Sivell’s first voyage in 1910, evidently sent ashore with the pilot in Southampton. It is a picture of the Royal Mail steam packet Oruba. “Enjoying myself so far. Plenty of animals aboard – but no tips,” reads the pencil scrawl.

Oruba was not one of the Royal Mail’s grand modern liners. Oruba was an old single-screw steamer built to carry masts and sails. On Bertie’s first trip she brought back 250 tons of frozen meat from Venezuela as part of a ten-week trial. She had none of the rakish looks of the new ships, but she was popular with passengers and carried 646 in three classes of accommodation over two decks, with baggage, children and servants “in proportion”, according to the RMSP official guide.

And they did not travel light, these early tourists. Lady Helen Boyle, Countess of Shannon, who notwithstanding the best efforts of the ship’s doctor died at sea aged forty that spring and was “buried with due ceremony” at sea off Lexicoes, Portugal, had so much baggage that the inventory took up two pages of the ship’s log. There was gold and diamond jewelry, a monogrammed cigarette case, and toiletries in tortoise shell, ivory and silver, all terribly Agatha Christie. There was a leather trunk, several crocodile-skin suitcases, a writing case and a hat box, with hats. Her footwear alone took up half a page, and she had small change from Mexico, Malacca and Ceylon.

The Spanish emigrant who died in his third class bunk below decks the same trip left two gold coins knotted in a hanky. Of him the captain recorded only that he was committed to the deep “with the usual rites of the Church of England”.

Postcard view of St Thomas, WI, marked with 'X' where boy's ship anchored, 1910

Postcard view of St Thomas, WI, marked with 'X' where boy's ship anchored, 1910

As well as her 646 passengers, Oruba carried 169 crew, including an army of pastry and vegetable cooks (“English and foreign”) producing four meals a day “on the most liberal scale,” the guide book said. Besides the stokers, seamen and electricians driving the ship, there were waiters (ordinary 1st, 2nd and 3rd class, and French), stewards and stewardesses, bandsmen, barmen, a barber and, as the ship pounded across the sparkling seas between the islands, a Marconi operator to send telegrams. Even the master and mates had their own personal servants.

Bert’s job in the bustle of this big floating hotel was to run messages, carry the drink “chits” from the deck chairs to the barman, and walk the lap dogs – and any other pets acquired during the voyage.

In each port of call little “bumboats” swarmed around, selling fruit and curios, including livestock. There was no quarantine, no worry about endangered species, and precious little concern for animal welfare. The Rev. Charles Kingsley (he of The Water-Babies) wrote of an alligator which the doctor on one steam packet housed in a tub in his cabin, and a tarantula that the chief engineer kept in an iron box. One night someone’s kinkajou escaped, to the consternation of a stewardess who mistook it for a cat and tried to stroke it. Most homeward passages featured wild parrots and monkeys being brought back as gifts. Some of the unfortunate creatures survived, but the more exotic ones usually died en route, either from starvation — like the anteater Kingsley describes brought from Panama without a supply of ants — or sheer cold, once their ship turned north beyond Tenerife.

The mail packets were more like a bus service than a cruise ship. They called at many places, but did not stop longer than it took to land the post bags and passengers and take on coal and fresh food and more mail and new passengers. Often enough they only dropped anchor in the bay. On 12s a month Bertie could not afford the price of the launch to the quay, but the hours in port were the crew’s busiest anyway and working men did not expect to go sightseeing. Besides what he could spy of the towns with a glass, Bert will have seen what was visible from the ship’s railing: the dark skinned boatmen who ferried out the coal, the laughing girls and women with their gay souvenirs, and the little boys who dived for silver thrown from the ship. It was a world away from small town Ryde and organ recitals at St James’s church.

It was December and freezing when Bert returned to England that first year, but he had seen Barbados lush and green, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, emerging from the mangrove swamps along the coast; he had sniffed craggy Jamaica “spice-scented in the hot black velvet night” and seen the water change from the blue seas of the Windward Isles to the foul bottle green of mainland South America, with the mighty Cordilleras in the distance. He had been to Colon and Havana, and glimpsed the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour through a heaving thicket of funnels and spars, and he still had £1 5s 8d jingling in his pocket.

Four days after arriving back in Southampton, Bertie Sivell was off out to sea again. He did not stay for Christmas.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 8. Rolling down to Rio: RMS Nile, 1911

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll

A sailor’s life – 6. Great steamers white and gold

with one comment

Royal Mail Steam Packet company brochure 1908, from the collection of Bjorn Larsson - timetableimages.com

Royal Mail Steam Packet passenger lines brochure 1908, from the collection of Bjorn Larsson

“Travellers whose social position and resources accustom them to the luxury of privacy and comfort in their vie intime, are no longer obliged to leave this behind when they go to sea,” the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. announced in 1905, launching the first of five luxury passenger ships offering “Transatlantic opulence” on its South American run. At the company’s AGM that year, the chairman jocularly looked forward to a future of air travel (gasps) and women commanders (“guffaws,” reported the Southampton Times).

For nearly twenty years a battle had raged in the Atlantic between shipping companies over the emerging passenger trade between America and Europe. To and fro the honours went, as now this country and now that boasted the biggest, fastest, most powerful ship. The Kaiser had upped the ante in 1889, after clapping eyes on the White Star liner Teutonic during the fleet review for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. “We must have some of these,” he reportedly said, and within a decade German yards had launched Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse – briefly the biggest and fastest vessel in the world.

Eventually, in 1907, Cunard’s Mauretania, steaming at 26 knots under Parson’s new steam turbine engines, set a record for the crossing that would not be broken for 22 years. But the shipping companies continued to vie for headlines with marble floors and gilded ceilings, until in the autumn of 1908 the White Star line laid the keel for the first of two sister ships that were to be both bigger and more luxurious than any built before, with £800 suites, heated pools and electric gym. They could not break rival Cunard’s speed record, but they would be so grand that even the £3 third class accommodation would blow the minds of the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who by then made up half the transatlantic trade. The ships were to be known as Olympic, and Titanic.

The smoking room, RMS Araguaya, postcard

The smoking room, RMS Araguaya, postcard

Even the Royal Mail and had had to look to luxury to keep up. The new A-liners on the South America run boasted “boudoirs in the Adam style” and SS Aragon had a paneled ceiling in the first class dining saloon inlaid with paintings of Columbus discovering the Americas that would not have looked out of place in a small castle. The company had run postal deliveries to the sugar plantations around the Caribbean for the Admiralty by paddle steamer since soon after the abolition of slavery and then expanded southwards with a weekly service to Rio de Janeiro. Gradually, as taste for travel grew, the naval martinets who treated passengers as inconvenient cargo or incompetent crew were replaced. Deck chairs were laid on, and soon the company was advertising “special facilities to passengers taking voyages for health or pleasure”, to supplement the mail contract.

In Rudyard Kipling’s day, in the infancy of mass tourism as we now know it, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. was South America to most British travellers, although the “steamers white and gold” immortalised in his Just So Stories in 1902 were artistic licence; the fancy gold and white livery with which the coal-burning Don and Magdalena and their sisters were launched had been repainted a more practical black again within three years.

In September 1910, when Bertie Sivell – weaned on the Cat who walked by Himself and the ‘Satiable Elephant’s Child – steamed out of Southampton past the island where he was born bound for Barbados aboard the RMS Oruba, aged fifteen and five months, the Isle of Wight County Press reported suffragettes invading Ryde town hall, demanding votes for women. A French airman, Louis Bleriot, had flown across the Channel, unleashing a swarm of imitators, and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen was pounding towards to the south pole on diesel engines. The world was changing fast, and the RMSP’s flippant chairman, later Lord Kylsant, was eventually banged up in Wormwood Scrubs for fraud. But that’s another story.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 7. Cabin boy: RMS Oruba 1910