Posts Tagged ‘Captain James Donaldson’
Much of what we know about the dying days of sail was recorded after the First World War, when most of Britain’s last old sailers had been sunk or ‘sold foreign‘.
Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race and Elis Karlsson’s excellent Pully-haul were published as late as the 1950s and ‘60s, both about what were by then Finnish-owned vessels – the Moshulu, now a restaurant (!) in Philadelphia, and the Herzogin Cecilie, a wreck off Salcombe, Devon.
But in the summer of 1913, when the Liverpool-registered square rigger Monkbarns arrived off Australia from South America with a state-of-the-art Cinematograph movie camera provided by the Kineto film company of Wardour Street, London, “Everything that could be filmed about life aboard had been filmed,” the resident amateur cameraman noted.
Dr Dudley Stone was a keen yachtsman and junior doctor at St Bart’s hospital London who had joined Monkbarns in Gravesend that February determined to chronicle what was even then obviously the end of an era, from “swinging the ship” for correcting the compass before they sailed to the shanties round the capstan as they weighed anchor. His commission was to “obtain pictures of the ocean in its angry moods”. It was Kineto’s second attempt, after the chap it sent out the previous year had found himself vilely incapacitated by seasickness.
Over the months that followed, as Monkbarns crossed the Atlantic to Buenos Aires with a cargo of cement and then headed back eastwards in ballast round the Cape of Good Hope to Sydney, he shot 9,000 feet of film: of the men hauling and chipping, of the view from the yards, of big seas and the master in his oilskins. He developed it in his cabin and dried it all in strips festooned around a lazarette under the fo’c’sle head.
“I have cinematographed with no gloves and with oilskins and top boots on from aloft from almost everywhere.” Dating and developing it all had taken up to five hours a day, he wrote from Newcastle NSW.
Sadly, this nearly two miles of film seems to have disappeared. It is mentioned in the Australian newspapers of the time and was picked up years later by Captain “Algie” Course during the fireside yarns with fellow Cape Horners that formed the basis of his account of Monkbarns in The Wheel’s Kick and The Wind’s Song, but of the actual film there is no trace, not in the National Maritime Museum collection, nor the British Film Institute, nor the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney. Shot from a heaving deck over 100 years ago, washed in saltwater, dried in a dusty locker and exposed to sulphur fumes when the ship was fumigated in Newcastle, it is unlikely any of it has survived.
Dr Stone’s unfinished diary, however, did survive – in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich – and even without moving images it provides a rare glimpse of working life aboard one of the last British full-rigged ships a full 16 years before Alan Villiers and his ill-fated colleague Ronald Walker immortalised Grace Harwar, the last full rigger in the Australian trade.
Stone and his friend and patient, the Honourable John Gilbert Eveleigh-de Moleyns, aged 34, fifth son of the 4th Baron Ventry, were an odd couple aboard a working ship; de M’s condition is not identified but he lay down every afternoon, and usually played Euchre with the Mate for matches in the evenings or made quoits, which he played on deck when the weather permitted. Meanwhile, Stone was out along the yards or down the holds in all weathers with his Cinematograph, filming, or learning to take a noon sight and wrestling with calculations of the ship’s position and progress.
Neither did any actual work aboard, apart from “tailing on” occasionally.
But they roamed at will armed with a Videx Reflex and a Brownie, and Stone’s eye was keen. He noted the pilfering of stores by the ever-hungry apprentices, rough justice for a suspected thief who was given a hiding by his shipmates and booted ashore in Buenos Aires, and the stowaway “discovered” drinking tea in the fo’c’sle after they sailed. The Mate hadn’t known he was aboard, but the master did. Desertions had left him shorthanded. Two “stowaways” appeared after the ship had sailed, and both were entered on the articles at £1 per month.
Patrick Haggerty was an Irishman from Queenstown, Cork, red haired, blue eyed and popular. A fine shantyman, said Stone. He claimed to be off an Italian barque that had gone ashore near Buenos Aires and had only the dungarees, socks, cap and shoes he stood up in. After he was found half frozen at the wheel one night, the ship had a whip-round for him: the Mate gave him a shirt and an old oilskin, de M donated pants and socks, Stone rooted out an ancient spare jersey.
Stone’s surviving diary begins as they leave Buenos Aires.
A doctor was a familiar sight on passenger steamers, schmoozing the saloon crowd and keeping at bay any unpleasantness from steerage. Naval vessels too usually had a surgeon, to patch up battle injuries. But merchant ships knocking about the world with cargoes of nitrate or guano rarely enjoyed the luxury of trained medical assistance.
In the days of sail, physicking the crew was the responsibility of the “Old Man”, supported by a dog-eared copy of the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide and a case of pre-mixed bottles and papers labelled Solution No. 5 and Powder No. 3. Far from land, way off the steamer tracks and with no wireless to call for help or seek advice, the master had to rely on common sense and caution. Any ailment that didn’t involve actual blood loss was potentially malingering, and logs show intervention was rarely rushed. It is hardly surprising then that the presence of a bona fide doctor aboard Monkbarns was greeted with enthusiasm by her crew.
They set off from BA with all seven apprentices and three of the fo’c’sle down with diarrhoea, due to “the change of water”, the master diagnosed, and throughout what was to prove a very rough passage Dr Stone was kept busy.
Within a week storms were raking the ship. It was hard to sleep, wrote Stone. The main royal broke loose and tore both sheets out. The foresail ripped the starboard reefing jackstay clean off the yard, and the fore topmast staysail chafed most of the way through its bolt rope. In the store room all the pickles and a case of kerosene were lost. The following morning Stone watched the steward and two of the apprentices leaping about among the stores trying to catch tumbling tins. “Some had burst (I only hope they are the ‘blown’ ones I saw and that we will be saved from Ptomaine poisoning)”.
The fore hold was a jumble. There was rope everywhere, hanging over the edge of the ‘tween decks and tumbled below. The ship had acquired a list to starboard, and was rolling badly. The skipper had told him the squalls had been hurricane force 11 to 12, and that they might not have survived the night if the ship had been loaded. The boys’ half-deck had flooded.
Stone, who did not have to get up in the night to clamber aloft replacing blown-out sails, or sleep on a wet bunk in wet clothes, was amused to note that all the master’s drawers had shot out and his rug had spontaneously rolled itself up, but he was less pleased that the loss of the oil meant lights out at 9pm. There were only four candles aboard (his and de M.’s) and the ship was “badly found for matches”.
As paying passengers Stone and de M. occupied separate cabins in the saloon aft, with a porthole and two bunks each for all their gear. This left Leslie Beaver, the out-of-time apprentice acting 3rd mate, relegated to the lower bunk in the 2nd mate’s cabin.
“The Mate’s and 2nd mate’s cabins were like store rooms for nick-nacks and old rubbish. Their doors being opposite each other the contents of both cabins were well mixed. I just missed being hit by a camp stool paying a flying visit from 1st to 2nd’s quarters. Beaver had the much used water in their basin, the contents of a water jug and a tin of Swizo milk spilt into his bunk. He borrowed rug etc from de M. for night ”
More seriously, one of the ABs was injured. “Whole gale, hurricane squalls. Tremendous big NW Sea,” recorded the mate. “W Chapman knocked down and hurt.”
On June 7, Stone saw six “patients”, including Chapman, whose leg was skinned from knee to ankle. My own grandfather, then an apprentice of 18, sidled into the narrative with a tap at the doctor’s cabin door that evening. Stone noted an inflamed ligament, painful to the touch and prescribed iodine.
Captain James Donaldson was not pleased, though whether it was the molly-coddling or the lèse majesté is unclear. On June 11, Stone noted: “9.30 Went the rounds of the fo’c’sle at skipper’s invitation – a gentle hint that he does not like my going there on my own.”
Chapman’s raw leg was much better, a swollen knee was down and young Sivell was back at work again, against medical advice – (fed up with doing nothing, noted Stone.) Meanwhile, there was a strained shoulder to inspect (“nil to be seen. I’m safe…”), and the 3rd Mate had been shot into the scuppers on his stomach during a particularly heavy roll, resulting in appalling bruises but fortunately no internal injuries.
And still the glass continued to fall, down to 28.58. The fore lower topsail carried away.
At 3.30am, on a page labelled Hurricane, Stone recorded: “Broached to on port tack – my top row of bookshelf showered its contents on my head and then continued across cabin. Got up and collected them. 4 Very heavy squall carried away fore topmast staysails and new No 1 canvas sail. 7 de M came over to me and I produced LGCL book on meteorology and we tried to make out what position we were in with not much success. 7.30 Hot coffee went the rounds. 8 Broached to on port – more things going to leeward – thank goodness the ballast remains a fixture. This is as heavy a blow as any of ship’s officers have been in. I certainly cannot imagine more wind or a bigger sea. I heard that at 3.30am the 2nd mate and a hand went aloft to see to upper fore topsail and that on coming down he stepped into lee scuppers, which were full up with water. He is a short fellow and was up to his neck. That I think gives me some idea of the sea shipped on broaching to, and we in ballast.”
The Old Man – who was 64 and had been up all night – was laid up with cramp in the chart house, and the foremast staysail was a rag.
The hurricane squalls and strong gales continued for three weeks, almost without let up. Stone and de M. would tell the newspaper reporters waiting in Newcastle that they were both “ardent lovers of the sea” but neither of them ever wished to undergo such an experience again.
Monkbarns was one of five sailing vessels that arrived at Newcastle on the weekend of 5th July 1913, including the full-rigged Ben Lee, which had sailed from Buenos Aires two weeks before her. All had suffered. Ben Lee’s lower topsail had carried away and the foresail was blown to pieces. Kilmallie, from Santos, lost a lifeboat and her ballast shifted. The barque Lysglimt, from Natal, was knocked onto her beam ends when her ballast shifted, and the crew spent three death-defying days in the hold trying to right her, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Despite or possibly thanks to the hurricane, Monkbarns had made the passage in 52 days, to Ben Lee’s 67. Our man on the docks reported that two of Monkbarns’ crew had been injured and had been “attended by Dr M Stone, a passenger”.
Up in Newcastle, (where they went because there was smallpox in Sydney and the city was about to be quarantined), the Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate produced a much juicier report, headlined “An interesting visitor”.
Dr Stone, it said, had been imprisoned by Germany for spying the previous year (shades of Erskine Childers‘ The Riddle of the Sands). Dr Stone did not deny it. He had been one of a party of five well-to-do British yachtsmen – including the marine artist Gregory Robinson and the engineer William Richard Macdonald, who happened to have patented a nifty bit of submarine technology. They had attracted unwelcome attention from the German military authorities by happily photographing naval installations along the Kiel canal. It had taken them five days to talk themselves out of jail.
During the war that broke out less than a year after Monkbarns’ arrival in Newcastle, Stone would serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He became an eminent radiographer, with an obituary in the British Medical Journal in 1941.
The Kineto company, however, folded in 1923 and de M died in New Zealand in 1928, the year after Monkbarns was hulked off Corcubion, in northern Spain.
Stone carried on yachting all this life. Perhaps he even shot more films. But what became of his footage of working life aboard a British ship in the last days of sail remains a mystery.
An edited version of this article appeared first in The Cape Horner magazine, the journal of the International Association of Cape Horners. August 2015.
Photographs by Eugene Bainbridge, who was Monkbarns’ last apprentice during her final voyage, 1924-26. He joined her in Newcastle NSW, having steamed out from the UK third class aboard the P&O passenger ship Barrabool. He was then 19, the privately educated only son of a maritime insurance broker from Surrey. He had a Leica camera and for two years he kept a diary and took pictures of life aboard. Neither the diary nor the photographs were ever published and Eugene never went back to sea. These previously unseen views are made available by kind permission of his family.
Previously – Flowers in Hong Kong, Medals in the Post iii
Read from the start:
A sailor’s life – beginning, middle and end
Whatever may have become of the hulk of three-master Monkbarns after she was demasted and towed to Corcubion, Spain, in 1927, the old ship still sails on across the 21st century – on the internet.
Though obsolete the day she slipped into the Clyde at Dumbarton in 1895, square-rigged and wind-driven in a world of steam and early oil-fired engines, the name of Monkbarns still resonates down the years among generations who will never know the smell of Stockholm tar, boiled coffee or wet oilskins.
For those of us who came after, a whiff of adventure seems to cling to the tales of the last windbags that no accounts of scurvy teeth or salt water boils and split fingers can mar. Many descendants of the men and boys who crewed Monkbarns in the last days of sail have come forward since I began this blog. Around the world, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand, grandchildren like me are digging, sifting yellowed newspaper clippings, piecing together lives so recent yet so brutally alien from our own pampered digital age.
Snail mail and various nautical magazines traced Lionel Walker‘s family, Francis Kirk‘s and Harry Fountain. But it was email and Facebook that whistled up Victor Fall‘s son, Captain Donaldson’s great grandson, and Laurence O’Keeffe‘s niece-in-law, belatedly mourning a gallant young life lost at sea. Most recently Bert’s blog received an overnight email from the diaspora of a Finnish family many thousands of miles away. The word Monkbarns had appeared on a grandfather’s Australian naturalisation papers, outward bound from New York in 1916. Google had done the rest. Had Bert Sivell and Axel Skärström perhaps sailed together, she asked.
As always, the crew lists provided pay dirt. Young Skärström, a 22-year-old Finn registered to a boarding house at 18 Great George Square, Liverpool, joined Monkbarns as an ordinary seaman in June 1915 on £5 10s a month. It was not his first ship. The ship’s papers note he had previously served on a Russian vessel, although Captain Donaldson had not concerned himself to record which.
Aboard Monkbarns, Axel Skärström lived in the fo’c’sle, among a crowd of mainly young Scandinavian hands: four Finns, three Swedes, two Norwegians, a Dane, a Swiss and four English teenagers – all willing to work for a pittance on the dwindling number of sailing ships to rack up experience for their square-rig “ticket” (plus ça change…) – and two fifty-something Welshmen, old sea dogs unable or unwilling to learn new tricks.
Bert Sivell, only 20 himself that trip, had set sail from Garston, Liverpool, as one of the eight unpaid apprentices sharing the “boys” house amidships, though he was promoted to able seaman two months later in mid-Atlantic as soon as his indentures expired.
From Liverpool he and Axel had sailed together to New York and from New York they sailed with general cargo for Australia, where in March 1916 in Port Adelaide, after a month hanging around, Bert sat and passed his 2nd Mate’s exam and Donaldson recorded that Axel deserted.
It came as no surprise to the Skärström family. “Dad always said he’d jumped ship,” pinged back the email.
What did come as a surprise was the name on the line below Axel’s on Monkbarns crew list: another, younger, Skärström, only 19, but registered to the same boarding house in Liverpool, and also off a Russian ship.
Little brother Johan Wilhelm – for it was Axel’s brother – did not jump ship in Australia. He helped finish loading the 34,000 sacks of wheat they picked up at Wallaroo for Cape Town, and arrived back in England just before Christmas 1916.
JW was paid off in Avonmouth with £81 17s 11d, after what was evidently a very abstemious two years. He didn’t sign on for Monkbarns next trip. Eventually he returned to Finland and became harbourmaster in Hango. Meanwhile, Axel found work in Adelaide and ten years later met and married an Aussie girl who walked past the wharf each day. In 1914, with war coming, Axel’s mum in Finland had advised him not to come home. So he didn’t.
Around the world, more emails are pinging. Johan’s grandson far away in Finland has been alerted. More digging is going on. Monkbarns has entered the canon of yet another family’s history, and another piece may shortly be added to the jigsaw of lives played out around the last days of sail.
Post script: Axel died in 1941, falling from the rigging of the steamship MV Minnipa, and is commemorated on the Australian merchant navy memorial. But Johan is buried in the family plot in Hango, in southern Finland, surrounded by generations of seafaring Skärströms. And there, each Christmas eve, candles are still lit on his grave as Finns up and down the country flock through the snow to remember the past at Christmas. Nice one.
Now, how about George Barnaby, born in King’s Lynn in 1895, who deserted in New York in 1915? Or Bill Aplin, Graham Cheetham and Ted Chown*, the out-of-time apprentices who helped put down the mutiny round Cape Horn in 1918? Or the five ringleaders who were jailed in Newport, Gwent, in 1918 – Fausto Humberto Villaverde (born about 1896, Callao, Peru), Charles H Moore (approx. 1897, Chicago, US), Thomas O’Brien (1877, Dundalk, Ireland), David Thomas (1873, Swansea, South Wales) and Edvard Henriksen (1896, Arendal, Norway)?
Answers on a postcard, please – or watch this space.
* William Gilbert Nigel Aplin, 1897, Bloxham, Oxford; Edward John Chown, 1899, Teddington, Middlesex; Gilbert Robert Cheetham, 1899, Wrexham.
Coming next: The General Strike, RMS Karmala and Bert goes East
Previously: In Memoriam
“The old Clam is up to her tricks again: early this week she decided to take a sudden list, after standing perfectly upright for over two months. We had to chop through a foot of frozen snow and ice to get to the tank lids and then we had to use a crowbar to get them open. She was not leaking, so I do not know the cause of her latest crankiness.”
Bert Sivell, officer-in-charge Shell depot ships Pyrula and Clam, New York, January 1925
In the winter of 1925, the East River in New York froze, trapping the ferries. One morning Bert Sivell found he could almost walk from his home on the former passenger liner Pyrula at Stapleton NJ to his support tanker, the 3,500 ton Clam, across the ice that stretched half a mile into the bay.
The steam was off, there was no oil cargo aboard either vessel, and no ships calling for bunkers. The Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company (fleet arm of the 1907 merger of Royal Dutch Petroleum with the “Shell” Transport & Trading co.) was shedding its old tankers and both vessels were up for sale – for £25,000.
Pyrula was just an old passenger steamer, converted to an oil tanker by the Admiralty during the first war when she had seen action as a dummy warship, but Clam – though older – was a pioneer: a bit of Shell history.
The Clam was a proper oil tanker, purpose-built to carry lamp oil in bulk a decade before the word “tanker” was even invented, in the days before ordinary householders could dream of electric lighting and when gasoline was still a worthless byproduct being run off into rivers from Pennsylvania to Azerbaijan.
Launched in 1893, the Clam was older than her newly-wed young officer-in-charge, and older even than the old square-rigged sailing ship in which he had served his sea apprenticeship.
She was the last of the very first “Shell” tankers; the fourth of four sister ships designed in secret in 1892 to challenge the monopoly of American oil and its “Octopus Standard Oil by carrying Russian kerosene in bulk to the burgeoning markets of the East through the Suez Canal.
Murex, Conch, Turbo and Clam were a sideline to the rice and case oil business of a self-made British family, the Samuel brothers; a bow drawn at venture, rather like the workshop Samuel senior had founded, sticking exotic shells on tricket boxes for the booming Victorian seaside souvenir trade.
They were not the first purpose-built bulk oil tankers* – a distinction that belongs to either the Belgian Vaderland (1872), the Swedish Zoroaster (1878) or the German Gluckauf (1886), depending on your definition – but they had reinforced bulkheads up, down and across creating multiple separate tanks; cofferdam “buffers” fore and aft, isolating the fiery boiler room and coal bunkers; and expansion tanks to contain the expanding cargo in hot weather and prevent it shrinking and lurching in cold. They had water ballast tanks, to empty in case of grounding; electric fans to expel explosive gas vapours; integral pumps; and steam pipes for cleaning between wet and dry cargoes (!) – for purpose-built or not, the Samuels could undercut the competition if their oil tankers carried a cargo of tea back.
The ships were leak-proof, collision-proof and as far as possible fire-proof, and in August 1892 Murex made history as the first bulk oil carrier ever to pass through “the ditch” and into the Red Sea, bound for Thailand. She carried with her a little murex shell, presented to the master by Marcus Samuel from his own collection.
The Samuels were not Rockefellers. They were Whitechapel Jewish importers of rice and grain, semi-precious stones and shells, but they had inherited a network of trading agents across the far east and together they set up a syndicate to build onshore storage tanks that eventually stretched from Shanghai to Batavia (Jakarta), and from Bombay to Kobe. They worked in secret, because the ruthless Standard Oil had ways of seeing off competition – until it was finally forcefully broken up by US anti-trust laws in 1911.
Gradually, the eponymous rusty blue-green of Devoe’s Brilliant case oil tins – which had built itself into the very fabric of villages across the East as raw materials for everything from roofing tin to toys – gave way to shiny red ones, manufactured on the spot, and in 1897 the Samuel brothers struck oil of their own, in eastern Borneo, north of an unspoiled little fishing village called Balik Papan – (now an oil city of half a million souls.)
The following year, when the “Shell” syndicate began converting its tank steamers to burn its own thick fuel oil, Clam was first.
By 1925 only the Clam was left. Conch was wrecked off Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1903; Turbo went down in the North Sea in 1908; Murex was torpedoed outside Port Said in 1916. But the Clam – requistioned by the Admiralty for service as RN oiler No. 58 and torpedoed in the Irish Sea by UB64 – limped into port and returned to work.
By 1925, there had been a hundred and twenty-seven “shell” tankers, including Murex (2), Conch (2) and Turbo (2). Marcus had been knighted for services to the Admiralty, and then raised to the peerage as Lord Bearsted. The “Shell” syndicate had merged with the Royal Dutch and oil was big business from Indonesia to Venezuela, producing all manner of oils, thick and thin, including the once despised gasoline and new aviation fuel.
The Clam was an antique – old and cranky, flip-flopping at her moorings in the ice and fog off New York, minded by a young officer-in-charge apparently whiling away his time with prize crosswords and letters to his wife far away in the UK, and a young engineer juggling three girlfriends. (“… He met them at a dance hall he goes to. He takes them all out on different nights and has been buying them presents too. I think they are soaking him good…”)
America was still supposed to be “dry” and at Christmas the manager of the Asiatic Petroleum co. [Shell’s management arm] had brought them a basket of fruit and some cigars, which Bert shared with his last few Chinese sailors. “Their forecastle will be all right tonight with cigar smoke and opium,” he commented. He saw in the New Year out at the moorings with Clam, listening to all the ships around him rattling their whistles. (“Not a sound from Pyrula, not even the bell.”)
Up in New York, the Ford Motor company was pulling crowds with a two week exhibition at its showroom on 54th and Broadway, where you could watch twenty-five workers assemble a motorcar they themselves could afford to buy – start to finish in 20 minutes flat.
Bert joined the gawpers. “They build them on a moving conveyor,” he wrote. “The men never move from their positions but just do their bit to each machine as it comes to them. Finally the machine rests on its own wheels and they start the engine and drive it away. It really is a wonderful piece of organisation.”
The (free) show included entry to a prize draw to win your own car. Bert managed three trips, and three entries to the draw. He was already scouring the local paper his parents sent him for a house with a garage. “I made up my mind some time ago that I would have a car during the first leave after I go master.” That would be 1928, by his calculation.
Although he had passed his master’s ticket in 1919, promotion in the “Shell” depended on seniority. Every company man kept a jealous eye on the men above and below him on The List, and the only bearable part of the drudgery and boredom of minding Pyrula and Clam that final year was the fact that it all counted. “The old idea about sea experience is dead in this era of steamships,” he grumbled, ungratefully.
Once a week he left the pier and caught a vaudeville show off Broadway. “There’s a new idea at the Liberty now,” he wrote in January. “On Monday and Tuesday there is no vaudeville, but two pictures (movies) instead, admission 25c and 35c. Wednesday night is Opportunity night when the local talent give the vaudeville and prizes are awarded by the audience’s applause. We get the two pictures as well, admission 40c over all. Some of the local talent is terrible.”
Once a week he lunched at Yeong’s Chinese restaurant, where he would listen to the jazz bands and watch the dancing, wandering back to Pier 14 via the bookshop on the eighth floor of Wanamaker’s in Washington Square.
The American Sugar refining company turned up in February, looking for a Cuban depot ship “if the price was right”, followed in March by two more Italian gents (“because they gave me a cigar”) and a firm of Danish ship breakers. Both made offers and both sought Bert’s services as master to sail and tow both vessels back to Europe. But the Anglo-Saxon said no.
It said no again when a German shipbreaking firm in Hamburg bid £23,500. (“As luck would have it we were both in our overalls and pretty black. I have all the boats turned inside out and Andrew has part of the main engines adrift ready to go to sea, so we had quite a decent show for him.”)
By now six of the war generation tankers had been sold that Bert knew of: Caprella (ex War Gurkha), Conia (War Rajput), Melona (Elmleaf), Prygona (Aspenleaf), Strombus (RN oiler 4) and Cardium. Bigger ships were on the stocks. Bert boxed up four years of clutter and destroyed all Ena’s early letters, ready to go home. And nothing.
The baby was born in March, but in April he was still showing prospective buyers around Pyrula and Clam, without success. “It is pretty evident now that the ASP have abandoned the idea of selling these ships for operating tonnage and they are now looking for the best price for junk.”
The Clam was eventually sold to Petrolifera Esercizi Marittima of Venice in 1926 and renamed Antares. The following year Shell launched a 7,400 ton Clam (2). Pyrula was moved to Curacao, still as a depot ship, and scrapped in 1933. Antares/Clam outlasted them all. She finally ended her long career after she was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Alagi in 1942. She was refloated but scrapped the following year.
By then, Bert was dead. He never did get his motorcar.
* In 1861 the first recorded ship to carry (US) oil in bulk, the tiny two-masted sailing ship Elizabeth Watts, sailed for England with a drunken, crimped crew – no sober volunteers having been found willing to risk their lives with such a hazardous cargo.
In 1954 a nosy British steam ship apprentice spotted the name “Monkbarns” in rusty raised letters on an old coal hulk in Corcubión, in northern Spain, and clambered aboard.
There wasn’t much left of Charles W. Corsar’s fine teak fittings, the old seaman recalled years later, in response to an appeal in Sea Breezes. Where the saloon had been aft, there was just a stripped out space with a few doors and an old cast-iron stove in the corner. The tall masts were long gone, chopped down to stumps in 1927 when the old sailing ship was sold for £2,500 to Bruun & Von der Lippé of Tønsberg, Norway, for one of their several whaling stations in Galicia. He did not have time to see if the little flying horse figurehead was still there before he was chased back to work by a harassed mate, (“though perhaps I visited the cabin in which your grandfather had lived,” he wrote).
By June 1919, when Monkbarns docked back in Cork with a cargo of South African maize, she had been away from Europe for nearly two and half years. The war was over, and she had survived – unlike 263 other British merchant sailing ships. John Stewart’s fleet had numbered ten fine ships in 1914. By 1919 Monkbarns was one of four left.
That summer, Captain James Donaldson “swallowed the anchor” and retired from the sea. The 24-year-old Mate, who had first set foot aboard Monkbarns in Hamburg as a callow apprentice of sixteen, was also leaving the ship: bound for his parents’ home on the Isle of Wight and the daily commute to college in Southampton, to sit his exams and (he hoped) graduate to Master.
Bert Sivell had served Donaldson as man and boy for eight years, through war and storms and even mutiny, but the old Scot – never effusive – wrote only: “This is to certify that Mr Hubert S. Sivell was promoted 1st Mate of the above named ship at Melbourne, about beginning of March 1918, to about beginning of June 1919. During that time we had a crew of the most difficult men to work. They started insubordination before leaving Hobson’s Bay, continued and was so bad that the ship had to put into Rio damaged for want of men to work the yards etc. and continued right on to end of voyage. But through it all Mr Sivell was attentive, obedient, and strictly sober.”
And that was that.
Captain Donaldson was seventy, and had been at sea since he was fourteen. He retired to Australia, where he and the patient wife his apprentices never mentioned eventually settled in Bunbury near the eldest of their five children. Captain James Donaldson jnr was appointed pilot to the burgeoning timber port there in 1921, and was to rise to harbour master in a long and successful career ashore. In 1925 old man Donaldson’s details appear on a manifest for the White Star liner Medic arriving at Southampton, England, but his name is struck out. His great grandson believes he died in Scotland. Elizabeth King Donaldson continued to appear on the census for Bunbury with her son’s family until 1931, when she would have been 77.
Monkbarns’ last master, Captain William Davies of Nefyn, north-west Wales, died of stomach cancer in Rio on March 29, 1926, during a final and ultimately fruitless attempt to make the old ship pay. During the slump of 1921 she had spent 16 rather jolly months laid up in Bruges, with regular visits from the captain’s family and only old Henry Robertson, the sailmaker, for crew – “Sails” declaiming Scott’s epic Marmion to himself as he stitched away in his sail locker, or rattled pots in the galley. But Captain Davies didn’t survive the last voyage and the ship was brought home by the Mate, his nephew Richard Davies.
When Monkbarns finally moored at Charlton buoys on 10th July, hungry and a month overdue, to a chorus of whistles from the steamers she passed on her way up the Thames, even the Times wrote up her arrival as “a picture out of the romantic past”. But despite three years and four months away, the voyage had been so unprofitable that the remaining partner of John Stewart & Co decided he could no longer keep the vessel on.
On March 5, 1927, Monkbarns left the UK on her very last passage, bound for Corcubión, Spain, with a consignment of Welsh coal – supposedly for the Norwegian-run whale boilers of the Compañía Ballenera Española.
Records show the Norwegians caught 242 whales off Spain that year – producing 7,000 barrels of oil. But already the great teeming canyons beneath the Bay of Biscay and the straits of Gibraltar were being hunted to extinction. Too many licences had been granted. They had averaged 35,000 barrels in each of the previous four years. Now fossil oil was on the march.
The Norwegians say Svend Foyn Bruun & Anton von der Lippe shut down what they called their operation in Corcubión in 1927 and decamped to Newfoundland, taking their boilers with them. But Spanish records do not show there was ever a whaling station in Corcubión, just a coking plant: the Compañía General de Carbones.
There were whalers further along the beach at Caneliñas – but not until 1928, the year John Stewart & Co sent their last ship, William Mitchell – the very the last remaining British-registered commercial full rigged ship – to the breaker’s yards. (Garthpool, the other contender for “last British-flagged sailing ship” was in fact registered to Montreal when she was wrecked off Cape Verde in 1929, although confusingly she still flew the Red Ensign…)
Grimy, rusting, forgotten, somehow Monkbarns hung on. She is not listed among the known coal hulks of the Compañía General de Carbones anchored in the bay at Corcubión at that time (Burdeos, Mayagüez, Maria Luisa, and Sorrento) yet when the whaling station at Caneliñas reopened in 1952, she was evidently still there. Reduced to coaling weather-bound steamers, but still afloat according to that nosy British apprentice.
By then, both Bert Sivell and Captain James Donaldson were long dead. Monkbarns had outlived them both.
“Looks like we’re going to get wet,” shouted ordinary seaman Laurence O’Keeffe over the storm, as Monkbarns’s poop vanished under a mountainous green sea. They were his last words.
The jib-boom to which O’Keeffe and apprentice Lewis Watkins were clinging rose up and up, until they could see underside of the old sailing ship for half its length below them. Then the ship’s head came back down with terrific force, “plunging the boom and the men clinging to it into a mighty mass of rushing water,” according to a fellow apprentice, Victor Fall. The jib-boom was buried. As the water poured away at the next rise of the bows, Watkins emerged, caught head down in the jib-boom guy, but O’Keeffe, further out along the foot rope, was gone, ripped from his handhold and sucked into the sea. All Watkins remembered was being forced upwards by a great pressure of water.
Captain Donaldson refused to lower a life boat.
“The sea was incredibly savage and confused,” Fall remembered, “with enormous swells rising up to a great height, toppling over in a fury of foam, while the fierce wind whipped an unending spray from the crests. No [life] boat could live in such a sea, an attempt would mean not only the loss of one man, but that of a whole boat’s crew.”
Bert Sivell, the mate, threw a lifebelt from the poop in a final, helpless gesture. But they all knew it would do no good. “The ship raced on through the storm,” recalled Fall, “while a fine young seaman drowned astern; nothing could be done.”
It was January 18, 1919, and they were off the coast of Africa, fighting towards Cape Town with a cargo of Jarrah wood railway sleepers.
They had celebrated Christmas in the tropics off Madagascar with a blow-out meal of roast chicken – one between three – which the Old Man, Captain James Donaldson, had laid on in Bunbury, Western Australia, although the Mate, Mr Sivell, marred it slightly by making them spend Christmas Eve tarring down the rigging. There was plum duff and a slightly surprisingly good concert on the foredeck.
Day after day had passed without incident. As they slipped into the Mozambique channel, planning to run down the Agulhas current to the cape, winds and work remained light. They sighted steamers, and flying fish and even a six-foot turtle, gliding lazily through the crystal blue water. By New Year they were clear of the southern tip of Madagascar, but now the weather began to change. One night a sudden fierce squall “nearly caught the ship aback,” records Fall. The outer jib and both fore and main top gallants were carried away. All hands were summoned on deck, to hurriedly lower the yards and reduce sail. Early next morning the remaining rags of canvas had to be taken down and new sails bent on.
It was to be the start of three terrible weeks.
By the time they were on a latitude with Durban, the wind had reached almost hurricane force. They were sailing under reefed foresail and lower topsails only, but the seas were huge. “Great walls of water rushed at the ship, which reared up on the crests, to plunge a moment later, down, down and down into the troughs, and rise again to the next incoming monster,” wrote Fall. At each descent the green torrents swept the foc’sle head as the ship thrust jib-boom first into the next wave.
Shortly before 5.30pm on January 18th, the mate asked for volunteers. The inner jib was still set, and pulling. Someone had to climb out along the jib boom to take it in. A dangerous job. Watkins and O’Keeffe stepped forward.
Watkins was barefoot, wearing only a singlet and an old pair of white trousers, as the order “All hands on deck” had come in his watch below and he hadn’t had time to dress. It saved his life. O’Keeffe was in heavy sea boots and oilskins. He did not stand a chance.
He was only 18. A Welsh boy from Port Talbot, he had been with Monkbarns since she had sailed from Cardiff two years previously, remaining loyal, even during the mutiny of the fo’c’sle hands round Cape Horn the previous summer. In the crew agreement the words “shipwrecked” appear beside his name, and the money due to his widowed mother for this short, tragic career – £38 13s 3d.
He only earned £5 a month, but half of that – £2 10s – was paid to the family at home every month. From now on, they would struggle.
Gloom settled over the ship the evening he was lost. In fo’c’sle and half deck, men were subdued, Fall recorded. But the sea hadn’t finished with them yet. All that night and the next day the gale howled and screamed, and boiling, churning seas swept the decks from rail to rail, making it hazardous to relieve the man at the wheel. It was a week before they sighted land again, and almost immediately another gale struck.
This time the main top’sle carried away, leaving a broken chain lashing lethally around the deck, and while they struggled to secure it, a huge sea poured into the ship, smashing the galley door and washing the Egyptian cook out into the scuppers. The terrified man fled forward and locked himself into his cabin, where for three days he refused to come out.
The galley fire was drowned. Pots and pans were strewn around the ship. But they had to eat, and apprentice Fall was detailed to sort something out. Many years later, he still remembered the stew he’d put together that night. “Everything went into it – salt beef, salt pork, bully [tinned] beef, beans, peas, dried vegetables – everything; but by the cold wet and exhausted crew, including the skipper and mates, it was voted delicious.”
On February 6, 1919, Monkbarns dropped anchor in Table Bay, Cape Town – 63 days from Bunbury, WA. The following day the hatches were opened and the process of unloading began again. Another cargo had arrived.
PS A relative of O’Keeffe’s writes from Australia, 10 November 2010: “Laurence O’Keeffe was my late husband’s uncle. He was named Laurence after him. We knew that he had been drowned but until I found your website & story never knew how or when. I couldn’t find a death record for him, but I have now located it on the Deaths at Sea index. A passenger list from Callao, Peru, to Liverpool for the RMS Otega in December 1916 shows several seamen embarking at Coronel in Chile for Liverpool, including Laurence O’Keeffe as a 15-year-old OS of 20 Bute Street, Cardiff, which is where his widowed mother ran a boarding house. It must have been a very tough life in those days.”
Laurence O’Keeffe, then still only 15, was listed by the Pacific Steam Navigation Co. as one of six “Distressed British Seamen” repatriated back to the UK in 3rd class just before Christmas 1916. His previous ship, the four-masted barque Canowie, had been wrecked off Piritu Point, Chiloe Island, in southern Chile, that October. He signed on with Monkbarns on 30th January 1917, just over a month after getting home. It is conceivable he only ever made two voyages in his short life.
The British sailing ship Monkbarns left Bunbury in Western Australia late in 1918 two hands down – even though young Captain Donaldson of the Australian coaster SS Kurnalpi had generously let his father poach one of his crew, 18-year-old FG McMullen from Fremantle.
Two of the men old Captain Donaldson had signed in Rio three months previously had been paid off properly on arrival in Australia, and needed replacing, but one (a Finn) had gone Awol during the Armistice celebrations and was simply not seen again.
By three weeks before Christmas, the old sailing ship was laden with 3,300 tons of Jarrah wood sleepers destined for the South African railways. Her hatches were battened, her running gear overhauled, her stores topped up and two injured apprentices – one of whom had toppled into the hold and one off the jetty – had been retrieved from the infirmary, and pronounced fit for duties. Monkbarns was ready to sail. It was time to say their goodbyes.
There was no tug to take the old square rigger off the jetty, so “head sails were loosed, head mooring lines cast off, and when she swung out seawards, up went the fore lower topsail and with the mooring lines let go, she glided out into the bay to anchor about half a mile out,” wrote apprentice Victor Fall.
Then, half the apprentices were given shore leave and rowed off to spend a last evening with their new friends, particularly the girls. At 11pm on December 5th a forlorn little group reassembled on the jetty, their arms full of homemade cakes and jam, and rowed back out to the distant ship, rocking at anchor silhouetted against the night sky.
Elsewhere in Bunbury, but specifically in the bar at the Pier hotel (which was conveniently near the jetty), several of Monkbarns’ older hands were engaged in an altogether less innocent enterprise. The ship was short-handed, but the pool of sail-trained men in the little timber port was limited, and the number who cared to sign up for an indefinite voyage in an old British windbag, at British rates, was non-existent. It was a problem. But there was a solution.
That night one S. Grotheim, able seaman, of the Norwegian barque Aldgirth was treated to lashings of “grog” in a farewell booze-up organised by a bunch of his very dear new Britisher friends. A selected group of Monkbarns’ hands had been “softening him up” for days, according to young Fall. Now, when he duly passed out, his dear friends were on hand and tenderly carried him, deadweight, out of the bar and down to the jetty, where a boat was waiting. Grotheim awoke the following day with a banging head in the fo’c’sle of the wrong ship, well out at sea. Not even the hearty sea chanty as the anchor was hauled up, nor the clink of capstan pawls piling the cable link by slimy link into the adjacent chain locker had roused him.
Fall records that the poor man brought a lawsuit against Captain Donaldson on arrival in South Africa, but lost. All that survives in the ship’s papers is an incomplete scrawl by an administrator in the Cape Town shipping office three months later, noting the master’s report of the “engagement at sea” of S Grotheim AB. He had been “placed on board” at Bunbury, the official records blandly, “and instructed by the Shipping [Office?] only after leaving”.
It was one of the last cases of “Shanghaiing”, says Fall, although looking back over Monkbarns’ crew lists at the number of “stowaways” signed after sailing, the suspicion grows that Captain Donaldson had almost certainly done it before.
Shanghaiing, or crimping (or “press-ganging” if you ended up on a naval vessel), had a long and dishonorable tradition at sea. Many seafaring countries have their own word for it: ronselen, embarquer de force, and all the variations of sjanghaja, schanghaien etc.
In the days before international banking a merchant sailor paid off after lean months at sea was a plump target for the “crimpers”. Far from home, he needed a roof over his head and the quayside crawled with men eager to sell him all manner of entertainments at inflated prices. What did he know? By the time all the money ran out, he was in debt to the boardinghouse keeper. It was they who “sold” seamen to short-handed masters for settlement out of the advance on their first month’s pay – and who often rendered them drunk for delivery, to ensure compliance.
In the 17th century the Dutch East India Company called such men “zielverkopers” or sellers of souls, but Shanghaiing almost certainly stems from the cut-throat competition of the 19th century tea trade – when fast ships of many nations raced to China and home again against the monsoon to snatch the best price for the new season’s harvest following the repeal of Britain’s restrictive Navigation Acts.
The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 foreshadowed the end for the clippers and sailing ships generally. In Britain, the Board of Trade had taken over the pioneering money transfer systems set up by the charitable Sailors Home on Well Street, east London, and a marine department was legislating on pay and conditions for seafarers, although it remained illegal for a sailor to refuse a ship until 1871 – even on grounds of seaworthiness. (And Britain’s life-saving Plimsoll line of 1876 – against overloading and loss of ships – was not adopted by the US until 1917).
The new regulations curbed crimping, but Shanghaiing had never been legal anyway. It was just harder to prove at sea, in a foreign jurisdiction, far from any witnesses.
If S. Grotheim did try to sue Captain James Donaldson in Cape Town, he is unlikely to have met much support as a Norwegian national seeking redress against a British employer over something alleged to have happened half a world away in Australia.
The ship’s record shows Grotheim finally left Monkbarns in Cork in June 1919, a sadder and wiser man with £21 11s 9d in his pocket – further mulct of his official £11 a month pay by the ship’s slop chest system, to replace waterproofs, warm clothes and other necessities he’d naturally had no opportunity to bring along.
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
As the world celebrated the end of the war in November 1918 with dancing and concerts, old “Jock” Donaldson, master of the British sailing ship Monkbarns far from home in Bunbury WA, put his feet up in the town’s best hotel and sat back to await the arrival of the Melbourne steamer SS Kurnalpi, and his son.
James Donaldson jnr, born like his father in West Kilbride, Scotland, within sight of Portincross Castle – from where the bodies of Scotland’s kings were ferried to Iona – had followed the Old Man to sea and in 1908 joined the Melbourne Steamship Co, tramping the west Australian route from Perth to Sydney, £14 return in saloon class.
By 1918 he was Captain Donaldson, 39, with a wife and children, and a ship of his own, and that November his regular call at Bunbury would coincide with Monkbarns’ time in port. So, while Bert Sivell and the 2nd mate oversaw the apprentices discharging the slimy ballast stones loaded in Rio de Janeiro and the scouring of the holds and the killing of the rats (at which young Cobner was to prove a dab hand) and the laying of dunnage for the consignment of Jarrah wood railway sleepers due to arrive any day from the sawmill inland, Captain Donaldson took up residence in the Rose hotel, yarned with the mayor and his cronies, and waited.
“One day there was great excitement on the ship,” wrote apprentice Victor Fall. “For weeks the Old Man had been talking of his son, and his steamer. The apprentices in particular were anxious to see this ship, as from the Old Man’s account she was at least equal to the Katoomba, the 10,000-ton interstate liner.
“At last, a very small steamer about 250 tons came into the bay, belching black smoke from a tall funnel, which seemed too big for the ship. She was so small that as she passed the stone breakwater only the top of her masts and funnel were visible.” Memory is an unreliable witness – Kurnalpi was in fact a 495 tonner, twice as big as Fall remembered, but the Monkbarns boys were not impressed. ‘THAT thing, we could swing her on our davits!’ one of them was heard to remark, rather regrettably within the Old Man’s earshot, Fall recalled.
Meanwhile, among the mayor’s wife and her circle, interest focused not on Kurnalpi but on the tidbit that Captain Donaldson was also expecting the arrival of his daughter from Melbourne, and the grandchild he hardly knew, supposedly a little girl of nine.
On November 24th 1918 a series of photographs was taken on and around Monkbarns, two of which featuring – if reluctantly – the 70-year-old captain. (“The old man is looking pretty fierce. I had a fine job getting him to come out” wrote Bert.)
Bert himself is there, seated beside Donaldson, awkwardly showcasing the three stripes on his sleeves. Victor Fall is there, and Lewis Watkins and Percy Wilkins – who later married an Ozzie girl in Newcastle NSW and is believed to have carved out a career for himself in state politics. The rat-catcher James Cobner may in the photo too. He also settled in Newcastle NSW, and opened a chain of drycleaners. But the central face in the photo is a mystery.
I think it is Donaldson’s grandchild. You guessed, another James Donaldson.
In the photograph: Captain Donaldson and First Officer Bert Sivell, seated; ranged behind them from left – unknown, unknown, Malcolm Glasier (15) with cane?, unknown, 2nd Mate Gilbert Cheetham? holding child, unknown, Percy Wilkins (19), Victor Fall (17), Lewis Watkins (18) and unknown.
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