Lost at sea

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

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

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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 – 70. Monkbarns sails on

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Monkbarns on the wharf in Australia, 1918

Monkbarns on the wharf in Australia, 1918

Whatever may have become of the hulk of three-master Monkbarns after she was demasted and towed to Corcubion, Spain, in 1927, the old ship still sails on across the 21st century – on the internet.

Though obsolete the day she slipped into the Clyde at Dumbarton in 1895, square-rigged and wind-driven in a world of steam and early oil-fired engines, the name of Monkbarns still resonates down the years among generations who will never know the smell of Stockholm tar, boiled coffee or wet oilskins.

For those of us who came after, a whiff of adventure seems to cling to the tales of the last windbags that no accounts of scurvy teeth or salt water boils and split fingers can mar. Many descendants of the men and boys who crewed Monkbarns in the last days of sail have come forward since I began this blog. Around the world, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand, grandchildren like me are digging, sifting yellowed newspaper clippings, piecing together lives so recent yet so brutally alien from our own pampered digital age.

Snail mail and various nautical magazines traced Lionel Walker‘s family, Francis Kirk‘s and Harry Fountain. But it was email and Facebook that whistled up Victor Fall‘s son, Captain Donaldson’s great grandson, and Laurence O’Keeffe‘s niece-in-law, belatedly mourning a gallant young life lost at sea. Most recently Bert’s blog received an overnight email from the diaspora of a Finnish family many thousands of miles away. The word Monkbarns had appeared on a grandfather’s Australian naturalisation papers, outward bound from New York in 1916. Google had done the rest. Had Bert Sivell and Axel Skärström perhaps sailed together, she asked.

Victor Fall on Monkbarns Newcastle 1920

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

As always, the crew lists provided pay dirt. Young Skärström, a 22-year-old Finn registered to a boarding house at 18 Great George Square, Liverpool, joined Monkbarns as an ordinary seaman in June 1915 on £5 10s a month. It was not his first ship. The ship’s papers note he had previously served on a Russian vessel, although Captain Donaldson had not concerned himself to record which.

Aboard Monkbarns, Axel Skärström lived in the fo’c’sle, among a crowd of mainly young Scandinavian hands: four Finns, three Swedes, two Norwegians, a Dane, a Swiss and four English teenagers – all willing to work for a pittance on the dwindling number of sailing ships to rack up experience for their square-rig “ticket” (plus ça change…) – and two fifty-something Welshmen, old sea dogs unable or unwilling to learn new tricks.

Bert Sivell, only 20 himself that trip, had set sail from Garston, Liverpool, as one of the eight unpaid apprentices sharing the “boys” house amidships, though he was promoted to able seaman two months later in mid-Atlantic as soon as his indentures expired.

From Liverpool he and Axel had sailed together to New York and from New York they sailed with general cargo for Australia, where in March 1916 in Port Adelaide, after a month hanging around, Bert sat and passed his 2nd Mate’s exam and Donaldson recorded that Axel deserted.

It came as no surprise to the Skärström family. “Dad always said he’d jumped ship,” pinged back the email.

Axel Skarstrom and Ada Loveday December 1925

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

What did come as a surprise was the name on the line below Axel’s on Monkbarns crew list: another, younger, Skärström, only 19, but registered to the same boarding house in Liverpool, and also off a Russian ship.

Little brother Johan Wilhelm – for it was Axel’s brother – did not jump ship in Australia. He helped finish loading the 34,000 sacks of wheat they picked up at Wallaroo for Cape Town, and arrived back in England just before Christmas 1916.

JW was paid off in Avonmouth with £81 17s 11d, after what was evidently a very abstemious two years. He didn’t sign on for Monkbarns next trip. Eventually he returned to Finland and became harbourmaster in Hango. Meanwhile, Axel found work in Adelaide and ten years later met and married an Aussie girl who walked past the wharf each day. In 1914, with war coming, Axel’s mum in Finland had advised him not to come home. So he didn’t.

Around the world, more emails are pinging. Johan’s grandson far away in Finland has been alerted. More digging is going on. Monkbarns has entered the canon of yet another family’s history, and another piece may shortly be added to the jigsaw of lives played out around the last days of sail.

Post script: Axel died in 1941, falling from the rigging of the steamship MV Minnipa, and is commemorated on the Australian merchant navy memorial. But Johan is buried in the family plot in Hango, in southern Finland, surrounded by generations of seafaring Skärströms. And there, each Christmas eve, candles are still lit on his grave as Finns up and down the country flock through the snow to remember the past at Christmas. Nice one.

Now, how about George Barnaby, born in King’s Lynn in 1895, who deserted in New York in 1915? Or Bill Aplin, Graham Cheetham and Ted Chown*, the out-of-time apprentices who helped put down the mutiny round Cape Horn in 1918? Or the five ringleaders who were jailed in Newport, Gwent, in 1918 – Fausto Humberto Villaverde (born about 1896, Callao, Peru), Charles H Moore (approx. 1897, Chicago, US), Thomas O’Brien (1877, Dundalk, Ireland), David Thomas (1873, Swansea, South Wales) and Edvard Henriksen (1896, Arendal, Norway)?

Answers on a postcard, please – or watch this space.

* William Gilbert Nigel Aplin, 1897, Bloxham, Oxford; Edward John Chown, 1899, Teddington, Middlesex; Gilbert Robert Cheetham, 1899, Wrexham.

Coming next: The General Strike, RMS Karmala and Bert goes East

Previously: In Memoriam

A sailor’s life – 40. Armistice day in Bunbury WA

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Bunbury WA - view of main street, sent by Bert Sivell November 1918

Bunbury WA - view of the main "and only" street, sent by Bert Sivell November 1918 (arrow marks the Rose hotel, where "Trixie" worked, he wrote)

Bunbury in Western Australia was not very impressive from the sea in 1918. A ring of sand hills round a blue bay, with a stone breakwater shielding a long wooden jetty, a lighthouse on stilts on a low hill and a glimpse of low red roofs between trees. It was a small seaside town, serving the local farms and sawmills. It had one cinema, the Lyric, and not much else. There was no crowd of sailing ship apprentices here, and no seamen’s mission.

There were also no tugs, so when the sailing ship Monkbarns dropped anchor in Koombana Bay fifty days out of Rio de Janeiro, lines had to be run out to the town jetty, and the men heaved away at the capstan bars to winch her alongside.

Out along the yard, busily furling the sails to a “harbour stow”, the seamen and apprentice boys looked curiously around them.  A Norwegian barque, Auldgirth, and a small steamer already lay along the jetty. Out on the breakwater to seaward, a small locomotive was shunting trucks of stone about.  It was Saturday November 9th – and from the shore hands they heard the news: after four years of war the Germans were negotiating surrender.

On Monday night, Bunbury came to life.


Monkbarns at Bunbury WA

Monkbarns on the jetty at Bunbury, Western Australia, 24th November 1918

Dorothy Rumble had gone to the Lyric that evening, with her sister Phyl and two friends, to see the Hollywood heartthrob Douglas Fairbanks in The Man from Painted Post. Halfway through the film, she remembered, at 9.30pm, the screen suddenly went blank.

A disappointed murmur had rippled through the crowd, and then a hastily written message appeared on the screen:

The film was forgotten. Everyone stampeded out into Victoria Street, where firecrackers were going off – left over from Guy Fawkes’ night the previous week. “People linked arms and danced down the street. One or two motor cars – there were not many in Bunbury – were trying to drive through the crowd. They joined in the fun and started honking their horns. Others jumped on the running boards for the ride. Kerosene tins became instantaneous drums,” records her son.

People talked long into the night. All the bars of the hotels were crowded, according to Monkbarns apprentice Victor Fall, and all work stopped. Monkbarns and Auldgirth hoisted all the bunting they could lay hands on, but the boys didn’t know anyone, so the thanksgiving speeches, bands, parades and school treats over the following days were just “windy” and not very exciting, he said.

Dolly Rumble and Phyl, meanwhile, were enjoying a whirl of hastily laid on festivities. There was the thanksgiving service in the council chamber grounds and then a procession, all the way down to Haywards. Someone had suggested throwing a victory dance that night, so they spent all Tuesday afternoon helping to get the school ready, while their parents practised piano and banjo duets for a Soldiers’ Gift Concert in the council chambers that night.

Everyone felt a little tired on Wednesday morning, but Phyl was up betimes to cut sandwiches for the school treat next day. There, while serving tea, she would meet a young officer from the ship, Mr Chown, who was third mate and seemed very nice, she said.

She met him again, on the 20th, when the mayor of Bunbury, Mr Baldock,  threw a party at his house for Monkbarns’ officers and apprentices.

‘Do you know,’ Mrs Baldock had told Dolly’s parents, ‘there are ten young lads on that ship, scarcely out of school? They say there was a mutiny on board at Rio de Janeiro and, to make up the crew, the company shipped these young lads out from London.’

The mayor had met Captain Donaldson at the Rose, Bunbury’s best hotel, where the Old Man was putting up in comfort for the duration. ‘With all these celebrations, I think it would be nice,’ said Mrs Baldock, ‘to give them a good time. They are all probably very homesick.’

Phyllis and Dolly had had to plead with their father to go to the party. Strict Mr Rumble felt they’d been out enough already that week. ‘And I’m not going to have my daughters going out with sailors.’

But by the day of the “do” they had permission and went over to the Baldocks’ to help with the cooking and the preparation, and that night – after a great party which everyone enjoyed – Dolly was walked home by 18-year-old Victor Fall, who seemed  just what she had imagined a polite, quiet, refined young English gentleman would be.

The following Sunday Mr Chown and Mr Fall were invited to tea, which is how the Rumbles met both their future sons-in-law.

(With thanks to John Fall: In Search of My Ancestors)

Next: Captain Donaldson’s visitors, the mystery child and a kidnapping
Previously: A walk among the spars


A sailor’s life – 37. Monkbarns apprentice: Victor Fall, 1918

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VG Fall (left), aged 13 in 1915, with his brother Don, school army cadets. From the collection of John Fall, Australia

VG Fall (left), aged 13 in 1915, in school army cadet rig with his brother Don. From the collection of John Fall, Australia

Monkbarns’ ten new apprentice boys arrived arrived in Rio de Janeiro in convoy aboard the RMS Highland Rover on 2nd September 1918 and Captain Donaldson was waiting for them on the quay. He was aboard as soon as they docked, to whisk them off to the British consul – and sign them on as crew.

None of the boys had been out of England before. Their brass buttons were shiny and their sea chests were brand new. The youngest of the ten was still only 15. The Old Man rounded up the luggage and shepherded the entire schoolboy party across Rio’s teeming bay by launch to where the old sailing ship lay in dry-dock, her tall masts bare and her decks piled with grimy mounds of rope and blocks.

In the dim half-deck house they were introduced to the senior apprentices, Wilkins, Watkins, Harries and Brough, four world-weary “old hands” in patched dungarees and bare feet, veterans of the Horn and the mutiny. The senior boys treated the newbies with the lofty superiority of age – though not one of them was himself out of his teens.

The British sailing ship Monkbarns, circa 1918

The British sailing ship Monkbarns, circa 1918

The half-deck was an iron bunkhouse amidships, two rooms and a corridor with doors either end so that entry could always be from the lee side of the ship while at sea. It was an ice box in winter and an oven in the tropics, but it had a skylight exit and a “monkey bridge” to the poop that was popular in heavy seas, when the decks were often awash to a depth of two feet or more. There were bunks around the walls on three sides, a bare deal table with raised sides up the middle – with boot-marked benches either side, a pot-bellied iron stove and a battered cupboard in the corner divided into lockers, with fancy knotted rope tails for handles. There was a mirror, mottled with damp, and a single kerosene lamp swinging in gimbals.

The bunks were narrow, with high boards along the open side to stop the sleeper rolling out as the ship pitched, and coloured pictures – often of girls, sometimes a country scene – pasted to the surrounding bulkhead by previous occupants. By some hung a canvas “tidy”, containing needles and cotton for repairs. The apprentices had to do all their own washing (in salt water) and their own mending, cobbling and hair cutting, and the old hands looked cynically at the new boys’ new straw mattresses. Their own bunks were bare except for blankets. “You won’t keep those long,” they said sagely, and within weeks the new boys learned why, when the “donkey’s breakfasts” had to be tossed overboard – crawling with  bed-bugs, the curse of long voyages and poor hygiene.

But that was later. The first day the social chat was provided by the Mate, who came into the half-deck, introduced himself and told them all, “Get out of those shore togs and into your working gear – there’s plenty of work to be done!” The boys were relieved to see he was young and “not at all formidable”, according to the then 17-year-old Victor George Fall.

For the rest of the afternoon they roamed the ship, “giving a hand here” and “taking a haul on that”, examining the maze of  ropes belayed to the fife rails around the masts, inspecting the capstans and winch, and gazing up at the spars high overhead. “Oh, go aloft if you want to,” said the Mate, Bert Sivell. “Might as well get used to it. Only don’t break your necks, we didn’t go to all the trouble of bringing you out here for that.”

So they did.

Coming next: A walk among the spars
Previous: After the mutiny

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 – 36. Monkbarns, Rio 1918

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Postcard views of Rio, sent by Bert Sivell 1918

Postcard views of Rio, sent by Bert Sivell 1918

Bert Sivell marked his seventh anniversary aboard the sailing ship Monkbarns in Rio, with a big cigar and a trip up the Corcovado mountain — three years before building began on the 130ft figure of Christ the Redeemer. It was August 1918 and a postcard view marks the empty summit with an arrow.

He had been to church, he wrote to his father (as you do), and was developing quite a taste for the cheap local cigars, of which he was laying in a stock.  Monkbarns was in dry dock across the bay in Nictheroy, undergoing repairs, a big grey rust-streaked hull dwarfed by her three tall masts – the main being 192ft from truck to keelson. She could set twenty-three sails, and needed twenty-four hands to work her. “Who would have thought when I joined her that I would be mate before being six years at sea,” Bert wrote. He was 23.

Rio harbour during the first world war was a magnificent sheet of water ringed with jungle-clad peaks and big city sprawl, and dotted with palm islands. There were ships of every sort, from cruisers and destroyers to Atlantic liners and little steam coasters, and between them all tall sailing ships, barques, brigs and schooners, loading or unloading cargoes, and bobbing at the farewell buoys.

View towards Rio de Janeiro from Nictheroy, 1920s

View towards Rio de Janeiro from Nictheroy, 1920s

Captain James Donaldson, his young officers and the four remaining apprentices had been left kicking their heels in Rio for two months since Monkbarns’ mutinous crew were convicted at a trial on HMS Armadale Castle that June, and they were to remain for one more month while the boys’ half-deck house was enlarged. The cargo of flour had been whisked north by a Lamport and Holt steamship and John Stewart & Co were sending out ten new little apprentice boys to work the ship home. Never again would Monkbarns’ fo’c’sle hands outnumber the officers.

Next: John Stewart & Co’s new apprentices
Previous: Crimes and punishment

A sailor’s life – 35. Monkbarns: crimes and punishment

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RMS Armadale Castle, pre-war, from collection at histarmar.com.ar

RMS Armadale Castle, pre-war, from collection at histarmar.com.ar

What ordinary seaman Fausto Humberto Villaverde thought of his trial aboard the HMS Armadale Castle in June 1918 was not clear. Charged with “combining to disobey lawful commands” – or mutiny, as his officers saw it, the evidence had to be translated into Spanish for him, and even the translator appeared to have struggled with his replies. The Peruvian’s defence is given as one line: he had “illness in the stomach”.

The Dane Soren Sorensen had been heard first. Unlike the other men, he was accused only of insubordination – for having answered back when Monkbarns’ master, Captain James Donaldson, criticised his steering. He denied using bad language. He claimed the master had sarcastically asked what time he, Sorensen, would be able to steer the ship and that when he had complained he was feeling sick Donaldson had threatened to “smash him in the face”. The only witness on the poop at the time was the young 2nd Mate, Aplin, who did not support this version of events.

As Sorensen had technically already been punished, by the imposition of the five shilling fines – which was all the authority Donaldson had under British maritime law – he was found guilty but no further action was taken.

The Irishman Thomas O’Brien was called next by the impromptu naval court in Rio bay and was asked to explain his refusal to grease down a mast when ordered to do so. His defence that he was starving met short shrift from both British ship captains officiating. “You don’t look like a man that had been starved,” they said.

They wanted to know why, if the food was so bad, O’Brien had bothered to steal more of it during the voyage from Melbourne, as he admitted. He claimed he had only disobeyed orders because he was “played out from starvation” and too weak to work, “except where it was necessary”. But his judges jumped on the rider.

Was he to be the judge of that, asked the president. “Suppose you were ordered aloft to furl a royal [sail], am I to understand that you wouldn’t go unless you thought it necessary? Who is the best judge of what is necessary, you or your properly appointed officers?”

When the American, Charles Moore, also complained about the food, and particularly the substitution of grease for butter the president exclaimed “Butter! Do you expect to get butter in wartime. Margarine is considered a luxury in London.”

The Welshman David Thomas’ evidence is the most poignant. “I thought I was going home,” he told the hearing. Perhaps Captain Donaldson – desperate to replace deserters in Australia – had been a little economical with the truth. By the time the ship left Melbourne their cargo of flour was destined for New York, not wartorn Europe.

At 45, Thomas was the oldest man in the fo’c’sle, and he had suffered rheumatism and cramps from sleeping in a wet bunk during the long, stormy passage round the Horn. Though only rated able seaman on Monkbarns, he had done two voyages as bo’sun on his previous ship, he said, which showed he was not of such bad character as painted. He had not been looking for “any bother”. He had gone aloft when he could. His handwriting in the crew list is shaky like an old man’s and there is no year against his last ship.

He was scathing on the subject of the pantry however. The food was so bad it made him sick, he said, and he had seen some of the boys in the ship so hungry they would get a cup of flour and fry it in fat in the galley to have something to eat.

The mate (Bert Sivell) half stuck up for him, telling the court that Thomas would usually go aloft to make sail fast, although he had refused to do so for the greasing, but the president wasn’t having any of it. “Well, if he can go aloft to take in sails he can go aloft to grease down the mast,” he said, firmly.

Thomas and O’Brien were found guilty of continued wilful disobedience. Moore, Henriksen and Villaverde were found guilty of combining to disobey.

All five men were sentenced to twelve weeks in prison in the UK and the cost of their “board” on the passage home, which was calculated at three shillings a day for 38 days. Thomas and O’Brien were also fined six days pay, and O’Brien was further charged £2 for the food he had admitted stealing. They set off in convoy under lock and key aboard the Armadale Castle in July and arrived in Newport, Wales, after an uneventful crossing on August 4th.

Sub-lieutenant George Frost’s last sight of them was handcuffed together on the railway platform at Newport, waiting for a train to take them to prison. They had six weeks of their sentence left to serve. For them, the war was over.

Read on: John Stewart & Co sends out new apprentices
Previous: The court martial

A sailor’s life – 34. Monkbarns, court martial 1918

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AMC Armadale Castle 1916

AMC Armadale Castle 1916, unknown publication

On the 28th June 1918, a British naval court was convened in Rio bay to try six predominantly foreign seamen for “wilful disobedience to lawful commands” on a British ship – Monkbarns. It passed into history as a mutiny, but was it?

The hearing was held on the HMS Armadale Castle, an armed merchant cruiser/former passenger liner, and was presided over by her commander, Captain George Leith RN, her chief officer, Lieutenant William Pawlett Evans RNR, and Captain Robert Smith, master of the British steam ship Messenia, which just happened to be in port.

Monkbarns had sailed desperately into the busy tangle of steamers in Rio bay four days previously flying distress flags and seeking protection from mutineers in her fo’c’sle, and under the quite astonishingly wide-ranging powers of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, section 480 (only repealed in 1994!), this was deemed sufficient to bypass Brazilian jurisdiction.

Captain Leith’s log does not record what Captain James Donaldson was signalling as he came, but whatever it was, Armadale Castle instantly dispatched a dozen armed men out to Monkbarns in a boarding party commanded by sub-lieutenant George Merry Frost, RNR.

Frost knew Monkbarns, having visited her in the Thames at Greenhithe when he was a boy on the nautical training ship Worcester. Now, as he boarded the ship in distress, in wartime, on the other side of the world, he spotted a familiar face – another HMS Worcester boy, Monkbarns 2nd Mate Bill Aplin – and was borne aft to the saloon to hear the officers’ tale.

The crew had forced the ship into port by refusing to work her, in protest at the food aboard. The mate’s log referred to it as mutiny, but until then it was the officers’ word against theirs. A hot headed young American seaman and an inarticulate Peruvian were about to change that.

Corporal Thomas Perkins of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, posted on guard aboard overnight, became the first witness for the prosecution the following morning when three of the crew – Charles Moore, Fausto Humberto Villaverde and the Norwegian cook, Edvard Henriksen – refused to “turn to”, at the start of their watch.

The men claimed they were ill, but when a doctor (second witness) arrived from shore and certified them fit to work they refused again. Moore, 21, and Villaverde, 22, packed their bags and appeared on deck smoking, the subsequent trial was told. So Frost arrested them. They had been warned, he said. Though possibly they underestimated the long arm of British justice.

Edvard Henriksen, also 22, meanwhile had been found asleep in his bunk. When roused and challenged with refusing to get up for work, the Norwegian offered the first excuse that came into his fuddled head: toothache, he said. This proved a bad move, as he was marched off up on deck and the tooth he randomly identified was yanked out on the spot over the main hatch – without anaesthetic. Henriksen too was then ordered back to work and when he refused was also arrested.

Frost told the court later they had all refused to serve further on Monkbarns, “though they said would on another vessel”.

In all, six men finally appeared before court on the Armadale Castle: Moore, Villaverde, Henriksen, an elderly Welshman called David Thomas, an Irishman, Thomas O’Brien and a Dane, Soren Sorensen. Only Henriksen pleaded guilty.

Read on: Crimes and punishment
Previously: Monkbarns, mutiny III