Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘Ryde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Continued – The Medals in the Post II

Previously – Sniffing Stockholm Tar

Or read from the start – Beginning, Middle and End


A sailor’s life – 50. The girl next door

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Postcard view of Union Street, Ryde - from gallery at Isle of Wight Family History Society

Postcard view of Union Street, Ryde - from Isle of Wight Family History Society

They also serve who only stand and wait
Milton, Sonnet 16

It was high summer 1919 when Bert Sivell came home to the street where he grew up, in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, after nine years away at sea and met Ena Alice Whittington. Young people everywhere were dancing. The war in Flanders was over; the Spanish ‘flu a distant nightmare. Men were pouring home, and those who had survived the mud and blood and gas of the trenches wanted to forget. In northern France, gangs of Chinese coolies were collecting up and burying bodies, and in the skinny columns of the Isle of Wight County Press the list of local sons and fathers “killed, previously reported missing” began to lengthen.

Letters to the editor might voice concern that there were no jobs for disabled ex-servicemen, but there were pages and pages more on the rallies and regattas, and sports days and agricultural shows and tea dances and tennis.

By August bank holiday the island and the beaches were heaving. In Ryde, there were burlesques on the pier, Ellen Terry in the picture house and bathing machines strung out among the waves. There was jazz, and picnics and sunshine, and it was good to be alive.

The Whittington sisters, Dolly, Ena and Marge - 1919

The Whittington sisters, Dolly, Ena and Marge - 1919

Ena Alice Whittington was 23 and overshadowed by a prettier, livelier younger sister at home when she was introduced to an old school chum of her brother’s, a neighbour, that month during her scant summer break from the workshops of a large fashion emporium in genteel Tunbridge Wells.

Ena was a milliner, one of three daughters of a tailor with a shop at the narrow top end of Ryde High Street, where socks and ties hung in the window side by side with flat caps and homburgs. Unlike her Auntie Clarrie, who still lived with grandpa Whittington round the corner in Arthur Street, making straw hats for 2/6d – Ena had left the town where she was born and the extended family on the Isle of Wight, to make big hats in velvet and silks for Kentish ladies of conservative tastes. She’d wanted to be a pianist, but she had to leave school at 14 to work.

Ena was a plain girl with a long face, and neat hair pulled into a conservative bun. Bert was short and weatherbeaten, with empty gums after years on salt beef and pork, and a wooden smile because he kept his mouth clamped shut to avoid showing the gaps.

Within a month of meeting they were engaged. By letter.

Fred Whittington and his youngest daughter outside their gent's outfitters on High Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight, about 1902

Fred Whittington and his youngest daughter outside their gent's outfitters on High Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight, about 1902

A questionnaire filled in by 130 British merchant seamen in the 1970s* revealed that two thirds had married local girls living within ten miles of where they, the men, had grown up – which was not necessarily near the sea. Although a small majority of ship’s engineers were from big cities or ports, only half the deck officers had any prior link to the sea.

Of the 59 wives in the survey, all but three had had a career before marriage, and most had set up home somewhere they might have daily contact with their mothers or sisters. The pace of their married lives might be dictated by the business of their husbands’ ships – a trawlerman is ashore more often than an oil tanker man, a passenger liner more predictable than a cargo carrier –  but their social lives revolved around family and their own friends. (Although most kept in touch with at least one other seaman’s wife if there happened to be one in her area, they said.)

The men had chosen the sea long before they thought of a wife or family. They were apprenticed in their early teens and spent their formative years far from home, sharing with strangers in cramped, noisy spaces much like boarding school or prison, where each task had a rank, and a rigid caste system dictated who lived fore or aft, who above deck and who below, even who ate with whom and what and where. In the girlfriend stakes, engineers tended to fare better than deck officers, as their apprenticeships were shore based, in the dockyards, so they shipped out later and thus met more young ladies before they went. The survey found engineers also tended to marry younger, be less middle class and spend more time with their relatives and neighbours when ashore. But then, when Bert Sivell was a boy, engineers ate segregated from both officers and crew, and even chief engineers did not make captain.

Of the men who rose through this system, the middeaged master mariners of the merchant fleet, Rear Admiral Kenelm Crighton wrote in 1944: “Their small talk is generally nil, their speech usually abrupt, confined to essentials and very much to the point… They uphold discipline by sheer character and personality – for their powers of punishment under Board of Trade Regulations are almost non-existent.”

Bert had been away for a third of his life by the time he came home that summer of 1919. He had left a boy and returned a man, with his master’s ticket in his pocket and good career prospects. Ena was bright-eyed and gentle and not too scary, being from just up his street. She was also a skilled worker, independent and capable of managing money. She had begun as a shop girl in Ryde but had left home to train as a milliner, which was a respectable occupation for a small tradesman’s daughter, although it did not pay very well and in the slack times – like summer, for hats were seasonal – hat makers were often laid off and expected to return to their father’s household.

Ena was perfect sea wife material, and before she and Bert had so much as held hands he cycled from Ryde to Tunbridge Wells and pledged himself to her, with her parents’ blessing.

That Ena Alice knew nothing of the sea was neither unusual, nor considered a problem.

Read on: “Why do you want to know about the wives?”
Previously: Clan Line, or Shell

*I only ever found one survey on seafarers’ wives; historically, neither owners nor unions have seemed much concerned with the impact on the “watch ashore“. If there are other studies, I’d be interested to hear.

A sailor’s life – 3. Cotton, Palmer & Sivell, Ryde 1910

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The old forge, formerly the carriage works of Cotton, Palmer and Sivell, Ryde

The old forge, formerly the carriage works of Cotton, Palmer and Sivell, Ryde

Cotton, Palmer & Sivell’s old forge was still there when I stumbled on it down an alleyway off the High Street in Ryde five years ago. The iron tyring platform, where the great wooden wheels were once rolled out to be shod, is still there  in the yard between the smithy and the carriage shed. It is an antiques shop now, selling wardrobes and wooden chests and fancy flat irons, but the former carriage workshop can still be glimpsed between the copper pans dangling among the collectible clutter in the window. It has been converted to a house, a pretty period piece with trailing wisteria and tall windows – light and spacious, and a world away from the narrower, humbler Georgian dwellings along Albert Place that once faced the tall gates of Cotton, Palmer & Sivell’s yard. They are gone now, demolished for a supermarket, and busy shoppers bustle down what is now little more than a shortcut to the High Street, giving the old gates barely a second glance.

Thomas Sivell, son and grandson of George Sivells and father of Bert, was a plain man who lived his life within half a mile of the house where he was born, on a tiny island off the south coast of England, twenty-four miles across. He was a master craftsman, proud of the glossy black broughams and the gigs and the gay little governess carts he built to trot smartly in and out of Ryde, bearing ladies in ankle-length dresses around a world of hats and gloves and parasols.

His own father had followed his father into tin smithing, and then grown as Ryde grew, through bell hanging and gas fitting to his own ironmongery business. George Sivell bought into the houses springing up around him, and by 1910 was a comfy widower with an income supplemented by his rents, and a lodger – a wine merchant’s clerk. The old rogue attended church, as was proper, and even left an illustrated copy of Pilgrim’s Progress to his favourite granddaughter when he died in 1913, but he liked a drink and as a boy Bertie remembered him complaining when his sticks “wouldn’t stand up straight”.

Thomas, his only son, preferred wood to tin and married a “foreigner” – that is, a girl not from the Isle of Wight. (When my father later did the same, my own grandmother – herself a Wight girl – rather tactlessly remarked: “Oh, dear, do you have to?”) Louisa was the daughter of a gentleman’s coachman from Oxfordshire, who had arrived on the Isle of Wight as Cook in the household of an Irish earl and countess. Socially she was a cut above her mother-in-law, who was the daughter of a washerwoman, so although the young couple settled down in a house 300 yards from where Tom Sivell had grown up, in no time at all he had signed the pledge, joined the East Wight masons and become a junior partner in Cotton & Palmer’s coachworks. Bertie, their only child, was born most respectably nine months to the day after the wedding.

But time was against coach builders: by the time Bert was 13, the first of Henry Ford’s Model T “motor cars for the multitude” were rolling off the production lines in Detroit. By 1910, the Isle of Wight County Press was reporting that the General Omnibus company in London was auctioning off its horses to greengrocers, farmers and coal merchants at £10 a head. “About 5,000 horses will be left in the company’s omnibus service, compared with 14,000 employed before motor competition began,” wrote our correspondent that January, and by May the island branch of the Motor Union had 40 members, including Princess Henry of Battenberg, the king’s sister, who made the news pages for pranging a hedge while dodging a chicken on the way to church one Sunday (Princess Henry, not the chicken).

The modern world advanced across the pages of the Isle of Wight Country Press in a trail of motor traffic accidents and speeding fines, but Thomas clung to what Bertie would later call his “wretched Ryde notions”.

Many coachbuilders became garages, turning their skills to the bodywork of the new Tin Lizzies; but not Thomas. He was not interested in engines, and the island was a slow sort of place that only got its first traffic light in 1924. A little red cloth-bound Sunday school prize came to light in Thomas’ house when my grandmother’s effects were cleared three generations later. The book was about the first steam engine, Rocket, and it had been awarded to Thomas when he himself was a boy in 1875, but the story had never been read. Its pages were uncut.

A sailor’s life – 4. Monkbarns, 1908

A sailor’s life – 2. Runaway, 1910

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Ryde, Isle of Wight, and the view across the Solent to Portsmouth, undated

Ryde, Isle of Wight, and the view across the Solent to Portsmouth, undated

Bertie Sivell ran away to sea in May 1910, aged fifteen.

(Yes, yes, a cliché, they say – just as Shakespeare is full of hackneyed phrases.) Bertie Sivell, fresh out of grammar school, ran away to sea three weeks after his fifteenth birthday, amid the national uproar after a more famous Bertie, the sailor king Edward VII, died unexpectedly in his bed in Buckingham Palace, aged 68.

Up and down the British Isles church bells tolled, flags flew half-mast and black armbands were worn in an outpouring of loyalist fervour that sounds quaintly old fashioned, until you remember the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 and the tide of flowers in the Mall.

In 1910, half a million people filed past the king’s body lying in state in Westminster Hall, London, for three days as the crowned heads of Europe steamed towards the British Isles. On the afternoon of the funeral, eight kings and an emperor, close relatives all, followed the coffin to the royal vault in Windsor – behind his late majesty’s favourite fox terrier, Caesar, and his best horse, to the reported annoyance of his imperial nephew, the Kaiser.

In Ryde, just along the coast from the royal naval college at Osborne House, the tradesmen outdid themselves. There were black shutters and black bordered portraits of the king in every shop window, and S. Fowler & Co. (linen drapers) of Union Street eclipsed everyone by shrouding their whole establishment in black and white. On the day of the funeral, a procession of civic big-wigs wound solemnly through the streets on foot, wearing their chains of office and bearing before them the town mace wrapped in black crape. Every shop was shut, public buildings were closed, restaurants and inns stopped serving, and even the ferries to the mainland ran a respectful Sunday service, although it was a Saturday. The steep thoroughfares were packed.

Over the heads of the crowd that thronged the High Street outside the windows of G. Sivell, ironmonger, the grey sprawl of Portsmouth was visible across the restless Solent. Only the previous summer some hundred and fifty of the navy’s biggest, newest dreadnoughts and submarines had crammed the straits at Spithead – decked with a thousand lights for the visiting czar and czarina of Russia. And it was only eight years since Ryde had enjoyed a grandstand view of the coronation fleet review for Edward himself.

Small wonder that Bertie Sivell and a school chum kicked up their heels and ran off to join the Royal Navy. School was out. They were fifteen and all grown up.

But the navy would not have them. The day before the king died the Osborne college cadets, gentlemen’s sons to a man, had chugged across to the island on the school’s steam pinnace for the start of the new term, caps straight and brass buttons gleaming, but Bertie and his friend were of humbler stock. The navy “kicked them out,” he told his girl, years later, and they were sent home without getting their feet wet, back to the futures mapped out for them by their families. Bertie, the bright only child of a carriage builder, was to be apprenticed to the coach works of Cotton, Palmer & Sivell, of Albert Place, Ryde.

Or so his father thought.

A sailor’s life – 3. Cotton, Palmer & Sivell, Ryde 1910