Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘Sailors wives

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

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A sailor’s life – 67. Cabined, cribbed, confined

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Ryde Parish Church baptism card, May 1925 - and family snaps of Ena and the babe

Ryde Parish Church baptism card, May 1925 – and family snaps of Ena and the babe

Ena Sivell didn’t have the vote when she married her sailor sweetheart in 1922 aged 26. She didn’t have a home or signing powers on her husband’s bank account, and when she gave birth to their first child 3,000 miles away from her husband in a nursing home in Ryde, Isle of Wight, three years later he did not meet the baby until it was learning to walk.

Anglo-Saxon Petroleum (Shell) – having permitted the young first officer in charge of its New York depot ship Pyrula to keep his bride aboard ship with him for two glorious years – had ordered Ena off at the first sign of pregnancy and she took her bump and her souvenir Broadway programmes and went back to the town where she was born, to make a temporary life in rented rooms, dependent on her father-in-law for paying her bills until her husband came home, which tried her sorely.

But Bert stayed on. And on.

Tradesmen’s families like Bert’s and Ena’s did not have telephones, and communication between husband and wife was by letter – two weeks out, and two back by the great transatlantic liners that swept to and fro between Hamburg, Southampton and New York in the days before air travel.

The baby was born in March, too weeks overdue. Ena – flat on her back in bed with her knees tied together, in the approved treatment of her day for a torn perineum – sent off a telegram to the States.

Bert was hugely relieved and rang all their American friends at their places of business from the ship’s phone line, fixing himself up with dinner and a trip to the Hippodrome with Ena’s chum Florence in the process.

His first letter reached her two weeks later. “I’m really a little disappointed that a girl has come along,” he wrote, with jaw-dropping insensitivity. “I would have liked a boy. But as Mrs Franke Snr told me Monday – I cannot change it now!! Mrs Mercer says I must try again …!!”

And he was no better at reassurance for his stretched little wife’s sagging self-esteem. Dismissing the rupture in his next letter with all the carelessness of a man who has never tried to pass a watermelon, (“Never mind, you’ll soon be alright again”), he added: “I cannot quite agree with the doctor that you are decidedly on the small side, my dear, although if he says so we ought to be glad you are no bigger.” Nearly 90 years later I still want to hit him.

Shingled hair, newspaper advert 1925

Shingled hair, newspaper advert 1925

Bert Sivell was a conservative, with a big and little C. An only child who had run away from home aged 15, he had grown up at sea, far from “decent girls,” as he put it, except for the Mission families in Australia, and the master’s daughter, Jeanie Donaldson, who made one trip with Monkbarns as stewardess in 1917. He didn’t approve of women shingling their hair, or wearing trousers.

His was a man’s world. A month after his daughter’s birth his letter home was full of the five new oil tankers that Furness Withy had ordered from German shipyards. They had offered British firms substantially more to take the work, he reports. “But owing to the labour conditions, the British firms could not take the offer. I am rather surprised that the ASP have placed orders for four new tankers* with British firms, because they are paying through the nose for them,” he wrote.

“By the way, dear, you have still not told me yet what the baby’s name is going to be…”

If the baby had been a boy Ena had suggested John Thomas, which Bert had vetoed by return of post. It was slang for penis, familiar to readers of DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the third of three versions of a story that Lawrence would publish three years later in 1928, although it was 35 years before it could be openly sold in the UK. “The name John Thomas is unsuitable,” wrote Bert, “although you should not know what it means.”

When he finally got home in November, he carried in his trunk a well thumbed copy of Dr Alice Bunker Stockham‘s pioneering sex guide Karezza, recommended by a chum and bought at Wanamaker’s wonderful bookstore in New York. He had read it cover to cover.

They had also acquired Dr Marie Stopes equally controversial Married Love, which he had persuaded a reluctant Ena to have sent to the house in a plain brown wrapper.

“When I get home again we are going to be as happy as happy can be, aren’t we, darling?” he had written. “Especially with this new information I have gathered. We were going at things in a wasteful sort of way before…”

Read on: The seamen’s strike 1925
Previously: Clam, a moment in history

*[These would be the 10,000 DWT Bullmouth, Bulysses, Patella and Pecten; another six orders went to Dutch yards]

A sailor’s life – 63. To have and to hold, Pyrula 1922

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Bert and Ena Sivell, wedding day 1922

Bert and Ena Sivell, wedding day Staten Island 1922

The visiting tanker captains had egged him on: “Get married,” they said. “Grab the chance while you can.”

Bert Sivell, writing from the master’s quarters of his first “command” – a redundant passenger steamer serving out her days as an oil depot ship off  New York in 1922 – took the plunge. “Come out and marry me,” he urged his love, far away in the UK.

The American master of the oil tanker Pearl Shell was the envy of all the Shell masters that winter. He had his wife in Philadelphia, an hour and a bit away by train from the ship, and he trotted off home every night.

“He told me I was a fool for not having you over here months ago,” Bert wrote. “He had not seen his home for two years before he came here, and had not seen his wife for eight months, although she had gone over to ‘Frisco and elsewhere in the States whenever he came to US ports.”

“Come out and marry me,” he urged. “Gossips in Ryde will be busy about conventions and rubbish, but don’t let that worry you. Trust me.”

RMS Homeric postcard, wedding card 1922

RMS Homeric postcard, wedding card and newspaper announcement, 1922 – all very proper

So the little milliner from Ryde boldly left the town where she was born and caught the White Star liner Homeric from Southampton in December 1922, carrying in her trunk the homemade trousseau she’d been stitching for three years. Her young man gave her £60 of his savings – which was more than she earned in a year – and for half of it she shared a windowless cabin in second class with a girl called Florence Ayers. (No point paying for a port hole, Bert had said knowledgeably; at that time of year the crossing would be too rough to open it anyway…) Florence and Ena were to remain friends for the rest of their lives.

She’d thought it was wishful thinking when Bert first raised the idea in February, in a throwaway line about needing a secretary for all the paperwork the Asiatic Petroleum office was throwing at him.

She had expressed pity that he was darning his own socks. “You had better come over right away, my dear,” he wrote. “I have a whole pile of mending of all sorts, even my jacket is falling to pieces, but I have had no time lately.”

Bert was marooned a mile off Brooklyn, pumping oil through the worst snowfall the US east coast had seen since the 1880s, and fighting for access to the motor launch which was his lifeline to shore.

New York bay 1922

New York bay 1922, Bert Sivell snowed in aboard Shell’s floating oil depot Pyrula

Across New York bay the great transatlantic steamers came and went, carrying his mail and knocking Pyrula about in their wake. He had nothing much to write about except work.

“I have not been inside a picture house since Christmas, although I fail to see what that has to do with the Asiatic anyway,” he wrote, aggrieved, after rumours in the office that he spent too much time ashore or visiting other ships.  “They all forget that our day consists of 24 hours and even if we are not actually working, we live in the midst of it and that is as bad. All last night I spent on deck with the worry of being helpless if she broke adrift and today (Sunday) the 2nd Engineer and I put in four solid hours in the snow cutting out the burst steampipes ready to be sent ashore tomorrow morning. If their ideas were in operation we’d need a wooden crew.”

But in March it all changed, when Pyrula was allowed to chip out her frozen chains and come ashore to Pier 14, Stapleton, NJ. Suddenly Manhattan was only a ferry ride away. They had neighbours and mains electricity and Bert was promised a telephone. He began to enjoy the job.

Out of the blue, the Asiatic announced they might be wanting him to stay on. For another year.  In great excitement, he wrote to Ena.

5th Avenue, New York, posted 1922

5th Avenue, New York, – bustling Sunday morning – posted 1922

“It would be detrimental to my career in this company to refuse to stay. So, my dear, the point is this: if such an event as the postponement of my leave should occur, will you be willing to come over here and get married and live aboard the ship?”

He had it all figured out, the British consul, the ceremony. He would pay for her passage over. It would be cheaper for Ena, he said, “considerably cheaper, because you can dispense with your wedding dress…”

Bless her, Ena took it on the chin. After months planning a wedding in Ryde, checking rental properties and buying household linen, the letter cost her a sleepless night, but she was game. Her friend Vi Trent had just got married and moved to Leeds, and she’d got quite fed up of the newspaper coverage of the Princess Mary’s sumptuous wedding the previous month. She consulted a fortune teller, who saw a journey and a long life (Ena did not inquire about Bert, perhaps just as well), and then she set about acquiring a passport.

5th Avenue and Flat Iron building NY, posted 1922

5th Avenue and Flat Iron building NY, posted 1922

Bert kitted himself out in new clothes, American style — straw hat, wasp waisted suit and new tie, and took himself off to explore the sights of New York, bombarding her with postcards. He also repainted the ship from stem to stern, hung out the flags for her birthday, and began buttering up the local vicar with regular Sunday church attendance.

At numbers 32 and 110 High Street, Ryde, their parents were less happy. “I can understand your people kicking a bit against the idea, because you are a girl and need looking after —!! (ahem! —!! don’t smack me),” Bert wrote. “But why my parents should object I don’t know. I suppose it is because I am the only one.” Bert’s dad had written an angry letter, the gist of which appeared to be that Bert had not asked his consent to marrying abroad – although it probably had more to do with them only having heard of their son’s plans from local gossip. “I wrote back and said that as I was marrying you, I considered you were the only one I should consult.”

Brooklyn Bridge and NY skyline, posted 1922

Brooklyn Bridge and NY skyline, posted 1922

Shell too was not thrilled. The group permitted overnight visits by officers’ wives in port – and their agents in New York, Furness Withy, even allowed wives (though again, only officers’ wives) to accompany their husbands on short voyages. But Bert Sivell had grown up in sail.

Generations of masters’ wives of all nations once made their homes in the saloons of their husbands’ sailing ships, generally doing a lot of sewing and letter writing, but learning to take a noon sight or a trick at the wheel, just in case. They were there because shipboard discipline depended on masters remaining aloof – even from their junior officers – and because sailing ship masters were small businessmen often with a financial stake in their ship and no spare cash for idle investment in a house ashore. The wife’s comfort was not a prime consideration. “I have occasionally had to hint to him that my name is not down in his ship’s articles…” wrote one emancipated captain’s chattel in 1873.

It seemed a matter of course to Bert that Ena should live aboard Pyrula with him. A perk of the job. Vivid in his mind was the fate of the chief engineer who had arrived in New York with him the previous year to be met by the news that his wife had died, leaving his four young children in the sole care of the eldest, aged 14. “I shall probably never get such a long spell in port again.”

And he got his way. On 8th November 1922, the head office of the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum company in St Helen’s Court, London, cancelled the home leave due to the young officer-in-charge of the oil tanker Pyrula at the urging of its partner, Asiatic Petroleum, and granted permission for his bride to join him aboard – at 3/6 a day. “As you are aware, this procedure is not a rule of the Company and you should, therefore, regard it as a concession,” said Shell, firmly.

Officers of Pyrula and Clam - with Ena Sivell, Bert right

Officers of Pyrula and Clam – with Ena Sivell, Bert right

A month later, Bert was on the quay when Homeric pulled in. By noon he and Ena were bowling down Broadway in a taxi, heading for the Staten Island ferry and the church of St John, Rosebank, where the vicar was standing by to wed them. By two o’clock they were onboard Pyrula, man and wife. Bert even organised a tiered cake, so that Ena could post slices home to her friends – proof that the proprieties had been attended to.

The wedding photograph shows a rather lumpy young woman smiling shyly in a sensible two-piece suit and a feathered hat that dwarfs her groom. Bert, ramrod straight in his best uniform, beams stiffly, his mouth tight shut on his bad teeth.

Ena Sivell, Buster and the Microbe, aboard Pyrula

Ena Sivell, Buster and the Microbe, aboard Pyrula

They got themselves a dog called Buster and a black kitten they christened Microbe, and they made a home together at Pier 14, taking in the shows and the sights of New York whenever Bert’s work permitted. Vaudeville was on its way out, elbowed aside by the flickering silver screen. But Ena loved the vast and glittering Hippodrome, on 6th Avenue – with its performing seals, midgets and minstrels, and she acquired a stack of 10 cent programmes, with their adverts for fashion houses and ice-cream and perms and even Perrier water. They went to see Hollywood’s darling, the silent movie heartthrob Douglas Fairbanks, in The Thief of Bagdad at the Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street as soon as the film opened in 1924, and they made friends ashore, socialised and for almost two years just enjoyed being together.

And then, Ena found she was pregnant and abruptly the honeymoon was over. Ena packed up her playhouse programmes and her souvenir guides of New York and went home. Anglo-Saxon did not allow children on the ship and she had to go back to the Isle of Wight, to set up house and have the baby, alone. Bert had to stay. He did not see his daughter until the baby was more than a year old. Though they did not know it, most of their days together were over.

New York Hippodrome, 6th Avenue

New York Hippodrome, 6th Avenue, postcard view

Every Sunday for the rest of his life he wrote to Ena, date stamping the envelopes so that she might read the letters in order, and every year on December 9th a telegram would arrive from somewhere in the world, reading “Shimmer shine. Bert.” This, deciphered out of nautical telegraph code, meant: “Another anniversary of our marriage. How happy we have been, love”.

There was no telegram in December 1941.

#            #            #

Read on: Majestic and her sisters
Previously: New York, New York

2013: The Fishwives Choir – seamen’s widows to release fundraising single

 

A sailor’s life – 57. The wife’s tale II

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Sailor's wife and child, monument, Odessa

Monument to sailors’ wives, Odessa

“I never liked the sea,” said Dolly Thomas, daughter and granddaughter and wife and mother of British merchant seaman, looking back over three-quarters of a century. “Even when I lived near it, I never went to look at it.”

When Dolly married 5th Engineer Jim Thomas in 1942, when she was 22, her mother had warned her: “Don’t expect sympathy. No one will understand.”

Dolly’s father was master of one of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary oil tankers that service the navy, and he used to be away for so long and so often that she did not remember meeting him until she was five years old. Jim had followed his father-in-law into the RFA and when Dolly herself became a mother his tanker happened to be in port for repairs, so he could come to her, but he was recalled to the ship within hours of the child’s birth and didn’t see his second son until the little chap was walking. “I missed our first seven Christmases,” said Jim, wryly.

Fishermen's Wives memorial gloucester US

Fishermen’s wives memorial, Gloucester, US

For all the years Jim was at sea, Dolly had made the decisions. She had raised the boys, managed the money, even bought their first house. Yet Dolly and Jim had been married for 56 years when I met them in the bungalow deep inland, where they had retired to live near their grandchildren when Jim finally came ashore. There was a noisy grandmother clock in the hall, and a single framed photograph of an oil tanker  – Jim’s last – on the wall. All her married life, said Dolly, she had kept a suitcase packed.

The little suitcase is retired now, and Jim is dead, but for forty years Dolly kept it ready in the corner of her bedroom in South Shields, with a pressed blouse and change of clothes – all set to go to him whenever the telegram arrived saying he was in port for a day or two somewhere in the British Isles. This, and the three weeks leave every two years, was her early married life, and that of all the other seamen’s wives of her generation.

“You’d get a telegram: ‘Ship arriving so-and-so’,” she said, “and you had to lock the house up, you had to get the children all organised, and you had to get them over to whoever was having them for you. The men didn’t think, they’d just send a telegram and expect you to be on the jetty. They didn’t realise the journey you might have, or that you got there and the ship had gone somewhere else, which happened. You were always tugged both ways, you had to leave your children to go to your husband. I can remember my mother saying, ‘If you don’t go, someone else will’… It was hard on the children, but we hadn’t much choice.

Mujer Marinera Lloret de Mar, Spain

Mujer Marinera Lloret de Mar, Spain

“We were brought up with it,” said Dolly. “My uncles all went to sea. Jim’s father died at sea. That was our life. Father never wanted a shore job; he never wanted to come home. Nor did my husband.”

Jim had merchantmen’s medals for the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Borneo and Korea, and a photograph of his men on deck with their protective gloves and geiger counters just after the last nuclear test off Christmas Island in 1958, where they were refuelling the destroyers patrolling the exclusion zone. They had been sealed in the engine room – but let themselves out after the blast because of the unbearable heat. The mushroom cloud had, he said, faded in the sky behind them. He remembered fishing in the bay for weeks afterwards, and the crew popping down to the Naafi on the island for a beer of an evening. He hadn’t suffered any ill effect, he said, though he knew of others who had.

When I met them, Jim had been retired for 18 years, and they were living near the son who had not gone to sea, collecting china together in Berkshire. “No, I never liked the sea,” said Dolly, smiling impishly at her husband across the spotless living room.

Waiting on shore, Sligo, Ireland

Waiting on shore, Sligo, Ireland

Did Jim miss it, I enquired. Jim grunted, and shrugged. What was to miss? As an engineer, he had spent most of his time below decks anyhow, he said. His only comment was disgust that their accommodation ashore was no bigger than it had been aboard ship in later years, when he was chief engineer. By then they’d had beds big enough for two and the wives were allowed to come with them a couple of times a year, but that was the 1970s. Things were very different for sea wives before.

“When I married Jim,” said Dolly, “my mother told me, it is no use crying or feeling sorry for yourself, you’ll get no sympathy from me. You married a sailor, you get on with it. She was a hard woman, my mother, but she was right. She was hard, because my father had had to leave her alone such a lot when she was a young wife.”

Dolly’s mother, Nell Card, was one of four children of a Shetland trawlerman who was knocked overboard by a ship’s boom in Aberdeen harbour in 1902 when she was two months old. His body was never recovered. His oldest child was only seven. From the day Nell could hold the big needles she helped her widowed mother and sister knit the great Fair Isle jumpers that had to feed the family until the two boys were old enough to follow their dead father to sea.

Seafarer's wife memorial, Galaxidi, Greece

Seafarer’s wife memorial, Galaxidi, Greece

“That was what there was on Shetland then, knitting or the sea,” said her daughter.

Nell was not yet 18 when she met a young English man from Kent, the mate of a ship that had called at Lerwick for repairs at the end of the first world war. They met at the hotel where Nell was working and he had wooed her by telegram for six months.

Nell Card had never seen a bus or a tram until the night she was wed and she set off on the long journey south to meet her husband’s people. “I think she wanted to get away from Shetland,” said Dolly. She was appalled, however, on arrival in Maidstone on the Sunday evening, to find her mother-in-law darning socks. Shetland islanders still kept the Sabbath. What kind of a family had she married into, Nell wondered. That was 1920.

*Names changed

Read on: In sickness and in health, Mytilus 1921
Previously: Wives on wharves

A sailor’s life – 51. The wives’ tale

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Ena Alice Whittington, 1919

Ena Alice Whittington, 1919

“Why do you want to know about the seamen’s wives?” the librarian’s voice had asked down the phone at one of the bigger maritime museums. “All they had to do was sit back, collect the money every fortnight and mind the children. Actually, I knew one who didn’t even do that – she went out every night to the pub, parked her kids with neighbours. She did not bother to pay the mortgage either and eventually the house was repossessed. She was a real character. Why do you want to know about the wives?”

The sea is hard on sailors’ wives. The money is good, but loneliness is in the job description. Even nowadays, marriage to a sailor means papering your own ceilings and putting up your own shelves, and endless missed birthdays and Christmases, but once upon a time eyes would slide sideways at the sight of a mother holidaying alone, and although her children might find playmates on the beach, fellow hotel guests kept their distance. “They presumed my husband was in prison,” one trim captain’s wife confided of holidays in the 1960s, when I – having drawn a blank among books and archives – set out to learn about my grandmother’s life from the women still living it.

“My husband was terrible at writing,” another former master’s wife admitted, cheerfully. “He wrote to his mother more often than to me.” And she told of the parcel of letters that had turned up with the post one day many years ago. They were her letters, written to her husband at sea care of various ports but found washed ashore on a beach near Dover. They were returned to her, carefully dried and pressed, with a covering letter from the finder – desperately concerned that the condition of the letters meant bad news. She looked pointedly at her husband, a senior BP man, who grinned at me, unabashed. “Well, we had to keep our luggage to a minimum for the trains,” he said. “So when we got to the end of a long trip, a mile or two into the English Channel, we used to tie up the letters and dump them over the side. Less to carry…”

Ena Sivell, wartime registration documents and Well Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight

Ena Sivell alone

In Ena Alice Whittington’s day, during the last years of sail and the rise of oil, marriage to a foreign-going seaman meant a lifetime apart, measured in weekly letters that arrived months late. Bert Sivell navigated by sextant and in 1940 Ena was still waiting to be connected to the ‘phone. In Ena’s day, marriage to a merchant seaman meant lugging your own coal and raising your children alone for years between a husband’s visits – three years, in her case, for that was how long Shell signed for. In between, the men might spend years coasting out in the Far East – too far away for their families to follow. And when they did happen to call at a British port, only officers were allowed to have their wives aboard. Children were discouraged on oil tankers.

Bert Sivell’s letters reveal that when he left home for the last time in December 1940 to return to his ship, his ten-year-old son had only met him four times and that, counting all the days and hours they had together, my grandmother’s marriage amounted to barely three years.

Well Street, Ryde, view undated

Well Street, Ryde, view undated

Bert’s letters filled a sea chest. Unopened for half a century, forgotten snaps and faded cuttings slipped out from between the crisp sheets. A hand drawn menu, a page from a magazine, an unfiled receipt. Bert’s letters, from all over the world; hundreds of them, telling first of birds and whales and floating mines and counting the days and weeks until he might see his love again, and then later of tonnages pumped and tanks cleaned, delays and disputes, and lonely glimpses of the beloved island as his ship passed by in the night.

Beneath Bert’s letters the chest we found beside my grandmother’s bed was empty. There were no letters from Ena. The firelight sketches Bert had laughed over, the snippets of poetry, news of friends and the daily trivia of coughs and colds in the little family he replied to were all gone. Had he not kept her letters? It seemed oddly unlike the man who emerged from the mass of precise, tight written sheets.

Had Ena destroyed her own letters during her forty years of widowhood? Or had she given them up earlier, for the war effort? Hers, but not his. During the second world war, the slimline Isle of Wight County Press had constantly exhorted its readers to turn in their paper. Either way, it seemed the crumpled, bow-legged little woman I had known, living on the hill in the house full of nick-nacks where nothing might be knocked or moved, had kept her youth in a sea chest by her bed all those years and we never knew. Too late, I wanted to know what her life as a sailor’s wife had been like.

The stories I could not find in any book poured out of the “watch ashore”, and their children. “My mother hated the sea…” “My mother said if she had her time over, she would never have married a seaman…” “My mother loved the ships…”

This is my grandmother’s story too.

Read on: War and peace, Donax 1919
Previously:  The girl next door

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.