Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘Victor Fall

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 – 45. A boy’s own story

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Sailing ship Monkbarns in Newcastle NSW 1920s, private collection

Sailing ship Monkbarns on the wharf in Newcastle NSW 1920s, private collection

Nothing much seemed to have changed when Monkbarns limped back into Newcastle NSW in November 1920 with a new captain and a broken mast.

The Monkbarns boys were given the afternoon off to hear a concert at the Mission, and for most of the next month they had time off in the evenings and at weekends to lounge about the beach, surfing, playing tennis and making up tea parties, while they waited for the repairs. Captain Davies of Nefyn was welcomed like long-lost son by Newcastle’s Welsh mayor, Mr Morgan, and there were “umpteen” other sailing ships in port, including Vimeira, Garthsnaid, Kirkcudbrightshire and Rona (- now possibly better known as Polly Woodside), with 37 apprentices between them. On November 5th and 6th apprentice Francis Kirk wrote just two words lengthways down an entire page of the schoolboy notes he kept that trip: “Enjoying life”.

Mission outing, Newcastle NSW 1920 - Private collection

Mission outing, Newcastle NSW 1920 - Private collection

On the 20th Monkbarns hosted a dance, with more than fifty girls, he recorded happily. The old ship looked fine, decked out with flags and Chinese lanterns, and “our famous jazz orchestra” had played selections during the evening. They were still in Australia at Christmas, which Kirk celebrated in Lambton with the Blanch family, and they saw New Year in with a big regatta in the harbour at which the Monkbarns “men” won £5 in one of the races. On January 9th 1921, they left Newcastle again bound for South America,  “with heavy and breaking hearts”, Kirk scrawled, “All the girls gathered on Nobby’s Head and waved the old ship out of sight…”

Kirk, like Bert Sivell, had eventually left sailing ships for oil tankers, but he had never got over his love of the old square-rigger.

Cape Horners' Association logo

Cape Horners' Association logo

In 1957 he became one of the first members of the new British branch of the Amicale Internationale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap Horniers – or Cape Horners’ Association – originally founded in St Malo, France, in 1937 to “promote and strengthen the ties of comradeship which bind together the unique body of men and women who enjoy the distinction of having voyaged round Cape Horn under sail”. They were “albatrosses” (who had commanded a sailing vessel round Cape Horn), “mollyhawks” (served in a sailing vessel round Cape Horn and subsequently commanded a motor ship), or “cape pigeons” (cooks, stewards, passengers etc).

Kirk – ranked Mollyhawk – threw himself with gusto into the annual jaunts to St Malo or Hamburg, Oslo or later Mariehamn, which held the record for old Cape Horners. “He used to come back with pictures of him and ‘old so-and-so’ and usually a woman in the shot whom he would pass off as such-and-such’s wife,” said his son. After his death there had been several intriguing lady callers.

In the 1960s an English language journal was set up, The Cape Horner, and its editor, Captain AG Course  – UK member 9, wrote that if any member was in Bournemouth, they were welcome to join the members’ coffee mornings, every Friday at 10.30am in Bealson’s cafe on Commercial Road. “No advance notice is necessary and your wives, relatives and friends will be welcome. Only one wife at a time, please!”

The maritime author Alan Villiers wrote of  joining one of these coffee mornings in 1971, and meeting “eight wonderful old boys, most of them octogenarians, except one aged 92, all with the stamp of the sea still upon their open faces, the snap of command in the old blue eyes”. The “wonderful old boys” more generally were not uniformly impressed by the new boys’ patronage (“… not really a proper sailor…”), and the subsequent acceptance of  yachtsmen as Cape Horners when anno domini began to tell on the original pre-motor, pre-GPS membership was contentious.

I was too late to meet Francis Kirk, or Harry Fountain, Victor Fall, Lewis Watkins, Lionel Walker and “Algie” Course – who single-handedly salvaged most of what is known of Monkbarns’ history, mainly by running his finger down the UK Cape Horners’ membership list and calling the old shipmates in for a fireside chat. (Which accounts for some of the more lurid tales). But their lives still resonate down the generations in remembered stories (“He said the freezing flailing canvas ripped fingernails to the quick…” “you tapped the biscuit on the table to knock the weevils out…”), and dusty diaries and yellowing photos, providing a lasting testament to all those boys like my grandfather who went down to the sea in ships and did business in great waters in the last days of sail.

Coming next: A model ship
Previously: Goodbye, Monkbarns – Corcubion, 1954


Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

John Masefield 1902

A sailor’s life – 43. Man overboard

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Monkbarns - deck views Cape Town February 1919, from collection of Bert Sivell

Monkbarns - deck views Cape Town February 1919, from the private collection of Bert Sivell

“Looks like we’re going to get wet,” shouted ordinary seaman Laurence O’Keeffe over the storm, as Monkbarns’s poop vanished under a mountainous green sea. They were his last words.

The jib-boom to which O’Keeffe and apprentice Lewis Watkins were clinging rose up and up, until they could see underside of the old sailing ship for half its length below them. Then the ship’s head came back down with terrific force, “plunging the boom and the men clinging to it into a mighty mass of rushing water,” according to a fellow apprentice, Victor Fall. The jib-boom was buried. As the water poured away at the next rise of the bows, Watkins emerged, caught head down in the jib-boom guy, but O’Keeffe, further out along the foot rope, was gone, ripped from his handhold and sucked into the sea. All Watkins remembered was being forced upwards by a great pressure of water.

Captain Donaldson refused to lower a life boat.

“The sea was incredibly savage and confused,” Fall remembered, “with enormous swells rising up to a great height, toppling over in a fury of foam, while the fierce wind whipped an unending spray from the crests. No [life] boat could live in such a sea, an attempt would mean not only the loss of one man, but that of a whole boat’s crew.”

Bert Sivell, the mate, threw a lifebelt from the poop in a final, helpless gesture. But they all knew it would do no good. “The ship raced on through the storm,” recalled Fall, “while a fine young seaman drowned astern; nothing could be done.”

It was January 18, 1919, and they were off the coast of Africa, fighting towards Cape Town with a cargo of Jarrah wood railway sleepers.

They had celebrated Christmas in the tropics off Madagascar with a blow-out meal of roast chicken – one between three – which the Old Man, Captain James Donaldson, had laid on in Bunbury, Western Australia, although the Mate, Mr Sivell, marred it slightly by making them spend Christmas Eve tarring down the rigging. There was plum duff and a slightly surprisingly good concert on the foredeck.

Day after day had passed without incident. As they slipped into the Mozambique channel, planning to run down the Agulhas current to the cape, winds and work remained light. They sighted steamers, and flying fish and even a six-foot turtle, gliding lazily through the crystal blue water. By New Year they were clear of the southern tip of Madagascar, but now the weather began to change. One night a sudden fierce squall “nearly caught the ship aback,” records Fall. The outer jib and both fore and main top gallants were carried away. All hands were summoned on deck, to hurriedly lower the yards and reduce sail. Early next morning the remaining rags of canvas had to be taken down and new sails bent on.

It was to be the start of three terrible weeks.

By the time they were on a latitude with Durban, the wind had reached almost hurricane force. They were sailing under reefed foresail and lower topsails only, but the seas were huge. “Great walls of water rushed at the ship, which reared up on the crests, to plunge a moment later, down, down and down into the troughs, and rise again to the next incoming monster,” wrote Fall. At each descent the green torrents swept the foc’sle head as the ship thrust jib-boom first into the next wave.

Shortly before 5.30pm on January 18th, the mate asked for volunteers. The inner jib was still set, and pulling. Someone had to climb out along the jib boom to take it in. A dangerous job. Watkins and O’Keeffe stepped forward.

Watkins was barefoot, wearing only a singlet and an old pair of white trousers, as the order “All hands on deck” had come in his watch below and he hadn’t had time to dress. It saved his life. O’Keeffe was in heavy sea boots and oilskins. He did not stand a chance.

He was only 18. A Welsh boy from Port Talbot, he had been with Monkbarns since she had sailed from Cardiff two years previously, remaining loyal, even during the mutiny of the fo’c’sle hands round Cape Horn the previous summer. In the crew agreement the words “shipwrecked” appear beside his name, and the money due to his widowed mother for this short, tragic career – £38 13s 3d.

He only earned £5 a month, but half of that – £2 10s – was paid to the family at home every month. From now on, they would struggle.

Gloom settled over the ship the evening he was lost. In fo’c’sle and half deck, men were subdued, Fall recorded. But the sea hadn’t finished with them yet. All that night and the next day the gale howled and screamed, and boiling, churning seas swept the decks from rail to rail, making it hazardous to relieve the man at the wheel. It was a week before they sighted land again, and almost immediately another gale struck.

This time the main top’sle carried away, leaving a broken chain lashing lethally around the deck, and while they struggled to secure it, a huge sea poured into the ship, smashing the galley door and washing the Egyptian cook out into the scuppers. The terrified man fled forward and locked himself into his cabin, where for three days he refused to come out.

The galley fire was drowned. Pots and pans were strewn around the ship. But they had to eat, and apprentice Fall was detailed to sort something out. Many years later, he still remembered the stew he’d put together that night. “Everything went into it – salt beef, salt pork, bully [tinned] beef, beans, peas, dried vegetables – everything; but by the cold wet and exhausted crew, including the skipper and mates, it was voted delicious.”

On February 6, 1919, Monkbarns dropped anchor in Table Bay, Cape Town – 63 days from Bunbury, WA. The following day the hatches were opened and the process of unloading began again. Another cargo had arrived.

Coming next: Goodbye, Monkbarns
Previously: Shanghaied

PS A relative of O’Keeffe’s writes from Australia, 10 November 2010: “Laurence O’Keeffe was my late husband’s uncle. He was named Laurence after him. We knew that he had been drowned but until I found your website & story never knew how or when. I couldn’t find a death record for him, but I have now located it on the Deaths at Sea index. A passenger list from Callao, Peru, to Liverpool for the RMS  Otega in December 1916 shows several seamen embarking at Coronel in Chile for Liverpool, including Laurence O’Keeffe as a 15-year-old OS of 20 Bute Street, Cardiff, which is where his widowed mother ran a boarding house. It must have been a very tough life in those days.”

Laurence O’Keeffe, then still only 15, was listed by the Pacific Steam Navigation Co. as one of six “Distressed British Seamen” repatriated back to the UK in 3rd class just before Christmas 1916.  His previous ship, the four-masted barque Canowie, had been wrecked off Piritu Point, Chiloe Island, in southern Chile, that October. He signed on with Monkbarns on 30th January 1917, just over a month after getting home. It is conceivable he only ever made two voyages in his short life.

A sailor’s life – 42. Shanghaied

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Shanghaied, crimped or 'pressed' - filling job vacancies at sea

Shanghaied, crimped or 'pressed' - filling job vacancies at sea

The British sailing ship Monkbarns left Bunbury in Western Australia late in 1918 two hands down – even though young Captain Donaldson of the Australian coaster SS Kurnalpi had generously let his father poach one of his crew, 18-year-old FG McMullen from Fremantle.

Two of the men old Captain Donaldson had signed in Rio three months previously had been paid off properly on arrival in Australia, and needed replacing, but one (a Finn) had gone Awol during the Armistice celebrations and was simply not seen again.

By three weeks before Christmas, the old sailing ship was laden with 3,300 tons of Jarrah wood sleepers destined for the South African railways. Her hatches were battened, her running gear overhauled, her stores topped up and two injured apprentices – one of whom had toppled into the hold and one off the jetty – had been retrieved from the infirmary, and pronounced fit for duties. Monkbarns was ready to sail. It was time to say their goodbyes.

There was no tug to take the old square rigger off the jetty, so “head sails were loosed, head mooring lines cast off, and when she swung out seawards, up went the fore lower topsail and with the mooring lines let go, she glided out into the bay to anchor about half a mile out,” wrote apprentice Victor Fall.

Then, half the apprentices were given shore leave and rowed off to spend a last evening with their new friends, particularly the girls. At 11pm on December 5th a forlorn little group reassembled on the jetty, their arms full of homemade cakes and jam, and rowed back out to the distant ship, rocking at anchor silhouetted against the night sky.

Elsewhere in Bunbury, but specifically in the bar at the Pier hotel (which was conveniently near the jetty), several of Monkbarns’ older hands were engaged in an altogether less innocent enterprise. The ship was short-handed, but the pool of sail-trained men in the little timber port was limited, and the number who cared to sign up for an indefinite voyage in an old British windbag, at British rates, was non-existent. It was a problem. But there was a solution.

You can still visit the infamous Shanghai tunnels under Portland, Oregon, where a roaring trade was done in stolen lives

The US Seamen's Act of 1915 laid down that on American ships no more than a quarter of the crew should be unable to understand the language of its officers.

That night one S. Grotheim, able seaman, of the Norwegian barque Aldgirth was treated to lashings of “grog” in a farewell booze-up organised by a bunch of his very dear new Britisher friends. A selected group of Monkbarns’ hands had been “softening him up” for days, according to young Fall.  Now, when he duly passed out, his dear friends were on hand and tenderly carried him, deadweight, out of the bar and down to the jetty, where a boat was waiting. Grotheim awoke the following day with a banging head in the fo’c’sle of the wrong ship, well out at sea. Not even the hearty sea chanty as the anchor was hauled up, nor the clink of capstan pawls piling the cable link by slimy link into the adjacent chain locker had roused him.

Fall records that the poor man brought a lawsuit against Captain Donaldson on arrival in South Africa, but lost. All that survives in the ship’s papers is an incomplete scrawl by an administrator in the Cape Town shipping office three months later, noting the master’s report of the “engagement at sea” of S Grotheim AB. He had been “placed on board” at Bunbury, the official records blandly, “and instructed by the Shipping [Office?] only after leaving”.

It was one of the last cases of “Shanghaiing”, says Fall, although looking back over Monkbarns’ crew lists at the number of “stowaways” signed after sailing, the suspicion grows that Captain Donaldson had almost certainly done it before.

Shanghaiing, or crimping (or “press-ganging” if you ended up on a naval vessel), had a long and dishonorable tradition at sea. Many seafaring countries have their own word for it: ronselen, embarquer de force, and all the variations of sjanghaja, schanghaien etc.

In the days before international banking a merchant sailor paid off after lean months at sea was a plump target for the “crimpers”. Far from home, he needed a roof over his head and the quayside crawled with men eager to sell him all manner of entertainments at inflated prices. What did he know? By the time all the money ran out, he was in debt to the boardinghouse keeper. It was they who “sold” seamen to short-handed masters for settlement out of the advance on their first month’s pay – and who often rendered them drunk for delivery, to ensure compliance.

In the 17th century the Dutch East India Company called such men “zielverkopers” or sellers of souls, but Shanghaiing almost certainly stems from the cut-throat competition of the 19th century tea trade – when fast ships of many nations raced to China and home again against the monsoon to snatch the best price for the new season’s harvest following the repeal of Britain’s restrictive Navigation Acts.

The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 foreshadowed the end for the clippers and sailing ships generally. In Britain, the Board of Trade had taken over the pioneering money transfer systems set up by the charitable Sailors Home on Well Street, east London, and a marine department was legislating on pay and conditions for seafarers, although it remained illegal for a sailor to refuse a ship until 1871 – even on grounds of seaworthiness. (And Britain’s life-saving Plimsoll line of 1876 – against overloading and loss of ships – was not adopted by the US until 1917).

The new regulations curbed crimping, but Shanghaiing had never been legal anyway. It was just harder to prove at sea, in a foreign jurisdiction, far from any witnesses.

If S. Grotheim did try to sue Captain James Donaldson in Cape Town, he is unlikely to have met much support as a Norwegian national seeking redress against a British employer over something alleged to have happened half a world away in Australia.

The ship’s record shows Grotheim finally left Monkbarns in Cork in June 1919, a sadder and wiser man with £21 11s 9d in his pocket – further mulct of his official £11 a month pay by the ship’s slop chest system, to replace waterproofs, warm clothes and other necessities he’d naturally had no opportunity to bring along.

Read on: Man overboard
Previously: A face in the crowd

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 – 41. A face in the crowd

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Monkbarns officers and apprentices 1918, Bunbury WA

Monkbarns officers and apprentices – and small guest – 1918, Bunbury WA. Sivell family collection

As the world celebrated the end of the war in November 1918 with dancing and concerts, old “Jock” Donaldson, master of the British sailing ship Monkbarns far from home in Bunbury WA, put his feet up in the town’s best hotel and sat back to await the arrival of the Melbourne steamer SS Kurnalpi, and his son.

James Donaldson jnr, born like his father in West Kilbride, Scotland, within sight of Portincross Castle – from where the bodies of Scotland’s kings were ferried to Iona – had followed the Old Man to sea and in 1908 joined the Melbourne Steamship Co, tramping the west Australian route from Perth to Sydney, £14 return in saloon class.

By 1918 he was Captain Donaldson, 39, with a wife and children, and a ship of his own, and that November his regular call at Bunbury would coincide with Monkbarns’ time in port. So, while Bert Sivell and the 2nd mate oversaw the apprentices discharging the slimy ballast stones loaded in Rio de Janeiro and the scouring of the holds and the killing of the rats (at which young Cobner was to prove a dab hand) and the laying of dunnage for the consignment of Jarrah wood railway sleepers due to arrive any day from the sawmill inland, Captain Donaldson took up residence in the Rose hotel, yarned with the mayor and his cronies, and waited.

Bert Sivell and 'the 2nd'

Monkbarns mates: First officer Bert Sivell and 'the 2nd' - probably Gil Cheetham

“One day there was great excitement on the ship,” wrote apprentice Victor Fall. “For weeks the Old Man had been talking of his son, and his steamer. The apprentices in particular were anxious to see this ship, as from the Old Man’s account she was at least equal to the Katoomba, the 10,000-ton interstate liner.

“At last, a very small steamer about 250 tons came into the bay, belching black smoke from a tall funnel, which seemed too big for the ship. She was so small that as she passed the stone breakwater only the top of her masts and funnel were visible.” Memory is an unreliable witness – Kurnalpi was in fact a 495 tonner, twice as big as Fall remembered, but the Monkbarns boys were not impressed. ‘THAT thing, we could swing her on our davits!’ one of them was heard to remark, rather regrettably within the Old Man’s earshot, Fall recalled.

Meanwhile, among the mayor’s wife and her circle, interest focused not on Kurnalpi but on the tidbit that Captain Donaldson was also expecting the arrival of his daughter from Melbourne, and the grandchild he hardly knew, supposedly a little girl of nine.

On November 24th 1918 a series of photographs was taken on and around Monkbarns, two of which featuring – if reluctantly – the 70-year-old captain. (“The old man is looking pretty fierce. I had a fine job getting him to come out” wrote Bert.)

Bert himself is there, seated beside Donaldson, awkwardly showcasing the three stripes on his sleeves. Victor Fall is there, and Lewis Watkins and Percy Wilkins – who later married an Ozzie girl in Newcastle NSW and is believed to have carved out a career for himself in state politics. The rat-catcher James Cobner may in the photo too. He also settled in Newcastle NSW, and opened a chain of drycleaners. But the central face in the photo is a mystery.

I think it is Donaldson’s grandchild. You guessed, another James Donaldson.


In the photograph: Captain Donaldson and First Officer Bert Sivell, seated; ranged behind them from left – unknown, unknown, Malcolm Glasier (15) with cane?, unknown, 2nd Mate Gilbert Cheetham? holding child, unknown, Percy Wilkins (19), Victor Fall (17), Lewis Watkins (18) and unknown.

Next: Shanghaied, and a death at sea
Previously: Armistice in Bunbury WA

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 – 38. A walk among the spars

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Victor George Fall, aged 16

Monkbarns apprentice Victor George Fall, July 1918, aged 16, from the collection of John Fall, Australia

“One after another the new apprentices swung into the shrouds and, slowly at first, mounted the ratlines until they reached the futtock-shrouds to the ‘top,’ a small platform at the top of the lower mast,” wrote former Monkbarns apprentice Victor Fall, years later.

He and nine other teenagers had been posted out to Brazil from Britain after the infamous mutiny around the Horn in June 1918. They joined the ship in Rio de Janeiro in September and on their first afternoon aboard, the young chief officer, Bert Sivell, gave them permission to go aloft.

“The futtock shrouds, like a small ladder, project outwards from the mast, so one has to climb more or less on one’s back – like a fly on the ceiling – until one has got over the edge. Rather an ordeal for a new hand. Then, glowing with a sense of achievement, you can pause and look around. Just below was the huge main yard, 92ft long and weighing three tons, supported by lifts and a big steel hook and held to the lower mast by a metal band, allowing it to be swung fore or aft by ‘braces’ from the deck below through a tackle at the yard arms.

The futtock shrouds to the 'tops', which aren't - and involve hanging like a 'fly on the ceiling'

"Climbing like a fly on the ceiling" - the futtock shrouds to the 'tops' (Photograph: squarerigsailing.com)

“Strung below the yard on wire strops was the footrope, on which men stood when laid-out on the yard furling or reefing the sail. Along the top of the yard ran a steel rail, with wire ‘grommets’ at intervals, rather like large coits; through them an arm could be thrust in time of need,” remembered Fall.

Below on deck figures moved to and fro doing incomprehensible things; on the dockside locomotives fussed about shunting trucks, while beyond lay the blue water, the islands and the anchored ships. It was all rather pleasant, but this was really only the start of the climb.

“From the top, on either side of the mast were narrow, nearly vertical wire ladders, the topmast shrouds, which led to the topmast cross-trees. On the way up you passed the huge spar of the lower topsail yard, and just above it, supported by wire lifts and held to the mast by a metal parral, the upper topsail yard. This was hoisted when the sail was set, rising another thirty feet above the yard below.

“On reaching the cross-trees, the climb was still not nearly done, as from them ran upwards another ladder, quite vertical this time, leading to the head of the topgallant mast. On this mast were two more yards, positioned much as the larger topsails below. Above the topgallant masthead the mast rose for another 35 feet to the royal yard. When the royal yard was hoisted and sail set the only way to reach this was by climbing, hand over hand, up the iron chain of the royal halyards, until you could swing a leg over the royal yard and site astride it, or stand on the footrope.

“To reach the absolute top of the mast – the truck – required a hand over hand climb. However, even when lowered, the royal yard was about 150ft up, and the view was marvellous. The men below were tiny figures, the locomotives toys, while the wider view stretched right across the harbour.”

Monkbarns new apprentices were pleased with themselves. They, who had never been away from home before, had travelled across the Atlantic in armed convoy, and now they’d been right up the main mast to the royal yard.

“Soon they would be going up and down, day or night, as a matter of routine,” wrote Fall. “Barefoot most of the time, but in heavy weather in clumsy sea boots and oilskins. ”

On this first attempt, the boys had descended with care, finding coming down more difficult than going up, and had arrived back on deck with an “ill-concealed air of pride”.


Next day the “business of the sea” which John Stewart & Co had promised to teach each of them started in earnest, as they were set to work washing down decks, coiling gear, and helping “bend on sail” – hoisting the heavy canvas from the deck to its appropriate yard, sidling along the yards on the footropes and then learning how to lash the sails to the jackstay  and pass rope gaskets around them for a neat stow. Then, there were halyards to reeve and buntlines.

After three days of this, Monkbarns was towed out of drydock and lighters came alongside with stones for the ballast. The stones were swung aboard in baskets and tipped down the hatches. John Stewart & Co didn’t do engines – the boys believed there had been one ill-fated experiment in the past, after which the old sailing ship captain had banned them – so down in the steamy holds the apprentices sweated, dragging the slimy stones out to the sides, balancing the ship, shovelling the smaller stuff till their hands blistered.

After three more days of that – broken only by a spell on deck sending aloft the cro’jack yard, which had been ashore for repairs – there were sails to be bent on until every yard had its canvas aloft and they were all ready to set sail.

Now the 3rd Mate went to fetch the Old Man from shore, and returned with the news that the ship had a charter for Bunbury, in Western Australia, to load jarrah wood.

The boys and the young mates looked at each other. Nobody had heard of Bunbury. They were disappointed that they weren’t going to Newcastle, NSW, where there were lots of ships and girls and parties. “There was much searching of atlases,” wrote Fall.

He didn’t know it, but he was about to emigrate.

From: One Cargo of Jarrah, by VG Fall

Next: Fishing for albatross
Previous: The new boys arrive in Rio


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