May I say
, Walter and I were born only about three miles and 26 years apart, He was a man
I never met but who helped me greatly in the creation of this website passing
onto me a life times knowledge and information without which this site would be
much poorer. Walter used the internet to freely distribute his knowledge to all
and sundrie. This is a record of some parts of his life as he recorded it.
May I say , Walter and I were born only about three miles and 26 years apart, He was a man I never met but who helped me greatly in the creation of this website passing onto me a life times knowledge and information without which this site would be much poorer. Walter used the internet to freely distribute his knowledge to all and sundrie. This is a record of some parts of his life as he recorded it.
He was orn
in Newhaven Edinburgh and
eventually retired to live on the Isle of Wight with his wife and family.
orn in Newhaven Edinburgh and eventually retired to live on the Isle of Wight with his wife and family.
The Tales of Captain Walter Lyle Hume
Leith Sea Captain, Merchant Navy
(Or a Newhaven Lad Grew Up - Quick)
Recollections from an old salt. Captain W. L. Hume, M.N.I., retired Shipmaster, - everything from Tankers to Lighthouse Tenders, Deep Sea to Coasting, Passenger to Salvage Tugs, and, not without a bit of unbelievable comfort, large Luxury Ocean Going Motor Yachts - thought it might be a good idea to jot down some of his recollections from early beginnings and his introduction to a life at sea, being thrown in, as it were, at the deep end, namely as a schoolboy passenger/first tripper on a deep sea trawler, or, in modern television parlance, to quote Captain Mainwaring from ‘Dads Army’ - “stupid boy” -.
From an early age I can remember clambering over, under and through boats of all shapes and sizes, dinghy's - launches - pilot boats - tugs - herring drifters - trawlers et al. I cut my teeth on all of them; the excitement and enjoyment of a steam driven paddle steamer, “William Muir”, crossing The Firth of Forth from Granton to Burntisland, or day excursion on the “Fair Maid” round the Islands of Inchcolm-Inchkeith-May Island, Bass Rock, with a call to the Victoria Jetty at North Berwick before it fell into disrepair.
Walter and his sisters on holiday in North Berwick August 1937
© Reproduced with acknowledgement to Captain Walter Lyle Hume & K. F. Bailman
The occasions where the main attraction was to gaze down at those gleaming steam engines with massive shafts of polished steel, to'ing and fro'ing at a regular ninety revolutions per minute, or bolder in venturing somewhat further afield with a voyage on a North Sea trawler.
Such a memorable trip is worth recording as it just would not be possible, with present day rules and regulations, coupled with the fact that all the old steam trawlers have long since been scrapped, it helps to illustrate a hard and dangerous way of a hard industrial life, thankfully, long since disappeared.
With a decidedly salt-water family background, trawler fleet owning maternal grandfather, uncles as top skippers and mates, it was not too difficult to arrange a 'trip', parents being more than satisfied that I would be well cared for and properly looked after. School holidays from Trinity Academy barely started and I was up and about at the crack of dawn (instead of lying’ in, as most young lads were in favour of).
Down to the harbour with a 'sea-bag' and appropriate swagger, quickly found my boat, lying alongside the quay, with a couple of battered rusty trawlers tied up outside, no sign of life stirred as I rapidly found my way on board. Eventually a flat capped head popped up out of a door leading to the engine room - yes laddie, whit' ye efter,... oh I'm coming with you this trip says I, ah... you must be the skipper's nephie, ok make yersel at hame, the crowd (crew) will be here by an by.
This of course was Tam, the watchman (a genial retired trawler engineer) who, apart from keeping an eye on everything, had to light the three boiler fires quite early to ensure a proper head of steam would be ready in time for sailing. He disappeared rapidly, shaking his head and muttering, ma’ goad he must be awfy keen.
Within a short while the crew members arrived and quickly changed into working clothes, then set about their various tasks to prepare the boat for sea. Under the watchful eye of the Mate, the deck crew checking that all loose gear was properly stowed, securing the hatches to the fish hold, ice hold and net store. The coal trimmers busy locking the six massive steel coal bunker lids set in flush to the deck; Chief and Second engineers busy with last minute adjustments to the huge triple expansion steam engine, with the Fireman making sure all the fires were suitably stoked and building up a working steam pressure. Overall the entire operation was quietly checked by the Mate who in turn had the responsibility of reporting to the Skipper.
So when the Skipper eventually arrived on board, to that effect everything was ship shape and ready to sail - last but not least the all important Cook, (God sends the food and the Devil sends the Cooks) - old Fishermen's saying, though bless em', they worked under unbelievable conditions. He would be sorting his stores and provisions into many cupboards; all meat was packed in fresh crushed ice in the ice-hold, on these older trawlers there were no fridges or any other domestic equipment or utensils most people take for granted today. Meat and vegetables had to last out for between 10, 16 and even twenty one days, depending on how far away the fishing grounds would be.
This particular vessel I was being initiated on had been built in 1917, of some 275 tons, and served as a Mine-Sweeper from 1917 to 1919, prior to being converted for commercial fishing, anywhere from North Sea grounds to Orkney & Shetland, West Coast of Scotland to Faroe Island or exceptionally Iceland. The later was not popular because extra coal had to be carried in bags on deck, which entailed much additional work because it had to be stowed below in the bunkers as soon as there was room. This being in addition to the discomfort of being away for nearly three weeks, which usually meant, during the long run home having a meal of fish three times a day, (fried, poached, baked and even cold - the cooks were ingenious with the variety).
In common with most trawlers of this vintage the lay-out was fairly standard. The fo'c'sle had accommodation for deckhands and coal trimmers; whilst the rest of the crew were accommodated right aft in what was generally known as the cabin, a large, open plan, nearly triangular in shape. The table took up most of the space with leather cushioned bench seats, whilst above there were bunks round the ships sides for the 2nd fisherman (Bosun), 2nd Engineer, cook and Fireman, the Mate and driver (Chief engineer). Each had a small individual cabin that allowed for a relatively reasonable degree of privacy. The Skipper of course had his own cabin immediately below the wheelhouse at main deck level which also contained the radio telephone and settee, chart table, and bunk; the settee berth which became my abode for the next week or so, was very comfortable, being on the centre line not too much movement was evident.
All of the crew were very considerate and helpful, particularly in keeping me right where safety was involved. Elsewhere it has been recorded that fishing has the highest statistics for industrial accidents, so, after finding out for real what each and every man did, I opted for a career on the bridge, after all it was easy to move the big brass telegraph handle to make the ship move then with a few turns of the outsize steering wheel could go where required, enjoy an overall view of the crew working on deck.........but, it did not quite work out like that. In spite of being a mere nipper passenger, it was soon learned that everyone, but each and everyone (Skippers Neffie' or no) had to pull their weight, even if it was just to bring pint mugs of scalding hot sweet tea from the galley for all hands whilst on deck, sometimes for many hours, who might be repairing a badly torn net.
In any event I entered into the spirit of things and loved the whole venture: With much hustle and bustle from shore staff bringing last minute items, the Skipper appears,............. everybody on board he enquires from the Mate, followed, without waiting for an answer, all ready, and to the silent thumbs up and nod of the head from the Mate, says, right lets go. With two or three bounds is up on to the Bridge, dropped the old railway carriage type windows, stuck his head out and addressed me directly, come on up here out of the way, which I dutifully did with haste, now you just stand in the corner, keep out the way and do nothing, unless I tell you.
In the meantime the deck crew were untying all of the ropes, except for one, with two other trawlers lying outside we had to use one rope to spring against, forcing the other boats outwards then when the Skipper deemed the right moment he gave a slight movement of his up-turned open palm towards the bow, indicating that the last rope be cast off.
This was done with speed as the deck hands were fully aware of what was required, he then turned to me and said 'give the whistle lanyard three hefty pulls', which was to indicate to other boats we were going to move astern. At the same time he started to spin the huge steering wheel in the opposite direction at great speed, and with concerted movement moved the engine room telegraph to full astern, which was followed by an instant reply from the engine room, to relate they understood the order and had acted upon it. With much bumping and scrapping sounds of metal on metal we were soon clear of the two boats now being re-secured by their own shore gang.
So out into the swinging basin with a few more deft manoeuvres and the ships head was directed towards the dock entrance, by which time the Mate arrived on the Bridge, to take over the steering and at the same time to indicate everything had been stowed away ready for a sea passage. Out through the Pier Heads into the buoyed channel, a deckhand had now come on to the bridge to take over from the Mate, who, being in charge of the duty watch, in turn acknowledged the Skippers instructions. The Skipper hurriedly disappeared to his cabin and start listening to the Radio-Telephone, thus routine settled in, all this activity passed so quickly I never noticed it was well passed mid-day and was promptly told to go and get some grub.
The crewmen who were not working; that is those “not on watch”, had all dispersed to snatch couple of hours rest; fishermen soon learn to sleep anytime, anywhere, due to the uncertainty of their work pattern. Normally a regular cooked meal was attended by all hands, except for the watch, with plenty of food, but today, being sailing day was slightly different; a mixture of cooked cold meats, pies and usual table embellishments, with gallons of tea to wash it down. If anyone wanted anything they just helped themselves.
My first recollection of going for a meal in the cabin was the stifling heat; all steam trawlers had a very efficient system of radiators, coupled with a noticeable motion, then suddenly realising I wasn't hungry after all, so back on deck and glad of the refreshing gulps of clean crisp air, though never succumbing to 'mal-de-mer' I realised what it was and did not like it one bit, so sat for ages on a heap of stowed net aft, hands came and went during the change of watches, passing without as much as a side glance, only an occasional 'you all right sunshine, you'll soon get over it'.
With darkness creeping in I forced myself up to the Skippers cabin and turned in on my settee berth, with the boat having a much kinder movement it was not long before I was well and truly in the land of nod.
Coming out of a deep sleep to the sounds garbled voices, squeaks and someone nearer speaking quietly, I realised it was the Skipper using the Radio Telephone. Shafts of daylight were dancing up and down from the Port Lights round the cabin, which I discovered was caused by the much more pronounced and lively motion, we were well and truly out in the open sea. With my stirring the Skipper says, `away and get a bite to eat`.
Far from feeling queasy I realised I was really hungry, so off I went to the galley to find the cook busy preparing lunch. By Jove you've had a real good sleep, breakfast was finished ages ago but I'll get you something. Well I experienced my first trawler meal, and could have eaten two; each and every one thereafter was equally enjoyed with no further thought of sea-sickness.
From my perpetual questions, to anyone who would listen, I learned we had passed through the notorious Pentland Firth heading for the fishing grounds, but no one, apart from the Skipper, knew exactly where. Lots of speculation and guessing, it did not concern me in the least with having so many other interesting distractions. Apart from the magnetic attraction of being up on the Bridge, sometimes with lots to see or otherwise with just miles of vast ocean, so down to ask the Chief if I could look round his engine room. To reach this dedicated area it required going down a very long steel ladder with polished handrails; the engineers usually went down frontward, at great speed, lightly holding on to the rails and feet hardly touching the steps. I chose the more conventional method of going ever so gently facing the treads, to be met on the control platform by the Second Engineer who was on watch.
At first I was quite mesmerised, not so much by noise, steam machinery basically runs quietly, but movement, to see these massive steel connecting rods moving up and down and turning the somewhat even larger propeller shaft with unfailing regularity. Oh I had seen it all before, stationary and docile, now seeing it alive and doing its work with such apparent ease, after having all the various bit an pieces pointed out.
The Second Engineer picked up large brass oil can with a long swan-neck spout and proceeded to 'oil round', which meant a squirt of lubricant to each and every moving part, quite an art co-ordinating the circular or up and down movement. Basically a Triple Expansion engine has three cylinders, with solid steel rods attached to the huge crankshaft which in turn transmits power to turn the big four bladed propeller, as long as pre-heated steam is passed into the cylinders the engine will keep turning. In bad weather conditions the ship will plough steadily through huge waves, whereas a modern diesel engine can be forced to slow down, rather like applying a brake on a motor vehicle.
I am thus assured our machinery is working satisfactorily; the Second then directs my attention to a small item tucked away on the ships side. That's the hardest worked piece of machinery bar none on the boat for the entire voyage, which after detailed explanation turns out to be the quite small single cylinder steam engine that drives our electricity supply. This only churns out 110 volt direct current, which in turn provides enough electricity for all the lights and power to charge the lead acid batteries which keep our all important Radio Telephone in good order. Prior to simple luxury of having electric light fitted on board the usual means of lighting was provided by Carbide gas lamps, not the best of systems to use at sea, particularly in rough weather.
After being given a basic grounding in the mysteries of the engine room the Second invited me to have a look at what goes on in the stokehold, which in deference to a grumbling stomach and desire for a breath of fresh air I opted to leave that till later.
Back on to the centre of operations, the Bridge, 'where are we now asks I', oh somewhere beyond the land, no far to go afore the 'old man (Skipper) will give us a shout. In the mean time away an get yer head down; which I promptly obeyed. Muffled noises brought me to full conscious awareness of different activity, the big steam winch outside the cabin was clattering, the ship obviously stopped and ever so gently rolling to a broadside swell, must see what's going on says I to myself, Up to the darkened Bridge I go, much activity on deck, what, I timidly ask the Skipper, is happening now, just about to 'shoot' the gear says he, don't go on deck and keep out the road.
So watching out of the window I see that the Otter Boards have been hoisted outboard and the net untied from the bulwarks, and ready to put over the side. The vessel has now been brought broadside to the wind on the starboard side and the Skipper ties a long rope (Becket) to the steering wheel to keep the ships head that way. At a quiet 'let go' signal and slow ahead on the engine room telegraph, the Fireman, in charge of the trawl winch, releases the brake, out zing the wires, or warps, which continue until the correct depths have been released. The two wires will have been drawn together and secured and trawling commenced, then the crew settle into a routine pattern of those on watch go to their stations and those off disappear below as soon as they can.
The watch arriving on the Bridge get standing orders from the Skipper, so long up into the wind, carefully and gently turn down wind until time to haul the gear. Such activity goes on day and night, only disrupted by the net being torn or damaged or severe weather, until the Skipper says, bring the gear aboard, and head for home.
But what of the in between bits, the trawl has been set to catch fish, so after the proscribed time, anything between 2 and three hours, always determined by the Skipper, the watch on deck bring the boat round to having the wind just on the ships quarter, that is which ever side the wires are out. At the right moment a call to the engine room, 'stop her', at the same instant the towing block is opened with an almighty clang against the ships side, allowing both wires to become free. The trawl winch is coupled up an commenced heaving, the chuggy da chuggety of the winch alerts all hands that the trawl is being brought in, the forward trawl door is secured first, followed by the after door, then all hands (except the two engineers and the cook) haul the net in, until ropes are secured to bring in the heavy ground gear, eventually the cod end breaks surface to indicate whether a good bad or indifferent catch has been caught.
A strop is quickly put round the cod-end and a stout wire is hooked on, leading up to the top of the mast, through a sheave and down to the winch barrel. Once the net has been lifted over the gunwale it is lowered over the fish pounds and the Mate crawls underneath to undo a special knot, capable of holding back tons of fish but by pulling the ends in the correct manner the contents are disgorged onto the deck, then provided there are no net tears to repair the whole exercise of 'shooting the gear' is repeated, a task which is carried out day and night without a stop.
My next job of helping out took the form of learning how to identify, sort, gut and wash the newly caught fish, before they were sent below into the hold, where the Mate was kept busy packing them in boxes with plenty of crushed ice. On this boat we carried nearly eight hundred empty wooden boxes each holding 8 stone of fish, a lot of other Ports used a system of packing the fish on shelves built up in the hold as the voyage progressed, both methods had their own merits but unloading boxes seemed a speedier operation. The shelf fish were generally discharged directly on to the Fish Market floor, where as boxes were taken by lorries.
After a spell at gutting a few fish of mixed variety, at that time pitifully slow, an experienced fisherman could gut a couple of dozen in the time I could successfully deal with one, but with smaller soft hands it took some learning, before long the last of the catch was sent below and a quick clean up of the debris was soon hosed away, with the ponds ready for the next haul.
A quick mug of tea and turn-in, except for whoever was on watch, the coal trimmers for example had a fairly hard time, as we got further into the trip and coal being used day and night the trimmers had to keep the stokehold supplied from the bunkers, a very hard, dirty and altogether unpleasant task By contrast they were also obliged to dump ashes overboard after the engineers had cleaned out a furnace fire, all in addition to dealing with the fishing side of the job.
The relentless on-going task of fishing day after day, far from being tedious or boring, I learned something different every time the net was set or hauled in, not much to watch other than several other trawlers, some from other countries, or the wide variety of sea birds, chasing all the offal scraps washed overboard after each gutting session.
With the number of fish boxes being gradually filled as each day passed, crew members gradually began the guessing game of when we would stop fishing and head for home, only the Skipper knew for sure, but with a more than adequate catch it was not too long before the order was given, 'bring the gear in'. Everyone moved that much quicker, with the last bag of fish emptied the Otter boards were brought inboard, wires unshackled the net stowed away, all movable gear on deck properly secured, the engine room telegraph clanged its signal for full ahead, gradually the steaming watches were in place for the long run home, even I was beginning to look forward to getting home.
Ploughing through reasonable weather next morning just before dawn I could see several lighthouses flashing their signal, one in particular which was much brighter and stronger had been pointed out to me as Cape Wrath, the most north westerly tip of the Scottish mainland, and before long we were well into the notorious Pentland Firth where the tide can reach a rate of 8 or 9 knots, fine if you are travelling in the same direction.
The Mate, who was on watch at the time told me that a ship going at full speed against the tide appeared to be stopped, but today we seem to have wings, another hearty meal and we are soon rounding the north easterly corner of Scotland, Duncansby Head, at which point the ships head is turned southwards, this brings us across the Moray Firth, and being quite open to a strong westerly wind it creates a very rough confused sea, eating and sleeping, in unison with the rest of the crew.
Otherwise my time was spent in the wheelhouse, so many things now to see, ships of all shapes and sizes going in all directions, then when past Peterhead and into the lee of the land the boat was a much more stable platform, I was keen to see all of the places that were just names from the geography class, but missed many of them whilst asleep, although I did get an excellent close up view of the famous Bell Rock lighthouse which has been standing on the Inch Cape Rocks since 1812, like a granite finger some 8 or so miles off the coast at Arbroath.
Turn to starboard between the Isle of May and the North Carr Lightship, both like sentinels at the Firth of Forth estuary, only a few hours now before we reach the harbour, the crew have mostly changed into shore going togs and in a cheerful mood, nearing the harbour all the mooring ropes were made ready, give a long blast on the whistle the Skipper says to me, which I carried out with gusto, our speed now cut right down to slow ahead. The Pier Master called out through his old fashioned speaking trumpet, indicating which berth we had to go to, and very soon with a slight touch astern the boat slid alongside and became swiftly secured.
The first people to come on board were the Customs Officers to clear the ship, no one else was allowed to leave or come on board until these officials had completed the formality, although we had not been to a foreign port the Skipper carried duty free cigarettes for the crew who had to sign a declaration that they did not have more than a pre-determined allowance.
The waiting shore staff came on board to indicate unloading would start a bit later on. Being already to go ashore I took my leave from the crowd, all of them had been ever so good to this first tripper who had thoroughly enjoyed the venture, so with my sea-bag slung over my shoulder, and a huge parcel of fish to take home, off I went to catch a Tramcar, at least that's what I intended, except the ground was still heaving about as though I were still at sea, a feeling that lasted until the following day.
On reflection after many years, I am glad to have undergone such an experience, particularly as I pursued a successful professional career at sea, including a brief further hands-on experience on board several steam trawlers of diverse sizes and vintage, immediately after the 39/45 war, somewhat early on in a life long sea-going career in the Mercantile Marine, later in life, but that, as they say, is another story, of interest, adventure and somewhat unique experiences, being there doing what I was paid to do, but that will have to wait another bout of reminiscent thoughts.
This is part of a dissertation on the sea-going career of an ordinary Newhaven lad, who had even been somewhat reprimanded by day school teachers to wake up and pay attention else I would never get anywhere in life - after having reached a great many parts of the globe, and been Master of my own ship(s), I wonder what I could have achieved if perhaps I HAD paid attention.
Walter 3rd from right back row at Trinity Academy in the 1930,s
© Reproduced with acknowledgement to Captain Walter Lyle Hume & J.R. Coltart & Son
During my formative years at day school, Trinity Academy, the Empire Exhibition, situated at the City of Glasgow Bellahouston Park, was opened by King George VI on 3rd May 1938. Being staged amidst the glare of extended publicity, the Edinburgh school authorities arranged to run a special chartered train from the North Leith Caledonian station, entered directly opposite the Old West Dock Gate, where pupils from Leith Academy joined, whilst our lot did not have far to nip over the wall (almost) to Newhaven station, conveniently situated on Craighall Road - just within the Parish precinct of Newhaven, to be conveyed direct to the Exhibition railway halt, at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow - South.
Some time prior to the day out, a circular passed round the various classes inviting names of those wishing to be included, at the cost of five shillings (25p) in advance. Well, apart from the actual day out my immediate reaction was, having `a day off school`, so the hand went up like a rocket, and me thought that was that, home after school to tell `Mum` what I had volunteered for. !!!, you had no right, can`t afford a day from lessons etc. besides where do you think the cost of ticket is coming from? Several days later, when we were required to take said five shillings, I sat, rather embarrassed and fumed at not being allowed to go, the class routine was briefly interrupted by the intervening presence of Miss MacKay, School Secretary; to the effect that the number of pupils wishing to go to the Exhibition was well over-subscribed and those below a certain age were to be excluded, whew, relief at not having to mention not having the money and equally very disappointed in not getting my `day off`.
Came the day the others were due to travel, teacher, right on nine o’clock called us all to attention for an important urgent announcement. For some unknown reason one of the would-be travel group had to drop out; in view of the time factor a decision had to be made at once. Being one of the earlier excluded applicants I was being offered the place, if I could get parental permission, the teachers well aware of my home being a minutes run from class to house.
I having dashed indoors to explain I had been given this opportunity, needed to take the money and some extra for lunch, the long and short of it was a dash back to school, under normal conditions I only ever sauntered there. So with little time to spare to join the big ones, and a very short walk to station, with dire warnings not to board the train until told to do so, the front coaches had been allocated to the Leithies, and were greeted by much yah boo sucks. Better still it was a corridor train, duly boarded and settle down to a not too speedy journey, probably having to give way to regular traffic, Granton Road - Pilton - Craigleith - Murrayfield - Dalry Road, then a change of direction to, who cares.
Teacher escorts mustered everyone inside Exhibition compound and issued strict instructions for everyone to meet at a given time and place, or else!. With an additional parting charge `you are privileged to have been given the day off school to experience the Empire Exhibition and further your education. Upon return to school you will be expected to compose an essay of what you saw and did, now go and enjoy your day, DO NOTlet your school down.
Well, it was here there and everywhere, have you seen this - yeh - or done that, been there or done that, memories are dimmed over the years but some items do stand out.
The Space Planetarium - looking into infinity - a working replica of the Niagara Falls with roar of cascading water in background, coupled with those delicious Canadian Mac Red apples..............sheep shearing in the Australian pavilion with crunshy charred cooked ribs, as we now know and accept as Bar B Q; the Dominion Pavilions were without doubt the most popular, all that free food leaving our dinner money to be spent on things where we HAD to pay.
Being interested in boats and anything that floats my wanderings soon led me to an outside stand, or exhibit, by a well known yacht builder, Alexander Robertson of Sandbank, on the Holy Loch, near Dunoon, or so their brochures told us. Otherwise it did not mean much to us lads, though were quite mesmerised with their exhibit, a huge Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Watson Class lifeboat, which had just been completed at their boatyard, and being presented as a typical example of Scottish crafts-man-ship. Named Sir Arthur Rose this boat was stationed at Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull.
Being somewhat magnetically attracted by this - to me - a huge beautiful boat, my just standing and staring, I was invited to climb on board by one of the attendant crew, to be confronted with shine and polish implanted a lasting memory. In later years I learned this was the accepted presentation, not just for public exhibitions, but in every day life.
After my exhilarating guided tour of inspection, I being at almost rock bottom with personal finance (skint, stoney broke) felt obliged to part with the few coppers from my sorely depleted day-out budget, by dropping those into the collection box. For showing a genuine interest, was promptly presented with a model of the exhibit, albeit a papier mache construction, painted in true replication colours, I do wish I had possessed the fore-sight to retain such a now valuable collectors item.
We (scholars) being all duly accounted for and safely back on special train were soon conveyed back home, having thoroughly enjoyed the visit to the exhibition, and more importantly, a day off school. The non-participants back in class were eager to learn of the adventures of those on the trip. For my part I was awarded a book, for writing the most informative description about the school day out, the book, alas has long since disappeared, but my personal memories of an exciting day `off school` remain in my mind.........................the longer the memory, the heart grows fonder.
RECOLLECTIONS OF A CINEMA PROJECTIONIST
In the dim and distant past before the 1939 war, I was introduced to the rites and mystique of showing cine films for the benefit and enjoyment of others, apart from the occasional Saturday morning visit to a local cinema with most of the other noisy youngsters in our neighbourhood.
The knowledge of how these images were inexplicably thrown on to the screen did not mean anything until a very ancient hand-cranked 35mm Pathe 'home-movie' projector came our way together with a large box of film stock which consisted of four-inch spools of old black and white silent films, although some were tinted with blue or sepia-toned effects; not quite colour, but the idea was there.
The metal-clad projector was fairly simple, with a top roller and feed sprocket with a shutter behind the snap open/shut gate, and a take-up sprocket with bottom roller. Feed and take-up spools were approximately 100-foot capacity, ably assisted by a stout piece of twine for the take-up belt (any piece of string was pressed into service in the event of a break). Lens focus being a simple manual in-out action with a small tightening lock-screw, invariably cleaned with a handy rag and a 'huh'; not particularly 'high tech' but it always worked.
The small condenser lens which was immediately in front of the battery-run lamp equally became the recipient of a 'huh' and polish. Illumination was provided by an Ever Ready flat battery, or cycle lamp battery as we used to call them, and a 3.5 volt bulb, the on/off aspect being attained by the simple action of pulling the battery wire terminal clear of the bulb contact. The screen took the shape of a toy theatre stage with decorated proscenium, rather like an oblong orange box with no front. The actual screen was a silvered piece of cloth that did not reflect a very bright or clear picture.
We soon learned to improve that by borrowing a white pillowcase ("Now don't you dare get that dirty!") which was about the approximate size of the picture and with good definition. It was easily put up with drawing pins, the throw being about eight to ten feet, with the projector placed on a tall plant stand.
Bearing in mind that the audience were all under twelve years of age, this was an ideal layout in a darkened lobby where they were all seated on the floor. Only the noise of the 'tickety-tickety' hand cranking to mar the otherwise silent show, apart from the cheers and boos, oohs and aahs.
To create a few laughs, it was only required to reverse the direction of the handle. We charged each of our audience (up to fifteen or so) one penny in old steam money to help defray the cost of battery and bulb (and a fish supper for the management). The films acquired with the machine were bits of old silent films (in today's terms these would have been real museum pieces but, alas, met an unknown end upon being left at a future cinema venue).
Sprocket holes on either edge; unbeknown to us at that time they were in fact a potential 'bomb', being nitrate based. It did not take us long to learn that a little broken piece thrown upon the open coal fire gave an impressive 'whoosh'. There was an ironmonger's shop locally, Spencer’s, where these off-cuts could be bought, usually sixpence (2.5 p.) each; no doubt originating from some of the many local cinemas. Subject matter ranged from Charlie Chaplin to Valentino, heavy drama (nice to boo at), westerns and newsreels (1914-18 battle scenes) and, best of all, the Keystone Kops.
Breakdowns were frequent, not having at that stage acquired the skill of cut and splice, but all part of the fun. Ah, those happy pre-television days! Such beginnings ensured that I was 'hooked' on the pictures. Came the war and this aspect of theatres and cinemas was suddenly brought up with a round turn. In common with other buildings, all exterior lighting was banned, a strict black-out enforced; everyone encouraged to save electricity.
Around that time I had set my sights, with immature misguided patriotism, on joining the Merchant Navy, but (fortunately and happily) was turned away as being too young: "Come back in a couple of years and we shall find you a ship" (phew!). Eventually got offered and accepted a job as junior projectionist (tea-boy come rewind/splicer) at the MONSIGNOR NEWS THEATRE situated at the west end of Princess Street, Edinburgh. This venue originated from the early days of silent films with the equipment being updated upon the advent of sound.
Completely unknown to me at that time, I entered a living time capsule in cinematic terms. In common with all news theatres, it was a relatively small, tall narrow building, not more than 300 seats (quite a lot by some of today's standards); divided between the stalls and small balcony, with a restaurant which served only wartime fare: Welsh rarebit, Bangers(sausages) or Spam and chips or beans on toast, and a tiny foyer with even smaller ticket desk- office.
The projection booth ('Box') being perched up on the roof but sunken to interior ceiling level, was accessed down a narrow staircase (a fire hazard), the stairs on the opposite side used as a general storage space (Fire regulations at the time were almost impossible to enforce due to the pressure put upon the city fire brigade). The projectors had front open shutters (which were quite lethal, and probably illegal), Ross carbon lamp houses (a perpetual cause of poor pictures unless constantly adjusted), the acrid fumes being vented to the atmosphere through flexible steel chimneys which leaked enough to ensure the box door had to be kept open irrespective of the weather, and RCA sound heads which seemed to work well.
The spool/rewind room was a tiny shed on the roof, just large enough for one person and the film cabinet. During my time at the 'Monny' there was a stand-by film which must have been retained for many years as there were eight very large (fifteen-inch) Bakelite records to provide the sound, enough room to accommodate the two very old Ross projectors and a non-sync unit (record player) with a huge notice stuck to the underside of the lid: 'Operator Beware: it is imperative 'pick-up' arm needle is changed after each disc has been played once' (for whose benefit, or profit, one wonders), ridiculously heavy and one-sided. I witnessed a showing on one occasion. It was quite a technical work of art to get the sound to synchronise with the picture and, with a bit of juggling, the Chief got it (nearly) right.
Again, I did not realise that I had been privy to the passing of a technical phase in the field of cinema film sound. The continuous shows started at 1pm Monday to Saturday, each complete show of newsreels, cartoons and shorts (Fitzpatrick Travelogues: "As the sun leaves the shore and our boat sinks slowly in the west, we say farewell to this beautiful garden isle"!) ran for about an hour, non-stop until lO.3Opm.
Although never classed as a luxury cinema, it was very popular, especially for the travelling public with an hour to spare whilst waiting for a train at the now defunct LMS (ex-Caledonian) Prince’s Street main line station opposite.
Eventually the basic principles of projection and film work were soon grasped, but the idea of spending forever in such surroundings did not appeal to this keen young learner as being the prospect for progress. Luck played a significant part in my being able to move on to more interesting things in the cinematic world. Being in the right place at the right time, and due to the war, which created an acute shortage of people able to take up employment such as 'working in a cinema'.
Before long cinema owners were more than pleased that so many women were recruited as projectionists, who in turn proved to be just as efficient as their male counterparts.
I was more than delighted to be offered a position of assistant (dogs-body, yet again tea-maker) to the Chief Engineer (BSc and all that!) of a cinema/theatre group: A somewhat overworked and harassed man because nearly all of his technical staff had been called-up for war service. It must be remembered that around that time most young men were in the forces or directed to essential war work, hence my landing lucky (right place, right time!).
This turned out to be a fascinating and interesting job, eventually attending each and every cinema and theatre in and around Edinburgh, either on projection repair missions with my 'Chief, or acting as stand-in relief projectionist. Very long hours, although during the war everyone else did the same. In addition, we were required to attend regular all-night fire-watching duties, but as a payment of 2/6 (12.5p) could be claimed, I was not slow in opting for extra turns.
Due to the travel restrictions, I was based at the cinema nearest my home, which had been opened just prior to the outbreak of war, circa 1938, and therefore just run-in. This was the STATE Cinema in Leith, built on the site of the defunct Hawthorns shipyard alongside the Water of Leith, located at the upper reaches of Leith Docks.
State Cinema Leith ©Unknown
State Cinema Leith ©Unknown
Although there were five other cinemas within a short distance of each other, none could be termed modern. The ALHAMBRA (Alibam), owned and managed by Alf Becket, who also had a Record shop next door, this started out as a theatre, with a very large deep stage, only the stalls and circle were used for the audience, the upper circle – or Gods – were deemed too steep for safety. Another theatre conversion, the GAIETY in the Kirkgate, boasted the only licensed bar in any of the city of Edinburgh cinemas.
The CAPITOL in Manderson Street, being on the Gaumont circuit, was probably the best, with the PALACE at the Foot-of-the-Walk, being typical run-of-the-mill. Last, but not least, the 'LAURIE STREET' cinema, somewhat unkindly referred to as the 'flea-pit', but which nevertheless served its purpose.
The STATE enjoyed an excellent de luxe status and was very popular with the local patrons; the auditorium arranged with stalls for two-thirds of the seating capacity of about 1400 with the remaining third in a gently-sloped low-slung stepped balcony. The stalls had a centre aisle with two side aisles for the side stalls, the balcony being of a similar layout. The screen could be easily seen from every seat with no distortion, except for the front row where everything was magnified (very popular with youngsters on Saturdays).
Bearing in mind there were always queues at that time, both the stalls and balcony had excellent waiting lounges, it being the practise to allow so many in shortly before the end of the previous programme, no doubt to ease the pressure of getting in before the next house commenced and a blessing to those waiting outside, especially during inclement weather. This cinema had an excellent theatrical stage with ultra-modern dressing rooms. The nearest I encountered to presenting a stage show was early in the war when, for obvious propaganda purposes, BBC personalities were sent round the country to stir up enthusiasm for the war effort.
Just prior to showing a newsreel we had to flash-up a spotlight to the prompt corner and heard a voice saying: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, this is Bruce Belfridge speaking". He, of course, was a well-known BBC radio newsreader. Apparently they were encouraged to announce themselves by name in order that the listening public got to know the sound of their voices, the British public must have been rather gullible in those days.
After spending quite a lot of time in this cinema, in addition to chasing after my Chief around the circuit, I got to know every nook and cranny, the bits the public never knew about, never mind saw. To give some indication of the general arrangement of the building, we start externally. Contained within the building there was a two-storied billiard and snooker saloon run totally as a separate business. Access to the projection room for this cinema was from an external door dictated by the fire prevention and safety regulations in force at the time of construction. Entering through an unassuming door half hidden from view in a small alcove on street level we ascend a stone staircase.
The first landing gives entry to the electrical switch and control room complete with neat rows of fuse boxes individually detailed for every sub-circuit throughout the whole building and a large two-tiered bank of lead acid batteries for the secondary and emergency lighting, which were kept hilly charged with a constant floating charge. The Westinghouse mercury rectifier, giving off an eerie ultra-violet glow, was contained within a heavy metal cage-like cabinet. From this room a door led into the roof space which had a central catwalk to the far end where a massive extractor fan was situated. In spite of the size of this huge motor, it ran almost silently and very efficiently.
Out and up another short flight of stone stairs from the switch room to the entrance of the projection room or, as commonly known to everybody, the 'box', through a self closing fireproof metal-clad door (all doors in this area had to be fire-proof).
In contrast to many earlier cinemas, the STATE projection room was quite spacious with a high ceiling and ample windows situated near ceiling level. Regrettably these were blacked-out to comply with wartime regulations. The whole interior was brightly illuminated with central heating and technically well laid out. It created a pleasant working atmosphere. All electrical machinery and projection equipment were then very modern and a pleasure to work with. Projection equipment consisted of two Ross projectors with RCA sound heads, utterly reliable and trouble-free, Bowden cable snap shut instant change-over shutters and Strong carbon arc lamps, a Ross Stellar combined spotlight for stage shows and slide projector with the usual coloured shades, lateral scissor and iris fade-out shutters.
An excellent twin turntable non-sync unit placed alongside a Holophane stage and auditorium lighting system which (when allowed by the wartime regulations to use same) created spectacular results. On the far side of the second requisite fire door, an isolated room containing the Holophane stage lighting switch room (an excellent piece of electrical engineering) which gave no cause for concern. The spool/rewind room with film storage was, by contrast, sparse, and in the winter a cold place to work in, a fire proof film storage cabinet, which had brass tally tags on each individual pull-out sleeve, this was a simple but very effective system to prevent the wrong reel being shown.
Next door came the staff room and toilet, a relative luxury at that time. Of course, some of the projectionists were required to be away from home from just after breakfast until after 10 o'clock at night and therefore needed a couple of breaks during the show. One further emergency exit door gave access to an enclosed cast iron spiral staircase to street level via a narrow towpath alongside the Water of Leith (see later anecdote).
With the projection room area being tiled and painted in pastel colours, it had a positive feeling of cleanliness, the pervading distinctive aroma of film and the hot smell from the carbon lamps made it a very pleasant working area, particularly when I was able to compare it alongside many other cinemas during the course of my duties. Even the mighty 3000-plus seat PLAYHOUSE, with a vast projection room and three projectors (which provided for continuity in the event of a breakdown), did not have any form of daylight or direct access to the open air, even allowing for this cinema having been built in 1927.
But I digress. All projection and observation ports had, of course, the regulation steel fireproof shutters. An internal telephone system allowed instant communication to all parts of the building.
The full-time front of house staff were paraded in smart blue and silver uniforms: ten usherettes (not all on duty at the same time), a foreman and assistant to keep everything non-technical running smoothly, a doorman (evenings only), two ticket office cashiers, one refreshment kiosk attendant (the kiosk did not last very long due to sweets and confectionery being so strictly rationed) and, mostly unseen by the public, Seven cleaners. These ladies started work at 7am until 11am, quite a task after three full houses the day before.
The manager dressed in a lounge suit during the day and always wore evening dress at night. Also, unseen by the audience were the technical staff, chief operator, second, third and fourth assistants who worked in that mysterious area at the back of beyond where the bright beam of the projection lamp flashed on to the screen. Without them there would have been no end result, every programme had to be made up on a Monday morning.
The main feature, with anything up to twelve reels of film, had to be carefully spliced and glued together with film cement, plus a second feature or several shorts, cartoon, newsreel and trailers, not forgetting the adverts; a task that sometimes took right up until lunchtime, especially if the film was in need of repair. Some of the little incidents recalled from the earlier days of wartime conditions will seem somewhat difficult for present-day cinema-goers to imagine. Late into the evening showing of the big picture, the air raid sirens start warning people to take cover. Within a short while, the manager is contacted by the police and told to evacuate the building as soon as possible. A quick call to the duty projectionist to shut down and put the house lights on, by which time the manager would have reached the stage to request everybody to leave as quickly as possible, and for their safety to go to an air raid shelter.
When the audience got outside the place would be in total darkness. Tramcars remained where they had stopped when all electricity was shut off, and so it remained until the 'all clear' was sounded, sometimes hours later. Often during a performance a policeman, complete with steel helmet and gas mask, would hand an official note to the manager to make an announcement to the effect that all members of the crew of HMS Nonsuch, or the equivalent description for units of other branches of the armed forces, were to report back immediately to their ship or depot.
In the projection room there were always glass slides ready-coated on one side with lamp black paint. After writing the prescribed message on the slide (they were only about 3.5 inches square, which meant keeping the message brief), it was flashed up on to the screen with the slide projector; with the film still running but the sound turned down and arc lamp power slightly reduced. It was all accepted as part of the day's work. On several occasions we were commandeered by various units of the services, usually for training films.
One amusing incident is recalled when a lot of high-ranking officers turned up almost too early one morning and told the manager he would be required to show a film to a group of servicemen as soon as possible. The army and naval personnel were on their way and were required to be suitably accommodated, officers in the balcony, senior non-commissioned officers in the back stalls, other ranks down front. The manager asked for the films which were to be shown and how long they would run for, and, as a matter of interest, who was going to pay for the use of our facilities ("Oh, just send the bill to the War Office, old boy!").
The film, he was informed, is top secret and would only be handed to the projectionist in charge in a sealed container. After all the personnel were seated, all doors secured with military police in attendance. Nobody would be permitted in or out during the entire performance. Well, when the film arrived and was handed over to the Chief (there were only two of us on duty); he had to sign for it, plus another paper to say that he would not disclose the contents to anyone. I being totally ignored during the discussion.
Then into the spool room, open up the box to find two normal-sized tins with a prominent label: 'Crown Film Unit, War Office. TOP SECRET' (in red), one reel in each. Inside, the films had another label attached: 'Mr Operator, this film has come directly from the processing laboratories and will require to be waxed before projection.' The Chief nonchalantly said "Ah, let's just run it first and see what happens." It was the first time I had come across a 'green' print and saw very few thereafter.
Lo and behold, we duly announced all ready to run. Permission granted from a scrambled egg (gold braided rear-admiral and a red-tabbed brigadier, we commenced to run the show. A mediocre film about the correct method of boarding and disembarking from funny-looking square boats (later learned to be landing craft) running up beaches at Aberlady and North Berwick, which we as individuals easily recognised as local holiday resorts.
The commentator urged participants that all rifles must be kept pointing skywards to prevent injury to the man in front and many other mind-boggling do's and don’ts, i.e., if any man is prone to sea-sickness, avoid any disgorging of stomach contents until reaching the shore! Comes the end of film (thank goodness!) and a buzz on the phone from the manager: the 'brass' would like another run-through as soon as possible. So with the usual rewind and lace-up, away it went again.
Chief says "Let's have a cuppa." `Can't, ` says I, "forgot to get the milk." "Ok," he says, 'just nip down and get it from the corner shop." Down I goes, only to be confronted by a gynormous, 6-ft 4-in redcap, a corporal military policeman: "Now then, laddie, where d'yoo fink yoo are off to?" "Just to get the milk." says I. "No, my sunshine," says redcap, "no one in, no one out, them's my orders." Blow that, methinks, and tootle back up to the box. "Won't let me out that way," I tells the Chief.
So I nip down the emergency spiral stairs, which was accomplished without further ado. The MPs had not found this one and were therefore not in attendance. Showing duly completed, and cinema emptied, with an adjutant type busy thanking the manager for his co-operation, and was so pleased that the security arrangements had been totally successful. We thought afterwards: what was the big deal? Top secret, and about eight hundred of the recent audience and milk lad knew all about it.
Several other training films were shown without the high drama of our top secret adventure, although one morning the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) and Civil Defence were being shown a somewhat dreary training film. A hurried call to the manager was taken to get the firemen to report back to their respective stations immediately. The entire audience cleared the building, most of them saying they couldn't get out of there quick enough. Even the Ministry of Food Flashes ('How to Make Banana Jam from a Marrow'- yuck!) were more entertaining than some training films.
During the many visits to Edinburgh cinemas I came across some odd items, such as the BLUE HALLS, which had the screen placed diagonally within a near square-shaped building with the seating taking a diamond pattern, seemingly to pack a few more in. Towards the bottom end of the market they had to make every inch pay. The POOLES SYNOD HALL had a balcony on three full sides which meant those sitting in the side balconies faced the opposite people and were at right angles to the screen, although it never stopped the plentiful audiences from regular attendance.
The PALACE in Princess Street, long since gone and replaced by an extension of Woolworth's store, had a projection room below the level of the bottom of the screen, the projectors being set to point upward. Quite unusual, but efficiently functional. By contrast, some projectors were at a very steep angle. The old ALHAMBRA in Leith Walk was originally a theatre with a very large deep stage, stalls, circle and gallery (the 'gods') which meant the box was very high. The gallery was closed for safety reasons. With only wooden bench seats and very steep steps it seemed logical. At this time there were no cinemas allowed to be open Sundays (also no pubs, cafes or ‘other places of interest) and with the black-out, life was not over-exciting in the capital city. There were many thousands of army, navy and RAF men and women with very little to do on a Sunday, causing problems in other directions.
The powers-that-be decided to relax the strict non-opening rule and thereafter six or eight of the thirty-five cinemas then licensed in Edinburgh were given permission to open on a Sunday evening for one show, with everything finished and closed down not later than 10pm.
My employer had been delegated to select the chosen houses, based upon location and seating capacity (if it had been left to the individual cinema managers they would have opened every Sunday, all day). Organising a programme for each of these venues created quite a lot of problems, as all prints were distributed from the Film Transport Services depot at Broxburn, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
I was given the task of co-ordinating this lot as an extra item to all my other duties, apart from attending each cinema in turn. All travel around the city was by tramcar, except where it was not too far; then I would walk and pocket the few coppers saved. Apart from shorts, cartoons and the like, a lot of effort was given to run features more than twice. The queues formed at each cinema due to be opened long before the staff arrived, which must have pleased the owners.
There are many other snippets that come to mind, such as having an annual visit from the sound engineer with his box of tricks. He took a whole morning to check through the entire system using a continuous loop of special sound film, and, whilst very friendly, he had an air of mystery. Finally checking the large stock of spare valves (I never experienced seeing one of these replaced through a fault), he got a signature for service requested and carried out, then disappeared for another year.
Another task undertaken during the night was re-spraying the screen. All the tabs had to opened and covered with dust sheets, no small task considering there were only two men involved. The only things the management had to provide were the very long stage ladder, lots of wandering lead lights, water to mix up the paint and a kettle to make the tea. They used a portable spray compressor and from about midnight till morning applied three coats. Give them their due, no mess was made. Another example of the unsung people who helped to provide entertainment.
Perhaps I have said enough concerning events that happened with hands-on experience a long while ago. I moved on to other things in time but that is another story. Good cinema presentation was (and still is) quite an art and, when carried out in an efficient manner, creates a great deal of satisfaction to the projectionist and enjoyment to the audience.
ith Nautical College
These recollections of a Newhaven Merchant Navy apprentice, (or Cadet) depending which company took you on, are quite personal and not necessarily to be construed as how all colleagues behaved.
During the earlier part of the 1939-1945 war with Germany it was my decision to follow a family tradition and serve in the Mercantile Marine, so with typical (misguided) enthusiastic patriotic (idiotic) bravado, along with a couple of other chums went scurrying along to Leith Nautical College, in Commercial Street, to enrol.
Entering through the large glazed oak portals into a busy tiled entrance hall adorned with beautiful ship models, some of them cut away to show the method of construction that we were to learn a lot about later, in the middle of being so engrossed in the superb detail of these glass cased works of skilled craftsmen.
The place was absolutely seething with a mass of humanity, many in uniform having a last minute smoke - no smoking in the lecture rooms - a friendly feminine voice behind us suddenly asks, can I help you lads, this turned out to be Miss Johnston, the College Secretary who ushered us into the administration office. Upon learning that we had come to 'join up', she produced lots of forms to be filled in, which in turn were required to be counter-signed by a parent, pay the requisite fees, then told us which books were needed.
The problem of obtaining them from the Nautical Bookshop was very acute due to war time shortages, although the college had a few available, second hand of course. I thought we were going to be charged 'sea prices' for them, but it proved to be quite reasonable, and eventually showing a modest profit because several were sold on to the next intake.
Now last but not least, the obligatory all important Board of Trade 'Eye-sight' test certificate, essential before being admitted to the deck department of the Mercantile Marine. What is that, for goodness sake? Our ever so patient college secretary, Miss Johnston, looked at us as if we were complete idiots - which in fact we were because that was the first thing we should have all undertaken.
“Right, off you go to the Shipping Master's office”. In the same building as the Customs House, organise said test, obtain photographs, a Seaman's Identity card etc.
Being a relatively short walk from the college we found the appropriate door, the college had seemed busy until squeezing our way into the shipping office, through the noisy smoke laden atmosphere. We pushed forward through the crowd of men who were there to sign on or off Ships Articles, to the counter. In due time a somewhat harassed clerk noted our requirements at the same time trying to pacify and allocate each and everyone to a ship. Most of these men had newly arrived or about to depart on convoy duty, and had we but known (with hindsight), it would have made us run a mile and joined the 'Sojers'.
“Right, be here 'free ferty'
sharp for eye test, tho' not if yer wear glasses, the fee is five shillings
(25p) payable now, non-returnable. With
our dwindling capital so unexpectedly depleted we realise this had better work.
After a meagre impoverished
(even worse being war time) lunch we duly return to shipping office, which now,
by contrast, is quite silent from the morning visit. After
the necessary form filling we are individually escorted into a darkened room and
placed alongside what I later learned to be a lantern, which projected a
pin-point light onto a screen, which seemed miles away, and indeed was meant to
be. The actual test is
to determine if a prospective candidate suffered from colour blindness.
The Shipping Master conducted the exam in a very strict but fair manner. “Answer the questions exactly as to what you see”. After a short while in complete darkness, which was to allow the candidate time to get his eyes used to the surroundings, a voice from the other side of the lantern asks, “can you see anything?”, “No sir”!, “Right oh”, sayeth the voice - at which time a nice round white light appears away in the distance - (this was in fact a mirror to create the impression of long distance). No problem methinks, anything now! “Yes sir, a bright white light”.
This was followed by a series of coloured lights, which became (apparently) smaller and smaller; the white would be shown three or four times in succession then a green or red, combinations of all, each time getting smaller, went through the sequence, as the navigation lights would have been displayed by vessels at sea. This seemed to go on for a long time although in fact was barely ten minutes. “Ah that is fine”, said the voice, “just one more”....when the light appeared I quickly replied, blue and in the same breath could have bitten my tongue realising there were no blue lights in the pattern of navigation lights. “Good lad,” said the voice, at the same time switching on the room lights, “that last one was not part of your official test. It represents a convoy stern steering light, included as you may encounter such a light shown at the stern of a vessel in convoy if you get to sea.
The test concluded with the familiar Optician’s letter test board, reading at a given distance individual letters ranging from outsized to very small, first with one eye covered then the other. Being a typical teen-age smart alec, I quoted the bottom line.
“I asked you to start at the
top”, sayeth the voice. “Sorry
sir”. Then ever so
carefully going through the jumbled lines of letters to the last.
Duly issued with the Eyesight Test certificate, together with the bright red Seaman's Identity book numbers of which were to be recorded in the Discharge 'A' Certificate book, I was finally allowed to return to the college. By this time it had long since closed for the day. Bright and breezy I reported on the appointed morning and entered as a Deck Officer Apprentice/Cadet in course No. 223. I was taken to the classroom, which was right at the top of the building, commanding an ideal view over the dock area.
Within a very short time it became obvious that this type of work was so vastly different from day school so recently and eagerly left behind. Instead of being treated as school pupils we were now expected to be adults and behave as such.
This was quickly brought to the fore at 10 o'clock coffee break (or in college/merchant navy parlance 'smoke oh'). Quick dash outside for those that wished to, and could afford it.
The work became progressively harder with a tremendous amount of home work that the tutors were exceptionally patient with. Routine class work was all quite fascinating; interesting and much disciplined; a generous degree of tolerance for those finding the work difficult.
To some students, the obscure but essential navigation problems were straight forward; others found such tasks beyond them; we only had a couple drop out of our year. In addition to the daily 9 to 4 lectures we were required to attend evening classes held in Victoria School, Newhaven, to absorb ship construction, stability and cargo stowage. It certainly was not a pleasure trip.
Friday afternoon became a form of compulsory P.E. games, except the sports were confined to 'Life-boat' drill. In later years at sea this same activity was indeed known as Board of Trade sports.
Before being allowed to join a ship, yet another certificate had to be obtained by deck candidates, that of a Lifeboat man. Being incorporated in the overall Cadet course, our Friday afternoon became the vehicle for obtaining such necessary qualification.
I enjoyed every minute of it;
the college lifeboat was situated at the edge of the dockside wall, situated in
the West Old Dock, a set of old style radial boat davits were fitted to the
quayside. With a
standard ship’s life-boat placed on the same kind of chocks as would be found on
any ship, fully equipped and rigged, slung from conventional wood blocks and
rope falls, on the quay next to the College Training ship "DOLPHIN "
Training at the College
Training at the College
The drill being that it was to represent lowering, and recovering, a boat for real. Having been charged to go straight to the boat station right after lunch break, in the beginning all us youngsters being keen to get afloat had the boat in the water, all ready to go, before m'tutor - Captain McKay – arrived. Politely asked if we could let him see, from the beginning, the boat being lifted off the chocks and lowered correctly into the water. Dutifully all hands, usually about eight of us, would hoist the boat back up to the davit head, swing it inboard and lower it back onto its cradle. Felt proud when he declared that was first class, then go through the entire procedure again.
Once away we rowed with gusto and when conditions were favourable did a bit of sail work. Little did we grasp that our worthy instructor knew to a fraction how long the afternoon exercise would take and would always arrange to arrive back in time to stow all the gear right on knock off.
On occasion when the lock gates to our wet dock were open we were allowed to venture out into the broader expanses of the dock complex. By the time reaching the outer pier ends we had to beat a hasty retreat back to our base; great fun and the amount of learning was easily absorbed in an effortless manner, there were no failures for the Life-boat certificate.
An interesting diversion came our way during a convenient holiday break from lectures. During our normal class studies we were privy to many items of classified information on the College notice board. 'Most Urgent' - M.O.W.T. urges each and every member of the Merchant Navy of all ranks and departments, to become a trained M.N. gunner - help save your shipmates and ship, usual current proficiency and victual allowance.
Being constantly bereft of financial solvency, parent subsidised, we were always on the look-out to enhance our limited expendable income - even a bit roof top Air Raid fire-watching! Most firms were obliged to have employees carry out the duties, who were generally glad to get a locum] for which the government paid an allowance to the individual, 2/6d (12.1/2p) per night plus camp bed. We usually were selected to be used as stand-in watchers for those having a night off.
The relevant Royal Navy gunnery training establishment being but a few minutes along the road found us rapidly enrolling under the guidance of an aged 'Pusser' Petty Officer, and equally smartly being accepted, an be `eer' ait-or-clork` sharp as like, Mun'mornin.
Well, there we were being bundled in with battle hardened Atlantic or Murmansk convoy veterans of such dangerous voyages, but nobody asked questions, all being on the same side.
After reporting to the regulating Chief Petty Officer we were passed to the Chief Petty Officer gunnery instructor, of some twenty odd years regular Royal Navy and who knows how long in the reserve.
“My name is Ogden, 'enery, but you shall ha'dress me as chiefy. First morning was spent hearing about the various types of guns being fitted on board ships, mainly Lewis, single, twin and 303 rifles - yes gents, rifles, for ter be used in h'exploding floating mines, but we shall concentrate on our friend the Lewis cos that’s wot you will av'e on board”.
“Now gents this is your best fren on board yer ship, Lewis Mk V. This `ere weapon has bin responsible for more aircraft losses by M.N. gunners than any other weapon”. –
No mention, that at that time, no other weapons were generally available - our class of ten comprised of deck officers, the practical side consisted of learning how to strip the gun down to the last nut and bolt, then put it all together again, and being taught to load, aim, fire and clear simple blockages. The parts to be kept lubricated and most important of all, the ability to beg, borrow or scrounge spare Lewis gun bits from any source.
Second part of the course we were assigned to 'live ammunition' gunnery practice that was conducted at a quiet sea-side sand dune range some fifteen miles from our base, with the ever efficient instructor shepherding us on board an S.M.T. bus (didn't have coaches then) complete with trailer! This transpired to be a gas generator to run the engine, the gas storage bag, rather like a mini-barrage balloon, was fitted on top where normally external luggage would have been stowed.
The trailer, very similar to a small fire pump, had a mini-boiler, the furnace being stoked with anthracite coal to make the propellant gas, the solid fuel was stowed in the rear boot of the bus.
Upon arrival at the firing range, strewn with huge concrete blocks - anti-invasion tank traps, yet another lecture on Lewis gun firing, this time at a target towed by a rather slow and quite old bi-plane. The actual target in the shape of a wind sock trailed a long way behind the plane.
At a given signal the gun operator had to fire several quick bursts aimed a shade ahead of the target; the CPO in charge had a device similar in appearance to a boat-hook firmly attached to the barrel of the Lewis gun, to prevent any trigger happy aspiring gunner from traversing the wrong way an so endanger the aircraft. Our personal 'shot' at firing only took a couple of minutes though it seemed much longer as the aircraft took ages to turn in a wide circle.
We did learn later that the amount of ammunition was very limited so the whole exercise had to be rather stretched, then discussed in detail, with lunch in between - one bottle of beer, small, and one round of Spam sandwich (it was better than having to spend our 'lunch allowance'. Time came to pack up and get back to base.
Shortly after leaving the bus driver pulled up in a convenient lay-by, very little civilian traffic to bother about, and told us the boiler needed stoking. Well we young un's turned out to give a hand. The shovel wasn't much bigger than a domestic fire-side type, but we in our youthful exuberance soon filled the little furnace and had all the gauges dancing, thereby adding another aspect of life in the Merchant Navy. We then continued on our way back to base, albeit at a pre-stage of such a worthy career.
Alas the gunnery course finished much too soon for us, even with another Certificate, no more free lunches or beer money, back to the grind of learning. After a supposed two week holiday, the time literally flew by, applying for jobs and scanning the daily Royal Mail delivery.
At last, a Shipping Company willing to entrust their vessel, well not exactly, they were acting on behalf of the Ministry of War Transport. It was rather akin to having just passed a car driving test, got a bit of paper to prove you can do it, so now you go out and really learn how to drive; long weary days at sea on a variety of ships did nothing to dampen my spirit, on and up that long wobbly ladder towards the top.
SIGN-ON FOR REAL
WITH A WEE BIT OF BACKGROUND
Inasmuch as my original intention started out simply to record details of the boats that linked my family connection to fishing, it became somewhat bogged down with the innumerable changes of vessel Name(s), Ports, Owners and eventual demise of these craft.
It became quite obvious that the cold and indifferent list of particulars forming part of this work would make rather fatuous reading and could not be logically presented without associating some informational knowledge regarding the men who made these trawlers a reality; the crew, shore support staff and so many others dependant and depending on the success of such ventures.
Like most things it progressed from relatively small beginnings to become a major business in the national economy. Therefore my story spread further afield to include a little bit of insight to the broad outline of what goes on behind the scenes - when someone goes into a fishmonger to buy a pound of nice fresh fish fillet, do they ever imagine the real effort or cost expended to get it there in the first place?
Subsequently, before memories became dimmed by the passage of time, it seemed right to jot down what I saw of the part played by steam fishermen during one of the peaks of the industrial graph, prior to its demise, through being replaced by a modern diesel powered fleet.
I do not claim that this narrative provides a serious contribution to social history surrounding the fishing industry although in many respects the domestic side of these men does come through in so far as the long periods of time they spent away from home and their families. In describing the time engaged fishing and being associated with the industry, I have kept as close as possible to those matters with that I was involved personally in a hands-on situation, and many aspects related though family ownership of many steam trawlers
Whilst my main task set out to record and concentrate upon the boats rather than the crews who sailed in them, it is impossible to mention one and not the other, equally the many support staff, without their continued services, all activity would soon have come to a halt.
Sea fishing has been pursued since biblical times, and who knows for how long before, this narrative has moved on in time to cover a period circa 1870 to 1970, and is primarily concerned with steam trawlers although to keep the story in perspective other aspects of the fishing industry have been incorporated in a simplified way.
Space limitations dictate a certain amount of restraint detailing any particular department. It is unlikely that many readers can lay claim to have sailed and worked with a somewhat ageing fleet of - mostly - coal burning steam trawlers, during the immediate post war years of the 1940's. (My old Granddad used to say during the war, 'it might not be very pleasant to be engaged in mine sweeping but it does give the fish a chance to grow). He, being an ex trawler skipper and owner perhaps did have a somewhat biased interest.
Over more years than I care to remember one of my personal pursuits has been to research and gather, often unwittingly, much and such information about the subject which has mentally driven me to learn more. While researching I referred, consulted and made use of a wide range of books, newspapers and other publications as well as personal recollections of many friends, relatives and colleagues who had sailed in these vessels or had been directly associated in a support capacity.
Very many years ago I set out to trace the details of an old steam trawler at one time owned by my grandfather; it was depicted as a painting on, of all things, a round wooden bread board, given to me because I liked it. The outside edge had been carved to represent a piece of rope, I regret now in not having had the fore-sight to keep such a gem; the boat had a fore-sail and mainsail, an open bridge, with some further research I managed to trace the history of this steam trawler which had originated from Hull and became the Granton registered Blue Bell, GN223/96. The knowledge how to go about such a task resulted in chasing my own tail.
My own background was very salt water orientated, from both parental sides, with an introduction to ships and boats began way back before I can barely remember, what with most male relatives sailing as Skippers, Masters, Mates and Pilots, I was almost spoiled for choice in which branch of seafaring to pursue.
The circumstances at that time decreed I opted for the Merchant Navy, so after the requisite pre-sea training period at the Leith Nautical College, followed with shipboard life, courtesy of the Board of Trade, Shipping Pool and an assortment of shipping companies.
The war ended and sea trade struggled to forge ahead, albeit subject to restrictive controls and severe rationing also experienced by the civilian population. Not a great amount of financial progress was enjoyed, expected or indeed encouraged towards the lower minions of merchant marine deck officer grades, war risk bonus cut back, overtime grudgingly and rarely sanctioned, general conditions quite abysmal.
A few days leave at home led to a meeting up with some chums who had returned from various sectors of war-time activities; many of them having fallen prey to the post war revived and thriving fishing industry, deep sea trawling in particular, talk of sky high earnings were not to be ignored (says I jingling a pocketful of loose change - to their crisp rustle of bank notes).
What were the odds that I was prompted to drop a few words to Uncles, ah hem, any chance of a berth!..................before I had any opportunity to retract I was virtually 'signed on', they were not concerned about the lack of fishing experience but delighted to acquire a qualified and experienced watch keeper, never mind bringing a sextant. Just keep your gutting knife sharp. Some of the old steam cargo ships were downright diabolical but when compared to the accommodation of a 1916 built steam trawler, which incidentally was a whole world away ahead of some earlier trawlers I had the dubious privilege of sailing in, to me sea life changed dramatically and swiftly - (having experienced pre-war trawler trips as an enthusiastic school boy passenger with a nice comfy berth in the skippers cabin below the wheelhouse) - resulting in being brought up with a round turn.
Prior to sailing on the appointed morning having reported on board with my sea-bag, the ships husband, come runner, promptly whisked me away (in a lovely car, no less) to the local ship chandler, at that time Patersons in Newhaven Main Street, supplier of each and every item for 'johnny newcomers', to be kitted out with rubber thigh length boots, yellow water proof smock and sou'wester.
The staccato voice of the zealous shop assistant perched at the top of a lofty ladder - all the items we wanted were hanging from the ceiling - called out (having seen it all, done it all, knew it all) one pair thigh, pronounced ’fi lenf’ rubber boots, white, large yellow oilly an’ a yeller sou’wester, best ter get yellow cos the black one’s don’t show up, besides we ain’t not got none!, after that you're on your own lad.
All beautiful non-utility gear [utility being the standard war time government issue rubbish everyone had to suffer even after hostilities ceased] no sonny, you don't pay now, the company looks after t'bill. Great, thinks I except when it came to first wage settlement, said items were somewhat hidden amongst 'crew disbursements, never did find out how much I had been taken for - ah those care free days of youth (stupid boy).
The practical fishing aspect of trawling has been written about in great detail elsewhere, my own immediate impression of life afloat on a trawler was akin to thinking it was very simple and relatively straight forward whilst on the run towards the Faroe Islands, or Iceland, for example, almost boring in so far as whoever was on the regular four hour steaming watches had very little to do apart from a turn (trick) at steering, keeping a look-out and consuming lots of tea, no chart work to attend to - the skipper did all his own navigating and only consulted the Mate if there was dense fog or other similar hazard.
Such was routine until the rugged outline of the mountainous land gradually came into view, then smoke trails began to appear from other trawlers obviously fishing in the same area. The engine having been stopped and all hands, except the engineers and cook, were mustered at the various stations on deck to perform their own allotted tasks. Every man was dependant on each other to blend into a team, very few words were needed or indeed spoken.
The fireman (who was effectively the third engineer) had the responsibility of operating the big steam winch, the deck hands busy untying the net from its stowed position along the inside of the bulwark plating, reeving the steel warps from the winch drums round various deck rollers and guides to link up through the gallows with the big steel shod thick wooden Otter boards, or doors, which keep the mouth of the net open whilst it is dragged along the bottom.
Soon after everything is ready and the Mate is satisfied all is well. He indicates this to the skipper, usually impatient to get the gear over as soon as possible, with the wind on the starboard side of the vessel, to blow it off the trawl, the entire net is put over the side and the ship moves ahead in a circular motion, during which time the doors are lowered into the water until they reach the required depth. Wires secured and winch brakes applied, for the next three to four hours the trawler will tow the net over the ground, during which time the deck crew will eat or sleep or be on watch until it is time to haul the net in.
At the time when all is ready to haul in the net the vessel is carefully positioned with the wind slightly abaft the beam so that when the towing wires are suddenly released from the securing block the entire weight of the trawl will bring the ship broadside to the wind and thereby blow the trawler away from the gear and prevent the net being caught up in the propeller.
All hands will have arrived at their respective posts by the time the big steam winch will have wound in a great length of the warps The doors are carefully brought up to the head of the gallows, firmly secured with a massive solid link chain, which allows the net to be released in order to pull it on board by hand. All hands line the rail and pull in unison with the down roll of the ship, on the up roll everyone lays on the net over the bulwark rail, which can be quite dangerous. Eventually the cod end may come into view, depending upon how much fish it contains, the sooner it is seen the greater the quantity of fish, with all the air within each fish it acts like a huge balloon, much to the delight of all the observers. With an average size of bag the cod end is quickly brought alongside, a stout rope becket is passed round the outside of the net and hooked onto a thick wire leading up to the fore mast head, the wire wrapped round the winch barrel and lifted clear of the water.
in the event of a large amount of fish being caught the process of lifting the entire catch may take more than one lift, as each full cod end is swung on board over the fish ponds the Mate or Second fisherman has to reach under the bag of fish, cascading with water, to release the special knot securing the net. Once broken free the fish pour out; if another lot has to be picked up the same routine is gone through, otherwise the cod end is re-tied in readiness to start the whole cycle of fishing again.
Walter in Merchant
Walter in Merchant Navy Uniform
'Tea - without Sympathy'
Unprepared aspects of daily life on deck whilst fishing, at least it did not happen in the dark.
During a spell of very heavy fishing, and there were many, when every haul, on average this meant bringing the net in after 2 to 3 hours towing, yielded bigger and better bags of prime fish, some of the deck crew would openly hope and pray for a small catch to offer a bit of rest, or even the unspoken hope of having a ripped net to repair. Anything in fact to give some respite from the endless gutting sessions, with more and more fish accumulating in the ponds I was directed to help the Mate clear a stubborn cod-end knot [this being specially designed to hold back a vast weight of fish at the end of the trawl net - though, (theoretically) could release tons of fish with a quick tug on the correct rope end - aye aye shouts.
I, in true nautical fashion jumped into the knee deep pond of fish, when, wowee - a searing sharp, nay hot pain in my right foot, just at the base of my big toe, made me retract my right foot double quick from the deckful of fish (at the same time an irate voice from under the swinging cod-end is bawling at me to hurry up cos a couple o' ton of cod is pressin' on is' left lug ole. As I endeavoured to lift leg - still with excruciating pain, lo and behold what comes into view but a gi-normous Angler fish (Monkfish), a real corker - to look at. It is all mouth - with his huge jaws firmly wrapped round said boot.
(A spontaneous chorus from the pond wags say you'll never get im to let go, try and tickle his belly, and so on. Blow that for a caper say I and quickly severed the huge ugly head with rows of needle sharp teeth from body with a large razor sharp carving knife, but too late, the damage had been irretrievable been done, to boot not fish.
Ever tried to repair a serrated punctured thick sea-boot, at sea, no way, with the Mate threatening all sorts of retribution if someone did not get his head disentangled from a netful of wriggling fish. There is not any chance of getting the least form of sympathy from anyone in the fish pond laughing their heads off (except the poor Mate). Other than a chorus of 'go and have nice mug of tea'. Compensation ? Don't make me laugh. Quote, 'yer should ave known such a thing was likely to happen; very cold, soaking wet foot for rest of trip..............end of story.
As soon as the trawl has been 'shot', everything on deck squared up, the gutting is started, if a large amount of fish has to be dealt with it is an arduous back breaking job, the basic essential being a razor sharp knife and knowledge of how to slice open a fish on the underside and extract the gut, in one swift movement. From gill to vent in the case of round fish - cod, haddock, whiting etc; with flat fish - sole, plaice being more oblique.
The Mate being responsible for the proper stowage of fish in the hold had to work fairly hard in packing the various species and sizes in layers of crushed ice on shelves which were built up as the catch increased. Or if the system used 8 stone boxes, when stowage in the hold fell behind the amount of gutted fish being sent below an extra man was sent to give the Mate assistance, in spite of working in the ice laden chill atmosphere of the fish room it was a job to work up a real sweat.
On deck the task of grading, gutting and washing the catch continued relentlessly, often in freezing conditions with sea spray being whipped over the fore-deck with monotonous regularity, the second fisherman or bosun was generally in charge of the fish pond although not much supervision was required as everyone knew what was required and got on with the job.
the sooner the catch was put below, with all the rubbish thrown overboard - to be eagerly pounced upon by all the gulls, gannets and other birds which perpetually accompanied each and every boat whilst fishing - the entire fore-deck area thoroughly hosed clean of any remaining offal and made ready for the next catch to be dealt with.
A routine that continued throughout twenty four hours for the whole trip, unless through the net being badly torn, had to be repaired, again a very unpleasant chore when carried out in adverse weather conditions. In extreme cases when a wire warp broke, bearing in mind these wires are thick as a mans fore-arm, whilst towing the trawl, it became a very long tiresome job to retrieve the net which was trailing a long way behind on a single length.
Once this had been brought back onto the winch drum and the Otter board secured the next mammoth bit of recovery was to manhandle the net and heavy ground rope, by which time had been further torn, the broken wire end once back on board was usually tied together with a simple but very effective 'sheet bend', very easy to do on a piece of pliable rope, though with two ragged unravelled ends of springy steel it could only be carried out with the aid of the steam winch, once the knot was drawn tight and the loose strands secured by whipping it be came functional again.
Although most skippers would undertake such a make-do-and-mend repair, particularly if they were on to some fish, they did not like it as the warps could not be set with even lengths and thereby upset the overall efficiency of the net, with normal wear and tear trawl wires would stretch over a period of time and had to be re-newed.
With decks clear and the ship set for a further few hours fishing the crew rapidly make their way aft to have a meal or a quick mug of tea prior to snatching a short sleep before starting all over, except those on watch.
ON AND UP
To a young man with a keen desire to go to sea, fishing in general was not an entirely dead end occupation. Admittedly out of the very many thousands of people employed, only very few made it to the ladder; different branches held varying prospects for some, although by and large young men who aspired to sailing as fishermen generally stuck to the method they started with, Herring, Seine Netting, In-shore, Shell (Lobster/Crab, Trawling, they either remained as long as they were physically capable or got out very quickly.
Few aspired to reaching the top of their calling, academically qualifying for the Certificated grade of Mate or advancing to the exalted position of Skipper. Even fewer attained the accolade of being natural good fishermen, some top skippers earned, by today`s standards, 'fat cat' salary - though earned is the operative word - many tried and fell by the wayside.
One bad trip (when the owner did not receive a decent return on his investment - bad luck old chap, perhaps things will be better next time). Second time resulted in a personal interview with the 'boss', costing the firm and all that - then a FINAL chance to make good or be demoted to Mate until you learn the job- or be put on the beach as a has been.
Each and every fishing port had the same problem, the larger the port the more opportunity to make good, or fall by the wayside. A lot of really good fishermen aspired to own or part-own the boats they ran, and with hands-on control were successful, even to the extent of retiring ashore and operating a thriving business.
The engine room department had a different problem in so far as a successful Chief Engineer (Driver) was not able to continue the heavy physical part too long. This meant down grading to a lighter shore-side job or 'getting out', other crew members who had no calling for such employment soon drifted away, some men extended their working lives until retirement age, although not many aspired to such a somewhat dubious position.
FISHY TALES or Dandy Funk
Cooks to the galley!, one mentionable unmentionable I do recollect, though not over fondly, was 'dandy-funk'. It was supposed to be a kind duff, (steamed pudding type cake) served with everything and anything, the rather elderly cook in this case, reputed to have sailed as a deck hand during the first world war, Denis - needless to say known as the menace.
A kindly old Victorian alcoholic who was put on board sailing morning, straight to his bunk, and did not usually appear for at least twenty four hours, when the shakes took over for a week (with the help of a secreted bottle or two).
Until sailing for home when our illustrious chef de cuisine would start planning his pub crawl during the next all too brief couple of days period ashore.
His culinary skills during the first couple of days were difficult to relate in comparison to the last few days of the voyage, boiled whole haddock - well, at least minus the head - for breakfast, mid-day and evening meal `There's allus plenty o' bread n' butter, corn flakes and tea, if I remembers to make it, for them wot grumble`.
As the voyage progressed the standard of cooking improved each meal, finishing up with table d' hot. Cookie was not entirely averse to accepting a gratuity from those that enjoyed the better end of his cooking spectrum, a modest bung (backhander) of say a couple of pounds on pay day would always ensure an extra slice of this or helping of that. Not really happy days for such characters, but like it or not they did exist.
Another fishy worthy, a resident of Bowling Green Street, Leith, Paddy Kirwan, originating from the ould Irish port of Cork, but working the Aberdeen, Granton and Shields circuit was indeed worthy of the highly acclaimed culinary accolade, 'Cordon Bleu', as he kept telling us at every opportunity.
He was totally convinced that after been trained as a breakfast cook, ’well dats wot me sistificate says, by the Edinburgh Caledonian Hotel chef who went by the name of Gordon Blew, (aalways called im ’Sor’, therefore oim untitled ter class me'sel as a chenuine 'CB' trained chef`
Paddy was fine, when broke, sober, hangover free and in the right mood, to produce a reasonable repast, sometimes when pushed for time after forgetting to put the (washed, in salt water, - just) jacket potatoes on the stove, subsequently served as hard as they were raw. He would nonchalantly say, `dem tatters runs ter nothin' if dem is overdone !`, whilst gathering up the vast majority of uneaten tubors, and adding, `och well they will do fine fried up for tea ar’long wid dem fry'd addock`.
No matter what remarks any of the crew audibly made about the cook during the meal, such as, and said with a notable non-irish accent - `be jabers he aint much good at the Angel sponge but bi hivvans he's a right bugger on dis Tunder & Lightnin cake` - a delicacy Paddy had learned from his Gordon Blew days.
A simple form of sponge, of lead like consistency, with an ample serving of hot syrup and topped with mashed potatoes made with evaporated milk, (ach well did I not have any fresh cream handy), an besides Angel cake does not cook very well on a stove that keeps going out - just because I forgot to put a wee bit more coal on.
Culinary stories do tend to attract attention, mostly from some of the heroic efforts under diabolical conditions, though from time to time the occasional out of the ordinary comes to notice, such as a last minute replacement for the poor fellow who fell and broke his leg whilst boarding his trawler somewhat the worse for wear after an extended refreshment binge prior to sailing.
The newly acquired cook, collared by a weary and harassed 'ships husband' in the nearest pub, was rapidly hurried on board with almost indecent haste at the same time as reporting to the Skipper, full crew now Skip - I'll let your ropes go....................Less than twenty fours hours into a new voyage it came time for a full cooked meal, when the Mate tells the Skipper, the new cook says he has nothing to cook with, food, pots or pans, plates, the lot, which prompted the hardy skipper to respond, well let them (the crew) go hungry.
Not many hours later our vessel arrives back at home port to discover that our hasty replacement had literally thrown overboard every item of galley catering equipment, all food stores and anything pertaining to providing refreshments for the crew.
The Skipper having sent a radio message to the Owners, had this character duly arrested on arrival and whisked away to become a guest of HM local Nick. The said trawler delayed for another day to re-store, find and re-engage a proper 'Cook'.
Our neer'do'well shyster, recently engaged trawler cook, duly pled guilty as charged - delaying a merchant vessel on a lawful voyage, asked if he had anything to say in mitigation, stated, `yes yer honor sir. When the gentleman (ships husband) asked if I was a 'COOK', I thought he said, 'Crook', so there you have it me Lud`.
Bench murmers and mutterings, 'society and industry simply can not allow such disruptive behaviour, oh well, usual fine of ten shillings or seven days, and a definite order not to allow such an incident to happen again: `Sir, as ah hivint ony money or onywhere to stay the seven days wull tide me over, fine...............Sir,!!!
Fish Supper please...................you don’t know the half of it.
Quite recently I read of much work being carried out to preserve various aspects of marine historical heritage, may I be permitted to add my humble experience from hatch to dispatch, in a manner of speaking? My status or position at the time having been an ordinary bottom of the ladder Merchant Navy boss man, or better known within the industry as a Ship Master, sometimes referred to on board ship as the `old man’. (Sometimes – out of hearing – much more uncomplimentary names) or, in Official and formal circles, as the Captain.
I had somewhat hastily been appointed as Master to one my Company’s elderly vessels which was presently loading a bulk cargo of agricultural phosphates (fertiliser) at the Belgium port of Antwerp, to be conveyed and delivered to Leith in Scotland.
The change of command had been brought about due to the unforeseen hospitalisation of the incumbent Captain who had been afflicted with the common problem of stress!!!. Me, being the relatively newcomer, young, capable and very keen for advancement, it did not take long to sign off my present charge as Chief Officer on a larger modern vessel, discharging cargo at Bristol, and as it turned out, much more comfortable in all departments.
Having smartly gathered my belongings, travel documents and the all important expenses form, hurried to the waiting taxi all organised by the ships agent, then off to my own first command, a sense of urgency had been expressed by the Company Marine Superintendent, normally such a transfer to being promoted as Master would have involved being summonsed to Head Office and having an interview with the Ship Owner.
Under the circumstances I was quite happy to have been offered and accepted the job, the ensuing overland/flight journey to Belgium was completed without fuss or delay. As having previously docked many times in the huge port complex of Antwerpen, which is spread over many square miles, I knew my way about reasonably well, the local shipping agent who had met me at the Airport soon whisked me through the labyrinth of quays and duly arrived alongside the somewhat elderly steam ship Cantick.
Without too many rust streaks showing, the Chief Steward Stan was discretely standing at the top of the gangway, curious to see his new boss, arrange my luggage and show me to my cabin, a comfortable ye olde world highly polished Mahogany panelled Office/Day Room-Lounge complete with a brass bound sideboard quite empty of contents, fitted table, settee and two good sized armchairs, small sleeping cabin off with bath/w.c.
The steam radiators created a pleasant warm atmosphere. Already waiting on board in my cabin were the local British Vice Consul with a Customs Officer, previously organised by our agent who indicated Head Office had requested the ship must sail as soon as I had taken over.
The examination of paperwork and signing on the ship as Master was completed within a couple of minutes, these officials being more interested to receive Captains hospitality, although the wine locker being bereft of any alcoholic refreshment declined my offer of tea. Taking their leave on the pretext they had other ships to attend, no doubt with better stocked duty free lockers.
The Agents parting words were brief and somewhat alarming, loading has been completed and the crew are battening down the hatches - your River Schelde Pilot will join you at the sea lock,...! but what about a Pilot from here to the sea loch?- Oh it is not compulsory he cheerfully replied, besides the First Mate knows the way.
Shock horror, here was I within a very short while of joining the ship being, rightly, fully expected to take it to sea almost immediately, complete with cargo and all souls who had entrusted me to conduct a safe and successful voyage.
I had previously carried out the sailing bit on numerous occasions from all sorts of ports but without being solely responsible: knock at the door, Chief engineer to present his compliments and indicate everything in his department was just fine although he wished to record a protest about not being allowed to top up his coal bunkers. Yes he agreed, there is enough to get us to Leith ok providing we do not encounter any bad weather. Right Chief I'll leave it up to you, give the second mate a shout for me.
This third part of the deck officers transpired to be a strapping mid-twenties fellow, on the point of going back to Nautical College to sit his Master's exam, he certainly seemed capable, which at least bestowed an element of good back up.
The Chief Officer looks in. Ah Mr Mate, senior to me in age, but as I learned later had declined the offer of promotion to Master - don't want the responsibility. All is ready Sir, engine room on stand-by, all hands are at sailing stations. Right says I, with a stomach full of butterflies, lets get underway: being a steamship of 1920`s vintage I did not have the comparative luxury of an internal stairway to the wheelhouse, so up the external ladder to the bridge. It was very subdued with only a helmsman at the steering wheel waiting to obey any orders given.
Fortunately the flat sided stone quay presented no difficulty in leaving and within a couple of minutes the Mate was up on the Bridge Wing alongside me which was most reassuring, as normally he would have been attending to all sorts of chores on deck. He assuredly said, just make for two high green lights and go straight into the sea lock. There will be several other ships but the lock-keepers will tell you where to stop.
This sea-lock was huge, and by the time they shut the inner gates eight ships of varying sizes were all securely tied up. our Pilot arrived and inadvertently went past me to speak with the Mate, because I was still in civilian clothes. He soon realised his mistake and all was well.
All the ships were now ready to move, external distracting lights doused leaving only navigation lights in view, the outer gates had been opened, and by an unseen pecking order they slipped out into the fast flowing River Schelde.
This seemed to be a mass of moving traffic, ships and barges of every shape and size. The Pilot said he would like to hold back slightly and let some of the faster vessels go ahead. I was more than willing to bow to his superior knowledge, thank you Captain he said. Off you go and have a rest, it will take several hours to reach the Pilot Cutter at the seaward end of the river. So off I went to my cabin and began tucking in to a lovely hot meal, realising I was not only quite hungry but also very tired, so decided to let the Mate, who was on watch, and the Pilot, take us down this busy fast flowing River Schelde.
On reflection I considered my position, having been thrown in at the deep end so to speak, only known to some of the crew by word of mouth, that they had accepted me blindly to ensure their safety and well being.
Although with a projected voyage of some thirty eight hours, they were not too concerned, being very professional with a no nonsense approach, it was obvious that in the event of real danger I would soon know my place.
Such a problem remained only in my mind. A knock at the door by the look-out man; Pilot's compliments Sir, fifteen minutes to the Pilot Cutter, right I'll be up in a jiffy, wrapping a scarf round a heavy bridge coat, made my way up top-sides. By this time the second Mate was on watch and quite content to obey the Pilot's instructions. Just about there Captain, I will disembark on Port side ladder if you please, dead slow ahead, keep her 075, will be obliged if you will sign my Bill, I'm off Captain, good voyage. With these few words the Pilot swiftly departs, down to the Jacobs (rope) ladder, duly attended by a deck-hand and overseen by the second mate.
Observing from the Bridge Wing that the Pilot had disembarked safely with a friendly wave I moved the big brass engine room telegraph to full ahead, the Second Mate having now regained the Bridge was ready to resume his watch, and continue with our voyage. So far so good, not much to worry about - leave Master's Night orders for watch keeping officers, usual things, such as remain vigilant at all times, keep a good look-out and if in any doubt give the `old man` a shout.
With a variation of these instructions, which I had myself undertaken many times, quietly disappeared to the undisturbed solitude of my cabin, confidently, in the knowledge that with any problem I would soon be told.
Duly refreshed and fed I eventually found my way to the nerve centre to take stock of our position. With a familiar coast line visible on our Port side, everything was going so smoothly I mentally kept saying, so where are the problems. After passing many familiar landmarks the Mate arrived to take over the watch. Just over a couple of hours and we shall arrive at our destination, will you be taking a Pilot!, Yes says I, regardless of knowing Leith Docks very well, and being the first time my own responsibility I had better get it right.
Oh well please yourself says Mate, but it is not difficult, I've done it dozens of times, so on past the Bass Rock at the Firth of Forth estuary, the quaint little islands off the holiday resort of North Berwick known as Craigleith, the Lamb and Fidra.
Within the hour an Aldis signal lamp in the vicinity of Inchkeith calls up to enquire if we require a Pilot. Giving an affirmative reply we steer for the north side of the Island, and before long identified the distinctive Pilot Cutter, flying a large flag at the mast head, top half white over bottom half of red. Engines set at slow ahead, until Cutter expertly ranges alongside and our Pilot clambers on board, and escorted to the Bridge, the Mate attends the fo'c'sle head to organise the crew for mooring.
Although they all knew exactly what to do, as with the men at the aft end under the watchful eye of the second mate, Pilot says full ahead Captain and at the same time gives the helmsman a course to steer. I've taken this old ship in and out of the docks many times, which inwardly gave me a further feeling of confidence, another thing Captain, we have had word from the Dock Master to advise you the discharge berth has been allocated, don't anticipate any problems. Just keep the Port anchor ready to let go in case we might need it, now slow ahead if you please, straight through the locks, beyond the swing bridge and right up into the starboard corner.
The old ship glided alongside with minimum of fuss, all stopped - wee touch astern, get the warps out as quick as you can, good all fast, finished with engines:
If you will just sign ma bill ah'll be on my way. Several Customs Officers come on board in response to our `Q` flag indicating we had arrived direct from a foreign country. The Senior customs officer rapidly checked all the necessary paper work and crew declaration as to whether they had any dutiable goods, gathered up the rest of his squad who had been having a quick look through the accommodation, and disappeared to their next ship,
Our local Agent was on hand to indicate the cargo discharge would begin at eight o'clock the following morning, therefore the hatches should be left in place until then. Next on board was the Marine Superintendent, everything go alright, yes I replied, told you so MS says, nothing to worry about. By the way your next trip will be immediately after cargo is out, you will be sailing a few miles up river to Inverkeithing, here is a list of items I want you to get the Mate to arrange to be picked up by lorry.
Then where ?! I asked almost innocently. He looked almost puzzled and continued, where, oh no Captain the old Cantick has been sold for scrap, you just have to deliver her to the breakers yard. Get a receipt from the manager then depart, report to the Office for further instructions about your next ship.
Well I just sat there feeling quite numb in my nice comfortable cabin, no one had mentioned this twist in the tail although I did learn later that the Mate had a rough idea and also thought that was the what put the previous elderly Skipper off sick, and the reason for not taking any bunker coal, so much for my short lived first command.
De-storing the ship did not amount to very much, a few coils of wire rope together with similar such deck and engine room stores, otherwise everything on board went with the ship: With only a few miles to travel for the final voyage in a couple of days most of the crew were paid off, effectively leaving a skeleton crew.
The day came to depart for the scrap yard, almost akin to taking an old dog to be put down by a Vet. Nobody had much to say as we slowly traversed the dock complex, delayed because of some problem with the sea-lock gates, it was almost a last defiant gesture of not wanting to go.
The clang of the engine room telegraph echoing up through the skylight indicated the start of the reassuring clomp of the steam engine pushing the old ship up to full speed out of the dock basin down the long fairway and out into the tranquil Firth of Forth.
It seemed such a pity that all this machinery running so quietly and efficiently would soon be pulled apart by the scrap yard men under their ferocious gas torches which would cut through steel like slicing butter, but in the economics of operating an old steam ship which cost much more to run than a modern diesel engine there was no contest.
The Shetland born and bred Bosun came up to the Bridge and asked if he could steer the ship up to Inverkeithing, barely an hour away, the ship had been his home for many years so with a bit sentimental nostalgia he felt it his place to carry out this final task of being the last helmsman, a job which he would normally consider beneath his station.
Not a lot was said apart from slight change of courses, round the Oxcar lighthouse, with a nice flood tide helping us ploughing our way up past Inchcolm, with its ancient monastery, the mighty Forth Railway Bridge now well in sight, quite a magnificent spectacle to behold, but it was not to be for us to dip under the north span as the entrance to our destination harbour opened out very soon.
Nice and wide with no hazard in turning in towards the quayside, slow ahead now, just take her gently alongside, the run crew did not even bother putting fenders over the side, after all the years avoiding the least bump or scrape, stop engine, slight touch astern to check the forward motion, ropes out and secured, a final signal on the engine room telegraph, Finished With Engines, In every sense of the phrase, a faint tinkle of reply indicating the engineers fully understood and would swiftly begin the task of releasing any surplus steam from the boilers:
Although I had not bothered to write a deck log for this final voyage my trained mind automatically made me turn to check the time of completion, I had to do a rapid double take when looking for the wheelhouse clock, a somewhat large eight day brass timepiece, almost perfect time keeper, NO CLOCK, only the neat round outline of bright varnish standing out against the duller mahogany panelling.
I was convinced in my own mind it had been there when we sailed, equally when I ventured to find any of the deck crew they had vanished in a mini-bus en route to the station, win some, lose some, a quick cheerio to the Chief engineer and his helpers then off to find the Ship-breakers Manager.
Comfortably installed in a good sized structure, we would now refer to as a port-a-cabin, come in and make yourself at home, cup of tea etc. I could not help remarking with, by jove you do alright here in the midst of all this scrap metal, and why not he says he, it is dreary enough to demolish all these fine ships, we usually find some perks, as long as they never leave the yard.
This Office come rest room came off the old German s.s. Homeric, was originally the Pursers suite, lifted off in one piece back in the thirties for a prospective buyer - the sale fell through and it just evolved into the managers office to prevent anything being pilfered.
Upon which sentiment reminded me of the missing wheelhouse clock. Do you have much bother with such happenings then? Good heavens yes says Manager, all the time, usually small items. We have good security but they go just the same, apart from some very valuable artefact, such as a ships bell or a builders name plate. We are only interested in cutting up the metal as quickly as possible and selling on to the smelters.
Oh there are the regular buyers, usually on behalf of a commissioned piece, typical being a Teak Binnacle, Steering Wheel, Copper Navigation Lamps are always in great demand, together with many bits and pieces. Sometimes personal curiosities, you name it we can find it.
Still I must not bore you with our mundane problems, you will be looking for a receipt for the Cantick, not a great catch in our book, but it keeps the lads in work. We benefit as much from the coal recovered from the bunkers - which we use to drive our yard steam cranes - (I mentally thought, not in this case), as from the actual steel:
Don't you want to check and inspect what I am asking for a signature? No way says manager, between you and me anything we are not going to get will have long since disappeared, officially or otherwise, so I'm quite happy to receive delivery of the s.s. Cantick such as seen and approved. all neatly typed on my piece of paper which allowed me to depart to waiting yard courtesy car for a short trip to the rail station, and home.
A small rider ought, nay, must, be added to this story in the sense that I duly telephoned the Office to confirm my task completed, about which they already well knew. Also I enquire, to whom should I personally deliver up the all important receipt for Cantick. Oh not to worry, first time you are in the office give it to the filing clerk, it will only be put with the others, by the way the Marine Superintendent would like a word with you about another ship.
The saga of a new ship is totally irrelevant to this tale but a small after event did occur which has no answer. Some time later, after having been here there and everywhere on behalf of the owners, I duly returned home to enjoy some well earned leave, was pleasantly surprised to find a parcel awaiting my attention.
Clearly addressed but with no indication of sender, beautifully wrapped and carefully packed, the further I stripped the tightly bound layers of thick brown paper, canvas and red velvet cloth. The more curious I became, finally made it apparent that the contents were to be of a round shaped object, quite heavy but without rattle.
Ultimate packing, as it proved to be a tight wound Red Duster, a Merchant Navy Red Ensign, not new but by no means tatty, the excitement of unravelling that final covering revealed a shiny brass ships clock, complete with key stuck to the back, and a small hand written, unsigned, note; ‘we thought you ought to have this memento Sir, as you treated the old Cantick with great respect, may you have as many happy times as we did with the old ship’.
At the time writing, many years after the old ship had been broken up and re-cycled into who knows what, that clock, suitably mounted on a heavy teak plinth, adorns a place on my lounge wall. Wound regularly every week, as it had been all these years, and keeps good time, not perhaps the most wildly exciting event in a sea-going career spanning several decades, but a constant reminder of my first charge in command, and happy times.
Walter at home in Isle of Wight cutting net
Walter at home in Isle of Wight cutting net