Why did we enter the "Merch"? Was it the prospect of meeting others from remote parts of the country with strange sounding names -Auchtermuchty", or possibly as far afield as Liverpool? There was also the seductive charm of far off lands to explore. In this I was more fortunate having lived in Ceylon,Egypt and Gibraltar. Foreign travel was not new. Ships were not new either, having served my time in Portsmouth Dockyard. Soon found a vast difference between H.M.S. Vanguard and ships essentially designed to make money. However signed on with keen anticipation and subjected to the rigours of dock staffing with the occasional H.T. run which soon dispelled any starry eyed dreams. Next away across "Great Waters". It all seemed rather different when laying in the bilges fixing bilge lights or changing the drive bearing on an extraction pump.Soon one adapted to the demands of shipboard life and the responsibilities. There were dangers ashore as anyone who has been in Pananma city at 02:30 will testify.Starting to ramble now but at the end of the day one met Great Men and there are very few occupations which give a more satisfying lifestyle with memories that last a lifetime as this site testifies. We certainly did not do it for the money!
I lived in Plumstead in SE London and from my bedroom window I could view the River Thames at a distance from the entrance of the Royal Docks in North Woolwich way down river to just past Dagenham. So from an early age I was a very keen Ship Spotter. If I saw a vessel down river in which I was interested I could cycle to Woolwich go under the pedestrian tunnel to North Woolwich and be at the locks before the ship arrived to pass through the locks into the docks. Yes I was ship crazy.
While looking through a children’s encyclopaedia I came across a section which showed a double “doored” commercial refrigerator, however, the explanation of how it worked wasn’t really clear. My father said my brother was going up to Foyle’s Bookshop in London so get a book on refrigeration if you’re really interested, which I did. Refrigeration fascinated me and I read the book regularly. I wasn’t at technical school so this was before I’d reached 13 years of age.
Sometime later a picture in a National Newspaper showed a ship’s Refrigeration Engineer on a Royal Mail Line ship the “Alcantara” carrying out some task. That was it! I wanted to be a ship’s Ref Eng.
Luckily one of the main marine refrigeration manufacturers J&E Hall were about 9 miles away in Dartford Kent where I managed to get a five year apprenticeship. My two closest friends were both doing five year apprenticeships with Harland & Wolff in North Woolwich so when we were not talking about girls it was main engines, generators and ancillary equipment.
When I completed my time with Hall’s I had two choices National Service or the Merchant Navy. I chose my dream. I was with P&O from Aug 58 to June 61. I left to get married and also to save my liver (ha ha). National Service finished on 31 Dec 60 and many engineers swallowed the anchor. I had 49 years in refrigeration with the last 18 years lecturing in refrigeration at the College of NW London. Of my two friends one went to Union Castle Line the other to Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. The latter lives just down the same road from me and we often have lamp swinging conversations.
I never stop talking or thinking about the sea and would not have missed it for the world. For some reason earlier I thought of the old batti wallah carrying his tray of bulbs like an ice cream girl alongside the “leckie” (Batti Sahib) doing his rounds.
Carthage, Surat, Perim, Strathmore, Himalaya, Somali.
A post Script to my article above re- National Service.
Under the National Service Act, introduced in 1947, healthy males aged 18 or over were obliged to serve in the armed forces for 18 months. After the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the length of service was raised to two years.
If you were doing an apprenticeship you registered at 18 and had a medical and then deferred NS until you completed your training. When you joined the Merchant Navy you were exempt NS but had to remain in the MN until you were 26 years old.
An apprentice at J&E Hall’s who was a year or so older than myself joined the MN at the end of his time. He sailed from Liverpool around to London and left the MN as he couldn’t cope with the confines of the engine room. A few months later one of the National Newspapers showed a group of soldiers in a passenger aircraft being flown out to fight the terrorists in the Cyprus Crisis (55-64). In the middle of the group was the guy above. I often wonder how he coped with being shut up in an aeroplane.