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MY FIRST TRIP TO SEA, Part One
by Gordon Sollors

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STARTING OUT


Gordon at 15
Gordon, age 15

On Monday, the 16th of March 1942, I signed on the Orient line ship S.S. Orion, - called by some in those days, H.M.T. Orion -- H.M.T. meaning His Majestys Transport. I signed on as a Deck Boy (Bugler). I was paid 4-0-0 a month for being a Deck Boy, plus 4-0-0 per month War Risk money, and 10/- per month for playing the bugle. Making a total of 8-10-0 per month. Despite the war, the Orient Steam Navigation Company wanted a bugler for their ship, R.M.S. (Royal Mail Steamer) "Orion" which was a large passenger ship of some 23,000 tons, and was being used by the Ministry of War Transport to ferry troops to the various theatres of war, as were all British passenger ships in those days.

My journey really started in Portishead, Somerset, U.K. where I was in a sea training school. Friday, the 13th of March, was like any other cold and blustery March day in England. The Commander of the sea school told me that the Orient Line wanted a bugle boy for one of their ships. Did I still want to go to sea? Did I ever! Just try me! I was fourteen years and seven months old, and not the least bit superstitious, - well, not to the outside world any how! Despite the baleful portent of the date, and the nature of the job I was going to, I was over the moon at the prospect of finally "growing up". I would be able to wear long trousers, I would be able to smoke, (not legally, but in practice.) I would have my own money to spend, I would be able to go to the pictures if I wished, even buy myself a penknife and a Ronson lighter! All this without even the faintest idea of how much money I was going to earn. Like millions of other kids throughout the ages that have been, or are just about to be launched into an unsuspecting world, I was invincible!

On Saturday the fourteenth of March, after being fare welled by friends and various members of staff, I left school, and went to work! I was wearing the sailor's fore and aft uniform of the school. I had been kitted out with some overalls, and some 'civvie' clothes - which I intended to get into at the first opportunity! As I walked up the driveway to catch the 7AM bus from the school to the station, I could hear for the last time, the strains of "reveille" sounding throughout the school. By the time "Last Post" sounded that night, I would be well on my journey.

Map Southern UK
At the station, I tendered the document I had been given at the school, in exchange for a single ticket to Paddington, via Bristol. I had made my first "adult" transaction! I was feeling more mature already!

The time was 7.30 AM or so on Saturday, March 14, 1942. I climbed into an empty carriage. (Being an 'end of line' station, the train was waiting at the station to start it's journey.) From memory, the journey to Bristol took about three quarters of an hour. I sat waiting for the train to start. The door opened, and to my dismay, an elderly man got in. I had been hoping to have the carriage to myself. Not knowing what to say, (or, indeed if I should say anything at all,) I sat looking out of the window. The train finally, and with a little shudder, started on it's way to Bristol.

Being the only people in the carriage, it was almost inevitable that we should at least pass the time of day. It wasn't long before he asked me where I was going. The information that I was that very day, embarking on a career at sea as a Deck Boy in the Merchant Navy, brought forth the response

"It's a bloody 'ard life son."

It was the final comment of our brief conversation. I really didn't know how to respond to such a cryptic, and to me, such a deflating statement, so I said nothing. He didn't say it with any bitterness, but his comment was enough to dampen much of the enthusiasm I had felt until then about what lay ahead for me. Years of training required me not to answer back, nor to express the disappointment I felt in the face of his prophecy. After all I told myself, what did he know of life at sea today? He was an old man, and if he had been to sea, he probably sailed in windjammers. Things were much different these days weren't they? I was pleased when he left the train at Pill.

As it turned out my early experiences at sea though not all plain sailing, were not all bad. Fortunately for me, despite the fact that there was a war on, all of my unhappy experiences were brought about by the bullying of those types of older crew members who seemed to take a perverse pleasure at making life difficult for their juniors, rather than by enemy action. Life at sea can be hard, but so can life in general.

The train steamed on, parallel now to the muddy banks of the River Avon.
Brunel's Clifton Bridge

Bristol's Clifton Suspension Bridge is one of the most famous designs of British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). This photo is from the Clifton Suspension Bridge Website.
As we entered the picturesque Avon Gorge, the cliffs towered over the carriages, and Brunel's historic, and impressive suspension bridge appeared overhead, silhouetted against the early morning sunlight.

Only a few months before, I and another one hundred and fifty boys, had packed ourselves into the back of several covered lorries, and had crossed the bridge on our way to the Bristol Zoo. We had been excited at the prospect of a day of comparative freedom to roam at will amongst the other visitors to the Zoo. To see Alfie the ape, and Rosie the elephant. In those days life was relatively simple. For us boys, it was also confined and structured by one's immediate circumstances, not to mention the war which also placed endless restrictions upon the populace in general. Everything we did, if within the precincts of the school, was done to a rigid time table. On occasions such as this, (visit to the zoo), most of our movements were pre packaged, but with a degree of relaxation which allowed us to visit which ever part of the zoo we wanted to. Even so, the day at the zoo had been a special day, one to be enjoyed and relished.

Now, as the train slowly made its way along the Gorge, and under the bridge, I sat thinking of all the constraints which had governed my every move prior to today, making mental notes of how I imagined my new life would be now that I was free of those constraints. First thing in Bristol, I would buy myself a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches. It was probably at this juncture that I made a further mental note that eventually, I would buy myself a penknife, and a cigarette lighter, - one of those flashy Ronson lighters I had seen film stars using in the pictures. I had no idea of how much such a cigarette lighter might cost - nor even of how much money I would be earning as a Deck Boy - such mundane considerations were the least of my worries at that particular moment. I further resolved that I would go to the pictures, stay up late, even have a large ice cream or a cream cake in a cafe! I was thinking like a fourteen year old who really had very little, or no idea of how he was going to convert from a very sheltered and structured school routine to a life where he was about to assume responsibility for his own actions and general welfare. At that moment, the sky was the limit; reality was yet to come!

Brunel's Temple Meads Station

Temple Meads Station is another of Brunel's masterpieces.
This photo is from Bristol Business News Online Website.
With the train still traversing the banks of the Avon, I found myself marvelling at the small amount of water left at low tide, and wondering whether or not ships were ever left stranded on the mud as a result of a breakdown or other mishap. If they did get caught on the mud, did they sit upright? Or did they fall over on one side? Idle thoughts were almost a luxury, such was the state of my mind that morning. The idle thoughts did not stay for long. The train steamed into Bristol Temple Meads Station and I alighted. I remember little of my stay at Temple Meads, whether or not I actually bought the much dreamed of packet of cigarettes, nor even of my journey from Bristol to London.

I arrived at Paddington Station, London, at about ten or eleven AM, where I was met by a certain Captain Mooney of the Orient Line. I had never been to London before, and even arriving there was exciting to me. We went straight down to the Underground, and he bought tickets for us to Aldgate East. The underground itself was a vivid experience. As we passed through several stations, I could see bunk beds erected along the walls. I remembered the "blitz" we had heard so much about, and realised that sleeping in the tube stations had become a way of life for thousands of Londoners due to the continual bombing. The windows of the train coaches were covered with some mesh type material which I presume was to stop broken glass from flying everywhere should the glass be broken as the result of a blast from a bomb. There were horizontal diamonds cut into the mesh at strategic spots, so that passengers could read the names of stations as we passed through.

At Aldgate East, we walked down Leman St, into Dock Street, and into the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool where Captain Mooney spoke to the man behind the counter. I was immediately given some ration coupons, - "Give them in at the desk in the Sailor's Home opposite," I was told. I was given two day's pay, - and I hadn't done a stroke of work yet! I was given a voucher for one night's accommodation plus meals at the Sailor's Home opposite, and a Railway voucher for my ticket to Glasgow the next evening. Mr. Mooney then took me over the road to the Sailor's home. He introduced me to a clerk behind the reception counter, and left me with a cheery "Best of luck, Gordon", a handshake, and he was gone! I was finally, 'My Own Man!' Or was I?

Here came my first embarrassing moment! No sooner had I booked into the Sailors Home in Dock Street, than the Chaplain collared me and asked if I would be going to Holy Communion in the morning? I was too overwhelmed to tell him my true feelings, and said "Yes of course Chaplain!" trying as hard as I could to make it sound like "Doesn't everyone?" As you might have guessed, until that very moment, Communion (other than with a packet of fags, my lunch, and the cinema - probably in that order), had been absolutely the last thing on my mind. After booking in, I went straight to my "room" - a tiny box like compartment right on the top floor with just enough room for a bed, a chest of drawers, and (fortunately for me as I later discovered, a mirror!)

I knew that if I was going to have to go to Communion in the morning, (it didn't occur to me not to go, having said that I would!) I would have to dress properly, and to do that, I would have to practice tying my tie, - this was one knot (among many) they had not taught me at the sea school! To my horror, when I took out the shirts they had given me, I discovered they were truly early 20th century vintage, with separate collars, (2 per shirt), with studs for the back and front, and double cuffs, that would require cuff links! I don't think the school's bounty had extended to such sartorial luxuries as cuff links. As it turned out, cufflinks were to be the least of my worries. I knew that items of clothing such as shirts with separate collars existed, but it all looked too academic for me! I thought that I would have to get back from the pictures early, (I was determined to go), work it all out with the shirts, collars and studs, and have a "practice run" before I went to bed. Little did I know!

I returned to my "room" at about nine-thirty, (pictures were continuous in those days, and having sat through a rather boring film twice to "get my monies worth", I left). I struggled with those studs and collars until well after midnight. I had by this time discovered little tabs on the front of the collar which had to be fixed to the stud under the tie. By one AM I still had not tied the tie successfully, and my fingers were sore trying to get the stud through the little tabs. I went to sleep exhausted.

My determined - but unsuccessful - efforts had their reward. I didn't wake up until eight thirty AM. I had no watch, but some built in second sense (probably guilt!) told me that this was much too late for Communion - and almost for breakfast! I had my breakfast, and walked up the road (needless to say, sans collar and tie!) to Middlesex Street, better known as "Petticoat Lane". This was where I encountered "Market Forces" at work for the first time! My lasting impression of Petticoat Lane was the cheery (and optimistic) disposition of the vendors there. One such vendor, carrying a rather heavy looking tripod, on the top of which was a rather large camera constructed of polished wood and brass - the sort that, in those days, carried a small tin of liquid strapped to one of the legs in which the operator would give your picture a final wash - approached me with the request, "'Ave yer foter taken Guvner, - ass if yer not too prahd" Well, I wasn't "too prahd" by any means. In reality, and despite the fact that I didn't know how much he would charge, I just didn't have the cash to spare, and a photograph was not one of my priorities! In fact, looking back, I wish now that I had acceded to his request! The photographs produced by this method were usually on a piece of tin, I would give anything now for a picture of me at that time. I think I must have been afraid to ask "How much?" and I was afraid of entering into something that I was not sure of. Certainly embarrassed, and almost apologetically, I refused.

I spent the rest of the morning walking round the area, marvelling at life in the city, and looking at some of the bombsites. Some of them had been boarded up to keep people out of them, on others, huge balks of timber were wedged up to the sides of buildings which seemed in danger of falling down. At lunchtime, I made my way back to the Sailor's Home for my midday meal. I remember a person in there was playing the piano in a most professional manner. I wondered whether or not he was a seaman. Although the menu was fairly limited, I remember enjoying the experience of choosing what I wanted instead of having to eat what was put on my plate. The same went for the evening meal.

That night, I and some other prospective crew members for the SS Orion left the Sailor's Home in Dock Street London in taxis for Euston Station. We were to travel overnight to Glasgow, (that section of the railways was still called the "L.M.S." - London Midland and Scottish - line in those days.) Having arrived early at Euston for the train, we all had seats in the same carriage. We travelled in complete darkness so it was not possible to know where abouts we were. Not that it mattered much, most of us slept for some of the journey.

During the journey, I was introduced to a glimpse of the wages and "pecking order" amongst the Deck Department in the fo'c's'le on board Merchant Ships. It all started when one of the crew members said that as a "Sailor", he hoped to be getting an increase in pay this trip. Strange, I thought "we" were all sailors weren't we? Not so!

It also transpired that a pay increase had recently been given to Britain's Merchant Seamen, and it was just bout to come into effect. It may be appropriate at this point to record what the rates of pay for seamen were at that time. Starting with the lowly Deck Boy, after the latest increases, he would receive 4-0-0 per month, with 4-0-0 per month "War Risk Money", giving a total of 8-0-0 per month. Rates of overtime were 1/- per hour in port, and 9d per hour at sea. In my case, I was to be paid an extra 10/- per month for being the Bugle Boy, giving me the grand total of 8-10-0 per month. This (4-0-0 per week) was to be the new rate. I was told later that the old rate had been 3-17-6 per week. As I listened to the conversation, I (who - as a second class boy in the school ) - was used to being paid 4d per week!) thought to myself "unheard of wealth", I could hardly contain myself! I would be able to buy all those things I had only hitherto dreamed of!

After one year on articles - this does not include time in-between ships, a Deck Boy could then apply to the Superintendent at a Shipping Federation Office, or if he was already a crew member of a particular ship, he could ask the Captain (usually through the bo'sun and Chief Officer) if he would sign him on next trip as an Ordinary Seaman. If he was successful, he would then be paid 7-10-0 per month, with 10-0-0 per month War Risk Money. Rates of overtime were unchanged. After one year as an Ordinary Seaman, he could then apply through the same channels for the rating of Senior Ordinary Seaman. This would give him a wage of 10-0-0 per month, plus 10-0-0 per month War Risk Money. After a further six months, he could then apply for the rating of Sailor. At that time, the rank of Sailor was a sort of "staging post" between Senior Ordinary Seaman, and the top rank of AB (Able Seaman) . It is my understanding that the new rates of pay would give existing Sailors the same rates of pay as an AB. An AB was paid 14-0-0 per month with 10-0-0 per month War Risk Money. His overtime rate was 2/6 per hour. I'm not sure whether that was at sea, or in port, but I would imagine the latter. In the future any new aspirants to the rank of Sailor would have to qualify by sitting for an EDH (Efficient Deck Hand) ticket, and would be known as, and sign on as, an EDH.

The Shipping Federation conducted the EDH courses in most major ports. From memory, (I acquired my own EDH ticket in August 1945.) the applicant attended classes in basic seamanship for about two weeks. This was not so much to teach him these basic skills, it was more to make sure that over his preceding time at sea, he had reached an adequate level of competence in them. At this stage in his career, among other things, the applicant was expected to know about knots and splices, and which knots were used under which circumstances. He was expected know about hatch work, and how to safely raise and lower cargo derricks. Especially, he was expected to know how to launch lifeboats from a variety of davits, and how they should be "swung out" and secured as soon as a ship put to sea. He was to be able to competently "box" the compass, and know how to use and read, a lead line for sounding the depth of water. There were many other subjects, in all of which the applicant was expected to be reasonably competent.

At the end of the course, the successful applicants would be given a Certificate of Competence, which would entitle them to sign on as an EDH, and be paid the full rate of an AB. Only when he had completed three full years on articles, could a seaman apply to the Superintendent at any Shipping Office to have his book stamped with the coveted rank of Able Seaman (AB). This meant that including time in between ships when one was not on articles, the total time could often be up to three years and six months - as it was in my own case. I felt quite mature as a result of being allowed to "sit in" on this conversation.




My First Trip to Sea is continued in Part Two: LIFE ON BOARD


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Gordon's pages are maintained by Maureen Venzi and are part of The Allied Merchant Navy of World War Two website.