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Blue Bar

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar

Continued from Part One: Starting Out


We arrived in Glasgow at about eight AM on Monday, March 16. Another taxi to the dockside, where for me, there was more awe
Orient Steam Navigation's SS Orion before the war

Orient Line's RMS Orion Before the War
and wonderment. The taxi took us right into the shed adjacent to the ship. As I alighted from the taxi, I looked through the large doors of the shed. The doors were the large, sliding type, about ten foot high, and when fully open, about twenty feet across. All I could see through the doors was a wall of grey painted steel plating. Each plate was quite distinct, and seemed to be covered with masses of rivets. Where plates overlapped, the rivets were up to four deep around the edges. The "wall" of plates was also dotted with port holes. Right in the centre of the "grey wall", was a large steel door in the side of the ship. Leading into this doorway from the wharf, was the gangway. Standing there, looking at the ship, it is difficult to describe my feelings. I knew that merchant ships were painted grey during the war, because we had seen many of them passing the school as they sailed up the Bristol Channel to Avonmouth. To see this massive ship's side up close, with all the rivets, portholes, and the gangway was truly impressive. The grey paint added another, more sinister dimension.

I was not allowed to stand and gape for too long. The others had by now alighted from the taxis, sorted out their bags and cases, and were making their way to the gangway. I had to keep up with them. It's just as well that I did. I made my way up the gangway, and into a space that was soon to become known to me as a "Foyer". This particular foyer was on "F" Deck, and whilst not as decorative as the foyers on the upper decks, was still quite spacious. In better times, foyers were the reception areas for the paying passengers as they came aboard for their overseas trips or cruises. These days, instead of the light-hearted laughter and chatter of passengers, the foyers would resound to the tramp of army boots as the troops came aboard. At this stage of the war, although most of the troops were accommodated in "Troop Decks" which were the large open spaces left after many cabins had been torn out, Orion still had quite a lot of it's third class and first class passenger cabins intact. These were allocated to Officers and Sergeants, several to a cabin.

The importance of the reception area was reflected in the lighting, panelling, and the large, central staircase that went up to other decks and other foyers. Alleyways leading to the passenger accommodation went in both forward and aft directions from each side of the foyer. I was soon to discover that each deck had two foyers, one at the forward end, and one at the after end of the central accommodation block. The foyer reached right across the ship to the other side, where there was another, similar door but that one was closed, and concealed from view by a pair of decorative glass doors. The first thing I noticed as I stepped aboard was the sense of "atmosphere" which consisted of both a smell, (not unpleasant,) and a sense of "activity" which can best be described as a gentle "humming" sound. Between the two of these qualities, I had the sense of "being aboard".

This sense of "being on board" was a feeling that occurred to me several times as the months and years went by. From the smallest coaster, to the ordinary cargo boat, to larger ships like the Orion, each was an entity within itself. Each ship is capable of producing its own power and heating. It has accommodation, and it has galleys where food is prepared for its crewmembers (and in this case, it's "passengers"). It becomes a self contained community. Once it leaves port it requires no other assistance to completely sustain itself and its crew and passengers, sometimes for weeks on end. No matter how small or large, once you joined a ship, it became your home. In my mind at least, each ship in which I sailed acquired an "atmosphere". Some ships had communal accommodation called "the fo'c's'le", others had more personal accommodation of three to a cabin. Here I should say that all seamen's accommodation, whether it was at the forward end of the ship, and actually under the fo'c's'le head, or whether it was at the after end of the ship, was known generically as "The Fo'c's'le". Some ships served good food, others served awful food. All these qualities, together with the general personal relations which existed between crew members, and crewmembers and officers, went into this perceived "character" that each crewmember had of the ship.

Once on board, the maze of alleyways was baffling even to the more experienced sailors. I kept up with the crowd, after climbing several companionways, we eventually emerged at the crew's quarters right up in the bow the of the ship (and under fo'c's'le head). Whilst the AB's were directed to four separate fo'c's'les, I was directed to the Deck Boys fo'c's'le. This was next door to the Seamen's Mess room, and close to the galley.

The Deck Boy's fo'c's'le had six bunks, a table, two benches, a cupboard on the forward bulkhead, and two portholes. In amongst this lot, there was a locker for each occupant in which he could stow his personal belongings. There were signs of other occupants, but one presumed they were out working at this time. All the bottom bunks were gone, so I picked one of the vacant top bunks. I later learned that I was sharing the accommodation with Doug Lawrence, John Sissons, Frank Latham, and two others whose names elude me.

My first job was to get out of my training school sailors clothes. Whilst in the Sailors Home in London, I had taken a look at the overalls supplied by the school. Now was the moment of truth as I donned them for the first time. My worst fears were realised, they were huge! I felt, and probably looked, ridiculous. I had no sooner put them on and turned up the bottoms of the legs and cuffs several times, than someone came along and told us that "All the Deck Boys were to report to the Bosun's Mess right away". As I said, I had not done anything in the way of Seamanship at the training school, and the word Bosun sounded very archaic to me. I remember wondering whether using this word was to be one of those "Industrial Tricks" that older members of the work force played on the young and unwary! I was not left wondering for long. The urgency of our presence at the Bosun's Mess was further emphasised with a few choice adjectives and adverbs added to the original order.

I followed the leader, down a couple of companionways, and all the Deck Boys were assembled in the Bosun's Mess. I tried to look as worldly as the rest, but at five feet three inches, this is not very easy. The Bosun, a rather red faced man called Jim Salter, eyed us up. (I'm not sure whether it was disdain or despair.) He told us who he was, and that when he gave an order, he expected it to be obeyed immediately. I was suitably impressed, as I am sure, were the others. He asked which one of us was Sollors, I owned up to this, wondering what I had let myself in for. He produced a bugle, and gave it to me saying that he wanted it returned at the end of the voyage in it's present condition. Not being quite sure how to address him, I muttered something like "Yes Bosun" which, much to my relief, was accepted as the correct form of address.

He wasn't finished with me yet. "Being the Bugler, you are required to be "on call" to the bridge. Your work place will be on "A" Deck. When we get to sea, you will report to the Deck Man up there, and he will tell you what your daily duties will be." I have long since forgotten the name of the Deck Man, but he was a quiet man, and treated me well. "However," the Bosun continued, "Whilst we are in port, you will be required along with three other boys to do a Bridge Watch of four hours on, and twelve hours off". I had no idea exactly what this meant, but I just replied, again as confidently as possible, "Yes Bosun". Actually, the Bridge Watch turned out to be an extremely good job, giving us plenty of time off in the various ports that we visited - but that was all to be far into the future.

My next recollection of that day was the instruction, "All Hands to the saloon to sign on." Again, I followed the crowd into the still magnificently adorned dining saloon. At one of the large tables sat a group of men in suits, and one or two in uniform. I was told in a whispered aside that "That's the "Old Man", and that's the Staff Commander". This (Signing On) was to be the ritual whereby all seamen when joining a new ship, "sign articles". This is basically a legally binding agreement between the seaman and the Company, whereby the seaman agrees to work as required by law for the amount of money shown, and according to his rank. The Company agrees to provide certain amounts of food and a certain standard of accommodation. All this is drawn up in a document generally referred to as "The Articles".

Most of a seaman's life on board is governed by the regulations contained within "The Articles", a copy of which, has to be displayed in "a prominent place" on all ships. My experience of "prominently displayed" usually meant somewhere near the crew's messroom, but the Articles I remember seeing had usually been there since the ship was built, and had either turned brown with age, or faded with continued exposure to the light. The writing on them was also so small, that after the opening sentences, the rest was almost impossible to read. As it was written in "legal language", it was also difficult to understand. Despite this, almost every ship had it's "fo'c's'le lawyers" who made it their job to know the contents of the Articles, especially as they applied to our immediate working conditions and weekly food allowance.

Standing in the signing on queue, I gradually made my way to the table, and "signed on" for the first time. It was at this stage that I was informed that I would be 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 being a Bugle Boy! Making a grand total of 8-10-0 per month. Any overtime worked would be paid for at the rate of one shilling an hour in port, and nine pence an hour at sea. I just could not believe how rich I was going to be, and could hardly contain myself!

All the other crewmembers had their Discharge Books to hand in at the table in which certain details were entered. The Discharge Book was then handed back to the crewmember to send home for safe keeping. Before the war, and in the early stages of the war, these books were retained by the captain, and returned to the crewman when he paid off at the end of the voyage with all the details of the voyage completed in them. This then became a complete record of a Seaman's work history. However, so many men, ships, and books had been lost due to enemy action that the books were made the responsibility of each person. From then on, at the end of the voyage, each crewmember was handed a discharge form with all the details of the voyage including his Conduct and Ability ratings. These were normally signed "Very Good" in both instances, unless the crewman had been incompetent or of bad conduct. This form, was then taken to any Shipping Federation Office together with one's Discharge Book where the Shipping Superintendent would fill in the voyage details as reported by the Captain, and give it the official stamp of that particular office. In this manner, Merchant Seamen were able to keep at least their Discharge Books safe from the ravages of war. This being my first trip, I didn't have a Discharge Book so my stay at the table was quite brief.

Hardly was the ink dry on the "Articles" when the cry went around "Subs. up". Even I was not green enough to think that we had run into a "wolf pack" of German submarines whilst in the dock at Glasgow, but I still didn't know what it meant - but not for long! In shipboard terms, it is the diminutive of Subsistence Allowance, which for crew members meant an advance on wages. Again, this was a continuation of pre war practices, where a seaman, on signing on would request an advance on wages to tide his family over until the Company paid the Allotments - usually in about a week's time. I was truly overawed! Here they were, giving me more money, and I had hardly started work yet! We were told to report to the Third Class Pursers Office somewhere down aft. Another long walk down endless alleyways, up and down companionways, until we came to the after foyer on either "B" or "C" Deck in which the somewhat ornate office with its bank like grilles was situated. At the counter, I was told that Deck Boys were limited to ten shillings. Limited! Ten shillings was a fortune to me at that time. I took the money and ran before anyone had the chance to change their mind.

Strangely enough, I remember very little of going ashore in Glasgow other than the tram rides into town costing two pence!

My First Trip to Sea is continued in Part Three: LEARNING THE ROPES