To Sea

A Memory of Bristol

The Seagoing Years.
I must have left the Army sometime in August or September of 1949, and went back to C.J.King & son, tug owners, to carry on with my job as deck boy. This was not to my liking, as I was now twenty, and scrubbing floors for 3 quid a week all hours of the day and night was beneath my dignity, even though I was only getting 26 Shillings in the Army, but that was all found, sort of. I thought I should move on and go deep sea (foreign going ships). This meant applying to the Shipping Federation at Bristol, where I was told that the only jobs on offer were for firemen and trimmers, and as I did not have any experience, I would be sent to Liverpool to learn how to shovel coal into a boiler furnace. So with a railway warrant in my pocket, I set off for Liverpool and fame and fortune. I and a couple of other lads were sent to the Liverpool Sailors Home, an old jail building not far from the docks, but we each had a cell to ourselves. This cost us eight shilling’s per week out of our dole money of ten shillings, so there was not much night life to be had, but enough for a ride on the overhead docks railway to see the sights. Monday morning saw us at the fireman’s training school, in the charge of an old time Scouse stoker who taught us about boilers, feed pumps, steam valves, and last but not least how to handle a shovel, rake, and slice, (poker). Now, as shovelling black pebbles into a cold boiler front, with a red light inside, in no way prepared us for the reality of a real boiler room, it did at least show us how to work efficiently, and saved a lot of sweat and tears later on.
At the end of the training period I was off back to Bristol and Prince Street Shipping Office to get a job, where I was told they had nothing on the books, and to report to the Avonmouth Office. At Avonmouth I was told to standby with my gear on the Elders and Fyffes ship RMS Bayano. She had a full crew but if someone did not turn up by sailing time I would take their place. So I stood waiting on deck as the ship left the Quay and entered the Locks, then an engineer came up to me and told me to stow my gear, one fireman had not turned up, and go below as I was on watch right away. This was the start of a miserable month of coal dust, heat, sea sickness, and exhaustion, before I learned the tricks of this particular trade.
It was traditional for the first firemen to get down on watch to pick the best jobs. As I only got below as the ship was sailing, and wearing my bottle green suit, I had to take what was left, second trimmer, barrowing coal from the main bunker, to the sixteen fires in the forward boiler room, an almost iimpossible job, trimming coal to sixteen fires, with the ship rolling bung up. I would fill the wheelbarrow with coal, be sick into it, then the ship would roll and tip the coal out again, add to this the twelve to four watch, and I was all set for a cracking cruise. This went on for about three days, with very little help from anyone. What was happening was, instead of five firemen, stoking five fires each, and three trimmers trimming to twenty four fires, the old hands had split the watch into six firemen, stoking four fires each, one trimmer feeding eight fires and one trimmer, (Joe Soap) feeding sixteen fires, they were working the head on me, and I made a promise never to get caught again.
After two weeks of this we tied up in Kingston, Jamaica to put the passengers ashore, one of whom was a film star called Ann Todd, I expect she had a better trip than I did. After a day in Kingston, we sailed on to Bowden to load bananas, then to Port Antonio, to finish loading. Then the long voyage back to Avonmouth, where I was paid off with one white five pound note and three days off for Sundays at sea, but I was no longer a first tripper.
At the federation I was given an oil burner. The Bristol City, wartime built Canadian Fort Boat owned by Charles Hill & Son, Bristol. The job, fireman /water tender no less, a real doddle, just cleaning a couple of burners and controlling the water feed checks on two boilers, a best suit job. I do not remember much about this trip, confusing it in my mind with another later voyage. I think it was to Montreal in Canada, the usual run at this time for grain then aluminium ingots from Port Alfred on the Saguaney terminal, Quebec. Back at Avonmouth again, I was told sorry, you are back on the Banjo (Shovel) again RMS Cavina Elders & Fyfes, Jamaica.
I joined the ship a couple of days before sailing, and this time I was not going to get caught. As soon as the watches were called, (I was on the eight to twelve) I changed and went below to the after boiler room and stood next to the set of fires I wanted, ready to grab the shovel from the fireman on duty, thus securing my place for the whole voyage. (Once bitten twice shy). This was the four fires on the port side double end boiler; the Steam Boss (The unofficial Forman) had the starboard side four, next to the steam pressure gauge.
The whole watch consisted of five firemen and three trimmers, three firemen and two trimmers for the sixteen fires in the forward boiler room, me and the Steam Boss and one trimmer, after end. Of the four boilers, three were used on the outward voyage to supply the twin triple expansion main engines, and four, (the extra one called the tin pot) on the homeward trip to service the fridge engines. So that meant we had four fires to look after outward, five on the homeward run. Each watch would leave one fire to burn down so that the watch coming on duty could clean it.
This was the first job, rake out the old cinders, clean the ash pit, and break up any large clinker (old men), remaining with the jumbo slice (an eighty pound steel bar), a two man job, one to lift it on to the 'dead plate' (Furnace front) the other to smash it into the 'old man'. Then to tip a bucket of salt water on to the hot ashes, creating a lot of dust and steam, and fill canvas bags with the ashes. These were then hauled up to the 'fiddly' (boiler tops) and emptied into a shoot to be flushed over the shipside. The eight to twelve was the best watch, because of the 'black pan'. After the passengers had finished their dinner, what was left over was put in a bucket, (the black pan), and lowered down to the firemen, on a rope by the stewards, who needed to keep us sweet, to prevent a deputation marching into their spotless galley in their coal boots with a complaint about the food. I shall always remember seeing the Steam Boss, (a big South African whose name was Christ, which was also his opinion of himself) tapping the glass of the steam gauge with an enormous ham bone, and shouting down the pass between the boilers, “RIGHT YOU LOT, ON THE PITCH”, (shovel more coal on).
Then alongside in Kingston came the worst job, punching tubes. This entailed banking up the fires, then rigging up staging, before opening the smoke box doors so that we could push wire brushes through the fire tubes to clean them of soot. Even though the fires had died down it was still very hot dirty work, but we did get a free tot of rum after it. We were still getting our Board of Trade ration of lime juice to prevent scurvy. It was on this voyage that I spent my twenty first birthday around the town bars, a little the worse for wear on rum and coke, and for the rest of my life never touched spirits again.
Back at Avonmouth after a couple of days leave, I and a couple of lads from the Cavina, were offered another Charles Hill ship the S.S Boston City, an old tub built in the companies yard at Hotwells, about 1928, I think, and creaking a bit at the seams. Bound for Hoboken on the south side of the river Hudson in New York, loaded with cars, and china clay for Philadelphia I think. With only six fires in two boilers and two men to a watch, it was quite a change from Fyffes, so when we got back we all signed on again for another voyage. This was very nearly our last. After about a week out, we ran into a real Atlantic autumn gale right on the nose force ten. It was a fascinating sight to stand on the after deck and watch the breaking crest of the next forty or sixty foot wave above the foremast crosstrees, the sixteen foot propeller coming clear of the water, as the stern rose, the racing engine rattling the engine room. Forward progress was very slow, with the log line (distance indicator) hanging straight down over the stern, and very exasperating, for the helmsman trying to keep the ships head to the seas and ones feet on deck in the teeth of the gale.
Then one night the rudder broke loose. On the Boston City the steering engine was housed amidships, with rods and chains along the deck to the quadrant over the rudder aft, and it was one of the connecting shackles that had failed. By the time the Skipper had come down off the bridge, raced back aft with some of the crew, to connect up the hand steering gear, the ship was rolling like a barrel, broadside on to the seas, (she must have been a lucky ship, after all she came through the war in one piece.) Had the ship capsized, she would have gone down with all hands, no one would have stood a chance, but the crew managed to get the old girl back on course and with the shackle replaced, we survived to fight another day. Then a couple of days later the chippy, tapping a rust patch on the hull, put the hammer right through the ships bottom. With the aid of a plug and cement box he managed to repair the leak until we went into a floating dock in New York and had a new plate fitted. On the Hudson River, they used to transfer railway box cars from Manhattan over to the Jersey side of the river on flat barges fitted with rail lines on deck, and pushed by a tugboat lashed alongside, these were steam tugs that had no condenser, (getting their boiler water straight from the river), and puffed the exhaust steam out of the funnel. This is the only time that I have seen a true Puffer. Then down to Philadelphia and on to Newport News in Virginia, to load Tobacco, and off home to Bristol. I paid off the Boston City in December 1950 after the second voyage, as this had been her penultimate voyage and she would be away over Christmas before being sold.
In the January of 1951, I reported back to the shipping pool, in Bristol and was given a weekly boat, so called because they sailed in the home trade from Bristol one weekend and Glasgow the following week calling at Belfast on the way. The S.S. Findhorn was one of five small 1000 ton ships belonging to William Sloan & Co, of Glasgow, and much sought after by family men, but they were natural draft coal burners, and very warm, which made them less appealing.
It was while in Glasgow one weekend, that an old mate from Banana boat days came on board to see me, Fred Scott, and suggested we sail together on Fyffes again, so it was two more trips to Jamaica, on my first ship again the Bayano, and that was my last coal burning voyage. The Donaldson Line next, oil burners, we did four trips together on the S.S. Delilian to Montreal, then back to Fyffes Line, S.S. Manistee down to West Africa. Next three voyages with Charles Hill's S.S. Bristol City. It was while on leave after the third of these, visiting friends in Putford, Devon, with an old school friend Ronnie Low who had been billeted there during the war, that we learned of the Lynmouth flood disaster. Because of the weather we over stayed our time in Devon, and were sacked when we got back. But not long out of work, we were sent to Donaldson's S.S. Salacia, for three voyages then back to Hills S.S. Montreal City, from 13th December 1952 until October 3rd 1954, (I was now a Donkey man Greaser, oiling the main engine) a series of eleven voyage's, mostly up the St Laurence river to Montreal and Quebec. It was on one of these, late in the year, north of Newfoundland in the Bell Isle Straits, (I saw my first northern lights) that we ran into fog (the Labrador current) with a strong smell of Ice, and was told by the sailors that we were surrounded by 'growlers' (small icebergs). So the skipper stopped engines for the night and just let the ship drift until daylight. The temperature on deck was minus 22 F. By this time I had had enough of the North Atlantic and was looking for a change, but all the pool could offer was a couple of run jobs (coasting). The first was one of Holder brother's motor ships, a noisy old tub the M.V. Condesa, Avonmouth to Liverpool, two days’ pay. Next, one of the last steam Oil Tankers the Esso Saranac, on a voyage from Avonmouth, around to North Shields on the Tyne, via Thames Haven oil refinery. There we were to unload our cargo of spirit. I came off watch at four o'clock one morning, and having a cup of tea, there was an enormous explosion somewhere in the refinery. As I came out on deck I could see a great fire raging some way down the wharf. I learned later that a naphtha tank had blown up and severed the pipe to a large petrol storage tank. I thought to myself well, if these great tanks all along the key start popping and I am standing on four thousand tons of the stuff I have nowhere to go. Thinking of the poor tanker men in the war, I watched it for half an hour, then as no one on the ship seemed to be bothered, I went down to my bunk and turned in. One more trip to Canada, the SS Cortona, then down to West Africa, on the M.V. Reventazon, as frig greaser. This was to the British Cameroon's and the town of Tico. In the fifties this place was pretty basic, no roads, just a narrow gauge railway, (to bring the Bananas down to the wharf), thatched huts, and dugout canoes. One trip, when we loaded Bananas from barges out in the bay, the local stevedores would only venture out on to the water if the company paid their witch doctor to accompany them with the JuJu. Up in the village, with the lads, I had to much native beer and slept out in the jungle all night, and awoke to find an old lady sat by me with a hurricane lamp. Without a word she led me back to the ship. (I think that says a quite a lot for the African people.) I was able to barter some old clothes for a small monkey, Jenny. I later felt this was quite wrong to take a wild animal away from its environment just for a pet, the chief steward charged me two guineas for her passage. (She later went to the zoo to join all her mates).
My elder brother, John, was married to Dorothy Dewey at Bristol registory office on the 6th of August 1954 and moved into a flat in Clifton, Bristol. They later moved to a house in Cotham, where their only son, Martyn was born on the 17th of February 1958.
Next, another coasting run in February 1955, the motor vessel British Ardour for B.P. I think this was my first Doxford oil engine that I was to become more acquainted with on a later voyage. It was to the Clyde, first to an oil depot at Bowling, where I found a bus route to Balloch on Loch Lomand, not far from the ship. So I persuaded Ronnie, who was with me on this trip, to come with me to see this lovely loch, the largest freshwater lake in Scotland. We arrived at Ballock and asked the local boat owner if we could go out on the water. The canny Scot, told us the all the boats were tied up for the winter, but he could take us out in an eighty seater for ten shillings. The money changed hands, and we had a great cruise among the islands. We finished the run back again in North Shields, and caught the train home from Newcastle. My last voyage to Canada was on the S.S. Lakonia, March 1955. I think this was my only turbine ship, with water tube boilers. After scotch marine boilers they were very scary, 500 psi, the steam gauge going up and down like a yo-yo. We paid off at Avonmouth on the 17 of April 1955. After ten days holiday in Devon, Ron and I were sent to the M.V. Port Brisbane lying in Jefferies dry dock at Avonmouth. In the same dry dock, ahead of us was the P.S Bristol Queen, on which my father was working at the time. The Port Brisbane, a refrigerated fairly new flagship of the Port Line Ltd running to Australia and New Zealand.
She was driven by twin six cylinder opposed piston Doxford oil engines, with four Ruston six cylinder Diesel generators to supply power for the fridge engines. The job of greaser was very easy with not much to do; the down side was cleaning the fuel oil centrifuges, hot dirty work. The ship left dry dock at Avonmouth for Tilbury on the Thames to load stores on the 27 of April 1955. After a trip up town to the Windmill Theatre, and getting lost on the underground, the ship sailed a few days later for Melbourne Australia. With pretty good weather through the Mediterranean we reached Port Said on Sunday 15th of May, and travelled through the canal in convoy with six other ships. All the way down the Red Sea the engine room temperature stood at 125 degrees Ft. We stopped at Aden for bunkers, and then ran into a bit of a gale in the Indian Ocean, and arrived in Melbourne about a week later, then moved to Geelong across the bay, and left for Sydney, the day after, where we arrived on the 17 of June. Here we continued changing the port engine piston rings, begun in Melbourne. The top yoke of the cylinder was lifted off by the overhead crane with the skirt and piston attached, then one of us was lowered into the cylinder on a Boson's chair to scrape, and grind off the carbon in the combustion chamber, then the lower piston would be pulled up to have its rings changed. This was again hard dirty work as the cylinders were only 24 inches in diameter. The piston was then placed on a stand, and the rings taken off, the grooves cleaned out, and new ones fitted. Then the bottom piston was treated in the same way. On our day off we walked across Sydney Bridge, and visited Taronga Park Zoo, that more than made up for it. Leaving Sydney, it was off up the Whitsunday Passage to Townsville for more part cargo, before sailing for New Zealand. In a Townsville real estate office I saw an advert for the sale of an Island off shore, with fine beaches and woods, the price £500Aus. We docked in Wellington, New Zealand for a short time, where they still had trams, plus one could wander along empty beaches and pick up Mother-of-pearl sea shells. Next stop Bluff, at the southern end of South Island, to finish loading our cargo of frozen lamb carcases. It was in Bluff that Ron and I went to a Maori Meeting Hut where we were treated to an evening of native songs and friendly talk, then off across the Pacific to Panama and the Canal, and make our way through the huge locks, with the help of the electric tugs. After a brief stop at the island of Curacao for bunkers we then crossed the Atlantic to Antwerp, and finished the voyage, back in Victoria Docks, London. I did not know it at the time but this was my last deep sea trip.
I paid off on the third of September 1955, with about £150 and 16 days leave in which to spend it. This was quite a bit of money in 1955, but in the ways of young seamen it did not last long. There followed a period of unemployment. I then managed to find several different jobs, including driving a dumper truck on building work at Dursley, Gloustershire. Then back in Bristol I found a job on the service bay with Bristol Motor Company, at Ashton Gate. In the winter of 1955/56, Father was employed as night watchman for Campbells on one of their ships, laid up for the winter in merchants dock, Hotwells. One night, on going on board in the unlit dockyard, he must have missed the gangway and stepped over the key wall, knocking himself out on the ship side, and went straight into the water and drowned, even though he was a good swimmer. My younger brother, David was working as an engineering fitter in the yard of P&A Campbell Ltd, owners of the White Funnel fleet of paddle steamers in Hotwells at this time, and he told me that they were looking for a third engineer for their flag ship, Bristol Queen. At the company offices I saw the marine superintendent, and after satisfying him that I knew my way around an engine room, I was told to join the ship the following week. I signed on Articles, on the 26th of May 1956.
As the ships only ran in the summer, we were all discharged again on the 13th of September, but the officers were kept on doing maintenance through the winter. This was ideal; I had my own cabin for a change and a uniform to go with my boiler suit. The engine room staff consisted of the Chief, Second, and Third Engineers, three Firemen and a Night Watchman-Engine Cleaner. My job was to fill all the grease cups on the main engine whenever I had the chance, check the boiler room during the run and stand by to help the Second. It was quite exciting to be back on a ship again. I had known this company's ships all my life, and my father, as well as my younger brother had worked for them, but I did not think I would because the company did not belong to the shipping federation, so I left the federation.
The skipper was Jack George, well known in the Bristol Channel, but the first person I met on deck was the first officer Neville Cotman and we became good friends. The season was fairly uneventful, but not very prosperous, so the company sold their Bristol premises and moved to Cardiff. The ship was laid up in Penarth Dock, for the winter, and I had been promoted to Second Engineer. Most of the annual maintenance was done by the shore people, but the general refit of the engine room was our job. The winter layup started with a boiler blow down, (opening a sea cock and letting the remaining steam in the boiler blow the boiler dry) then opening it up for an inspection, and to allow the de-scalers to start work. This was my first time inside a steam boiler, but not the last as we shall see later. The ship was then winched into a floating dock and lifted out of the water, for bottom cleaning and painting. Then began work on the engine. First a chain block was rigged inside the paddle box, and hitched to a float so that the engine could be turned, and the cylinder covers removed for inspection of the piston rings, and expand the patent rings to take up the seasons wear. The difficult one was the low pressure cylinder cover that weighed over a ton, five foot six in diameter, and with only about two feet between it and the engine room bulkhead. When it was swung back on its chain blocks there was just enough room for me to squeeze inside to measure the rings, and tap up the expander wedges. There were certain difficulties when working on a diagonal triple expansion steam engine, we had to attach chain blocks to the cross head to stop it from sliding back towards the cylinder when the bottom end cap was removed, and the bearing brasses inspected for wear of the white metal surfaces. This went on all through the winter, and there is nothing worse than a cold dead ship, so it was great to flash up the boilers and get steam up again for the Easter week runs. The company was now trying to attract more passengers and had started something they called show boat cruises, as today’s modern cruise liners do, with pop bands and minor celebrities. On one of these was a young girl singer from Cardiff, just starting her career, and I spoke to her briefly when she came down to see engine room with her minders, but only learned later that her name was Shirley Bassey. We also had the Malay Police Pipe band, as well as other entertainers. My youngest brother, Dennis, was married to Eunice Cranch on the 10th of June 1957, and moved into a flat at The Paragon, Clifton. Later in the same year, my other brother David married Heather Gordon at Sea Mills, Bristol, on August 31st 1957. They had decided to honeymoon at Ilfracombe on the Bristol Channel coast, and came aboard the Bristol Queen for the trip down channel. Unfortunately the weather turned against them and we ran into a stiff gale on the way, and most of the passengers became seasick. The Captain abandoned the voyage at Barry, South Wales, put the passengers ashore and David and Heather went on to Ilfracombe by coach. I have no Certificate of Discharge for 1957 as the articles were for two years, I only have the 1956, and 1958 ones. It was during this season that my job was to handle the engine controls on the starting platform. The first thing in the morning was to warm the engine through and to get sufficient vacuum in the condenser. On the run in the river, when the movements were half ahead slow ahead, the problem was the steam operated ram, which changed over the eccentrics from ahead to astern, and was difficult to hold in the stop position, with the throttle closed because of the live steam in the cylinder. One other problem early in the season was leaking boiler tubes. The B.Q. carried very little fresh water and any leak, whether tubes or piston glands was a worry, so one of my jobs on my rest day, when the steam was allowed to drop back, was to remove the firebox faceplate, put some sacking down inside the furnace, and crawl into the combustion chamber and tighten the nut on a leaking fire tube with a tube expander. The Chief stood by whilst I was Inside the boiler to guard the entrance. If anyone had mistakenly replaced the furnace front that allowed air through when I was inside, I would have been nicely cooked. Trying to get a spanner on the nut in the dim light of an inspection lamp, with the steam hissing from the leaking tube, in the heat and soot, was a bit nerve racking and I was always glad to get out again. This was a working day for the Second Engineer on board P&A Campbell’s paddle steamer, BRISTOL QUEEN. Built in 1945/46, at Bristol by Chas Hill & Sons Ltd at Albion Dockyard, Hotwells, Bristol, gross registered Tons 961, length 258.5 feet, breadth 31.2 feet, depth 10.5 feet. Engines were Diagonal Triple Expansion by Rankin and Blackmore Ltd of Greenock, Scotland. High pressure cylinder, diameter 27 inches, intermediate cylinder, 42 inches, low pressure cylinder 66 inches, and the stroke, of 66 inches. Steam was provided at 180 psi by one Scotch Marine, oil fired, double ended boiler with three fires at each end. Shaft horse power was 2,700 giving a speed of approximately 18 knots. We have spent the night alongside at Cumberland Basin, Hotwells, and have orders for Ilfracombe, with a cruise to Lundy Island. Time 5.30 the steward wakes me with a cup of tea and I get up and dress, finish my tea and get into my boiler suit. Then to the engine room to start the diesel generator, connect up the lights, put on oil gloves, and pick up the wheel key.
The Chief Engineer arrives on the starting platform, and the duty fireman enters the airlock to the boiler room to raise steam. I go below to open all auxiliary drains, then back up top and along the port alleyway to climb onto the boiler top to crack open the auxiliary stop valve to start steam to pumps, generator, anchor winch, after capstan, steering engine, and siren. Then back below to start the circulating pump for the condenser and adjust the backpressure for the feed water heater, on the phone to the fireman to check if the oil feed pump and heater are on and circulating. Start the forced air fan to the boiler room, so that the fireman can flash up his fires and start raising steam pressure. Then down below again to set the steam generator going and start the air pump, boiler feed pump, fresh and salt-water pumps. Then along to the boiler top again to crack open the main stop valve then check the main engine drains are open, and steam on the reversing gear, change over all switches on the switch board from diesel to steam generation and close down the diesel generator, check the steam, vacuum, and back pressure gauges.
Up on deck through the after saloon to look at the weather, and walk back to the steering flat aft to open the drains on the steering engine, turn on the steam and give it a turn over to check operation, then back to the fiddly and open both stop valves fully. Then through the airlock and down the ladder to the boiler room to check that everything is working properly and have a chat with the fireman, blow the water gauges to get the correct level and open the boiler feed check valves. Back on the starting platform pick up a hammer, then along the alleyway and open the wheel doors to have a look at the wheel floats (paddles) and nuts and give the ones above water a tap with the hammer.
Then main engine controls, pull back the reversing lever slowly to operate the steam ram, which changes the eccentrics from Ahead to Astern, and gently open the throttle until the engine moves then change to ahead and continue this until the engine has warmed through and there is 25 inches of vacuum, in the condenser, we are then all set to go.
A paddle steamer cannot manoeuvre like a screw ship; she has to be moving before the rudder will act. A common misconception is that both paddle wheels are independent, this is not so, (except on some tugs) they are on the same shaft. So lines are run across the tidal basin, ready for the winches to pull the ship into position to enter the lock. The engine room telegraph clangs backward and forwards then comes to rest on standby, then slow astern, the reversing lever is pulled right back, the throttle opened a couple of notches, the engine starts to move and the ship, held by the back spring, (the mooring line from the stern to the Quay forward of amidships) begins to move the bow away from the quay, then dead slow ahead and we enter the lock and the gates close behind us, lines put ashore and when we are moored the level in the lock starts to drop. Then the forward lock gates open, lines cast off, slow ahead and we move out into the river Avon and travel downstream to the floating pontoon to pick up our passengers for the day. I then take the opportunity to go back to my room for a quick wash and shave and change into uniform. The time is 9.am. With the passengers aboard, the gangways pulled in, the lines are cast off, the telegraph rings half speed ahead and we are off down the river, next stop Clevedon, Somerset.
I standby at the controls and the Chief and Third engineer go into the dining saloon for breakfast, we slow down passing Pill because of the ferry then half speed again, passing Avonmouth Dock entrance, the cylinder drains are closed, past the south pier the telegraph rings full ahead and we are out into the Bristol Channel. As we pass Portishead, the Chief and Third Engineer take over and I go in to breakfast. Black Nore points abeam, the Newcome port hand buoy on the starboard bow. I come back into the engine room and the Chief Tom Price picks up his newspaper for a quiet read, and I go below for a check around. One of the pumps has a bit of a knock, but it will have to wait until we get to Ilfracombe. Passing Portishead signal station, Clevedon Pier in view, open main engine drains, then telegraph rings half speed ahead, close throttle almost right down because of the live steam in the engine, then in succession, slow ahead, stop, full astern, stop, and we are alongside Clevedon Pier. Lines ashore, gangway out and we exchange passengers. Telegraph rings again, full ahead, throttle open full, drains closed and we are off across the Langford Grounds to Weston Super Mare. We pass Middle Hope headland, Sand Point, and across Sand Bay toward Knightstone pier which has a difficult approach because of the tide round the island. Quite a lot of Bristol people, as well as Welsh people from Cardiff like to get to Weston by steamer so we have a good few to put ashore and more to take on for Ilfracombe. Then it’s full astern back out into the channel again, then stop, full ahead, wheel hard over to starboard and we set course between Flat Holm and Steep Holm Islands to fetch Barry on the South Wales coast. Penarth has been left off the itinerary this trip as we are going all the way to Lundy Island. Flat Holm lighthouse abeam and Barry breakwaters in view dead ahead, slow ahead, as we travel between the two breakwaters and glide up to the railway pontoon, then full astern, stop, and we are alongside. There is a long queue up the pontoon and we need two gangways to get them all aboard. A quick word with the company agent to phone Ilfacombe so that we can pick up water when we arrive, then gangways in, lines cast off, three blasts on the siren, full astern straight out through the breakwater, then full ahead, and we are off to Lynmouth on the north Devon coast. I go below and change the Weirs pump that's giving trouble, over to the standby pump so that it will cool down and we can have a look at it when we get to Lundy Island, then grab some spanners and go up on deck and walk back to the steering flat to tighten the glands on the steering engine that are blowing steam a bit, and as it is a nice sunny day it might overheat the compartment and effect the hydraulic gear.
The layout of the amidships section consists of the port and starboard sponsons that stand out from the side of the ship to house the paddle wheels. Officers bathroom and gents toilets, on the port side, ladies toilets and galley starboard side, and two fore and aft alleyways with the engine room and boiler room in between. The engine room is lined both sides with large sliding windows, both to let heat out and let the passengers view the machinery. We are now approaching the Forland Point on the North Devon coast and the Bosun is lowering a set of steps from the after end of the port sponson to let passengers board from the motor launch that will come out from Lynmouth. The engine room telegraph clangs into life, half ahead, slow ahead, stop, full astern, stop, and with the way off the ship we drift, waiting for the launch. It pulls alongside the ladder and the sailors help the passengers aboard, and the ones departing for Lynmouth down into the boat, which then heads back towards the harbour. We wait until the boat is clear then it’s full ahead for Ilfracombe. Now I have time to go into the dining saloon for my midday meal, and a chat with the Skipper, who has also taken the opportunity to come down for his lunch. We are now passing in succession, the Valley of the Rocks, Woody Bay, Haddon's Mouth, Great Hangman, Little Hangman, and Combe Martin. The Captain leaves to go back up to the bridge, and I go back to the engine room to relieve the chief, so that he can go into lunch. I have a word with the fireman going on watch, and check that all is well with the one coming off duty. I then ask the Third Engineer to go below and sort out the tools so that we can get started on the pump as soon as we are moored up. Passed Water Mouth and Rillage Point and approaching Beacon Point at the entrance to Ilfracombe Harbour. Telegraph rings again, half ahead, slow ahead, stop, and after a pause, full astern, stop, another pause as lines are put ashore, and we are alongside the pier at Ilfracombe. Whilst the third screws up the grease cups on the engine, and the Chief tends to the filling up of the water tanks, I open the wheel doors to check the paddle wheels and tap the float nuts once more. Then go below to undo the cylinder cover on the pump. We have already dismantled the valve gear and rigged up chain blocks to lift the piston and pump shaft. Next the pump bottom cover nuts are undone and an eye bolt screwed into the top piston and attached to the chain blocks ready to lift the whole assembly, but as the passengers are aboard and we are ready to leave for Lundy Island, it will have to wait until we are at anchor.
The Telegraph rings again, the Duty Fireman is phoned and told to be ready to flash up extra fires, then steam pressure, vacuum, and feed water heater back pressure are checked, the reversing gear lever is pulled right back and the steam ram changes the eccentric gear to astern ready for departure. Then, dead slow stern and we back out of Ilfracombe in a wide sweep to port. Next, full ahead, wheel to starboard and we are on our way to Lundy. Traveling west past Lee Bay, Bull Point lighthouse, and the Morte Stone, and head for Lundy just visible in the distance. The company keeps a couple of launches at Lundy to ferry passengers to and from the beach as there is no landing stage, only a walkway on wheels pushed out into the deep water by the island's tractor so that people can land with dry feet. I am chatting to one of our regular passengers when the telegraph clangs into action. I lift the locking catch on the regulator and close it almost right down, and the engine slows, then slow ahead, (the Bosun would be standing by ready to let go the anchor) stop, slow astern, and we can hear the faint rattle of the anchor going down, and stop. The half door to the after sponson is opened and the small boarding ladder lowered, the passengers going ashore, queuing in the port alleyway, the launches come alongside, load in relays, and make for the beach until all are ashore. Change into overalls and go below to fix the pump; we have about an hour before the passengers are due to return. The Third takes up weight on the chain blocks and raises both pistons clear; I can then see that the water piston-retaining nut has come loose, which is causing the knock. The nut is tapped up tight, then as the Third lowers the assembly down again I guide the piston into the bore, carefully fitting the rings, then the steam piston likewise, lastly replace the cylinder covers and tighten the nuts then replace the valve gear, adjust the timing, open the drains, then put steam on the pump, change over the suction valves and restart the pump.
Back up on the starting platform, out of the overalls, and the steward brings us a welcome cup of tea. The skipper then gives a blast on the hooter to recall the passengers who are ashore and the motor launches start to ferry them back to the ship. As this is going on I take another look at the wheels, while the third fills the grease cups on the engine and screws them down tight ready for the return run. Then through the airlock into the boiler room for a quick check and chat with the firemen changing watch. All the passengers have now returned, and the telegraph rings standby, next dead slow ahead, as the anchor is being raised, then full ahead and we are off back to Ilfracombe. The tide is on the flood as we cross Bideford Bay, and we shall carry it with us all the way up to Bristol. Back into Ilfracombe and we exchange our passengers for the ones going back up channel, then its full astern, out again, wheel over to starboard this time, then full ahead. As the passengers for Lynmouth have returned by coach, we head straight for Barry and I go into the dining saloon for my tea, as it's about five o'clock in the afternoon. We run through the breakwaters at Barry and tie up at the pontoon, where our passengers make their way up the ramp to catch their trains home from the dock's station. Back out again and turn to starboard and make our way over to Weston, then Clevedon, and finally back up channel to Avonmouth and up the Avon to Hotwells floating pontoon, where the rest of the passengers go ashore to make their way homeward. Then slow ahead up towards Cumberland Basin entrance lock where the ship has to swing around to enter the lock stern first. A bow line is taken down the starboard side and passed ashore, onto the left hand side of the lock and a stern line from the port side thrown over to the keeper on the right hand side of the lock, and with the bow of the ship pointing up river we slowly turn through 90 degrees, next slow astern. Into the lock, gates close, the level rises, gates open astern of us, slow astern again into the basin and the quay we left early that morning. An oil tanker is waiting to fill our bunkers for the next day, lines go ashore, and the telegraph rings for the last time, finish with engines.
The Chief checks the oil and water aboard and I start to close everything down, the fireman shuts down the fires, the oil heater and feed pump and leaves the boiler room. The shore power is connected up, and switchboard changed over, the boiler topped up for the night. The main stop valve is closed, all pumps are stopped and steam generator is closed down. All stop valves on the boiler top are closed and the ship is at last silent again. I say good night to everyone and go down to my room and the bunk I left seventeen hours before, to sleep, ready to do the whole thing again the next day.
Nineteen fifty eight was a difficult year for the company. Ships were being scrapped (Ravenswood 1955, Britannia 1956,) and crews laid off, bad weather and minor accidents, until the ships returned to Penarth in September again for the winter. Just before Easter, again saw us getting steam up for the coming season. This included me getting my first Board Of Trade life boat ticket, rowing around Penarth Dock with a crew of firemen and sailors. We signed on articles on the 23rd of May 1958, and after a season interrupted by gales and rough weather, were signed off at Cardiff on the 18th September 1958, and that was my last seagoing ship, as the company was bankrupt and in the hands of the receiver. I then hired a Morris Oxford for a couple of weeks, and went on holiday to Devon and Cornwall. During my leave period I was given notice that I would no longer be working for P&A Campbell Ltd. Then after my small savings had run out, trying to find work as an engineer, without success, I had to go for the very next job that came up in the newspaper, driver/porter, at Southmead Hospital, Bristol. So after an interview at the hospital I joined the N.H.S. for a couple of months to get some money, little thinking it would last for the next twenty five years.

A memory shared by Arthur Cottrell , on Sep 9th, 2012.

Comments & feedback

Fri Sep 25th 2015, at 8:16 pm

paul.cullinane1 commented:

Thanks for your account Arthur,what a story,I related to loads of it.I live in Liverpool and had a similar experience.I wish I could put it down in words as you have done.
Regards Paul

Wed Sep 30th 2015, at 4:50 am

Arthur Cottrell commented:

Thanks Paul, Tip! Just write the first word. My first was
I was born. Look forward to reading your memories.ARTHUR,

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