Leaving School

A Memory of Bristol.

So! Back to 11 Woburn Place, back to school on Hope Chapel Hill back to Hotwells golden mile with its 15 pubs.
The War was still going on but there was only limited bombing and some daylight raids, the city was in a dreadful state of ruined factories and bomb damaged houses and dockyards. While we had been away, our older brother John had joined the 92nd Sea Scout Troop, so I went along with him and joined up as well, later David and Dennis also joined the Scouts. We had a Troop Room in an old Police station next to the Sailors Rest in Hotwells opposite the entrance lock to Cumberland Tidal Basin. The main room had been where the local fire engine had been kept, and there was a small yard with two prisoner cells where we stored our tents and camping equipment. The troop had a 30 foot mahogany open whaler, and two small canoes, that we used in the Floating Harbour. The whaler had a very colourful history, I have no idea how it came to be in the possession of the Sea Scouts, but on the stern sheet board was the name Arendora Star, this was the name of a big Blue Star Liner that had been Torpedoed in 1940 west of Ireland with great loss of life, while carrying Aliens to Canada for internment, and I believe our boat was taken off when larger lifeboats were fitted in Avonmouth before the ship sailed.
Sunday mornings would see us carrying the oars, lines, stretchers, and balers, crutches, and rudder, over to the old entrance lock, (no longer used) where the boat was moored, then with our packed lunches we would row all the way to Hanham Lock. The floating harbour was full of shipping, and the local ship yard was still building Frigates for the Royal Navy. It was about a mile to Prince Street Swing Bridge, then through the Bascule Bridge past the burned out Flour Mills, and gaunt shells of bombed out Factories, to Bristol Bridge, past Georges Brewery where one could smell the hops, I am sure there were a lot of heartfelt thanks that the German bombers had managed to miss that. Then into the Feeder canal to Netham Locks where we waited for the lock keeper to let us out into the river Avon, past Saint Anne's board mills which made paper, the derelict Netham ICI Soda Works, and sweet smelling Butlers Tar factory. Next were Bees's tea gardens and the ferry, at last to Hanham Lock where we had our lunch, then rowed back to Hotwells. One of the canoes, a three metre clinker built two seated rower, I bought from the Scoutmaster. This was my first boat. I and another of the Scouts used to explore all over the dock area in this. Then one day we decided to take Torches, and go into the old Castle Moat just above Bristol Bridge. We passed under the first bridge (the one on the Bristol coat of arms) then into the tunnel proper a little farther on. The passage was too narrow to row, so we used the oars to punt our way in, then as the tunnel became lower pushed the boat along with our hands, until our way was blocked by a weir, and there were steps going up to a door, and we could hear the sound of traffic above us. This I assumed was the Broad Weir on the river Frome.
We also had a camp site at Portbury just outside Bristol, loaned to the scouts by a Farmer Giles, on the hill just outside the village. This was quite handy for us as we could get there by train to Portbury station from Clifton Bridge station, a short walk from our Scout headquarters. There was also a camp site at a place called Tickenham, about eleven or twelve miles away on the Clevedon road that we could use. This was a bit more difficult because of the long hills involved, as the only way to get our camping gear to the site was by Treck cart, (something like the front half of a gun carriage) that we borrowed from another Scout group. Off we would go with two strong lads on the Drawbar handle, with four more pulling ropes attached to the hubs of the wheels, but by the time we had set up the tents, and cooked a meal, it had been a very long day.
It was when I was about twelve that I had to go into Weston hospital to have my Tonsils Removed, I have no idea why this was necessary, if it was, but it was time off school, so that had to be a good idea. The down side was it was Wartime, anaesthetics were in very short supply so I and three other kids had to have Chloroform, it was terrible stuff, and made us sick for days after. I have no date for this event, but had just acquired my first proper Bicycle, with a Sturmy Archer three speed. During the next few months the troop leader and myself, cycled to quite a lot of places around Bristol. I even managed to catapult myself over the handle bars by applying the front brake too hard, knocked myself out, and had to be brought home in an ambulance. I still do not have any memory of that accident, only when I regained consciousness in someone's front room while awaiting the ambulance. I put all my addled thinking down to this incident in my life.
It was during the summer holidays that the Troop Leader, John Roach and I decided we would try a longer trip, so I suggested revisiting Buckland Brewer to see Auntie and Uncle again. We packed up some food and hike tents, and set off on the hundred and twenty mile trip to Devon. After a long and tiring day we arrived at the village and knocked on the cottage door. Auntie opened it, and was very surprised to see the two of us. She did not recognise me at first as I had grown up a bit since she last saw me. We asked her if we could pitch our tents up in the field at the back of the house, she suggested we would be more comfortable in my old bedroom, so we stayed with them for the whole week. It was during this week that I thought of looking up a school friend of mine, who was still billeted at another village not far from Buckland. Off we went through the lanes on our bikes and finally arrived at a cross road and saw Ron Low coming toward us on his bike, he then took us to the village. This was my first introduction to the wonderful people of East Putford, the families that have become my friends and neighbours for the last sixty seven years. (They even gave me a lovely birthday party for my 80th birthday), I was approaching my fourteenth birthday (I don’t think GCSE’s were invented at that time, but would not have interested me in the slightest I was sick of this education business anyway), and would soon have to leave school and find a job to bring some money into the family. I told Mother that I would like to work on the Railway, preferably the Great Western. She took me to the offices of the company and they arranged for a medical. I did not pass the eyesight test, I think. So lowering my aspirations a bit we tried the London Midland & Scottish, but with the same result. So many school leavers wanted a Railway career that the companies could pick and choose. I then lost all interest in work, and Mother found me a job in Gas Ferry Lane called Wickham & Norris Ltd Timber Merchants. It was not very far for me to walk, eight o'clock in the morning till five or seven at night, with an hour for dinner, five and a half days a week for Nineteen shillings that I gave to mother, who then gave me back two shillings and sixpence for pocket money. My first job was to keep the fire going in the incinerator that burnt all the saw dust and chippings from the machines. There were about 27 people working at the firm, of which 13 were teenage boys, the rest older men who were exempt from war service, for some reason. The sawmill proper had been bombed and burnt out in the blitz, so the machines had been replaced and installed in some tin sheds in the yard, in order that the company could carry on with war work. The yard was sandwiched between two shipyards, the Albion Dockyard of Charles Hill and Sons, which were building Corvettes for the Royal Navy, on one side, and The Great Western Dry-dock operated by Jefferies & Sons Ship repairers, on the other. This is the Dry-Dock in which Mr I.K.Brunels Great Britain steam ship was built, the engines for the ship being assembled in the factory that was to become the saw-mill, and Brunel's drawing office the saw-mill's office. Wickhams were busy at this time moulding timber for the American army who were building their camps and barracks ready for the "D" day invasion of France, After I had been with the firm sometime I was offered a job as a trainee machinist in a new shed on a crosscut saw. I tried it for a couple of weeks but soon got bored on my own, so went back to my old job on the Four cutter Plainer. Having learned quite a lot about the timber trade, I left the company to look for better paid work. (I got the sack for larking about really) and found a job in a machine shop at a large garage (Bawns Coronation Road) again doing war work, after about two weeks drilling split pin holes and threading battery bolts I gave that up as well and went back to the timber trade working for Hebor Deny Ltd that had a yard at the top of our street, only a hundred yards from our house.
This was a very pleasant time for me, better wages and a chap called Reg Payne, head sawyer to work with. Reggie’s family had at one time owned Payne’s ship yard on the Bedminster side of the New Cut, opposite Underfall dock yard. I was to work on one of the Tugboats built there, later on. It was our job first thing in the morning, to start the gas engine that drove all the machinery in the mill, and it was a monster. There were two big flywheels about eight feet in diameter, and a belt wheel, that had to be barred around first to get the piston in position, (Top dead centre), for the firing stroke. Reg would charge the cylinder with gas and air by means of a pump, then fire the charge and hope that it was powerful enough to carry on to the next stroke, if not then we would have to start all over again.
Father at this time was working for a friend of his called Tom Roberts, who owned a couple of tugboats at Avonmouth docks. I had been aboard a deep sea tug in Charles Hills Ship yard that was going to Arromanches in France, to clear up the wrecks at Mulberry harbour, and asked for a job as Deck Boy, (The Gofer). I was told that there was a vacancy, but on a trip like this they needed someone with more experience, so was advised to apply at the head office of the tug owners C. J. King & Sons at the Grove in Bristol. At head office the arrangements were made to get an experienced boy from one of the tugs in Avonmouth to go to France, and I then take his place, and join the steam tug West Winch, on Monday morning. Monday morning came and I went with father over to Cumberland Basin, and we caught the 99 Bus to Avonmouth, together. Father was working on a tug called the Eastleigh so he took me along the dock to where the West Winch was moored, and as I climbed down the ladder he called to the Mate on deck and asked him to show me the ropes as it were. It was a strange feeling to be standing on the steel deck of my first ship, and very exciting, but as the Mate who was not much older than I was, told me what my duties were, the euphoria abated a little bit. First, three stoves to light with sticks scrounged from the quay. One in the forward cabin for the Captain and Chief Engineer, then the Galley cooker and oven, thirdly the crew cabin back aft. This entailed lowering a coal bin down to the boiler room on a handybilly (a small block and tackle) then filling it from the bunker, and topping up the bins beside each stove, scrubbing out both cabins, on hands and knees with a bucket and scrubbing brush. It was also my job to see to all the paraffin lamps, clean the glasses with newspaper, trim the wicks, and fill them with oil from the Mates stores. Then get Brasso and rags to polish the brass in the wheel house, all this only when we were tied up in the dock and the rest of the crew were having a lie down, exhausted poor things. Here was I thinking I was going to stand about on deck watching the world go by with my hands in my pockets. When going out on a job, I had to let go all the mooring lines, and stand by the mate on the after deck, ready to pick up the tow line, or sort out the mooring ropes. With tide work there were no fixed hours, if we were needed we had to stay on-board, but if no ships were due to arrive or sail, we could catch the bus home for a couple of hours, to get some more stores, as food was not supplied and we had to cook our own. The Skipper, Captain George Havens, would walk up the dock to the towing office, or the agent would come down to the ship, and give us our orders, either to assist a ship leaving the dock, or lock out and bring one in. Our first job was a tanker to the oil dock. We would let go moorings and steam into the lock with the other ships that were sailing that tide, then out into King Road and drop anchor off Portishead. We had been told at the pier head that the tanker had passed Walton Bay signal station, so we did not have long to wait. It was getting dusk and the Mate was hoisting the steaming lights (Red, Green, and Masthead the towing light left on the deck ready for hoisting ) as the skipper called to him to raise the anchor as the ship was in sight, one of the company's other tugs the Bristolian was taking bow line and we were stern tug. As the Tanker came abeam, the Bristolian moved out to pick up her tow rope, at the bow, and we came up astern to take our line.
With a big ship like this approaching the lock at the top of the tide it, was normal to swing her through a complete turn, line her up with the lock then pull her alongside the north pier, we would be getting dragged along now stern first, with a bridle rope, holding the tow line down tight, to stop the tug from capsizing if the tanker used her main engines. With whistles and hoots on the ships siren from the Pilot, we would move the ship into the lock, and tuck ourselves in beside her, the outer lock gates would close, and we would rise up to the level of the main dock. Then inner gates would open and the whole procession move out and swing the ship again through ninety degrees and line her up with the Western arm of the dock, move her to her berth alongside the oil terminal, and stand by until she was safely moored. Then long after midnight back to our berth by the Junction Bridge and tie up for the rest of the night.
The West Winch was a steam tug like most of the company's ships, with a two cylinder upright compound engine and a two fired coal burning boiler, so this meant going to one of the Welsh ports on the other side of the channel for Bunkers now and again. Usually this would be Newport where we would lock in to Alexandria Dock and go under one of the coal tips, take off the bunker hatch covers, and when ready, the tip men would hoist up a loaded railway truck, and tip it down a chute into the bunker. The hatch covers would be replaced and all hands would wash down the Tug to get rid of the coal dust, and then wait for the next tide to return to Avonmouth. After I had been with the West Winch for some time she had to go into dry dock for refit, so I was transferred to another of the company's tugs, the John Payne. This ship was, I think, one of the last ships to be built at the aforementioned, Payne's Ship Yard. This was quite a happy ship for me and I got on well with all the crew, although I cannot now remember all their names except one. Walter Mills, a Porto Rican fireman who also lived in Hotwells, and was a good friend, well-liked by all the crew. Walter was, sadly, lost some years later when the tug on which he was then engineer, was run down, under the bows of a larger vessel. It is a comment on the dangers of the Bristol Channel that this tug, I believe, was never found.
One of our jobs was to escort ships up the Severn to Sharpness Docks, this meant getting the first lock out at Avonmouth, in order to catch the first of the flood up stream. This first lock out was pretty crowded, with the motor barges taking oil and petrol all the way to Stourport in the west Midlands, and tugs with grain barges to the flour mills at Tewksbury. There was only one bridge across the Severn, in the forties, the Railway Bridge at Sharpness. This bridge was later wrecked one foggy night by two of these same oil barges that missed the dock entrance in the fog, crashed into one of the bridge piers and blew up. The wrecked bridge was then abandoned and dismantled. We would follow the ship up the Severn as far as Berkley Pill pick up her bow line and turn the ship through one hundred and eighty degrees to face the tide, then drop her slowly astern until level with north pier, and finally pull her into the tidal basin. The Tug would then steam back to Avonmouth on the ebb. In 1946/47 the Royal Navy was quickly scrapping the old escort ships from the Atlantic convoys to save money, one of the places they were being sent was a scrap yard at Hale in St Ives bay. We were told that a deep sea tug had a Corvette in tow from Ireland, and as the entrance to Hale had a sand bar, the John Payne was to be sent to St Ives as stern tug. We loaded stores at Avonmouth, locked out and set off down channel. As no one wanted the job, I was made cook for the voyage. Very few small coasting vessels had electric lighting at that time, and our ship had no radio, radar, or direction finding equipment aboard, except the compass. Another old company Skipper had been seconded to be Pilot. The weather was fine, it being June, and we had a good trip down to St Ives (I saw my first Porpoise) and tied up alongside the outer pier, and were the star attraction for a few days. There we awaited the arrival of the tow. The two Stokers tried to barter a bag of coal for fish from the local fishermen without much success as the fish were more valuable than the coal. The Engineer and Mate then tried to launch the lifeboat to go fishing for mackerel, they tried for two days to lift the boat off its chocks, but with all the paint and rusty davits it would not move. (It was lifted off with a shore crane in Avonmouth when we got back). With Petrol and food rationing there were very few visitors to St Ives in the wartime, but I got talking to the son of the local boat builder, who showed me around his father's workshop on the quay, then the lifeboat which was also on the quay and launched across the beach with a caterpillar tractor. I think it was about the third day that the Skipper received a message from the Harbour Master that the ship was in the bay, so as the tug floated on the rising tide, we let go and steamed out to pick up the stern line. With the Hale pilot giving directions, we slowly brought the Navy ship over the bar and moored her alongside, then with the last of the flood tide, set off back to Avonmouth. Not long after this I was transferred to the John King, another of the Company's tugs, she was a motor boat, based in Bristol Docks, (Where she still is) and although I was sad to leave the John Payne, I could get home more, as the tug moored only half a mile away from our house, and her operating area was the River Avon and Bristol Docks, much more interesting. If a ship bound for Bristol was due, either a Scandinavian timber ship or one of Charles Hills City Liners we would trundle off down river and out into King Road to pick up the tow, and guide her up river to her berth in the city docks, and back to Hotwells moor up, and off home. This was the summer of 1947, and as I was then seventeen I received my National Service call up papers for my eighteenth birthday, I had applied for the Royal Navy, but was turned down, so went to the Army instead.

With thanks to Arthur Cottrell for this memory of Bristol

Added 19 August 2012


Comments & Feedback

I believe Arthur meant the Sea Scouts concerned were the 99th (Cabot) not the 92nd (which I don't think existed). The Scouts dismantled the old tin Hut where they met and carried it to a old grain barge and assembled it thereon, calling their home TS 'Matthew'. 99th was an outstandingly good Group. Arthur mentions Dennis, who became a senior Scouter and we'll known photographer in Bristol. Roger Starr Feb 2016.
Sorry, Roger the 92nd did very much exist , in the old police
station in Hotwells. The scoutmaster was Charles Healy, and we kept our boats in the old Cumberland basin entrance at
Hotwells. Cabo kept theirs under Bristol Bridge. I am sorry to
say that my brother Dennis passed away three weeks ago
Arthur Cottrell. P.S. The 99th I am afraid was not a patch on the 92nd

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