One of 49 middies to sign indentures in the final six months of 1960, I was inundated with sheets of information and instructions – necessary for such a gigantic change of life, especially at the young age of 17, and lacking the experience and knowledge of the world and the flesh that most young people of that age have today.
One of the smallest items to have been posted to me was an octavo sheet headed ‘Uniform for Midshipmen’. Small, but certainly precise and detailed. The second paragraph stated: “The uniform shall comprise a black double-breasted jacket and trousers to match. The jacket is to have four of the Company’s large buttons on each side with two small Company’s buttons at the back of each cuff. There should be cadet’s flashes on each collar end, of the type supplied by the Company. Side pockets are to be provided without flaps and in line with the bottom button. One outside breast pocket with a welt is required on the left side. The side seams of the jacket should be made with an opening at the bottom, five inches in length.”
It went on: “A bridge coat is not essential. It is an expensive item which may be bought and worn if desired but for practical purposes on board ship a duffel coat may be worn. Midshipmen are not allowed to wear duffel coats over uniform when ashore, but should wear the blue raincoat.” On one ship, I sailed with a 3rd Mate who did wear a bridge coat… and I don’t think he appreciated my unwise comment that he reminded me of a First World War Infantry officer. Furthermore, “White tropical suits are worn in some vessels but not in others. Only one white suit is required for the first voyage, but others may be purchased later at home or abroad.”
The following warning merely added to the excitement, with its reminders of tattered magazines and well thumbed books with their pre-War adventure stories of colonial administrators in far-flung outposts of the Empire… “Midshipmen are often advised that mosquito nets are no longer necessary: in fact, in some parts of the world and at certain seasons of the year they are still indispensable. Midshipmen are strongly advised to include a mosquito net in their kit, and to continue to carry it with them even though they may never have felt the need to use it.” The unique Holt’s experience was underlined by the following: “The ‘georgettes’ or flashes worn on the collar ends of uniform jackets and the epaulettes required for tropical uniform are of a type worn only by this Company.” Note the last word is always printed with a capital!
One small problem during the first few days… I’d noticed the experienced middies wore their hats at a rakish angle (of course), but the top was not flat, rather, folded down at the sides. So not wanting to stand out as ‘new’ or odd, I put my hat on the floor of the lounge at home, jammed between two heavy books, and left it overnight in the hope that it would ‘mould’ to the required shape. Before breakfast, I rushed in the examine it, removed the books and held the hat… which had sprung back to pancake-flatness as it was beforehand. Further investigation showed me that all I had to do was remove the spring-like metal ring inside the roof of the hat and indulge in some brutal manual folding down of the sides…
There were a few days in Holt’s headquarters in India Buildings, undergoing various induction talks and so on, one of which began with, “Do you know what vd is?” There were only three of us in the room with Captain Richards, and, after we had said we knew about v.d. (perhaps with varying degrees of honesty and realism), he added wisely, “Well, don’t forget that you set your standards – you don’t have to do something just because everyone else does…” I came to know well that massive building, almost a mini-town in itself with its ground-floor arcade of small, highclass shops and the cavernous dark-panelled café in the basement where we went for smoko. I opened an account with the TSB as it had a branch right opposite the back entrance in Brunswick Street.
We were given four foolscap pages of instructions, one sheet dealing with postal arrangements, the other three entitled ‘General instructions for new midshipmen’. The postal sheet instructed relatives to address envelopes as follows: Mr…… Rating; ss/mv ……. C/o Alfred Holt & Co., India Buildings, Liverpool 2. It stated that vessels on scheduled services to the Far East (not Australia and Indonesia) are issued with voyage posting lists enabling “you to Airmail direct to care of Agents abroad…” The best type of letter to use “is the sixpenny Airletter form… NOT an ordinary letter with a sixpenny stamp…” It went on to say that if you do “send ordinary letters by Air Mail addressed to our care the minimum postage is 9d per 1/2 oz. This rate however will only cover letters posted up to one week after a ship has sailed. Subsequent letters must be stamped at 1/3 per 1/2 oz for Ceylon, Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo & Hong Kong, and 1/6d per 1/2 oz for Australia and Japan.” Then came a dread, underlined warning: “If you OMIT to pay correct Airmail postage the Post Office will forward by sea route and your letter may take five or six weeks to reach your correspondent.”
After comments on dispatching parcels, it stated that telegrams “for ships abroad should not be sent to us. If the ship is at sea the message may be addressed to care of PORTISHEAD RADIO (1/6 per word) and sent from any post office.” As for money, “It is an offence to send any £5, £1 or 10/- notes in letters abroad except under licence from the Bank of England. Remittances so made are liable to forfeiture without notice. If you wish to send money it may be done by Imperial Money Order but only to countries in the Sterling area.”
The final note was: “Bad News Messages may, if preferred, be communicated to us when arrangements will be made to pass them through the Captain of the vessel concerned.” The general instructions to middies were also to be retained by parents, they said. The first section was ‘Instructions for joining vessels’, enjoining us, whatever method of communication was used, to acknowledge them immediately… “Telegrams of acknowledgment should be addressed to: HUTSON, ODYSSEY, LIVERPOOL… On all letters and reports to the company, the reference MM/REH must be quoted.” Heavy luggage was to be left at one of the main railway stations (there were then three), and accommodation was provided (of course) at Holm Lea, Riversdale Road, Aigburth, Liverpool 19, though Merseyside middies could live at home. It went on: “The house is next door to Mr Hutson’s private home and is within a few yards of the Company’s sports ground.” I wondered if he enjoyed being so close to work.
There followed lots of domestic details about Holm Lea, concluding with: “All midshipmen arriving at the Hostel must have with them a pair of plimsolls or houseshoes.” Section 4 warned that “The Company’s uniform will be worn at all times except on home leave.”
Section 5 was about leave and Section 6 on Wages, explaining how the Company more or less operated as our bank. As we accrued wages, so our account reflected this and we could draw accordingly. Mail arrangements, allotments (we were urged to make a monthly allotment into a savings account), sports and hobbies… Unsurprisingly, it stated: “Opportunities for sport are limited and midshipmen are not advised to carry sports gear, except perhaps a pair of football boots and, of course, a swimming costume. Sea fishing gear may be useful but there are few opportunities for fresh water fishing. Guns are not allowed on board… Keen tennis players should include their equipment.” (Maybe guns were not allowed but on at least one ship, archery became very popular).