Readers may recall the account of life on the Liverpool-crewed Liberty ship, Maplebank, by Alan Rawlinson (Sea Breezes July 2017), and be interested to read about my introduction to seafaring, including time on another Bank Line wartime Liberty, the SS Kelvinbank a few years earlier.
I joined her in 1948, in Bromboro Dock, Birkenhead, where she lay discharging copra and heated coconut oil. The smell was overpowering and very distinctive, and I learnt that this was a berth regularly used by Bank Line vessels to bring cargoes from the Pacific Islands to the Lever Bros factories. This dock was once the largest private dock in the UK; later used as a landfill site and, since 2014, the Port Sunlight River Park.
On joining, I was a 17 year-old and fresh out of Sea Training School Vindicatrix at Sharpness. Before that, my interest in the sea and shipping had been kindled by living near the Mersey and vast docks where, like a lot of lads before and after, I had been fascinated by this glimpse into another world. I was well and truly hooked. After applying and being accepted for sea training, I arrived at the railway station in Sharpness with about a dozen other boys. We were met by an officer who got us in some sort of order. It was then that I first saw this very old ex-sailing ship called Vindicatrix, and some surrounding huts. She was British-built, and had sailed under the red ensign for the first 17 years of her life; then sold to a German firm, became a hulk and, then later, an accommodation ship for U-boat officers. After WW1, she was In all, the ship’s life spanned 74 years during which she survived several major mishaps, and was eventually broken up in 1967.
On arrival, we were taken to some Nissen huts ashore, each of us given a bunk. Then an officer gave us a pep talk. He instilled in us the need for discipline and cleanliness, and said we were going to be taught the basics of seamanship, rope work, life boat drill, all about flags, splicing wire and rope, and ‘boxing the compass’. For leisure there were sports facilities including a boxing ring and gloves.
That first night, about six lads disappeared, never to be seen again. After three months at Vindicatrix, I returned home to Liverpool, feeling highly chuffed and wearing a navy blue jacket with the words ‘ Merchant Navy’ on the shoulders in red letters. I had settled on a direction in life. Then I had to find out where the ‘Pool’ was. This was the Establishment building where men (mostly) were hired for ships. I walked in and the first thing I noticed was two or three men leaning against a wall reading newspapers, and acting rather strange. I could not see their faces, and only found out later why they seemed to be hiding behind their newspapers. They knew what ship or ships were hiring crew at the time, and were suddenly making themselves unavailable. Reasons were varied, like long voyages, bad food, or poor accommodation. More often or not there was nothing wrong except the reputation of a particular company, which I later found out was hard to shake off once the word spread. I stepped forward, and a man arranged for me to have a photo taken for my discharge book, after which I was sent in a coach to Birkenhead and Bromboro Docks to sign on a ship. This was not before the coach made an unscheduled stop at the Lord Raglan pub on the way – for refreshments, of course. My first glimpse of the ship I had been assigned was the size of it. She was slab sided with a steep gangway, but which I had no trouble climbing as I had few belongings.
This ship turned out to be the Liberty SS Kelvinbank, she had been built as the Samuta in the USA in 1943, taking only a remarkable 22 days to build. The yard was the Bethlehem Fairfield Shipbuilding Corporation in Baltimore. Later, she was to come to a sad end in the Pacific, at Ocean Island, impaled on the wreck of a much earlier casualty, the Ooma. However, on this happy occasion we were bound for a round the world trip. None of this was known to me at the time of signing. I later learned that Bank Line operated a dozen Liberty ships all with so-called ‘white crews’. The purpose-built vessels in the fleet were all crewed by Indian or Chinese seamen, and they had separate facilities on board which were not part of the Liberty ship layout. Many years later I came to appreciate the very distinctive features of the Liberty ship and the amazing story of the conception and rapid wartime build programme which produced 2,710 vessels of this type. They may have been built in a hurry, and by the dozen, but on board American standards had been applied. This meant wide bunks, robust and efficient heating, chunky fittings, and a high standard still missing from newly built ships in the early war years. The engine, however, was a basic three-cylinder steam engine which gave 11 knots at best. The simplicity of the design added appeal. It was robust and relatively trouble free.
As we boarded the ship, a very old man, to me anyway, wearing a flat cap with tufts of hair sticking out and with blue eyes extended his greetings. He was the Bosun, and I clearly recall asking him if I could go home and tell my mother what was happening! From the start he had a very friendly manner and was always smiling. He explained that the ship was sailing soon, and showed me to my bunk. Others were also busy sorting out their cabins. As a deck boy and joining my first ship, I felt like a fish completely out of water. I was the ‘Peggy’, I found out, and this meant doing all the menial jobs like sweeping up, cleaning the mess rooms and alleyways, plus toilets and showers, and most importantly keeping the percolator full. At the same time, I was hopefully learning the ropes for advancement. The other members of the crew were mainly from Liverpool, with one Scandinavian AB called Neilson. I remember he was very quiet except when having had too much to drink. I used to keep well out of his way. On our last leg homeward bound he was steering stone drunk, and caused great amusement when trying to turn the ship round. So here I was at the start of my seagoing career such as it was, not having a clue where or what was happening. In the event, we were away over sixteen months, and circled the globe – as one wag later put it, “Around the world in boozy haze”!
We sailed from Bromboro Dock on the Mersea to Avonmouth for bunkers, and I can recall sitting on the oil inlet pipe feeling sick and cold. It was one of those memorable moments but it was mid- December after all.
Gaining my ‘sea legs’
Then came a ballast voyage across the Atlantic to Port Arthur in Texas, and I slowly began to get my sea legs. As the weather improved and the sun shone, the friendly bosun set me to doing various tasks like wire brushing rust from the deck near Number 5 hatch. Then I was volunteered for some ‘bilge diving’ in number 3 hold. This involved wearing a makeshift garment which was a sack with holes made for the arms that I wore without the least embarrassment, clearing out the accumulated muck, and taking a shower straight afterwards. I volunteered for most jobs, and this included greasing the blocks and falls of lifeboats which had been swung out. I never gave the reasoning behind my instructions much thought, and believed it was expected of me to do the unpleasant jobs. At the time I thought it was normal, and the lot of the most junior member of the deck crew.