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This part of my history begins when I left secondary education from Bridgwater Technical Institute after a three year Engineering course and joined Ellerman Lines as a Marine Engineer Cadet.
Ellerman Lines was then the largest cargo liner company in the world and I was one of their first intake for the alternative training scheme for marine engineers. I was to complete a two year full time Ordinary National Diploma course (OND) at Poplar Technical College in London
The subjects studied were Maths, Physics, Mechanics, Heat Engines, Electrotechnology, Technical Drawing and Naval Architecture.
We were paid a small wage (I think it was about £9 per week) and a subsistence allowance enough to pay for a B&B plus an evening meal. We were given a free bus pass but had to find cash for technical books, slide rules, boiler suits and other clothing.
I found lodgings in Blackheath on the edge of the Common and close to the village in a theatrical lodging house called St Wolfrans. I had to travel by bus to college each day though the Blackwall Tunnel and there were a few of us cadets that lived close by. I obtained a part time job in the evenings washing dishes in a local restaurant so in addition to the extra cash I got a really good dinner as the St Wofrans food was dire!
My colleagues at Poplar Tech were from many different shipping companies of the day who have mostly disappeared with the decline of the British Merchant fleet from the largest to one of the smallest. Ellermans had over 100 ships when I joined but had stopped trading by 2004. There was about 80 of us in that first intake divided into two classes and I soon became good friends with fellow cadet Dick Goodey who worked for Shaw Saville and Albion.
I think British Petroleum had about half the intake that year.
After completing the OND course you went off to sea for two years before completing the cadetship at a shipyard for a year when you returned to sea as a junior engineer. You would then have to serve 12 months at sea for a 2nd engineers certificate and a further 12 months for chief engineer.
An option was then to take a further examination which would qualify you as a chartered engineer (CEng).
One problem we all faced at sea was the trying to learn anything from the existing seagoing engineers. We were already technically qualified to the standard of a Chief Engineer and just needed sea time then answer a series of oral engineering knowledge questions from an examiner to get our certificates of competency (tickets) whereas most of the other less senior engineers were dodging National Service and resented us or were just technically ignorant and thought we were showing off our knowledge when we asked questions.
Prior to the alternative training scheme being introduced the only way to go to sea as an engineer was to complete a recognised apprenticeship at a shipyard. You then could sign on as a junior engineer and were exempt national service after 4 years at sea.
Having been born in 1940 I was exempt national service.
It was possible in those days, and probably still is, to be able to sail as a watchkeeping engineer without a ticket apart from 2nd and chief engineers who in any case never kept a watch. You therefore had uncertificated watch keeping engineers up to the rank of 3rd engineers. They were called 'professional thirds' who never obtained a ticket.
Our renowned Naval Architect at Poplar Technical College was called Robert Hogg and the first thing he told us was we had to go and buy his little blue book from Foyles bookstore in Poplar High Street which contained everything he would lecture us over the next two years.
He would come into the classroom and draw complex isometric sections of different types of ships which we had to copy. While we were doing this he would wander around telling anecdotes on shipyard life and stories from his long experience designing submarines for the Royal Navy.
In amongst the free surface effects, notch embrittlement, centres of buoyancy and gravity, metacentric heights (GM) and rolling periods we were warned that Naval Architecture was an inexact science and there was no certainty that a ship would not capsize at launch, especially submarines.
A high GM meant a quick rolling period, a stable but uncomfortable ship while a low GM meant slow rolling and instability with a capsize if the GM became negative. In a cargo ship the GM changes with the cargo loaded, as tanks are emptied and if the angle of heel becomes large. The Deck Officers are responsible for calculating stability but we as engineers would transfer fuel, water and ballast from one tank to another which would affect stability.
Free Surface effect could be demonstrated by trying to carry a frying pan with water in it. The pan was difficult to keep level without spilling the water. This effect was tragically experienced many years later with the capsize of a cross channel ferry after its bow doors were left open leaving its berth and water inundated the car deck.
Notch embrittlement was shown with devastating effect with Liberty ships breaking in half just in front of the bridge superstructure as it hogged and sagged in a big sea. It was resolved by a steel fillet being inserted at the deck junction.
Part of our future jobs would be to oversee new construction or repair of ships for our owners. Faulty or sub-standard welding caused ships to break up at sea. We should be aware of shipyard welders wondering round picking up bits of metal from the floor as they were probably wanting to fill their welding joints with bits of metal which was quicker than filling the joint properly with a welding rod! All welded Liberty Ships were still in operation then and regularly broke in half in a storm. We learnt how they were made safe by a riveted top strake of plating right around the ship to hold it together.
Before each exam day Mr Hogg would say nothing but would write all the answers on the blackboard so we all passed the subject with flying colours.
By far the best lecturer we had was a man with an Extra First Class Marine Engineers Certificate called Bill Shepherd. He loved his subject of Heat Engines with a passion which he imbued in all and most of us passed that subject with a distinction.
Woe betide though if he caught you not paying attention as he was an expert shot with a blackboard rubber which would land on your desk in a cloud of chalk if you were seen talking.
"Entropy, the measure of a system's thermal energy per unit temperature that is unavailable for doing useful work. Because work is obtained from ordered molecular motion, the amount of entropy is also a measure of the molecular disorder, or randomness, of a system."
Towards the end of the course Bill finally admitted he was unable to properly explain something to us as he failed to understand it himself. That was entropy which he told us was just something we could use in certain calculations of engine efficiency and we should just use it without understanding it.
I admired him all the more for his honesty in not trying to blind us with science. He was probably the best teacher I ever had and if all teachers were as good I would probably be better qualified academically.
The college had a replica ships engine room in the basement where we could carry out experiments and get some practical hands on experience of becoming a ships engineer. We also each spent a week on the "SS Wendorian", a steam yacht owned by King Edward VII Nautical college for deck cadets who we learnt to dislike!
Charlie the Chief Engineer was an old Lowestoft trawlerman who filled the Scotch Marine boiler up with Thames river water as it sealed the leaks! We were being taught that water had to be ultra pure in the boilers we would sail with.
Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,|
And the shark, it has teeth,
Und die trägt er im Gesicht.
And it wears them in the face.
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer,
And Macheath, he has a knife,
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht
But the knife can't be seen.
Too much technical education was not good for us the College Principal decided so we had Physical Education and could also choose a language course. Most of us had learnt French at School so we chose German but the teacher was our Electrotechnology lecturer and he wasn't very good at teaching languages (or Electrotechnology!). He did however teach us all to sing the Theme from the Threepenny Opera in German as it was written by German composer Kurt Julian Weill! (Mack the Knife was the English translation).
We exercised in the college hall which had a piano and naturally I used the occasion to play it. The PE instructor asked me if I could play jazz and I said I could play most things by ear so he asked me to join his traditional jazz band called the Ilford Sunnysiders and we did a few gigs as there was a trad jazz boom on at the time.
Dick Goodey and myself spent much of our spare time rebuilding Austin Seven Chummy's which we would use for frequent trips to my home in Somerset and his in Essex.
Tales of Austin Sevens
The founder of Lotus, Colin Chapman, began his business by converting Austin Sevens into rally cars so Dick and I decided to do the same. We stripped off the top half and rear of the old body, replacing the rear with a wooden spaceframe and aluminium cover and fixed a couple of glass aero screens on the bonnet with a big leather strap for effect.
We did not do a very good job of this as we were once racing along a rough track on the Quantocks and drove fast into a deep puddle when with a mighty crack the whole rear end dropped off depositing our two friends in the puddle.
Our friends failed to see the funny side and were even less impressed standing on the rear axle all the way back to London. Arriving in the early hours we were stopped at traffic lights in the city observed by the Old Bill opposite who could only see four blokes in ratting hats looking at him though aero screens over the fancy bonnet. The lights changed and Dick let in the clutch and roared off (we had of course also lost the silencer) with Mr Plod trying to figure out if the car with our two rear passenger were perhaps breaking the law!
The photos below are of two of the cars we modified which were named after the Spon Plague which was all the rage on the steam radio Goon Show at the time:
"The Spon Plague spread like wild-fire. Everywhere were going down with it. Several people went up with it, and one gentleman was known to have gone sideways with it. The country was in a turmoil as one Minister remarked - "They've never had it so good."
Spon Mk 2 was also known as the Little Sod due to it breaking down multiple times but both cars shared the same number plate.
On another occasion on the Quantocks I lost control of the car and skidded round on the gravel surface. Dick then insisted that he drove and promptly turned the car over on the next bend. I was unable to extract myself and in Dick trying to pull me out he strained my stomach muscles and took me to the nearby chest hospital for first aid. The petrol tank on an Austin 7 is famously located just behind the steering column and petrol was running all over me. I spent most of that Christmas recovering!
We once broke a crankshaft coming up the hill out of Frome. I phoned our local garage who came and towed us home but we thought we might have to leave the car and go back by train. On the Sunday we were in the local pub and told some of the local yokels of our dilemma. One of then said "'yer, I got an old Austin 7 in my barn. You boys can have it for ten quid". "I'll give you five quid for the engine" Dick says so we went down to Fiddington took the engine out and fitted in the car. It started first time and we roared back to London full throttle at anything up to 60mph!
I go to sea.
Apart from a coasting trip on the "SS City of Hull" during college vacations my first deep sea trip was the "SS City of Birkenhead" sailing from Ellesmere Port on the Manchester Ship Canal.
She was on the MANZ conference run (Montreal, Australia, New Zealand) and the first trip was during the summer so we actually went to all the main St Lawrence River ports to load before heading to New York and Savannah in Georgia then through the Panama Canal and over the Pacific to Australia.
The ship had an 8800bhp Parson steam turbine propulsion and two Foster Wheeler header type boilers which were a pain in the arse. I don't think we ever ran with both boilers together in operation as the generator tubes kept developing pin holes so had to be shut down. It reduced our speed to about 10 knots and took us three weeks to cross the Pacific.
Once the boiler furnace had cooled down and the steam pressure reduced a wooden plank was inserted into the furnace and guess who was employed to find the dud tubes?
The second engineer would hand me a piece of chalk and tell me to walk the plank and mark the dud tubes that were leaking. On one occasion the plank actually burst into flames while I was still on it!
We would then work 12 hours shifts cutting out the dud tubes and rolling in new ones by which time the other boiler would have sprung leaks so we would begin the whole process again.
That Second Engineer was a pure bastard. He was from somewhere 'oop North' and would stand under the only vent on the control platform and say to me "blow t' tubes lad". That meant getting dressed up in asbestos and climbing up to the top of the boilers then turning several wheels on soot blowers that would blow steam on to the boiler tubes to clean them.
On my return to the control platform the second would invariably say "too fast that lad, blow them again".
The same bloke hated Deck Officers. You were supposed to ring the bridge warning them you were blowing tubes as the soot from the boiler would vent out of the ships funnel so the ship could change course to put the prevailing wind athwartships so the soot was blown overboard.
The Second would wait until I was just about to start then call the bridge seconds before so there was not enough time to change course. At the end of the watch we inspected the ships steering gear then walked forward and over the teak boat deck which was stoned and scrubbed each day which would be covered in soot to the Second's delight and the 1st Mate's anger.
They are known as Mates but they were often not very matey to Engineers. It all came from the times when cargo ships were propelled by the wind and the Mates never quite became used to engines or engineers.
They still retained overall command of the ship with the Captain but there was then a Chief Engineer who was of equivalent rank to the Captain with his Second Engineer equivalent to the 1st Mate or Chief Officer. The Chief Engineer was usually not allowed in the engine room and it was the Second who ruled the roost.
Once in the middle of the Pacific after I came off watch I wandered up to the Bridge and chatted to the 3rd Mate. He was looking out at nothing and I asked him what he liked about his job. He told me he loved the responsibility of being in charge of this 10000 tonnes of ocean going splendour. For me looking out at nothing for four hours would be the height of boredom. I'd even prefer to be blowing tubes!
We had a radio officer who I also used to chat to. He was employed by Marconi and most of the way across the Pacific our radio sets were not powerful enough to communicate with land based radios so apart from saying hello to the odd passing ship he had little to do. He was always a very tanned person spending much of his time on the hatch cover bronzying.
We also had a purser who was in charge of the catering and also doubled as the doctor. He was often a homosexual for some reason but that was a good thing as ships with pursers of that persuasion were always good feeders.
Ellermans ships had European Petty Officers who were basically helmsmen while the deck and engine room crew were all Indian so the officers all learnt a bit of the Hindi language as some did not speak English. The stewards were Goanese and the ships smelt of curry which was always on the menu.
The crews quarters were right aft. At the end of every watch I would go down the shaft tunnel checking the tailshaft bearings then climb up into the steering flat which was in the crews quarters. In any sort of sea the motion was considerable and you became weightless as the stern dropped in the trough of a wave. How those guys lived with that motion I will never know.
City of Birkenhead had 12 passenger cabins but we rarely carried passengers. I shared a cabin with the other Engineer cadet Benny Kelly who as you might guess was from the Isle of Man. All the cabins were midships where the ships motion was the more comfortable.
When we were not on watches we had to complete correspondence courses on Electrotechnology and Naval Architecture to exempt us from examinations for certificates of competency later as qualified engineers.
The Mates used to gather on the bridge wings with their sextants every day to check our position and there was much pride in the achievement of having arrived in Brisbane by safely navigating the Pacific. I am being cynical here because I thought that was their job and they would have not done their job properly if we had arrived somewhere else.
Of course now-a-days we have GPS so really Navigation Officers are largely redundant.
Having worked 12 hours a day for the last three weeks the engineers took some time ashore leaving boiler repairs to a shore crew but we were still on day work doing regular maintenance of auxiliary machinery like generators, pumps and cargo winches.
Being a steamship all the winches were steam reciprocating and were very unreliable needing constant attention when cargo was being handled.
The adjacent photograph depicts the 'glamorous' life of a ships engineer officer. We did get dressed up in our uniforms when we sat down to eat in the saloon but otherwise your white boiler suit never stayed that way for long!
We always sailed round the Australian coast as far as Freemantle offloading at Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong, Whyalla and Adelaide then loading at the same ports back to Brisbane before setting off back across the Pacific.
The pubs shut at 6pm so we had to contend with the 'six-o-clock swill', a subject I touched upon on this page about living in Melbourne.
In Melbourne we joined the Caledonian Club so we could drink in a civilized manner and I was gainfully employed as an honorary Scotsman playing the piano for eightsome reels and the like.
At most ports we would ring a hospital and invite the nurses to a party on board with the obvious objective of persuading one of them to jump into bed! Us cadets were at a distinct disadvantage in this regard as we shared a cabin. We were also on very low wages compared to the senior officers so we had little money for entertaining.
The purser kept your bar bill which was deducted from your wages which you settled when you paid off the ship which was usually in the red.
After sailing back across the Pacific we might visit Kingston, Jamaca or one of the Gulf ports if we had cargo otherwise it was up the Eastern seaboard as far as St Johns in Canada if it was winter then back to Australia.
The ship rarely went across to New Zealand on an occasion she was due to go there and my distant relations in Masterton were on alert to welcome me, the company decided to transfer me to the 'MV City of Poona' which was in Sydney bound for the UK.
Built by Swan Hunter in 1946 she was a motor ship and for the rest of my time at sea I only sailed once on another steamship thank goodness.
This ship was a happy ship unlike the one I had just left. She was propelled by a 6600bhp Doxford 6 cylinder vertical opposed piston two stroke diesel engine. The piston cylinder bore was 670mm diameter and it had a combined piston stroke of 2320mm. It developed full power at 120rpm so was directly connected to the propeller shaft and required no reduction gearbox. It was a very reliable engine which rarely gave trouble.
The problems were with the Clarke Chapman electric winches. We carried a French Canadian Electrical Engineer Officer called Pierre who told me in his ridiculous accent that "these winches are very discouraging". I spent most days in port on deck replacing burnt out contacts accompanied by abuse from Aussie stevedores who were losing money when they had to stop working cargo.
Having just coasted round Australia on my last ship I did it again and having loaded mainly wool we set off North up through the barrier reef then across the Indian Ocean, bunkering at Aden.
Ships in those days were all DC electrics with open contacts on the switchboard. One day Pierre was cleaning the front of the board when he dropped his penknife which landed across the main generator contacts and plunged the ship into darkness.
Pierre reset the breaker and when the lights came back on he was minus his eyebrows and his little French moustache. He never found his penknife.
When the ship left Suez and began to sail across the Mediterranean at a steady 14 knots, Benny Kelly, my cabin mate, packed all his gear and wore the same clothes for the next fortnight until we arrived in London. He got a bit smelly towards the end but he had what they call the 'Channels' which is a disease get as you approach the English Channel after a long voyage and we had been away well over a year. Benny just got the channels a bit early!
Coming through the Bay of Biscay we encountered a severe storm. I was on the 4 to 8 watch and was keeping an eye on the inclinometer and recording the angle in the engine room log as we rolled alarmingly, trying to remember what Stewart Hogg said about metacentric heights and rolling periods. I hoped the Mates had done a proper job when they loaded the ship.
I went up to the 4th Engineers cabin to wake him for his watch and as I opened the door the ship rolled and he rolled out of his bunk to meet me being violently sick.
I talked with one of the mates later that day who said that on one of the rolls he did not think the ship would right itself but it did and he changed course as a result. Deck Officers do have a use after all!
We picked up the company pilot in Torbay and sailed round to London where I paid off in the red.
The Far East
For the rest of my time at sea I was on the Far East run which meant three month trips which was better than years away from home.
My next ship was the "MV City of Newcastle". She was built on the Clyde by Alexander Stephens in 1956 and like the Poona had a 6cyl Doxford engine and was nearly 11000dwt (Dead Weight Tonnage is the total weight a ship can carry).
Unlike the Poona this Doxford engine was a bigger version having a cylinder bore of 750mm. It developed 8500bhp and used comparatively high cylinder pressures which on any two stroke engine presents problems with piston lubrication.
On these big so called 'cathedral' engines you can see the top piston each time it reaches the top of its stroke and we used to have a crewman permanently stationed with an oil can squirting each piston with oil as it came into view just to keep the engine running.
Inevitably we would have to stop regularly and never once made it past Colombo without calling in to change pistons.
On this run we would call in at Manilla before going round the Japanese coast then down to Taiwan, across the South China Sea to Hong Kong, down to Singapore and finish up in KL and Penang before returning home via Colombo to change pistons!
The Newcastle was a good feeder as our purser was a fruit cake known as Reggie so it was generally a happy ship. Reggie offered me £10 and a free bar bill to sleep with him which I declined!
One one very hot night we were berthed on the end of a long pier at a little place called Mazinloc in the Phillipines. At the shore end of the pier was a thatched hut with a coca cola sign outside which was the local bar and brothel.
A bunch of us were sat on the hatch cover on the after deck when the figure of the fourth engineer in uniform whites came staggering along the pier. When he came aboard we saw he had a large bloodstain on the front of his pants and he told us he had split his foreskin while pleasuring a local lady!!
He had to get Reggie to have a look at it as he was our substitute ships doctor and the Fourth came out on deck after to show us Reggies handiwork. His willy was beautifully wrapped in a white bandage replete with a large bow which caused much laughter.
I went ashore with him later on in Japan to a doctors surgery. There were two nurses in the room but nobody spoke English. The Fourth pointed to his groin and said "split penis". The Doctor said "Ah VD, VD", so the Fourth dropped his strides displaying Reggies handiwork to much amusement from said doctor and much giggling from the nurses.
We used to load canned mandarin oranges in Taiwan and a nightly expedition on the 3rd Mates watch with his connivance was to climb down in the hold and retrieve a few cases for local consumption. We used to make a hole on the tin then drink just the juice and throw the tin into the sea. We eventually became sick of them and Reggie could never understand why nobody ate his tinned oranges and cream at dinner.
My final deep sea trip Far East was on the "MV City of Worcester" which was built by Caledon in Dundee in 1960 so was very new when I joined her. She was 9000dwt and had an 8 cyl Sulzer engine which we never put a spanner on all the time I was on her.
On our return to the UK most of the engineers paid off and never came back, the reason being the government finished the requirement to do service in the armed forces for two years and most engineers were at sea to escape that national service. Shipping companies found themselves short of engineers and us company cadets were asked to man the ships around the European coast.
I was once sent to Dundee to board the "SS City of Cardiff" which was a Liberty Ship. Most of these ships were built in the USA and were the first all welded ships but this one was built by Lithgows on the Clyde in 1942. I wrote something of the history of Liberty Ships on a visit to San Francisco.
The above photo is of the "MV City of Ely" but the Cardiff was a sister ship. She was nearly 11000dwt and had a triple expansion steam engine of only 2500bhp and a top speed of 11 knots. They were big money makers as they were so cheap to run. Ellerman Liberty ships took cargo to the Middle East and brought sand back and still made a profit.
When I boarded the ship it was full of welders repairing cracks from the last voyage. She had been sold to Hong Kong owners and someone had nicked the main steam pressure gauge so the Second sent me ashore for a new one. In the middle of the North Sea we lost power and had to start everything from scratch which took ages. We were posted missing at Lloyds but we eventually got the job going again and arrived safely at Antwerp to hand over to her new owners.
On another ship we were in Liverpool and met up in a pub with a load of Blue Funnel Line cadets. They were cock-a-hoop as their superintendent engineer had just had them in his office, thanked them for helping out the company by keeping watches and doing juniors jobs so they were going to pay them junior engineers wages.
All the cadets of the ship I was on decided to tell our Super, Mr Ransome, about it and ask for the same deal. We were told to politely 'get stuffed' and one of our number promptly resigned in protest.
The final year of my cadetship was in Swan Hunter Shipbuilders in Wallsend on Tyne and was an utter waste of time as far as learning anything much. I did learn that if I wanted any conversation on Monday mornings then I had to know what went on a St Jame's Park and Newcastle United F.C.
I also attended evening classes at South Shields Marine Technical College in electrotechnology which was at that time changing by the minute with new remote pneumatic/hydraulic/electronic propulsion control systems using technology developed on aircraft. New ships were being equipped with cushy air conditioned remote control rooms where watchkeeping engineers in pristine white boiler suits could relax and give direct control of the propulsion system to the Bridge.
I bought a Triumph Tiger Cub motorbike and attended a Jazz club where I met Ivy Tait and we became an item. At the end of my time as a cadet I arranged to take Ivy home to meet my parents in Somerset when I had a phone call from the aforesaid Mr Ransome telling me he wanted to see all the cadets at the London office that weekend.
I explained that I had made prior arrangements and queried the purpose of the meeting. He refused to tell me, I lost my temper and resigned there and then. It turned out later that it was just a meeting to touch base with all that years cadets before we all went back to sea as Juniors for no particular purpose.
My landlady's son had a photography business and I worked for him for a few months. You would generally force your way into peoples houses, take photos of their baby then go back and sell the prints at an inflated price. I quickly became fed up of that job, Ivy and me had sort of drifted apart so I decided to return home to Somerset which concludes this part of my life.
This gripping tale continues on this page.