Saturday, 19 March 2016

To my mother - a hundred years on.

19th March 1916 to 4th September 2005
Mum was born Eileen Hilda Mary in Bournemouth in 1916.  Her mother Ethel was the youngest daughter of a Nottingham upholsterer, William Piggott and after her marriage to Sidney Wilson in 1914 they moved to Bournemouth where Sidney had been working as a clerk at the Bournemouth Military Hospital since his discharge from the Army Medical Corps in 1915.  Mum was the eldest of five children born to Ethel and Sydney. The others were Geoff, Doreen and the twins Jack and Sheila.  Sadly, Sheila was very under-nourished and survived only a few weeks.  

The family moved from Dorset back to Nottingham in 1920.
For the first five years of my mother’s life, the family appears to have been quite comfortable.  Mum often talked about having a nanny in those early years.  All this ended in 1921 when Sidney received a gratuity of a little over a hundred pounds from the War Office for combat-related stress (around $5,000 in today’s money). A few days after receiving the money he boarded a steamship for South Africa and was never seen again. We still don’t know what happened to him after that. It seems Sidney Wilson was a bit of a rogue and I have since learned that Mum had one half-brother or half-sister that she never knew about, possibly more.
It was tough for a mother and four infants, the youngest only a few months old and for a period Ethel resorted to placing herself and children in the hands of the Board of Guardians and lived in the Nottingham Workhouse – I can only imagine what that must have been like.
Later as things improved, Mum and her brother Geoff received scholarships to The Bluecoat School, an independent school which provided a number of places for children on a charity basis.  The Bluecoat School still thrives today.
Mum must have loved those days, because even in the last few years of her life, she would recall with great clarity, names of Spanish and Latin teachers and stories about herself and Geoff at that school.
She worked as a telephonist and receptionist at a firm of motor parts suppliers in the early 1930s, which is the work she was doing when she met my father, a young motor mechanic, Arthur Williamson.  The story goes that young Arthur would come to the counter for spare parts and invite her to come for a spin on his motor-bike.  As Mum told the story, he would pull up out the front and pat the pillion seat of his motorbike, indicating with a toss of his head that she should join him. She obviously did, and they were married in 1938 when she was 22 and he 25.  Through my lifetime, dad was always known as John Williamson, and when, many years later I asked my mother why this was so, she said in her matter of fact way, “I didn’t like the name Arthur.” 
Jean was born three years after their marriage in 1941, followed at four year intervals by myself and then Phillip.  My dear sister, Jean suffered from bronchial complaints as a child and spent a lot of her early years in and out of hospital, where she contracted polio and Mum spent several years nursing her through these difficult times.

The family migrated to Australia a few years later – partly to make a new start by getting away from post war Britain; partly for Jean’s health and partly, I guess as an adventure.
Thus it was that on an icy morning in January 1955, my parents began an adventure which determined the direction of the lives of all our family and of those generations which followed.  
We were “Ten Pound Poms” on our way to Australia on the P&O Liner, “Strathaird,” and I was a wide-eyed nine-year-old with few memories of being further from home than the Barton bus depot at the end of the road in Beeston, the town in Nottinghamshire where I was born.
And it was an adventure, after the long sea cruise, which by all accounts was wonderful; we spent the first few weeks not far from where I am writing this at the Yungaba Migrant Hostel at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane. This former heritage listed building is now a gated luxury apartment complex – I hope that at least some of the old building’s original charm has not been lost. 
Dad got a job as a motor mechanic working at Brunton’s Garage over a thousand miles away in Mossman, and he flew off north to set up home.
We followed by train a week or so later.  I may have been only nine at the time but still vividly recall that trip north in the middle of the wettest of wet seasons, in a pre-war red rattler pulled by a steam loco - no sleeper car and no air-conditioning - a seven-day nightmare.  I can only guess what a trial it must have been for Mum with three young kids.  The old rail bridge across the Burdekin was under water and passengers were ferried across the flooded river in a tiny flat bottom tinnie, water lapping over the sides – welcome to North Queensland!
What a contrast.  From a relatively sophisticated life in post-war England, which for all its difficulties and challenges provided a lifestyle so starkly different from that which she would adapt to in rural tropical far northern Queensland.  I have heard it said on many occasions that for the first year of our time in Mossman, Mum kept a suitcase full of clothes by the front door, ready to walk out if only she could get hold of a return ticket, and I think it was only after we moved to the "big city lights" of Cairns in early 1956 that a level of normality returned.
And so we grew up, the three of us, and the family in Cairns; where we did our schooling, and started work, and became adults.

After twenty-five years of marriage, Mum and Dad separated in 1964 and Mum moved south with a new man in her life, first to the Gold Coast and later to Wynnum in the coastal Brisbane suburbs. In 1967, she and Bernie were married at Tweed Heads Court House.
Time moved on – Mum and Dad remained friends - he never stopped loving her until the day he died.  Indeed, Dad was staying with Mum and Bernie during the time he was receiving treatment in Brisbane shortly before he passed away in 1988.
Mum and Bernie were together for forty years. Sure, they had their ups and downs during this time, it would be insincere of me to suggest otherwise, but there was a level of affection and love for each other that was still going strongly in 2005 when Mum passed away after a long period of failing health - a love which continued for Bernie until his own death eight years later in 2013.
Mum was 89 years and six months old when she died and as is so often the case with old age, it is the last months or years that we remember rather than the whole life.  But that would not do justice to the nearly 90 years that she spent on this earth, and the impression this strong, beautiful-hearted woman had on the two men in her life; her three children; her seven grandchildren and her thirteen (soon to be fourteen) great-grandchildren. 
Throughout my whole life, I will always, always remember, the one indelible gift from my mother – her smile, and that will live on in our hearts and our memories.
So happy 100th birthday Mum – and God Bless!

Few of us appreciate a mother's loving care
-till the bitter moment when we find
she isn't there-to listen to our woes and
wants. To cheer and to advise. Too late we
see just what she was-too late we realise.
That's a mother's great vocation. That's her
destiny: to give all that she has to give-
and serve unselfishly..To make a home a
place that's something more than an address-
a centre of affection and of peace and happiness.
Patience Strong

Friday, 24 April 2015


Another year, another ANZAC Day.  Another time to remember the lives of the many who went and didn't return.  As an old seadog, I think in particular of the many thousands of merchant seamen who perished in cold and lonely oceans.  This year I came across a poem by David Partridge called Heroes. 

Don't speak to me of heroes, until you've heard the tale
Of allied merchant seaman, who sailed through storm and gale
To keep those lifelines open, in their hour of need
When a tyrant cast a shadow, across the island breed.

Captains, greasers, cabin boys, mates and engineers 
Heard the call to duty, cast aside their fears.
They stoked those hungry boilers and stood behind the wheel
While cooks and stewards manned the guns on coffins made of steel.

They moved in icy convoys from Scapa to Murmansk
And crossed the western ocean, never seeking thanks.
They sailed the South Atlantic where raiders lay in wait
And kept the food lines open from Malta to the Cape.

Tracked by silent U-boats which hunted from below,
Shelled by mighty cannons and fighter's flying low,
They clung to burning lifeboats when the sea had turned to flame
And watched their ship mates disappear to everlasting fame.

I speak not of a handful but thirty thousand plus,
Some whose names we'll never know in whom we placed our trust. 
They never knew the honour of medals on their chests
Or marching bands and victory and glory and the rest.

The ocean is their resting place, their tombstone is the wind,
The sea bird's cry their last goodbye to family and friend. 
Freighters, troopships, liners and tankers by the score,
Fishing boats and coasters, two thousand ships and more.

They flew the old Red Duster as they sank beneath the waves
And took those countless heroes to lonely ocean graves.
Their legacy is freedom to those who hold it dear
To walk with clear horizons and never hide in fear
So when you speak of heroes remember those at sea
From our merchant seamen who died to keep us free.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A Rough Crossing

...continued from "A New Shipmate"

Welcome aboard.
It's time for another swing of the lantern and the next instalment of my days at sea with Pauline.  If you have stumbled across this blog by accident may I suggest you read my previous posting, A New Shipmate - otherwise you will have no idea what I'm talking about.  Of course, there is still a risk of this happening after you have read it, but hopefully the risk is low and you will have been provided with some context.
As I was saying, Hyacinth was identical in almost every way to Amber and Coral and like all of her sister ships in the Lindinger Fleet, she was easy to work on (if a little cramped), very seaworthy and had a lovely B&W Alpha Diesel V18 which was an absolute dream after some of the old slam-bangers I had come across on earlier ships.  
We were about to depart for Newport News, Virginia with a cargo of cement from Antwerp (no, I do not know why we were carrying cement from Belgium to the United States, I too would have thought they were perfectly capable of making their own, but I was not in the loop on this) and a large number of prefabricated tower cranes and container cranes, made in Killarney by the Liebherr company and (presumably) considerably cheaper and/or better than anything available in the United States.  Come to think of it, maybe that's why we were carrying the Belgium cement as well.  Steel cranes take up quite a lot of space, but they have relatively little mass and consequently the ship had been loaded such that the cement was stacked at the bottom of all the holds with the remaining air space and as much available space on deck as possible taken up by the steel girders and sections tied down with heavy duty wire cable.  By the time the ship was ready to leave, the task of getting from the midships accommodation to the forward part of the ship was quite an exercise in manoeuvrability. 
Our trip to Newport News, Virginia was to take about ten days.  A distance of about 3,000 nautical miles (5,300 km) following a great circle route would see our first sight of land in North America somewhere near the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland in about seven days assuming we could keep a steady 12 knots.
Now although I wasn't a deck officer, just a simple engineer, not expected to know the difference between Ursa Major and The Big Dipper, I had nevertheless heard a thing or two about the North Atlantic and with thoughts of big chunks of ice floating down from Greenland and Titanic never far from my mind I casually asked the First Mate whether we get to see any icebergs on this trip.  "I don't hope so," he replied using a classic Danish idiom. "We get a lot of information about icebergs from the US Coast Guard, and we have a good radar system.  If the weather is too risky we just go a little more south."  Well, that all sounded pretty straightforward - no worries there then.  Just hope the weather doesn't get "too risky".
It was still dark when we slipped our moorings, early the following morning.  The weather was cold, wet and very windy as we headed out into a moderately strong westerly wind and Pauline prepared herself for a few days of misery.  For my part, I was quite happy to be down below in the warmth of the ship's engine room.
The ship's complement was quite small, three deck officers (including the skipper) and three engineers including the Chief Engineer).  Neither the Captain nor the Chief Engineer was required to stand a watch, so the day was divided into four watches with the two engineers doing six hours on, six hours off below deck and the two deck officers doing the same on the Bridge.  Erik, the second engineer and I quickly slipped into a routine.  I was on watch from 6 am to noon and from 6 pm to midnight and Erik managed the 12 to 6 shifts. In between those times, there were always more things to do such as dealing with those seals in the steering gear hydraulics, and checking stores and spare parts.  In all my time at sea, I don't believe I ever sailed on a ship which had a well managed and documented spare parts register.  There always seemed to be something more pressing to do than worrying whether there was a sensible amount of spares parts for valves and pumps and so on, and making sure that those spare parts were in serviceable condition and easy to find when needed. No doubt in these days of computer databases and inventory management, the systems are more effective, but that certainly wasn't the case on most of the ships on which I served.  However, Hyacinth was a relatively new ship and was considerably better provided for than most.
Meanwhile, the weather wasn't getting any better.  It was late March and the spring equinox had not yet done much in the way of heralding any changes. During most of the month, a large anticyclone had been centred over northern Europe causing slow moving low-pressure systems on its fringes bringing accompanying weather to the British Isles that could at best be described as miserable.  We had hoped that it might improve as we travelled west and away from it, but instead more active depressions and fronts had begun moving eastward from the Atlantic bringing with it the high winds and rough seas which we had been experiencing ever since we left port. 
The weather didn't seem as if it was going to get any better and after a week at sea we were all becoming heartily sick of hanging desperately on to bulkheads and handrails to negotiate even the simple task of walking from our cabin to the showers, or the dining room.  Dining itself was a disaster. Damp tablecloths and spill boards were of no help at all and those who were able to get to the mess room would sit with one or the other hand clutching the edge of table, trying to maintain balance and consume a meal at the same time. Pauline stayed in her cabin for the first two or three days, until the Mal de Mer settled into a state of queasiness and she was slowly able to come to terms with the ship's movement.  During the two years we were together at sea, rough or calm seas seemed to have the same effect on her - two or three days of seasickness after which she was able to freely move about and enjoy shipboard life as though it were no more than a punt on the Trent.  
We had been at sea for over a week and our ETA had changed from ten days to at least fourteen.  The sea was as nasty as anything I had previously experienced as Hyacinth continued to head directly into the wind and the heavy sea.  Fortunately, that was also the direction we wanted to travel, but in a sea like this, the standard procedure is to turn into the sea and ride it out for as long as necessary. The weather steadily worsened. Soon we were in a full gale - unpleasant, uncomfortable and unnerving for everyone on board. 

One or two big waves break over the bow followed by a larger one which we slowly climb like an ascending roller coaster car.  The ship balances for a second at the apex of the wave and then begins its fall into the trough of the next wave with a thumping jolt as the ship shudders from stem to stern and several tons of foaming water race down the deck and whoosh into the bridge.  Sometimes the ship "surfs" on the crest of the wave and when this happens the rudder and propeller come out of the water. Free from the friction of the ocean the engine tries to race, the governor slows it down and as the ship settles on an even keel, the speed returns to normal and the cycle begins again.

The decks on both sides of the holds were taken up with steel crane sections each about two and a half metres square by about three or four metres long. More crane sections were lashed to the hold covers so that the whole of the deck between the midships accommodation area and the fo'c'sle was taken up with the cargo.  The only means of access to the forward part of the ship was by negotiating a way through the centre of the crane sections, a difficult enough task when the ship was stationary. It seemed suicidal to even consider trying to walk through the items of cargo in such a gale, but there was a need for constant attention to its security - it would be disastrous if any of the retaining cables were to become loose or worse.
Our skipper, Karl spent most of his time on the bridge during this time. No one was getting much sleep and the crew and officers including the first and the second mate were spending a lot of time on the deck with the cargo.  At one point Karl came down to my cabin to check on Pauline saying, "I hope you aren't feeling too bad - I don't feel so good myself.  I hope it gets better soon."  I remember wishing he had been a little more encouraging and optimistic.

We had been in this weather for about eight days when one of the cables holding the deck cargo separated and several of the crane pieces began sliding across the deck as the vessel rolled. The crew worked desperately to replace the tie-wire while the skipper ordered more men onto the deck to help hold the sections in place.  In all my time at sea, it was the only occasion I had experienced an "all hands on deck" situation, but if the situation worsened, the ship's balance would dramatically change with possibly catastrophic results.  The situation seemed to be getting under control.  It was mid afternoon, I was off-watch, standing by on the bridge with the skipper and the second mate when suddenly the ship began to lose momentum and we started to turn across the sea.  The second mate who was standing by the wheel cursed "Hvad fanden!  What's wrong with the steering?"  As fast as I could, I slid down the bridge steps, hands on the steel railings, feet in the air, and as quickly as the pitching ship would allow, made my way to the after part of the ship, down the access ladders and into the steering gear room.  The sight which met my eyes was not encouraging.  The constant jolting of the ship had caused one of the pipes carrying hydraulic oil into the rotary valve chamber to fail and oil was streaming out on to the deck and under the bilge plates.  The hydraulic steering system incorporated emergency standby manual operations, but it was not as responsive as the hydraulic system and we needed to get the system back and running as quickly as possible.
The temperature may have been 5 degrees on deck, but it was more like 40 degrees in the steering room and as Yassim, my engineering assistant and I struggled to work, sweat streamed from our bodies mixing with the oil and making everything we touched slip and slide under our grasping fingers. We replaced the fractured pipe and because there were no spare gaskets on board (damn!) we manufactured a temporary gasket seal from neoprene rubber sheeting we found. The skipper was struggling to keep our head into the wind and we kept slipping sideways down the larger waves and wallowing into a beam sea at right angles to our heading. At this point, he made the decision to jettison all the loose cargo.  
It was a difficult repair job and since the steering room was at the very rear of the ship, every pitch and roll was a gut-wrenching heart-in-the-mouth experience.  We had radio communication with the bridge during this time and it seemed like every five minutes the skipper would call to ask me how I was progressing.  After an exhausting hour or so, we were able to recharge the system, purge the air from the lines and return it to duty.  We were soon back on our heading into the wind.  I asked Yassim to stand by in the steering room and keep an eye out for more leaks - I would relieve him in an hour. 
I returned to the bridge and was amazed to see that the area forward of the midships part of the ship now looked more like a scrap metal yard than a ship's deck.  A number of the crane sections had already gone overboard. Another section was hanging precariously over the port side as the crew worked to cut free the cables and send it to join its companions. Much of the cargo which remained had changed shape dramatically and instead of symmetrical square sections had now become misshapen, broken and clearly of no value whatsoever to their owner. 
I went down to our cabin to check how Pauline was coping with the situation.  To my surprise, she was sitting up on the bunk, feet wedged against the bulkhead, a pillow stuffed behind her back and remarkably, a pad and pen in her hand.  I must have looked quite a sight, covered from head to toe in hydraulic oil and grime. "Everything, OK?" she asked.  "Sure," I said.  "No problems.  What're you doing?"  
"Just writing a letter to Mam," she said. "OK, see you in a bit."  And that was that.  A far cry from Lindinger Coral and the Bay of Biscay of what, just four weeks ago?
The weather began to improve and we didn't see or hear of any icebergs.  I also later learned that while we were struggling with deck cargo and steering we overheard a call for assistance from an ocean liner who had lost propulsion in the same storm and was asking for support (it was the QE2).  I also learned that we had to write off more than 50% of the cargo which had been stored on deck - I'm sure they had plenty of insurance.
We arrived in Newport News eighteen days after we had left Ireland - and I don't think I have ever been so pleased to see, and to feel dry land.
We had a new skipper waiting at the docks for us when we arrived. It was time for Karl to take some leave, and probably be faced with a lot of questions about the loss of much of his cargo.  I think he was just glad to be going home.
After Newport News we sailed south to Port of Spain in Trinidad and for the next few months enjoyed nothing but fair sailing as we tramped around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean - but I think I'll leave those stories for another day.