Jack's Story

My Uncle Jack (whose real name is also John Griffiths) grew up in Liverpool (like me), and got his first job just as the war started. In the late 40's he went to sea and spent six years travelling the world. This is his own story . He spent most of his later life in a pleasant spot in New Zealand, supported by his devoted partner, Helen.

By the time I was 30 I'd been round the world more than a few times.  It was easy then - you joined the Merchant Navy. The Merchant Navy traders took their big crews to some of the remotest places in the world, it was the only way someone like me from Springwell Road in Bootle could travel out of England at that time.

Liverpool's Bootle was not one of the most auspicious places to grow up in the thirties, but as my father progressed in life, I and my five brothers moved out of Bootle, first to Spooner Avenue in Litherland (where our house had a name above the door) and later to Waterloo.

I remember when we were in Litherland, on our way home from St Philip's Church School we smoked 'rat's tails' which were growing on the common, and played in the alleyways which we called 'jiggers'.  It was in a jigger that my brother Stanley was bitten by a monkey. Sailors often came home with monkeys in those days, and I find it surprising that monkeys did not colonised the woods of Freshfield, close to Liverpool, as there were so many.  They said the monkey gave Stanley sleeping sickness, and whatever brother Stanley's problem was he was bedridden for the rest of his short life.

We boys did the things boys did, blasting door locks with crackers, focusing bits of glass onto dresses in shop windows on the way down to the Co-op, mother's 'divvy number' ringing in our ears.

At Waterloo Modern School, Mr Williams, my science teacher, introduced me to the world of electricity. Electricity opened up a new world of delinquent play.  I could electrify door handles, hiding in the jigger and turning the magneto handle like a demon. Up in my attic room, I installed a treadle sewing machine to turn the magneto, which had a wire running from it along the top of our garden fence. In the event of a feline trespasser making its appearance on the wall I rushed up to my room and pedalled furiously on the sewing machine. The results were invariably less than lethal but the fascination with electricity was born, and was encouraged by my father when I entered the world of work.

At 16, I started an electrician's apprenticeship at Campbell & Isherwood (C&I). I had to take an L3 or L1 bus ride to Seaforth, then the tram or the overhead railway along the docks. At that time there were boats lying on their sides in the harbour - it was the beginning of war.

Memories of those early apprenticeship years during the war were about making big switchboards, cutting insulation with a machine saw-blade wrapped in a piece of rag for a handle and being sent out at lunchtime for pies, but only when we didn't have lunch at the Queen Mary cocoa rooms.

Later on, C&I were burnt out by an incendiary bomb and most of the company moved to Penpoll Works, in Litherland. The ship repair section, where I was stationed, moved across the road, with foreman Bill Carruthers, to service the ships docked at the bottom of the street.

As the war progressed we sometimes had to work all night. The British Navy brought in German boats and captured Vichy enemy boats. We took them to bits and got them going, fixing the captain's water heater and the helmsman's indicator and making the boat ready for re-use. C&I made generators for neutralising, or degaussing, ships that were destined for mine-infested waters. On these late nights my girlfriend came to keep me company, a kind creature who earned herself the nickname of 'Wood Wool Queen' for her predilection for lying in wood shavings.

My colleague Billy had gone to sea. He'd been having fights with a Jewish boy who had a habit of shitting in a newspaper and leaving it in Billy's drawer.  It couldn't have been anti-Semitism because they were both Jews. Billy had come to see me in his uniform with white cap and gold ring on his arm, and he had a pet monkey he had trained to turn the 'megger' for him. I was very impressed.

My ship repair work was deemed reserved occupation, but my older brothers had joined up or were conscripted. Tom was in 'The Buff's' regiment.  "The Buff's, the buggers are running away, leaving the girls in the family way" he would sing when he was home on leave, and we went off biking into Wales, camouflaging our tents and watching the bombs falling on Liverpool. By then I was also riding my bike to work, overtaking trams and hoping like hell there wouldn't be another one coming the other way. Going through the narrow streets of the docklands we always shouted at the toughs. The docklands were settled by bombed citizens from Bootle - they were considered a race apart. Class tension was alive and well in Liverpool and the people from Bootle were its victims. "Buckos" we shouted as we raced through docklands with its gaunt untouchables, and one day my chain fell off, followed by a life and death struggle to get it back on before the pursuit reached me.

Next door to Campbell & Isherwood was Tate & Lyle's sugar warehouse. Even after the war, sugar was being rationed and when the sacks were carted off in the steamwagons we jumped on the back with sharpened tubes in an attempt to boost our ration. If the driver saw us he would put his foot down and we had to cling on to the bouncing trailers for miles.

There were always odd tins of delicacies on the wharves, like canned fruit from cargo accidentally dropped by dockers. On one of these fossicks, around 1947, I heard that a shipping company called Harrison Line was looking for an electrician. The boat was 'The Herdsman' and this was its maiden trip. It was a popular job but because of my ship repair work the superintendent took me on.

So at the age of 23 I went out to buy my first uniform. There was no uniform allowance so I had to use my own money. My uniform was dark blue doeskin with one stripe on the sleeve. I also had collarless outfits called 'no.10's' in blue and in white. They told me that the white no.10 was for days when it was 70 degrees at 7am. At the time I could not imagine what that would be like.

'Herdsman' was a black ship that had a Harrison Line funnel of black with white bands and a red stripe in the middle. They were called 'two of fat and one of lean' because it was thought to resemble slices of bacon. In later years when the company departed from the big steamships with tall smokestacks, using forced-draught steam with smaller chimneys, some of the captains would paint a black line on the superstructure where the funnel should have been.

I signed on in the saloon before the captain, the first mate and the chief engineer and when the ship had finished loading in Birkenhead with furnishings, railway engines, radios and cameras, we set off for South Africa. Most of the crew had come on drunk. The carpenter, mad with drink, was up on the forecastle deck giving the windlass the works. It kept tripping out the forward circuitbreaker and it gave me my first job standing by the switchboard, resetting it.  By the time the full-ahead signal came and I went up on deck, we were already well clear of the Liverpool lightship buoy and the Crosby/Formby foreshore was disappearing in the distance.

The first port of call was Dakkar on the West Coast of Africa.   On the way down we overhauled the deck winches ready for abuse by the local stevedores. The methods employed by these big sons of Dakkar were not those envisaged by the manufacturers who had fitted stops to prevent the winches going from full speed forward to full speed reverse like the older steam winches. The strong arms of the Dakkar dockers overcame this hind­rance by bending the operating lever. Another trick of theirs was to hang shackles on the foot brake, burning out the brakes.

The mud huts of Dakkar gave way to Mussel Bay, East London, Port Elizabeth and Capetown. In these cities we always went to the Seamen's Missions to buy hams and tinned fruit, which was still hard to find in Britain.   In Capetown the ship's hold was filled with loose potatoes. By the time we got back to Liverpool they had rotted away.






My Uncle Jack at Port Elizabeth




The Portuguese seaports of East Africa, like Laurenco Marques and Beira were traps for unwary sailors. Beautiful to look at with the footpaths patterned in mosaic the streets of Beira were all too often being cleaned by English sailors in chains following a night scrapping with the local lads. At Beira we unloaded big steam engines from Glasgow and took on copper. It was the only outlet for goods from Salisbury (Rhodesia) and at times hundreds of ships were queuing up. We often spent months at anchor, waiting for a berth, so when we got ashore we whooped it up a bit. One night the third mate and I decided to push each other back to the ship in a borrowed wheelbarrow. We were singing. Two huge policemen arrived swinging their batons (I can still see them swinging in the moonlight). The third mate got a broken rib and we both had blue bruises on our backs like five-barred gates for weeks.

The loading of copper was our last working stop before proceeding home via Aden and Port Said, and eventually, we arrived back at our homeport, Avonmouth. Nearby was a small town called Shirehampton with a special place called Pill, which was an island in the middle of a river. The island had five pubs on it. Coming back to the ship from Pill could be a problem.  A dinghy ferried between Pill and the mainland and at low tide access up the ramp from the dinghy with a bellyful of booze was decidedly dodgy.

My first voyage had taken six months and I was entitled to 14 days leave. I bought my first car, a 3-wheeler, for £67 and returned to Liverpool where my mother dragged me out in uniform with one stripe on my arm to take tea with her in a Southport hotel.

It was to be the first of several trips for me in the Herdsman. Sometimes the first stop would be at Freetown in Sierra Leone. At Freetown the locals came out in their dugout canoes. Naked except for a tophat, they were willing to dive over the side for a shilling.  "Not a Glasgow shilling" they chanted as the sailors wrapped halfpennies in silver paper. Sometimes there would be a woman in the backboat. The rower tried to interest anyone in his wares by shouting "all the same very good Queen Victoria". The lady claiming to be as good as Queen Victoria would be lying back in the back in the boat with a big cheery grin, white teeth gleaming in a black face and legs wide open. 

On one trip we had a third engineer called 'The Nose' because of an extra­ordinarily long appendage. He had his Chief's steam ticket but was trying to get diesel endorsement by taking a lowly job as third Engineer on our ship, which had Bellis & Morecambe diesels. 'The Nose' could be a bit overpowering at times and one day had his come-uppance. The cook had asked a local to help him clear out a galley. The local asked where he could find a bucket and the cook said there was one outside 'The Nose's' cabin door. On hearing the rattle of the bucket, 'The Nose' put his head out, saw the local making off and went in pursuit, kicking him in the backside with his steel-capped boots. The local turned round and grabbed 'The Nose' by his balls. He did not let go. The Chief Engineer was sent for, then the Captain, but to no avail. After about half an hour the shore police arrived. They charged 'The Nose' with assault and wanted to take him to jail. This was a unique experience for 'The Nose', as most people with black faces had come off worst with his boot. Perhaps the place is rightly called Freetown. The rest of us were all a little pleased at the outcome.

Harrison Line had built a sister ship to the Herdsman, called Defender. The Chief Electrician left to join it and I took his place. Then I had two stripes on my arm.






Uncle Jack with two stripes on his arm





I was back at sea in January 1948. The destination was the West Indies and the islands of Barbados, Grenada, Port of Spain, Ariba and St Lucia, Antigua and Curacao. Around these islands plied the old Harrison boats. They were called 'apple daddy' boats and had a very tall smokestack. A bugler stood on the fore­castle head playing his trumpet. They had a lot of style. We swam in the Bay of Barbados among threatening pelicans and black frigate birds that swooped towards us and in Trinidad we went to all the pubs. The Hotel de Paris was a favourite, a free rum and coke with every drink.

On my first trip to Maracaibo in Venezuela, some of us were taking photos of the statue of General Bolivar. General Bolivar is much revered for leading a revolution, while British sailors were not held in similar regard. We were suddenly surrounded by vigilante police, who waved their guns at us and took us to the jail. They said we were in jail for desecrating the statue by peeing on it - we had our work cut out convincing them otherwise.

Maracaibo had an imaginative and expedient system of law at that time, but it was not alone in an unusual line in customs police. The customs men would come on board and load themselves with duty-free grog and cigarettes.  If the captain objected a gun would be planted in a cabin and he would be removed to the local jail. The shipping company had to pay to have the prisoner released. There were countless reasons for ending up in jail. Respectable British workers in Punta Cardon building the power station could expect to spend at least 2 days a month in jail for any trivial reason. We took on board local workers at Maracaibo who cooked their meals on deck, and they worked the cargo at remote ports up the lake such as Laguanilas and Bachaquero. These were real jungle outposts. There were planks across crocodile-infested mud into the polehouses, but parked outside these houses were Chevrolets.

In Laguanilas we thumbed a lift. We thought it was a private car but it turned out to be a taxi, and he wanted 30 bolivars each (about £10, which was more than a week's pay). When we told him we had no money he said he would go to Maracaibo to get the police. That was O.K, Maracaibo was about 50 miles away and we hoped the ship would have sailed by then. Unfortunately Christmas intervened. On Christmas Day all the officers were on deck with the Captain, drinks in hands, when strolling up the quay came the taxi driver accompanied by two police officers with guns. The price had gone up and they wanted to take us away. Of course all this inconvenience meant more free grog and cigarettes had to change hands out of the bonded stores.

I sailed with Harrison Line for 3 years. After about four or five trips to South Africa and the same to the West Indies and Americas it was time for change. So I went ashore without a job -  but England was having a warm summer and I'd accumulated a lot of leave and a few hundred quid to enjoy it in.

First there was a job as a laboratory assistant in a radio components works. I lived in fear of being called out to fix something on the production line where the girls made saucy comments. All those years at sea had not increased my self-confidence and after two months of keeping a low profile in radio components, I escaped to Metro-Vickers who were building a rolling mill at Round Oak steel works in Birmingham.

Then, with winter coming on and outside construction getting cold, I applied for a job with Prince Line, which seemed to have an interesting run. I was to be second electrician on 'British Prince' sailing from Quebec. This was 1951.

To join the ship we travelled first class across the Atlantic on the R.M.V. Newfoundland and I waited in Times Square in New York with the rest of the crew to catch a night train to Quebec. The Chief Electrician was an alcoholic. No one was bothered by this or by his general drunkenness or indeed by the general standard of dress.  I was pleased by this relaxed attitude to dress codes.

When we got to Quebec, The Prince turned out to be a steam turbine ex-Liberty ship carrying general cargo. We had Goanese stewards, Indian engine room staff and Malayan deck hands. They all seemed to have their own cook and galley. The stewards even had a butler. The Indian's cook was called a bhandari and he did his cooking squatting on his haunches on deck, scraping down the fish. We had curry 3 times a day and picked up useful Hindustani expressions that lasted a lifetime.

My cabin was on the deck level behind no.2 hold.  It was handy for dock workers to put their hand through the porthole or even use a home-made fishing rod to pinch your gear.  I electrified the fly screen over the porthole and it seemed to deter them - my early experience with the neighbourhood cats was paying off!

At New York we tied up at Yonkers and the crew was given free tickets to the funfair at the Pallisades. It beat Southport I thought, but was still a little tamer than the nightlife of Panama. This run crossed to Japan at Kobe. The Chief Steward exchanged American dollars for counterfeit yen and bought a pedal organ which we stuffed into a taxi and took back to the ship, telling the Captain he was going to conduct church services. Church services did not happen but singsongs did.. We loaded in Kobe for Singapore and travelled via Saigon, which was still a French colony. From Singapore we would go to Djakarta and then to Borneo to refuel. Sometimes it would be Manila with roaming billyboys and transvestites, rarely seen in Britain then. We went to islands like Negros where the villages were built on stilts. Other trips ewe went to Hong Kong - where once, as I was lying on my bunk, the door crashed open and about 20 Chinese girls rushed in and started to change into their party clothes - I may have swooned. The ship's police were after them as they were not supposed to be on board.  It was, however, quite normal to wake up in the morning to find a couple of 'washy-washy girls' pulling clothes out of the drawers, which they would wash for a couple of fags or a few shillings.

We went home round India, loading tea at Colombo. The markets were full of cheap silver. There were beggars galore waving crutches and holding out their hands - this was a new sight for me.  Then it was the Suez Canal. We had to dock at Algiers where merry times could be had visiting houses like the Black Cat, Half Moon and the Roxy. We were wary of the 'Casbah' - at the time stories abounded of foreigners found on the steps with their testicles sewn up inside their mouths.

Brass was fetching a high price, and at some of the Mediterranean ports the locals would unscrew the brass sound­ing plugs we used for water measurements into the cofferdam. If you saw someone standing on deck gazing at the sky and twisting his feet round you knew what he was up to. It didn't help the quality of our water reservoir to have seawater and deck washings going down the hole into it.

We did about three round-the-world trips in 2½ years, never returning to Britain. On my last trip leaving Japan for the Phillipines I chopped my finger off in a drilling machine of my own manufacture and was put ashore in Manila Hospital for a month, flying out to rejoin the ship at Singapore. When we reached Port Said I picked up the Orcades to return to the U.K. via Naples and Gibraltar.  

When I finally got back to England I had about 3 months leave with pay left.  I took a job as electrical inspector with the Ministry of Fighting Vehicles testing Centurion tanks which had gyroscope-controlled guns.  But the months of going up and down hills to see if there was a variation when a gun was pointed at a target was enough, and I went to see the military gent in charge to say I was going back to sea. "You're a stick in the mud" he said.

Port Line interested me because it went to New Zealand and Australia. They took me on as chief electrician and I was sent out first class on the Britannic in 1952 to New York where, once again, we were to carry on by train. It was the McCarthy era and we had to swear when we came down the gangway that none of us were communists. Unfortunately, I had a beard and people hissed at me in the streets. At Quebec, the ship was about 4000 tons. It was called the Port Quebec and had been a minesweeper during the war as H.M.S. Deerhound. We went down the East Coast and through the Panama and eventually to Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane. Many of the Australians didn't want to know anyone with an English accent.  If you opened your mouth in public some Australian would remark " another Pommie bastard". The police often made raids on British seaman in the pubs. Delayed by a strike at Port Pine the rest of our trip was called off and we returned to Canada. We had been away a year and most of the crew did not want to sign on again; certainly no one was keen to re-visit Australia.

So we returned to the UK the Cunard ship 'Scythia'. Perhaps it was this last experience that persuaded me, in 1953, to leave ocean-going ships and catch up on the rest of life!                                 


By John Griffiths (Jack)

My Uncle Jack died in September 2016, at the age of 92. It was peaceful, with his children and long-term partner with him