Was It All Cricket?
Chapter 24 — Shipmates
I Cannot finish these reflections on my life at sea without some reference to the men with whom I sailed. “He or she was a shipmate of mine,” was a phrase frequently used by the early pioneers to New Zealand. I have often heard my mother say this when referring to Mrs. Russell or Mrs. Rankin, to mention two of the women who in their teens shared with her the adventures, perhaps perils, of the six months' voyage to New Zealand in the old sailing-ship The Brothers' Pride in 1862.
Shipmates at sea has a different meaning and in my case meant being in a team of engineers, sharing the responsibilities of the job at sea and passing from one to another the four-hour watches that go the rounds of the clock. It often meant continuous association for long periods at a time. It was a greater test of comradeship than living ashore in a hotel or boarding-house where one sees his fellow-boarders only at breakfast and in the evenings, or at the week-ends. Virtues and failings soon become evident, but tolerance, good temper and, to a large extent, good leadership by my Chiefs, always welded together the teams I was with.
All this experience gave. me an inside view of Britain's wonderful Mercantile Marine, and enabled me to measure the part played by the crews of her ships in establishing her reputation as the greatest maritime nation. Many of my old shipmates will by now have passed away and most of the others will be too old for active service; but in the first World War I was able to visualize the services they would be rendering. Captain Harry Dawson, R.N.R., would be bound to rise rapidly to some high command; I have never met anyone more typical of “the boys of the bulldog breed.” His outstanding capacity, courage and determination would have made him invaluable in the Navy. When his ship was steaming in submarine infested waters, it would be William McGill who would quietly go down to the engine-room and by his presence give confidence to his junior engineer on watch. He would walk into the stokehold and speak words of encouragement to page 330 those splendid firemen who took us into Hong Kong on the last ounces of our bunker coal. “Cockney” Morrison would not find lack of scholarship a hindrance to his stout heart, nor would it prevent his sense of humour from bubbling over, even under the threat of bombs and torpedoes.
I was fortunate in the Chief Engineers I sailed under: they were all men of fine character and all good disciplinarians. At sea, as in all other walks in life, men respect a good leader. Efficient control has far-reaching effects on the work and the behaviour of a ship's crew. Of the men on deck, the same story can be told. The Captains and the officers under their command were typical of the British sailor; they inspired confidence in everyone on board. It mattered not whether we were in a storm, were groping our way through fog, or feeling our way amongst the islands of the West Indies on a dark night, no one turned a hair.
Next would come Tamlin, the man of Devon with his ruddy complexion and pleasant voice of the western counties. With ice on his moustache and his square jaw set, as I have seen it set on the coast of Nova Scotia, he would prove a tough fighter and a courageous man on the bridge when hunting submarines in the seas around Newfoundland and Iceland in the far north of the Atlantic.
This is an imaginary picture, but it is drawn from a knowledge of the characters of men capable of performing deeds of great heroism and thinking only of the Homeland they loved so dearly. Yes, in war these men rise above their ordinary status and win the gratitude of the Senior Service, and of the nation, for the part they play in keeping Britain's life-line open. In World War II they were beset with all the dangers of the Navy itself, but without the same power to hit back. It was a fitting tribute to all ranks of the Mercantile Marine that the wartime name given this service should have been such an appropriate and inspiring one as the Merchant Navy.
It is not all work aboard ship. I have already told how, when in port, the theatres, and music hails in particular, were the greatest attractions. It was in the mess-room, in one another's cabins, and on deck in the summer evenings that we were able to fraternize and develop firm friendships. It was when we were all together at mess that conversations were general, and subjects were discussed that covered a world of thought and obser- page 331 vation, ranging from the ordinary topics of the day to such subjects as Mr. Chamberlain's Tariff Reform policy with Imperial Preference and protectionist policy, the German Navy, then showing its head as a danger to Britain, and the menace of Japan that even in those days was sensed as a far-off possibility. Then would come the Atlantic contest; friendship with France, being fostered at that time by King Edward VII; the South African War and the granting of self-government, with Cape Town as the capital of the Union. Politics were always cropping up, for there were both Conservatives and Liberals on every ship. Letters and newspapers from Home would start arguments about football and racing. None of the Chiefs with whom I sailed tried to dominate the conversation; rather did they lead it along safe channels; apparently they knew that there is nothing worse than a talkative chairman! At no time was the conversation allowed to become lewd, and this restraining hand was always in evidence when it came to telling stories. I have never heard as many stories in my life as I did in those three and a half years at sea. When crossing from one side of the Atlantic to the other, it appeared as though we always heard the latest in each country. Even a sage Chief could not prevent the Third on the Claverhill, and the Second on the Dominion from telling, on the side, some that would not pass at the mess table. It is hard in these days to tell stories that are not chestnuts and I often hear allegedly modern ones that are but a re-hash of those of forty years ago.
I risk telling some that I have not heard since I was at sea. As a preface to the first, I must explain that anyone seeking a position in Australia or New Zealand must present a testimonial covering his qualifications and experience. In England one must also have a character reference. One day the Second of the Savan, after being ashore, said to us, “Did you hear the story of the girl from Holland who crossed over to Newcastle to obtain a domestic position? Well, when she arrived at the palatial home she was to work at, her new mistress asked her if she has a character. The Dutch girl answered quietly, ‘I had one, but I lost it on the boat coming over!’”
The Second Engineer of the Dominion made us laugh with a snappy story about a young fellow who was engaged to a school-teacher. The young man was slovenly in his speech, and kept speaking of “me” hat and “me” coat, until his sweet- page 332 heart despaired of being able to make him say “my.” One holiday they went by ferry steamer to a bay across the harbour. The little ship was crowded with holiday-makers. Some stayed on the beach to bathe or paddle, others to set up camp and boil the billy for lunch, but the betrothed couple decided to tramp the hills. At sailing time in the late afternoon, all were aboard except the young pair. The Captain blew the ship's whistle several times and was preparing to let go the moorings, when they were seen hurrying down to the wharf. At the ship's gangway an angry Captain loudly asked, “Why are you so late?” and the young man replied, “I was picking the ‘biddy-bids’ off me pants.”
“My pants, Arthur!” quickly corrected the little schoolmistress!
Two more will suffice.
This time it was the Third on the Claverhill. He loved having little digs at our religious Second. Morrison turned to him one day and asked, “Did you ever hear the story of the young man who was to sing at a church concert on a Saturday night?”
The Second blinked, for, knowing the Third, he wondered what was coming.
“Well,” he continued, “on the Saturday afternoon the young fellow went to a football match. When he got home he said to his wife, ‘By Jove, it was a great match and we won!’ As he spoke huskily and little above a whisper, his wife asked, ‘What's the matter with your voice?’ ‘Oh, nothing,’ he said, ‘Just barracking; it'll soon be all right.’ But it did not get all right, and immediately after dinner, when he was still speaking in a whisper, his wife said, ‘You'd better go along and tell the Minister you won't be able to sing to-night, for he'll need to arrange for someone to take your place.’ Reluctantly he agreed and off he went. The Minister's wife came to the door, and the would-be singer asked in his whispering voice, ‘Is the parson in?’ Replying in the same hushed voice, the lady of the manse whispered, ‘No. Come in!’”
Many amusing stories are told of the New Zealand Maoris. One that I related always caused a chuckle in the mess-room. It was about a member of Uru's native contingent that visited England for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. On his return to New Zealand this amateur soldier went back to the happy-go-lucky life of the Pa. One day this Maori met a page 333 man who had just returned from England, and greeted him with, “Hullo! You been to London?”
“Who keep the pub at the corner now?”
On every ship I was in, a frowned expression could always be converted into a beaming smile by asking this delightfully absurd question.
These bright side-lights will help to illustrate some of the fun and good-humour that prevails on Britain's seagoing ships.