In this series of stories, Hull Maritime volunteer, Ian Martin tells us about why he wanted to go to sea from an early age and leave the fish docks behind.
By Ian Martin.
I had wanted to go to sea from an early age. I was brought up in the slum areas near to the fish docks in Hull. The streets down Hessle Road, including Gillet Street, still bore the scars of war. There were still shells of the bombed buildings and bare plots of ground where they had once stood.
The fish docks nearby provided endless fun and ways of earning pocket money especially during the school holidays. We would sneak onto the dock through a hole in the perimeter fence to get past the Policeman guarding the dock entrance. We would then wait for the taxis to arrive with the, sometimes drunken, fishermen. They all carried huge canvas bags filled with beer bottles and of course their kit bags. Some were too drunk to walk, and their more sober mates would help them climb aboard the trawler whilst we carried their kit bags. Once on board we waited for them and if you were lucky they would give you all the loose change in their pockets.
Many of them paid with their lives to put fish on our tables. One famous incident was the ‘Triple Trawler’ disaster when three trawlers sank in atrocious weather in a short space of time. All the men baring one lost their 6 lives aboard the trawlers Ross Cleveland, Kingston Peridot and St Romanus. I remember it well and during my time growing up on Hessle Road over 700 men had died in accidents aboard trawlers.
My father was a fish filleter on the docks but he died when I was four years old. With the help of my surviving older siblings we learned to cope and survive but as I grew older I came to understand, simply by looking around me, my life was mapped out before me. The schools taught us the basics, reading, writing and arithmetic but that was it. No talk of higher education or the fantasy world of university, no, that was for ‘posh’ people. It was either fishing or processing fish or if you were lucky working in a trawler owners office.
I was determined from a very young age that wasn’t going to be me. I felt different to a lot of the kids around me and while they were talking about football, rugby and going to work on the fish docks, I was dreaming of travelling and seeing the world.
So, what to do next, I was only 5ft tall, no qualifications, no father to guide me and I was expected to get a job to earn some money to help my poor mother. The only course left open to me was follow the rest of them and go into the fishing industry, yet I still knew this was not going to be my ultimate destiny. In order to go on the trawlers you had to go down to the fish dock and have an informal interview with a guy called Commander Beal, probably an ex-naval officer in charge of new recruits. I went reluctantly to his office on the Friday afternoon and was told to report for duty on board the Saint Chad on the Monday morning, she was one of the oldest ships in the fleet, a right old tub!
I really did not want to go, I’d heard too many bad tales about life as a fisherman, I felt trapped. That night my older brother came home from work and said he had got me a job at the brewer’s depot where he worked but he needed to know by the Monday morning. I agonised about it all weekend.
There wasn’t much choice really, it was either three weeks in freezing Icelandic waters or lifting crates of beer for five pounds a week. I chose the brewery and planned my next move. The brewers depot was in the town centre the street was called Mytongate, the area was very Dickensian at that time, full of old warehouses, slaughterhouses and very close to the river and what is now the Marina. The docks where busy with ships bringing goods from all over the world including fruit for the nearby wholesale fruit 15 market down Humber Street, now a tourist area full of coffee houses and trendy bars. I was okay working at the depot but still yearned for something else.
One lunch time I went for a walk nearby and ended up down a narrow cobbled street called Posterngate. Hull had been a walled town and these old street names where a legacy of those times. I saw a large group of men stood chatting, laughing and smoking. I said to one of them ‘What’s going on, why are you all here?’ One of them replied ‘This is the Merchant Navy office where we come to find a ship, why do you want to join up?’ ‘Maybe’ I said ‘What do I have to do?’ He pointed to a large door and said ‘Go in there they’ll tell you what to do’.
I laid awake all night thinking of the next day and she met me outside the office and in we went. It was a very old building and there were a couple of older guys stood behind a very high desk counter. I heard my sister say ‘He wants to join the Merchant Navy’, the guy said ‘Who?’ and she pointed down at me (don’t forget I was only 5ft tall).
He leant over his desk, looked down and laughed, he said ‘Come back when you’re big enough son’. I felt a bit ‘miffed’ and said ‘What do you mean,’ he said ‘You need to be at least 15 years 6 months and 5’1 ½’ tall, but I said ‘I’m not far off’. He made me stand with my back against the wall, emphasising ‘In your stocking feet!’
He came across with his tape measure, measured me and said ‘You are nearly five feet come back next year and see if you’ve grown. My heart sank and it took me all my time not to cry, yet another disappointment. I was determined that wasn’t going to stop me. I started doing stretching exercises and eating a bit more and ticked off the days until I was 15 ½.
I carried on working at the depot and the months 16 went by, I bought my brother’s motorbike off him and managed to forget about it for a while. Then, shortly after my 16th birthday I came home from work and noticed I was a bit taller than my mother (she was always a couple of inches taller than me), I must have had a growth spurt. I rushed upstairs to the bedroom where I’d marked out the spot on the door frame that I’d reached last time I got measured. Sure enough, I’d grown at least another two or three inches! I started to think about it again, but I was having good fun on my motorbike with my mates who’d also got bikes.
The thoughts wouldn’t go away and after several weeks I was walking down Posterngate and walking past the Merchant Navy office, I plucked up the courage and walked in, the old guy recognised me and said ‘Oh you’ve come back have yer’ and I said ‘Yes, I’m 16 now and 5’2’, can I join now’.
He laughed and said ‘Stand against that wall’ and emphasised again ‘without your shoes’. He measured me and said ‘You’re right, come with me and I’ll take your details’. Never mind being 5’1 ½’ I felt 6 feet tall! Me at Training School 17.
He explained that it was a tough training course lasting 12 weeks if you wanted to work on the deck. He gave me a form to fill in and for my mother to sign giving me permission to join. I filled in the form and took it back the next day and he told me that I would receive a letter in the next few weeks explaining all the details. I went home and told my best mate that I had joined the Merchant Navy. I received a letter a few weeks later detailing what I needed to do next, the course would last 12 weeks or 10 weeks if you chose to go in the catering department. The uniform and food would be provided free but I would need to take 5 shillings a week pocket money and no more, there was a travel warrant and instructions that I was to travel to Sharpness in Gloucestershire on the 3rd September 1965.
I sold my motorbike to provide my pocket money and other things that I needed so there was no expense for my poor mother.