In this series of stories, Hull Maritime volunteer, Ian Martin shares his experience at the Merchant Navy training camp.
Sharpness in Gloucestershire might as well have been the far side of the world for all I knew and to this day don’t really know how I managed to get there.
We all piled onto a small bus which took us on to the camp. The camp itself looked like a typical army camp with about a dozen huts surrounding a parade ground. Most of us thought ‘Oh my God have we joined the army?!’ We were all allocated a hut and told to dump our gear there and follow him to the ship which was moored in the nearby Sharpness canal.
The River Severn ran alongside the canal and Wales could be seen across the river. We walked down a 18 slope onto the canal bank, there were about thirty of us and almost immediately we heard loud shouts of ‘stick it new boy’ or ‘you aint never going home’. There, hanging over the railings at the stern of this really old hulk of a ship were dozens of boys just like us but with uniforms on. They’d obviously been there a few weeks, this was a ritual I would perform myself a few weeks later. The officer took us on board and we were given some food which we ate on the ship seated on the large mess deck.
We all soon fell into the routine of camp life and felt very superior to the new recruits after a few weeks. Camp life was very strict and was run on army and navy rules. We were not molly coddled or allowed to go home at weekends, if you did you had to serve an extra week on your course and hardly anyone wanted that.
The food was terrible, prepared by the catering recruits under the supervision of an of old chef who usually had a fag dangling from the corner of his mouth. The ship itself was crawling with cockroaches and you often got a dead one in your food and up went the cry ‘oh fresh meat’. A frequent meal was stew followed by Vindi Duff a kind of sultana pudding with thick lumpy custard. Not my favourite dish! We had to do all our own washing by hand and be on the parade ground by 6am in the morning for inspection and then a run around the square to wake us up.
We were allocated jobs to be done before breakfast. I got the unenviable task of cleaning the toilet block on the canal bank, the 21 toilet waste flushed directly into the River Severn along a concrete gulley. I had to scrub the toilet floors with water drawn from the canal by a bucket on the end of a rope and as winter drew closer sometimes I had to break the ice first!
Imagine asking kids to do that before school nowadays! Breakfast was at 8am and then lessons on board ship for the rest of the day. When I say lessons it was mainly practical tasks such as rope splicing, compass reading, how to steer a ship and all other aspects of seamanship. We also learnt how to launch and handle lifeboats on the canal. The Severn Bridge before it collapsed Needless to say all this appeared very hard to some boys and due to homesickness and missing home comforts our numbers slowly dwindled.
From the initial intake of about 50 boys there was about 11 of us left after the first couple of weeks. Personally, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, some of them were actually crying on the phone to their mothers and begging to come home. After a life in the slums of Hessle Road this was a doddle, we got three meals a day and jam butties and cocoa for supper, what more could you want! When we were kids we sometimes went to school with no breakfast and a bag of chips for tea. Life at the camp was not 22 all bad I used to like boat handling on the canal where we would row for a mile or so up the canal then sit on the canal bank and have a rest for half an hour before rowing back. After lessons we were allowed out the camp and most of us went to the local seamans mission (Sharpness was a small port) and if you got there quick before the other lads you could get the job of washing dishes all night and afterwards the ladies who worked there would give you a plate of beans on toast and a jam buttie as a reward.
I think camp life was made deliberately hard to prepare us for a life at sea. As I said some boys found it very hard to go without life’s luxuries and the better off ones would send home for food parcels of course these became our best friends whenever a parcel arrived! I daren’t ask my mother to send one as I knew she wouldn’t be able to afford it but I eventually wrote to my sister and to my surprise received one from her and my mother.
I remember ticking off the last few days and becoming more excited as the last day grew closer. That morning came and we were called into the instructor’s office and given our ‘precious’ Discharge Books and Seaman’s Identity Card. The discharge book was to record every ship you sailed on and in it was a report about your conduct and ability whilst on board. You could not go to sea without this book that’s why it was called ‘precious’.
We were then told to assemble at the camp gates where the same old bus that had brought us twelve weeks before was waiting to take us to the station. We all shook hands with the instructors who had come to see us off and although we had all looked forward to this day a few of us were close to tears (including me). As the bus pulled away we looked back out of the rear window and waved until the camp disappeared into the distance as we turned a corner. Our new life had begun, where will it take us most of us were thinking. I had been given instructions that morning that I was to report to the pool, in uniform, when I got off the train and before going home. I felt like a hero as I walked with my kitbag over my shoulder to the Posterngate office. There I was 16yrs old 5’ 2’ inches tall but I felt like a giant.
I had survived against all odds and was about to achieve my dream. As I turned the corner into Posterngate there was the usual bunch of men assembled outside the office some of them recognised me in my uniform and shouted ‘Oh look whose here’ and as I walked into the office they were slapping me on the back and saying, ‘Well done’, one of them gave me half a crown, I was nearly crying again.
I entered the office and a friendly clerk called me over to the desk and asked my name. Behind him on the wall was a large blackboard, and there written in chalk was a long list of ships and alongside each ship was another list of the crew they needed. I gave him my discharge book and ID card and he wrote down my particulars in a large black ledger in front of him. He then shook my hand and said ‘you are now officially a Merchant Seaman’ and then with a big smile said ‘….and guess what? You’re going to South Africa!
I was stunned, for a snotty nosed kid from Hessle Road who’d never been further than Withernsea you can imagine how I felt.
After that I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my mother. When I got home it was quite late and she had gone out to the local working men’s club with her friend. She returned a couple of hours later and I told her I was going away to South Africa on the following Monday morning. I only had the weekend to prepare for my first trip but I managed to bump into a couple of my old friends and told them about the training school and where I was going on my first trip. I felt a bit sorry for them when I found out they had followed the normal route and one was delivering potatoes and the other was working in a sawmill. I tried to encourage them to join the Merchant Navy but they didn’t seem interested. Each to his own I thought but that kind of life would have driven me mad.