China and Apprenticeship


My father was a major in the Army when he was sent back to China as vice-consul. When we went to China I was quite young. I suppose I was five-and-a-half or six.

Our arrival at that country was quite dramatic. We were in the river and waiting for the small river ship to come up and take us. The fact that there were diplomatic people on board and a regiment of English soldiers, the Chinese would co-operate you see. The Boxer Rebellion was all over then. There was no rumpusing like that, though outside there were little bits of trouble.

I remember us being battened down and me trying to look out of a porthole and look down the side of the ship. Of course there were big high sides in the liner - like from here to the roof, but I did not get much of a view. My mother eventually wanted to look out of the porthole as well, which she did. And she was shocked. What they were doing was they had a rope and they had three-pronged hooks and they used to throw 'em up and, sometimes they'd bounce back and sometimes they'd hook and they'd go up the rope. And sometimes they had a bamboo pole with a hook on the top and a lot of knots all the way up - rope knots tied around it. And they got a hand on it and they went up like hand over hand. And they had the knife hanging on the belt and they fought on deck with the British soldiers. And my father went up there with two pistols. He would be in his glory, of course. And what he did, I don't know whether he shot anybody or not. My mother was really upset, you know, to think he would shoot a human being. But whether he did anything or not - but there was a lot of banging going on and squalling and eventually a Chinese navy ship came up alongside and everything was squashed - you know, over.

Our house in Tientsin was right on the three corners of the American, German and English concession. That had a name, but I've forgotten the name. But, they were quite a tightly knit community, you know; they were all in together. My father even went to Lodge there, where there were German members and I guess American ones too. We had a Manchurian prince on one side; on the other side was the Ho River; and behind, I just forget. Our house was quite big. Not big by today's standards of course. I can remember that we had a separate nursery for each child. Les was the baby, and he was in there - sometimes in my mother's room, I guess. And my father had another bedroom, because I remember when they were going out somewhere, my mother would get dressed. She had a Chinese maid that would do things you know. But my father had Butler - he was his batman, you see, a Gloucestershire Regiment private soldier - and my mother couldn't have him in the bedroom while he would get dressed. It would be: 'Butler, get this. Butler, get that.'

My father was very arrogant in a way, you know, though he knew his business very well. But he was very straight off the cuff with most things. But he got on very well with the Chinese, particularly the upper crust, possibly because of arrogance, you see. He was never one of them that went down on his knees you know. Many people meeting influential Chinese went down on their knees - thought that'd do them good; but not my father, he didn't do it. He said: 'My Queen never taught me to do that.' I think there were others that did the same thing too, but some did do it - walk along on your knees. I've seen them doing it in Indonesia, have you? Very humiliating isn't it?

Father entertained at home in a small way. But they had a big building where they entertained; I don't know what that building was - where it was a big turnout, you know, big Chinese turnout. See Chinese are a bit like Indonesians; if you invite that one, you've got to invite this one too, and: 'What about him over there?'. See, we're getting a bit like that here, and I think that's the Asian influence coming in you know. Well, say we were going to have a birthday party - oh, there'll only be about fifteen people probably - but don't worry when the time comes you can stick thirty on that. Yes, its always the same.

But Tientsin was quite a big city; it was over a million - was a lot for those days. The market was allegedly one of the biggest in the world, because they didn't have so many other types of shops. All the shops were in the market. You went there, you could buy anything. Like when you go to the thieve's market in Singapore - a bit like it. But they were genuine merchants you know, as well as thieves - or maybe they combined the two, because anything could be stolen there. They stole all our heating kerosene once while we were away in Shan-i-quon, and then filled the drums up with - they were those pot-barreled drums, you know - they filled them up with water. How they got the water into them, its a mystery. The seals were intact and everything.

I can still vividly remember being taken for walks along the river and seeing the plank with low sides that went out from the shore. Mothers would come along with female babies tied in a bit of raffia and place them at the base of the plank. Then another one would come along and push the others up to make room for her baby at the base of the plank. That way no one mother drowned her own child!

We used to go on holidays to - as far as I can pronounce it, it was Shan-i-quon. And I look on the map, and I see names very similar, but never the same. So its got to be one of them right on the coast, about - might be thirty miles from Tientsin. And we used to go there on a railway that was pulled by mules; it had eight mules pulling carriages. They used to jog along in front - three abreast I think - and how the hell they didn't stumble over the railway lines and so on I don't know. We would go there for sometimes six weeks or thereabouts, I think. And there used to be a big Sikh garrison near there. We used to go down to the beach and the Sikhs would all go down to the beach. They would do the same thing in the morning, and this was a bay - a fairly tight bay - and they would look one way during the morning, and one way in the evening, and see the sun rise and see it go down. And on the second, when that bottom rim of the sun touched the horizon they would go. [Action.] After a few minutes they'd get up, having said their prayers, and form into a line. Very smart drillers, very smart little soldiers they were. Sikhs - oh, I think they might have been the Gurkhas - might have been Gurkhas, I've forgotten.

My mother was very quiet and quite academic. She spoke French and was interested in archeology. She helped convert a lot of history into Chinese language while we were in China. She worked with a wife to the Manchurian prince who lived next door to us. I don't know what number wife - I fancy it was number three or four. She hadn't had a child, and she was very young; I think she was only about twenty-two, or something like that. She came from America, she was born in America of Chinese parents - and of course spoke fluent English, having been to an American university. Ultimately she was absorbed into diplomatic forces in China. But they used to try to write up - I think it was back Chinese history, you know, not modern history - a way back - to convert into English books. I did find one once, in a library somewhere.

My mother had a house-keeper - Chinese house-keeper. He was like a hotel mandarin; he had been. The other house staff were three Chinese men: number one, number two, number three. Number one lived away, he lived with his wife. He had two sons, and those sons he was very worried about; that's how he came to leave our employ and we got another one. He worried about those sons, for anything that happened and he was under the European employment - what would happen to his sons, you see? Things were very bad in China in those days. And so he got a job with the Manchurian Prince next door, and that assured him a permanent job, according to him. Before he could do that he had to go and see a Chinese doctor, and he had to have the old family jewels removed. And that he did, and about three weeks later he came back to see my father, and what was up, and he explained about it, and he went to work for the prince. I don't know what happened at home. The young fellows - I guess they grew up and he was able to educate them, you see. Education was a much sought after thing in China. You would do anything to get your child educated, contrary to us. And they used to have a system there, when they wanted public servants they had thousands of little huts - they looked like country lavatories, only slightly bigger - and they had a little desk in there, and a seat. And that man went in there and he - I don't know whether he got fed in there or not, or whether he came out at the end of the time - but he was locked up in there. And he sat for an exam. I saw rows and rows of them, all with a character on them, all in one place, in a field - like in a cornfield. And they sat for an exam for the government. You don't pass, you don't go in; you went and collected a hoe, and went out in the rice field.

The cook didn't know European style, but my mother used to show them. She had much argument. They hated her because she came there once - and you know how you go round when you're making a pie and pastry on top, and you get a fork and you've got a bit of a damp rag alongside in the saucer, and you put the fork on there and you dab it on the pastry, and when it starts to stick you dab it on there again - I think they do it with milk, and you dab it on. But this fellow, he didn't do it like that, he used to go [action] and used his spittle to go round. And he'd be highly delighted to put himself - after we ate it of course - that would be his fun. But she discovered it, and had the pie thrown out. I have heard of people offending the Chinese there - a Chinese waiter - the Chinese waiter would say nothing when you offended him; you could insult him, and he wouldn't do a thing. But when he brought your next drink, and when he was out of sight around the corner, he would go [action], and you'd drink it. Spit in your drink. Oh, many things.

And when the cat came and frightened the larks of one of those cooks - they had larks in a little cage about a foot square, or less - the lark died. And so the cook promptly cultivated a bosom buddyship with the cat. There's a thing called a quong; its like that big pot there, but high - its about five feet high. They kept the water in that, and it had a wooden lid with a ventilator on it, and gauze around so insects don't drop in. There was an empty one of them there, and he put a board over the top and he put some brown paper on it, and then he'd put the cat's tucker up there every day. He fed the cat there; the cat would get on to something close by and jump up. He knew his food was there, and he used to jump up and eat it. He'd pat him: 'Pussy, pussy.' Later on, he split the paper down the middle, and he'd put a weak little stick there, cut away. And in the bottom of the quong he'd put some powdered lime, about two inches deep I take it. And he put the meat on the paper. The cat came along, and jumped onto his first step, and then jumped up there and straight through, into the powdered lime. And my mother heard the screams and hollering of the cat, and they quietened down and went off. The cook took the cat out - killed it, see. When my mother came around he was holding his hands together like this, and she said that's the only time she saw him smile.

We used to play with a German boy who was there. I remember I made a model aeroplane out of a matchbox, and used to have a needle and a little bit of something through for colour, and wind all the string around that thing and pull it - make the propeller go round. Though where we got the idea of aeroplanes from, I don't know. I think his father was a German Army officer, because there used to be a lot of army people there. Of course, there was because of my father too - he'd been there in the army previously. And so, I think it was army. And we used to all go to school together, with some American children, in a thing called the tonga. It was like a wagonette, a four-wheeled affair with some board seats all along the side - and twenty-five kids or something inside, and a couple of minders. You know, like they were Army soldiers - ours was named Butler. Butler was a really nice fellow, and he went into the war - he was a private soldier - and he went into the war and he was killed within about a week, something like that. I remember my mother was really upset.

We used to go to Victoria market quite often. Sometimes my father would take us, sometimes Butler. I can't remember being there with my mother - no doubt she would have been there quite a lot. We used to go to watch them sawing the ice in the river. We used to skate on the river. The river used to get six feet thick of ice on it, and then they used to saw it up into blocks. A little portable tram line they had - they used to run along about twenty feet of it with three or four men, and lay it down up to the edge of the ice. How they got them up, I just forget that bit - up out of the water, because there's water underneath, quite muddy. And the ice - I forgot whether that was muddy or not - but we never used it for drinking purposes; it was only used for cooling. And then they used to put this on this little tram line and shoot it along and it would go to another bigger one and put on railway trucks that went right into the side of a mountain that was an ex-salt mine, a late salt mine. They would put blocks of ice down, then they would put a layer of straw, and then they used to turn these blocks of ice over by rolling them sideways with iron hooks. Five or six Chinese'd get on and roll them; you couldn't carry them and you couldn't drag them. They used to roll them onto a heap of straw so they didn't stick together when they were taking them out. Because it was like, oh - huge place - as big as a house inside, and the railway lines went between you see.

It was the same mine they were getting the salt out of. They used to mine salt, and they used to use it for storage. I guess its still there. And then they'd bring that down, and they would make ice cream - the better-off Europeans. They had a thing with a stick on top - it was like a wooden cask with a big round tin inside it, and then they had a handle they used to wind on the top. That went round and round, and eventually this milky looking stuff they had in there turned into ice cream. And they'd put salt in with the ice, broken up ice all around. And you had ice cream - Chinese style.

Occasionally we would play with Chinese children. They would be children that were friends of my father. We were never allowed out on the streets and that sort of thing. If we went anywhere we had security men with us - Butler or one of the others. If we all went, the two of us and the German kid too - three rickshaws, we had an amah in each rickshaw with us, and then there would be one security man. He would go in a rickshaw by himself. We'd go and see what we had to see.

My father had a single-cylinder Rover car - single cylinder, one plug. He used to drive that out; it was a big deal of course there. I think there might have been only about two or three cars in the place. He bought it off some other person, you see. Some other European when he went on furlough, or got posted, or something - well, he'd leave the car behind. When we went to Shan-i-quon I remember we were driving through miles and miles of green cane - sugar cane fields - for the whole of the distance. Very fertile looking place. Of course, some of it could have been corn - I don't know, I forget that. I remember once we were coming back, we saw somebody was bringing their luggage back, and they had rolls of carpet on the back of the wagonette thing - like, the carriage. It was like a flat top at the back, and they had all the luggage stacked on there. And there was a bloke untying knots with his toes - and he got it untied and it dropped off, dropped off on the road. And they pulled up, and there was hell to pay - they were chasing him, whether they caught him or not I don't know. But, the hue and cry was on of course, and they were out in the canefield trying to track him down, bring him back. But you imagine, untying knots with your toes.

We were evacuated from China in about 1915 because the White Wolf Warlord was on the rampage going through cities and stampeding hundreds and thousands of men. We returned to England on the
Arcadia in a convoy of eleven ships, thirteen with the two Japanese warships. Japan was our friend then. And I don't know the name of those two ships. But we were on the Arcadia; that'd be the Arcadia II. I think there were three Arcadias later - another one now, maybe four. And they intercepted a radio message and they found out that it was from the Emden and they kept that radio tuned, didn't use it. They kept it tuned continually and manned it and they then had German speaking people; they monitored all that stuff. And he said that he was looking for a convoy of fifteen ships - he thought he had had, or rumoured or something - fifteen ships. And he half-hoped he didn't find them because other sources had told him they had many women and children on board. And he didn't want to meet them.

And then smoke began to pour out of the ship we were on - on the
Arcadia - smoke was leaking out of ventilators and things like this. And our cargo had been put down on what they called the godown. It'd been put there and it rained. And the Chinese came along and they covered it all up religiously with tarpaulins, after a big shower of rain. During that time spontaneous combustion must've set up, and when we're at sea it caught fire. Smoke pouring out of ventilators and they daren't take the hatches off; that would've been fatal - they knew about that. And they had pipes bent out - they looked about two inch pipes to me - and they were bent round like that and come back, ten feet out from the boat. And they were shooting water on to the sides of the vessel because it was red-hot at night and it would be seen, you see, it was red-hot. And maybe it'd bulged and give way too if they didn't keep it cool. And they had these - five or six along the one hull that was the worst. We used to watch them off the side of the companionway.

Then they had a thing; every window was inspected by a ship's officer. Anybody who was caught with a naked light would be summarily dealt with. This means shot. And this includes civilian adults. Notices were pinned up all down the corridors and all about, you know. Done on an all real old-fashioned - apparently - stamping-machine, big thing like that. During one night there was a big commotion. People are coming out of their cabins and wondering what's going on and the police have got five fellows under arrest, marching them down. They had exposed a naked light. They were playing cards up among the winches. Don't know if you've seen an old-time ship - they had winches that were half as high as this ceiling, you know, huge affairs - steam, of course. And they were down among the winches, thought nobody'd see the light. And, later on that night, we learned - my father was called out about eleven o'clock, him being an ex-military officer, he had to serve on the - not jury - it's like a court martial panel. And you had to have five people and they preferred them to be staggered - no two from the one regiment, and things like that - they picked 'em. See, true British justice type of thing, and my father was one. And he had to go and he had to sit on this panel and they decided they would be shot before dawn. And they went and they stood over the other side of that railing and the firing squad was up higher and they were shot: they had their hands tied behind their back and they were shot. Needless to say, everybody knew, everybody on the ship knew what happened.

On our way back to England we saw no hostile ships, two or three submarine scares - but they used to depth charge 'em whether it was a submarine there or not. If it was a suspicion they'd let 'em go. They seemed to have that many depth charges.

Father was in the war then and went away. Back in England, we shifted out to a place in Norfolk where we had an uncle who had a farm. We must have stayed there three years, or four years. Three years - that I can't say, but quite a while - certainly, over two. I had a real ball there. That's the first time I lived in any place where there was wildlife and that, you know, in the bush. And there were poachers there - genuine poachers that thieved from big landowners - and I palled up with two. My people didn't know for ages that I knew all about snaring rabbits and things like that.

During that time I think father came back, and then he went to a sanatorium at - I don't know if it was Maidstone or somewhere there. My mother visited him, because then he was still in the army you see. By the war's end of course, he's out. I think we went for a short stay back to Birmingham, maybe only a week or two, and saw the old people. I think one had died; grandfather had died. Then we went to Colchester, to my mother's brother, I think my mother's brother. He had a big house in Colchester, and we stayed there, must have been two or three months for me, but they stayed there longer.

I went to Portsmouth, to the Naval College. Then I did something - I forget what I did the first time - and my father was called down, and he was very annoyed. The next time I carried some notes. I used to take a note down for a friend of mine, and he was on with the gardener's daughter. But it was discovered, and it turned out that I carried the note, and maybe they thought I was in it too, but I wasn't - I wasn't getting any of that. And my father was called again, and therefore I was shipped off to Belfast, to Uncle Charles who was in charge of the drafting office in a shipyard of Harland & Wolff. I was happier there. I would have been almost fifteen I guess. I didn’t want to go into a drafting office so I went into the engineering part, but after the first few weeks that wasn’t the best either because you really worked there; there was no forty hour week!

My apprenticeship paid eleven shillings a week. I used to walk three and a half miles to work until I built a bicycle. We worked hard but we also had a bit of fun. It took a while before I got used to Irish life - because I knew nothing of Irish life, you see, because I'd left there when I was only twelve months old or something. I didn't know Irish ways, and I was a bit of an outsider because I was not real Irish, you see. Like, if you spoke Irish with a brogue and all that you fitted in, but if you didn't - if you spoke with an English voice - you were on the outside a bit. But I used to run, and I used to be able to beat the others. And I used to have a fight nearly every dinner time with some other kid, until eventually you learn to know you can look after yourself. It would be adults that would pick the fight of course, for the want of something to do - you know, lunchtime amusement. Then you would - in the running, I think because you get determined to show the bastards that you can win, I think that's the reason you win. And I won quite a few, and maybe that how my son James comes by it.

I spent six years and three months to complete an apprenticeship, because you were off sick, and you must complete that time after. And there was no proper drawn up apprenticeships like here; it was a hill-billy turnout, more or less word of mouth. And you did it, and if you were satisfactory its alright, you got credited with it. My apprenticeship was Marine engineering, like engines and things, in the shipyards. I think they still operate. They were the biggest shipyard in the world once. Yes, they were. They taught the world to build ships really.

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