Pre-War Years


I was about twenty two when I started on the Fordham. My employment was that of the lowliest engineer - the fourth engineer - uncertificated. The fourth engineer gets around and does all the little shit jobs and small things, you know. And gets bullied about by the others. But then he can sit for an examination, he becomes a third, see - then he's alright. I never did get to engineer number one. Oh, I got to the second but I never used the ticket. When I left in 1938 I was still working as a third when - promotion in that line is very slow. I could see that I would never become a chief, no matter how good you were, because they last a long time. And that was when I got the idea to get on deck, not down in the engine room.

When I went to sea the first time, I was on a little ship called
the Fordham. We used to sail to New Caledonia, Siam, Indo-China then back to Rotterdam and England. Then the Australian Commonwealth Line was sold to the White Star Line that became the Aberdeen & Commonwealth Line. There were five Bay ships that had been owned by the Commonwealth of Australia: The Jervis Bay, The Largs Bay, the Esperance bay and two others. The Bay ships were passenger ships of about 14,000 tons; about 900 immigrants and several hundred class passengers. They did carry some cargo, but not a lot. The immigrants were mostly from Scotland and Ireland who were settling in Australia. White Star bought them, I think, for a million and a half - the whole damn lot of them, five beautiful ships and our little cargo ship the Fordham. It must have been a huge rip-off between somebody and the company in England. It wasn't the depression that forced the sale, rather the commonwealth couldn't run them. (The five passenger ships had been built in the U.K. by Vickers Ltd and Wm. Beardmore & Co. for the Australian Commonwealth Line – in 1921 the Morton Bay, Largs Bay and Hobsons Bay; in 1922 the Esperence Bay and Jervis Bay. In 1924 the Australian Commonwealth Line took delivery of two cargo ships built at the Commonwealth Dockyard Sydney – the Fordsdale and Ferndale. These seven ships were sold to the White Star Line in 1928 for £1.85 million. In 1933 Shaw Savill and Albion in partnership with P&O acquired the five bay ships plus Fordsdale when the White Star Line defaulted on payment. The name Aberdeen & Commonwealth was retained as was the old livery and white star flag.)

Later I was on the Largs Bay with Captain Okay Snowball. No man was more aptly named because his hair was snow white. Then I transferred from the
Largs Bay to the Esperence Bay, on the advice of the second engineer.

Those ships travelled all over the world. They went from Southhampton - occasionally they went from Hull - to Australia via Port Said, through the Suez Canal, Aden, Colombo, then Freemantle, Melbourne, Sydney - occasionally one went to Brisbane, but rare. Then they used to turn around and go back. I've never known them to go through Torres Straits. Then during their day they would do two or three trips like that a year, and then sometimes they would do a Mediterranean trip - into the Mediterranean with short term tourists you see. And then they would do a few odd trips - Norway and Sweden. Oh, and Denmark.

They were good ships and were they comfortable ships for the passengers? And for the crew? Yes, they were alright. They were quite good. By today's standards - these people would grumble today - crew conditions are palatial today. More than necessary, the amount of space taken up. But they get it. They ask for it and they get it, and they strike if they don't. So I suppose its alright, but we never had it that good. And the pay was chicken feed, I mean you didn't get anything like the money we've got now - not an eighth of the money. The pay was all in. Many times you could save it all, keep it all in your pocket because you had nothing to provide on the ship. There was any amount of books and reading and that, and things that passengers left behind - all sorts of stuff. I had a cousin who came out here. He was second stewa
rd on the Orontes - he came out here quite a few times. My people saw him once; I never saw him. I never happened to be there when he was here. But that was big business years ago, just like aeroplanes are now, you know. People were coming and going all the time. And it was better travelling than now. That getting in the aeroplane and sitting there like a dumb-bell, and twelve hours getting out, you stagger down the steps. You've seen nothing, have you?

The Fordham was a coal burner, and the bay ships were oil burners with steam turbines. I think they converted the Fordham - they granulated the coal, very fine you know, and it was handled by mechanical means later, which was much better. But before its a shovel job, you know it comes over onto the plate out of the chute, and its got to be shovelled into the firebox. And then you had lakkas doing that; they came from Colombo and places like that. They would go berserk occasionally, with heat of course. Those engine rooms would get to a hundred and fifty degrees, and they were working like beavers. And you were getting around boilers see, and you were hot too. And they had to spray the heap of coal with water, and that made it very humid, like a steamy atmosphere. We sprayed the coal because it burnt better. Even in some furnaces in the latter days of the coal business, they had a pipe across the front, and they had nozzles in there that atomised the water, and when they re-coaled the fire - well they refuelled the fire and sliced it - they had a thing there - a slicing iron - to separate the fire a bit. When that was done, and there was no clinker, in the fire you'd see - when the slicing iron'd come up - if it came up, it was like honey hanging on. It would be like honey hanging on the iron, and that was molten clinker, and they'd have to get all that out, and push it down the chute. Then they'd turn this water on, and the fire - apparently you get more water out of the oxygen than you do out of the air.

The shift arrangements varied. You would go on sometimes if it was a two-hour watch, according to what it was - or a three-hour watch, or a four-hour watch. You would do two or three of any one of them in the day. The lengths of the watch changed according to conditions, like if it was very hot people couldn't stay down there that long. They used to change stokers, or they'd only be down there two hours quite likely and they'd have to come up. An engineer could stand it a bit longer I suppose, and you'd just go up. But that used to be laid down; how long you would stay there, and you had no say in it of course. They had proper watches - shift watches. So you really didn't work any more than the man that's working an eight-hour day - you worked about the same.

My accommodation wasn't in the officer's area Oh, no. I had mine at first in with the workers; then when you became an engineer you got four in a cabin. It was all right, because those people behaved themselves there, because if you disturbed him he could disturb you. You didn't come in and make noises if he was asleep; you just kept things quiet and let him sleep, because he had to do the same for you. That was alright. Then when you wanted to do some studying you could go into a reading room where - they had good reading rooms, both for the passengers and the crew. You would go in there, and they had a library. And I used to have to go in there to get books. Also I had to get tuition from the third engineer, who was a mathematical wizard - miles ahead of some of his seniors.

The mess arrangements were good. Good dining room, long table. Everybody took his food off the cook's shelf. In the officer's mess of course it was brought by a waiter, a steward. Three meals a day, and supper - was really four meals a day.

No matter what shift we worked you just got meals all the same. If you were working on the day shift, you'd get supper; and if you were working on the dog watch - morning shift - you would get breakfast at the same time as that other fellow was getting his supper. You would go to that dining room because it would not be delivered down to you. Oh, no cabin tucker, only for sick people - which there was always quite a lot. Those ships were very stable, but people did get sick, even though they were over fourteen thousand tons.

My general memories and impressions of my time as an engineer working on those ships are generally happy; they weren't bad, because we had plenty of company among the passengers. It was a good ship to work on. No, they were not hard times. If you fell out with somebody, that was the important thing - not to fall out with an engineer. And I was well-tutored on that angle by my father. He used to tell me things in little proverbs, you know; if there's something wrong about your boss, well you must put up with it because you can't alter it - that kind of thing. Keep on the right side of him. But that never worried me, and I didn't drink a lot of grog so I didn't join in big grog parties, which was a bit dangerous.

They were mainly single men and not many married men among the crew. Its no life for a married man, because he's away most of the time you see. That's a bad thing, but anything in that line - truck drivers, airline pilots - all have marriage troubles. We hadn't got to look at it like that in those days, but it is a fact of life.

Then we had got mixed up with some people, and they ran a communist cell on the ship - every ship's got them. The trick is to see that you don't join the party, any party. We went down there and drank some of their beer and listened to some of them, and it seemed all right really. Then when we didn't turn up these people wanted to know why, and they got aggressive. I talked to the second engineer, and he said: 'The only thing you can do is to ask for a transfer, which I would recommend for you.' And he did. Oh, shocking turnout. Once you're in that, you're in trouble, yet they don't bother anybody outside. But it you once appear to join them they just mean trouble, you know. If they haven't got any trouble they'll go looking for it.

Many years later I got my Mate's ticket working around New Guinea. After acting as Captain, when he was ill, I eventually gained my Australian Master's Ticket on a vessel called the Trader Horn, that used to ply around New Guinea. To gain the ticket you would have to prove that you could navigate and you had had sufficient time - which my time wasn't sufficient, but I'd sufficient written down on the book. And so then you would sit for an examination, you see, and you would be subjected to a lot of questions, like port questions. Somewhere or another I might have one of those. I've got the one for the pilot's ticket into Darwin harbour. That occupies three closely typed foolscap pages - just for a pilot's ticket into Darwin harbour, which you'd think would only warrant about five questions, like hopping from buoy to buoy and all that. But that's not so. In those days you didn't worry too much about having a foreign master's ticket. I went through there and nobody questioned my ticket so I didn't worry about it - in those days. Now, with so many faxes and all this other gear, it wouldn't be possible.

I stayed at sea until 1938, yes late '38, I had ideas of coming ashore permanently if I could've got a decent job. And I got a job at Tulloch Steelworks in Rhodes, Sydney. And I'd become a bit enamoured with a girl in Sydney and I thought I might stop in Sydney. It was quite a good place in those days. And so I went to work at Tulloch's Steelworks. I was the machine shop leading hand/turner there in about six months because I understood milling machines and lathes. I used to get nine pound ten a week and that gave me enough money to go to Kingsford Flying School at Mascot for one hour's flying on the weekend and one evening hour's flying during the week - Wednesday or Thursday. It used to be arranged when things were slack and I used to pay one pound an hour for dual, ten bob an hour for solo on Tiger Moths.

The Tiger Moths and Pith Moths were good and I went solo after eleven hours, though some went after eight hours. It took me longer to iron out yawing and a few other problems. But the Moths were easy to fly and would take of on their own if you trimmed it just right.

I didn't end up marrying that girl. The war came and I just joined the Air Force. I went to Richmond and did a trade test and I passed and they seemed to want me to stay. And I said: 'Oh no, all my gear's there.' I had a car by that time. I had an A-model Ford. And they said to come back, I think, in three days is it? Or two days. I fancied this was the day or two days before the war. I could see we're going to have something and I thought: 'I'll be in it early.' And then I went back to Richmond and they gave me what they call a movement order and another order which entitled you to buy petrol, and then put it in later and get paid for it; wherever you bought
the petrol you kept that thing.

Sid’s RAAF records give a different version; at this stage I am unclear as to whether Sid erred in or omitted to tell me all his details, or whether in his desire to join the RAAF he did not want it known that he had maritime experience. On his ‘Application for Enlistment as an Airman’ Sid wrote:”References enclosed, also 1 year 9 months machine shop work at G.L.Briggs & Sons Ltd Briggsdale NSW, am at present turning Tullocks Ltd Engineering Rhodes. I served 3 years apprenticeship at Young& Co Foundry of Norwich England but did not complete owing to coming to Australia 12 years ago with my parents.” The records note his ‘Previous Trade And Trade Qualifications’ as: Fitter and Turner, 2 years Wiluna Gold Mines WA, 3 years Mulhearne Saw Milling Co Sydney, 3 years Young’s Engineering Works Nor
wich Eng, 2 years Mt Isa Mines Qld.

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