Chapter 9

But things were happening in the outside world. The Great Depression was deepening - the second Labour government had fallen and the first so-called National one was doing its best to secure the interests of supporters, but not noticeably the ever-growing numbers of unemployed. Ships throughout the world were being laid-up: cargo, passenger, fishing, and it was a mournful sight to see them tied up in rows along the key side, or anchored in rows in the estuaries. Soon there was no room in the fish docks and there was an overspill into the trading docks, which were none too prosperous themselves.

By early I932, Father's business had collapsed and we had been forced to move into a rented house, obtained by the good offices of a friend. Shortly before this, I had joined the Association of Wireless and Cable Telegraphists, the negotiating union for operators. With several others, I was hanging around the Grimsby Marconi office one day when Frostie said that the Association was holding a meeting that afternoon in Hull, and two of us could go over for it - in the firm's time but at our own expense. There we learned of a proposal for LWP, Leave Without Pay, ostensibly to be a voluntary arrangement, the equivalent of short time working in a factory. I recall the fierce comment of one of us who said that it was all in the interest of the shareholders. At that time, the proposal seemed reasonable to me, but the remarks did sow the seeds of suspicion in my mind. I was an early victim of LWP, but soon the Company went the whole way and gave us the sack; to quote the seafarers' traditional term, I was on the beach. At least I could draw the dole - all twelve and sixpence of it!

Unfortunately Father, having been in business, couldn't draw anything. How we managed I cannot remember; at one time we took in lodgers until an offer came along to move to another house where Pa would act as caretaker for an office there, again through a friend. In retrospect, I cannot say that it was a particularly depressing period, at least for myself. I was young. It was a way of life. The whole country was in the same predicament, at least those who had to work to live. Investors didn't do too badly. In any case, casual work was normal in our seafaring town, at least for many - the fishermen, the fish dock and the trading dock workers and repair yard men. Twice a week I had to sign on at the Labour Exchange: on Tuesdays to certify that I had not worked during the previous week, and on Fridays to collect my twelve and six. The Exchange was housed in what had been at one time a large Non-conformist church, so that there was a very extensive floor area on which to accommodate a large U-shaped-counter which had four positions, each with a permanent queue that on the two days each week snaked out across the forecourt and on to the pavement of one of the town's busy streets near the dock entrance. Although in most cases the individual's predicament was not of his own making or choice, the overriding atmosphere seemed to be that it was, and the Exchange staff were non too polite at times. They (the staff) were sometimes told, If it wasn't for the likes of us you would be in the dole queue yourself. Probably unfair, but at least it did relieve someone's pent up feelings a little.

Once I scored off one of them. As I worked my way up to the head of the queue one morning, the clerk snapped somewhat brusquely, Want a job ? - Yea - Then stand there. At this, he looked at my record card and in some confusion said, I'm sorry. Didn't know what you did. It's only a week's labouring job. It will be all right if you don't want it. However, I still said yes and joined half a dozen others to be told that each had to push a barrow around for a team of girls who were working on an advertising campaign. A tablet of Wrights Coal Tar soap was to be given to each householder in the town, together with a short spiel on its qualities. So for the next two weeks I pushed the barrow around, chatted up the girls and made hieroglyphic chalk marks on each street corner for the benefit of the supervisor, who was a very charming lady from London. This job was followed by another week delivering handbills. Once in the mill, why not? At least it made a change and paid better, just a little, than my weekly twelve and six.

As well as standing in the twice weekly dole queue, one went down the docks to see if there was a job going. Say good morning to Mr. Cuthbert in the Marconi office, keep an ear to the ground around the trawler owner offices, and stand with the crowd near to the dock entrance for a yarn and a natter. This was where everyone congregated, as there was nothing much else to do. Everyone it seemed was there, even my first skipper Harry Thompson, who had clearly abandoned any pretence that he only favoured places exclusive to higher beings. For by now, Crampins were giving up long lining and converting their ships back to trawlers, so codmen had to lower themselves and try to remember their early training. How the skippers fared I do not know, for none of them bad been in charge of a net fishing vessel. It was also a bit of a mystery how regular skippers obtained a ship; perhaps an owner sent for them. But the deck crews had to hang around the offices, trying to discover if any fresh hands were required, and hope to catch the eye of the ship's husband who organised everything. Of course, these had their regulars who had sailed with the same company for years, but there was still a constant changeover. Despite certain behind-the-band stories, I do not think that they actually took a backhander to give someone a job. Not, however, that they were averse to accepting a drink in a pub. That was part of the game!

With ups and downs in life, it was not uncommon for someone who had made a good trip to drop the price of a drink or two into the hand of a pal who at that time was down on his luck. But some, it was said, made a practice of expecting this and got a reputation for scrounging. A favourite place for this kind of activity was to stand on the pavement in Riby Square at the exit from the docks and, in trawlerman's parlance, this spot was known as Handley Bank. A double-edged pun as there was a real bank at the corner. For some reason, the giver of this kind of generosity was called a Wesley Boat, as in: I was standing there looking for a Wesley Boat. John or Charles, I wonder?

In the trawling wireless world around this time, two developments were taking place. Firstly, radio-telephone/telegraphy sets were replacing the old morse only ones, which was one of the reasons why operators were being sacked. Some owners thought that they were now unnecessary as the skippers would be doing the job themselves. Naturally - it was cheaper that way. Secondly, apparatus to determine the depth of water was being introduced, the Marconi Sounding Device and others. This was the most fundamental improvement in fishing since the introduction of steam as it meant that a ship could obtain continuous depth readings while steaming along. No more need to stop the ship and use the leadline. This device was being fitted just as quickly as the dry-dock could be booked; it was necessary for a hole to be cut into the ship's bottom to fit the equipment.

One morning, when I made my courtesy call at the office, Mr. Cuthbert asked me if I was MSD experienced. On receiving my affirmative, he explained that someone had arrived the day before to do a skipper familiarisation trip on a newly fitted ship, one that didn't carry wireless, but had failed to appear at the early morning sailing time. Frostie had gone out with the ship for a final check, had come back in a tug and had just telephoned to say that the first suitable out-of-work was to be asked to go to this ship at once. As an apparent afterthought, Cuthbert said that if I went, I would have my job back. And now means NOW. No, there's no time to go home and get your gear, the tug is waiting. So within five minutes I was down at the tug receiving instructions from Frostie, allowed to phone home, and a quarter of an hour later was steaming down the river on a ten day trip to the Faeroe Islands. The missing man's kitbag was onboard, and I had no compunction what-so-ever in using his blanket, shaving gear and spare shirt. This was not exactly a pier head jump, but the nearest I ever got to one.

In those hard times there would usually be a couple or so men with packed seabags hanging around the exit lock at sailing times, in the hope that a ship would pass through with a man missing, someone who had failed to appear. The process was quick. The skipper would shout, Want a ship?, the man would run along the lockside, throw his bag on board, and scramble on to the fo'c'sle head himself as best he could as the vessel moved along. He probably depended upon someone telling his wife the news so that she could draw the wages. This was obviously clear evidence that the unemployed were workshy! Incidentally, it was a criminal offence to miss a sailing. The charge was of being a Disobedient Fisherman and a Disobedient Fisherman was usually fined five shillings. Popular times for being a Disobedient Fisherman were the very early morning tides, or those just after pub closing time. The first because he had been reluctant to leave his or someone else's connubial bed, and the second for obvious reasons!

So I was back in regular employment, and for a short period was one of the regular MSD demonstrators before going back as a normal operator. For the owners were finding that skippers were not too keen on doing all the wireless work, and the crews themselves wanted an operator on board. My first ship in my renewed capacity was the Lady Eleanor out of Hull, and it started my long acquaintanceship with microphones. There was also another development around this time. Traditionally, when fish was gutted, the livers wore stored in the barrels ready for processing into codliver oil at a factory ashore. This provided a useful extra perk for the crews. But then a new system came into being. A small boiler was installed in the deckhouse at the stern, and special storage tanks placed on the deck near the ship's quarter. Into the boiler was fed the livers, which were then boiled up by steam. After settlement of the residue, the oil was hand pumped into the tanks and refined in the factory. By common consent, it then became an extra job for the wireless operator to do, and so he too could earn the oil money perks. It was quite an easy job, although rather smelly, but did require some special clothing, which was not to be worn down the cabin.

Not unnaturally I suppose, those members of the first crews with whom I sailed made impressions on me. I learned the facts of life (as they saw them). Unfortunately, looking at the photographs taken with my ten bob Hawkeye Box Camera, I cannot always put a name to a face, although I can usually recall the personality. Crews were a shifting population, and one generally never knew their full names, only the first name or the nickname. Often these nicknames were very descriptive: Swan Neck, Treacle Bob and 0verIand Billy. The last was a skipper who tried get from the east side of Iceland to the west without sailing round the coast. There was Mad Alf, who put his ship on the rocks while making passage through the Westerman Islands. Getting the ship off the rocks, he put it ashore on a nearby beach, the only one for miles around, and where the telegraph cable to the mainland came in. Naturally, be hit the crucial six inches and cut the cable. Some of the crew told me that be cried out Launch the lifeboat. Save yourselves. I'll go down with the ship. Not that there was any danger at all, the ship was on the sandbar and the weather was calm. But when the crew got away, he then hurriedly changed his mind and appealed to them to come back and rescue him. This they refused to do with many a jeer, and to add insult to injury, the cook held up a kettle of fresh tea that he had wisely made, and poured into it a bottle of whisky. According to my informants, Alf then went completely bonkers, much to their increased and very evident amusement.

The skippers of course provide me with rather more recollections, as I was more closely associated with them. Some were good, some were bad, and some I just cannot remember a thing about, cannot even put a name to match with the ship on my discharge papers. Of one or two I have vivid memories. One, whose surname was Black, had picked up some slight eye infection and temporarily wore an eyeshade. At Bear Island, in mid-winter, and one very cold and snowy night, or it may have been a day, one never knew, the trawl came up in the mother and father of a frap, being dumped on the foredeck in an enormous pile. Leaning out of the bridge bellowing orders, he muttered something about not being able to see with this effing thing on and tore it off. Consequently, the infection got worse. I had to dress the eye with ointment from the medicine chest; it did no good and that is how he became to be known as One-Eyed Blackie.

This same trip saw us short of stores. Tea and milk ran out completely, and it became a moot point whether a pot of hot water with raspberry jam stirred in was better or worse than one with marmalade in to drink with a hard tack ships biscuit. I also sailed with, for some months, another One-Eye in the Franc Tireur, a ship built in I9I6 as a minesweeper. At sometime, the ship had been lengthened by twelve feet or so, six in the bunkers, and six in the fishroom, and when rearing up on a sea actually bent in the middle. Looking upwards, you could clearly see the wireless aerial stretching as the mast moved in opposite directions. She was a grotty old tub indeed. This One-Eye rejoiced in the name of One-Eye Griff the Bastard. And a bastard he was, if he could get away with it. Unfortunately, being the Master of the Ship, he could! As far as I was concerned, he tried hard, but with me he didn't have the same scope as the others. He really did try, even to wanting to read the crew's private telegrams. In no uncertain terms I told him he couldn't, pointing a rigid finger at the Secrecy Notice on my bulkhead. Dire consequences were threatened, but to no avail. Then, when we were about to enter dock on arrival back, it was Sparks, can you lend me half a crown to get a drink on the way home? So much for the bullyboy! But as they went, he wasn't a very bad one. He only earned his sobriquet from his statements when young that when he became a skipper, he would really be one.

Some years later when I was in quite a different environment, I was on a visit home and went into a nearby bar for a drink. Chatting to the barman about this and that, I mentioned that I was a returned native son, had sailed out of the port, and so forth. Then for some reason I said that at one time I had sailed with One-Eyed Griff the Bastard. At this, the only other occupant of the bar, a lady, quietly remarked that he was her late husband. But don't you worry. I know all about that. Full of embarrassment, I hurriedly bought her a drink and vanished.

Another ship of the same I9I6 class was the Drummer. One of my skippers there was an Icelander called Joachimshonn, and he was one of the gentlest men I have ever met. Nothing ruffled him. Never lost his temper. Never had his door down. Once, when the trawl came up in the biggest frap I did see, his only comment was Call me when it's clear and retired to his bunk. Any other Skipper would have gone berserk. His speciality was fishing in Faxa Bay, which required constant reference to landmarks. He would stay on the bridge directing operations for the first seventy two hours, have two or three hours sleep and return for another thirty six. When we set course for home, he would turn in and sleep for thirty six hours, come up for a pot of tea and relieve himself, and then go back for another twenty four. From him I learned quite a bit of Icelandic, which enabled me to understand the weather forecasts sent out by the local broadcasting station without having to wait for the English version on W/T.

On a later trip on this same ship, we had a Skipper called Jones who wasn't exactly an intellectual. For no reason at all, we anchored in Dyrafjorder, and after the customs officers had sealed up the bonded store, he went ashore in a launch with the expressed intention of seducing the harbourmaster's daughter. How he knew that the harbourmaster had a daughter I do not know. Anyhow, he arrived back on board the next morning with a very sore head and soaking wet, having been thrown into the fjord by the harbourmaster's two irate sons. The date of this attempted seduction was the eighteenth of February I934, and I know that for sure as it was my twenty first birthday. While the Old Man was ashore, the crew passed away the time by finishing off the bottles of rum and whisky they had bought before the store was sealed. Being still somewhat thirsty when the bottles were all empty, it was decided that it would be a good thing to break open the customs seal and try again. So half the crew repaired to the skipper's cabin and started on the remaining stock . The scene in the private quarters of our dear Captain became somewhat indescribable, not to say rather rowdy and rough. After the Skipper's ignominious return and we had upped anchor and steamed away, one of the deckhands, who was a bit of a creep and a crawler, asked the skipper if he would like a reviving tot. Answered with a weak nod, the deckie disappeared and then came back with a glass of rum. There you are he said It's the only one left on the ship, I've kept it for you. Saved my life muttered the Old Man as he knocked it back in one gulp. The only thing wrong was that it wasn't rum, it was brimstone and treacle and the poor old skipper nearly choked on it. Someone apparently knew that the deckie had a half bottle hidden in his bunk and had substituted it with this horrible concoction, a jar of which was kept in the cabin by the cook to counteract a cough problem. For some reason I got the blame, but on this occasion it wasn't me.

A few trips later, having passed through the Pentland Firth homeward bound, we ran into thick fog. Instead of reducing speed as should be done in such conditions, the Skipper pressed on at full speed in order to catch the afternoon tide. Not being able to see anything, we had to navigate entirely by wireless bearings - which meant not only had I to be on watch all day and all the following night and then into the next day, about thirty six hours or so, I had to do the chart work as well as I didn't really trust the Skipper at the job. Steaming at full speed, in fog and at night into the bargain, didn't make for a contented crew and we were all rather tensed up. Some of them wouldn't sleep down the fo'c'sle, but dossed down on the cabin locker. After passing Flamborougb Head we headed for the Spurn Lightship, or rather the wireless beacon on it. Any competent navigator would have kept it a quarter point on the bow. But not ours - oh no. Keep it right ahead. This despite warnings from both the Mate and myself.

Being now more than uneasy, distinctly worried in fact, especially as the Mate was keeping out of the way down his cabin, I stuck my Certificate and wallet down my shirt front, got ready my life jacket and lashed open my cabin door. From an instrument on my receiver I could tell that we were getting perilously near to the beacon, and so after every entry in the logbook., still steering straight to the beacon, still ahead, distance estimated five miles, three miles, Skipper informed, etc, I stuffed it up my guernsey and waited for the crash. At least, when my lifeless body was found floating in the sea, I would be in the clear and the stupidity of the Skipper exposed. Then there was panic! Engines rung to Full Astern, bellowing from the bridge, two deckhands rushing to haul in the log line before it fouled the propeller, and shouts from the bow.

But the shouts we could hear were not from our own lookout, but from the one on the light vessel itself. We were about to ram it. My wireless bearings must have been good, as we wore almost on the point of hitting it midships before way was lost and we backed off. Even then, the skipper pressed on at full speed as we turned into the Humber Estuary. Not being of any further use, I went aft to clean up and pack my bag ready for docking, when the Mate appeared, even angrier than before. That stupid sod. He's risked our lives all this time just to get a few more hours ashore, and now he's lost his nerve. We're going to anchor off the Bull until it clears. Which for me meant more hours on watch until we docked at four am. By the time I reached home, reported back to the office, and then took a girlfriend to the pictures, I had been awake and moving around for some fifty six hours. No wonder Mother couldn't waken me the next morning.