Mal de Mer

Cunard liner Caronia, Atlantic ocean, 1907.

Carmania_Caronia

When we were 300 miles to the southwestward of Ireland, we ran into a storm, and for a few hours the liner pitched and rolled.

As the seas rose, and the Caronia began “shoving her nose into it”, a few of the less hardy souls on the promenade-deck made for the lee rail and began quietly “feeding the fishes”. Among them were a man and his wife. The husband was affected only slightly by Nautical Nausea, but his wife was suffering from intense equilibristic disturbances. He was standing by, holding her hand, and doing everything that he could to lessen her misery with comforting remarks.

Along came a fellow-passenger, one of those hearty characters who believe that ocean travel is at its best in rough seas. It was his boast that he always did forty times around the deck before breakfast, and ate four square meals a day in every kind of weather. He had a nodding acquaintance with the couple at the rail, and, sizing up the situation as one that required a little pep talk, he roared, “Good morning. Good morning. Lovely weather, isn’t it? I’m sorry to see that your wife has such a weak stomach.”

This was too much for the husband, who roared back indignantly and proudly, “She hasn’t a weak stomach. She’s throwing farther than anybody else!”
‘Tramps and Ladies, My Early Years in Steamers’, Sir James Bisset and P.R. Stephensen, 1960.

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Destination Cape Town

My last post on Tuesday left a large group of Union Castle mail ship passengers playing deck games on their way to South Africa in 1913. So today I thought I would deliver them to their destination and visit a couple of sights in Cape Town.

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After the ship’s band played the last waltz there would have been lots of goodbyes

Vintage postcard of a man and woman on a  ship's deck in the moonlight.

Some were harder to bear than others.

Vintage postcard of a group of ship's passengers with binoculars.

In the morning there would have been great excitement as their next port appeared on the horizon. The lady in the centre of this image, peering through binoculars with hand on hip, looks like a fashionista of her day. It’s a pity we can’t see that outfit in colour.

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This card from the Cape Town branch of J. Valentine and Sons shows the Grand Hotel on the corner of Strand and Adderley streets. Built in 1885, it probably catered to many Union Castle passengers before it was demolished in the 1950s.

Vintage postcard of Cape Town Grand Parade and City Hall (opened 1905).

Cape Town City Hall was completed in 1905, to house a growing city administration and has, in its turn, been outgrown in more recent years. This landmark building was built facing the sea with the Grand Parade in front where regular markets were held.

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Cape Town’s Houses of Parliament, built in the same year as the Grand Hotel, became the legislative centre for the new Union of South Africa in 1910. The administrative capital is Pretoria.

Table Mountain dominates the view in the last two cards. Locals might possibly get used to this sight eventually, but to a visitor, it never fails to take your breath away no matter how many times you return.

 

The games people played

Modern cruise ships provide every kind of entertainment to keep their passengers from boredom at sea. Shops, movies, nightclubs, casinos and live theatre shows; luxuries that less demanding travellers in simpler times couldn’t have imagined. But some of the old favourites have been dropped in the name of progress.

What about ‘Slinging the Monkey’, ‘Chalking the Pig’s Eye’, ‘The Turtle Pull’, and Cock Fighting? These were all part of the fun on your journey from England to South Africa on a Union Castle liner in the early years of the 20th century.

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This Union Castle mail ship leaving Cape Town isn’t named on the postcard but is probably the RMS Kinfauns Castle (1899 – 1927).

You’ll be relieved to learn that no animals were harmed during these activities. In fact, no animals were involved. They relied on volunteers from the audience.

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 Slinging the Monkey. The rope is standard issue (non-elastic) so this isn’t an early form of horizontal bungee. A tall man with long arms would be a safe bet to win.

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Chalking the Pig’s Eye. A variation on the old Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey game you might remember from childhood birthday parties. Obviously these people had no sense of direction.

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 The Turtle Pull looks like it could have been invented by a rugby coach. Was it a consolation event for men who weren’t picked for the Tug-o’-War team?

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Cock Fighting. Yes, I know – you have to see it to believe it.

These illustrations were taken from an extensive list of postcards published by the Union Castle company. I have 33 of them and wouldn’t be surprised to find there are more. They were issued in booklet sets and can be dated fairly accurately to 1913, give or take six months.

An Emigrant’s Tale

I was in my teens when we left Scotland. My father was ordered to take a long sea voyage, and New Zealand was chosen as our destination – the mild climate being a great attraction.

Off Valparaiso

We left Home in the sailing ship Ganges in July [1st], 1863, arriving in Auckland in October [12th], after a good voyage; no bad storms, and no serious illness. There were 12 first class passengers, and about 250 immigrants in the steerage. In those days the conditions of travelling first class were much below those of the third class now-a-days both in accommodation and in commissariat arrangements, there being very small cabins, and very hard bunks, with the most primitive means of lighting. There were no baths; the men and boys used to be hosed down in the early mornings when the decks were cleaned, but the women had to perform their ablutions in tiny basins with very little water.

We carried some crates of thin fowls on deck, which grew tougher and skinnier as the voyage progressed, as did also a few sheep. There were also preserved vegetables, potatoes which were very nasty, and butter, which, unlike the fowls, grew stronger and stronger as time went on. Curiously enough, plum pudding was the most successful dish in the menu. It appeared every Thursday, and was quite the event of the week. But we had a good captain, and our fellow-passengers were so congenial that everyone felt sorry when the voyage ended, and we had to separate and scatter.
A. H. Williams quoted in ‘Tales of Pioneer Women’, Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd., 1940.

The popular captain was Thomas Funnell and there were 22 passengers listed in the main cabin. One steerage passenger, William Kirkwood, had died of pulmonary tuberculosis in September, and one child was stillborn in August. That was certainly a “good voyage” by the standards of the day.

The ship’s second, and last, voyage to New Zealand in 1864/65 with Irish emigrants wasn’t so fortunate. Two crew lost overboard when they fell from the mast, two adult passenger deaths, and 54 children due to an outbreak of whooping cough. The newspaper report and captain’s log make grim reading.

Battleship cats (and rats)

In August 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill embarked on a top-secret mission aboard the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales to rendezvous with American President Frankin D. Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The accord reached by the two men at that meeting became known as the Atlantic Charter. A few trusted (and sworn to secrecy) media representatives were included in the official party, of whom H. V. Morton was one. Three days into the five day journey Morton decided to explore the ship. His visit to the engine room, “in the temperature of Trinidad”, was brief…….

Ascending with relief to more temperate regions, I was in time to be present at one of those domestic interludes which enliven the existence of a battleship, even in war-time.

Three Marines were holding three cats. They held them not as animal lovers, but as soldiers, as if cats were part of their equipment, as if, indeed, they might be ordered to “for inspection, port cats!”; which is precisely what they were doing. An officer came along and, having scrutinised the cats, solemnly dismissed them.

I was told the explanation. When the Prince of Wales returned from the shipyard after a brief refitment following the Bismarck action, a peculiar smell was noticed on one of the decks. This smell, increasing in volume and pungency, inspired two schools of thought: one, that the shipwrights had used some unusually penetrating glue or other material, the other, that one of the ship’s three cats had chosen an inaccessible hiding-place in which to expire. It was therefore decided to muster the cats and solve at least one of the theories which, as I saw, was happily unfounded.

Churchill and Blackie_2

Winston Churchill discourages ‘Blackie’ from following him on to the American destroyer alongside H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

Until her visit to the shipyard, I was told, the Prince of Wales prided herself on her ratlessness. But when she returned to duty a few rats had come aboard and action was immediately taken. It was proclaimed that any sailor who caught a rat would earn half a day ashore, and this made the life of a rat in the Prince of Wales a brief and hazardous affair. The business was arranged with the usual naval precision. Rats having been caught, the trappers were required to parade with them. An inspecting officer cynically remained until he had seen the rats faithfully destroyed. Then the trappers were able to qualify for their reward. I asked if anyone had thought it worth while to import such desirable quarry but I was answered with a stony and disapproving stare.
‘Atlantic Meeting’, H. V. Morton, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1943.

Four months later, on 7th December 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbour and America entered WWII. On 10th December H.M.S. Prince of Wales, along with H.M.S. Repulse, was sunk off Malaya by repeated Japanese aerial attacks. 327 men from Prince of Wales died, including Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach. The fate of the cats is not recorded.

Force W at Scapa Flow

From ‘Sailor At Sea’ by Vice Admiral Harold Hickling, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1965.

It was in September 1939 that Mr Churchill had been lunching in H.M.S. Southampton lying at Rosyth close to the Forth Bridge. After lunch the Captain took the First Lord onto the quarterdeck for a breath of fresh air. The sirens went and two minutes later a covey of Heinkels put down a pattern of bombs which fortunately near-missed the cruiser and the bridge though they struck a spark in Winston.

‘Decoys, that’s what we want, dummy ships!’ he exclaimed.

It was just the sort of thing that appealed to his quick, imaginative mind, indeed in the First World War he had had a dummy [H.M.S.] Queen Elizabeth built which performed off the Dardanelles and as far as is known achieved precisely nothing*.

On the face of it, it seemed a good idea. Enemy air raids on Rosyth, Scapa [Flow] and other ports were becoming more and more of a menace and our anti-aircraft defences were thin and not very effective; so, argued Winston, why not have decoys to draw the enemy bombs. Too simple. Possibly a bit too simple.

In the upshot three old New Zealand frozen-meat ships, each of about 8,000 tons gross were converted, Pakeha, Waimana and Mamari. They were taken out of mothballs in the Gareloch and sent over to Belfast, arriving at Harland and Wolff’s yard on 25th September, 1939.

Two of the ships were to represent ‘R’ class battleships, Royal Sovereign and Revenge; the third, the aircraft carrier Hermes. Mr. MacClogrie, a Naval Constructor, was in charge of the designs and a very good job he made of them. In addition to the camouflaged upperworks each ship was loaded with some 7,000 tons of stone as ballast, to keep them down as it were, and 17,000 forty-gallon drums for buoyancy, to keep them up. They had it both ways.

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The three ships of the decoy squadron are on the left. The real Home Fleet is in the background on the right. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29655.

The recently-promoted Commodore Hickling took command of this plywood and canvas squadron on 11th April 1940 and entered a slightly sureal world.

About 4 p.m. I clambered up a rope ladder – there were no fancy things like accommodation ladders, and as my feet touched the deck I noticed with approval my broad pendant break at the yardarm. I also noticed a sailor go up to a 15-inch gun turret, open a door in its 12-inch armour-plated side and take out a leg of mutton. The officers, all seven of them, for as Senior officer I had a staff of two, were introduced to me by the First Lieutenant; with one exception they were all Royal Naval Reserve.

My cabin was nothing more than a large rectangular wooden box. Its whitewashed walls reminded me of the waiting room in a French nunnery. There, alas, the resemblance stopped ……. Looking round it all seemed a bit strange, accustomed though I was to being pitchforked into every sort of odd job that no one else could be persuaded to take. I pressed the bell and when my steward entered with a tray of drinks I began to feel more at home.

A few days later he asked his First Lieutenant what their main armament consisted of – “Six .303 rifles, sir,” he replied. “With ammunition, of course.”

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The decoy aircraft carrier Hermes from above. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29653.

Hickling eventually persuaded his superiors that locking up three hundred officers and men in decoy ships didn’t make sense – “It’s doing them no good, nor the enemy any harm.” The squadron was left to swing around permanent moorings and the crews were dispersed to more useful duties. The ships were transferred to the Ministry of War Transport in 1941 and resumed their lives as cargo carriers.

*The real Queen Elizabeth was part of the Dardanelles campaign but, so far, I’ve found no record of a decoy taking her place. Can anyone help with this?

Rivalry at the Suez Canal

port-said

The Suez Canal from Port Said on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea, built by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, and opened in 1869, takes advantage of some lakes on its route, and for ninety miles runs through the desert as a commercial highway of the greatest importance to all nations, especially our own. By it the journey to India is very nearly halved. A great share in its control was gained when the Khedive’s shares were bought for our country [1875]. These have proved not only a good financial investment, but also a great leverage in the diplomacy necessary for maintaining a hold on Egypt…..

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A cargo ship on the “commercial highway” at Tussun Curve

The importance of Egypt on the highway to India has brought it under British control which has been maintained since 1882.

Text from The World, a British school textbook by McDougall’s Educational Co. Ltd. c.1913/14.
This gives the impression that Britain supported the Canal proposal from the start. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The official position was that it would be a threat to British maritime supremacy and was “merely a device for French interference in the East”. Paranoia turned to farce after the Canal opened….

……. argument about the Suez Canal rumbled on in London, even after Disraeli’s dramatic purchase of Canal company shares. That purchase gave the British places on the Canal company’s Board of Directors but it still seemed to them that the French were using the Canal as a weapon against them…… The French had set up a Sanitary Board in Egypt, nominally meant to keep the country free of cholera. It decreed that if a ship passed through the Canal without a clean bill of health, it must not have any contact with the shore, and nobody on shore must go on board it. Yet all ships using the Canal had to be controlled by a pilot. In effect, no ship – and they were mostly British – which approached from the south could present a bill of health from every Eastern port she had called at, some of which might have had a case of cholera. British ships were told that they must have a pilot, that he must not go on the ship but go ahead of it in a tug boat, shouting his instructions. That took an unconscionable time, the Canal company charged the earth for it, and it led to frequent strandings.

The French would have taken a different view and insisted their Sanitary Board was a necessary protection. But it never got to that stage. The British Foreign Office, still hating the thought that the Canal was under French control, demanded a second canal, to be strictly British, and in 1883 it offered de Lesseps £8 million to dig it.

[Thomas] Sutherland [Managing Director of P&O] was elected Chairman of a Committee representing all the British shipping lines which used or might use the Canal, with instructions to put the scheme into effect. De Lesseps had all the cards in his hand, not least the firm offer of £8 million. But luckily Sutherland, and presumably de Lesseps too, came to see after very long discussions that there must be some more practical answer to the problems, and the rather crazy idea of a second Suez Canal parallel with the first was allowed to fall out of sight.

The Story of P&O, David Howarth and Stephen Howarth, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.

caledonia-at-port-said

The P&O ship Caledonia (1894-1925) leaving Port Said.