Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Sea Stories and Houseflag Lapel badges

My name is Terence (Terry) Smith and I now live at Falmouth in Cornwall.
Born and raised in the Bedfordshire market town of Biggleswade my first love has always been railways with shipping - especially merchant shipping - a close second.
Upon leaving school at Easter 1959 I worked first as a railway signal-box telegraph-lad before joining the British Merchant Navy.
After a period of training as a catering rating at the 'T.S.Vindicatrix' sea training school at Sharpness in Gloucestershire I sailed firstly with Port Line and then the Blue Star Line before later becoming a railway signalman. There followed a variety of occupations - including thirty years as a mobile gents' hairdresser - before I finally retired and moved with Diana, my wife, here to Falmouth.
I have written two novels - both portraying the life of a youngster in the British Merchant Navy of the 1960s - hopefully with others in the pipeline. I have produced a number of lapel badges based on the houseflags of now extinct British shipping companies - with others to follow if sufficient interest is generated. I also have in my possession a number of crew lists relating to the vessels I sailed in. They can't be reproduced but are available for information if requested.

Contact: starboy61@talktalk.net

Vessels sailed in:

Port Townsville - January/February 1961
Port Melbourne - February/March 1961
Port Victor - March/April 1961

Rhodesia Star - April/August 1961
Argentina Star - September/November 1961....August/October1962.....October/December1962
Paraguay Star - April/June1962
Scottish Star - November1961/April1962

Lapel badges currently available - prices on request:


Books produced to date;

'SUNSHINE, SUGI AND SALT'.....Owing to a reprint this title is again available from the author, price £11.45p to inlcude first class p+p in a padded envelope.
'ANOTHER PINCH OF SALT'.....This title is now available from the author, price £7.89p to include first class p+p in a padded envelope.
Both titles purchased together: price £17.45p to include first class p+p in a padded envelope. Alternatively, both titles are vailable from Amazon in 'Kindle' format at a reduced price. Just go to www.amazon.co.uk for details.
Also available from June 2016, 'RELAX', a selection of observations, short-stories and recollections. Price is expected to be about £3.50 plus p+p. It is also available in 'Kindle' format from Amazon.
Further information can be obtained from me via email at starboy61@talktalk.net

I commenced my sea training at the National Sea Training School at Sharpness in Gloucestershire on 27th December 1960. As you'd expect it was a cold and damp winter's day; not the ideal baptism for a lad of sixteen who was leaving a comfortable home for the uncertainties of a life at sea. I soon discovered, as did the remainder of the fresh 'intake', that life at Sharpness would be harsh, not least because of the unrelenting cold. My course as a catering trainee should have been of six week's duration but was curtailed to five owing to the intervention of Christmas.
The establishment, operated under the auspices of the British Shipping Federation, comprised numerous huts in a camp that overlooked Sharpness Docks on one side and the River Severn estuary on the other. Running parallel with the river was the Sharpness - Gloucester Ship Canal, a branch of which, 'The Canal Berth', was home to the T.S. Vindicatrix, the nucleus of the training facility.
Launched in 1893 as the steel-hulled sailing merchant-ship Arranmore. she sailed the oceans of the world, surviving storm and ship-wreck before eventually being sold to a German company. Following World War One and after several years in German ownership she was repatriated to the UK where finally, at Gravesend in Kent, she became the T.S.Vindicatrix, a floating sea-training school for youngsters with a hankering for sea life. In 1939, with war again imminent, the 'Vindi', as she became known to those who trained aboard her, was towed from Gravesend to the assumed rural safety of Sharpness where she remained until closure of the school at the end of 1966.

The former sailing-ship Arranmore, now dismasted, fitted out as a training establishment and renamed T.S.Vindicatrix, sits in the 'Canal Berth' at Sharpness Docks in Gloucestershire, her home for twenty-seven years. She was towed away to Newport for scrap in January, 1967.
Photo: T.S.Vindicatrix Association.

My first ship after leaving the 'Vindi' was the refrigerated cargo vessel, Port Townsville. I joined her at No 6 shed KG5 in London's Royal Docks on Tuesday, 31st January 1961, this after 'graduating' from Sharpness on Friday 27th January, the day of my seventeenth birthday.
At the time I joined her as a pantry boy the Port Townsville was in the final stages of discharging a cargo from the Antipodes. It soon transpired that Port Townsville  was suffering mechanically and was scheduled for dry-docking in Newcastle. And so it was that in the late afternoon of Tuesday 7th February, instead of setting sail for New Zealand as I'd hoped, we made our departure for the Tyne. We arrived at the Swan-Hunter yard at Wallsend the following afternoon and immediately went into dry-dock. We paid of at North Shields the following morning and thus ended my first trip to sea as a seaman. The Port Townsville remained at Swan-Hunter's till July, undergoing extensive repair.

The Port Line refrigerated cargo vessel Port Townsville. My first trip to sea wasn't quite the adventure it might have been. That said, some wonderful evenings ashore in such hostelries as 'The Round House', 'The Royal Oak' and other dockside taverns, in some way made up for the disappointment.
Photo: H. Cole collection.

My next trip to sea, also with Port Line, was aboard the refrigerated cargo liner Port Melbourne. As a member of the relieving crew I joined her at Falmouth in Cornwall on the evening of 1st March 1961. From Falmouth we commenced, via the Kiel Canal, to the Baltic port of Gdynia in Poland which at that time was hard-line and communist. Given the anti-communist propaganda that at that time dominated the British media we didn't expect any shore leave, However, contrary to expectations shore leave was granted - subject to conditions - so along with other crew-members I proceeded to discover the delights of the communist philosophy. It was bleak in the extreme although rather surprisingly, thanks chiefly to cheap Polish lager, a good time was enjoyed by all. Whatever, it was an eye-opener indeed for a lad of just seventeen years. After discharging a part-cargo in Gdynia Port Melbourne arrived in London's Royal Albert Dock on 11th March. After paying off I continued to 'work by' until the ship sailed again for Australia.

Port Line's refrigerated cargo liner Port Melbourne. Her voyage to Gdynia in Poland, which at that time was hard-line and communist, certainly furnished an alternative perspective of communism to that portrayed by the British media.
Photo: H. Cole collection.

I joined the Port Victor in Hull's King George and Queen Elizabeth Dock in the early hours of Wednesday 23rd Mach 1961 after an overnight journey from Bedfordshire. She sailed the following morning, firstly to Dunquerque and then around the UK coast calling at London and Avonmouth before paying off in Liverpool on Friday,14th April.
Port Victor, laid down as a merchant ship in November 1941, was commandeered by the Admiralty in January 1942 and entered service at the end of 1943 as the Auxiliary aircraft carrier HMS Nairana. In 1949, subsequent to a spell with the Dutch navy, she was returned to the UK where following conversion to her intended role as a merchant ship, finally began service with Port Line.

Port Line's refrigerated cargo vessel Port Victor. She served for the latter stages of World War Two as the auxiliary aircraft carrier HMS Nairana.
Photo: H. Cole collection.

Later in April, in search of a 'change of scenery', I approached the Blue Star Line offices at the rear of 'A Shed' in London's Royal Victoria Dock. I was sent straight to the Rhodesia Star which was berthed along the dock at 'E Shed', loading a cargo for Australia. After working by for a week we signed articles on Wednesday 3rd May, eventually sailing on Saturday 6th at around noon. An eventful voyage took us via the Suez Canal, firstly to Aden for bunkers (fuel) and then to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle NSW, Brisbane, back to Melbourne before retracing our course; initially to Dunquerque where we discharged a deck cargo of wool before paying off in Liverpool on Monday, 14th August.
I say it was an eventful voyage for very good reason. Unlike the Port Line vessels I'd sailed in previously which were all motor ships, Rhodesia Star was a steamer; usually the more reliable form of propulsion if not necessarily the cheapest. The first breakdown occurred in the River Thames and then again in the Mediterranean. They were only brief stoppages and we were soon on our way, Rhodesia Star showing a commendably good turn of speed. However, a day or so out of Aden, in the middle of summer in arguably the world's hottest 'hot-spot', we experienced a succession of breakdowns that prevailed for almost a week, with only a few miles covered. Conditions aboard became dire, especially for the engineers who were toiling away in the engine room, trying to effect repairs. Given the heat they could only work briefly before coming up for a respite. Even so, some suffered badly from heat exhaustion and were treated accordingly by our doctor, a supernumerary who was working his passage to Adelaide. It didn't help that aboard Rhodesia Star everything was made of steel, even the internal fittings - at least in the crew's quarters - that only served to accentuate the heat. There were no punka-louvres as there were on most modern vessels, the only concessions to ventilation being open portholes and an electric fan in each cabin.
Apparently, contaminated water had entered the boilers which if left uncorrected could cause damage on an extensive scale. To cut a long story short fresh water had to be rationed; generators shut down for extended periods, effectively rendering the ship 'dead'. We were issued with salt tablets to combat the heat, salt-water soap for washing and showering although meals were served up as normal. Meals were cooked whenever electricity was available. Similarly, showers - which by this time had been rigged to supply seawater - were taken whenever we were able. Otherwise, we drew water from the ocean by the bucketful and this generally sufficed for washing purposes. Eventually, repairs were effected and we resumed passage for Australia; but not before diversion to Colombo for permanent repairs had been contemplated. Our engineers must have done a good job as for the remainder of the trip everything went along swimmingly, the engines performing without blemish. Another catastrophe, this one of a personal nature, involved a visit to the dentist in Aden homeward-bound and can be read about, albeit in fictional form, in 'Sunshine, Sugi and Salt'.
I should add here that Rhodesia Star also entered service in 1943 as an escort aircraft carrier, this one of American vintage, after being laid down as a merchant ship. Initially named the USS Estero, almost immediately, and after modification to suit British naval practice, she was transferred to the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Premier. Following the war she was returned to the 'States' and a lay-up berth before being refitted as a merchant ship. As such she was acquired by the Blue Star Line of London in 1948 and renamed Rhodesia Star.

The SS Rhodesia Star arriving in the River Mersey on Sunday, 13th August 1961 after an eventful round-trip to Australia.
Photo: Alan Wilcox.

Between mid-September 1961 and December 1962 I made three voyages to South America aboard the SS Argentina Star. I found her an excellent and very happy ship. This may have had something to do with the ports we visited as they always seemed filled with excitement. Typically, we'd call at Lisbon, Tenerife, Salvador (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Sometimes we'd call at Recife outward and Madeira homeward whilst for whatever reason, Salvador was omitted on the homeward passage.
Everyone had their favourites, mine being Buenos Aires which from my point of view was - and probably still is - the most fantastic capital city in the world. Our stay in BA was usually of an eight-day duration and I invariably wished it could have been longer. Everywhere has its bad apples and Argentina is no exception; but generally speaking the people we mixed with were supreme. Sadly, in Britain they are badly misunderstood and shamefully misrepresented by the media.

Blue Star's refrigerated cargo-passenger liner Argentina Star. She was clearly a very happy ship. Indeed some members of crew regarded her as their home and served aboard almost perpetually.
Photo: H. Cole collection.

The motor vessel Scottish Star was also a very fine ship. Between the end of November 1961 and the end of April 1962 she took me on what can best be described as a 'world cruise' - and I was being paid for the privilege. From London we proceeded via the Suez Canal to Aden for bunkers; and then, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane before crossing the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Here we called at Nelson, Timaru and Napier, the latter involving a four-week stopover. Homeward bound we crossed the Pacific to the Panama Canal before calling at Curacao for bunkers; Dunquerque to discharge, before finally arriving back in London. As you've probably guessed, it was a superb experience throughout.

The motor vessel Scottish Star, another excellent ship that took me on a voyage to remember. Unhappily, in 1967 she was one of those trapped in the Suez Canal by the first Arab-Israeli war. When eventually released some six years later she was so badly corroded there was no other option but the scrapyard.
Photo: H. Cole collection.

A sister ship of Argentina Star, as far as I was concerned the Paraguay Star was the unhappiest that I ever sailed in. It seemed that whatever I did I was at fault. By this time I was a cook's assistant; and whilst I'd prospered aboard the Argentina Star in such positions, aboard the Paraguay Star I was in constant conflict with the chef, That said, it was partially compensated for by another eight days in Buenos Aires. I was aboard the Paraguay Star from the beginning of May until the end of June, nineteen sixty-two.

Blue Star's passenger-cargo liner Paraguay Star. From the author's perspective she wasn't the happiest he'd sailed in. The accompanying photo appears to show her 'shifting ship', probably from 'A Shed' in London's Royal Victoria Dock to 'Number Three' in the Albert Dock Basin. This was usual practice in those days. After discharging their cargo of Argentine beef at 'A Shed', Blue Star's, 'BA Boats', as they were referred to, moved down to the 'basin' to load once again for South America.
Photo: H. Cole collection.

After signing off the Argentina Star for the final time in December 1962 I continued to 'work by' a number of Blue Star vessels in London's Royal Docks whilst attempting to arrange a passage to New Zealand. As you've probably guessed it never happened and my 'sea service' ended in May, nineteen sixty three.
Note: with the exception of that credited to the T.S. Vindicatrix Association and that taken by Alan Wilcox, the remainder of the above photos were acquired some twenty/twenty-five years ago from a Mr H. Cole of Harrow in Middlesex, who at that time dealt in ship photos as advertised in the 'Sea Breezes' magazine. Despite numerous attempts I've failed to find any recent reference to Mr Cole or to whoever now hold the rights to his photographs. Therefore, I've attributed them to the H.Cole collection with the understanding that they are for illustrative purposes only.

As a postscript to my own time at sea I've added this very rare photograph as it shows one of the Blue Star Line's 'A' class liners departing the Rio Riachuelo in Buenos Aires for the River Plate estuary in the years before World War Two. Dock Sud runs away into the background whilst in the centre of the picture stands the Frigorifico Anglo, an abattoir and meat-packing plant that remained open until the 1970s. Every single one of the 'A' class liners was lost to enemy action during the war.
Photo: The late Reginald Stuart - Buenos Aires.


The following photos all form part of my own collection: and although in no way associated with my own sea career I've included them as a matter of interest. They show a number of coasting and short-sea traders in the erstwhile dock basin at Felixstowe and at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. They were all taken in the mid-to-late nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies. I've no information whatsoever of the vessels portrayed or their nationalities. Marriages Mill, so prominent in several of the Felixstowe photos was demolished in 2007 and the former dock basin filled in. What an amazing contrast between the port in the' old days' and the massive container port of today. Wells-next-the-Sea ceased functioning as a trading port in the late nineteen-nineties.

The above eight photos were all taken at Felixstowe, those below at Wells-next-the-Sea. 

From now on I hope to update this blog at regular intervals. Comments are welcome, as is any new material. I hope you've enjoyed the experience.


This year's annual T.S. Vindicatrix Association reunion was held at the Dockworkers' Club, Sharpness in Gloucestershire between 5th and 7th August with an estimated 350/400 former 'Vindi Boys' attending. As ever the event was a resounding success and a great time was had by all. For any former 'Vindi Boys' who weren't aware of the Association's existence and would like to join, details can be obtained from the Correspondence Secretary, Mr Martin Longhurst, 3 Truro Road, Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, PO6 4NP. Tel: 02392-787556. Email: martandlin@ntlworld.com
Alternatively. more information is available on the Association's website: www.tsvindicatrix.webeden.co.uk


At the T.S. Vindicatrix  Association's AGM - which was held at noon on the Friday of the reunion weekend - I mentioned that a substantial number of British Merchant Navy records are held by the Guildhall Library in London. Among these are - or were when I last spoke to them - Lloyd's Voyage Record Cards which show the ports called at by all British registered vessels plus the dates of those visits. All you need do is supply the ship's name, it's official number and the time-frame of the voyages you're interested in. I was able to purchase copies of mine for a small fee. For anyone contemplating a visit to the Guildhall Library to use its reference services - it has a virtually complete collection of Lloyd's List shipping newspapers dating back to the eighteenth century, as well as other historical maritime memorabilia - I'd advise ringing to check they can meet your requirements and to ask if you need an appointment. Whatever, contact information is as follows.
Postal Address: The Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, London, EC2V 7HH.
Telephone: 020 7332 1868/1870
email: guildhall.library@cityoflondon.gov.uk


Another excellent website you might wish to visit is; www.miniatureships.blogspot.com

Anyone with an interest in Britain's railways in the 1950s might also like to visit: www.biggleswadestation1950s.blogspot.com


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