The Bremen, a German ship captured during the war, was lying in Plymouth Sound when I joined her. The steerage quarters were pretty rough, with bunks rigged up in every inch of space. The food was poor to start with, and the cooking made it worse. But I was eighteen, and off on my own to New Zealand. My father had given me £10 in sovereigns and because of the deep distrust of my fellows, inculcated in me during my religion-dominated upbringing, I always kept this gold against my belly in a leather money belt. It was December; we had the expected rough weather crossing the Bay of Biscay, and I went through the normal agonies of seasickness. After this, the romance of the voyage took charge and I would stand in the bows at night, with the quiet roar of the bow wave in my ears, and watch the stars weaving to and fro above the mast. The deck throbbed, and the rigging shook at the end of each roll, but it was quiet for an instant before the ship started each roll back. The steerage passengers were an odd collection. The English ones nearly all seemed to have quirks of behaviour, or queer ideas of some sort; the New Zealanders were more balanced and practical.
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I think the one I liked best was a New Zealand blacksmith going home. One night a boxing match was arranged, and my opponent was a tall, broad-shouldered man with an exceptionally long reach. It was difficult to get inside his long guard, but the fact that I was getting into rather a mess, with a lot of blood over me, was not a proper indication of the state of the fight. I had not yet got his measure, and was most disappointed when the referee stopped the fight. I mention this boxing match because I think it had an important effect later in the voyage. We reached Durban for Hogmanay, and the coal trimmers’ shovels beat a terrific din over the still harbour at midnight. I swam in the surf behind shark-proof iron railings. There was a fresh breeze driving the spray off the combers in sheets, and the sea was so salty it stung my nostrils. The hot burning sun was a novelty. We drove about in rickshaws, and everything seemed romantic and exciting.
The chief trimmer on one watch had been my second in the boxing match, and when he was brought back to the ship handcuffed I talked the native policeman into freeing him and letting me take him aboard. He had been drunk, of course. Next day he deserted and therefore the watch was one man short. I volunteered to sign on, and was duly accredited a member of my first trade union, the Firemen’s Union. My six mates of the watch were a tough lot. They were London-Irish. I was told that the Liverpool-Irish trimmers were the toughest in the world, but it was hard to believe that they were any tougher than these London-Irish were. Most of them had been torpedoed at least once, and one man described how the engineer had stood at the top of the gangway with a revolver threatening to shoot anyone who left his post after the torpedo had struck the ship in the side. The Bremen had hot stokeholds; particularly one double hold with a row of furnaces both fore and aft. When shifting clinkers in this hold I had furnace heat from both sides. I was soon exhausted and felt at the end of my tether. But we were short-handed, and in stormy seas after leaving Durban we were on watch ten hours a day – four hours on, eight off, followed by six hours on and six off. After each watch time was needed to wash our bodies grimed with coal black; also we had to eat. Although the food seemed plentiful after the severe English rationing, we were always ravenous. Looking back, I think that again this was probably due to lack of some vitamins in the diet.
Nearly every day there were fights over the food, sometimes with knives drawn. I never had a fight, and I attribute this to the boxing match early in the voyage that had been keenly watched by both trimmers and stokers. Besides the crew wanting as big a share as possible of any food going, there were also the cockroaches and weevils. I tried various dodges to keep the cockroaches off the plate and mug in my locker. My best catch from one biscuit was three weevils and two maggots.
I was not the only person exhausted. In the watch after ours, a big Swedish trimmer said that he could not go on watch. There had to be a full complement below and one of our watch had to take his trick for him. A second time one of our trimmers did his trick for him, but when he declared a third time that he was unfit to work, our watch was not having any more of it. They dragged him out of his bunk, and beat him up with their fists. They seized him by his legs, and dragged him along the alleyway to dump him down the ash chute into the hold. These chutes were shafts, just big enough to haul up a sack of ashes from the stokehold for dumping over the side of the ship. The man looked a ghastly sight being dragged along with his head bumping on the steel floor, and his face covered in blood. I had a feeling of shame that I did not come to his rescue, but I knew that if I intervened they would tell me to do his trick for him myself, and I was at the end of my endurance. Perhaps my mates were better psychologists than I was; the Swede suddenly jumped to his feet and, thrusting his attackers aside, ran down to the hold. I was told later that he worked harder than anybody else on his watch.
Years later, when I was on a passage from Kobe to London in a P&O steamer after I had crashed in Japan in my seaplane, one of the engineers there turned out to have been seventh engineer in the Bremen. He told me the subsequent history of my trimmer watch. Of the seven who started the voyage, only three got back to England. One had deserted in Durban; one disappeared in very suspicious circumstances on the passage between New Zealand and Australia; one had been killed by a blow on the head from one of the long clinker slicing bars; and a fourth had been hanged for murder.
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