John Powell

My redundancy papers, list my employers as Cayzer, Irvine Shipping Co Ltd, of 1 Seething Lane. ( Formerly of 2-4 St Mary Axe)

Everybody used the terms - B&C, Cayzers, Union Castle and Clan Line, King Line, more or less indiscriminately, meaning ‘The Company’. Mind you there were definitely two large minority groups who considered themselves either ‘Clan Line’ or ‘Union Castle’ men. I suppose I worked for B&C.

In 1969, at the age of sixteen, I was recruited to Cayzer, Irvine Shipping Ltd by Bill Mabbett the company training manager, and started my engineering cadetship with two years at Plymouth school of Navigation before even seeing a ship. Part of the School was in a bombed out convent, I remember rows of bullet holes in the house walls nearby  and several classrooms still being unusable due to wartime bomb damage (this in 1969). We lived in hostels scattered round the area and mine was ‘Standard House’, by the station.

My hostel manager and lecturer in mechanical engineering was Bill Currie, a marvellous and kind man. Many years later I met Bill again (1990’s) he had retired and was filling in his time dressed as an 18th Century Cooper at Morwellham Quay on the Tamar, telling us tourists about barrel making. I recognised his distinctive voice and lecture style well before I recognised him. Even then he couldn’t resist throwing in bits about the quality of wrought iron used on the 18th century quay compared to modern high tensile steel. Others who knew them might like to know that Bill told me of the tragic death of GG Watson, another well liked lecturer. He gave up lecturing in Marine Architecture to sail his boat and while cruising in Australia and making passage upriver, his mast struck a power line killing him.

In 1971 I finally started my training year at sea by joining the heavy lift ship SS Clan Sutherland in King George V dock, London (a then rare Clan Line steam ship) on the African run. She was sold to Formosan owners for scrapping and I was transferred at Capetown, to her sister ship, the SS Kinnaird Castle just before she sailed for the UK. Although I signed articles in the normal way, the British Shipping Federation didn’t realise I had changed ships, so spent several months trying to trace the engineer cadet who disappeared in China. Incidentally, Clan Sutherland was not actually scrapped but sold on, to finish her days under the flag of Communist China. I have a book with a picture of her, renamed Zhe Hai 3, in the Huangpu river dated 1979.

The Clan Sutherland had accommodation for deck cadet training but it was not used while I was onboard. And while I was on them, both the Sutherland and Kinnaird had Zulu crews; the officers lived in what had been the passenger cabins. The Kinnaird Castle had a compliment of first year navigating cadets and I was somewhat miffed after finishing my first 12/4 night watch to be rudely woken at 06.00 hrs by some bloke wanting me to chip paint. The 2nd Engineer quickly established that third year engineer cadets were not part of the cadet training compliment and we were left alone. Up to this time I was one of two engineer cadets but the other, Mike, left before finishing his cadetship.

On my return to the UK I transferred to the RMMV Good Hope Castle for the remainder of my year at sea, on the Southampton to Durban Mail/Fruit run.

In 1972 I spent my final year at Southampton Tech College and was one of the last engineer cadets (I think) to be given a full time contract with the company rather than being an ad hoc employee. I later sailed with several cadets who had been cruelly told by the office that they wouldn’t get a job when their time was up. I filled in my final cadet weeks coasting MV Clan MacLaren round the UK. Everyone in my year just seemed to disappear. I only ever met one of my fellow cadets again, Brian Nicholson, on another company ship in Mombasa (in 1978ish) a, by then, rare instance of two company ships in the same harbour. I guess the company was already contracting fast.

In Oct 1973 I joined SA Oranje as third fridge engineer. She was one of the two South African ships on the mail run with Union Castle Line and was sister ship to the SS Edinburgh Castle.  The fridges were old CO2 machines, used to cool the brine that was the actual refrigerant. Most of the watch was spent walking round the ship opening sounding pipes into the holds, sampling air temperatures with thermometers on strings. Some of these pipes even surfaced inside passenger cabins but were still sampled every four hours, day and night (in theory). Hold air temperatures had to be held to half a degree, so no thermostats, just delicate hand operated expansion valves.

Transferred in December to the generator room I became a ‘proper’ engineer. The SA Oranje had two weird 1200 KW (?) Harland & Wolfe opposed piston diesel generators with ‘Roots blowers’ and three 1500 KW (?) turbines. The diesels were the only ships generators I ever saw which were large enough for us to work inside the crankcases without being cramped.

She was an old ship and one day on my watch, at sea, a ten inch turbine condenser cooling pipe finally rusted through. It nearly flooded the generator room and came close to being a major incident. Strangely, the spare section of pipe which had been bolted to the bulkhead since the ship was new had also rusted through in the same place. It’s amazing what repairs can be done with epoxy resin and bandages.

In February 1975 I took advantage of a benevolent company policy and claimed a trip off. This meant signing off the SA Oranje in Durban, spending my accumulated leave touring Africa, then rejoining the next convenient mail ship, which turned out to be the Windsor Castle.

In April 1975, back in Durban, I joined RMS Windsor Castle, as Intermediate 4th Engineer.  Bob Gemmell was Chief Engineer and held informal Masonic meetings in his suite for any Freemasons aboard, passenger or crew. I was now a main engine watch officer and stayed in that job until I left the mail run. All our boiler cleans were done in Southampton by Vosper Thorneycroft and I well remember one occasion when a chipping hammer, left in a boiler, jammed the Windsor’s port engine manoeuvring valve full ahead, as we were entering Cape town Harbour. There was a mad scramble to shut the steam off at the bulkhead emergency valve and we docked on one engine and tugs. I believe an anchor had to be dropped to slow us down but was too busy at the time to pay attention.

About this time I realised my career was suffering due to lack of motor ship experience and major excess of fun, so in December 1976 I left to coast the MV Clan Malcolm round the UK (this marked the end of my time on the Cape mail run).

In February 1977 I joined the MV Causeway. She was almost brand new, still under guarantee; my first UMS ship (Unmanned Machinery Spaces). She was a single ship company; managed by B&C for Newgate Shipping and had Israeli owners (she was Built in Copenhagen as MV Algol). I believe the owners wanted to hide her Israeli ownership in case she needed to traverse the Suez canal. This was at about the time when (I think) an Israeli attack on Egypt closed the Canal for some time. On the ship plans the main stairwell was designated as the bomb shelter. We also had a visit from the company surveyor to inspect the duct keel in way of the forward engine room bulkhead. She had a narrow gauge rail track in the duct keel to allow easy transit from the engine room to the bow emergency generator/fire pump room. I escorted the surveyor on his mysterious examination and he told me that after the MV Derbyshire had disappeared without trace in the Atlantic, a theory arose that she had fractured at the engine room forward bulkhead. He was looking for cracks in the duct keel and lower bulkhead plates, as MV Causeways hull was of similar design. Very scary.  Many years later we learned the Derbyshire foundered with all hands due to hatch failure in heavy weather.

Our employment contracts specified two months service for one month leave so I never seemed to stay on the same ship for long after leaving the mail run. Cargo ships had generally left the UK for a new voyage before most people’s leave ended whereas on the mail ships we took a few days leave every six weeks while the ship was being turned round in Southampton, so mailship leave slowly accumulated over a year or two into a decent lump.

On 4th August 1981, after a lengthy paid leave, I was called to the office at No 1 Seething Lane to be formally made redundant with a £1692.30 payment (three months contracted wages). It was made clear that I was only redundant from the company itself and was still eligible to sail for other employers.  However, I had been seeing the writing on the wall for several years and so decided to end my sea career and join the rest of the human race on shore.

Strangely I was made redundant by the President of The institute of Marine Engineers (Mr MacNought), who worked for the company, so as he finished signing my redundancy papers, I had him second me for membership of the Institute, I think he was too embarrassed to refuse (Sam McCloud, Ch Eng on MV King Alfred was my proposer). I stayed a member of the institute until it left Mark Lane. The bar and bar food was very handy for sightseeing visits to London.

I have many happy memories, a couple of sad ones and some thoughts, here are a few, recounted at random :-

As a cadet, visiting a Clan Line vessel at Plymouth docks. From a distance she seemed to have been plastered over and then covered in thatch. Closer inspection revealed a deck cargo of elephants, rhinos, buffalo and giraffes. She was making a special voyage from Africa with stock for what seemed to be half the zoos in Europe. You can decide for yourself about the source of the ‘mud’ and thatch.

Aboard SS Kinnaird Castle, accompanying the Chief Engineer round the foredeck with a chipping hammer and clipboard, inspecting the steam winches. He took the hammer and made some swipes behind a deck winch mounting. The hammer head went right through the deck.

The company had many fine ship models at St Mary Axe that were all donated to and displayed at, the National Maritime Museum Greenwich; I saw them in the 80’s. However, in the last few years they have all disappeared and the behind the scenes museum administrators deny all knowledge.

At Plymouth School of Navigation we had a 23(?) ton sailing barque called Tectona, mainly for Master Mariners to use. One year we were induced to help a coastguard exercise and a mixed bag of us cadets volunteered to help. We anchored Tectona fore and aft, at the foot of the cliffs below Rame Head and acted the part of a stricken vessel. The coast guard dragged their rocket launching tripod to the cliff top and shot us a rescue line. Unfortunately I don’t think they had ever used the equipment in anger. Their entire stock of rockets missed one after the other. Our captain then shot them a line from our Shermuly rocket pistol, which to his astonishment and our delight, worked first time. We then had great fun tensioning the breeches buoy hoist without capsizing and spent a further ten happy minutes dunking ‘Chalky White’, our volunteer casualty, in the sea.

Tectona was also used in the making of the popular TV series ‘The Onedin Line’ where ‘Chalky’ excelled as an extra. Happy days. All that and wages too!

Pre lunch drinks on RMMV Good Hope Castle after leaving Southampton, speed approx 21 knots, the saloon was on the port side aft. Really weird, racing through fog no higher that the saloon windows. No sea in sight, just fog, with sunshine beaming down from above. Apparent good view from the bridge and radar working normally. Suddenly everything went darkish. A black wall was racing passed the windows, then a huge white ‘M’ flashed by followed by A-N-C-H-E until ‘Manchester Liners’ had been spelt out letter by letter followed by blazing sunshine again. We and a containership had missed colliding by a very close margin and the saloon was magically empty of Deck Officers.

Good Hope Castle, well loaded, sailing late from Capetown (?) We were racing flat out to avoid mail contract penalties. My job as youngest engineer cadet was to stand by the fuel pumps on a kind of fire watch as the relief valves kept lifting and consequently squirting hot fuel over the deck. The Engine room SAL log repeater was reading 28.5 knots (I think), fastest she had been since speed trials anyway. All the time the turbo blowers were howling in protest at the air pressure build up in the engine scavenge ducts.

I also remember we couldn’t do any repair work while in Southampton because of a contract with Vosper Thorneycroft. One time the Master elected to sail on one engine because Vosper’s quoted too long to complete some urgent last minute repairs. As soon as we left the quayside and could then work on our own engines there was a frantic dash to replace a starboard engine cylinder head insert.

We routinely had contract engine room cleaners in Durban while we worked on the engines. In port power was supplied by six 250 Kw Rolls Royce diesel generators and each generator had a fuel trip wire in case of fire. One time, a cleaner needing to reach just a little bit higher, stepped on the bunched trip cables and shut off the fuel lines. The ship blacked out as, one at a time, each generator ran out of fuel.

A routine cargo was frogs in conical metal tanks (200 per tank?) from Capetown to the UK, used for pregnancy testing. I believe this trade led to the spread of a virulent fungus that might still wipe out many of the worlds reptiles.

I remember one voyage, on the Good Hope Castle, when we carried a photographer from the British Shipping Federation to record life at sea. Charlie Tingley was the Chief Electrician at the time and was working on the control box of the engine room crane. The job involved Charlie perching on a tiny platform about 30ft above the engine top plates with only an open hand rail round him. Charlie was crouching on the platform with his head and hands in the electrical box when the photographer came to stand on the engine room stairs some few feet behind him. A candid picture was quickly taken and as the powerful flash gun went off Charlie leapt backwards in shock, smacked into the rail and almost flipped out into space. Charley was normally the nicest, mild, man you could ever meet but I swear he was still stalking the photographer twenty minutes later.

Over the years we had several passengers die and their subsequent burials at sea. The most sombre but moving burial was for our own Staff Captain on SA Oranje. We went to standby, stopped engines and the ship to drifted to a halt. The ceremony then took place at the starboard side stern and was restricted to officers and crew, with every off duty officer dressed in tropical No10’s to see him off .The ship rolled slowly, in brilliant sunshine, as the Master read the ceremony of committal and his body slid gently into the glassy sea.

I also remember we had a pregnant passenger develop complications while on SA Oranje. The Doc (nicknamed Sir John of course) wanted her in hospital quickly, so we ran the diesel generators at sea to allow extra steam for the main engines. We even used the emergency steam nozzles to bypass the engine governor controls and gain a bit more speed.

SA Oranje, ‘Gin for Jesus’ parties late Sunday morning, soft avocados full of prawns with cool G & T’s in the sun on the starboard boatdeck, aft of the bridge.

Also gathering in the Tourist Lounge every evening with a drink, to wait for the strains of ‘Lilli Bolero’ and the start of the six o’clock news from the BBC World Service.

Bob Gemmell once required me to calculate the fuel consumption of RMS Windsor Castle to answer a passenger’s query; it was exactly 22 Yards per gallon that day.

All the drinks mixers were supplied by ‘Pico’, a Southampton firm, owned by Cayzers (I think). Blue road tankers on the Southampton dockside pumping us full of ‘Harp’ lager. Road tankers on the South African dockside pumping us full of condensed wine, to be made into ‘British Sherry’. On the Good Hope Castle, disgusting cocktails largely made from pineapple juice and condensed wine, mixed in Neil’s washbasin (tank sight glasses need testing and Dominic had a milk churn’.

Real burials had nothing to do with the daily engine room log entry ‘slowed for burial at sea,’ the engines routinely slowed every night as steam was blown through the boiler flues to expel soot. The bridge often changed our course so soot would blow clear in the wind, otherwise the morning deck crew had even more hosing down to do. Steam ships aft upper masts were usually painted black to conceal soot stains.

MV Causeway was my first ship with a good TV in the saloon, but we rarely watched it due to problems with crane jibs interfering with the signal. I remember Glyn our regular Radio Officer was on leave and his replacement being fiercely goaded by one officer, to tune the TV ‘properly’. We were loading amongst grain elevators at the time, so he had next to no chance. On and off he spent ages trying without success and finally got a half stable picture by placing the complaining officers foot in the metal waste bin and standing him with one hand on the TV. A fine revenge.

A strange but impressive memory was sailing in the tropics on the bulk carrier MV King Alfred. Late one night our watch gathered in the saloon to see the latest film from the ‘Wallport box’, it was called ‘Alien’, all about the tiny crew of a bulk carrier in outer space. Much was made of machinery thudding in the background and views of the stars, to create atmosphere, as an alien creature stalked through the almost empty spaceship. We four watched in the dark, with tropical stars blazing through the forward facing windows while our own engine thumped and the ship rolled, vibrated and creaked gently. It was the most evocative experience I have ever had. Better than 3D or surround sound.

I remember cigarettes at £1 for a carton of 200, Spirits at 50p a bottle (Glenmorangie £1), a case of Tennants lager for a couple of quid. Buying boxed peaches, cases of corned beef, cases of Vin Duex and Flying Duck (both South African sparkling Wines) on my No2 account.

I remember thirty-six days crossing the pacific on the MV Causeway. The purser had restocked us exclusively with tinned Guinness and the owners didn’t allow spirits on board. We ran out of lager beer for the last month of the voyage and the purser ceased to win friends and influence people. Honestly, Guinness hasn’t touched my lips since. She also had a cook with marvellous menu ideas. He checked his galley stock and concocted several fixed lunch menus. He would then cook your individually chosen meal on demand, until it ran out. Some people had steak every day; others chose sausages, chops or perhaps fish, he also used to leave out great bowls of leftovers for late night snacking.

I remember on the Windsor Castle, we used to raid the galley during the 12/4 night watch and cook up seafood soup on the main engine HP turbine aft bearing, we also boiled eggs in a metal jug, using a steam jet to boil the water and tried baking eggs in an asbestos glove wedged on a steam pipe (they exploded).

I remember one night on the Clan Matheson in Mombasa, waking as the 12/4 junior was just leaving my cabin after ’presumably’ calling me for the 4/8 watch. I lay slowly waking up and after a few minutes noticed all my clothes piled on my daybed and my desk drawers open. Suddenly I realized the person closing my cabin door had been a shore side thief, it was only 2am. Racing onto the deck I was just in time to see a dugout canoe gliding into the darkness. Pirates paddling a dugout canoe! No kidnapping or shooting! Wow those really were the days. Next day I had to donate my calculator to a police officer so he would make a report and I could then claim insurance in the UK.

I remember Peter the dhobi man in Mombasa, who made a living by washing and ironing clothes to beautiful perfection for a few Shillingi, and his hooked syphilitic teeth. Having an Indian tailor make me two safari suits overnight, one brown, one blue. The American fleet was in, lots of American sailors on inline skates (a craze at the time) with their hands clasped behind their backs, gliding up the Kilindini Road; I watched one guy skate straight into a telephone manhole, as the cover had been stolen.

Also on the Clan Matheson in Colombo harbour, taking bunkers on my birthday when the monsoon sky suddenly opened up. I was stood on the foredeck by No 3 hatch, taking tank ullages. For five minutes the rainwater was ankle deep and I couldn’t see as far as the side of the ship, then the sun came out and everything was shrouded in sunshine and mist. That afternoon a couple of us went ashore to a government controlled gem store. I bought a 4 carat sapphire. My wife still has it today.

A stay in Calcutta docks and a group of us going out for a meal (curry of course) and having to step over whole families living and sleeping on the pavements. Breathing in the smoky, charcoal laden air and watching a naked Holy man sitting on the pavement making big spherical red pills and glazing them with spittle. Looking down from the deck as a bargeman below cooked chapattis in an oil drum oven on the deck of his barge/home. His assistant spent all evening rubbing our donated empty beer tins on a piece of paving stone. The ends eventually wore away to leave a tubular sheet of tinplate which he could sell. Fishermen in boats made from tarred wood and canvas, calling for us to drop them unwanted dunnage and racing to be first to pick it up.

Delivering 60,000 tonnes of donated grain at Karachi. Shoreside vacuum pumps sucked out our cargo out and made huge piles on the dockside in an area as big as a parade ground. Just four men with sacks and shovels turned up with a 10 tonne lorry to take it away. They were away with the sacked grain about two hours each time.  The Canadians had donated the grain and Norway paid the shipping costs. While the lorry was away the third time, it rained stair rods, saturating everything. We sailed a few hours later.

Arriving at Mogadishu with donated whole milk powder for starving Ethiopian children and hearing our enraged chief officer almost crying because the local dock officials wouldn’t let us discharge without being bribed with whisky. Near the end of the voyage that same first officer was transferred in Las Palmas to take command of another ship whose master had a heart attack. Nice man, I wish I could remember his name.

The British passenger on a Polish cargo ship anchored at Suez, pleading via RT for a lift with us, as he had just found out the Poles would be anchored for a further month and the Egyptians wouldn’t let him ashore to fly home.

Wrecked tanks and shelled buildings beside the Suez Canal, abandoned trenches and pill boxes near the Bitter Lakes.

During a Suez canal transit, a lone Arab in a dish dash, appearing from behind a dune with a loaded camel as we sailed serenely by in the other direction.  Ships of the desert passing each other?

A violent storm off Malta, watching the waves after my watch, I noticed the wake from the engine cooling water outlet was drifting forward not aft. The engines were ‘full ahead’. Were we were being blown backwards?

I remember many faces, nicknames and first names from B & C but few full surnames I’m afraid. Time and the transient nature of our way of life have taken their toll. I suspect most of the names I remember are linked in my mind to specific events rather than just straightforward friendship. I am pleased to say that of all the people I ever sailed with, I only really disliked one. Lest you wonder, he was senior to me and now long dead.

B & C Cadets I trained with at Plymouth and/or Southampton  :- ‘Chalky’ White – Brian Kear – Brian Nicholson – Gordon ? – Paul Horsley – Neil Lang – Michael Whitton or Whitley (?)

Officers I sailed with  :-  Alex Steel – Tim Hobday – Dicky Rex - John Studley (or Stoodly) – Ron French**  - Jimmy Cowan – Norris McKenzie – Bob Gemmell – Wally Croston – Charlie Tingley  - Glyn Lewis – Ken Talbot - Cameron Samuels – Carl Bagwell – Terry Norris - Trog – Jack Frost - Tom Stallard -  John Sutherland – Roger Ticknell – Phil Atkinson – Danny Daly - George Paxton – Rick Hanratty - Sam McCloud – Ian Bruce.

**I saw Ron French on TV a while back, an expert on the Tyne Shipyards, appearing on TV in “Who do you think you are”? He also co-wrote the book ‘Lost Shipyards of the Tyne’.

Strangely enough my last voyage ended in the same place my first had started, in King George V dock, London. However when I first went to sea, the dock was crammed with ships double berthed, loading over one another. On my last Voyage, on MV Clan Graham, the dock complex was otherwise empty except for an Ex RN warship waiting transfer to the Indian Navy. I still have the 3ft by 2ft brass engine plate from the Clan Graham.

I am pleased to look back on the days of my youth and am amazed by the trust and responsibility that we were given at such a young age and the light hearted way we wore it (and how we got away with it sometimes). I don’t think I would welcome the same responsibility now that I am sixty and waiting for the MNPF to cough up my pension.

I am also sad to see that there are many more displays about the British Merchant Navy in the National Science Museum than at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, including two models of the RMS Windsor Castle and one or two Clan line vessels. An industry that carried most of the worlds trade for more than a century and arguably enabled the construction and maintenance of the whole British Empire and the fighting and winning of two world wars, seems to have just disappeared without trace. British and Commonwealth ships, men and women, played a large part building our nation’s heritage.


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