The silver grey sea

In mid 1962, after two years at HMS Conway, I graduated. British India Steam Navigation Company, also known simply as BI, accepted me in August, as an indentured cadet (apprentice).



House flag and funnelflagnfunnel

Once I’d been accepted I applied for a British Seaman’s Card and a Discharge Book



I had the paperwork to prove that I was a sailor, but I’d never been to sea.

In mid September I was order to join the tanker, Ellenga, on the 12th October, which was moored in the River Fal, just off the town of Falmouth. The vessel had been in dry dock and was about to sail for the Persian Gulf for a cargo of oil. For someone who didn’t have any intention of going abroad I was doing a lousy job of staying in England.


This is Ellenga  37,420 dwt built 1960 – the picture was not taken in the River Fal

  On joining I became one of four cadets, and the other first trip cadet turned out to have been in my class at HMS Conway! Seeing each other helped us to fit in to our new life. Each cadet had his own cabin, and we all shared a Goanese steward who looked after our requirements. I didn’t have any idea before I joined that a lowly cadet would be entitled to the services of a steward, and we had a wine account!
Later I realised how lucky I was to join B.I.S.N.C. A Scotsman, William Mackinnon in 1856, had started the Company, and he set certain standards for the benefit of the officers and crew; conversely he expected a high standard of service from his employees. B.I.S.N.C. was a proud company and highly regarded by both officers and crew. Many of the crew had spent their whole life in the service of the Company, and they considered it a great honour to be in the Company’s employ.


British India Steam Nav Co’s first ship – 500 gt built 1856

We sailed early afternoon, and as a first trip cadet I was ordered to the bridge and told to watch and observe and not to get under anybody’s feet. This gave me the opportunity to see the British coastline sink lower and lower in to the silver-grey sea, while on our port side the haze of the French coast could just be seen on the horizon. Eventually, both the British and French coast disappeared, leaving us all alone in the Atlantic Ocean heading for the gateway to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, and then on to the Suez Canal.


I was on the Ellenga for about nine months and all of the cadets worked alongside the crew, because hopefully one day we would be watch-keeping officers and we would be expected to know how many men would be required to do a certain job, and how long is would take.
malimIn addition, we were expected to learn Hindi, because that was the language that the crew understood. Many of the crew spoke some English, because they had worked for the Company all of their working lives, but as an officer one was expected to speak Hindi. I still have my Malim Sahib’s Hindustani a book,  which includes all nautical terms and words in common use both ashore and afloat, quoted from the front cover. (Malim Sahib = Ship’s officer).

I only wish I’d spent more time reading this book.

When I left home my father warned me about being sent for a ‘long weight’ or a ‘bucket full of steam’, so I was well aware of the tricks played by older hands.
Not long after joining I was told by the First Officer to get the Cassab from the forecastle store. Remembering Dad’s warning I made my way to the store and lay down on a coil of rope to have a doze. I figured I’d report back in about twenty minutes.
I dozed for a few minutes when suddenly the daylight from the doorway was blocked, and I rolled over to see why. It was the First Officer, and he was not at all happy with this first tripper. It was then that I was told in no uncertain terms that Cassab was Hindi for storekeeper, not some fictional item!

My life as a first trip cadet became a mixture of boredom and extreme interest. We were expected to learn the layout of all the deck pipes that carried the cargo oil, including the cross over values to switch oil from one tank to another and the position of the firefighting equipment.
On the other hand we had to take part in chipping paint off the rusted areas of the deck and bulkheads using a small hand held bronze hammer. We used bronze hammers because they were made from non-ferrous metal and would not cause a spark.

hammerThe blisters were free – a bronze chipping hammer circ 1962.

A spark on a tanker was the last thing anybody wanted, because it could ignite the gas that seeped on to the deck from the crude oil. We used to receive regular warnings of tankers in distress due to gas igniting. I don’t remember ever reading that the damaged vessel survived, the report usually reported that the tanker had blown up due to gas ignition. The reports made comforting reading for those of us chipping away.
Once the bare metal had been exposed we would paint it with red lead paint (in today’s world, H&S would have a fit). After the red lead had dried, we used grey undercoat followed by the white topcoat. A 30,000 ton ship has a lot of metal to chip by hand. Many of the later ships in which I sailed the cadets and crew used an electric chipper that had several heads spinning at high speed, so making it easier to clean a large area quickly, but those vessels were not covered in gas.
The bane of using the non-ferrous hammer was that it quickly became blunt and required more force to belt the rust away so as to expose the metal deck. It was hot sweaty work in a Persian Gulf summer.

In our free time we studied, via correspondence courses, for our examinations to become deck officers.

‘Ellenga’ took me to some strange places. Our first port of call was Port Said as we transited the Suez Canal. We didn’t stay long in Port Said, just a few hours while the authorities created a convoy to transit the canal. ellenga-suez-canThe canal was only wide enough for vessels to go one way, so a group of vessels will travel southbound to the Bitter Lakes, or a ‘cutting’ where the southbound convoy can stop and allow the northbound convoy to pass. While transiting the canal local ‘bum’ boats came along side, and those that had the company contract would hitch a ride through the canal; so that when we reached the ‘cutting’ they would carry our mooring lines ashore to bollards. If we passed the cutting we would anchor in the Bitter Lakes. Before the canal was built there were salt valleys in the area, which became flooded after the canal was opened; hence the name of Bitter Lakes.

Mixed with the crew of the ‘bum’ boats we often had trinket sellers and entertainers.

port_said_bum_boatsThe sellers sold souvenirs, mainly to passengers on passenger ships, rather than the crew of tankers. Regardless, once we knew these entertainers / sellers would be aboard we locked everything down – cabin doors, windows, doors to the accommodation and any loose pieces of equipment belonging to the ship. We never locked our cabins at sea, but we did when ‘strangers’ were on board.

During my first trip through the Canal I was introduced to the Gully Gully man, who was an outstanding conjuror. On the main main deck he had an endless supply of day old chicks, and he could make them appear and disappear, and we (cadets) were only a few feet away from him. We couldn’t see how his tricks were done. He made the chicks appear out of thin air or our shirt pockets; he was very good and would have been top act for a TV show. We paid him as one would pay a street entertainer and when he had covered all of the officers and crew, and considered that he had made enough for the day, he shinned over the side and dropped in to a small riverboat that was following us.

poolOnce we crossed in to the tropics the small pool that we had on the tanker came in to its own. It was the cadets’ job to pump out the water each day around 6.30 to 7.00 am and refill with fresh seawater. Many times we noticed flying fish flying-fish in the pool; they had ‘flown’ in during the night, perhaps attracted to the deck lights. We would catch the fish as the pool’s water level dropped and keep them in a bucket of sea water. Once we had them all we would present them to either the deck crew or the Chinese ‘Johns’. The Chinese ‘Johns’ where Hong Kong Chinese (Cantonese was their language) and they were either engine room fitters or the carpenter. We cadets had more to do with the carpenter than the engine room fitters.
I don’t know why the Chinese crew members were called ‘Johns’, but perhaps it was due to the first Chinese person to take our British nationality in 1805, was called John Anthony.
The link for John Anthony makes interesting reading.

Kuwait (see picture below) is an oil rich kingdom that has its main city named after the country, but we were not to berth at the main city of Kuwait, but Mina Al Ahmadi the oil port a few miles outside the city. kuwaitAt that time they were separate towns, but I think that Kuwait city has expanded so much as to combine Mina as an outer suburb today. Once along side (an oil jetty) we were told that we were not allowed outside of the refinery, and that the perimeters was guarded by armed guards, and a metal fence with barbed wire on the top.Loading 30,000 tons of oil would not take long; perhaps twelve to fifteen hours and the cadets had the job of supervising the loading under the officer of the day. If we had time we would be allowed to visit the ‘canteen’ within the confines of the refinery. This canteen was a corrugated metal building and was restricted to foreign crews only.
Since joining the tanker I’d learned how to smoke and drink beer (I was a fast learner). The cost of a carton of two hundred cigarettes on the ship was eleven shilling and four pence (tax free of course) BUT the cost of the same carton of cigarettes in the Mina ‘canteen’ was seven shillings and six pence, a huge saving considering that I was paid four pound two shilling and six pence a week, for an eighty four hour week – we were not paid overtime.
To say that the purser was upset when we returned to the ship with a number of cartons of cigarettes would be an understatement.

The cost of a bottle of gin on the ship was about eleven shillings, and in the Mina canteen it was seven shilling. Fortunately for the purser, I didn’t like gin.

Inside the canteen it was all plastic chairs and Formica tabletops, everything was utilitarian, because nobody expected sailors to have any taste or finesse. I suppose we didn’t do our selves any favours because most evenings there were fights between different nationalities. Some would say that this was the only way tanker men could let off steam. They were not allowed in to the city, they would not see their wives or girlfriends for months on end and every port they visited was miles away from the population due to the risk of explosion or fire from the cargo that they carried.

When a tanker man could no longer stand the smell of crude oil, or handle the working conditions, he would leave, and his mates would say he had ‘tankeritous’ as if it was a disease.

From my position as a first tripper, I accept that we worked for long hours and didn’t get Sunday off every week. It was the life style of being at sea at that time. For years after leaving the sea, if I suffered from a heavy cough I could taste the crude oil. Heaven knows what it has done to my lungs.

From Mina we sailed for five days to Little Aden, which was across the bay from Aden, in what today is known as the Yemen. In 1962 Aden and the surrounding area was still under British control. The Crater District of Aden town is situated in a crater of an ancient volcano. This area was the main business area and to walk around for a spot of sight seeing was exhausting in the heat. I doubt that Aden will ever become a ‘must see’ place on anyone’s bucket list, but then I thought the same thing about Dubai and Muscat, and loved visiting both places earlier this year.
My visit to Aden town was some months in the future when we anchored off Aden to change deck crews and boiler clean. Once again we ‘tankermen’ could not leave the refinery area of Little Aden.

After discharging our cargo it was five days sailing back to Mina during which time we cadets had the unenviable task of supervising the cleaning of all the used tanks – tank cleaning, what a joy, six hours on, six hours off, day after day. Two cadets per shift with four or five crew members, it was hard dirty work.

I am second from the left – Health & Safety, what’s that when tank cleaning in 1962. To be fair we were supposed to wear breathing apparatus when we were fifty feet (15.5 mtrs) down a crude oil tank, but it was virtually impossible to climb down the vertical ladders while wearing the equipment, and to work when at the bottom. In the heat of the Persian Gulf we wore as little as possible. We didn’t work down the tank for too long, because the fumes would make one light headed (similar feeling as if one was a little drunk) and one’s judgment could be affected, and we still had to climb the fifty-foot vertical ladder to the surface.
There was one tradition that we all enjoyed on a daily basis, which was the consumption of fresh lime juice at 11.00 am. limesThis tradition was an obvious a throwback to the avoidance of scurvy when at sea, due to the use of salt as a preservative, before refrigeration, and the lack of vitamin ‘C’ because they didn’t have the ability to store for long periods fresh fruit and vegetables. It was because of this use of lime juice, during sailing ship days, that American sailors nick named British sailors ‘Limeys.’

In addition to being a welcome break from work, it also quenched our thirst. The odd thing about this tradition was that we used the lime juice to help us consume two large salt tablets!
We had to be careful that we replaced the salt lost due to excessive sweating when tank cleaning. Ironic that we used yesterday’s preventative solution to help us prevent a related problem two hundred years later.











Hotels with style . .



I’d always wanted to return to Sri Lanka (still Ceylon in my mind) to show Maureen something different, but this time I wanted to stay at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, not just visit for lunch as I had when I was at sea.

We flew in from Malaysia and after immigration & customs we entered a colourful mad house of people shouting and gesturing in the arrival halls. The air conditioning system was losing the battle against the humidity of the outside world. I was back in Ceylon after nearly thirty years, it had the same smells, the same heat, the same friendly faces – I loved being back, and only hoped that I hadn’t over sold the holiday to my wife.The Mount Lavinia hotel is about a ninety minute drive south of the airport, which is only about 43 kms in distance (about 25 miles), but this depends on the traffic of course. imgp0657r

We had to drive through the centre of Colombo, which was an experience in itself.



I’d picked the hotel because as a cadet, during my time at sea, I’d visited the Mount Lavinia Hotel for a genuine Sunday curry lunch, and I wanted to experience the location, and the local food once again, but this time with Maureen.

The hotel used to be the Governor’s home governors-palace in 1805 and remained so for many years. Click on the link and read of the romance between the 2nd Governor, Sir Thomas Maitland and a dancer and how the hotel was named.


Entrance to Mount Lavinia Hotel.


dsc03223rA touch of the old days with pith helmets. . .


 The hotel is located on a small promontory jutting out in to the sea, and overlooking a magnificent beach, which is lapped by the Indian Ocean. The feel and design of the hotel is old colonial, but it had all of the 21st century requirements. The hotel owns this part of the beach.

dsc03211rThe cooling effect of an ‘indoor’ water fall as you checked in to the hotel.


Picture taken from the hotel web site – all other photographs are my own.


View from our room – one of the cheaper rooms.


Small bar area near reception, most of the time we would sit out near the pool and admire the ocean view. When I visited as a cadet the pool area was a large lawn that sloped down to the cliff’s edge. We would have a beer and then the curry and find a shaded area to have a doze before returning to the ship. The roads were not as crowded then, so the taxi ride to the hotel used to be quite pleasant. Today the ride from the city is about thirty minutes or more, and the airport is further north of the city, which is why it takes so long to drive from the airport to this hotel – but we considered it worth the effort..




Sometimes we would have our evening meal in this area – enjoying a cool evening breeze – and we were covered in case of rain.

We would sit at the far end near the ocean and watch the sunset – never tired of watching the sun go down. We did see a wedding party with spot lights and professional movie style cameras

dsc03236r   dsc03251r

What more could I want  . . . ?

How about eating on the beach in the evening  . . the restaurant is the thatched area on the right.


dsc03221rThe restaurant can be seen on the left – the tide never came in far enough to upset our meal.


As you see the floor is sand packed tight. Reservations required even if you are a hotel guest. The restaurant is owned by the hotel so you sign and put it on your room account.

dsc03240rI think it had just started to rain, but we were dry under the thatched roof.

dsc03279rThe fish is displayed in ice and the price marked is per 100 grams, which includes rice or chips (French fries), and salad or vegetables. Tell the cook how big a piece you want and it is cut fresh from the whole fish, and they are seldom wrong when estimating the weight before cutting – they weigh the piece in front of you and ask how you want it cooked. For me it is always grilled and I like swordfish, tuna, and any steak style fish slightly pink in the middle – it was grilled perfectly. In the photograph you can see 300 LKR (Sri Lankan rupees), which is about AUD $2.50 for 100 grams of Grupa (Grouper) fish.

dsc03283rIf you can not find your fish in the ice display just pick from the blackboard.

All the fish on display was that day’s catch, and still whole at the start of the evening. Some of the fish were very large and it was fascinating to watch as the exact weight that I required, was cut from a large swordfish – none of the portions that I saw, even from the smallest fish, had bones attached to that portion.

Breakfast could be inside, in air conditioned comfort – or outside in the pool area.



 Hot food just outside the air-conditioned dining room.

 A lovely hotel with old world charm and friendly staff, a relaxing time for both of us.

Quit ye like men and they did . . .


From the beginning the ship attracted a certain type of boy.

1860 Mathew Webb captain_matthew_webbwent on to be the first man to swim the English Channel.

1861 Warrington Baden Powell  later in life was the founder of the Sea Scouts.

1868 Admiral Sir  Sackville Carden Carden KCMG RN sir_sackville_carden was asked by Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, to produce a strategy to knock Turkey out of the First World War. His plan was accepted and he was in charge of the initial landings, which were successful. He was replaced when he became ill and his plan was altered, which included landing troops further south than the original plan – this alteration became the Gallipoli failure.

1871 Sir Hamilton Gould Adams hamilton_goold-adams commanded the troops that defeated the Matabele 1893 and was in command of Mafeking through out the siege. As Governor of Queensland he laid the foundation stone for Brisbane town hall in 1917.

In 1889 The Cadet was started – I had the whole magazine in 1960.I can not remember what happened the-cadet-frontback-cover

to the innards. Above is the front & back of the same edition.

herbert-haddockOn a different note Capt. Herbert Haddock (Conway 1875- 77) was the first Captain of the Titanic. He delivered the vessel to the White Star Line, (from the builders) at which time, even though he was one of the Company’s most experienced captains, he was removed and posted to the Olympic as commander, and Captain Smith of the Olympic was given command of the Titanic.

james-moodyJames Moody (1902-03) was the sixth officer on the Titanic and had only been at sea for six years. He stayed with the ship making sure the lifeboats got away until the end, he didn’t survive the sinking. There is memorial to him Woodland Cemetery Scarborough.

capt-_arthur_h-_rostron_r-d-_r-n-r 1885 Sir Arthur Henry Rostron – he was thirteen when he joined Conway and in 1895 he joined Cunard Line. He was Captain of the Carpathia in 1912, and rescued nearly 700 survivors of the Titanic. Later he commanded the Mauritania and was Commodore of the Cunard Line.

philip_bent1912 Lt Colonel Philip Bent VC, DSO gained his 2nd Mates ticket after leaving Conway, but volunteered for the army in 1914 as a private solider, and was posted to the Leicestershire Regiment. His regiment was sent to the Western Front.
Losses were so great that within three year this 23 year old had been promoted from the ranks through various positions to become Lt Colonel of his regiment. His battalion attacked Polygon Wood in Belgium. The attack was unsuccessful and the Germans counter attacked the British lines. The situation became critical, so Colonel Bent collected a platoon that was in reserve and a number of other soldiers and lead them in to a counter attack. He lead from the front shouting ‘Come on Tigers’ – unfortunately he was killed, but the attack was successful. For his bravery he was awarded the VC.

In WW1 Conway cadets were awarded 3 VC,(Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in the British military, it has only been award to 1358 times since 1856) 42 DSO, (awarded to officers in the army above Captain – it was considered that the individual had just missed out on a VC), 48 DSC (a navy medal), 21 MC, (Military Cross usually given for bravery on land), 2 AFC, 4 DFC (the AFC stands for Air Force Cross and the DFC is Distinguished Flying Cross) unusual awards for cadets of a naval college.

During WW2 the Commander (2nd in charge) of HMS Ajax at the battle of the River Plate was Douglas Everett 1911-13. Rear Admiral Everett, as he was to become, was Chief Staff Officer for the planning of the invasion of Sicily, and later Commander in Chief Hong Kong amongst other senior appointments.


Ian Fraser 1936 – 38 – commanded a midget submarine against the Japanese. During his approach to the Japanese cruiser Takao, he deliberately left the safe channel and entered a minefield to avoid being detected by hydrophones. The target was in very low water and only the midship section was where the water was deep enough for him to place his mines. After forty minutes approaching the cruiser he forced his own craft under the centre of the target. He placed limpet mines and dropped his main charges, which were attached to his midget sub. He had great difficulty in extracting his midget sub from under the cruiser, but eventually he was clear and made his way out to sea through mined waters. he was awarded the VC and the Legion of Merit by the USA. When the mines exploded they blew a hole in the cruiser 20 x 10 mt (66 ft x 33 ft)

Beneath the waves – lionel_crabbBuster Crabb  1922 – 23 – in WW2 he volunteered for mine and bomb disposal and was posted to Gibraltar in 1942. The Italians, using human torpedoes, attacked Gibraltar from Algeciras in neutral Spain. Crabb scouted the harbour at night looking for unexploded under water bombs. For his work and courage he was awarded the George medal, which is the second highest award for a civilian. In 1948 he spent time checking the hulls of ships for mines in Haifa in Israel.In 1956 he disappeared while diving near a Russian warship in Portsmouth harbour. Officially he was reported drowned, but rumors have it that he was working for MI6 Some say he was captured and taken aboard the Russian vessel. A corpse was found later that year, but it was badly decomposed and its head was missing along with its hands  . . . . .

On the literary side for Conway we havejohn_masefield John Masefield (1891-94) the poet laureate, who wrote many poems linked to the sea. Sea Fever being one of his most popular along with  Cargos

This short poem was found after his ashes had ben interned in the poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey.


Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.

duffdoug Douglas V Duff  (1914 – 15) – author of over one hundred novels after an exciting ‘Boys Own’ real life. His ship was torpedoed in 1917 (he was sixteen at the time)  and was one of only two survivors. He went back to sea and was torpedoed again when he was eighteen. After the war he joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary and tried to arrest Michael Collins, who told him not to be daft because he was surrounded by body guards and they would shoot him. Later he joined the Palestine Police Force. The photo is of him in the Palestine Police uniform. In WW2 he joined the Dover patrol, set submarine nets in the Suez Canal and sailed a schooner called ‘Eskimo Nell’ through the German blockade in to Tobruk. He later became involved in broadcasting and TV work until his death in 1978.

In more modern times we have

cyril_abrahamCyril Abrahams (1928 -30) author of the Onedin Line.

There are a large number of Conway authors, some writing text books, others biographies and yet others novels.

In the sporting field we had Sir clive_woodwardClive Woodward Coach / Manager of the British rugby team that won the World Cup 2003.

D.G Chapman represented Great Britain in the Amsterdam Olympics 1928

John Bligh – rugby for England – Walter Elliot Rugby for England – E.A Hamilton-Hill Rugby for England

Jay ‘Birdie’ Hooper – represented Bermuda in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Back to the sea for one family –

The Warwick family –

bil_warwickCaptain Bil Warwick 1926 – 28, Master of the Queen Elizabeth & Queen Mary and he was the first Master of Queen Elizabeth II, and later became the fourth Conway to be come Commodore of the Cunard Line.

His brother was also an old Conway 1948 – 49 and went to sea, and his son Eldon John 1955-56 followed the family to sea and ended up in command of his own ship.

Bill’s youngest son


Ron Warwick 1956 -57, after a number of years at sea became chief officer of Queen Elizabeth II when she was requisitioned for the Falkland war. In 1990 he was appointed Captain of the Queen Elizabeth II and later became the first Captain of Queen Mary II and in 2003 became the Commodore of Cunard.

Falkland War

The invasion was reported by the British Antarctic Survey Base commander Steve Martin 1970-73.

Later Brian Lockwood 1972-74 reported that the Argentinians had landed on South Georgia.

When the decision to retake the Falkland Islands had been made the Assistant Chief of Defence, Vice Admiral David Brown 1941 – 45, got to work.

He had the help from other Conway cadets – Deputy Chief of Fleet Support Rear Admiral Edwards 1941 – 44.

Preparing the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Captain Butterworth 1941 – 43

Chief of Staff to the Joint Service Commander of the task force Vice Admiral Peter Woodhead 1954 – 57

Passenger ship ‘Queen Elizabeth II’ Chief Officer R. W. Warwick 1956 -57

Chief Officer of the Norland (which was a North Sea ferry fitted out as a troop ship) R. B. Lough 1961 – 63

Geesport a forward support ship – Captian G de Ferry Foster 1954 – 56

Europic Ferry – carrying troops, helicopters and equipment – Master W. Clarke 1959 -62, Chief officer Norman Bamford 1961 – 63, Second officer Alan Burns 1948 – 50 and one of the Staff Sergeants being ferried to war R.L Peacock 1969 – 71

Baltic Ferry – Master E. Harrison 1954 – 56 Second officer Bill Langton 1967 – 69

RFA Fort George Master DGM Averill 1941 – 43

RFA Sir Tristram master Captain G Green 1949 – 51

There were eight other old Conway’s involved  – I don’t think the Argentinians realised what was about to happen to them now that HMS Conway was involved.   :-o)

What ever your politics in the UK Ian Duncan Smith 1969 – 74 used to be the leader of the Tory party in the UK. Currently an MP in the British Parliament.

capt-hewittCaptain Eric Hewitt 1919 – 21 – he joined the RNR (Royal Navy Reserves) on leaving Conway and completed his sea time for 2nd Mates in the merchant navy. On the outbreak of war in 1939 he was called up for the RNR, and having served over the years in the RNR held the rank of Lt Commander.

He served in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and took part in the invasion of Sicily. He was mentioned in dispatches for protecting a Mediterranean convoy. He was involved with the Normandy landings and when promoted to Captain he was the youngest serving Captain in the RNR.

He was on Earl Mountbatten’s staff in Singapore responsible for the movement of all ships in the Far East. He followed Mountbatten to India to supervise the withdrawal of British forces from India by sea.

In 1948 he accepted the position of Staff Captain at HMS Conway and the following year he was Captain Superintendent. It was Captain Hewitt who interviewed me when I applied to join the Conway.

In 1956 Captain Hewitt was ADC to HM The Queen and later became High Sheriff of Anglesey.

Captain Hewitt was a fine example for hundreds of Conway cadets over the years. He died in 1995 at the age of 91.

The above list of old Conway boys is just a very small sample of the 11,000 cadets that experienced life as a young teenager at HMS Conway between 1859 and 1974.

Conway closed in 1974, so it’ll not be long before we can no longer say ‘You’ll find on the bridge a Conway boy.’

Ship ahoy!


1 Corinthians 16 : 13 – stand firm in the faith an apt moto.

In a number of my blogs I have mentioned HMS Conway Nautical College, and some of my readers have asked various questions, so I thought I’d do a more detailed blog of ‘The Conway’.

In the mid 1800’s Great Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world – in fact the British fleet was larger than the combined fleets of all other nations.

Because the British requirement was so large it caused problems of lack of seamen and officers. The British Government at that time produced a report in 1848 because safety standards were so low. At that time there wasn’t any formal training of officers in the merchant navy.

The Government passed the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850, which established a system of examining masters and mates who wished to sail deep sea. A further Act of 1854 set the system that British vessels had to have certificated officers, who had been properly trained, in command.

Liverpool ship owners realised that they needed to set up a system to train officers for their own future. They created the Mercantile Marine Services Association and one their first acts was to create a school for the training of boys to become officers in the merchant navy.

The MMSA (as it became known) asked the Government for help in the form of a Royal Navy ship to use as a training school. The vessel offered was quite large and would have cost too much money to refit as a school, so they asked for a smaller ship, and the Government offered a sixth rate frigate, called HMS Conway. She was 26 guns and 652 tons.


HMS Conway 1859

She was fitted out in Devonport, which is in the UK, and sailed to the River Mersey to be moored off Rock Ferry, on the Birkenhead side of the Mersey, which is across the river from Liverpool.

The school opened for ‘business’ on the 1st August, 1859, after an extensive conversion from a man of war to a ‘school’ ship.

The Conway was so successful that by 1861 they had outgrown the sixth rate ship, and a larger vessel was obtained from the Government, HMS Winchester, which was a fourth rate frigate. She  was renamed Conway and the ‘old’ Conway was renamed Winchester.


HMS Conway – nee Winchester 1861

In 1864 Queen Victoria recognised Conway’s success in training boys for the merchant navy by granting £50 a year to be distributed in prizes and a gold medal. In the Conway Chapel in Birkenhead there is a medal board with the names of every winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal. Later the medal became known as the King’s medal and when I was on the Conway 1960 – 62 it had reverted to the Queen’s medal.

By 1875, due to Royal patronage, they’d outgrown the old ‘Winchester’, so they had to find a larger ship – this time the Government offered HMS Nile, a second rate frigate. She was, 2,622 tons and designed for a crew of 850.


HMS Conway – nee Nile 1875

The conversion took over a year, but by 1876 HMS Nile had become HMS Conway and the old ‘Winchester’ sailed away as HMS Nile.

A thirteen year old boy attending HMS Conway for two years and passing the examinations at the end of his time, would only have to do three instead of four years as an apprentice sailing deep sea. Shipping companies realised the value of hiring a Conway cadet, because they used to donate various prizes (binoculars, sextant, tankard, books, gold / silver watches) for those cadets who achieved the best passes in various subjects.

During the air raids in WW2 the cadets had a ring side seat of the bombing of Liverpool and Birkenhead. The Germans used to drop magnetic mines by parachute in to the river so as to explode when close to a ship. One fell close to the Conway and only the drag of the parachute kept it from hitting the ship. Although much of her was wood she still had a lot of metal on and around her. It was this incident that caused the authorities to decide to move the Conway to a less exposed site.

From a personal aspect during one of the raids my grand mother’s home, which was not far from Birkenhead docks, was hit, and in the language of the time ‘they were bombed out,’ which meant that they had lost their home. Fortunately they were in an air raid shelter when the bomb hit the house.


The above photograph is of the local underground railway station near my grandmother’s home, which was bombed.

At that time my mother was living with my father’s mother, who was a widow, while Dad was at sea in the Royal Navy. The house was near Cammell Lairds ship yard, and they were fortunate that their house was spared amongst so many lost in the area. Much of the bombing was against the ship yard.

HMS Conway was moved to a safe location off Bangor in North Wales, where she stayed from 1941 to 1949.

The demand for qualified sea going staff in both the Royal and Merchant navy had cause an over crowding problem on the Conway so she was moved to a mooring in the Menai Straits off the Marquis of Anglesey’s home Plas Newydd. The Marquis had agreed that certain land based facilities could be created on his estate, which eased the over crowded ship board life.


By 1953 it was evident that HMS Conway required a Dry Dock – the last one being in 1937 and she was after all 114 years old having been launched in 1839 as HMS Nile, and there were very few wooden walled ships left.

Arrangements were made and tugs allocated to take the old ship through the Swillies, which is a stretch of water between the two bridges that link the mainland of Wales and the Isle of Anglesey. It is a dangerous area with the northern tide meeting the same tide from the south. Ther area has shoals, sandbanks and rocks.

The journey started well, but during the time she was in the Swillies the tide became too strong for the tugs, and the Conway ran aground on a rock shelf.

conway_agroundAs the tide dropped it was realised that only the forward part was on the rock shelf and the stern area was overhanging the end of the rock – she broke her back.

brokenbackYou can see how the line of the ship has changed

framedTaken from ashore at the bow some time later.

Only a handful of cadets where onboard when the loss occurred, because it was during a holiday period.

Some fast thinking had to be done to arrange accommodation for nearly 200 cadets when they returned from leave and realised that the ship was a total loss. The Marquis of Anglesey was very generous in allowing the Captain of the Conway to take over some fields and build a tent ‘town’ to accommodate everyone. The Marquis also promised land on which a new college could be built, after everything had been sorted out.

When the cadets returned for the winter term they found that the tents had been removed and barrack style camp had been created.

conway_camp_aerialThe large house at the top of the picture is Plas Newydd – the Marquis’ home.

Each hut could sleep twenty cadets with a small bedroom at one end for the cadet captain.


I took this photograph in 1961 of the hut (as it was called) where I lived at the time and designated Starboard Main. The hut had one toilet, and outside was a small drinking fountain. But for showers and other facilities we had to run quite a long way. We were never allowed to walk, unless we were in a squad. See below.



I took this photograph in 2004 from approximately the position of my hut to the building that contained the showers, and you can see how far it was for us to run at 6.00 am on a winter’s morning in North Wales. It was COLD!

In 1956 a company from South Wales was given the task of dismantling the ship. On the night of the 30th October the ship caught fire. It was built out of wood that had been polished and scrubbed for over a hundred years with wax and polish – the fire grew and grew. The local fire brigade fought it for three hours, and it looked like they where winning until the wind changed and they had to retreat. The fire burned for eighteen hours and could be seen for miles.

It was August 1961 when the foundation stone was laid for the new college. One hundred and two years to the day that the first cadet had joined Conway in the Mersey.
In 1963 as the cadets left for summer leave they didn’t know what to expect on their return. None could remember the move from the tents to the camp area and now the camp would be demolished during leave and the next chapter for HMS Conway was in the new buildings.

new-collegeThe official opening was performed by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on the  6th May 1964.

Although I wasn’t at the opening I have read one comment made by the Duke during his opening presentation – ‘Education is not a system for accumulating facts, it must prepare people to meet the responsibilities and challenges of civilised life.’

A handy comment in today’s shattered world of terrorism.

By 1973 the world had changed and British shipping was in decline – partly due to containerisation.

The demand for cadets had fallen and the cost of maintaining the college grew and grew. Cheshire County Council took over management and eventually the shipping industry changed and some shipping companies wanted to train their own cadets as long as they had ‘A’ level passes in national exams. This drained the application numbers from Conway, because if a cadet was taken by a shipping company he was paid, whereas his family had to pay for him to attend Conway.

I left the sea because it was believed that one large container ship would put six standard ships out of work – and the thought of competing for jobs against more experienced merchant navy officers helped me make up my mind to leave the sea. The fact that I wanted to marry also helped me to make this decision – so I joined an airline.

During its life of 115 years HMS Conway trained over 11,000 cadets – and Britain from having a merchant fleet larger than the combined fleets of all other nations, has now the tenth largest fleet in the world. (as at 2006).

They used to say ‘and you’ll find on the bridge a Conway boy . . . . ‘ not many left – a few lines below of the Conway song called – ‘Carry On’

From every distant sea and shore,
You’ll hear the cry
“Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!”
And you’ll find on the bridge a Conway Boy,

If you wish to know more you can buy the latest history of   HMS Conway from Amazon. A very good read by Alfie Windsor ex Conway 1964 – 68.

The picture at the top of my blog shows part of the Swellies and one of the bridges linking mainland Wales and Anglesey.

I never get tired of London . . .

London on a Spring day a few years ago.


London Pride written by Noel Coward after a bombing raid in 1941. He was sitting in a damaged railway station and apparently he felt a wave of sentimental pride.




Soldiers of the Queen


On duty at Horse Guards


Big Ben


Tower Bridge


ANZAC war memorial after ANZAC DAY (25th April)


Speaker’s Corner – what a great institution – this chap started off quietly and within a few minutes had quite a crowd listening to him. His subject was Christianity – he was a strong believer, and was able to out heckle any heckler without being rude to the heckler or objectionable in any way. He seemed to live his Christian beliefs.


The Cutty Sark before the fire.


Kensington Palace’s back garden.


The only occupant that we could see was Mr. Squirrel




Home James, and don’t spare the horses. The end of a beautiful day.

An uninvited guest of Franco

For whom the bell tolls – it tolled for me on this holiday –

franco In 1961 I was invited once again to accompany my friendly schoolmaster for another trip to Europe, but this time it would be southern Spain, staying in a hotel rather than YHA. We’d moved up market. I was also asked if a friend of mine would like to join us because the group would be larger than the YHA group the previous year.

We used the train service this time from Merseyside to Dover, and had our fill of the smell of steam and blackened smuts suspended in the clouds of smoke from the engine.


A ferry carried us to Calais, in France, where we boarded a coach to take us to Sitges, in Spain.

The coach crawled through the late evening town traffic until it came to the motorway (freeway) at which point the driver flawed the accelerator and we were truly on our way to sunny Spain.
The excitement of the trip began to fade as evening became night, and the chatter of the students drifted in to sleep. I tried to sleep, but the movement of the coach and the smell of the plastic seating, caused my travel sickness to return.

The occasional whisper as a student pushed another’s head from flopping on their shoulder would interrupt the steady throb of the coach’s engine. Every couple of hours the driver would take a rest by calling his colleague who sat close to him. During the change over process the coach didn’t stop. The current driver would stand gripping the steering wheel, while keeping his foot on the accelerator; his mate would slide in behind him, place his foot on the accelerator, and grab the steering wheel. The first driver would then move away to rest and sleep. It was a sight to see, and very smoothly accomplished so that the speed (about 100 km / hour or 60 mph) didn’t alter. I’m not sure how many of the students watched this change over; perhaps it is just as well that many, if not all, slept through the process. Seat belts were still in the future.

The single-decker coach was modern for the 1960’s, but nothing like today’s intercity coaches. The only time we stopped during our road trip to Spain was for toilet breaks. If anyone required a toilet the driver would be warned and the passenger would have to ‘hold on’ until we reached the appropriate place. On stopping everyone was told to leave the coach, even if they didn’t wish to visit the toilet, and walk around the car park area. It seemed a good idea at the time, but then we had the problem of counting everyone back on board in the half-light of petrol stations or a café’s poor outside lighting. Our schoolteacher leader would count everyone at least twice, and then get me to count the students again, once all were onboard. The last thing he wanted was to write to a parent and tell them that their daughter was lost somewhere in France.

The total distance from Calais to Sitges is about 1350 kms (865 miles) and from memory it took us around fifteen hours.
It was not until lunchtime that we arrived in Sitges only to be told that the hotel did not have enough rooms for all of us, and they (the hotel) suggested that two ‘guests’ sleep in a small apartment near the hotel. Our leader asked if I, and the other ‘helper’ (who was my friend) would mind sleeping in the apartment, because he wanted to keep an eye on the younger members of our group, in the hotel. We were quite happy to agree because the whole idea was a new adventure for us.

Sitges is located on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, about thirty-five kilometres south of Barcelona. It was a very pleasant town with a church on a headland that jutted out in to sea. The beach was very clean, and not too crowded. I have no idea what the place looks like today, but I have happy memories of Sitges.


The famous Sitges church Sant Bartolomeu I Santa Tecla in the background



& perhaps a walk along the beachfront.

Trips were arranged to various places of interest including a bullfight at Tarragona, sixty-five kilometres south of Sitges. I believe the authorities have renovated the old bullring and now it is used for Castells, or the building of human towers – see the picture below. Also music festivals and sporting events are held there today. I don’t know if it is still used for bullfights. In a way I am glad that I saw the bullfight, because the experience put me off bullfighting for the rest of my life. At the time of my visit to the bullring everything was new and exciting, including the next experience.


While in Sitges it rained heavily one night, the first time in months. The day after the rain my friend and I met a group of semi professional boxers from Liverpool. They had camped in a dry riverbed, and all was well for a few days, until it rained and the river washed away or damaged much of their equipment. They had ridden to Sitges on their motorbikes.

We recognise some of their names, and once they found out that we were from Merseyside (Birkenhead is across the river from Liverpool) they asked a favour of us. They wanted to ‘camp’ in our apartment for a couple of nights while they sorted out their gear and fixed their motorbikes. We had plenty of space and thought that it wouldn’t be a problem, so they moved in to the apartment.

The boxers went out on the first evening and my friend and I had our meal in the hotel with our group of students, and returned to the apartment to go to bed, which was around 10.00 pm. The sun, sand and seawater had tired us out.

The next thing I knew was when a rifle butt struck me in the back. From a deep sleep I was brought suddenly awake and tried to protect myself. A soldier, or militia, in a green uniform, was indicating that we should get up and get dressed. We did, very quickly. While getting dressed I could see another soldier looking over our balcony in to the street. Before we went to bed we had two potted palms, one each end of the balcony. It appears that our boxer friends had returned from a night out and decided to have a pot plant competition (the pot plants were very heavy) to see how far they could be thrown from the balcony.


This picture illustrates the small balconies and the narrow Sitges streets.

The soldier pushed my friend and I down to the street and motioned for us to pick up a broom each and to start sweeping the street.

soldier      sweep

He had a rifle and I had a broom – I began to sweep the street. The boxers had been ‘corralled’ along a wall by additional armed guards.

It appears that after throwing the potted plants the local neighbours called the police, who, when they arrived met the drunken belligerent ‘boxers’. Not wishing to get in to a fight, the police called the army, (General Franco was still in charge of Spain). Shortly afterwards my friend and I were sweeping the street.

The army tried to get the boxers to start sweeping up their mess, but when a guard pushed one of the boxers; the boxer threw a punch and flattened the guard. That was it!



We were quickly ordered in to a line and surrounded by armed troops and marched off to the local police station. The boxers treated the whole thing as a joke and started to sing ‘Working on a chain gang’ and other prison type songs. My friend and I were not at all happy at being included with our drunken acquaintances.

At the police station I asked to see the British consul, but the Spanish police were not having anything to do with consuls, particularly a British consul. At that time the Spanish government was demanding that the British return Gibraltar to Spain, so the police were quite happy to lock us all in a small cell below street level. The cell was square shaped with three solid concrete walls, the outer wall having bars high up over a small window, where we could just see the pavement if we held on to the bars and pulled ourselves up to check the street outside. The fourth wall was a wall of iron bars, which also contained the door. The cell was not large enough for us all to sit down (nothing to sit on anyway) and the toilet was a hole in the corner of the cell on the outside wall, without the usual cistern, pan and seat.
The two side concrete walls had graffiti scrawled across them, and some Spanish words, which I couldn’t understand. It was a depressing place and it smelled of urine and other waste products. We organised ourselves to be as far away from the toilet area as possible. My friend and I were left in the corner near the meeting of the iron barred door and the concrete wall.

The boxers kept singing, for what seemed hours, until they eventually stopped as they slowly sobered, and realised where they were.

On the floor we used a large oblong piece of bread which was used as a football, and tapped from one to another. Not that we could kick it far, considering the smallness of the cell, but it did help to pass the time. I tried to sleep standing up and then I tried as I squatted down, but this brought too much pressure on my knees forcing me to stand again.

The grey light of dawn brought some relief, because in the cellblock there was only one small light bulb that glowed by the main door into the underground cell area. Perhaps we could make someone understand our need for the British Consol in daylight.

gaollAs daylight strengthened the outer door of the cellblock was unlocked and a guard entered. We asked for food and something to drink. The guard pointed to our ‘football’ and bent down to turn on a water tap over the toilet. Leaning over the toilet we were just able to catch a single handful of water. The other hand we used to balance ourselves away from the open toilet hole. The cold water was welcome, but I was concerned that it might not be normal drinking water so most of mine went on washing my face to try and get rid of the tiredness.

The now sober boxers, asked to see the officer in charge, and when the officer, who spoke English, arrived, they spoke up and told him that we had nothing to do with the damage. It was obvious that my friend and I were much younger than the boxers, and after a few minutes the officer opened the cell door and let the two of us out. He relocked the door just in case the boxers thought of escape.

My friend and I were taken upstairs and told to stand in front of the officer’s desk. He then lectured us and told us to behave while in Sitges, and that he didn’t wish to see us again. We quickly agreed with everything he said, although later I considered that we were only guilty by association, and innocent of any wrongdoing, unless helping fellow British travellers was a crime. At the time we would have agreed to anything just to get out of that stinking cell.

We were able to get back to our apartment for hot showers and a change of clothes, before making our way to the hotel for breakfast. We acted as if everything was normal, even though we did yawn a lot. I didn’t tell our leader because I didn’t wish to add to his worries, nor did I want our adventure to get back to our families.

The rest of our time in Spain was sightseeing local places of interest, sun bathing on Sitges beach and eating. All holidays come to an end and it was another fast drive to Calais, ferry to Dover, and the train home with a great suntan and the experience of being a gaolbird.

The Spanish holiday was my last overseas trip for over a year, because I knew that I had final examinations before leaving HMS Conway in 1962 and the results of this examination would determine the shipping company that I’d join – if any shipping company would have me.

1960 – whether I liked it or not the winds of change

wind01       wind

I’ll never go abroad – which was a stupid comment that I made at thirteen, comes back to bite me.

My first adventure abroad was just after I’d just turned sixteen in 1960.
Billy Beedles, who was a family friend and a schoolteacher asked me to accompany him in August to help shepherd a group of fourteen-to-sixteen-year old during a YHA (Youth Hostel Association) trip around Germany – the YHA was called DJH in Germany (Deutschland Jugend Herberge). Because I was tall for my age, looked older than my years, and I didn’t attend the same school as the other students, the schoolteacher considered that I was ideal as his ‘offsider’. Of course I didn’t have a passport, but at that time one could obtain a twelve-month passport for a large discount on the ten-year passport.



The above passport was for the years 1961 / 62.
It is identical to the passport I had for 1960 / 61

The British were just starting to take European holidays after the financial hardships of the post war 40’s and early 50’s, and YHA was cheap, and cheerful.

We travelled by coach from Birkenhead to Dover, which is on the south coast of England, where we boarded a ferry to Ostend, Belgium. The trip from Birkenhead took us hours and hours, even though the new M1 motorway between Birmingham and London had opened the previous year. The one thing I always hated was bus travel – it made me ill, and I was very glad of my Kwells travel tablets. Even the smell of the inside of a bus today brings back bad memories.

Due to the very long journey from Birkenhead to Ostend, the group leader had booked us in to the Zeebrugge youth hostel, which was a short distance along the coast from Ostend. The one thing I do remember about Ostend was a particular coffee bar, which had a jukebox. Jukeboxes were not new to us, but we’d never seen a jukebox linked to a TV screen. For one Belgium franc (well before the EEC and the Euro) we were able to play popular songs and watch the singer on the screen. This is the only memory I have about my first visit to a foreign city.

scopitoneZeebrugge was more interesting because it has a strong link to Birkenhead and Merseyside. During WW1 in 1918, the Daffodil and the Iris (both Mersey ferries) took part in the commando raid to sink obsolete ships in the main channel at Zeebrugge, to prevent German vessels leaving port. Although badly damaged, and with many killed and wounded, the two ferryboats managed to return to England, and eventually the Mersey.



The top picture shows both ferries after reaching the Mersey. They had many shell holes and the superstructure had been riddled with machine gun fire. The funnel of the Iris was kept as a ‘memorial’ for some time, not sure where it is now.

Mersey ferries check this link for more details via the BBC.

In honour of their contribution to the raid King George V conferred the pre-fix ‘Royal’ on both ships, and they became the ‘Royal Iris’ & the ‘Royal Daffodil’. The second descendant of the ‘Royal Iris’ came into service in 1951, and it was in the 1965, on this ‘Royal Iris’, that I danced with a young girl who would later become my wife, fifty three years ago.

Our transport around Germany was by rail, which was electric, whereas the British system was a mixture of steam and diesel engines. The high-speed trains of Belgium and Germany were exciting to us, but we did miss hanging out of the window and breathing in the unique smell of steam and smoke from the engine. Even so, the German trains had a character of their own, modern, fast and efficient.

The first stop after leaving Belgium was Cologne, which I found to be an interesting place. In 1960 the war had been over only fifteen years so growing up in the UK most of the Germany city names were very familiar. The one place that we didn’t hear much about, but knew of from school, was Bonn, which at that time was the de facto capital from 1949 to 1990. The old capital, Berlin, was under the control of the four powers, America, Britain, France and Russia.

I found Bonn to be a dull city, and was not sorry to leave, via train along the banks of the Rhine to the spa town of Bad Honnef. ‘Taking the waters’ was all the rage, and of course we had to try the water, and from memory I was not all that impressed, because I didn’t know what to expect and the mineral taste was completely different than the tasteless water that came out of the tap at home.


On the other hand it was new to me, it was different, and it was foreign, so I drank another glass of the famous Bad Honnef water.


Colour film was too expensive for a sixteen-year-old, but I could still hang out of the window for pictures of our train journey across Germany.

A further short rail trip from Bad Honnef, took us to Koblentz (or Coblenz). The YHA facilities were in the castle and overlooked the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine. I was fascinated that I could see the two different waters, because they were naturally coloured – the Moselle was green and the Rhine blue, and after they had met, they became the normal brownie river colour that we all recognise. I can still remember the view over sixty years later.

The Moselle flowing in to the Rhine.

The photograph has been taken from the area of the YHA, around fifty years later. I’m sorry to note the absence of colour in the water.

We enjoyed our stay in Koblentz, the town being ‘old German’ buildings (I don’t remember any modern buildings), cobbled streets, heavy rounded glass shop windows, a real pleasure of a place to just stroll around and absorb the atmosphere. Of course, I was too young to drink alcohol, but we made do with ginger beer (it was the same colour as real beer) so we would sit in the sun and watch the young German girls as they promenaded around the main square. I wasn’t too young to admire girls.

4053976-festug_ehrenbreitstein-koblenzKoblentz YHA was inside this castle

Bacharach, further up the Rhine again, was our next stop, and it was quite a change from the other towns and villages that we had visited. The YHA was located within Bacharach Castle, which from memory was very different from the Koblentz Castle.


I do remember one evening when many of the students were in the Great Hall, which was being heated by a very large fire in a huge pillared grate that felt like sandstone, when a young man dressed in leather shorts with shoulder straps (braces if you are English, and suspenders if you are American), thick leather climbing boots, and socks folded down around his ankles entered the room dragging a long heavy rope behind him, and shouting for help due to the rope’s weight. I assumed that this person was the YHA manager or was employed by the YHA. Several of us ran over and helped drag the rope in to the hall, where we were instructed to lay it out in a single long length. We were about to take part in an international tug of war!

The tug of war was to be a knockout contest, and was to be in front of the large grate as the flames danced up the chimney. The overhead lighting was dimmed so that the fire illuminated the two teams trying to pull each other over a marker chalked on the wooden floor.

The rope didn’t have the feel of ‘real’ rope; it was very smooth and softer than the rope I would handle later when I was at sea. The British team asked me to be the anchor-man due to my size. Using my limited knowledge of knots, taught to me by my father, I tied a Bowline knot to secure myself to the rope. This knot created a loop in the rope, which I put around my chest. Regardless of the weight put on this knot it would not tighten further than the original pressure when it was created, so protecting me from being injured.

It was great fun, and because the German members were the greatest number, they had more bodies from which to choose and so won each heat against all other countries. It wasn’t long before the larger boys from different countries agreed to join an international team to compete against the German team. The international team won three out of five ‘pulls’ or should it be ‘tugs’. Perhaps the German team was tired after defeating all the other nations independently, but they couldn’t hold out against a combined international team. Every time I see the film ‘Where Eagles Dare’, with Richard Burton & Clint Eastwood, and the scene where all the main characters are seated around a long table across from a large fire in a medieval fireplace, I think of Bacharach and the tug of war.

From Bacharach we sailed back down the Rhine towards the coast. The name of the paddle steamer vessel was the ‘Bismarck’, and I can remember thinking that I hoped we didn’t suffer the same fate as the 1941 ‘Bismarck’.


What more could a teenager want, but to be aboard a wooden decked river boat with the sound of the steady throb of the engine, the paddle wheels slapping the water as we glided down river, with pale smoke from the vessel’s funnel drifting towards a clear blue sky. All was well with the world as I leaned on the rails and viewed the vineyards, castles, scenic Germanic buildings, which I am sure are still in use today.

river-traffic-001    castles-001
River traffic and castles as we sailed down river.

Bacharach was our last ‘new’ place before making our way home, via Bonn, Ostend, the ferry and the long bus ride to Merseyside.

The eyes have it . . . or do they. . .

During school assembly in March of 1959 when I was still fourteen, the headmaster of my school asked if anyone wished to take an examination to enter a merchant navy officer-training establishment called HMS Conway.

I discussed this opportunity with my parents, because I planned to stay another year to gain nationally recognised educational certificates in various subjects before applying for  a job. The extra year at school would take me to July 1960 when I would be sixteen, and looking for a job.
Most of my class friends planned to leave in July 1959 (when they were fifteen) to take up apprenticeships, working in the local shipyard or Port Sunlight soap works. None of which attracted me, which is why I wanted to stay on the extra year to take the examinations. The thought of going to sea and seeing the world suddenly became my desire.

My parents agreed that I could attempt the examination, which required a weekend at Plas Newydd (HMS Conway’s facility) on the island of Anglesey, in North Wales.

2008-06-10 200r

Plas Newydd the home of the Marquis of Anglesey.

In addition to being the Marquis’ home part of the house was used by HMS Conway’s captain, Captain Hewitt and his wife, as well as first term junior cadets.

The examination had several written parts as well as an oral examination. I suppose the oral part was to see what we looked like, and if we were aware of world events.

It was weeks before I was told to report to HMS Conway for the weekend of examination, and further weeks before I received a letter of acceptance, and my father received notification that I had been awarded a scholarship, because Conway was a fee-paying school.
Overall the planning and waiting took months, and it wasn’t until close to Christmas 1959 that I was told that if I was able to pass the eye sight tests then I would be join HMS Conway for the September term in 1960.

I had to take the eye test at the Ministry of Transport in Liverpool, (UK), because all merchant navy deck officers had to have 20 / 20 vision and were not allowed to wear spectacles. Besides the traditional word chart and the colour chart,  Blind

to make sure I wasn’t colour blind (a deck officer could not be colour blind), I was given a test in a very dark room, where I was required to spot red, green and white pin pricks of lights as if I was on the bridge of a ship. The positioning of the lights would allow a lookout or the officer of the watch, to know the general direction of the other vessel.
I was able to see some of the lights, but not all and I failed the test.

Eye test fail 001As I left the testing centre I was given the above form that stated that I had failed, but if I wished to challenge this result I could apply to London for a more detailed test at my own expense. If I were successful in the London test, all of my expenses would be reimbursed.

After discussing the failed eyesight test with my father, I borrowed £5.00 from him (a weeks wages for an sixteen year old), for the return train ticket to London and the second eye test fee. I passed the London test.

Eye cert Pass 001

On returning to Liverpool I visited the MoT eye-testing centre to let them know that there was nothing wrong with my eyes. They asked me to take the test again, which I did, and failed again.
At this point someone had the bright idea to switch on the light in the testing room. I had been placed on a wooden box to view the screen, which showed the red, green and white lights, but because of my height (6 ft 1 inches) and being on top of the box, this made my eye level to be just beneath a cross-beam (the testing centre being in a basement).

On taking the test one was lead in to the testing room, which was in total darkness, and you were helped on to the viewing box. The idea of total darkness being that you would gain your night vision faster than being plunged in to darkness by switching off a light.

In the dark one has a tendency to sway slightly, because you do not have a point of reference on which to focus. The swaying was enough for me to see the lights some of the time, and not be able to see them other times, due to the beam! It made me wonder how many others had been failed, and accepted that they had an eye ‘problem’, and perhaps never going to sea, but ending up in a job that they hated.

At least I collected my £2.00 reimbursement for the second eye test, my train costs and 7/6d for my trouble. I returned the borrowed £5.00 to my father and kept the ‘profit’.

Wales – land of my mother

2008-06-10 216r

I’ve always loved North & Mid Wales, perhaps because my mother was Welsh and only when the family moved from Caernarvon (Carnarfon to be PC) to Birkenhead, when she was thirteen, did she start to learn English. When my mother spoke of the move she would comment that she moved to England, which sounded strange to me as a child, because Caernarfon was only about eighty miles from Birkenhead, but it is in England so I suppose she was correct.

When Mum wanted to tell her sisters anything that I shouldn’t hear, it was always in Welsh, which was very convenient for them because they never had to whisper.

My grandfather had a butcher’s shop just off the Castle Square at 17, Pool St, which is now a branch of the Lloyds Bank

Lloyd and funny enough at 16 Pool St across the road is

Jones Dafid Wynn Jones the butcher!

It passed through my mind that perhaps the family lived across the road from their butcher shop, but I think it more likely that they would have lived over the shop, because I doubt that they were rich enough to have owned two properties, or even to have rented two properties.

My grandfather’s problem was that he had four daughters – my mother, born in 1909 was the youngest – but he didn’t have a son to take over the butchery shop. In the early part of the twentieth century, and living in Wales, daughters did not run or own a butchers shops. His other problem was his generosity – he allowed his customers to run up bills, because they were his friends, and as one would expect there came a time when his friends couldn’t pay for one reason or another. The mixture of poor payers and the lack of a male to carry on with the business was all too much, so the family ’emigrated’ to England.


Castle Square around 1900



Castle Square a hundred years later.

A short while before moving to England my mother’s eldest sister married a local man, so we always had a place to stay when on holiday.

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In the 1950’s I was old enough to be let out on my own and I spent hours in and around the castle. I became so well known at the castle that they gave me the same concession as a local – I was allowed in for nothing.
Later in life I revisited the castle, once in 2004 & again in 2008, (I paid each time) and I was very pleased to see that a lot of care and attention had been spent on the inside of the castle, because now it had become a major tourist attraction. Perhaps the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969 had helped create the demand. There have been two investitures in Caernarfon castle in the twentieth century, 1911 and 1969.

As a child the other attraction for me was swimming across the Aber River or this is what I thought the river was called. Later I found out that the river is called Seiont River and ‘aber’ is a Welsh word that means ‘river mouth’ in English, and for years I thought I’d swam the Aber River – we live an learn.

Swing bridgeThe old bridge that I used to cross the river and sometimes swim under when the tide was right.


The new bridge installed in 1969

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All our yesterdays – I would dive in to the river from about this point and swim across to the trees – I could do it at ten, but I doubt that I’d do it now – too far.


The red car is near where I was standing in the previous photo.

The first picture in this blog is of the Welsh flag flying over Harlech Castle, which is in mid-Wales. You can just see the sea, which used to lap the bottom of the battlements.

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It is now a long way from the sea. During a siege the castle was supplied by sea.

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The castle can just be seen – I had my back to the start of the sand hills, the sea was further away again from the sand hills.

Men of Harlech the original was as a poem, which was later set to music. In the film Zulu the song that the British (Welsh) soldiers sang was written especially for the film.

Rick Rescorla check this link for something different linked to the music of Men of Harlech and the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York.

To drive from the mainland to Anglesey we would have to cross the Menai Straits.

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P5131829rBuilt by Telford and opened in 1826

Holiday 049rWhat ever the weather I never get tired of the scenery in Wales.


I did manage to swim the Straits a couple of times, to the house on the other side, and back again, all in one go. At sixteen it seemed a good idea – I slept well that night.

The photo was taken from the Marquis of Anglesey’s home on the Anglesey side of the Straits.

As a child, North Wales was more than castles, bridges or swimming in rivers it meant Gronant, and beaches, where the sun always shined, the sand was clean and the water was warm.

Gronant 2

The boy on the left is yours truly abut 1953, my best mate, John, was three years older than me, but the age difference never bothered us, and we stayed friends for over sixty years – he died a couple of years ago.

We’d never heard of ‘flip flops’, you either had sandals or you went bare foot.

Gronant 1Try peddling these things across grass . . .

Gronant 3

I told you the water was warm . . . me on the right.

The accommodation at Rainford’s Holiday park was a wooden bungalow, which didn’t have running water or an indoor toilet. John and I had the job of keeping two large buckets full of fresh water for the kitchen which we hauled from a central tap. The public toilets were ‘dry’ toilets, so you only visited this area of the camp when you had to  . . ..

We spent a fortnight of living in shorts and running bare foot everywhere everyday unless we went in to Prestatyn for a knickerbocker glory.

knickerbockerglory_bluesmThe treat of the holiday, cost was 1/- when I first went to Prestatyn, (which was expensive, so it was a great treat), but over the  years the price grew to 2/6d by 1958, which, I think, was my last visit to this ice cream shop and my last visit to Gronant.

The whole experience of Gronant was the creation of great memories – we didn’t even have a radio never mind an iPad, smart phone, DVD player etc and our amusement from dawn to dusk was self created using twigs as guns for cowboys and indians and going mad by spending 6d for a bamboo poll with a net on the end so as to fish in the gully that ran from the shore to the sea. With hindsight we were fortunate in not catching anything, other than stings from nettles.

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