A Deck Boys Diary
By John Richardson. Published by Classic Marine Publications, Swansea. Price £15.00
This very readable book tells of the author’s "First Trip" to sea in 1953. Like a first love, every seaman remembers his first trip with great clarity. I certainly remember mine, although it was some ten years later, and as an indentured apprentice strongly bound to "diligently serve his said masters... and not frequent alehouses or houses of ill repute save on the service of his said masters....", still, we were both still sixteen.
John Richardson went to the Wellesley Nautical School and sensibly in my view, did not carry on into the Royal Navy but joined the Merchant Navy citing the inducement of more favourable pay, and because he had heard of a more liberal freedom. I was left with the feeling that the latter was perhaps the more dominant because a little later he said he had been sent to Wellesley for non compliance with school rules. I immediately felt some affinity to another free spirit.
In May 1953 he joined the Watts and Company ship, Willesdon as a "Peggy" or Deck Boy, on the princely pay of £10 a month, and overtime after 56 hours, of 1/6d. I cannot say whether other readers from different backgrounds will find this book so evocative of past times and similar experiences but I suspect anybody who has been to sea will find it charming and read every page with growing nostalgia. It is safe to say that going to sea has changed more in the last 40 years than it had from the change from sail to steam. In fact the last major change at that time had been in 1894 when the Merchant Shipping Act came in, regulating at last, pay, conditions, victualling allowances as well as seaman’s lodging houses, thus attempting to stop the hitherto awful exploitation of seaman.
Willesdon was an Empire boat built during the WW2 Emergency Programme which included the American built Sam boats, and Canadian "Fort" and "Park" boats. These vessels offered two berth cabins, running water, steam heating and other luxuries. I read of his going up the gangway of his first ship, the strange smells and sounds that ships have as he timorously sought out the Bosun who gave him his jobs as mess boy. This entailed keeping the mess room clean and tidy making the tea for "smokos". Here I remembered "Board of Trade" coffee which when washing up turned the water green. The only milk being "connie-onnie" and "shakey" (condensed and evaporated milk.) The peggy had to collect the food from the galley to the mess room and do the washing up. He had to ensure that dry stores, condiments and sauces were available at meal times and generally look after eighteen men. Having also been to a sea school I also remembered the abundance and quality of the food at sea and the seaman’s judgement of a shipping company as to whether they were "good feeders"
The book continues with his experiences during the course of his first trip and I was left pondering as to whether things had changed for the better. At the time I railed at the continuous scrubbing and cleaning, but in reality it was a very good way to teach boys to become good seamen. Imagine a sixteen year old today beset with NVQs, training programmes in comparison. The reality however is that by confining young boys to menial tasks they soon got any cockiness knocked out of them, but were kept in a safe environment until they found their feet. In hindsight the men looked after the boys, and listening to them "swinging the lamp", the boys learned. I still remember some of the early hard lessons when I had done something stupid and was mercilessly ridiculed. Simple things which today would be given the grandiose title "Essential safe working practices" or outlawed because they were bullying. I remember that the older men always kept an eye out for the boys and ensured things didn’t get out of hand. Finally the joy of joining your second ship and no longer being a first tripper and being given jobs with the men.
I heartily agreed with the author that the Merchant Navy was the greatest school of life. The close knit society on board led to great tolerance for people’s weaknesses, as long as they did their job, "it was none of your business what they did", coupled with total intolerance of inconsiderate behaviour, being noisy, slamming doors etc. Whilst at sea nobody ever touched anybody’s possessions and nothing personal was ever locked. Theft from your fellow "Board of Trade acquaintances" was the most heinous crime. Communications were difficult and expensive and the little village of the ship went around the world, and barring some football results, got and relayed by "sparky", we had little interest in the outside world.
This book wonderfully re-creates that long gone world, wondering whether human beings do know what’s good for them. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and was sad when I reached the end. It would certainly make a very good Christmas present for anyone who was in the "Merch" prior to 1980.
One final reservation, I suspect, born out of the author’s modesty and self effacing style, we were told that he left his last ship in 1990, I suspect as Master, to retire, and it would have been nice to know briefly what happened to him after finishing his "First Trip".
Reviewed by Jeremy Puckett
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From John Richardson, author of 'A Deck Boys Diary' - Thank you for your comments Mr Plunkett. No I did not finish as a master mariner, but as a CPO in the South African navy. However, thanks to my training at the sea school where navigation studies were my favourite topic, my son is presently serving as a master. John R.
dads name was ray gascoigne
ELAINE WEST RE,GASCO
i WOULD LIKE TO HEAR FROM ANYONE HOW SAILED WITH MY DAD ON THE willesden he also sail on the ATHENIC my dad was the ships cook and he sailed out of hull for many years and would like to hear from anyone who sailed with my dad you can e.mail me on
ELAINE WEST,RE GASCO
I have tried looking for Mr John Richardsons adress with no look,HE SENT MY DAD RAY GASCIGNE A COPY OF HIS BOOK AS MY DAD WAS THE SHIPS COOK ON THE WILLESDEN,I HAVE BEEN READING THE BOOK AGAIN AND JOHN CALLS DAD BIG RON BUT HIS NAME WAS RAY.SADLY MY DAD PASS AWAY LAST YEAR AND HE WAS FRIENDS WITH JOHN RICHARDSON CAN YOU HELP HIS DAUGHTER ELAINE.
I was born in 1942, my name is Angus and I worked on the Willesdon while I was a young lad. Im from Scotland, Stornoway, the Isle of Lewis. Anybody I know still out there?
Have read 'A Deck Boy's Diary'.No doubt these were hard times, when seamen had no rights.And in his case-a hard company[Watts,Watts].However as they say, the wheel turns.Although, old man Watts was a bit of a tyrant, the most recent Watts, was a man of vision who was determined to 'turn round' all previous injustiuces.After his 're-makeover' of his fleet, he had arguibly the best treated, best accomodated and best fed seamen afloat.So things do improve.
Sadly to-day, mainly due to governments, who are IGNORENT of the seam plus peopole prepared to 'sell out' the industry like Loird Sterling, we have hardly any ships left.And ha-few seamen to exploit, except in the UK coastal trades[where exploitation and overworked and understaffed crews are alive and well.
But the REAL home of explotation to-day is the Far East.There seaman';s rights are trampled totally underfoot.This is reflected in the 'at sea' losses of ships.Due to operations that go wrong-ie ships turning over due to re ballasting ops.Also bulkers just breaking up due to overstressing.Huge numbers of dead seamen.And if the 'coffin ships' won't get you-the pirates will.Piracy has increased 100 fold over the past 20 years.Yet we are told by the 'spin merchants' all is well.All is NOT well.Piracy is on the rise in East and West Africa,areas of South America, and off the coast of Indonesia and Bangladesh, the world's two worst areas.
From a Retired Shipmaster.
i have read the book and it has helped me in lots of ways to, has my dad brian ali was at the wellesley nautical school before he was on the ships thank you john dad loved it as well you will have to get on the wellesley forum
After reading and enjoying > A DECK BOY'S DIARY< I got an email from Baz Mumford, telling me to read EIGHT BELLS AND TOP MASTS, BY CHRISTOPHER LEE. Is about a deck Apprentice's first trip. its another book you wont be able to put down. all the best to you all Terry
This is a message for Joe Earl R680857 or anyone who sailed on the SS CONSUELO 29 April 1957 - 5 June 1957.
I would love to hear from anyone who sailed with my late father Charles Hoodless ( R311376 ) between the dates above.
email me at email@example.com
After reading John's book, I got my discharge book out, and checked the date John came onboard the CONSUELO, in Montreal in 1953 and I was peggy on her at the time. It brought back good memories
Joe Earl R680857
I have also just read this fine book - my first trip and experiences were similar as `peggy on the Africa Palm in 1957.
Also some coincidences in the book, among them, John sailed on the Baron Inverclyde - my brother John Earl was Bo`sun on her at a later date.
also I know the Lamptrimmer Fred Hodges that he sailed with.
I have just about read this book I could have been the peggy that john was talking to on the ss consuelo, Idid my first trip as peggy on the ss consuelo, but that was25 march 1960. It is a very good book I have thought of writingmy story but alas never kept a diary now the memories are fading. well done john I got a LOTof pleasure from the book.