The Working Allyway.My first ship and the anticipation were palpable. I was not alone; there were many first trippers as I was to discover later.
I got down to the Liverpool, Princess Landing Stage and there she was in all her magnificence, the pride of the, Canadian Pacific fleet of ocean liners. A liner was a passenger vessel on a set route, just like the original Cunard Queens, Elizabeth and Mary.
The Empress of Scotland, my new home away from home, was beautiful in white finery. Three buff coloured funnels with the, CPR red/white quarters emblazed on them. Not a very imaginative badge but bright and once seen, never forgotten. To me she was undoubtedly the most imposing vessel I had ever seen close-up.
The Second World War had ended 5 year ago and Britain, close to bankruptcy, was rebuilding here merchant fleet. Not just ships but new men to replace the approximate 32,000 Merchant seamen who lost their lives manning the ships that were sunk or destroyed.
Now the new fleet was vital, bringing the desperately needed, food and supplies to the United Kingdom. Not just bringing but taking too; the UK was back exporting.
The only country to get rich from the war was the United States of America.
Britain’s new Commonwealth of Nations, former Empire countries, was steadfast in supporting the mother country and thousands of young men were needed to man the ships, or go down the mines.
There was a drive to attract young people to the Merchant Navy, or to become a Bevan-Boy working down the coal mines. Ernest Bevan was the minister for mines, hence the Bevan Boy’s.
This was an opportunity to fulfil my lifelong ambition to follow my father and uncles into the merchant navy; the ship tied-up at the Landing Stage was my key to the door.
After boarding the ship, signing the Articles of Agreement, I was officially a Merchant Seaman but nothing too grand; as one of three boatswain's mate told me, “As a deck-boy you’re lower than the ships cat!” Ah well!
Such is life, I’d get by and I did. My nemesis, the bosun’s mate, turned out to be a nice guy with a wry but funny sense of humour; he made my job a breeze with the jokes and yarns he told at meal times.
I was assigned to the PO’s Mess as Peggy, the one who cleaned fetched and washed the dishes; known in seafaring palaver as ‘pearl diving’.
I shared a cabin with 2 junior ordinary seamen and 4 other deck-boys it was a good call; we all got to clean the indoor swimming pool each evening and that was a lot of fun for young lads.
My first job in the morning was to go down to the working alleyway (Main Street) to collect the PO’s stores for the day. Fresh bread, bread rolls, butter, sugar dry tea etc.
I enjoyed my trip down to Main Street.
It was always a hive of activity, with stewards pushing trolleys hither and thither to collect stuff from the bakery, butcher and general store. That’s what the working alleyway was, a place of stores.
It was a very wide alleyway, about 20 feet wide and running a third the ships length.
The after-end was a mystery to me because it went around a corner. I had no reason to go there; however, I promised myself I would one day.
When we finished work for the day and we’d emptied/cleaned the inboard swimming pool, which we didn’t consider work because we had so much fun, our time was our own.
I started going aft to the Capstan deck and to get there I had to go down along the deserted working alleyway (We were not allowed to pass through the passenger accommodation) up a little set of stairs into the deck-stewards pantry, from there out to the capstan deck.
About the 2nd time I did this I decided to have a look around the corner, at the after end of the alleyway and so it was that I met Sid Halloran, a fireman/greaser, fireman being a hang-over from the days of the coal burners. As I turned the corner I heard a gruff voice, obviously a scouse.
“What are you doing here son?”
I almost jumped out of my skin with fright,
“I was just wondering what was around here,” I replied.
“Don’t be scared of me son, I don’t bite.” Obviously he could tell I was shocked.
“I’m Sid Halloran just an old fireman having a rest and a smoke.” He went on to ask,
“Who are you and why are you sneaking about?”
“I’m not sneaking about; I was just curious what was around the corner.”
I explained I was the PO’s Peggy and I came down to the working alleyway to collect stores each morning but I had never been around the corner; curiosity got the better of me?
“What’s your name,” he asked.
“Tony Berger,” I replied. “Berger is Irish, “ I went on.
“That’s not Irish, although I once sailed with a Billy Berger, whose father was born in Tipperary.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; I was shocked, but was it coincidence?
“My dad is named Billy Berger and my granddad was born in Tipperary.”
“Has your dad got any tattoos? Asked Sid, “And if so has he got one like this?”
With that he moved the muscles in his fore and the tattoo of a hula-girl appeared to dance, just like my dad’s.
“Yes he has,” I replied, “And it’s the same as yours.”
“Well son, you can knock me down with a feather,” “I know your dad, we grew up round Scotland Road, went to school together and came away to sea together.”
“The last time I saw him was when we sailed together on this very ship, that was before the war and this was then the Empress of Japan.” “They changed when war broke out.”
This was the most exciting thing that had ever occurred in my short life. Sid was also excited and we rambled on chatting like two old friends who hadn’t seen each other for a long time.
He asked about my dad and what he was doing. I told him he was a company’s man with the Union Castle Line and currently fireman/greaser on the, Rowallan Castle.
“Good for him,” said Sid.
We talked about Sid and my dad and what they did as young men but then Sid said he would have to get back down the Engine-room. We said our goodnights and made plans to meet again the following night, same place same time and that was it, but I’d made a friend.
Sid and I made it a regular practice to meet for a chat each evening. He told me stories about how his and my dads’ boyhood.
Funny and sometimes exciting stories that made time fly. Time went so fast, before I realised it, we were homeward bound from Quebec to Liverpool.
Sadly Sid told me he would be paying off, on arrival at the Pool. That news was like a kick in the gut for me. I had met a friend of my dad’s, a raconteur par excellence, who enlightened me about my father’s youth; it was sad news.
Arriving home was a proud day for me, a sailor returning from the sea. I told my mother and siblings all about my first voyage and especially about Sid Halloran. I expected my mam to say she remembered him but she didn’t?
I did a couple more trips on the Scotland and then I paid off. It wasn’t much of a payoff. On a wage of £7 per month, with £2 allotment to me mam it was about £5. At a time when the average weekly pay-packet for an adult landlubber was just £10 per week I felt like a millionaire.
I took my leave, about a week, did a single voyage on the CWS Progress, a coaster, paid off with nothing; however, when I arrived home my dad was there, he had a couple of weeks leave.
I told him about my meeting Sid Halloran, and my dad looked perplexed?
I was a surprised when my dad said:
“I don’t think you met Sid.”
He went on to tell me that Sid was requested to sign Special Articles of Agreement: T124X, in order to join the armed merchant cruiser, HMS Jervis Bay.
She was a merchant navy liner seconded to the royal navy, the crew were mainly merchant seamen who were give an RN cap and battledress in case they were captured. If in civilian dress they could have been shot as spies.
HMS Jervis Bay under command of Captain Edward Fegen, RNVR joined convoy HX 84 as an armed escort vessel.
When the convoy was attacked by the German, pocket battle ship Admiral Scheer, on
5th November 1940, Captain Fegen VC gave the order for the convoy to scatter.
He then turned his ship, toward Admiral Scheer, and with his gallant crew attacked Scheer.
With all guns blazing HMS Jervis Bay continued her charge at the, Pocket Battle Ship until, Jervis Bay, still firing her guns was sunk by overwhelming fire power.
There were survivors but Captain Fegen and the majority of the crew, including Sid Halloran, went down with the ship?
Captain Fegen was awarded the VC and the rest of his crew got the George Cross.
The story my dad told was poignant to say the least but I was adamant that Sid and I became friends on the Empress of Scotland; my dad was just as resolute that Sid Halloran went down with the HMS Jervis Bay. I said:
“Dad, show me how you make your hula-girl tattoo dance?”
This is all fact except for the bit about Sid Halloran. I made my first trip on the Empress of Scotland, the part about the, HMS Jervis Bay, Captain Fegen VC and his gallant crew is also true I based Sid on a scouse fireman named Sid Harikey who was from Scotland Road; the spelling, Harikey is my phonetic version of the name. Perhaps someone may know the correct spelling.