Footprints on the Sands of Time


This article, by Michael Grey, taken from Fairplay magazine, first appeared in May of 1983. It was republished on the website by kind permission of the editor. Please see this site's HOME PAGE for information about the background to content republished here.


An old print from a family album and a world away from shipping of today. A little ship casts off in a Gulf port from where she has been lying alongside one of her larger sisters, while Second Officer I.B.B. Robertson, immaculate in his No. 10s and under the shade of a solar topee directs operations on the forecastle, pausing for a brief second to wave to the photographer. The ship is one of the small British India S.N. vessels that ran between the Indian Coast and the ports of the Persian Gulf, (as it was confidently called without fear of contradiction in those days), for lan Robertson, who was my uncle, spent his entire career with that company. The time is the early 1920s, a confident period, with the hazards of a World War behind him, a growing company with a fleet of more than one hundred ships assuring promotion once he had a Master’s ticket under his belt. No hint here of ten recession at rock bottom wages, another long war to be fought through, this time in command.
Ian Robertson's ship. [1]
Ten men on a tiny fo'c'sle, if you count the seamen winding up the spring just out of the frame, another three on the wire itself on the well-deck and a man standing ready with the lead in the starboard chains to sound the ship down the creek. Half a dozen more on the bridge, the same number aft and you have nearly forty men outside the engine room of this little coal burner just to get her away to sea, a ship of a size that might be run under some accommodating flags, today with a crew of half a dozen in total. A different world indeed, of brass and brightwork, of coaling and Canvas dodgers, of steam and seamanship, of gin and bitters and parties and two ports in a day.

No princely salary here and an air conditioned suite. A small hot wooden hutch with a jalousie out on deck was home for the stifling summer runs up the Gulf and the stinking humidity of a Coromandel creek. No great iron bird to speed the mariner home after his four year stint for a three month leave on full pay. For those that served on the Eastern ships it was four years and like it, and a salary deliberately kept small enough to ensure that an officer stayed a bachelor, at least until he was a Commander. The Company expected a certain single-minded dedication from its young officers and was in those days rarely disappointed.

The album from where this photograph was taken must be one of hundreds like it for people seemed to take photos more in those days. There were dazzle-painted Ships from the First War, groups of apprentices doing very much the same sort of things that apprentices always did, men long-captured in the strange affected poses judged proper before the eyes of the camera in those days. There were strange little ships in tiny Indian ports that may well be the same today Arab creeks where towering oil-rich cities now stand, the occasional snapshot on the rare leaves.

Whether for all our creature comfort today we are happier, I for one would not like to judge. The old are notoriously forgetful of the bad times, and listening to my uncle long after he retired, it had been the happy times he remembered. No closed doors in towering and vibrating superstructures, wives bickering in the smoke room; no plastic or slow steaming in ballast, no company bitching over the telex, no crew reductions and idiot idea of doing without a third mate, no flagging out and signing on a crew of Moroccan sheep herders because they were half the price of the Liverpool Irish. No rationalisation, reorganizations and all the drive of this consultant-infested world. A world away, a better world? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

Image Credits

  1. By courtesy of Michael Grey