Some memories of pre-war B.I. Cadetships by Richard Crow.
These memories are now some 70 years old and so may not be as accurate as I think they are.
My parents paid £50 for my four year Indentures with the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd and I would be reimbursed
at the rate of 10/- per month for the first year, £1 for the second, 30/- for the third year and £3 per month the final year.
On my 17th birthday, 12th September 1932 I, together with six other first voyage cadets, joined the Company's Cadetship
Australia (Captain W. Scutt) lying at anchor in the Carrick Roads, Falmouth. I distinguished myself by being
sea sick the next day.
The Australia was a German built flush decked single screw coal burning steamship of 7500 tons gross and had
been captured at Colombo in the early days of the First World War.
She was laid up at Falmouth after a voyage from Australia with a full cargo of grain in bulk and we seemed to spend every
daylight hour for the first few weeks down below cleaning out rotten and stinking grain from the holds and bilges.
After about a month we sailed and, rounding Lands End in a full gale (where all the other first voyagers were sea sick),
we bunkered and loaded some tin plate and general cargo in the South Wales ports before completing loading at Liverpool.
1932 was a year of recession; we only had a part cargo so, to avoid Suez Canal dues we sailed for Australia via the Cape
at an economical speed.
Thus it was that after departing Liverpool on a dark and stormy night we did not sight land again (we first voyagers began to think
that the 'Old Man' had lost it) until we arrived at Freemantle 42 days later.
We carried an Extra 2nd Officer as Cadet Instructor and being equipped with wireless telegraphy equipment (Morse code) a Radio
Officer and also a Doctor but we had no refrigeration so that after some ten days when the fresh food in the large ice box was
finished, we lived on hard tack, I suppose tinned foods in general, and were issued each forenoon with a tot of lime juice
in accordance with Board of Trade Regulations for the prevention of scurvy.
At sea we were allowed to buy from the ship's slop chest one tin of 50 Players cigarettes per week for 1/6d or a ¼ lb tin of
Capstan Navy Cut tobacco and some Rizla cigarette papers for an equivalent price. We usually took the tobacco as if we made
thin cigarettes we could stretch it to more than 50, although by the end of the week they were often very thin indeed.
The cadet's accommodation in the Australia was right aft in the 'tween deck of the after hold. It consisted of two
large 18 berth dormitory cabins, one on each side with a dining saloon between them. Forward of the starboard cabin
was a 3 berth cabin for the Petty Officers and on the port side a similar cabin that was used as a Pantry for serving
the food. The toilets and ablutions were housed in a deck house on deck immediately above.
The 39 cadets were divided into two watches, Port and Starboard in their respective cabins, each watch had its own
Cadet Petty Office and there was a Cadet Chief Petty Officer. It was the custom at sea during the long haul to and
from Australia for the two watches to alternate week and week about as deck watch and study watch. Both watches
turned to before breakfast to wash down the decks, after breakfast one watch stayed below studying with the
Cadet Instructor Officer while the other would carry out all the normal ship board duties, day work, provide
Quartermasters, Bridge watches and lookouts in the Crows Nest at night.
On Sundays at sea, both watches were mustered on deck in full uniform for Sunday Divisions and were inspected by
the Captain escorted by the Chief Officer, the Cadet Instructor Officer and the Doctor. After this inspection
the Captain would go below to inspect the accommodation escorted by the Petty Officers. For this he wore white
gloves and woe betide us if his finger tips picked up any dust or dirt on beams or other nooks and crannies.
These inspections were followed by a short Divine Service from which the Catholics were excused.
Senior cadets were allowed to use the first trippers or 'Rooks' as they were called to do a variety of jobs for
them, often menial. It might be to make up the senior hand's bunk for him each morning or if a senior called
'ROOK' all the rooks in the vicinity had to rush to him. It was wise to be quick on the response to such a call
as the last to arrive invariably was given the task, possibly to dhobi his dirty socks and smalls.
There was also some ragging of rooks, usually fairly lighthearted and good natured, generally taking place in
the evenings to alleviate the monotony during the long hauls at sea to and from Australia. To take a personal
example, two senior hands argued as to the number of pieces in a toilet roll, one said 250 and the other 300.
I, as the last to respond to their call of Rook, was given the task of going up to the ablutions to actually
count a roll. I knew that I was on a hiding to nothing, if my count favoured the 250 man then the 300 man would
give me a beating and vice versa, so I decided to box clever and after a suitable interval returned to say that
there were 275 pieces to a roll. This plan back fired as both of them then punished me. A very usual punishment
for real or imagined misdemeanors, committed or omitted by a rook was to be given several dunts (I think from
memory that was the term used) which were glancing blows to the scalp delivered by the knuckles of a clenched
fist and believe me a dunt, administered by a practiced hand, could be quite surprisingly painful.
A healthy inter-watch rivalry was encouraged in work as well as in play. For example, cleaning ship after
coaling, a tedious task, could be enlivened by each watch taking an alleyway or section and then 'job and
finish' beat the other watch for first use of the ablutions. We held inter-watch boxing contests, and around
the Australian coast inter watch cricket and football matches. A regular event was the inter-watch boat race
using ship's lifeboats which, believe me, are heavy to shift at any speed by six oarsmen.
With 39 young men aged between 17 and 21, we could field teams for whichever sport was in season and we had
contacts in most of the Australian ports. The University of Perth when in Freemantle, the English Speaking
Union in Melbourne, cricket at the Rushcutters Oval in Sydney and in Brisbane the St. Andrews Ladies Hockey
Club. If you haven't played hockey against a Ladies team you haven't lived life dangerously to the full. One
voyage they had the Toowoomba Ladies Hockey Club from up country visiting and so we played both teams and then
ended a memorable day with a Fancy Dress dance.
In Melbourne in 1932/3 we met out sister Cadetship Nardana (Captain O'Reilly) and, amongst
other diversions, took them on at cricket. 1932/3 was the year of the 'Body Line' tests between England and
Australia and feelings were running high. I recall that I was barracked by some Australian spectators when
one or two of my slow to medium left arm inswingers got up and hit the batsmen around the rib cage.
The Australia's next, and last voyage as a Cadetship, was to Calcutta and on our return to
the U.K. we were transferred to the Nerbudda at Falmouth. The Nerbudda,
Captain John Blencowe, was a twin screw coal burning steamer of some 7900 tons gross. We had only one, but
quite eventful, voyage in her to Australia.
Outward bound King Neptune and his court would board at the Equator and the usual 'crossing the line' ceremonies
were observed. The Rooks (first voyage cadets) were the prime targets of Neptune's Officials but any other newcomers
such as 5th Engineer Officers or the young Doctor would also be roped in. All the victims would be given a good
going over, in my case my hair was given a two inch wide parting from the front to the back of my head by Neptune's
barber which did not improve my appearance but was a useful talking point when chatting up the Australian girls.
Another traditional outward bound event was the Rooks concert usually held during the third week of the voyage.
The Rooks had to put on a concert which would be attended by all hands including the Captain and Officers. This
ordeal had been hanging over our heads since departure from Liverpool because, apart from any sketch or other
team effort, each Rook had to stand up and perform a solo turn. In my case, being a Yorkshireman with a northern
accent, I gave them Stanley Holloway's monologue 'Albert and the Lion'. Fortunately for me it went down quite
well chiefly, I think, because it ended with 'bloody lions' and it was thought quite daring to swear in front
of the Captain. This concert was usually followed by a Ships concert at which the more talented performers
often including one of the ship's Officers would do their stuff. You must remember that in those days, there
were no private wireless sets or radios and we had to make our own entertainment.
Outward bound our port engine broke down off the West coast of Africa and we had to put in to the French port of Dakar
for repairs. Captain Blencowe, who I believe held a square rigged masters certificate, was a fine seaman and shipmaster
and it was commonly thought by the cadets that he negotiated a contract with the repair firm that allowed them a bonus
if they completed the repair within two days, but that any time over would incur a penalty. The repairs eventually took
about five days and it was popularly thought that the repairers paid us to do the job.
Captain Blencowe also took great interest in the Cadets training and had us sewing canvas, wire splicing etc. Amongst
other things, I recall that in the trade winds he had the masts stepped in all the lifeboats and the sails set and
reckoned he gained half a knot by so doing. Limping in to Dakar on one engine he had us rig tarpaulins as head sails
on the foremast to improve the steering.
To my mind an outstanding example of practical training was, while we were at anchor at Dakar, when he ordered, at
short notice and without warning, the cadets to abandon ship. Leaving only a skeleton crew onboard all the boats were
sent away and told not to come back until the afternoon. The most realistic emergency drill I've ever had and one
that may have been of benefit to those of my shipmates who had the misfortune to have to abandon ship for real in
the forthcoming war! One of the lifeboats sailed close hauled to the far horizon, went about and then sailed back
close hauled on the other tack and just cleared the bow of the ship! An indication to us all that ships lifeboats
did not sail to windward very well.
We had the misfortune to run aground off Adelaide in poor visibility.
I recall that we were having breakfast in the messroom when word came down from the Bridge for a cadet to man the chains i.e. take
soundings with the hand lead. Very shortly afterwards we came to a stop and found ourselves hard and fast aground. Later that
morning a lifeboat was sent away in charge of the 2/0 to take soundings around the ship and in the vicinity. The next day we
were refloated with the assistance of a tug. Fortunately the bottom was sandy and no damage had been occasioned to the ship.
The expression "man the chains" in the preceding paragraph originates from the days of sail when the "Leadsman" would stand
on the "Chains or Chainplates" which projected from the upper deck of sailing ships and to which the mast shrouds were made
fast. In the steamship era the "chains" was a portable grating or platform which was fixed to project some two to three feet
outboard of the bulwark, usually on the starboard side just forward of the Bridge structure, on which the Leadsman stood,
wearing a canvas safety harness and apron, to cast the lead. The lead itself was a seven or eight pound piece of lead attached
to a light line which was graduated in fathoms by "marks" and "deeps." The marks were of distinctive materials such as leather
or coloured cloth (e.g., the 3 fathom mark was 3 tails of leather, the 5 fathom a piece of white linen, the 7 fathom a piece
of red bunting, the 10 fathom mark a piece of leather with a hole in it) so that they could be distinguished by feel in the
dark. The lead was cast by swinging it round vertically over the head two or three times to gain momentum and then hurling
or casting it well forward so that by the time the lead hit the bottom it would be, with the forward movement of the ship,
more or less vertically beneath the leadsman who, seeing which mark was nearest the sea level, would call out the appropriate
sounding e.g. "By the mark 5", "deep 6" or "and a half 6 "as the case might be. Nowadays, of course, the hand lead is archaic
and has been superseded by the echo sounder and suchlike electronic devices except, perhaps, in sail training ships.
Having discharged our outward cargo at all the usual ports round the Australian coast we had a few days to wait for a loading
berth or some such reason. The Captain anchored the ship off the Queensland coast inside the Great Barrier Reef. The names
"Whitsunday passage" and "Thursday Island" ring a slight bell for me but I cannot now remember whether they apply to this
locality or this occasion
Whatever, one afternoon we were fishing over the side and hooked a sizable shark, it was thrashing about and we were
having difficulty hauling it aboard when the 2/0, who had a .22 sporting rifle said "Hang on, I'll get my gun". Taking
careful aim he only succeeded in severing the fishing line which allowed the shark to swim away free.
On another day a number of the ship's company, including the C/O (A.A.?) Parker and the 2/0 with his gun, landed on
a nearby island for a picnic. Looking for something to shoot the 2/0 took aim at something in the top of a palm tree,
but only succeeded in bringing down a coconut which nearly brained the C/O.
We could never decide whether he was a very poor shot or a very good shot seeking promotion!
On arrival in the U.K. the cadets were again transferred, this time to the Devon, ex Federal Steam. Of
some 9000 tons gross, the Devon had some refrigerated holds for the carriage of frozen cargoes, not
usual in the B.I. at that time, so we all, from the Chief Officer downwards, had to learn some new tricks. A far cry
from the old Australia and her ice box!
I only managed half a voyage in the Devon, being hospitalised in Newcastle N.S.W. with enteric (typhoid) fever,
caught, it was thought, from drinking water from a standpipe at a Townsville cricket ground.
When admitted to Newcastle Hospital I was very ill and was quite delirious for the first couple of weeks. Later, when I was recovering
nurse Beryl, who I had fallen for, told me that one morning during Matron's round of the ward, I caused much shock and amusement by
demanding that she give me back my clothes so that I could go home, claiming that I was a fruit farmer from Victoria and had come to
visit my brother when I was put into bed in mistake for him.
Being delirious at the time I remembered none of that but I do remember some weeks later two giggling young probationer
nurses giving me an intimate bed bath and my acute embarrassment when he who resides below the belt stirred and showed
signs of life, "Oh good exclaimed one of the nurses, I see you are getting better!"
Newcastle Hospital was ideally situated just behind one of the bathing beaches, when I was convalescing I and other
convalescent patients were allowed to go up on to the roof from where we had an excellent view of the annual Lifeguards
and Surf Boats regatta.
I should like to add that the B I were punctilious in keeping my parents informed of my progess in hospital
After some three months in hospital I was repatriated as a D.B.S. in the P & O branch line steamer Bendigo
and then completed by cadetship in the Home Line passenger ship Mantola on the U.K. to East Africa run.