Our house in Sunnydale Crescent, Otley
A year or so after we moved to Otley, a number of the senior people at Kirkstall Forge moved to Australia to take up positions in a new jointly owned Australian company, Kirkstall Repco Pty Ltd, which would manufacture motor vehicle parts. The management at Kirkstall Forge encouraged its employees to consider migration to Australia, offering any of its skilled forge workers who might wish to emigrate the guarantee of employment. This invitation, combined with the good reports coming from the people who had migrated to Australia from the church in Leeds, persuaded my parents to take a long, hard look at the advantages of a move to Australia.
Ever since my parents got married, my grandmother on my mother's side had had a great fear of being abandoned by them. As a result, they had been reluctant to give serious consideration to moving to Australia, knowing the effect it would have had on her. Even moving to Otley was hard and the very idea of moving there had been met with great opposition. A year prior to hearing about the employment opportunities at Repco, my grandmother had died, an event that changed their view towards migration significantly and allowed them to seriously entertain the idea.
With what amounted to a guarantee of work as an added incentive, my parents investigated to the possibility of moving to Australia. Through the church in Leeds, they made contact with the closest Assembly of God church in Melbourne to the Kirkstall Repco factory, which was at Oakleigh. An added bonus was that the pastor of the Oakleigh church was an Englishman who was known to my parents. His reply to their enquiry came with a promise of sponsorship if they decided to immigrate to Australia. This included a guarantee of temporary accommodation until they were able to rent or purchase their own home. It meant that we would be spared the difficult conditions of the migrant hostels that many other migrant families who did not receive private sponsorship were forced to endure upon their arrival in Australia.
Preparing for Departure With a guarantee of sponsorship, accommodation on arrival and a job for my father to walk into, my parents quickly made the decision to emigrate and contacted Australia House in London to get the ball rolling. A tall Australian man came up from London by train to see us and explained the Government's Assisted Passage Scheme to us. He said that all we had to pay was ten pounds each for Mum and Dad because, at that time, children under 19 travelled free. The Australian Government would pay the remainder of the fare. We had to stay in Australia for a minimum of two years and if we decided to leave Australia permanently to any destination during the first two years, we had to repay the balance of the full fare to the Australian Government before being allowed to leave. If we were unable to obtain sponsorship by either industry or an individual, we could apply for sponsorship by the Government.
To be eligible, Dad needed to be skilled at a trade. In our case, though Kirkstall Repco had not offered us sponsorship, it had offered work and the church at Oakleigh had agreed to sponsor us, so were practically approved on the spot. Each family member was interviewed individually to make sure we all understood what we were letting ourselves in for. We were told that, as we had our own sponsor, we could probably be on our way quite soon, provided we all passed a medical examination. Passage would be on board a ship nominated by the Australian Government. We had our medical examinations and would have left England a year earlier than we did had it not been for my mother having an iron deficiency and had to take a course of iron tablets before a sailing date would be given. Once a satisfactory level was achieved, we would then be required to have smallpox injections and prepared to leave.
When we announced our intention to move to Australia, my brother and I got a mixed response from our friends. One boy called us copycats because relatives of his had migrated to Australia a few months earlier. We told him we didn't even know these people and therefore couldn't be copying them but it made no difference to the boy. We even told him that the decision to move was our parents' and not ours but he continued to call us copycats until the day we left. Most of our friends had never heard of Australia. A boy who lived up the street from us asked whether we were driving there or going by train and another asked if he could still come and see me after school at my new house. Realising that the children in my class had no concept of where Australia was, my teacher spent the next week teaching about Australia. Apart from the fact that it is around the other side of the world from England, most of what she told us was incorrect. It does rain in Australia; we don't all speak Aboriginal; no one has pet koalas in their back garden and convict chain gangs don't make the roads, at least they haven't in the last hundred and thirty years years to my knowledge.
Once we received notification of our acceptance as migrants, we sold our house in Otley and moved into temporary rental accommodation during Mum's course of iron tablets. We had been advised to sell our furniture but keep our clothes and personal items, which we did. During the time of waiting for notification of our sailing date, I had my first taste of television. I remember going to a neighbour’ÄöˆÑˆ¥s house and seeing a children’ÄöˆÑˆ¥s programme on their new television. A few weeks later, I sat in awe and watched the wedding of Princess Anne to Lord Snowden, Anthony Armstrong Jones, the first live broadcast of its kind anywhere in the world. To our surprise, we received only a few weeks notice of our date and time of departure. We were required to board a train at St Pancras station in London at 5pm on 9th June 1960. Our ship, RMS Strathaird, would sail for Australia via Piraeus, Port Said, Aden and Colombo that night.
Tilbury: Strathaird's Home Port
Tilbury Passenger Terminal, 1923
Tilbury is located in Thurrock district, county of Essex, England. It lies along the north bank of the River Thames, opposite Gravesend, 42 km downstream of London Bridge. It is famous for its docks, constructed 1884-86, which have been extensively modernized and extended by the Port of London Authority. Tilbury is now the principal container port of the Port of London with "roll-on, roll-off" facilities being provided since 1965. The quays extend more than 6.5 km, and the riverside landing stage, 348 m long, enables the largest ships to embark or disembark passengers at any stage of the tide. The East End has always been a place of international arrival and departure, today from the old Royal Docks you can fly into or out of London City Airport. The Airport is part of the Docklands urban regeneration, which is the world's biggest single civil engineering project and is creating a new financial centre that rivals the City of London.
London has been a port since Roman times. It became an important trading city because of its links to the rest of the country over land and to the rest of the world through the river Thames. Roman galleys moored along the river trading a range of goods from around the Roman Empire. London continued to grow when the Romans left and the river became very busy. During the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the river became so crowded that there was sometimes nowhere for ships to unload and they had to put their cargo onto smaller boats, which would go to other parts of the river. The overcrowding also meant that goods were often stolen. Laws were passed to control where ships could legally moor and for how long they could stay. The situation became much worse as ships became bigger and London grew as a trading city. Something had to be done. In the early nineteenth century, companies such as the West India Company began to build docks to allow their ships to moor next to their own warehouses. These were very successful and other companies quickly built new docks such as the London docks and the East India docks. Each time new docks were built, trade increased and these docks all seemed too small. At this time, England was producing a huge range of goods in newly built factories during a period that is known as the industrial revolution. The goods made in these factories were sold all over the world. They had to be shipped through ports such as London. At the same time, The British Empire grew and other goods came to London from around the world. Very soon, the docks could not cope. The decision was made to build new docks further downstream. These were the Royal Docks, which started with the Royal Victoria dock, which was opened in 1855. The Royal Albert dock was finished in 1880.
The last of the Royal Docks to be built was the King George the fifth dock, opened in 1921. Many thousands of people worked in the docks. They loaded, moved and unloaded the huge quantities of goods traded through the docks. Most things had to be moved several times. First, from the boat to barrows or trucks. They were then put in warehouses, packed and put on trucks or trains to be moved again. Dock work was poorly paid and often dangerous. During the 1960s workers demanded better pay and conditions. This made the docks more expensive to run. At the same time, companies were looking for more efficient quick ways of dealing with the vast quantities of goods and containers were invented. Containers are packed at the factory and locked so the goods cannot be stolen. They are loaded on and off ships quickly in large numbers using cranes. This new way of moving goods has meant that the large number of dock workers previously required is no longer needed. The River Thames and the docks along the river are too difficult and too crowded to use for the very large container ships of today so the dock companies decided to use the docks that are next to the sea and are not crowded by poor roads and a large city. Many docks along the River Thames, including some around Tilbury closed in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the loss of thousands of jobs. Uses have gradually been found for the docks. The Royal docks still form the largest contained area of dock water in the world. Today many new uses are being found for the areas along the sides of the Victoria, Albert and King George V docks. These include housing, London City Airport, the University of East London and a new international exhibition centre. The water itself has been cleaned and is a very good water sports area. This includes an Olympic rowing course and a sailing school. In the old dockside villages of Limehouse and Rotherhithe there are still Swedish chemists, Norwegian churches, Chinese restaurants run by descendants of the people to whom Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes to score his opium. New industries moved into the area alongside the riverside belt, attracted there by the lack of legislative restrictions on noxious trades.
Tilbury Railway Station
As result of the 19th century British colonial expansion, the early 20th century saw significant increases in long distance passenger travel by sea. By 1922 this increased demand, and a lack of centralised facilities for passengers, led to the building of a Cruise Terminal and Passenger Landing Stage that were officially opened on 16th May 1930. It was from this terminal that Strathaird would sail. Previously passengers were conveyed between ship and shore by private vessels, however the new Landing Stage was constructed as a floating platform, projecting out 113 metres from the riverbank. This enabled direct passenger transfer via elevated gantries. At the western end of the stage a two storey wooden building 132 metres long was constructed with offices for customs, immigration, and waiting rooms. Four bridges connected the floating stage to the land / baggage hall. A fifth bridge was constructed for vehicles.
The Riverside Station was also enlarged with a new station building, added lines, and platforms, making the journey time to central London forty-five minutes. By 1929 passenger numbers for the year had reached 306,000. Until World War II the Cruise Terminal was in high demand, and served ships sailing to India, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. During the summer months there were also pleasure cruises to the Mediterranean, Canary Islands, Scandinavia, and the Baltic. World War II diverted the work of the Cruise Terminal, and after the war, the return to normal operations were slow. By the end of the 1940s the passenger trade had revived, and was once again thriving.
In 1953 another cargo and passenger terminal was built and opened in 1957 just as air travel expanded and sea travel were about to go into rapid decline. Twelve years later the terminal was closed and the buildings are now used for storage. Today, the direct rail links to the Riverside Station have been severed, and the station is closed and semi-derelict. However the original Cruise Terminal and Landing Stage are still in use, in a reduced way, it serves the ferry service to Gravesend from the Eastern End of the landing stage, and cruise liners during the summer months.
The Departure At the time of getting our departure date, we were living in a little stone cottage on the hillside above the town of Otley known as the Chevin. We had talked it through time and time again, we had made the decision to migrate, we had sold our house and furniture and were for all intents and purposes ready to go as soon as we got the word, but when it actually came to physically walk out the door, the doubts and fears came flooding in. Were we doing the right thing? Would there really be a job for Dad to walk into? I remember Mum walking out of the cottage and taking in the view of the pretty village of Otley nestled in the valley below, and saying, "I hope we are doing the right thing." Dad reassured her that we were, expressing his belief that there would be more opportunities for us boys in Australia and that we had to look to the future. He was nearly 40 years old at that time therefore it wasn't any easy move to make, particularly for persons of that age. It would have been much easier to have adapted to the change in lifestyle that the move would bring had they been in their 20s or 30s. It was not until years later when, as an adult, it dawned on me what a drastic step that must have been to make, leaving behind everyone and everything you cherish as near and dear and move to a country on the other side of the world that you've never even been to.
Our farewell at Leeds railway station
There were plenty of tears on the platform of Leeds Railway Station as we said goodbye to our friends from our church who had come to see us off. They all sang "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again", prayed for us and then we boarded the train, waved goodbye and the train headed off into the night on its way to London. It was an overnight journey and when morning came, we were already passing through the outskirts of London. My parents had arranged for a two-day stopover in London before we sailed, which was a wonderful start to our journey to Australia. We did the whole tourist thing, including a walk along the Thames embankment, a tour of the Tower of London and took in all the sites like Tower Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Conscious of our appointment with the 'Tilbury Express', we did our sightseeing on the first two days to ensure we didn't miss our 3 pm engagement at St Pancras station. I have no recollection of the train journey itself, but do recall getting off at the station on the docks at Tilbury. It took a while to collect our baggage as the train was full and there were plenty of cases to go through before we found ours. Not long after rescuing them, we had to hand them over again, this time for a quick check-in before they were tossed onto a trolley and wheeled off to be loaded into the ship's hold.
SS Strathaird preparing to leave Tilbury Docks
It was late afternoon when our papers had been checked and we were given the nod to board RMS Strathaird. I had never seen an ocean liner before. The only ports I'd visited were Hull and Whitby in Yorkshire, England, which was the birthplace of the noted British navigator, Captain James Cook. Both were incapable of berthing a ship the size of Strathaird and the biggest vessels I had ever seen up close in their harbours were tiny by comparison. I'd pictured this huge ship towering over me in my mind's eye for weeks prior to actually standing on the quay alongside her, but in reality she was far bigger, far grander than I ever thought possible. As we walked along the quay and headed towards the gangway, I was in total awe. I didn't realise it at the time, but I was going to have to wait a week until we disembarked in Greece on the first stopover on the journey before I could take a good look at her exterior in daylight.
Lights from portholes dotted the port side of the vessel and parts of the mast and rigging were visible up above. The ship's yellow funnel, which belched out smoke that swirled on the cool breeze, seemed to float in the air before disappearing. Up on deck, I could hear the whir of motors and frantic chatter of workmen jabbering to each other in a foreign language as they directed a pair of cranes up on the deck. The passanger's baggage was tried up in what looked like giant rope bags that were lifted off the wharf below where we were standing by cranes on the deck above us. Bag after bag went past, only to disappear again as they were lowered into the bowels of the ship. "There go our things," Mum said as we gazed upward. I remember asking Dad how Mum knew they were our things but he just said "come on, you" then took my hand and we headed toward the gangway by which we would board the ship.
In much the same way as people are greeted and directed to their seat today by a stewardess as they board an aircraft, so a rather austere looking gentlemen in naval uniform greeted us at the top of the gangway and directed passengers to their cabins. My father gave him our tickets; he looked down at them, then at us before motioning towards a plan of the ship on a notice board alongside him. "We're on F Deck now," he announced, "Your cabins are on E Deck. "Go up the stairs and you'll find your cabins at the end of a passage on the right half way along." We stepped on board and into a large foyer outside the main dining room. The sweeping stairs that faced us, with their highly polished timber railings and glass chandeliers glistening overhead, were what I'd expect to see in the entrance of an opulent mansion but not an ocean liner.
"We're in for a right treat," said Mum as we climbed the stairs and, following the instructions given, headed for our cabins. My father, brother and I shared a cabin, which had a porthole. My father had a single bed; my brother chose the upper bunk bed, leaving me to the lower one. The only other furniture in the room was a wardrobe and a small wooden cabinet beside my father's bed and a sink. My mother had a single berth cabin behind ours, which had no window and it was even smaller than our cabin. Being quite exhausted by the whole experience, Mum and Dad decided to have an early night and leave the exploration of the ship until tomorrow. My brother John remembers the movement of the ship as it pulled away from the quay that evening and seeing lights on cranes and buildings floating past as the Strathaird made its way down the River Thames and out to sea. I was fast asleep, dreaming of the fun that I was about to have on the adventure of a lifetime.
Strathaird E Deck, with our cabin marked
I woke up next morning to the rocking to and fro of the ship as she made her way through the English Channel. The ship's movement was at first a somewhat disconcerting motion that we would all become very familiar with during the coming weeks. I climbed out of bed and tried to put on some clothes, but the unfamiliar movement beneath my feet caught me by surprise and I nearly fell over. I grabbed a hold of the bed to steady myself, then lowered myself to a seated position at the end of the bed where I quickly dressed. My father was half awake and noticed I was up and about. I whispered to him that I was going to go up on deck to look around and that I wouldn't be long. He smiled and gave me a pat on the backside as I cautiously headed towards the door, unable to walk in a straight line because of the roll of the ship. As I walked along the passage towards the foyer where we had come aboard the previous night, I became aware for the first time of the deep rumble of the ship's engines that was to be ever present throughout the voyage except at those times when we were on deck. I found the rumble and the vibration that went with it rather annoying at first, but it wouldn't be long before I became so used to them. Going ashore at Piraeus in Greece it felt strange not hearing the rumble or feeling the earth moving beneath my feet.
I arrived at the stairs we had climbed the night before and found a plan of the ship attached to the wall beside the Purser's Office. I checked it out and saw that going up two levels to C Deck would bring me out near the promenade deck. I went up the stairs and upon reaching C Deck, pushed open two huge, heavy wooden doors and went out onto the verandah-like deck that appeared to run the length of the ship. The wind was blowing so fiercely; I had to grab a hold of the railings to keep myself upright. It was bitter cold and a mist was swirling around us. I looked down over the side of the ship and saw the water flashing past below. Suddenly I heard the sound of a ship's horn bellowing across the water, which frightened me so, I nearly leapt overboard in fright. The horn blast was followed quickly by a second, more penetrating blast. Out of the mist another passenger vessel appeared a short distance away and travelling in the opposite direction. At first it appeared to be bearing down on us and it took me a few seconds to realise that we would pass it unscathed. The icy wind, the swirling mist and the ghostlike vision of this ship appearing out of nowhere caused me to freeze on the spot in fright. I stood there motionless until the vessel had drifted past and disappeared back into the mist from where it had come. I now believe that ship to have been the Holland America Line's Willem Ruys, returning to its home port of Rotterdam to complete another on its Netherlands-Australia migrant run. After unlocking my fingers that by now had tightened themselves around the ship's railing, I went back inside as fast as my little feet could carry me.
The wind blew the door shut behind me with a heavy thud and the threatening sounds of the blustery weather outside disappeared. I turned towards the stairs and saw an elderly looking man, possibly of Indian origin, seated on a chair by the top of the stairs. "Out on deck is not the place for a little boy to be this morning, is it now?" he said. I gave him half a smile and shook my head and he motioned to me to sit down in a chair beside him. "Do you know anything about this ship?" he asked as I sat down. "It's the Strathaird," I replied, wondering how on earth he'd managed to get on board without even knowing what ship he was on. He gave a little chuckle, then said, "I know that, laddie, now would you like me to tell you about this marvellous old lady of the sea you're travelling on? I've been a crew member on her longer than anyone else, you know." I quickly forgot all about the storm and the wind and the mystery ship that had frightened me as this charming old sailor named Romesh began to tell me all about this ship that had been his home for over 24 years. On many a morning throughout that voyage, long before anyone else was about, I'd head for the chairs at the top of the stairs on C Deck and seat myself next to Romesh. I'd listen to his stories and draw on his wealth of knowledge about the ship to which I too would become inexplicably attached. Many years later, while talking to my brother about the journey out, he was surprised to hear my recollections of the first morning aboard Strathaird and questioned how his memories of it could be so different to mine. When he got up and looked out of the porthole, he saw the incredible vista of the white cliffs of Dover passing by. At first we found it difficult to believe he could have seen them at the same time that I was up on deck being buffeted by strong winds and watching a ship appear out of the mist until we realised that I had gone up on deck on the port side of the ship but our cabin was on the starboard side. Had I gone to the starboard side, I would probably have been sheltered from the winds that that morning, I would have not seen the passing ship or the mist on the port side, but the white cliffs of Dover as he had done. I was reminded of the old saying, ’ÄöˆÑˆ†Two men sat behind prison bars, one saw mud and the other saw stars’Äö which says you get a different view if you look from the same place in a different direction.
RMS Strathaird After the Great War of 1914-18, Australia had experienced its biggest surge in immigration from Europe up until that time. Australia was now seen across Europe in the same light that previous generations had viewed the United States of America - a young land full of great opportunity. It quickly became one of the top places to migrate to, particularly from Britain. This increase in migration to Australia led Britain's leading shipping line to the Far East, the Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), to invest in a fleet of new ships of around 20,000 tonnes each to handle the business coming their way. Their introduction was a major feature of Lord Inchcape's Chairmanship between 1915 to 1932. They were the 'Strath' ships, of which the Strathaird was the second to be built.
The Viceroy of India, built a few years earlier (1929), had introduced a new level of luxury and speed to P&O's services to the Far East. Oil fuel replaced coal - all the new ships would employ turbo-electric, steam turbines powering giant electric motors. Viceroy of India was the first P&O ship to have an indoor swimming pool. She was built for the India trade but Australian services were beginning to replace those to India as the most important for P&O. Australian passengers encouraged the provision of games decks and so the two new 'Strath' liners of the 1930s, which were designed specifically for the England-Australia run, were the first to introduce outdoor sporting areas. Second Class gave way to Tourist, and after the Great Depression, when salaries were cut by 10% and no dividend was declared for four years, P&O's nominal centenary in 1937 was still celebrated with enthusiasm.
Originally, there was no fixed number of new 'Strath' ships planned, except the two near-identical ones that would be produced first. Others to the same design would then be ordered as and when custom warranted the addition of others to the fleet. Eventually five 'Strath' ships would be built between 1930 and 1937. The decision to build the first two - the Strathnaver and the Strathaird - was made in 1927. They would surpass even the Viceroy of India in design, popularity and service. Viceroy of India was the last P&O liner to be painted black. The 'Strath' liners reintroduced white livery in place of the conservative black hull and funnels and stone-coloured superstructure that had been the Company's image for so long. Their white hulls became a permanent feature of P&O ships. At the time of their introduction, the two liners were nicknamed the 'White Sisters'. Speed and power was further suggested by having three funnels, although only the middle one was functional. They also had indoor swimming pools and the same level of luxury and speed that had made the Viceroy of India such a success on the England to Bombay run.
It was a 90 year old tradition at P&O to name some of its vessels after places in Scotland with the prefix Strath, and the tradition was continued with these two new liners. The Strathaird is named after Strath-Aird, a peninsula on the Isle of Skye, which is renowned for its natural beauty, history and wildlife. At the end of the Strath-Aird peninsular near Elgol is a small cave named Prince Charlie's Cave in which Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) hid whilst he was on the run after the battle of Culloden. The ballad, Skye Boat Song, tells of Bonnie Prince Charlies' trip across the sea and his landing on the Strathaird Peninsula. Gov. Lachlan Macquarie named the Sydney locality of Airds in 1810 after Strath-Aird. The family estate of his wife Elizabeth was located there. Strath is a Scottish name for a broad mountain valley.
Strathnaver was named after a region in the very northwest of Scotland, which at one time covered a large part of north and west Sutherland in Scotland. The name Naver reflects the strong Norse influences, which Sutherland has experienced in the past. The valley of Strathnaver is the richest in that part of the country, a narrow twisting glen down which the black water of the River Naver runs from south to north, from the loch of its name to the Atlantic Ocean.
Work commenced on Strathnaver early in 1930 at the Barrow-in-Furness yards of Vickers-Armstrong, where all the 'Strath' sisters were built. Strathaird followed a few months later. By February 1932, both ships had been launched and were in service.
RMS Strathaird, weighing a gross of 22,544 tonnes, had a length of 462 metres and beam of 32 metres. She was built with three funnels, two masts, and twin screws and travelled at a speed of 21 knots. When brought into service, she had accommodation for 500 first and 670 tourist class passengers. Launched on 18th July 1931, her maiden voyage started on 12th February 1932 when she left London for Bombay, Colombo and Australian ports. It was on this voyage that Romesh gained employment aboard her during her visit to his hometown of Bombay. In December 1932, Strathaird became P&O's first cruise ship, when the company began experimenting with the scheduling of 5 days cruises from Sydney to Fiji that were operated in between her UK to Australia trips. Romesh had remained a crewmember throughout Strathaird's cruise years until World War II broke out. When she was commandeered by the British Government for use as a troop ship, Romesh returned to India. Between 1939 and 1945 Strathaird carried a total of 128,961 military personnel, mainly across the North Atlantic. Reconditioned in 1946-7 and with two of her funnels removed, she resumed the London - India - Australia service in January 1948, during which voyage Romesh signed up again as a crew member. In 1954 Strathaird was refitted to carry 1,200 single class passengers, after which her visits to Bombay and Adelaide were discontinued.
At the time of the refit, Strathaird was at the peak of her popularity and the P&O Group was operating over 50 passenger liners. This had dropped to 30 by 1965 when air travel between Britain and Australia had picked up sufficient momentum to become the preferred mode of transport between the two countries. By the end of the sixties P&O's Far Eastern service ended with the transfer of the Chitral to the Eastern & Australian SS Co. A year later, Chusan made her last call at Bombay. The voyage to Australia by the Chandris Line's Australis, which sailed from Southampton the last time to Australia on 18th November 1977, marked the end of an era, it being the last voyage of a migrant ship from Europe to Australia. For all shipping lines, which serviced this once lucrative market, the 1970s were a period of rationalisation and consolidation. The decline in P&O's passenger fleet was reversed in 1974 when P&O purchased Princess Cruises of Los Angeles. The company is today still very active with a modern cross channel ferry fleet and a growing fleet of successful cruise liners.
The Strathnaver and Strathaird were the first two P&O ships on the Australian run to be retired as the service fell into decline. Strathnaver left Tilbury for Australia for the last time on 7th December 1961; nine months after Strathaird had set sail on her last voyage. She was sold to Shun Fung Ironworks, Hong Kong, for breaking up in April 1962. Strathaird made only two more trips to Australia after my voyage aboard her in June/July 1960. She commenced her last trip to Australia on 28th March 1961, arriving back at Tilbury on 17th June 1961. A week later she left Tilbury for the last time. Her destination was the scrap yards of Shun Fung Ironworks, Hong Kong, where she arrived on 27th July 1961. Romesh may have been transferred to service on another P&O vessel after Strathaird was withdrawn from service, but because of his age, he may have chosen to retire. Unfortunately, our rendezvous on the morning before we entered Port Phillip Bay at the top of the stairs on C Deck was the last time I saw Romesh. My attempts in the 1970s to locate him were unfruitful.
Stewed Apple and Custard Having spent most of the first morning talking to Romesh, I missed breakfast completely, so lunch was my first meal on board. I'd heard all about the fabulous meals they served on ships, and being quite hungry, I raced down to F Deck to the dining room to find out when lunch was being served. The dining room was empty apart from people busily laying tables. A steward popped out of nowhere and asked me my name. When I told him, he looked up on a list he had and informed me that I was too young to dine in the main dining room and that I therefore had to eat in a special children's dining room off to the side.
Upon arrival I was surrounded by mothers with screaming babies who were all feeding their little ones a green/yellow, gooey substance. I asked the waiter behind the counter what it was and he said, "Stewed Apple and Custard. Would you like some?" "Not really," I thought. There was no menu board to suggest that anything else was available so I quickly looked around and all I saw being eaten was Stewed Apple and Custard so I figured it must be this or nothing. I therefore nodded and the waiter placed a miniscule three-bite sized serving in my dish and pointed towards a spare table. "Off you go, then," he said. "Bon appetit."
I was quite put out at having to eat baby food with a room full of screaming toddlers. Surely there were other kids my age on this ship. Where were they and why weren't they being made to eat Stewed Apple and Custard with me? Though the serving was so small it barely made a dent in my appetite, I was glad it didn't take too long to eat as one of the mothers started changing her baby's nappy on the table in front of me just as I took my first mouthful. By the state of what I saw on that nappy, I wondered why they even bothered to feed this stuff to these kids as it looked to me as though it had gone straight through the toddler's digestive system with barely a change in its constitution. It smelt worse but looked much the same as it did when it was inserted in the other end. I quickly gobbled down the remnants of my lunch and took off just as the adults started to pour into the main dining room.
I spent the afternoon exploring the outdoor sections of the upper decks and couldn't wait for dinnertime as I was starving. Before I had left the children's dining room at lunchtime, the waiter told me to come back at 5pm for dinner. Ready to eat whatever they put before me, I showed up only to find the place full of mothers with screaming babies eating Stewed Apple and Custard again. "Is there anything else apart from Stewed Apple and Custard?" I asked. The waiter gave a little laugh and replied, "Oh no, sonny, that isn't Stewed Apple and Custard. Tonight we're all having Stewed Peaches and Custard. Can't you see it's a different colour to lunch?" I hadn't noticed until he told me, but after he pointed it out, I could see it was a bit more orange in colour. "I'm not hanging around to see that on a nappy," I thought and I asked if there was anything else on the menu. "There's some Stewed Apple and Custard left over from lunch if you'd prefer that," I was told. "No thanks," I replied. "Don't you do Egg and Chips?" The waiter shook his head and so I asked for a double helping of the Stewed Peaches and Custard. I scoffed it down as quickly as I could. As I was leaving, I saw a boy who was older than me who I had met earlier in the afternoon, and said to him, "Grab me some grub, will ya?" as he went into the dining room. I explained my plight and he agreed to sneak out some food and bring it on deck to me after he had finished his dinner. About an hour later, he appeared in the twilight with a leg of chicken and a lump of chocolate cake in his hand. "I can't do this every night, you know," he said. "I'm bound to get caught."
The next morning I shared breakfast with the same gaggle of mothers and screaming babies. I thought the best way to avoid having Stewed Apple and Custard for breakfast was to ask for something else so I boldly requested a bowl of corn flakes. "There's no corn flakes on this menu," I was told. "Do you have any Stewed Apple and Custard or Stewed Peaches and Custard then?" I asked. Missing or ignoring completely the sarcasm in my voice, the waiter replied in a deadpan tone, "No, sonny, we have Stewed Apple and Custard for lunch, remember? For breakfast we have scrambled eggs," whereupon he pushed a plate in front of me and dropped a pile of a slimy, yellow substance on it. "But it looks like Stewed Apple and Custard to me," I said. "Don't be cheeky," he responded; "now get that down you and be out of here". I'd never heard of scrambled egg before, and though it looked for all the world like the previous day's meals, it definitely tasted like egg but with the consistency of the Stewed Apple and Custard. I marvelled to myself at how well the chef had managed to make all the meals look the same but taste different. Curious as to why I was the only child of my age on the ship being forced to suffer this dreadful diet in the company a dozen screaming babies and their mothers, I went up on deck and asked the first boy I saw around my age where he went for his meals. "To the dining room, silly," he said. I explained my predicament and he told me his name was Terry and I was to come with him at lunchtime and everything would be all right. I showed up at the dining room with my new friend about an hour earlier than I had arrived the day before and found the dining full of kids my age. I jumped for joy to learn that they didn't have Stewed Peaches and Custard or anything else that resembled it on the menu and from then onwards I ate like a king.
The Bay of Biscay A day out of Tilbury, a warning came over the public address system that we were about to go through the Bay of Biscay and that it was traditionally quite choppy, so we had better be careful. People all over the place suddenly started to get seasick for what to me seemed to be no apparent reason, because as far as I could tell, it was no rougher after the announcement than before it. But later in the day I found out what rough seas are all about. I never thought that staying on my feet would ever be this difficult. No matter what angle or where I tried to put my feet, the deck disappeared from underneath them. As I got my balance, the ship would pitch or roll and try and pull me over again. I decided to go up on deck and see what it was like outside but found the doors to the Promenade Deck bolted shut with warning signs attached to them. Eager to see what was happening outside, I headed for the Verandah Lounge on B-deck that has windows overlooking the bow of the ship. What I saw was frightening. Huge waves were crashing right over the bow. After each wave, the ship would dive, nose down, into a deep trough until the sky all but disappeared. Just as the ship appeared to be going under, the front would lurch upwards, the view of the surging waters would disappear and we seemed to be heading for the sky. As the ship began to level out, another huge wave would break over the bow and down into another trough we lunged, to repeat the cycle once more.
I looked through the side windows of the lounge and the horizon in both directions was also doing a seesaw. First, all I could see was ocean, then the ocean disappeared and the horizon flashed past and then all I could see was sky. Torrents of water were rushing back and forth down on the promenade deck below, and it looked as if the sea was trying to get in. I could see why the doors had been locked shut. This battle with the elements continued into the evening and that night we had to have dinner in our cabins. For many passengers, the battle to keep dinner on the plate before it was eaten was about as hard as keeping it down after it was eaten.
On the following morning, I got up early, expecting to be thrown around the cabin as soon as I tried to stand up, but to my surprise the ship had regained its composure and the high seas had abated considerably. After having breakfast, I decided to explore the ship from stem to turn, from A Deck to H Deck. A Deck was the top deck just below the funnel where the 14 lifeboats were stored and all the organised games like quoits and badminton were played. Not being the sporting type, this was my least favourite outdoor area on the ship. Below it, on B Deck, was a whole series of lounges where most of the indoor activities took place. There was smokers' room, a reading room, numerous bars and an open area used for everything from dances to showing films and a Sunday morning church service. C Deck contained the (indoor) swimming pool where King Neptune dunked all the kids as the ship crossed the Equator. This was a tradition that everyone but me seemed to look forward to. I made myself scarce on the day we crossed the Equator - no fat man resembling Father Christmas in a swimming suit and waving a trident was going to hold me underwater in the name of good fun. Towards the front of the ship were the more expensive cabins on the promenade decks that ran the length of the ship's superstructure on both sides.
D and E Deck were mainly cabins. E Deck contained the purser's office, the shop, the hairdresser, the hospital (it was more of a sick bay than a hospital) and some of the crew's quarters. F Deck contained more crews quarters towards the rear of the ship as well as some cabins up front and the dining room in the middle. G Deck, which was just above the waterline, had more cabins at the rear of the ship with crew's quarters, the kitchen, laundry etc. towards the front. H Deck was similar in layout and was located on or below the waterline. Our family's cabins were on E Deck, and as there was nothing of interest on the lower decks, I never visited them again after my initial exploration of the ship. Being only nine years old at the time, I don't remember much about what happened during our first week at sea beyond those initial experiences that I have just shared. I do recall that at five minutes to two every afternoon a voice would come over the PA system announcing that "the tote on the ship's daily run will close in five minutes time". I never found out until many years later that the "tote on the ship's daily run" was where passengers could estimate the distance the ship would travel each day, and bet money on it. Each day a cash prize was given to the person who had estimated most accurately the distance travelled during the previous 24 hours.
One of the biggest disappointments of the journey for me was not seeing the Rock of Gibraltar or the strait we had to pass through to enter the Mediterranean Sea. I had been told by my schoolteacher not to miss them, as they would be highlights of the journey. Unfortunately we did not stop at Gibraltar and we entered the Mediterranean Sea at night.
John, mum and I on the steps of the Acropolis, Athens, June 1960
Piraeus & Athens After being cooped up on the Strathaird, everyone was eager to get off the ship and stretch his or her legs on terra firma upon our arrival in Piraeus, which is the port for the city of Athens in Greece. Many passengers had signed up for a tour of Athens organised by P&O. Our family went quayside to check out the options and settled on hiring a taxi for the day. It cost five founds (about $300 in today's money), we went around with another family and it turned into a most enjoyable day. Our driver was fluent in English and gave an excellent running commentary as we drove through Athens past the Coliseum, before taking a walk around the Acropolis. The most famous monument from the antiquity of Greece, The Acropolis was built on a 156 metre high hill, called the Sacred Rock of Athens. The functions of the mountain changed during the following four millennia and with that the appearance of the Acropolis as well. We explored the ruins there, which date from the 5th century BC, Left of the buildings from this period are: The Beule Gate, the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike (Apteros Nike), the Erchtheion and the Parthenon. My father said he want to take a photograph of Mars Hill, a place visited by the Apostle Paul as recorded in The Bible in the book of Acts, Chapter 17. Our driver pointed it out to us as we came down from the Acropolis. We stopped and Dad got his photo, which is reproduced here. On our way back to the ship we visited the stadium at Athens, which was completely restored to serve for the first modern Olympic games in 1896, and dates from 330 BC. It was here across the street from the National Gardens, that the first Olympic Games were held in 1896. We returned to the ship on sundown and found that most of the passengers who had gone sightseeing for the day had already returned to the ship, which was almost ready to sail.
Strathaird ... Fact and Fiction
RMS Strathaird sails under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1954
We apparently took on board a contingent of Greek migrants at Piraeus though I never saw any during the rest of the voyage. Other people told me about them, but I dismissed it as one of the many rumours that began circulating the ship after leaving Piraeus when the novelty of the voyage had worn off and people needed something to talk about. One of those rumours was that the Strathaird was so old, she had served in the two world wars and her hull had been patched in more places than it was possible to mention. Such was not the case though Strathaird, together with the other P&O passenger ships including all the 'Strath' sisters, had been requisitioned by the British Government during World War II. Her first mission was to be part of a convoy which left Sydney in January, 1940 carrying Australian and New Zealand troops to the Suez Canal to defend that important lifeline which was also one of the highlights of the voyages in more peaceful times. One of her wartime adventures was sailing from Brest for Plymouth at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation, with every inch of her cabin space and decks crammed with 6,000 troops and refugee men, women and children. In her strong room was gold rescued from British banks in Paris before the German occupation. Happily, Strathaird was one of the ships that survived the hazards and the bombings of wartime service. Her sister ship, Strathallan, was not so lucky. She was torpedoed and sunk by German U-Boat 562 in bright moonlight and fine weather shortly after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar about 75 kilometres (45 miles) off Bougie. She was hit in the engine room on the port side at 2.25 am on 21 December, 1942, two engineer officers and two Indian engine- room crew were killed in the explosion, but no other lives were lost. The destroyer HMS Verity picked up the nurses and 1,000 troops on board and another destroyer, HMS Laforey, took Strathallan in tow. With the help of the salvage tug Restive it was hoped that she might reach Oran, but her list increased and the remainder of the troops were taken off by escorting destroyers. At 1.15 pm she caught fire, and once it reached her cargo of rockets and ammunition, the rest of the crew were taken off by Restive. She sank 19 km off Oran at 4 am, 22 December 1942. Rumours about Strathaird's seaworthiness circulated for most of the journey but she never stopped, leaked or suffered any mechanical problems to my knowledge. We knew Strathaird was old and nearing the end of her working life - she was to make only two more voyages to Australia after ours before being scrapped - and therefore the rumours had raised doubt about her seaworthiness in everyone's mind. Had Strathaird been damaged during the war, it would have been fixed during her long and costly refit prior to her return to peacetime passenger service in 1946. What the refit did reveal, and maybe this had fueled the rumours, was that when Strathaird's dummy fore and aft funnels were removed during the refit, the remaining funnel had to be replaced by a new one because it was found to be rusty and was only held together in places by its coasts of paint.
Don Bradman's Invincibles
Don Bradman's Invincibles One story that circulated that was true is that Don Bradman and his team of 'Invincibles' had sailed to Britain on Strathaird to play in the famous 1948 Ashes Test Series. In March 1948, the team of 17 cricketers had boarded Strathaird at Fremantle. A month later the touring Australians under Captain Don Bradman and Vice-Captain Lindsay Hassett arrived to a warm welcome. This was the first test series since the end of World War II, in which England and her people had suffered immensely. The reception for Strathaird at Tilbury Docks in the Thames Estuary on 16th April was extraordinary. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to see, touch and talk to the sunburned gods from another hemisphere. "Bradman is here again," wrote journalist R.C. Robertson-Glasgow. "We want him to do well. We feel we have a share in him. He is more than Australian, he is a world batsman." The Australians, shocked by the bomb damage still visible throughout Britain, reciprocated throughout an intense series of official functions. Bradman applied his formidable powers to after-dinner speaking with ease. On the field his side not only retained the Ashes but also went through the tour unbeaten. "I think it was the best Australian side that I ever played on," Bradman said later. "It's not unreasonable to say that it's the best Australian side that we ever put together."
Though The Invincibles' trip to England aboard Strathaird was well known, few people were aware that Strathaird's next return voyage to Australia brought home Australia's team that competed at the 1948 London Olympic Games held in August 1948. Among them was Singleton-born Kevin Hallett, one of 10 swimmers to represent Australia in the games, who was honoured by being a runner in the Sydney 2000 Olympics Torch Relay. When the 1948 Games team was announced, The Australian Olympic Committee had declared that funds for only four swimmers was available and that all other representatives would have to provide $1,000 each to become part of the team. The townspeople of Singleton raised the money for Hallett and he was able to join the team that departed from Sydney Airport on 25th June 1948 aboard a Constellation aircraft. It was the first Australian team to fly to an Olympic Games. The opening ceremony was held at the Wembley Stadium on 29th July. Hallett competed in the 200-metre breaststroke on 5th August 1948. After the games the swimming team gave exhibitions at Bestle near Liverpool and in Ireland. Kevin competed in a match race over 100 metres against the Irish champion and set a new Irish record for the 100-metre breaststroke. All 77 Australian Olympic Team members returned home on Strathaird, arriving back in Australia late September 1948.
Olivia Newton-John Another celebrity to travel aboard Strathaird was singer Olivia Newton-John, who travelled as a migrant to Australia six years earlier than us with her family. At the time of our voyage, though, the perky 11 year old's only claim to fame was winning a Hayley Mills look-alike contest, her sister Rona having sent in Olivia's photo without telling her. Born in Cambridge, England on 26th September 1948, Olivia was the youngest child of Welsh Professor Brinley Newton-John and German Irene Born, daughter of Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Born who had translated letters between her father and his friend, Albert Einstein. When her father took up a position as Dean at Ormond College, Melbourne, Olivia migrated with her parents and older brother Hugh (he became a doctor) and sister Rona (she became an actress), leaving London on 16th October 1954 for Melbourne aboard Strathaird. Despite her academic background, Olivia's great love was for music and singing. In 1962 she would receive an acoustic guitar from her mother and with the help of her then boyfriend Ian Turpie, learn to play and sing folk music.
By the time of my arrival in Melbourne, Olivia was making her first appearance in "Green Pastures" at a Melbourne theatre, age 12. Unaware of the international stardom that would soon be hers, I recall seeing Olivia during my first year in Australia on various television shows including "The Boomery" and "Tarax Happy Show". I then saw her win a TV talent quest show called "Sing, Sing, Sing" hosted by Johnny O'Keefe, in which her rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" led to her winning the contest and earning her a trip to London. In 1966, she would release her first single, a version of Jackie DeShannon's "Till You Say You'll Be Mine." Five years later, her cover of Bob Dylan's "If Not For You" would become a worldwide hit and launch her international singing and acting career, as well as finding a place in my record collection.
RMS Strathaird in Sydney prior to her first South Pacific cruise
RMS Strathaird - P&O's first cruise liner
It was like a carnival down on Circular Quay, Sydney, on 23rd December 1932 when RMS Strathaird let go the lines and embarked on the very first Pacific cruise by an ocean liner from an Australian port. Normally the leaving of a ship was emotion-filled occasions as family and friends might be parting for months or years, but this occasion was different. As she inched slowly away from the berth, the departure of P&O's gleaming new ship heralded the beginning of a new era. After having completed only her third voyage to Australia, Strathaird was sailing away for a five-night Christmas Cruise with just two ports of call ’ÄöˆÑˆ¨ Brisbane and Norfolk Island. It was the beginning of P&O's first cruise from Australia. All of P&O's Strath ships would be used for cruises around the South Pacific from Sydney and Brisbane until the beginning of World War II. P&O "invented" cruising and Chairman Arthur Anderson even wrote about the concept before the company was ever formed. But it was not until 1904 that the company organised a modern style cruise programme with excursions arranged by Thomas Cook, for First Class passengers only. However, cruising became very popular between the wars and when the mail contracts were terminated in 1945, alternative sources of revenue became necessary and the need arose to develop the potential of this leisure activity. Furthermore, when airliners took the bulk of inter country travel from ocean liners, P&O along with the other passenger shipping lines had to look seriously towards the leisure industry for the alternative deployment of their ships. Consequently, in 1974, the company purchased the Los Angeles based Princess Cruises and embarked on a programme of acquiring and building purpose built cruise ships. Today they are one of the largest cruise operators in the world.
The main attraction of cruising in Australia in the 1930s was the experience of being on a big ship. In those days, the only way to enjoy an experience of this kind was to travel from Australia to overseas ports, usually to England via the Suez Canal. As Australia's coastline was serviced by smaller ships, unless they had done the 'big trip overseas', many Australians had never been on an ocean liner before. Strathaird's Christmas cruise was the exciting beginning of a new type of holiday experience for Australians. Incredibly, the ship was fully booked three days after the cruise was advertised.
Encouraged by this eager and positive response, P&O Cruises developed a program of cruising holidays throughout the 1930s to cater to the growing cruising market in Australia. P&O Cruises sent representatives all over the South Pacific to ascertain which island ports would be attractive for cruise passengers during the Australian winter months. This led to their ships sailing at full capacity to Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua, New Britain and New Caledonia. New Zealand and Tasmania were added to the list of cruise attractions for the spring and summer months. Australians warmed to these cruise holidays with the relaxing days at sea featuring deck sports, movies, 'horse racing' and ballroom dancing (discos were to come much later). An insight into the delicacy with which this expansion of horizons was handled is reflected in a letter which was circulated to passengers on Strathaird during a cruise to Papua in August, 1933.
It conveyed a message from the Lieutenant-Governor of Papua in which he expressed appreciation of such visits by the ship. However, it also carried a warning about the general tendency among adults on the island as well as children to ask "ridiculously exorbitant prices for insignificant services". That included "a native demanding four shillings for the privilege" of taking his photograph and small children "clamouring with outstretched hands for sixpences and shillings". The letter concluded: "The Lieutenant-Governor ventures to suggest that you should call the attention of tourists to the dangers of this thoughtless liberality, and to ask them to join with the Government, the missionaries and the older men among the natives themselves, in helping to keep the character of these people unspoiled by such practices as indicated." Australian cruising by P&O Cruises and the associated Orient Line (which would fully merge with P&O Cruises in 1960) was brought to an abrupt - if temporary - end by the outbreak of World War II.
Two of the passengers on that first cruise were Isobel Bennett, who is today a distinguished marine zoologist, and her sister, Jean. "Christmas Day at sea was just fantastic," Isobel recalls. "There was much celebrating, beginning with a carol service and the highlight was dinner with all the trimmings. Tables were laden with food, the boar's head, the pheasants ’ÄöˆÑˆ¨ it was superb. We had lots of activities during the cruise including deck games, fancy dress ball, dancing every night." Miss Bennett also clearly remembers the call at Norfolk Island. "The splendid Norfolk Island Pines were still there ’ÄöˆÑˆ¨ later to be cut down for the building of the airstrip. It was a big occasion for the island ’ÄöˆÑˆ¨ they had never before been visited by such a big ship," she says. "Strathaird stood off the port and we were ferried ashore by the ship's lifeboats. We visited the little church built by the Melanesian missionaries, which is still one of the island's attractions."
The cruise had a profound impact on Miss Bennett's life and destiny as she met Professor and Mrs W.J. Dakin onboard. By sheer luck, Professor Dakin, the Chair of Zoology at Sydney University, was in a position to help Miss Bennett into her own distinguished career. "I was out of work because the office of the Royal School of Music in Sydney had been closed as a result of the Depression. Professor Dakin offered me some research work at the Mitchell Library." As a result, Miss Bennett went on to become a marine zoologist of note, wrote several books and had a 40-year association with the University of Sydney before her retirement. She describes the turn of events as simply "another romantic story of the sea". Another passenger was Eris Taylor who paid ¬¨¬£8 for her ticket. Mrs Taylor, worked in a Pitt Street dressmaker's shop, was coerced into taking the cruise by her friend Irene who bought two tickets for them to go on the cruise. "I didn't have the money, I was 26 and it was hard to save in those days," she said. "I don't know how I saved it but I did." During the voyage, Mrs Taylor, then of Newtown, lunched with the administrator of Norfolk Island. She wore a white evening dress to Christmas dinner on board the ship where they ate turkey and pudding and danced through much of the night. On the 70th anniversary of the first P&O pleasure cruise, Mrs Taylor, then of Engadine, travelled aboard the Pacific Sky on a 10-day voyage to Vanuatu and New Caledonia with her son, Dowrie, and daughter, Jeanette. Mrs Taylor says she was not particularly interested in meeting any men - a common pastime on cruise ships today. "I was already engaged so I didn't bother with all that, I just went on the cruise to see what things were like." Six months after she returned from the first voyage, she married Reginald Taylor, a fitter and turner with the railways. Some years later, the couple would win lotto, acquiring some $5000.
Post card of Port Said
Port Said Four days after leaving Piraeus, Strathaird joined a queue of ships at Port Said that was being assembled for passage through the Suez Canal. Port Said is a city located to the west of the northern entry to the Suez Canal and east of Lake Manzila in Egypt. Established in conjunction with the start of the construction of the Suez Canal, it is a little known fact that American's Statue of Liberty was originally to be placed here and not in New York. It was inspired by the huge statues at Abu Simbel. Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor, designed her as the representation of 'Egypt carrying the light of Asia'. However, the Khedive Ismail decided that the project was too expensive, so the 'Light of Asia' was sent to the US instead, where she became the Statue of Liberty.
Heavily damaged during the Suez Crisis, the city of Port Said was evacuated in 1956 and remained semi-deserted until after the Six-Day war of 1967 when it began to regain its former status as the major duty free port in the Middle East. With the town half-empty and still considered an unsafe place for British residents to go because of Britain's involvement in the Suez Crisis, we were advised that no one would be permitted to go ashore. This did not deter the merchants who had remained in Port Said to carry on their duty free trade with the ships passing through the Canal. Strathaird had barely dropped anchor before we were invaded by a flotilla of bumboats from which merchants threw ropes up to the people on deck. After being attached to the ship, baskets were tied to the ropes and hauled up and down, carrying trinkets and souvenirs up to the passengers and their payment down to the traders. Within an hour or so, trading was over. A few passengers had sent down money and received nothing in return and many who had bought stuffed toys such as lions, tigers and camels made of animal skins would lose them as they came through Australian Customs because these objects breached quarantine regulations.
Our journey through the Suez Canal took place only three years after the Suez Crisis of 1956 had been resolved and the canal re-opened under Egyptian control. Ship owners at that time were naturally still nervous about using the canal, even though Egypt had promised unrestricted passage to ships of all nations, subject to them paying a fee to use it. As a safety measure, ships traversed the canal in convoys. We experienced an 11-hour delay on a Sunday as we waited for a convoy travelling in the opposite direction to exit the canal before we could proceed.
SS Arcadia passing through the Suez Canal
Passing through the Suez Canal The stately parade of ships transiting the 167-km long Suez Canal (we were number 23 in a southbound convoy of about 30 ships) was another unforgettable highlight of the trip. It is hard to describe the endless vista of nothing but sky and sand in all directions and the straight-as-an-arrow man made ditch cut through the middle, being traversed by a line of ships. The air was silent apart from the almost inaudible rumble of the ship's engine below us and the occasional gust of wind in the mast and lines above. From time to time we'd pass a small community on the canal banks and we would see children jumping into the water after Strathaird had past, diving for coins tossed over the side by passengers. It was as if time stood still for a short moment in our lives, as if to imprint into our memories the incredible encounter with one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The idea of a canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea dates back to ancient times. It was Napoleon's engineers who, around 1800 AD, revived the idea of a shorter trade route to India via a Suez Canal. After numerous attempts to get the project off the ground, the final attempt to dig the Canal was undertaken by former French Consul in Cairo and famous Canal digger Ferdinand de Lesseps. He was granted a "firman" or decree by the Khedive Said of Egypt to run the Canal for 99 years after completion.
In 1859, Egyptian workers started construction of the Canal in conditions described by historians as slave labor, and the project was completed around 1867. On 17th November 1869 the canal was officially opened by Khedive Ismail with an extravagant and lavish ceremony. French, British, Russian and other Royalty were in attendance. A condition of British financial support in building the canal was that it should stay open for ships of all countries to use. The Suez Canal emerged on the political scene in 1956 in what became known as the Suez crisis when this condition was breached and Egypt refused entry to a convoy of ships. In July of that year Egyptian President Gamal Abda Nasser announced the nationalization of the privately owned Canal in front of a cheering crowd. His decision was in response to the British, French, and American refusal for a loan aimed at building the Aswan High Dam. The revenue from the Canal, he argued, would help finance the High Dam project. Nasser had hoped his action of taking control of the canal would reunite the Arab world. His announcement triggered a swift reaction by Great Britain, France, and Israel, who all invaded Egypt less than two months later. Nasser would eventually claim victory, but under pressure, Egypt was forced to pay approximately $US81 million to
Aden shareholders of the nationalised Suez Canal Company. The canal, blocked for more than six months because of damaged and sunken ships, was cleared with United Nations help and reopened in April 1957. Ten years later, the Canal would be closed again in the wake of the Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula and used the Canal as a buffer zone between the fighting forces. The Egyptians reclaimed the Canal in the aftermath of the conflict, and the re-opening ceremony took place in 1975. Since then, the Canal, which stretches 167 km across the Egyptian desert, has been widened twice to attract back business lost as a result of the conflict with Israel and the fact that it was too narrow to accommodate modern supertankers, in spite of being widened. Today, approximately 50 ships pass through the canal daily, and, with the threat of war long gone, the cities and beaches along the Bitter Lakes and the Canal serve as a summer resort for tourists and Egyptians alike.
Once we had passed through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, we returned to relatively open sailing with the land on either sides of us being visible for most of the journey but in the far distance. As we passed through it we were told by the crew that the red colour of the Red Sea is caused by the abundance of a type of seaweed in it. Our next port of call, which was only a day or so away, was Aden. An ancient trading centre in the Republic of Yemen at the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Aden has traded by land and sea since ancient times. Midway between Europe and the Far East, Aden is situated on one of the largest natural harbours in the world. Its story as a trading centre stretches back over 3,000 years. Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta visited it in the 11th and 12th Centuries. In the 1800's, Aden grew as a ship fuelling port, holding stocks of coal and water supplies for the early steamers. Port services expanded after the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and Aden grew to become one of the busiest ship bunkering and tax-free- shopping and trading ports in the world by the 1950's. Being a tropical location, Aden is unbearably hot and humid compared to places like England where most of the Strathaird's passengers had come from, and it caught many of the passengers by surprise. For most, the temperature in Aden on the day of our sojourn was the hottest they had ever experienced thus far in their lives. As we came to anchor at 6 o'clock in the morning it was already 39 degrees Celsius (or a Fahrenheit century) and rising. My parents, like many others, thought it best that my brother and I stay on board ship and not risk the possibility of getting sunburnt or dehydration. They went ashore on a small passenger ferry for a quick look around but found the heat too much and they were back on board within an hour. There wasn't a dry eye among the passengers when the crew weighed anchor and headed east up the Gulf of Aden and into the Arabian Sea bound for Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
Colombo Our last port of call before arriving in Australia was Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, a country that was then known as Ceylon. Being our first taste of South East Asia and the Far East, my parents decided we would take a day tour organised through the ship's purser. Back in 1960 when we took the tour, Colombo was a city of around half a million people, much the same size as Perth at that time. The tour took us past numerous old European style buildings erected during Sri Lanka's colonial days, and numerous Mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples. The ancient temple of Kelaniya, located 11 km to the north east of the city centre, is a place hallowed by the visit of the Buddha. The Wolfendhal Church, built by the Dutch in 1757, is one of the few authentic Dutch buildings in the city. St. Lucia’ÄöˆÑˆ¥s Cathedral in Kotahena is the only cathedral in Colombo and is the centre of Roman Catholicism in the country. In Sea Street in Colombo we saw numerous Hindu temples, the Ganeshan, the Old Kathiresan and the New Kathiresan with their colourful gopurams (doorways). The most lasting image of the tour for me was my first view of a crippled man begging on the street. I recall feeling horrified that not only did the majority of people totally ignore him, we were warned by our guide not to give him or any other beggars we saw any money. It was apparently a common practice for parents to make their children become professional beggars by breaking their limbs and sending them out on the streets to beg. Their belief was that sympathetic tourists would willingly give them money. We saw many such maimed children on our tour.
With fellow passengers, The Thompsons, at Mt Lavinia, Colombo
A highlight of the tour was a visit to the beach resort of Mt. Lavinia, a popular bathing spot with clean sandy beaches 11 km south of Colombo. We stopped for lunch at the hotel at Mount Lavinia. I imagined that we were 19th century representatives of the Queen on an inspection tour of the colonies being pampered by the locals who were bending over backwards to ensure they received a good report. We dined on spicy salmon and cucumber and watercress sandwiches and sipped on iced tea served by polite, neatly dressed waiters who addressed us as 'Sahib'. We lounged in giant cane chairs that were scattered about on the huge mahogany-faced verandah; the intensity of the unfamiliar, sticky heat made bearable by the gentle breeze wafting from the wicker fans that swirled above us. Had an elephant walked past as we gazed beyond the palm trees and the manicured gardens towards the waves that pounded the shoreline beyond, my vision of what life on the sub continent in colonial times was like would have been complete.
Over lunch, our guide shared with us the story of how Mount Lavinia had become one of the most romantic destinations in Ceylon. In 1805, Sir Thomas Maitland, the second son of the Earl of Lauderdale after whom the New South Wales town of Maitland was named, was appointed Governor of Ceylon. Legend has it that Sir Thomas, then 46 years of age and still unmarried, fell in love with the striking, exotic Lovina Aponsuwa, a dancing girl of mixed Portuguese and Sinhala blood who was far below his station to receive the approval of his family and peers. In a time when moral rectitude bent a sternly disapproving glance on the smallest infringement of rigid morality, the passion of Lovina and Sir Thomas flourished, but in secret. He built a residence in the country in an area known as Galkissa and built a "small but comfortable" house on a rocky headland, which looked out over a beautiful bay close to where Lovina lived. Described as being "handsomely built, laid out in mahogany and calamander wood", the mansion, with its white columns, polished wooden floors, intricately-carved wood ceilings and wide windows which opened to the ocean breezes, it became their trysting-place. For seven years Lovina passed through a tunnel which had its beginning in a well - opening in her garden and ending in the wine cellar of the Governor's house. In 1811 the idyll ended and Sir Thomas left Ceylon. Their secret was made known when it was revealed that his parting gift to Lovina was some property there. The name Lovina metamorphosed into Lavinia, the Governor's Mansion became known as Lavinia House and gradually even the headland itself (Galkissa) became known as Mount Lavinia. Down the years, the Governor's mansion became a holiday home for foreign visitors, a wartime hospital and eventually one of the island's first and finest hotels. The romance attached to it made the hotel a natural choice for a long line of history making visitors, including Vivian Leigh, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Yuri Gagarin, King Leopold of Belgium and the author Somerset Maugham.
Crossing the Equator certificate
Crossing the Equator A day or so out of Colombo we celebrated the crossing of the Equator. For readers who have never crossed the Equator on board a ship, you don't know what you are missing; and if you are anything like me, you'll be glad you don't! According to some nautical tradition, sailors who have not crossed the Equator are considered to be Pollywogs (a mythical soft, squishy creature). Upon crossing the Equator, all sailors who are still Pollywogs are required to be initiated in a ceremony designed to turn them into Shellbacks (hard, tough creatures). On old sailing vessels, this ceremony involved dunking the men in the ocean on their first pass across the Equator. In more recent times, those responsible for keeping the tradition alive have added a bit more colour to the ceremony by inviting King Neptune to officiate and by submitting victims to a variety of indignities. These range from cracking eggs over their heads to making them crawl through garbage while being sprayed with water hoses. On ocean liners such as Strathaird where those performing the ceremony risked being sued if their pranks are too outlandish, the ceremony generally involved only the children with parents looking on. They (the children, not the parents!) are expected to do crazy things like put their clothes on backwards or wear their underwear on the outside. They are then brought out one by one before a mock court presided over by King Neptune, who could best be described as Santa Claus in a swimsuit.
Charges are read out, all are found guilty and punished by being blindfolded and then having either jelly or some other equally obnoxious substance thrown at them before being dunked in the swimming pool. Everyone thus initiated receives a certificate to say they had "crossed the line". These vary from ship to ship, one such certificate reads thus:
"Whereas by our Royal Consent,.................... has this day entered Our Domain. We do hereby declare to all whom it may concern that it is Our Royal Will and Pleasure to confer upon him/her the Freedom of the Seas without undue ceremony. Should he/she fall overboard, We do command that all Sharks, Dolphins, Whales, Mermaids and other dwellers in the Deep are to abstain from maltreating his/her person. And we further direct all persons who have not crossed Our Royal Domain, to treat him/her with the respect due to One of Us. Given under Our Hand at Our Court on board RMS Strathaird on the Equator in Longitude ..... on this ..... day of ..... in the year .....
(Signed) Cancer 'High Clerk Neptune' Rex"
In the navy, similar "fraternities" exist and include: The Order of the Blue Nose for sailors who have crossed the Arctic Circle. The Order of the Red Nose for sailors who have crossed the Antarctic Circle. The Order of the Golden Dragon for sailors who have crossed the equator at the International Date Line.
At my crossing of the Equator on 30th June 1960, I kept well out of the way of the festivities until the ceremony was over and everyone had come back to their senses. I hid myself away in a corner of the library and read a book, as there was no way I was going to allow any of that childishness to be inflicted on me. A day after the Equator had been crossed, the passengers thought their worst fears had been realised when the Strathairds engines were shut down and the vessel drifted to a halt in the middle of the Indian Ocean. An announcement over the public address system soon allayed our fears and we learnt that we had stopped to take on board a seaman from a passing freighter who had been injured. We stopped a short distance from the cargo vessel and a small boat drought the injured man to the Strathaird. After being winched aboard, he was taken below deck to the hospital where he was cared for until being transferred to a hospital upon our arrival in Fremantle two days later.
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