On the Old P&O Line Part 2
In January we brought you the story of engineer Ken Beard’s early career at sea aboard SS Aden - a P&O freighter. Ken, originally an apprentice with the Great Western Railway works in Swindon, had chosen to go to sea with P&O and was appointed Junior Engineer. Perhaps initially a little disappointed he had not been put aboard one of the more glamorous passenger ships, Ken enjoyed a few boisterous voyages to the Far East and Australia which were, despite typhoons and tooth-ache, an enjoyable introduction to a life aboard ship.
We pick up Ken’s story now in 1956. He had left Aden and spent a few weeks’ leave ashore in England where he met a young lady who would one day become his wife! He was not long at rest, however; Ken returned to London and was posted to P&O’s SS Carthage. “When I joined "Carthage" I was over the moon because it was a passenger ship on the China run...” he explains, as there was a considerable degree of prestige behind serving aboard a passenger liner.
Above: P&O’s neat SS Carthage, a fine liner which operated on the Far-East run alongside running-mates ‘Corfu’ and ‘Canton’. Image from; http://junglecat.de/photos/p%26o.html
Carthage had been launched way back in 1931 and she served as an armed merchant cruiser during the War. By 1956 she had undergone extensive refits but her engineering spaces were perhaps a little tired after 25 years of continuous operation. On boarding the smart-looking white Liner, Ken familiarised himself with the ship’s expansive propulsion system which, to the layman, seems overwhelming; “The engine room consisted of steam turbines, with some of the pumps being the old reciprocating type, and three turbo generators and a turbo feed pump for the four Yarrow boilers. Also in the Boiler Room were two auxiliary boilers - drum type - for harbour use.”
Above: Engineering spaces aboard P&O’s Chusan which Ken would become very familiar with in time. From left to right; Main engine room catwalk, a boiler room, the engine starting platform, generator compartment. Images from; http://www.pandosnco.co.uk/chusan.html
Carthage’s crew complement was noteworthy; Ken recalls that she boasted a majority-Indian crew, such that ‘Malim Sahib’s Hindustani’ was required-reading. (Ken can still count to twelve in Hindustani to this day!) “The engine room crews’ accommodation was at the Aft end of the ship and they had their own cook (Bandari ), the reason being we carried a live Sheep that was slaughtered for Ramadan and made excellent curry.”
Unlike other P&O ships of the era like Strathnaver and Strathaird, Carthage retained her three distinct classes since she was not employed merely as an immigrant ship. “The food was 100% better as we dined with the First Class passengers” Ken noted, “the down-side was having to dress up to go to eat”.
On the Ship’s state, Ken says that “the old Carthage was on her last couple of trips and hard work to keep going”. Clearly 25 years of hard open ocean and the arduous strain imposed by wartime operations had taken a toll on the vessel’s machinery. Despite this, Ken and the rest of the Engineers did their best to keep their ship steaming reliably onward. “The ship was on the China run calling at Penang,Singapore, and turning ‘round in Hong Kong. Everything went reasonably well on the first two trips except that it rolled a hell of a lot and it was a bit of a job to get the engine revs somehow handy doing the same as each other”. In big seas it would be common for the propellers of a ship to momentarily be lifted from the sea, a situation which could create an alarming shudder and even damage the propeller shafts and engines. So rough were the seas, in fact, that Ken says “the poor helmsman had a problem to keep the ship on a straight course.”
Above: A series of images shows Carthage being rolled about by rough seas towards the end of her career. Images from; http://junglecat.de/photos/p%26o.html
While heavy seas are a problem every ship must face, there are issues particular to ageing machinery which only the deft touch of an engineering crew can surmount. So it was with Carthage, whose engines had powered through millions of miles and whose propellers had turned millions of times throughout the course of her career. Fatigue was inevitable and for a vessel with a strict schedule to stick to the consequences could be dire. One serious incident occurred off Gibraltar on Ken's third trip outbound; a number of Boiler Tubes blew and the crew were forced to shut one of the crucial boilers down altogether, reducing the ship's considerable speed to a mere limp. On top of this, global affairs had caught up with Carthage and the Suez canal - that critical sea-link between Europe, the Mediterranean and Oceania - was shut down over an ever-escalating conflict in the region.
Ken remembers that "after some deliberation it was decided that the ship would continue the voyage on three boilers via Capetown and Durban at about 14 knots and that the engineers would repair the boiler and fit new tubes." Such repair work mid-voyage was a tall order and required all hands in the Engineering department to work around the clock;
"The ship called at Dakar to have the old tubes burnt out by oxyacetylene burner and in doing so some of the tube holes were scored as there were no hand grinders - we had to lay in the top drum and, using a half round file, clean out the holes. Then the tubes had to be hand-expanded in the top and bottom drum. All this work was done usually for two hours after your 4hr watch. It took us most of the trip to Singapore and finished as we arrived." The mechanical surgery was not in vain; "The P&O just sent a thank you letter and the Chief a crate of beer to share. On our return trip we were the first passenger ship to go through the canal after the crisis - fire hoses were laid out to repel boarders."
Above: Photos taken from Carthage as she transits the Suez Canal. Images from; http://junglecat.de/photos/p%26o.html
That drama, which so nearly rendered Carthage dead in the water, would not be the only time Ken's skills were put to the test. On returning to England Ken was promoted to Senior Supernumerary 4th Engineer after a number of men signed off. He returned after a few short days' leave to find an ominous black cloud pouring from Carthage's funnel and the 4th Engineer in a "bit of a panic".
"The boiler pressure was dropping and he couldn't find out why. We took a Burner Bar out to find it was leaking back into the F.D.air trunking which was glowing red hot, so we changed the bar and that sorted it out. On that last trip a low level alarm valve on one boiler kept on shutting the fuel supply off... the procedure to get things working again was to shut all the fires off... open the valve and put the fires on one by one. In my panic I managed to open it and all the fires came on at once (the bridge rang down and said that I had blown a perfect smoke ring from the funnel.)"
Despite the engineering dramas, life at sea was pleasant enough for the Men who worked so hard in the bowels of the ship. Accommodation was comfortable, if Spartan, featuring "...a porthole , reasonable size bed ,washbasin desk and drawers and most important an ice bucket (for the drinks - the good old Gin and Tonic) , the toothbrush glass was used for drinks. A scoop was put in the porthole to catch the wind and there were a couple of fresh air punkahs as well. Most of us had a radio and an aerial (which) was put out through the porthole - I recall that on the way to Australia the first station we could pick up was" 6PR Perth."
Above: Carthage rides at anchor in Aden. Image from: http://junglecat.de/photos/p%26o.html
There was time to unwind, too;
"On the three passenger ships that I sailed on we were allowed on the sports deck in the afternoons, just wearing white shorts and shirt to play deck tennis or just get fresh air, but not allowed to sit in the passenger deck chairs. On some ships if you wanted to sunbathe there was a small area just aft of the funnel out of sight of the passengers. Everybody had to be off decks by 18.oo hrs and obviously be in mess kit for dinner. Our accommodation was on the upper decks and the alleyway opened out on to the tourist dance space where in the mornings, if you
dressed in a clean white boiler suit and wearing a cap, could get a bit of fresh air. Sometimes we could get a beer from the Bar in the tourist lounge via the window that looked out onto the deck. Junior officers were not allowed in any of the bars or lounges but on occasions allowed to go to the dance, in mess kit of course, but had to be off decks at 22.00 hrs."
Typically alcohol played an important role in keeping spirits high among the crew, but with all the headaches that Carthage had caused who could really blame them? Ken and the Engineers "...drank a lot of booze and had a few parties in our cabins - one needed a few drinks to sweat out down below. A cabin boy would clean the cabin and shoes, get the beer up and serve at our table in the dinning room and expected a tip at the end of the trip."
Carthage made it back to England and Ken was on his final Standby Watch as she steamed up Southampton Water for the King George V Graving Dock. It would be out of character for the Liner to give Ken an easy parting however; looking about he noticed, with a start, that water was some feet high in the bilges below his feet! "First thoughts were get the bilge pump on, rushed behind the boilers to start it up and found water pouring out of a large pipe (the fire main) so had to go to engine room to get it shut down." Some farewell indeed!
Above: SS Carthage - tricky to the end! Image from; http://junglecat.de/photos/p%26o.html
Ken disembarked for a few weeks' leave which he made good use of; he and his sweetheart were Married and he took some very well-earned time off. In summing-up his time aboard passenger ships, Ken notes that "the engineers of the ships in the 1950s had to work in conditions of heat and long hours that would not be tolerated now, a hardworking, hard-drinking bunch of lads, but it was the biggest adventure of my life."
This is certainly not the end of Ken's story, for in 1957 he would sign aboard one of P&O's most prestigious and best-loved Liners; SS Chusan. This, and more, will be covered the next time we pick up Ken's yarn on 'Tales from the Weather Deck'!
Above: Ken made good use of his leave; here he is on his wedding day.