five thrilling years at sea
with ken beard
By Michael Brady
In early 2018 I received an email from Mr Ken Beard; he had mentioned he served as an engineer on board a selection of P&O ships in those halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s and what followed was a fascinating correspondence. I learned very quickly that Mr. Beard is an absolute well of knowledge and possesses a first-rate ability to recall even the most minute technical detail.
Ken was born in Swindon and began an engineering apprenticeship in 1949 fitting, turning and erecting at the Great Western Railway works. “This was the largest employer in the town” he explained.
“Towards the end of my time several of the lads had mentioned that P&O were looking for young men to join the company and that they had an agreement with the railway works to release you two weeks before the completion of the apprenticeship.”
For many youngsters the opportunity for adventure is a great draw, but Ken went on to explain there was another influence on his decision; “…if you were accepted by the P&O you would not have to do National service as there was a shortage of engineers at that time.”
I pressed Ken to see if he’d ever had any experience on the ocean before and he confirmed that he had not, although he had “…read a lot of books of convoys during the war by P. F. Westerman and even pirate stories .” Beyond this, several of the men he had worked with had been to sea while a number of the Swindon apprentices had taken up the P&O offer already. With his mind made up on the 25th of May 1955, Ken made his way to London; the young engineer from Swindon was going to sea!
After a Medical and receiving his Seaman’s Discharge Book, Ken reported to the King George V Docks in London. There had been one nasty surprise when he first joined the Line; he had to buy all of his uniforms and kit from his own pocket including Dress Whites, shirts, ties and Boiler Suits - the wages he earned from his first trips would be used to cover this expense!
“I was on dock staff on the SS Canton…This was the first ship that I had ever set foot on and a new experience as I had never seen or worked on water tube boilers and steam turbines. After a week or so the 2nd Engineer sent for me to say that I would be joining a cargo ship that had just arrived ahead of us as one of the Junior Engineers had broken his leg. I was hoping to sign on the Canton as she was a nice big passenger ship but no such luck.”
Although not as glamorous as her passenger-bearing running mates, the SS Aden was a relatively modern vessel of 9,900 GRT (Gross Registered Tonnes). Formerly the ‘Somerset’ of the Federal Line, Aden boasted impressive cargo-handling capacity and would carry carry general cargo to Australia and frozen cargo back to the U.K. As an interesting side-note, while most other P&O ships were manned by a large proportion of Goanese sailors, Aden was not.
“I boarded and reported to the 2nd Engineer - who was an Australian - and the first words he said was; “Oh no, not another Swindonian!” Luckily one of the two other Junior Engineers was a lad that had left the railway a couple of months before myself .”
Ken familiarised himself with the ship’s machinery;
“The engine room of the ship had a Foster Wheeler boiler, steam turbine main engine and four aux diesel generators and all four were needed when we carried frozen cargo. After a week or so the crew were signed on and we started on the voyage to Australia. I was put on the 4-8 watch with the 4th engineer, a nice chap who had been at sea for some time, and the other two third engineers ran the other watches . The first days out of London we were in fog and had to do standby watches i.e. 2hrs after or before the watch.”
“The crew were a mixture of Liverpool and London men and reminded me of pirates (all tattoos, white singlets, sweat rag round the neck etc. ) and fought a lot amongst each other; frightened me to death.”
Indeed the crew’s exploits ashore would seem downright piratical;
“We reached Marseilles the first port of call and my first foreign country. Myself, Mac (the other junior) and Mo went ashore together, found a Bar and got drunk on cheep French plonk, just managing to stagger back to the ship and receiving a telling off from the 2nd Engineer saying that he had not told all of us to go ashore together . During that time the Chief Steward went ashore and was beaten up by some of the crew because he was feeding them with bad food and put in hospital. One of the crew was also knifed badly - how the three of us got back to the ship unharmed I do not know.”
Raising a head of steam, Aden made her way through the Mediterranean Ocean, arriving at Port Said, Egypt, where there was yet more trouble;
“On the cross alleyway was stored a spare large copper overboard discharge pipe. Somebody tried to sell it to the Arabs but as it was going over the side of the ship the cadet on the bridge saw it and raised the alarm. The police were called and fight ensued - it all happened when the 4th Engineer and myself were down below so we just kept out of the way. Anyhow, we finally made it through the canal with a new Chief Steward on board (who cut our food down different to the captains table) and we found out that he was cooking his own food in his cabin so we got our own back with the electricians making sure that every time he overloaded the supply to his cabin the fuse would blow.”
“We finally made it to Fremantle after running through the Monsoons in the Indian Ocean and had a couple of weeks there as a dock strike was going on. After a few more ports in Australia we loaded frozen cargo and made it back to the U.K.”
“On my next trip to Australia we eventually ended up in Hobart Tasmania and spent Two weeks loading Apples for the continent and U.K. My mate Mo was put on the freezer and just before we left he got some apples for us to eat on the way home.”
This run of relative good fortune would, sadly, not last for Ken or the other crew on board;
“After a couple of days out we ran into a hurricane in the Ozzie Bight, the most frightening time of my life. For three days a person had to be on the throttle shutting down as the prop came out of the water (the Engine Governor did not work) just managing to keep the ship’s head into it.”
Hurricanes and typhoons are a frightening experience for anybody, but a lasting sickness at sea can be downright crippling. Sure enough…
“…I contracted a very bad toothache; the pain was so bad I could not sleep”
Ken seems to think the apples were to blame!
“…as luck would have it we were carrying a young Australian Medical student on board working his passage to study in the U.K. That morning I went to see him and he gave me a couple of sleeping tablets saying to take one or two if necessary. Of course they had a job to wake me up to go on watch.”
The pain, however, would not go away and so Ken was faced with a terrible reality;
“He said that he had seen a tooth pulled but had never done it himself but would have a go, so after several tots of whiskey we went up to the small hospital cabin on the boat deck (so small that two people could just fit in). He put a couple of injections in my gums and proceeded to pull at the tooth. The pain was excruciating and after a couple of attempts the tooth came out - I nearly passed out.”
Ken still wonders if that young Australian medical student eventually became a doctor.
His first year at sea behind him, Ken returned to the U.K where he met a young lady who would eventually become his wife. Soon, in June 1956, he made his way to London once more awaiting posting - to what ship he could not know!
This short film, preserved by P&O Heritage, closely mirrors Ken’s own experiences - although without the fights on shore and tooth extrication!
Ken’s fascinating tale of life at sea will be continued in the coming weeks with ‘Part Two’ and feature such vaunted passenger ships as SS Carthage, Chusan and Strathaird.