I’m not sure exactly when John returned home after his War service. He was discharged from the RAF in June of ’46 and I don’t think he went straight back to Fort William, but worked in Glasgow for a while. If you’ve been following this narrative, you’ll remember that the story goes that John and Nellie met at 50 High Street when he came home from the war, and fell in love more or less at first sight. I think this must have been 1948 or 49. But it does seem rather odd to me that I’ve not been able to find any pictures of them together, in what must have been their courting days. The only clue I have is this snap of John, inscribed on the back “To dearest Nellie. With all my love. – John. 7th Dec ’50”
You can be sure I’ll keep digging! But, I’ve diverted myself, this is supposed to be the story of John’s further travels around the world and how he came to join the Merchant Navy. It seems kind of obvious that John didn’t really have much of a clue as to what he was going to do with life as a civilian. He hadn’t been to college or university, in fact by all accounts his secondary education hadn’t been a great success, as he kept running away from school (he was sent away to be educated by the monks at Fort Augustus). He doesn’t seem to have ever shown any interest in becoming a chemist like his father or joining the family business, or maybe it was that George didn’t encourage him, who can tell? I do know that Dad used to complain that here he was, home from war and being treated like an errand boy. Not a happy situation.
Anyway, the one thing John WAS trained for was radio telegraphy, so, probably prompted by Nellie, he eventually went on a course to convert that RAF training into a “proper” qualification that he could use in civilian life. My understanding is that paying for a land-based certificate was just out of reach of their modest resources, so he went for the “pre-sea” one provided by the Ministry of Transport, which of course meant that he was all set for a life on the ocean wave. (You can click on these pictures if you want to read them better.)
John joined the Merchant Navy on the 28th of November 1952, and spent the next five years serving on ships throughout the world: the SS Lismora, Salveda, Pendeen, British Lancer, Olympic Mariner, Kaladan, Bhamo – names which conjure up a certain romantic image of the seafaring life. But in truth this is a life of charts and routines and regulations, of long periods at sea and short shore leaves… fortunately all brought to life for us in John’s photographs. Here’s the first page of his Merchant Navy album. As you can see, it hasn’t taken him long to acquire a distinctly nautical look!
The Salveda was John’s second vessel and was a salvage steamer. Others were tankers or cargo ships, engaged in the post war boom in international trade. In some ways it was the final hurrah for these craft before they were superseded in the mid fifties by much larger container ships which would see the process of globalization begin in earnest.
These voyages took John all over the world, from Russia and the fjords of Norway in the north, west to Canada, south to Africa and Venezuela, and east to Burma, with many, many ports along the way. Here’s just a sample:
Of course trips ashore punctuated much longer periods at sea, so naturally there are also pages and pages of photographs of shipboard life. I think I can remember my Dad teaching us this clapping song A sailor went to sea, sea, sea / To see what he could see, see, see / But all that he could see, see, see / Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea. – which of course he know from experience!
Again, there is that sense of the crew being in a kind of reality bubble, forming their own makeshift family unit during those months-long voyages. But, unlike the RAF years, this time, John DID have someone waiting for him at home – the faithful Nellie. I can’t look at these pictures and read John’s discharge book (listing all the voyages) without also thinking about what would have been happening back home while he was thousands of miles away, and it makes you realise what a very divided kind of existence this was.
When John and Nellie married in Glasgow on 18 March 1953, John had been home from sea for 5 or 6 days, and departed to take up a new post a mere 4 days later. He spent the rest of the year on board the SS Pendeen with only a day or two between voyages, so Nellie travelled south and visited the ship at Surrey docks – this photo is dated 25 September ’53. I wonder if she had come to tell him that she was 5 months pregnant! They would have spent that Christmas together as there’s no voyage noted between 24 December and 7 January. At that time their home was a flat in Pollokshaws Road, near Queen’s Park in Glasgow and I think that at least until they were married Nellie was working as a housekeeper.
John was probably in the Gulf of Aden in the Red Sea when I was born on 24 January 1954, so this picture dated 25 March probably marks the first time he would have met me, aged 2 months. It must have been a flying visit as his ship, the British Lancer, was due to set sail the next day. There was another short visit in June (more pictures of Queen’s Park!), but most of 1954 and half of ’55 was spent traversing the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. And then, when he had a 10-day break in March ’55, John bought the flat at 31 Rathlin Street, Govan which would become our family home for the next 7 or 8 years. John headed off on a long voyage to Venezuela at the end of March, so I’m thinking that it wasn’t until he came home in September that we would have moved to Govan. That September also saw us travelling to Ireland, no doubt so that Nellie could show off her handsome husband and baby daughter to her family.
Then followed a rather longer period of domesticity, as John didn’t return to sea until the following July, which means that he would have been around for Nellie’s second pregnancy and the birth of my sister Ann on 23 June. After that he went back to sea and spent the rest of 1956 on several voyages to Africa: Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana. Whenever he came home John would bring exotic souvenirs – elaborately carved tables and boxes, an inlaid tray, an ebony carved head of an African man, toy camels made of leather. This picture shows Ann, nearly two, sitting on one of a pair of deckchairs he brought back from somewhere. Our flat in Rathlin Street was tiny, but there was always room for another artifact, becoming an integral part of our childhoods and which we shared between us when it came time to divide the contents of the family home almost 60 years later. These are my ornamental carved spears.
Going back to our timeline, there was a family holiday in Fort William in June ’57, when Nellie must have been expecting again, though this time, John went back to sea until about 10 days before the birth of Mary on 28 November. With three children and a wife who was spending long periods essentially as a single parent, something had to give, and the next year, 1958, saw John’s final voyages, on the MV Bhamo. Looking more carefully at this page from our family album, I now realise that these pictures show John’s two eldest daughters making a farewell visit to his ship.
John’s last voyage was to Burma, where he took these pictures of some pagodas in Rangoon. They didn’t made it into the album – I found them in an envelope marked “to be entered”. Maybe he just never had the heart…
I am unashamed to say that I’ve always regarded my Dad as something of a hero – I guess I’m not alone in that! Whenever I watch old war movies such as The Dambusters or The Guns of Navarone, there he is being played by Gregory Peck or David Niven or Richard Todd. I only have to hear the first few bars of 633 Squadron to conjure him up, clear as day. Yet I don’t even remember that period when he was away so much. I’ve been told that I used to refer to this tall, handsome person who drifted in and out of family life as “the man”. What I do remember is a steadfast, dependable presence who would hold your little hand in his big one and make you feel safe.
John plainly loved his life at sea, as he did his days in the RAF. But in the end he loved his family more and as far as I am concerned the most heroic thing he ever did was to put it all behind him, come home and don the uniform of a bus driver. It wasn’t an easy choice, in fact in weak moments he would refer to the “sacrifice” he’d made. Surely that’s what courage is. To be faced with perilous uncertainty and do it anyway.