Thursday 20 May 2021

One hundred years ago...

One hundred years ago today, my mother was born about sixty miles from where I now live. She had a happy childhood in the small market town but when she was almost ten, her parents decided to return to Britain. The following is an extract of a longer piece she wrote when she was about fifteen as a typing assignment about her trip to England. 

May 1931

Aboard SS Demosthenes 

At last the time came to say goodbye and we took the train to Melbourne. As we lived  60 miles from here, I had never seen a ship close to, so of course I was quite impressed when we came on to the dock and found the big steamer awaiting us. I went on board feeling very important and we were shown the way to our cabin by a steward. I was asked if I would like to sleep on the top bunk but refused as I was afraid it might give way in the night; I didn't seem to realise at the time that if this did happen the person sleeping beneath would have come off worse than the one on top. 

Several friends came to see us off, they were able to come on to the boat and when it was time for us to sail a bell was rung – all visitors off – and the gangway was taken up. Costers on the quay were selling rolls of streamers which people on deck threw to their friends on the quay and vice versa, the passengers holding one end, the friend on the quay the other, and as the ship drew away the roll would be unwound until it reached its full length when it would break in two, each person holding an end. It was supposed to be bad luck if the streamer was dropped. It was a very jolly to see these streamers of many hues waving in the breeze.

The gong sounded for dinner and I had my meal first meal aboard. After looking around the boat we returned to our cabin and unpacked the things we should need for the night and I had to go to bed. It was difficult getting to sleep that first night as it was terribly noisy on board while we were being towed out of the port, until we got right out to sea.

In the morning my father took me up to the deck; it was a cold dull morning and several people were taking their daily walk round and round the deck. I soon began to feel rather weak on the legs, and feeling cold and miserable crept back to the cabin where I spent the best part of the next three days, alternately tucked up in a chair with a big rug round my knees out on the lower deck, looking very green and feeling anything but well, wondering how on earth people could dash around as if they were on land. However the sea-sickness soon passed and I was running around with the rest, and when new passengers embarked at other ports I used to think how funny they looked sitting in arm chairs on deck with green faces looking pictures of misery, forgetting I had looked the same.

I soon palled up with other young people aboard and we had a lovely time exploring the ship from engine room to bridge and most of what lay in between, making friends with the various stewards and in general enjoying ourselves.

 When we had been about three days out from Fremantle my father who had gone up on deck first thing, came down to tell us that we had turned around. He had noticed the sun was rising in at the opposite end of the boat from usual. Others had noticed the same thing and we wondered what was wrong. We learned that a fire had broken out in the hold where the coal was stored. Several hundred tons of burning coal were shovelled overboard during the night. Actually the position was far more serious than they allowed the passengers to know at the time, although we saw that the life-boats were prepared and swing out on davits for lowering if required, each fitted out with a barrel of drinking water, biscuits, a baling-out can, lamp, oars and other necessary things. We were all given life-jacket drill and told to which boat we must go if the alarm sounded. Fortunately the life-boats were not required as after we had turned back for 36 hours the fire was extinguished thanks to the bravery of the stokers, some of whom volunteered to go down to fight the fire; we saw them being brought up to the ship’s hospital being overcome by fumes below. When the fire was safely out it was decided unnecessary to go back to Fremantle after all, we resumed our course to Durban arriving four days late.

We had several sorts of entertainment on board. Concerts were held in the dining room, passengers taking part, we found there was quite a bit of talent on board. We usually ended up with community singing which always went down well. Sports were also very popular. There was skipping race for the children and one girl of about 12 skipped up to 1,000 and seemed quite capable of going on but they stopped her when she reached this mark. Some evenings we used to have films up on the deck. Music was provided by a gramophone with a loudspeaker but as they had a limited number of records, there were certain songs we were absolutely sick of by the time the journey was over. Another popular entertainment was Fancy Dress Balls.  People dressed up as all sorts of things.

Sometimes there was a cry of ‘Whales, whales!’ and we rushed to the side of the boat to see them but were always informed that they were not whales but porpoises, very similar to the whale but not so large. We often saw flying fish too. They are quite small but able to leap out of the water and take long skimming flights to escape their enemies.

The heat was often very great at night and some of us slept on the hatch-ways on the lower deck. We never had it very rough at sea although there were occasions when the waves swept over the sides so that anyone standing at the edge of the boat would get drenched, causing much amusement to other passengers. I recall fiddles, boards along tables to prevent crockery flying off.

The food was not terribly good on the boat although there was plenty of it and quite a variety, but we had rather too many salads, pies, rissoles made out of left overs which we did not always fancy. At dinner at night there was always a very posh sounding pudding on the menu but this would always turn out to be sponge pudding, with a different flavour or fruit in it. Sometimes we had chicken which was a treat, also ice-cream and fresh fruit as dessert.

Most of the adults nearly went mad at the sight of the White Cliffs of Dover but at that time they did not mean much to me, although I dare say I too, would be more thrilled now. We came into the Thames on Sunday and anchored there until next morning. It was a typical English day, grey skies and drizzly rain, although it was summer, the so say sunny month of June, giving us anything but a cheery welcome, and it seems to me it has been drizzling ever since. We docked at Tilbury at breakfast time the next morning. The adults were too excited to eat but I sat solidly though each course, seeing no reason why I should miss a good breakfast just because we had arrived at England. 

My siblings and I grew up with these tales and  I recall her telling us that during the fire on the boat, she was very concerned that her teddy might get burnt. She didn’t consider the rest of her parents’ belongings. She also recalled someone died on board and had a burial at sea. She was very keen to go and see what happened but her mother was quite shocked and said children would not be at the service, Afterwards she learnt that many of the children aboard did go and  was furious at having had to miss it. She celebrated her tenth birthday on board but I don't know whether this was really celebrated in any way.

My mother died just over four years ago and I greatly miss not being able to tell her about my experience of living in the country of her birth and asking her more questions about hers. So many questions.