The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

Hundreds of coastal tramp steamers of all sizes sailed the Home Trade. Every kind of general cargo was carried, scrap metal, pig iron and steel rails so much needed and carried to Hartlepool, Redcar and Middlesbrough during the reconstruction years after the Great War. Goods carried to the Continental ports, would be such as china clay uplifted from the Cornish town inside Gribbinhead and from Teignmouth small ports in Devon and carried on to Antwerp. This was the most miserable of cargoes to endure, deck and accommodation were smeared with traces of clay from stem to stern, and even after hosing down deck and superstructure the dreadful stuff would turn up in food and bunk for weeks after it had been unloaded.

I spotted Marquis, in the dock she carried the distinctive pink funnel and blacktop, for Messrs. J. Hay Shipping line, her destination unknown, however, I knew she would eventually return to her homeport of Glasgow. The talk around the docks was that the ship was already sailing short-handed the fireman had gone down with pneumonia and taken ashore. I had never served as a fireman but needed a berth, spending days even weeks in a foreign port awaiting a ship did not appeal more so since Continental docks were awash with men willing to do any kind of work for a days wage.

Marquis main engine was a Ross and Duncan compound, steam supplied by two Scotch Boilers their fires generating steam at 110 to 160 pounds to the square inch. She also had a Donkey boiler situated at the entrance to the stokehole and used a great deal for steam to drive the winches on deck. Her only other engines was a one-stroke engine, housed above the main engine, this drove both generator and steering gear, all were looked after and tended by two engineers. The First Engineer, known as ‘Chief’, and his satellite the Second, ably assisted by the two firemen.

The First Mate had been sympathetic to me an ex-naval seaman, having served at the temporary rank of Sub-Lieutenant R.N.R. When his ship had been commandeered for water carrying to the forces in the abortive Dardanelles campaign and further Levant actions. The Old Man would have the final say, however the First Mate’s recommendation, as too the crew would normally go unquestioned by the Ships Master. So I was put to work under the supervision of the Second Engineer, he himself having come to that position via the stokehole, often referring to himself as a shovel engineer.

A watch for one of the two stocker’s onboard (known as firemen on Scottish boats) would be four hours on and four hours off, theirs the toughest work, shovelling fuel into the jaws of the two Scotch boilers. Much would depend upon their bunker supplies, good Welsh steam coal, soft and combusting gave a good heat and small ash but more often than not it would be little better than dross, that took real sweated labour to break up and induce to take fire. Half an hour before the watch ended to ease the task of the new watch the fires were cleaned of ash and clinker, then freshly stoked. The hot debris then hoisted up through the ventilator for dumping overboard. Tedious work when a tide had to be caught. With fires kept at maximum, the firemen sweated like slaves ending there watch exhausted and good to drop. Still firemen, like all onboard, were feverishly proud men who would put everything they had into there stint. Black with coal dust they stood clad only in knickers and boots getting heat and steam out of whatever fuel was supplied. A white feather of steam issuing from the waste steam pipe, abaft the funnel, their certificate of competence.

The boat’s layout was familiar enough to me or anyone who had knowledge of these traders. At the forepeak the lamp and paint lockers, and on the starboard, the crew’s water-closet, flushed with seawater by bucket. Down the steep scuttle from the forepeak the quarters, There were portholes in the quarters but being level with the sea and to prevent seepage during heavy weather, their deadlights had been screwed uptight and over time had gained a generous helping of paint. The light came from three electric bulbs that burned constantly whilst at sea, but with the loss of the dynamo in port, paraffin lamps would be pressed into service. Tables, cupboards, stove, benches and brackets were all firmly fixed to the bulkhead and to the fo’c’sle deck. No gally was provided for the crew such meals as were possible being cooked upon the bogey stove in each of the quarters, firemen to starboard, deck staff to port. Hardly had I time to stow my gear than I found myself on watch. My first attempts were pitiful to see, as shovel after shovelful of coal would end up, more on deck than in the firebox, it took time to find a rhythm but the second was patient, and by the end of my first watch I had the rudiments. As the days past the work become as natural and predictable as the tide and in this constant labour the hours passed quickly. When we tied up in Weymouth, I was by every bit a fireman. 

To be continued, Jimmy sails for Rio.

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