Sixty Five years ago today. 14th March 1955. These are my memories of the two days that forever changed my life for the better. Joining the Royal Navy.
Stepping off the bus, I turned onto High Street at a brisk pace, still anxiously checking my watch more than necessary. I continued at a fast pace, taking a short cut through an unfamiliar back street. I was surprised when I came upon the infamous Du Barry’s Pub.Until this moment I had not known its exact whereabouts, only its notoriety. The pub was a hangout for sailors and prostitutes. As I was passing, it occurred to me that one day I might have a pint in there myself. After all, I would soon be a sailor.
That idea quickly faded, I couldn’t imagine associating with prostitutes. I switched to more inviting thoughts of girls falling for me once in my uniform. I silently hummed the tune ‘All the nice girls love a sailor’. It was just 6.45 am when I arrived at the terminal. The five other boys travelling with me were already there. The three from the country had stayed in the city overnight in order to be on time. We gathered under the terminal colonnade sheltering from the rain. The air around us filled with excited chatter as we nervously waited for the recruiting officer. The wait wasn’t long. Moments after my arrival he appeared carrying our warrants and travel itineraries.
We gathered around him and listened intently as he gave us our final instruction and times. We each received the promised ten shillings for expenses en route. We were warned not to waste it on cigarettes or chocolate. It was for paying bus fares between railway stations and to buy lunch tomorrow in London. We had been told to travel light, bring no luggage, just a toothbrush in our pocket. Along the journey, everything we might need would be provided.
On arrival in Liverpool, we were booked overnight at a seamen’s mission. Soap, towels, supper and breakfast would be provided. On arrival at the Ganges training base, we’d be issued with everything we would ever need.
For a few minutes we remained on the dock, hesitant to take the next step. We clutched travel warrants and instructions tightly fearing we might lose them. Collectively we decided to go aboard the ship and headed down to the warmth of the lounge. A boy from Ballymena, Trevor Weir, produced a 10-pack of Woodbine. Passing them around, we each accepted one and lighted up. I was sure a couple a boys were smoking for the first time, but no one wanted to appear different that morning.
At eight o’clock sharp, I felt the first vibrations of the ship’s engines as it started to move. I heard a foghorn sounding from somewhere above. Snuffing out the butt of my cigarette, I went up on deck. I stood at the guardrail watching the deckhands letting go of the shorelines and the gap between the ship and the wharf quickly widening.
With a stiffening breeze off the Irish Sea stinging my face, I realised it was time to go below. Walking toward the lounge door, I vaguely recalled something my English teacher had once said: ‘They change their sky but not their soul, who cross the ocean.’
It seemed, at this moment, somehow appropriate. She had explained it as a good maxim for exiles, of which Ireland had many. She had first given us the Latin version, which I had promptly forgotten: ‘Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare current?’
One of six new Royal Navy recruits en-route to HMS Ganges. Crossing the Irish Sea from Belfast had been unusually calm. Perhaps it had something to do with the misty overcast weather. Still, I was grateful for a flat sea. It would have been embarrassing to be seasick on my first day as a sailor, not that other passengers would have noticed.
The ship’s foghorn suddenly sounded overhead breaking my salty reverie. The ship was slowing as it neared the wharf at the Albert Docks. My five companions joined me on deck and we watched the Liverpool skyline gradually materializing through the fog.
Twenty minutes later the gangway was in place and passengers began to disembark. Six young Jolly Jacks finally set foot on a Liverpool jetty, thus ending the first part of our epic journey.
Our next task was to find the seaman’s mission where we were to spend the night before travelling on to London the following morning. The address was clearly listed on the sheet of instructions given to us by the recruiting officer in Belfast. After asking a dockworker for directions we set out on foot to find it.
We continued down the main street taking in the sights and sounds of the unfamiliar city. Ten minutes later, on the opposite side of the street, we spotted the mission sign on a two storey red brick building. One of the boys noticed a cinema a couple of doors down, and suggested we should go there after supper. The feature film was George Orwell’s “1984”. At the mission we were assigned beds, issued with pillows, blankets, towels and soap. We were informed supper wasn’t served until 6 pm. The menu stated tonight’s meal was bangers and mash, tea and rice pudding. Having an hour or so to kill we decide to test our bunks and rest up before supper. We agreed, that after supper we would go to the cinema, it would help pass the time. It was a strange film about an imagined world some thirty years in the future.
Our sleeping quarter’s in the mission was a large dorm containing approximately thirty beds. We cautioned each other to sleep with wallets under our pillows. Liverpool was a busy seaport, and the mission was filled with a variety of merchant seamen from many lands. During the night my sleep was disturbed several times by late arrivals of somewhat drunken sailors. I was introduced to a sleeping environment of loud and differing sounds of snoring, farting and belching.
I arose around six the next morning and headed to the communal bathrooms to wash and brush my teeth. There was little movement at that early hour as most of my neighbourswere still sleeping soundly.
With twenty minutes to go before breakfast, Trevor suggested we take a walk around the block and have a smoke. Outside the morning air was crisp and clear, few people were about as we sauntered down the street puffing on Woodbine. My companion, as nervous as me, started a conversation of how he imagined life would be at Ganges. As we returned to the mission a clock was chiming the hour from somewhere in the city. I was hungry and my thoughts turned to a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and a large mug of tea. We entered the dinning area and joined the four other recruits already in line and waiting to be served. Trevor and I collected our cups, plates and cutlery from a table at the side of the counter then lined up behind the others. When my turn came, holding out my plate the cook dumped something on it that I didn’t recognize.
We had all been served the same thing. I wasn’t the only one not knowing what it was. Fortunately one boy knew and informed us we each had a pair of smoked kippers. I was no wiser. But equally sure it was not something I’d eat for breakfast or at any other meal for that matter. I contented myself with bread, margarine, marmalade and a cup of tea. I would soon learn kippers were a popular item on the navy’s breakfast menu. They were better known in naval terms as “Spithead” pheasant. With our less than scrumptious meal finished we collected our coats and departed the mission. Lime Street Station wasn’t far so again we decided to walk and conserve dwindling funds. We had ample time as the London train didn’t leave until 8.30am.
The next leg of our journey began with a five-hour train ride to Euston Street Station in London. Six of us clambered into an eight-seat compartment just behind the engine. In the fifties, British Rail still used old style carriages. No corridors so compartments confined the passengers until the next station. It was incumbent on one to use the public lavatory before embarking the train. Station stops en-route usually lasted anywhere from two to five minutes. It was always a risk racing to the station cafeteria for a cuppa and bun. It usually meant competing with dozens of other passengers doing the same thing. It seemed I was being served as the whistle blew, signalling that the train was leaving. With rising panic and trying not to spill several mugs of tea, came the mad dash back to the carriage. The train moving and gathering speed, I’d pass mugs to outstretched hands while running alongside. Finally managing to scramble aboard as the end of the platform loomed large. This same operation would be repeated many times during my naval career. Though in later years it was pints of beer rather than tea.
The journey to London was uneventful and we arrived safely at 1.30 pm on Wednesday afternoon. The next part of our schedule was tight. The train to Ipswich departed at 3.45pm. At Liverpool Street Station we sought out platform fourteen to begin the final leg of our journey. At the gate we saw dozens of boys milling around instantly knowing we’d arrived at the right place. There was close to a hundred boys of all shapes and sizes. The air at the platform was filled with their noisy chatter and laughter. I was March 15th 1955 and I was about to actually join the Royal Navy!