An engineer: loving the sea

Location : Great Yarmouth Norwich

It started off at the beginning of the War in 1939. My father was fishing out of Newlyn in Cornwall, when the war started and we were fortunate enough to be able to move down to Cornwall, away from the east coast which was obviously our front-line part of the country.  Anyhow, my ambition was, ever since I can remember, to follow my father and brothers and go to sea.  My mother had other plans.  She said, “No way was I going to sea”.  Mind you, I was only about ten and she said, “All the rest are at sea and you’re not going”.  But I thought, “Yes, I am”.  And the only way I could do that, really, was to go to sea and make up my own mind when I was twenty-one.  Anyhow, I was interested in making things – I was always interested in ‘nuts and bolts’, as we called it so I decided to, if I could, become a marine engineer.  My father got me into a dry dock in Penzance in Cornwall and I took to it like a fish to water.

Was this after you left school?

Yes, I left school at fourteen. I only done a short spell in Cornwall, actually. I finished my paperwork to improve there. And I became an apprentice in the dry dock – Holman’s in Penzance – but nine months later my family moved back to Caister – the War had finished and we came back to Caister.  Holman’s in Cornwall released me and I managed to transfer to Crabtree’s in Great Yarmouth.  By this time I was sixteen years of age and signed a correct indentured apprenticeship for five years.  I worked on several ships – steam and diesel and thoroughly enjoyed it.  But as soon as I was twenty-one … mind you National Service was still in force at the time – so I had no trouble getting into the Merchant Navy.  My manager at Crabtree’s helped me – he told me the routine – and I joined the British Tanker Company.  And my first trip was with a Doxford engine which I had never seen.  It was a big as a double-decker bus and I had always been used to working on fishing boats with about a maximum of about five-hundred horsepower.

Can you just explain what a Doxford engine is?

It was built in Scotland – or at least they were at the time – and it was a diesel engine but it was unique in as much as there were two pistons in each cylinder. The explosion took place – one piston went upwards and one downwards and the injection was done in the centre of the two pistons. There was two crankshafts and it was connected by different connecting rods to a bottom crankshaft, to drive the propeller.  That was only a four cylinder engine – two stroke – but, of course, it was equivalent to eight cylinders because there was two in each cylinder.

This was for the larger vessels?

They were large at the time but now they are ginormous but this ship was fifteen thousand tons which was fairly big at the time and the biggest thing I’d ever seen, obviously, because being in Yarmouth, fifty foot trawler was about my weight, like, you know! Anyhow, I soon took to it and I was a junior engineer.  There was two of us; two junior engineers – the lowest form in the engine room but, nevertheless, we assisted on the Watch and soon took over our part and became semi-professional and respected.

My first trip was to Australia which took me by surprise, never having even been to London, sort of thing. Anyhow, we went to Sydney in Australia – up through the Barrier Reef – taking Watch twice a day, in twenty-four hours – four on and eight off.  And we discharged oil in Sydney and then carried on up the Persian Gulf and loaded crude oil which we took to India.  And then we went back up the Persian Gulf and took another cargo of crude oil to Freemantle in Australia.  And then we were heading home – we went back to the Persian Gulf again, loaded with crude for Rotterdam.  I was getting a bit homesick by this time, anyhow.

How long were you away for?

When you go to sea, in those days, you signed on for two years but, of course, every time you came back to a British port, you signed off the ship and then, if you chose to, you signed back on again. But you committed yourself to two years, initially.  But I wasn’t away for two years; I was about nine months, all told.

Anyhow, we discharged the crude oil in Rotterdam; came across to the Tyne, for dry dock. And, of course, I left the ship for dry dock; had a couple of weeks at home and joined the Great Yarmouth Shipping Company.

Going back to your mother, did she have anything to say about you having been away?

(Laughs)  No, she was proud, at the end of the day.  We didn’t fall out over it – she knew I was determined, anyhow.

Anyhow, by this time, I had gained a lot of sea-going experience and I signed on the Boston Trader as Second Engineer.

That’s the vessel, the Boston Trader?

A Coaster, she was, yeah – working out of Yarmouth. Yarmouth Shipping Company had about seven ships at the time – all called ‘Traders’ – different – Yarmouth Trader, Boston, Lowestoft …  Anyway, I sailed on pretty well all of them, at the time, as a Relief Engineer, like.

And their job was to – just general cargo?

General cargo, across to the Continent. They called them … they were ‘Coasters’ but we went over to the Continent – anywhere in the Continent and primarily around the East Coast, like.  And on several of the ships I was Chief Engineer with them – there were only two engineers on these Coasters, anyhow.  And I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I went to a number of ships: Lynn Trader, Boston Trader, Yarmouth Trader, Norwich Trader and then I went with the General Steam Navigation Company which Yarmouth Shipping Company was a subsidiary of the General Steam Navigation Company and I went on one of their ships called, The Goldfinch, as a Relief Engineer.  And whilst on these ships, there was a variety of engines: Soren engines, Doxford engines, Polar-Atlas, Crossleys and the German engine, Deutz.  And, of course, I was responsible for the maintenance but prior to this – I’ve jumped the gun a bit – I was Apprentice at Crabtree’s, as a Marine Engineer and went through all the process of marine engineering.  Anyhow, I served in the Merchant Navy for five years and then, by this time, I was ready for marriage – I was courting strong and like most women, they don’t want you to be away too long – so I was fortunate enough through my engineering, to get into the Bird’s Eye factory at Great Yarmouth, as a Maintenance Engineer.  And worked with them, virtually, the rest of my working life.

On land – Bird’s Eye

So you came off the boats?

Yeah, yeah. And, anyhow, whilst I was down in Cornwall, initially, the ships were being released from the War service and they were being changed over to civilian use and I  found it very interesting – the remains of guns and flares and different things which had been left by the Royal Navy on these various ships.

And one of my most interesting jobs was St Michael’s Mount ‘cause we were not only marine engineers, we done agricultural, local and waterwheels. But St Michael’s Mount had a winch and a tunnel, at the bottom down by the harbour and a tunnel right up to the castle at the top.  And the winch at the bottom which hauled the ‘bogie’, as you call it, up through the tunnel, was in trouble so Holman’s of Penzance got the job of repairing the winch.  And I was apprentice and I went over and I found it most interesting working on St Michael’s Mount – and it was just a little ship.  Mind you, I was only, virtually, a tea boy at the time.  They used the apprentices for all sorts.  And we eventually … well I was keen, anyhow and I wanted to be amongst it.

Anyhow, after all this, I ended up at Bird’s Eye as an engineering worker for over thirty years, mostly agricultural, out in the country, on the binding machines, bean harvesters.

Bird’s Eye are well known for their peas.

That’s right, peas, yeah. Primarily peas and then, French beans, yeah.  And then, of course, Bird’s Eye’s got rid of their own machinery in the country and the farmers took them over themselves and the ones who wanted to, such as myself, were offered jobs within the factory.  And we carried on then as Factory Maintenance Engineers.

So, in the early days of Bird’s Eye, they would supply the machinery for the farmers?

No, they had their own machines – their own machines, yeah.

But they went and cut the crops for the farmers?

That’s right, yeah.

And then the farmers went in and took over?

… and took over, yeah. They wanted to do their own then.

And you then had to move into the factory?

Exactly, yeah. And I worked at Yarmouth factory on the Services side which included anything within the factory from an office desk to a refrigeration equipment, yeah – primarily refrigeration equipment.  And done one or two courses which gave me a wider scope.  I went up to Scotland to learn about various compressors which were associated with the refrigeration.

Anyhow, eventually Yarmouth factory closed and ones who wanted to again, got transferred to Lowestoft factory. And I went over to Lowestoft and carried on with a department which was refrigeration and general factory engineering, as opposed to departmental engineering where they looked after the packaging machines – we didn’t touch them – we were all ‘heavy’ stuff, you know – refrigeration and that.  And I worked there, virtually, until I retired.  Basically, that was it.

Up the Yare to Norwich

So, a very varied sort of – life at sea and then off to Australia and back; then pottering around the European area …

Did you ever come up the River Yare to Norwich by boat? Because Norwich had one of the furthest inland ports.

That’s right, yeah. Went up there a time or two, yeah.  Actually, we actually knocked a wall down in Norwich.

The ship I was on was called the Lynn Trader and she had a very sharp bow – like an ‘ice-breaker bow’, they call it. And we were leaving Norwich and we had to swing and manoeuvre to go downstream.  And I was down in the engine room and they rang ‘full astern’ to manoeuvre.  I put her ‘full astern’ but the mechanics in the engine hung up and she was still in ‘ahead’.  (Laughs)

“In ahead” – what does that mean?

That means going forward. So instead of going astern to swing to go downstream, we ploughed into the quayside and the stem went up on the quay and knocked the wall down.

Was this at Riverside in Norwich because there’s a turning point isn’t there – it is still there at the moment?

Yes, that’s right.

… where the boats used to put their bow into the corner and swing round?

Yeah, it might have been there – I was down in the engine room. It was nothing to do with my fault – it was a fault on the engine.  (Both laugh again)

Yeah. Well, you weren’t driving.

Well, anyhow, I stopped the engine and we rectified the fault – we hadn’t done any great deal of damage but that was a bit strange – hitting the wall with the ship, like, you know. Anyhow, we eventually came downstream and we done it several times after that, you know, cargoes up to Norwich …

So you weren’t banned from Norwich?

Oh no. (Laughs).  They realised it …

Have you got any other anecdotal stories like that from trips around the world?

Well, just my experience in India. I was terribly, terribly hot – I hadn’t been used to such temperatures and I can remember spending a lot of time in the bath, you know, to cool down, and that sort of thing.  ‘Cos she was an old ship, I mean, she was a wartime tanker – the British Harmony… she was called.  And, well, they didn’t have any air-conditioning – nothing luxurious, you know, not on those ships.  It was a marvellous trip – it was like a free holiday, really, because we went up through the Barrier Reef which right up the east coast of Australia – between the mainland and the Barrier Reef and saw these islands which you never normally would see (except) from a ship.  Yeah, and saw whales and flying fish going across the Indian Ocean.  You know, this was all so marvellous for a young bloke who had never been out …

Yeah, magical, somehow, yeah. The furthest you’d been was …

Cornwall and … but that was straight down …(Laughs)

Then, of course, we went … the only thing I didn’t like about the process of being aboard, was every time we went to India, we had the blinking injections for whatever it was – malaria and that sort of thing – and we’d only go away for one trip and come back again – we only went to India three times and had to have three jabs, like!  (Laughs).

But, anyhow, I loved working, primarily, with the diesel engines. There was a very famous engine – I’d like to get this one in – there was a very famous engine made in Beccles, called the ‘Multi-Triple’.  It was a three-cylinder steam engine but only had two throngs on the crankshaft because one of the cylinders was above the top one; below the bottom one – so it was: one, two, three cylinders but only two throngs on the crankshaft.  And consequently, because it was only two throngs, it was a very fast engine and several of the Yarmouth steam drifters had the Beccles’ Elliott and Garrood ‘Monkey Triple’ and they were the fastest boats out of Yarmouth, yeah.  And also, another one – a little bit of a quirk – they built a very famous steam capstan – Elliott and Garrood.  Whereas the previous capstans, to pull the nets, they had a small steam engine in fo’c’s’le, the front end of the ship, driving the capstan through a shaft up to the top but it meant so much machinery, Elliott’s designed one with a steam engine on the top of the capstan – so a little engine drove the actual machinery – but – the problem was getting the steam to it – ‘cos you couldn’t put the steam pipe over the top – it would be in the way of the ropes, wouldn’t it?  So how did they do it?

Must have gone up the middle.

… up the middle. The centre shaft which the capstan rotated on was hollow and the steam pipe came up through the centre shaft and fed the steam and that was, well, … every steam drifter had an Elliott and Garrood capstan on it for that reason.

A good bit of cunning design …

Beautiful, isn’t it? So that was the two engines: the Monkey Triple – main engine – and the Steam Capstan.

Why was it called a ‘Monkey Triple’?

Well it looked like … the HP cylinder looked like a monkey sitting on the top!

Ken Brown (b. 1932) interviewed for WISEArchive on 12th June 2015 at Martham Norfolk

Ken says: ‘Thanks everso for the recording. I thought it came out very well and I am going to have some copies made.’



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