The Sailors' Home 12: Some Sailor's Tales
“…the midnight h-owre, came a knock upon the doo-o-r, Ho! It wus the Judge an’ the Jew-a-ree, fer da Murderer uv Nellie Moo-o-re.."
The hoarse drunken reception echoed hollowly in the tiled entrance hall and penetrated past the opened inner doors to be lost in the silence of the sleeping galleries.
The voice of the night-watchman" “Alright Mack, turn in now. You’ve ada good time an’ the boozers'll be open in t’mornin’.” The vocal rendition collapsed in a loud hiccup. One half of the iron gates clanged shut and was locked, then the inner doors closed with a whispering thud.
“Wot’s yer room number?” A fit of coughing interrupted the watchman’s search for information, then came the answer. “Ere’s me key, look fer yerself. Can’t make it out.” The watchman: “Right, third floor, starb’rd side fouth door. Ooops! Steady now. Grab the ‘andrail an’ up ye go. Ava good sleep, -night now.”
Shuffling boots scraped loudly on the stone stair treads, hesitated on the first, then the second landing, then continued to mount with occasional pauses to recover balance, found the floor of the third landing and approached along the gallery's wood decking, with halts and a few little jig steps to regain the vertical. The wooden partition creaked and strained as a shoulder hit and brushed along the side of my room and passed on.
The sound the boots ceased with an audible grunt, a cough, and a long inhaled nasal sniff, followed by deep sigh. A key bounced on the deck, was gruntingly groped for, retrieved, and scraped and clinked around the lock until inserted- finally. Suddenly, as an afterthought of goodwill, his topsailyard voice shattered the stillness, roaring. “Goo-night watchman – ava good kip la!”
A disgusted reply from the depths wavered up. “Get yer ‘ed down fer christsake!” A querulous screech muffled by bedclothes came from next door. “Stuff a bloody sock in it, will yer!” Amid some laughter, and curses from several levels booming within the shell of the building a distant shout offered the advice. “Go back t’sea fer jesussakes!”
Down to breakfast in the big dining room at the front of the building, where all meals resembled slimming diets, even Christmas dinners. A little of this and a little less of that, and not much of anything except plates. Square tables seating four, chairs too flimsy to be effective as weapons while tables were mistakenly movable, causing spillages when brushed against, for seamen are used to fixed and built-in furniture. Bedroom stewards serving. Eating my own fried egg and four inch long rasher, together with half a slice of bread and yesterdays boiled spuds fried with bread, I gazed around. Nobody here I knew, all strangers. Curious, but you can sail out of the same port for ten years and count the number of men you have been ship-mates with, one for each year. Or, you can walk from the Fortune of War opposite Circular Quay, Sydney and there’s five from five different ships lining the bar and all unknown to each other. Cheers, down the hatch! Or you may be unfortunate, just paid-off a six month voyage and you meet an old shipmate on the Dock Road who is down on his luck, and looks it. Instead of steering him into Thorns Cocoa Rooms which would be the sensible thing to do, you walk up town and he steps to look in Reece’s window, saying how good the cakes look, so in you go together. “You hungry Baldy?” He sure was. They give you a small table right alongside the orchestra where the fiddler’s elbow swings back and fourth over your head.
Baldy wants steak, chips and two fried eggs, with toast. His dirty old mack is buttoned tight round the neck while his size nine boots gape at the seams. He tells me he has no shirt on, just a pullover. He consumes his meal in record time while I light a cigarette. “Don’t ye want them chips?” he asks. His big dirty hands reach out for the slices of buttered bread and the chips are arranged between. He cleans his plate with the remainder of the bread slices, eats them and produces a match with which he cleans his teeth. “Wot’s the time?” he enquires. This is a hint for me, for he knows the time. I have the feeling that the well-dressed crowd around us, mostly women, look upon us a exhibits of some kind and there is a lot of amusement and speculation going on. I know I look ordinary enough except for a deep tan, but Baldy appears to be a tramp sleeping rough. So we depart to Lime Street and Ma Egerton in the American Bar, for a start. I slip him two quid to help pay for the drinks. He is outside the Sailors’ Home in the morning, clutching the Noon Edition with his selections marked with blue pencil. I heard he deserted a ship in Aussie where his parents emigrated and where I first met him aboard a sailing ship I was serving in. He was a decent bloke but always broke. I never had the luck to run into him when he was flush.
Now, after a couple of years and about six or seven years behind me, I’m again facing a Sailors' Home breakfast. No old shipmates visible. The room is fairly full and the appearance of the seamen has altered for nearly all are wearing collars and ties. Getting fashionable for seamen as jobs become scarce. Even a few firemen are looking respectable, though one old timer with a body like a walking skeleton still sports traditional gear. He is in shirt and waistcoat with braces, and a thin belt with buckle at the back. This is because the buckle at the front would become so hot with the heat of the fires that an accidental touch would burn the flesh. I’ll bet the skin of his back also had a broad coal black streak down the middle, over his spine. It was an old belief that to wash the back weakened it.
I spooned my burgoo and listened to the conversation at other tables. A fat seamen was informing another. “Apple-daddy (Square apple pie 3” x 1 1/4”) boat’s singing tomorror. Layin’ in the Huskisson.” Behind me a voice declaimed, "Gawd Ginger, this tea's like bilge.” Ginger asked, “Hey Pete, want me burgoo?” A voice broke in with more valuable shipping information. “Barque over the water’s loading rock salt for Aussie. Lookin’ fer ABs. Only payin’ sailing ship wages.” The one addressed remarked, “Huh? T’ell wid dat!” But a short broad seaman at the adjoining table borrowed eightpence from a companion and departed for the Birkenhead ferry and the Roaring Forties aboard the barque. A fireman was saying loudly, “Yeh, ah skinned out in Frisco fer da Duecer (2nd Engineer) ‘ad it in fer me ‘bout cleanin’ fires.” His interested table mate had his own story to unfold. “I came ‘ome D B S in one uv Smiths o’Cardiff. Wuz in orspital wiv me guts. Don’t know wich wus worst, th’ship or the bleedin orspital. Orrible grub. The lads wuz good though. Made a whip round. Four quid”
As an afterthought he confided. “Even some’ t’sailors chipped in. The Bosun give me a pair o’boots. Me own wuz pinched oref me feet wen I wuz sleepin’ if orf in one of the parks down there.”
What lunatic architect designed a Merchant Seamen’s Home in the exact likeness of a prison, and constricted by the site boundary, formed the interior to resemble the forepeak of the Great Eastern. A flatiron building with galleries or landings, perhaps interior balconies would be a better description, with inside and outside rooms built of wood, narrow windows, thick walls and a wide interior well from ground floor to roof, around which the landings circulate. to complete the illusion there was also a rigid wire suicide-net at first floor level, supported by angle iron cross members, any seamen were protected on the landing by rails of heavy decorative ironwork moulded into shapes of mermaids and "cods ‘eds an’tails" representing the traditional dolphins, painted green. “There’s more bloody iron in ‘ere than’s in the bleedin’ Bridewell!”
Back to my room to put polish on my shoes prior to the usual pub crawl. A narrow iron beadstead supporting a hair mattress, clean sheets, a pillow, two thin blankets and a blue and white counterpane. Three hooks on the wall and one on the door. A small white painted table and a sticking drawer, beside the slit window with lead panes, and a rickety chair whose only value was as a shoeshine support. The size of the room, about eight feet by five, but it was all a seaman really needed for two or three weeks ashore before going broke and shipping out again. I always felt a slight twinge of happiness for the isolation and privacy it gave me, after months in a foc’sle full of others.
'Captain Kong's Story'
"I first stayed at the Sailors Home in 1952 as a green Deck Boy. Wow, what a culture shock,