The Black & White Picture Place

Photographs of Liverpool: The Sailors' Home 12- Some Sailors' Tales

Craig's Story

front of sailrs' home“…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

sailors home engravingThe following reminiscience of the Sailor's Home was posted on the excellent Yo Liverpool forums by 'Captain Kong'. It is reproduced here with his kind permission...

"I first stayed at the Sailors' Home in 1952 as a green Deck Boy. Wow, what a culture shock,

It was rumoured at the time as once being a prison with the galleried balconies going around the inside with wire netting across each floor, in case anyone fell over the balconies. This was wrong as it had been purpose built as a Sailors Home.

I had left the Vindicatrix Sea Training School in Sharpness Glos. and had to await nearly six weeks to find a job on a ship.

The price was four shillings a night for bed and breakfast for men, Boys were about three shillings. It was just a bare cabin. wooden panels, painted green on the walls, iron framed bed and a chest of drawers. a communal bathroom and toilets, There was a room for the breakfasts, Sausage (these were usually thrown out of the window, they were awful. always a big pile of them outside the Home.) Egg and a piece of bacon, slice of bread and a mug of tea.

Alongside of the home was a bomb site from WW2 and at night the plonkies and winos would doss down for the night amongst the rubble, with a bottle of Meths or cheap plonk.
One night, I was 16 years old, I was walking back in the pouring rain, to go into the Home. a plonky shouted to me, "Hey lah, av yer gotta room there." I said "Yes". "Its cold and wet out `ere, let us sleep on the floor in yer cabin." Being a bit soft I said `OK`. Then six of them got up from the rubble and followed me in, when I opened the cabin door, two crashed onto the bunk, two slid under the bunk and the other two curled up on the deck. I was stood in the doorway, couldnt believe in what I saw. There was no room for me.

I went back down stairs and back into the rain, the only place I could go to was The Gordon Smith Institute for Seamen across the road and round the corner. That building is still there. I got a bed there for three shillings and six pence in the Dormitary, a large room with about twenty beds in, all occupied, with the sound of snoring and other types noises coming from them. they Night Man told me to lay my suit and any money under the mattress and shoes under the pillow or they wouldnt be there next morning. Next morning I had a breakfast there and then went back to the Sailors Home and had the other breakfast I had already paid for. Then I went up to my room, all the plonkies had gone, amazingly all my gear was still there.

I stayed there many times over the years, it was very handy for somewhere to stay when in Liverpool, I lived in Bolton. When I joined a ship in Liverpool and after the end of a voyage of four or five months and we paid off in London we would all get the train back to Liverpool and have a few bevies up on Lime Street, the Sailors Home was ideal for some where to stay before going home the following day.

The ground floor of The Sailors Home was the Shipping Federation or more better known as "The Pool". A place where seafaring men went to to find their next ship.
The door on the left hand side of the Pool opened into a large room with a long counter, This was covered with wire netting to prevent some of the Characters attacking the Staff
if they got a bum deal from their last ship or if they were turned away with no job, if the man was approved they would open the turnstile to the next room.

Sometimes if the Man wasn't looking we could drop onto the floor and slide underneath the turnstile and into the inner room. There was a counter for each department, Firemen, Catering and Deck, again wire netting covered the three desks. Behind the desks stood the Man who gave out the jobs or number of men required by the Ship owner for each ship. These Men were legends at the time. Mr Repp, Mr Griffiths, Mr Slater, Mr Deakin and so on.

While stood there you had to learn to read the book upside down to see what name of ship he had on the page, you got to know what ships were good and which were the ones to stay clear of in case you got Shaghaied for a two year trip. If Mr Repp or Mr Griffiths called you by your first name you knew he had a bad ship for you. Sometimes Mr Repp had his hand over the bottom of the page where he had some good jobs for his favourites. The trick was to find out what ship he was hiding. If you were given a ship he gave you forms to take for a Doctors inspection then you went into the next room. The Doctors assistant would call you in then you dropped your trousers and he held your right groin saying `Cough`, then the left side, cough again . open your mouth to see you had some teeth, `OK you`ll do`, he would say and sign the form then you signed on the ship and went to sea.

Some of the old guys had no teeth, and a fellow would say . "eh lah give us a go at yer teeth" and the other fellow would take out his teeth and he would put them in, didnt matter if they didnt fit, he had teeth, so he passed the Medical, on the way out he would give the teeth back and someone else would borrow them.

After the Sailors Home closed the new Shipping Federation or Pool was at Mann Island. These characters and events are now gone, just a fading memory of the few of us still hanging on. The Home should have been saved, it was a fantastic design, that Classic structure would have lasted for centuries, and a great memorial to all the Sailors who passed through its doors, now just a memory of a by gone age that can never happen again.

The people who demolished it should have been gaoled".

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