My Dad was born in 1905 in Whitewell, near Belfast, then an outlying area. His father he rarely talked about, he described as an”unemployed clerk”. Evidently after war service, I was never clear which one, he wasn’t mentally fit to work. On the other hand he always talked of his mother with the highest respect. She “had worked her fingers to the bone” keeping her three sons fed, and I gathered there were hungry days. She was well-liked by the country people. My Dad was the eldest and when he went to work he contributed to the family income.
My Dad lived at the beginning of dramatic social changes. Houses were heated by gas, not electricity which was rare. Cars were uncommon, most traffic was of the trade horse-drawn variety, the bread man, the milk man and coal man, all trundled around making their household deliveries from their horse and cart. My Dad said milk did not arrive in bottles but in an urn. You brought you own container to be filled. Rag and bone men were a regular sight, doing early recycling. I even remember seeing them in the fifties, still horse drawn, long after the coalman was motorised. My Dad said when he was young you rarely saw an aeroplane, but sometimes saw an airship float over. He saw the Titanic sail out of Belfast.
In those days working class children only received primary school education. If they were lucky enough to have a good teacher, the teacher would cram as much knowledge into them as possible in the time available. When they left school at 14 they went out to work and employers were not interested in lazy or stupid children. But my father said the children worked before they finished school. It was customary for country children to help out in farms in the school holidays. For this they were not paid in money, but in kind, farm produce, mostly potatoes.
The primary school education seems to have been better than primary school education today. My father left school with a high level of literacy and numeracy, the latter vital for the technical trades which working class boys commonly engaged in. His education also covered history, geography and some level of practical skills and technical knowledge. So he left school equipped for work and with a good knowledge of the world he lived in.
His first job was in a linen mill in Belfast. My father said that many employers took on boys at 14 but when they reached 18 and the employers would have had to pay adult wages, they were laid off and more boys were taken on. After that he worked as a plumber’s apprentice, did some general labouring, bricklaying and so forth, and even some electrical work. Perhaps it was his fascination with electricity and also the recognition that all the jobs he had learnt were low paid and didn’t really go anywhere, made him go to night school to study for his radio exams. Someone said to him – why are you studying? You don’t have the brains for that. He failed his exams the first time, but repeated the year and gained the Certificate which enabled him to work as a Radio Officer. Shortly after that Marconi Marine contacted him and he left for Liverpool to join his first ship, as a sparks in the Merchant Navy. His first ship was “The City of Yokohama” sailing from India to Japan, the Asian run.
My Dad loved it. He discovered curries and described the curry houses where you bought tea and for a nominal charge could eat all the curry you wanted. He commented that the European seamen put an end to this practice with their greed. But most of all he was fascinated by Japan. This was before the 2WW and Japan was still very traditional and little known to outsiders. He was most interested in Japanese martial arts and he would regularly visit the dojos to watch the training. He even learnt some at some stage.
Sometimes he was the only Radio Officer, sometimes there were two. For my Dad to become a Radio Officer at that time, was a jump in class. He described the problems he sometimes had with the grammar school background boys, who had learnt enough to pass their radio exams but had no practical mechanical nor electrical knowledge. When equipment malfunctioned or broke down they were clueless. My Dad was a mechanical and electrical genius. If a machine had moving parts or ran on electricity, he could fix it. For that matter a machine didn’t have to exist in order to be fixed. If you told my Dad what you wanted a machine for, he could make it. At sea, between shifts and playing chess with the Captain or reading, he had time and solitude to think about how things worked, and what kind of apparatus would do the job. But he told me he gave up the idea of inventions early on as others would only steal your ideas.
My Dad mostly sailed on the Asian run. He tried the Africa run, down the West coast of Africa a couple of times, but gave it up as he always became sick. The heat was too much. And not only for him. He said many Arab men worked in the engine room and sometimes they would be driven crazy by the heat and dash out on deck and throw themselves overboard and drown.
On a few occasions he was put on the Australian route. When he called at Port Pirie, South Australia, he met a man originally from Belfast who used to meet the ships to see if any Irishmen were aboard, whom he would invite home for a meal and catch up on the news. In this way my Dad met my mother. He later joked that if he had his life to live over again, he would leave out the Australian run .
He loved his job and he loved the sea. When the 2WW started he remained in the Merchant Navy. On one sailing his ship missed the convoy and they were torpedoed mid-Atlantic. There were two life-boats. My Dad said he was the only one who had anything with him as he had kept his suitcase packed. My Dad was in one life boat, the Captain in the other. The boats separated and only my father’s was rescued.
Shortly after that he was transferred to the Marconi land service and he assisted the Harbour Master in Londonderry. After the war my mother turned up in Liverpool and telegrammed my Dad and asked what she should do next. They married and moved to Feeney where my Dad ran an electrical repair shop. He had plenty of work. Electrical items were expensive in those days and often required fixing but, my Dad was no good at charging the customers when they were obviously short of money. When Mum complained about this he said – OK, you do it, and she then found she couldn ‘t either. So Dad went to work for the Marconi office in Belfast docks, carrying out repairs on ships electrical equipment.
After the war housing was in desperately short supply, and there was not a lot of council housing My Mum told me when Dad had found work in Belfast they had applied for council housing and been turned away with scorn because Dad had only worked for the Merchant Navy, and not been enlisted. My parents found a tiny, run-down cottage, which gave endless problems, in the countryside just outside Belfast.
When Dad reached 65,Marconi retired him. He was not pleased and immediately set to how he could stay in work. He discovered that there was no compulsory retirement age for Radio Officers, so he retook his Radio exams and went back to sea, this time on the North Atlantic run to Canada. When the cod wars occurred, as Iceland resisted the EU takeover of their fishing waters, my Dad was on one of the ships involved in the dispute with the Icelandic fishermen. He was fascinated by Canada, especially the sub-zero temperatures and the snow. He bought a furry hat with ear muffs and was delighted when a friend took him skidooing. When he was 70 his Trade Union forced him to retire. He took it badly. He said – there are ships sitting in harbour, losing money while they can’t sail without a Radio Officer, and I have been put out of a job by a Union I have paid dues to all my life.
He found some part-time work in the woollen mill in Broughshane (my parents had retired to Ahoghill) but it soon closed. Then he worked for a farmer looking after two large houses of free range chickens to the detriment of his lungs. When it started to affect his health he gave that up and he and Mum concentrated on their bowling, playing regularly at Ballymoney and Antrim. It was walking up the steps into the bowling at Antrim when my Dad suddenly collapsed and was rushed to hospital. A week later he woke up, but much of his mind had already gone. He died two months later, just after his 94th birthday.
Everything you see around you, the buildings, the roads, the bridges, the cars, the planes are made by the hands and labour of working class people. Everything in your house that you take for granted, electrical power, plumbing, glazed windows, all the machines that you use have been made by working class people, often invented by them too. Right down to the clothes that you wear and the shoes on your feet.
If I had a choice of who I would want to be ship-wrecked on a desert island with, whether a working man like my father or a pen pusher, the choice is easy. I would choose a man like my father. In a few months he would have replicated modern living conditions. With any member of the chattering classes you would be living like an animal if you were alive at all.
This is the second time I have written this account. A few years before my father’s death he was in the living room writing down a list. When I asked him what he was doing he showed me the list of ships he had sailed on while at sea. I then asked him to tell me everything he could remember about his life. As he told his story, and memories triggered other memories the years fell away and he seemed rejuvenated. I realised then I had left asking him too late, as he could only remember the highlights. But he had several photographs of ships and his log books which contained the official stamp of every ship he had sailed on accompanied by the Captain’s comment on the standard of his work, which was always excellent. My first account which was more detailed on his seafaring life and contained photos of his ships was accepted for publication by a magazine, but my Dad, in his nineties by then, panicked and said he did not want it published. After his death in 1999 I made copies for the grandchildren.
As a Targeted Individual I have had documents, photographs and personal papers stolen over the years. These included photographs of my late-husband and myself in cultural areas, such as Rome and Dover Castle. Also stolen were the account of my fathers life and the Obituary written by his nephew, a Minister, who officiated at my father’s funeral.
The list of ships.
Taken on the occasion of My Dad’s 90th birthday, in 1995.
Lillian Ilma Agnew 1918-2012
William John Agnew 1905-1999
Margaret Clair McCleary 1952-