TED WENT TO SEA IN 1937 AND SAW THE WORLD" by Mike
action-packed life, Captain Edwin (Ted) Robinson, aged 94, now
lives in well-earned quiet retirement in Walmer. His three-part
story offers fascinating social insights into 1930s Britain and
foreign countries he visited as a 16-year-old just before the
war, and his eventful war years ...
lived with his parents in a rented house. There, he and his four
siblings slept, head to toe, in one bed. His mother was one of
12 children. Her four unmarried sisters resided too, as did her
parents, plus sundry uncles and cousins, in stifling proximity.
The house, next to a baker's stable, had no electricity, so gas
lamps had to suffice. There was no heating, just a coal-fired
range in the scullery, where everyone cooked and ate. Weekly
ablutions involved some fifteen people and a tin bath. Water,
heated on the range, was used by successive bathers. The one
communal, outside, privy was distant, situated at the end of a
long narrow alley.
The tough 1930s
were times of poverty and deprivation. As Ted's parents could
not afford to keep him at school, he becamean office boy, for
the Liverpool Daily Post and Evening Echo, in Fleet Street. He
earned 15 shillings (75p) per week, leaving him with 2/6 (12
1/2p) after dispersals, for himself. Thoughts of a maritime
career as an apprentice appeard thwarted as the impossible sum
of £30 was required to buy uniform, boots, books, and equipment,
including his own straw bedding.
however, fortune smiled in the guise of Jimmy Spence, a reporter
who later served as Canada's London-based press officer. He
became Ted's lifelong mentor and benefactor, lending him that
vast sum of £30. Thus financially equipped, Ted, aged 16,
contracted to go to sea as an indentured apprentice. His
four-year remuneration package totalled £60.
Marine life was
tough. His first ship, the coal-fired SS Rio Azul, provided a
four-berth cupboard-sized apprentices' cabin. It had no table.
Communal meals, collected from the galley in aluminium "kitties"
were shared in the cabin and eaten balanced on knees. This was
no mean feat in the frquent rough weather. The ship had no
refrigeration, relying on huge blocks of ice for cold storage.
These would melt in about ten days, then fresh food was replaced
by wooden barrels of salt beef or pork. There were no bathing
facilities. "Showers" were taken by steam-heating bucketfuls of
water in the engine room, removing the coconut-matting floor
covering of the cabin, then ladling water over themselves, thus
cleaning the cabin too.
Ted's first ship
slipped its moorings on the Thames, sailed to Blyth,
Northumberland, to load coal, before travelling to Murmansk,
Russia, for discharge. The stunning natural beauty of the
Norwegian coastline was a revelation to Ted after grimy,
smog-covered London. Having exited the fjords at Tromso, rounded
the North Cape, though the Arctic Circle, they arrived in
Stalin's inhospitable, forbidding Murmansk in May 1937.
As Ted recalls,
"We had been at sea for weeks, yet none of our crew was allowed
ashore. Heavily-armed guards manned the jetties to ensure
compliance. Our entire crew had to vacate accommodation. We were
lined up on deck for hours, regardless of weather conditions,
whilst officious customs, police, and secret service personnel
ransacked the ship, searching for anything deemed to be
suspicious. No crew member was allowed to accompany them to
witness their activities".
In the absence
of port machinery, coal was unloaded, shovelled into skips by
cowed ragged men and women under armed guard. The skips were
then hand-winched ashore. Ted observed, "Just two years later,
Russia would become our allies, but I witnessed the full flush
of communist ideology, being suspicious of every alien thought
He was not sorry
when his ship, now loaded with phosphates, left Murmansk for
Hamburg, Germany. On arrival there he was amazed at the
startling difference between those two ports. Hamburg was alive
and vibrant. People, dressed in bright colours, flooded the
city. While Ted was unaware of the political significance,
impressive sights included innumerable scarlet Nazi banners and
flags, draped over buildings and government offices. Swastikas
were carried by endless companies of children and uniformed
Hitler Youth, with brass bands preceding them. After Murmansk,
all seemed joyful, with music, colour, noise, and bustle.
charter led to a return trip to the unfriendliness of
intimidating Murmansk. Then, reloaded with phosphates, the ship
sailed to Gdynia, Poland. Again it was a total contrast; the
town was full of life and activity and seemingly carefree.
However, although unaware of the fact, Gdynia was less than two
years away from the stomp of German jackboots and unspeakable
On board, Ted
learnt the hard way that indentured apprentices were treated as
underpaid extra deckhands. The terms of his indenture promised
training in watch-keeping and navigation duties but the captain
refused. Eventually, plucking up courage, an apprentice
delegation reminded him of his obligations which, if ignored,
would be reported to the shipping federation. The furious master
finally agreed that apprentices could finish deck work one hour
before the hands but would forego their two 15-minute daily tea
On their fourth
trip from Murmansk, to soon-to-be-overrun Antwerp in Belgium,
the steering gear failed. With all hands on deck they battled
through storms, steering by the poop deck's auxiliary whell.
Orders from the bridge were relayed by megaphone as the ship
struggled into port with its exhausted crew.
As the first
six-month charter contract ended, Ted was joined by a new
apprentice, Eric Busby. His career would be tragically
short-lived. He died just six years later on the SS Nairung,
torpedoed off Madagascar.
This article and photo first appeared in the Dover
Express, 13 November 2014
Reproduced with permission
Photo by Andy Jones - Edwin Robinson, 94, holding a photograph
of himself taken in 1942, during the Second World War, when he
was a 22-year-old sailor in the Merchant Navy
Note: Eric Ralph Busby was serving as a
second officer, and was 24 when he died on 18 August 1944. His
body was never found, and he is commemorated on the Tower Hill