war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



Edwin Robinson


Part One

After an 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 ...

Ted 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.

Incredibly, 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 and publication."

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.

The ship's 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 horror.

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 breaks.

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 Memorial, London.


Copyright 2014 Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved