Swansea and Port Talbot Docks History

Ron's First Voyage

The  M.V.  Belvedere (ex  Rambler  Rose)

I was employed as a stores assistant with the Beldam Packing & Rubber Company, situated next to the old Docks Police Station, near the main dock entrance. One of my jobs was to deliver small packages to ships at Swansea Docks and assist with the larger consignments, which were delivered in the Manager’s car. Some of the vessels we visited were regular customers and I got to know most of the crews aboard these vessels.

The lad who was the stores assistant before me was called Bobby Arnold, a near neighbour of Hugh Llewellyn, the Manager at Beldam’s. He had ambitions to go to sea and on one visit to the ‘Belvedere’ he was offered a job in the engine room, which he readily accepted. He was now sailing as junior 3rd engineer aboard the ‘Belvedere’.

On my visits to the ‘Belvedere’ I was always enquiring about a job and on one Thursday afternoon my dream came true. I entered the galley with my small parcel of packing for the Chief Engineer when the Cook, a Swansea man called Leonard Johnson well known for his communist leanings and union activity, pounced on me with the question “are you still looking for a job”, I replied “yes” and was told to join the following morning to fill the vacancy for galley boy, if that’s what I wanted. I sorted it out with my boss and cycled home to tell my mother the good news.

On arriving home I was told to get such ideas out of my head and she would speak to my father when he got home from work. At this time my father was a fireman aboard the ‘Langland’, one of the Alexandra Towing Company’s steam tugs based at Swansea. I promptly left my house and cycled furiously over to the East Dock where the ‘Langland’ was moored and saw my father, who was having a mug of tea on the after deck. “I’ve got a ship dad and we’re sailing in the morning”. My father asked me what ship it was and then informed me, “Please yourself, but if you don’t like it then don’t moan to me”. Thanking him for his vote of confidence, I revisited the ‘Belvedere’ and told them I would bring my gear over later that evening.

It was only when I started packing amid a huge argument going on downstairs at No. 46 that I realised what little quality clothing I had. The only suit I possessed I had recently bought second hand off a lad from St. Thomas, who was roughly my size. Not a bad suit for 4 quid but it needed a new fly. The only way my polo neck fitted after so many washes was by courtesy of a well-disguised safety pin.

The  steam  tug  Langland  on  which  my  father  was  serving  at  the  time.

I joined the ‘Belvedere’ under No 11 hoist in Swansea’s King’s Dock on the Friday morning and was shown my duties by the lad I had replaced as galley boy. He was a smashing lad from Belfast, who had been aboard for about six months. A vacancy arose for a Junior Ordinary Seaman and he leapt at the opportunity. There were problems with the coal hoist during the day and the sailing was now put back until Monday morning. On the Friday, two brothers joined the vessel, both of them natives of Llanelli. One was an A.B. and the other was a fireman.

A weekend in my home port and me now a serving Merchant Seaman! This delay at least gave me the opportunity to retrieve some freshly washed shirts to supplement my rather scant wardrobe. It was still with trepidation that my mother handed over my laundry. I spent the Friday evening at St. Thomas Church Hall where they held a local bop for teenagers, and where I had some notable successes with some of the young fillies of the Eastside.

The cook had informed me to just come in on Saturday morning and clean up after breakfast and I could have the rest of the day off. I spent Saturday afternoon cleaning my cabin, which I had noticed came alive with cockroaches when the radiators were turned on. I pinned a few centre-spreads from some downmarket men’s magazines (pretty tame by today’s standards) on my cabin bulkheads, thinking that this is what all sailors do. Oh! The innocence of youth. A commotion was heard ashore late afternoon and John, my newfound Belfast shipmate called to me from the boat deck. The two brothers from Llanelli were under the coal-hoist, knocking seven sorts of crap out of each other. The skipper and the mate went ashore to break it up and the upshot of that little punch-up was one of them being paid off and the other staying. Tough guys these sailors.

Sunday was uneventful, with everyone having turned to, to warp the vessel back and forth under the coal hoist, the cargo being finally completed and the vessel battened down and washed down in readiness for sailing at 7am the next day. Sunday evening was spent in the Flying Angel at Swansea, which in those days sold only soft drinks. My fly, which was held together by another safety pin, kept coming open on the dance floor, much to the amusement of my shipmates, whereupon the mate, a really gruff sort from Larne, in N. Ireland told me “buy yourself some decent f….ng gear when you get paid”. That was the first and the last time that I was ever offered that advice.

During the day I had heard mutterings of bad weather forecasts, but owing to my naivety, it was all above my head. We were on our way to St. Sampson’s in Guernsey and that was my only concern.Monday morning arrived and it was very wet and very windy, with crewmembers informing me that if I found something hairy in my mouth when being seasick, not to spit it out as it would be my asshole. I was taking all this banter with a pinch of salt and thinking that this was the normal treatment of a ‘first tripper’.

We left the berth at about 7.30 a.m. and headed down for the lock. My dad’s brother Maurice was the lock foreman on this shift and, when he saw me on the boat-deck, he questioned my sanity, with profanity, and also asked me if I had heard the weather forecast. This did make me take stock of the situation but the next thing I knew was someone shouting “Let go aft” and we were on our way to Guernsey. Once we had cleared the piers I went back into the galley and the cook enquired if I wanted some breakfast, I replied in the affirmative and was then told, “Well cook it your f….ng self, the honeymoon is over”. Oh well!

Burnt bacon and eggs is not the best contents for a stomach entering a gale lashed Bristol Channel, something that was to become all too obvious. The motion increased violently once we had cleared the Mumbles and try as I may, I could not stop retching. The cook told me to go have a lay down and it would probably pass. If only it had. As the motion of the vessel settled down to a violent pitching, my cabin became warmer and warmer and the bulkheads became more and more animated with the arrival of all these infernal cockroaches, which, unlike their landlord, did not seem to be in the least affected by the violence of the Bristol Channel. Being surrounded by a horizon consisting of massive breasts did nothing to ease my misery.

The Bosun, a very genial old Irishman who lodged in Port Tennant, popped his head in the cabin to enquire about my well being and jovially informed me the orders had been altered and we were now “bound for Brest, for a cargo of tits”. A vain attempt to lift my spirits, but definitely not appreciated at the time. The only port that I wanted to see right now was the lock head in Swansea. During the morning various people popped their heads in the cabin to see if I had passed on, even the Mate, whom I thought disliked me. (Perhaps he was after my suit!)

It soon became apparent to the cook that I would not be assisting him for lunch, and I remember the skipper, a very genial man called Jim McLaughlin, also from Larne, popping his head in the cabin, on his way from collecting his lunch in the galley a deck above, and telling me that the seasickness would soon pass and I would be as right as rain. The rest of that Monday became a blur as I lapsed in and out of sleep.

The cook visited my cabin about 6am the following morning with a cup of coffee and asked how I was, informing me that we were now steaming from Land’s End towards the Channel Islands, expecting to dock on the evening tide. The weather had eased right away and after a quick shower I reported to the galley for duty. I had all of the previous day’s dishes to attend to and I must confess that some of the plates with food left on them accidentally slipped through the gash port opposite the officer’s mess.

We docked in St. Sampson’s about 6pm and my Belfast shipmate and myself caught a bus to St Peters Port, the island’s capital for a visit to the cinema. After meeting two delightful local girls in the cinema, they agree to let us accompany them home on the bus. They lived in a small village called Vale, which must have been in the middle of the island, and after a quick kiss at their front doors we left for the long walk back to St. Sampson’s. It’s not to bad at all, this sailor’s life!!

On the return passage to Swansea, the Skipper sent for me and I was told that the vessel was being sold and that the best thing that I could do was to try and get my old job back at Beldam’s. The other alternative was to stay with the vessel and go around to South Shields, where the vessel was to dry dock for inspection prior to being sold. This option would have left me unemployed on my return to Swansea. I spoke to my ex manager on my return and he said I could start back, but only for 3 months or until I found another job.

A life on the ocean wave was rather short lived, at least for the time being.

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