One of the greatest rewards I get from writing articles and publishing photographs both on the 'Liverpool Picturebook' website and on the 'Facebook' pages is the feedback that I get from readers. Even more rewarding is when those readers are able to make a contribution to the site either in terms of a personal story or by contributing photographs.
Such was the case when I was contacted via 'Facebook' by William Bramhill, whose Father served on the 'Indefatigable' mentioned previously in an article on 'Liverpool Picturebook' as a training ship for the boys of the 'Liverpool Seamens Orphanage' in Newsham Park Liverpool.
This is the story of William Frank Bramhill.
A Letter Home
I will tell you a little has to the nature of our ship. We rouse out at 6.20 (we sleep in hammocks). At 10 past 7 we have breakfast. From then most of the time is spent on clearing up deck and deck instructions. We are divided into two watches or divisions called port and starboard and during the week we go to school alternately, that is port watch on Monday, Starboard watch on Tuesday. We also have every other weekend off which is very fortunate for me as I live in Liverpool just about three miles from the ship.
William Frank Bramhill who was born on January 30 1913, joined the Merchant Navy seamen's training ship 'Indefatigable' (formerly HMS Phaeton) on the Mersey aged 13.
He served with T and J Harrison, Elder Dempster and MacAndrews, as he worked his way from seaman to navigating officer. During the Second World War he saw action in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and in the Mediterranean. In 1941 Bramhill was commended by Winston Churchill for his brave conduct in firing on a U-boat which surfaced next to his ship. As with great difficulty he angled his Oerlikon gun at the conning tower, a couple of the seamen pelted the sub with peeled potatoes from the galley, hurling Scouse insults at the "Jairmans".
Later in the war, Bramhill was in the merchant vessel Empire Newton at Juno and Gold beaches immediately after D-Day. In 1946 Bramhill moved to Harwich, joining the LNER fleet, later Sealink, and winning his masters' certificate. He first sailed as captain in the late 1950s. On retirement in 1977 he feared that growing dahlias in his East Bergholt garden would "not have the same thrill as a NW 10 gale" but was glad that seagulls ventured as far as his village.
William tells the story.....
I think mother’s plans for me were ambitious in that she was determined I would have a better position in life than my own dad evidently had. I am sure that the poor man was considered to be very low down the social scale most certainly lower than the Prossors and first and foremost mother was a Prossor and yet I do not recall her encouraging me to better myself by learning... It must be remembered that women of that day did not know much outside their own household sphere, and I honestly believe she was in a complete quandary as to what to do with me. I was with her one day on the Landing Stage in Liverpool... I do not recall what we were doing there... I cannot recall that Doris was with us and so it must have been a school day and Doris was still at school. It was a Friday I am presuming and when the Rock Ferry steamer pulled in it spilled out a horde of shouting bustling youngsters who raced away along the stage and up the sloping roadway to the tram terminus. The youngsters were dressed in naval uniform and without a doubt they looked smart as they were hustled into line by a naval instructor and then made to leave the Stage in orderly fashion, heads held high, chests out, and arms swinging in time to the harsh command of the officer ‘Left, left, left right left’ I had been in the Sea Scouts and had worn a uniform such as this. On the hat bands of these boys caps was emblazoned ‘INDEFATIGABLE’ not just the humble title ‘Sea Scout’. I do not know what contacts mother made after that incident but I can recall pressure commencing. Before I realised it, I was all for becoming a young sailor on a ship in the Mersey called the INDEFATIGABLE.
I went with mother to a building in South John Street, it was called Church House and at the top of a long flight of stairs was a small office, It was divided into an office proper and with the reception area separated by a frosted glass screen. There was a little sliding window in the glass screen and around the walls a wooden bench. Mother knocked timidly on the little sliding window... there were some muted words with a girl secretary... and then a gentleman came... and closing the screen door he came out via a large glass door and seeming to tower miles above me looked down at me then shouted ‘Attention lad when you face an officer’ I gulped... mother nudged me earnestly and said quietly ‘Do as the gentleman says Willie... stand to attention.’ The ogre surveyed my rigid stance ‘Tummy in, bottom in, chin high’ he literally roared... then turning to mother he announced ‘Not big enough... how old? ‘Has he ever been ill? Does he want to go to sea?... What for? ... Sea Scouts? You say that’s not going to sea... Stand up straight boy... Can you box?’ The questions were fired broadside and without awaiting answers, he just roared on to the next set of questions (I was to hear this programme many times in the next two years, when as office boy, and sitting behind the glass screen I would laugh together with the typist at old Wally scaring the life out of all would be entrants . What we did not know at my interview was that Wally was actually scared stiff in case we got scared and fled from the office. I am sure he got a rake-off for new entrants). We were handed a bunch of papers to read and digest and told to come back Wednesday morning at 0915... ‘0915’ questioned mother timidly. ‘Yes, 0915, er; quarter past nine to you marm’ he roared, then slapping me hard on the back he shouted ‘Stand easy boy’ and he was gone. If I felt relief when I left that office, I suspect mother did and one can well understand this. I looked at her and saw a smile on her face and a tear caught up in her eye... to her it was a moment of triumph... she had entered a man’s world for a moment and had survived. As we stepped aboard the tramcar in Church Street, a No9, she was laughing and sitting down just inside the door she said ‘Why he almost had me standing to attention... what a frightful man.’ I agreed with her but could see nothing to laugh about... but getting off the tramcar at the top of Prescot Street, Low Hill, I walked across the road towards 34 Kensington with head high and chin in and felt ten feet tall... I was becoming a man.
The morning the ‘papers’ came through the letterbox was one that heralded great excitement for the information they gave was that I William Frank Bramhill aged thirteen and a half years of age, being born at 22 Kensington in the city of Liverpool in the year 1913, and being therefore proved to be of British nationality was to become a trainee seaman on the Training Ship 'INDEFATIGABLE' which was stationed off Rock Ferry, Cheshire, I was to be bound to serve for a period of not less than twenty four months commencing October 13th, 1926 and in that period I was to solemnly promise to apply my mind diligently to becoming a trained seaman to serve in either the Merchant service, or after twenty months to transfer to a chosen Royal Naval establishment whence I would take up training in the Royal Navy.
I was to be sworn in on board the said Training Ship at 4pm, 13th October and my parents or guardians were to pay a yearly sum of £13 towards my training and my provisions. Proud... I was a man.
They were bound over to promise to supply me with the approved uniform and to ensure that those items were worn by myself and that I was obliged at all times to be clean in appearance and to uphold the proud tradition of the 'INDEFATIGABLE'. (It made no mention of the need to supply ‘long johns’ on the list of clothes my mother was to supply me with. I was left to presume that such honourable garments were worn only by senior officers and captains). I was rushed down to Canning Place and to the Seaman’s Home wherein I was informed I would find a Naval tailor on the second floor. Mother took me along and clucked around me as first I tried on large pants and then small pants and finally arrived at the correct size nearest to my requirements (Mother would have to cut three inches off the bottom of the trousers... ‘Your boy is too big in the arse and ‘is legs are too small’ contributed the bored tailor’s assistant, and handing me a hat which was several sizes too big for me and handed mother a large paper bag bidding her fold it to a strip and place it inside the leather head band... ‘then it will fit alright’ then added ominously ‘He will have no time to wear these fancy clothes lady... better get ‘im overalls, in fact I would suggest you get ‘im three pairs, he will need them... that ship’s a regular work ‘ouse it is.’ That evening, the 12th October, mother was busy getting my kit together and sewing and mending any of my private clothes that were allowable. These were packed into a voluminous white canvas bag and Mr Cairns, my stepfather, lent himself to the task of painting my full name on the outside of the bag, and adding to the name the mystic symbol ‘77’. 'This was Williams number aboard ship'.
The INDEFATIGABLE was an early iron class battleship the ex PHATON and whilst I have no details of her age at hand, I would say she must have been built about 1875. She was capable of being square rigged on the fore and main and had been a steam engined crew driven vessel. She had sponsons, four on each side, which had housed guns, and whilst I do not think she could be classed as a three island construction she did have a fore and aft well deck, whilst outward signs indicated a continuous through build. She had had a bowsprit, but I do not think she had ever had a ramming bulb forward. Between the forward and after well decks ran a continuous main deck and it was n this deck that divisions took place and the deck tuition classes were held. At the forward end of the forward well deck, was the huge mess room which seated one hundred and eighty always ravenously hungry boys, whilst below that deck was located the wash places and aft of that ran a long continuous deck on which the boys lived in off duty times and at night slung hammocks for sleeping. At intervals along this deck, in the centre line were huge openings, similar to hatchways and down below were located the school rooms. The openings ran up to the main deck the sides protected by a heavy gauge wire mesh which served the safety factor and also allowed light into the living or sleeping deck. I suppose the schoolroom took up the spaces originally occupied by the huge engine and the boilers and possibly the store spaces and ammunitions lockers.
The ‘Admiral’ (Admiral Miller in my time) occupied quarters abaft the aft well deck and below were located the officers flats. Parson Saunders our beloved ‘sky pilot’ occupied a large cabin built into the starboard after gun sponson the door letting out into the aft well deck, or aft square as it was called. Situated in this aft square was the preserved figurehead carried by H.M.S PHATON when she had been in commission.
The wash place stood at the foot of a very steep and narrow ladder which was inevitably slippery and wet from usage and when that bugle sounded the ensuing stampede would ensure your passage willy nilly down the dreaded ladder without having touched one of the steps en route and woe betide you if in going down you stumbled and fell... one hundred and eighty feet would walk blindly and wildly over your prostrate body as you floundered helplessly on the deck at the base of the ladder laying in the stinking stale soapy water which gathered there in great pools. The shouting, the foul language was indescribable, it was one continuous animal howl. Why?... the answer to that was wash time was strictly kept to twenty minutes and then down would come the instructor armed with a long cane and woe betide the lingering ones, they not only felt the sharp sting of the cane about their bare buttocks but were then urged after washing to clean up the appalling mess left in basins and on the slippery soapy deck. Such a punishment meant late into the mess room for breakfast or if in the evening, for tea... this literally meant you got no tea at all for those ahead in the rat race simply scoffed the lot. Extra breakfasts or teas were simply not on... the unfortunate simply went without and hoped to obtain a more strategic position next time. Meals were the next horror. Breakfast consisted of two slices of bread with a thin spread of margarine. This was the same for tea. At breakfast each mess table was served with a large ’billy’ of liquid that was called coffee in the morning and tea at night. There was no notable difference in taste.
Money was in short supply, remember, we were boys from working class homes and our parents had little enough money for their own needs, with the wage earner of a family bringing in a mere two pounds ten shillings per week (£2.50 in present day currency). The amount of pocket money forthcoming was infinitesimal, at most about a shilling a week (5p). Mr Cairns my stepfather was in a supposed good job as the head window dresser and salesman of Burtons the tailors in Norton Street and he earned a good salary... £3 15 shillings per week (£3.75) and I received a weekly 10p as a result. In comparison with others I was classed as being well off. Of this 10p I was forced to contribute 1d to the wash deck bully to buy ’afters’ and 2d to the mess deck bully to ensure my rightful two slices of bread came my way, and if I chose to increase the fee by an extra penny I could be assured of getting a ’knocker’ extra, ie; an end crust of the loaf in addition to my regulation two slices.
New boys were obliged to do three months on board ship before obtaining a weekend leave pass, and never did three months move ever so slowly. I was homesick every day and would spend all my off duty hours crouched in the mid starboard window and stare longingly at the distant Liver buildings. The sight of them represented ’home’ for me and I allowed my tears to flow without shame in the solitude I had managed to procure in that out of the way sponson window. I can never remember a similar agony to that of the homesickness I experienced. I hated my new life, I hated the constant bullying, swearing, thieving and need for the constant application of cunning which made my miserable life bearable. I hated the sight of the river, the ships, the foreshore opposite the ship on the Rock Ferry side and I would watch people walking on the sands and think with an aching heart, ’Oh if I was only one of them for a while... I could catch the Rock Ferry boat home from the pier and then the No10 tram from the Pier Head and I would soon be home...’ but it was all useless dreaming... and so all I could do was try desperately to hold back tears and swallow the horrid lump in my throat.
In trying to portray life on the INDEFATIGABLE with its complement of 201 boys, I am already aware that I am missing that which ‘made’ the atmosphere, that was the incredible noise that went on from 0600 when the first notes of the bugle sounded reveille to the last whimpering sighs that died with the mournful notes of ‘lights out’ at 2130 each night. Our day started with the harsh notes of Reveille played sometimes very well, sometimes almost akin to the noise one would expect from a strangled cat in its last throes, depending upon which of the members of the ships band was on ‘call’ duty that day. Sometimes it would be one of our prize taking buglers, more often than not however the unpleasant duty was floated on to the youngest, weakest boy in the band, and providing he could at the outset ‘blow’ the instrument, he invariable was so homesick, so miserable himself, he put into the exercise all the pains he was feeling, his emotions, his fears, and his anger and one can well imagine the horrendous noise that resulted and which went on for a full three tormenting minutes, ripping through the silence of the hammock decks, a raising wailing cacophony of sound that was guaranteed to drag the most reluctant sleeper to the surface of reality in the shortest of time.
Right on the heels of this awful din came the harsh commands of the duty night officer whose voice could be heard first in the distant 4th Division quarter a sound accompanied with the crack of a whacking cane against the canvas sides of the individual hammocks, and which grew louder and more violent as the officer now thoroughly enjoying his job raced amongst the slung hammocks the whole length of the decks shouting ‘Come on now you lubberly sons of bitches, rise and shine, rise and shine me boys, don’t you know Maggie Weston’s got a baby... Come on rise and shine I tells yer... You might breaks your mother’s bleeding heart but you won’t break mine you baskets... Come on you scruffy lot, out of them flee pits and down to wash yourselves... last out is first up the cap and a nice morning it is for it too! Whack, Whack, would sound the applied cane as he raced from the port side to the starboard side along the narrow passage made at the end of each row of slung hammocks... Come on me bully boys... rise and shine, lash up and stow’
Patton the Chief Officer was the contact between the boys and the Admiral. He was a very quiet gentleman... but was also very severe and I remember him most by the cold indifferent look on his face when administering punishment he was seemingly devoid of all feelings. How many times can I recall him standing before the assembled divisions on a Saturday morning just prior to his inspection of us before we went down the gangway to the motor launch and so to weekend leave. He looked at you with hooded eyes, scanning you from tip to toe and if there was something about your dress not in accordance with utter correctness, without a flicker of an eyelid he would say coldly ‘Dismiss’ and at that dreaded word you stepped to the rear of the rank, knowing full well your anticipated weekend was now in jeopardy and when others fled away and down the gangway you would be left standing at rigid attention... wondering... hoping... praying to yourself in desperation that he would relent and let you go... He would very often not even come near you again and left standing at attention on the now empty deck you would realise with deep despair that that was the end... your weekend had gone... and you would turn away with tears of vexation welling up in your eyes and wend your way down to the hammock deck and its deadly silence... If ever he did come back to you as the last of the boys filed down the gangway, each giving you a sympathetic glance as they passed your solitary figure, he would stand silently before you, his lips a narrow slit in his face, and he would smack them open and shut, with a clicking noise you came to know so well, then tersely he would say ‘Lanyards dirty’ or ‘Collars not on straight’... Go and get properly dressed, you have two minutes... at which you would turn away at the double and race to get ‘correctly dressed’ and represent yourself to him and with beating choking heart hope he would relent and let you race down the gangway and jump into the boat just as it was pulling away.
|Early Mersey Ferry Boat|
I had been eight months on board when I became an office boy. This involved being sent ashore to the Head Office in south John St every second day and there make myself available for messenger duties. It was a position of trust that every boy strived for, for naturally it enabled me to get away from the close confines of the ship and its never ceasing noise. It was a task that gave freedom and one worked alone and carried with pride the responsibility. The duties were simple. One presented oneself at the office on duty day at sharp 9am first having collected the morning newspapers, which one got straight from the Press Offices en route from the Pier Head, the Journal of Commerce from an office in James Street, the Liverpool Courier from the office in Victoria St. You were required to be impeccably dressed in smart uniform and with gleaming black shoes waxed to a mirror like surface by constant evening dubbing exercise. You carried a worn highly polished leather satchel slung by a strap over your right shoulder and held in rigid position under your left hand at your side. In that bag was the ships mail, catering orders for the day, ships daily accounts and you felt proud as you threaded your way through the press of morning commuters streaming from either the ferries from Seacombe, New Brighton, Birkenhead and Rock Ferry and later joined the heavier stream of pedestrians emerging from the Mersey Railway underground station in James St.
The office, Church House, lay on the left hand side of South John Street just off the upper end of Lord Street. It was a shining red brick building owned by the Diocese of Liverpool and on the first floor was located the office, its frosted window proclaiming ‘INDEFATIGABLE’. It seemed eons ago since I had walked into this same office holding my mother’s hand full of apprehension. On this morning I was far removed from the grubby ill dressed frightened boy of that far off day, my head was high, and I felt proud in my naval uniform and well I should be'
|South John Street with the entrance to Church House on the right facing the loaded cart|
The bustle of the cobbled Haymarket was soon to be gone forever and replaced by the vast maw of the modern tunnel which was to come up from the river under Dale St and emerge facing northward with its entrance about halfway across the old Haymarket Square. The hansom cab stand would disappear, as would the well known tram routes and the tram terminus just hard south of St Johns Gardens gate. Trams No 27 and 20 together with the 21 Aigburth would have to be re-routed elsewhere. I did not know it then but the upheaval about to commence was to go on and be with the people of Liverpool until well into the 1980s. There was a little sweet shop in the Haymarket that sold the famous ’Everton Toffee’. Outside the shop, above the small window was a sign showing a benevolent old lady who carried a basket over her arm and who smiled to the passers by inviting them to pop into the shop and purchase some of the famous toffee. The sign was huge, and inside the shop was her miniature, a real benevolent old lady who was forever smiling and who always bid me a pleasant good morning when I popped in to replenish my stock of toffee that would last the day as I trudged my rounds to the many offices that did business with INDEFATIGABLE.
In addition to ’Everton Toffee’ she sold halfpenny bars of toffee, one called a ’Chicago bar’ and the other, made of a creamy milk substance well laced with coconut chips called a ’’Milkymac bar, this too was a halfpenny. One day, having bought more toffee than usual, I had some over at the end of the day and took some bars back with me to the ship and of course shared them with my few friends. These toffee bars took on, and soon I was being requested to bring some back with me every evening. The order became larger and soon I would have my leather dispatch case full of these halfpenny bars of toffee and selling at 1d for the Chicago bar and 11⁄2d for the Milkymac bar I found I was getting into good business.
By the end of the first month after the discovery I actually had made a ten shilling profit, in six months my monthly profit had become eighteen bob.
Alas the life was not to last long, for Mr Sheridan one of the instructors noted my success and with adult avarice he stepped in by obtaining permission to set up what was sorely needed by the majority of lesser fortunate’s, a tuck shop, which stocked with a much wider variety than I could obtain soon ruined my business and within weeks of the first opening of the official tuck shop backed by adult capital I was soon out of business and broke. But happy.
I had made my name and never more was I bullied or pushed around. I found being an office boy, with its relative freedom ashore every other day, I loved my ‘Girl in Blue‘ and hells bells I was even getting to love the sea (or muddy river). Then at long last came the day for saying goodbye to INDEFATIGABLE.
|Boys from the training ship Indefatigable cheering dignitaries on Exchange Flags in 1927|
A deck plan for the Indefatigable drawn from memory some 40 years later
by William Frank Bramhill who died in 1997.
The caption written by Frank at the bottom of the plan reads...
Dedicated to the Memory of CaptainWilliam Frank Bramhill
1913 to 1997
I would like to thank Will Bramhill for supplying photographs and text, and for allowing me to publish this article on 'Liverpool Picturebook'. It is a great pleasure to share this story with the many readers from Liverpool and beyond who visit the website.
THEY THAT GO DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS,
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD,
and his wonders in the deep.
(c) Liverpool Picturebook Will Bramhill 2012
By Robert F Edwards