OH4 Interview with Ray Buck of Pill (merchant seaman)
Q: Hello, hello, hello. There’s quite a few areas that I’d like to ask you about. I know your own experience was, you were on tugs, you were on the Waverley you said on the phone?
Q: But you, you know, there’s something…
RB: I tend to them. I tend…
Q: Oh right, you looked after them?
RB: I tend the moorings of ‘em on the Clevedon pier and Avonmouth and Bristol.
Q: I’d like, I’d like to start if I may, talking, you weren’t ever a pilot yourself were you?
RB: No. No.
Q: But your family are deep into that. I mean I’ve looked at John Whitty’s book on the pilots.
RB: That’s right, yes.
Q: And…Bucks are listed there. I mean obviously you go back a long way.
Q: So I wonder if you could tell me a few things about pilots and, and the village of Pill itself. Let me start you with something that somebody said to me, which I don’t believe, so you tell me whether there’s any truth in it, that the pilot, pilots, he said, would sometimes go as far as West Africa, to pick up incoming ships. That sounds impossible.
RB: No, no, to the west of Lundy mostly.
RB: Far to the west. Sometimes you’d go round Falmouth, there’s an old Pill diary recorded incident there of a pilot called Wray having a hell of a batter with some guy in Falmouth in the last century. But west of Lundy mostly, you know, and they would parade, they would cruise up and down Lundy waiting for the incoming ships.
Q: And it was always highly competitive, wasn’t it?
RB: Oh hell, yes. Yeah. My, my reasoning of the pilots is a hundred years ago, pilots, watermen they called them in those days, not hobbler, hobblers. They were so competitive that there was hardly any living for them and a lot of them, including a branch of my family, went in the late 1870s I think it was, to Cardiff and Newport. And I think personally, this is my own idea, the emancipation of the pilot industry came when the steel barques were introduced. I mean from the wooden ships that had been, although they still spent long months at sea, it was like a trip to the moon today. The emancipation of the whole industry, you know. And so, and then the singling at Lloyds and all that, and then gradually they became more affluent pilots, you know, and you’d see the evidence of that in Monmouth Road. The villas in Church Path Road and that, named after seas, the pilots suddenly became more wealthier, you know, and the, the village benefited obviously.
Q: There was that business, wasn’t there, which I think created bad feeling, of, I’ve forgotten the correct phrase, was it chosen pilots?
RB: Choice, choice pilots.
Q: Choice pilots, that’s it.
RB: Choice pilots, yeah.
Q: So it created bad feeling, did it?
RB: Yeah, well actually I don’t think, although my grandmother was a Case and connected with the pilots, my great grandmother, one of her sisters married the famous Barry pilot, Lewis Alexander, who was a Bible puncher. One of the Cases was a chosen pilot. There were a couple more, whose names I won’t mention, because that’s other people’s families. One got tarred and feathered. And the, the mark of the tar was on the side of the pub, the Waterloo Inn, for many years, till it was pulled down a few years ago. That was a bitter, tough buisness. And I mean the westermen and the pilots, they were all a tough breed of men, you know. They had to be.
Q: What had they done to deserve tarring and feathering?
RB: Well Mark, Colonel Mark Whitwill, was a benevolent bloke really. He is all I’ve read, and afterwards it was Mark Whitwill, the shipping agents. They were at the time. And he chose, he chose six pilots, I think it was, and the rest of the, the pilots, were ostracised from this. Those six blokes had these ships when the other pilots weren’t getting anything. And it caused a great deal of privation in this village, the pilots and the westermen, and the watermen all went hungry for a period, you know. And they, they blocked the creek. They put a line across the creek, place I never go now, because…the Portishead Yachting Club is it? I think they hold sway there now, so I never go down round there. Cos I remember my father telling me his, his great granddad had remarked, they lived down on the creek wall at that time, and the bowsprit of the cutter would come up to the, the backyard and come over the bowsprit into the backyard. So I never go down near there now at all.
Q: It would make you sad to see it, would it?
RB: Well it’s not that. I don’t believe in bloody interlopers coming in and taking over the village creek. And I’ve never been in that Yacht Club yet and I never would go in it. Far as I go, of course I’m a deep water man, always was, so…I’m always a little suspicious of yachtsmen, mud sailors. I mean okay going off the subject, they, they go round the Horn and all that, but it, the difference is within a second, a couple of seconds going in the water, they’re pinpointed by satellite navigation. In my days, deep water, the radio message would perhaps go out if you were in trouble, but it might be bloody weeks before anyone got to you. It was a different kettle of fish, you know, different ball game.
Q: Different ball game. Those old family feuds, rivalries, are there still traces of them in Pill today? Do families still remember other families?
RB: Not really, not really.
Q: It’s all…it’s all…
RB: Pill is a dreadful village now. A dreadful village. When I think of pre-war, the, the last of the close-knit families and the community spirit, and I see it today, I think it’s a bloody refuge for Weston-Super-Mare and all the social outcasts from there. That’s what it seems to be. There’s a bigger queue at this post office for their social cheques I think than some parts of Bristol.
Q: Going back to the old days, when there was this, this competition, I mean they go west of Lundy…
Q: …and if it happened that two pilot cutters saw a vessel coming in at about the same time…?
RB: The first one that got there.
Q: It’s a race?
RB: It’s competitive. Yeah, it was competitive.
Q: Right. And when you hear people talking about the old pilots, I’m sure it, a lot of it is now dramatised u p. I’ve heard stories of one pilot sinking another one, I mean could that happen?
RB: No that was an incident where they were competing and they collided, I think it was. I’ve old Pill, Pill diaries. Not written by me, I hasten to add, it was written by Craddy. Now in here, somewhere, that incident.
Q: Who was Craddy?
RB: Craddy was famous, well not famous, but they were a well-known Pill family, years ago, of pilot. One was a Board of Trade superintendent. You have to remember this village was some village pre-war, the Board of Trade superintendent was a Pill man. The dock-master was a Pill man. The fore…lots of the foremen on the docks were Pill men. You didn’t go short of a job, apart from the, the thirties, and everyone was hard up then. If you peruse this, you’d get an insight into Pill in those days. If you wanted to, take it away and peruse it.
Q: If you trust me with it, I’ll be very careful.
RB: Oh yes, yes, well I’m sure that you will.
Q: Cos things like that can’t be replaced.
RB: Well I’ve only copied it from someone else.
Q: Oh have you? Oh I see.
Q: Nevertheless, nevertheless…
RB: Oh it was written by Craddy, this bloke. I just can’t find that. There, Lundy Island, often frequented by the Pill mariners. The pilot boat apprentices used to lower down the cliffs of the birds’ eggs, a delicacy after hard tack. And there are two instances of death, falling down from the cliffs. Tom Reed, pilot’s son, and Martin Paines, well that was an ancestor of mine. Also pilot Cullimer fell off the rocks at Steepholm, collecting eggs you see. Because they were such hard living, that was a delicacy for them. And I have heard rumours that they’d often appropriate a lamb, when they, they used to go into Padstow a lot. And the little ports down there, you know, sometimes I expect seeking refuge. But most of the time they’d stay at sea, of course it were wonderful sea-boats.
Q: Mmm. And if they went into somewhere like Padstow and they saw a little sheep in the field or something, they…?
RB: I’m sure they could appropriate something or other. But the, the census returns of about 1880, Mrs Hucker, the village…used to be the wife of the village baker, still is, obviously. She said, “Here Mr Buck, I was in Padstow the other week, seeking family history”, which she’s always doing. She came across this which I’d lost, and it was my great granddad was in there, in a pilot cutter with two or three other pilot cutters. He was a westerman. The last pilot in our family was about 18…as regards of our name, the Paines’s went on to the thirties, was about 1860 I think. That’s his cutter up there, coast over on the port tack, coming into Pill creek. You see it up there, by the lampshade?
Q: Yeah, yeah. And that was where the number on its sail? It was pilot cutter number six?
RB: Yeah, yeah. The Bristol cutters used to have it. At the, I think, is the tape on now?
RB: It’s all right, it’s all right, okay, just didn’t wanna…but you see the piloting started to go out of Pill after the last war. And there are still pilots in the village. Working pilots, Robin Wall, Peter Simpkins, whose ancestors apparently took the, the original what was it down, oh what’s her name? She was in the news a few weeks ago. Cabot’s ship. The Matthew, was it?
Q: Oh that?
Q: Oh, the, James George Wray was…?
RB: Yes, that’s right, yeah.
Q: Yeah, oh yeah the, the little old Matthew.
RB: But years ago up into the thirties, you had to be a Pill man to get into pilot service. There’s a five years apprenticeship down channel and it, it was pretty tough. And then they’d go away, deep water, to get their certificates, and then become a channel pilot.
Q: How did the people of Pill control that? I mean how did they prevent somebody say from Bedminster, becoming a pilot, if they, if they had the ambition to do that?
RB: Intelligence. [laughter] I don't know but they had it carved up. Well I suppose primarily because the creek, I mean when you come to think the creek would have 30, 40 cutters in there. Have you ever seen that creek down there?
RB: It’s full of the small yachts and that but there was, used to be 30 or 40 cutters in that creek and they were closest to getting out the river, you know, whereas if a Bristol man had a cutter, he’d have to come all the way from Bristol, you know. And they had it pretty well carved up.
Q: I’ll, if you’ll direct me, I’ll stop and look at the creek afterwards.
RB: Yeah and I’ll show you, I’ll show you a photograph of it. The Barry boats used to lay at the top and the Cardiff, and the Cardiff boats used to lay at the top. And that was outside the Waterloo, that, that’s, I should imagine that was when photo, photography first started to come in. And they’re a sort of hard men you can imagine they were.
Q: It’s wonderful. It’s the most wonderful photograph.
RB: Oh there’s quite a few of them around. And that’s the creek, you see, and there’s where the cottages used to nestle down, look.
Q: Could I…not now, but we’re doing this play next spring, that, that photograph would look wonderful in the programme, if you’d allow us to copy it?
RB: Oh yes. Yes, yes, yeah.
Q: I might not ask you to borrow it now but next, next spring I’ll come and…
RB: Take it now if you like.
Q: No, I’d rather not have the responsibility, I’d like to come back to you.
RB: And there’s the bottom of the creek, look, as it used to be. What a wonderful…when I came ashore in 1956, we’d sit in that window there, often, waiting for the ship to come in the river, if we were helmsmen or hobbler. And sitting there, and we could see the ship coming up round the hollow backs and then go down in the creek. And the tide used to come up and go through that window, and also there. And I remember that pub there, was called the Swan, and I remember one night in there, there was a woman and a bloke in there, because Pill was very popular then. It’s a big spring tide and we knew the procedure. You’re drinking there and the water started coming through the door and nobody took any notice. And this woman was nudging her husband and getting quite desperate, you know. And in the end obviously we were, went a step higher into the, the other room. But it was a practised procedure. And that was the old Waterloo Inn. What a little village, eh? Saint Ives, in Cornwall and places, never had anything on it. But it was apathy of the villagers ourself, we allowed the demolition job and those hideous bloody constructions down there now. And as you, as I say it was a close-knit community, you see. And there is a ship going up to Bristol and the day of, the days of the motor boat. We got rid of the pulling boats by then. Here’s the motor boat putting the helmsmen up. You can take that one or one of them, cos I’ve got two or three of them.
Q: Oh that’s, well yes if you’ve got a copy.
RB: Cos that’s more black and white isn’t it?
Q: That’s a, that looks much sharper actually. As far as you know, there wouldn’t be a copyright on that would there?
RB: No there isn’t because I tell you this much, there is a bloke in this village who claims copyright on some photographs but it’s a load of baloney and I would go to court over it because most of these old fast photographs were, there’s no copyright on that, were released in this village through courtesy of the bloke I was on about, Pete Simpkins. They came from his family albums. But there’s a bloke in this village, printed photographs of things and he claims the copyright, but it’s a load of tripe and if I ever want to use them, I would use them and go to court over it, cos he’s simply got no claim on it. He, he wasn’t in this village before the war, I doubt whether he knew that Pill existed. There’s a clear clip. That’s an old pilot, Bill Russell, and there’s an old westerman talking to him, Joe Marshall. And during, before the war when I was in the banana boats, the first thing I’d do coming up the, the slip with me sea-bag, was a couple of plugs for old Joe, [laughs] couple of plugs of hard tobacco.
Q: If I can borrow that, I’d be grateful.
RB: Yeah, sure, sure.
Q: I’m sure I’d…and that, and I’ll make sure that they’re well looked after.
RB: You see there’s a lot of tripe about this old song, ‘Pill, Pill, I love thee still’. Very catchy and all that, but the true, the true shanty about Pill is one old Sid Smith, who was a master mariner, used to tell me, was the one where it says, ‘In this world we gain our knowledge, and for that I’m not afraid’, I’m talking it now but it, it’s sung usually, ‘For that I’m not afraid, though I’ve never been to college, yet I’ve heard the poets say’, and it goes on, [sings] ‘Do your best for one another, make this life a pleasant dream. Help a poor unfortunate brother, pulling hard against the stream.’ It bears up, you see. Both parts of it bear up, ‘pulling hard’ it wasn’t no thing, you know, ‘Vessels it? ‘Vessels that are bound for Bristol, often drift and go ashore. [singing] Help a poor unfortunate brother, who hasn’t any wind at all.’ And then you’d go again to the pulling part of it, you see, because the watermen, I quote watermen because as far as I’m concerned, hobblers came in later. If you look at the census returns of 1870 you don’t see a mention of hobbler, it was a waterman. They would go down as far as the English & Welsh Grounds lightship in these 18-foot pulling boats, who were well found, you know. And that’s where that sort of shanty came from, and there’s about four verses, and old Sid Smith taught me, and I don’t think, I’ve never heard it sung. Pill, Pill, and Adgie [Adge Cutler of the Wurzels] I loved him. I mean I was often in his company and I think it’s a very catchy tune. But the, the one that I’ve just quoted is an original one, you know, and I don’t suppose there’s any in the village, only the…
Q: Well, I, if we decided that it would be a good idea to sing it in the show, is, can we get the tune from you or from someone else?
RB: Oh sure, yes. I’m, there’s probably only three or four of us know it now.
Q: That might be a very nice thing to do.
RB: Yeah I’ve got the, I’ve got the, it printed out there, because old Sid, and he’s been dead, what, 15 years, oh what a marvellous man that man was. Oh, my God, there was a master mariner. And apart from his seagoing experience, if he hadn’t have been a master mariner, he’d have been a number one comedian. And he could quote Shakespeare, you know. A really wonderful character, a really wonderful character. And he, he was the one on two or three evenings when we would imbibe, he would recite that. And I said to him one day, I said, “Sid I’m gonna write that down”, because his sister used to get on the piano, they had a house down on the front there. Although she didn’t agree with the drinking, but she’d take a little drop of sherry now and again. And she’d get on the piano and he’d sing it. And that’s who I learnt it off, and apparently it’s part of the service at the Wesleyan Chapel in, the Baptist Chapel rather, in Myrtle Hill, in about 1860. And, course that was before the pilots got emancipated. Pilots had bare feet as well as hobblers. And watermen in those days. I mean we’re going back, what, over a hundred years. Life was tough for everyone, wasn’t it? Then they built the church, see, so people started to get civilised. Now they want to pull it down.
Q: There’s a confusion in townies like me, but I think I know the answer, between pilots and hobblers.
Q: Hobblers, I mean have got ropes and they are responsible for towing the ships.
RB: Mooring the ships.
Q: Mooring the ships?
RB: Mooring the ships.
Q: Pilots are responsible for one…
RB: And yeah, the hobblers, years ago, it was a skilled job. I mean you would get a ship perhaps coming in late for Bristol, he can’t slow down really, the pilot knows his margin of water. And she would be coming in five or six knots. And you go down in the pulling boat, four of you pulling, the…bloke on the tiller, this was the ritual years ago, when we used to do it properly - afterwards, there’d only be a couple of us, and we’d scull down. But then when your ship’s starting to come near you, you would shift the tiller like that, and you would stand up in the fores like that, and you would see the ship coming, and I used to love it. And they’d get hold of the oar like that, and swing it around, you know, and then drift along. And the guest walk would be down the side. Say that’s the barrel of the boat like that, you know the fork that goes across it. Well the guest wharf walk would come down and the bloke for’ard in the boat, he would get hold of the, the guest walk, put the oar across the front of the thing, and then take a turn underneath, round the head of the, the top of the oar, and you had a hitch there, see. But it was a marvellous hitch, because when you got up round the rocks, if anything went wrong, sometimes a ship would come in perilously close. Always one bloke in the boat, one bloke would go up to the wheel, another would go on the foresail head, in case anything went wrong, you know, put moorings ashore. But if anything went wrong, all you had to do was pull that oar out and slip the boat. And vice versa, when we came down and the ship was running late, she would go full speed, the boat would be up in the air like that and he’d just yank it out and put your tiller at your sculling oar over like that. There’s a work of art, a work of art. You had to know your job, you know. And very often you’d be on your own, dark winter’s night, one or two o’clock in the morning, no lights or anything. And ship coming in, you’d have to judge it so fine, you know, and all, it was so simple to us, we were conversant with it, but when you look back, it was a difficult job really. And on the big spring tides, the force of the tide was so much greater, you know. And if the wind was nor’west you could get a nasty sea in that river down there, you could get a six-foot sea run in that stretch there, oh yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Q: And all this you learned by growing up with it?
RB: We, you were conversant with boats from boyhood. Yeah, the boys of this village. I mean Campbells years ago, they’d never slow down, if they seen a Pill boy, a couple of Pill boys in the boats when we were kids, they’d never slow down, because they knew as the steamer approached you, the wave created by that steamer, you turn in to it, you know. And the captains knew. The only time they’d slow down is for the creek. And then of course in those days, it used to cost you a ha’pence I think, or threepence to, for the Campbells steamer to slow down and a ferryman would put the, put the bloke aboard on the sponson of the paddle steamer. But you see the ferry, you look at the ferry, what a marvellous institution that was, all the years it ran. You just imagine, well they did try and run it, didn’t they towards the end. But bureaucracy reared its ugly head. But during that time it ran, a lot of it with pulling boats, small prams, small gangway, big spring ebbs or floods, and never an accident. Sometimes they were perilously over-loaded and the old ferryman, always an artful old bugger. I remember as a kid going out to Avonmouth as a tug and getting the boat. And he always made sure you’d got the tidal oar, what you had to pull the most, you know, where he had the lee oar, and he never had to exert his-self so much. But it was all good training, all good training.
Q: When, when you were a boy, six, eight years old, growing up here, you must have known you would work on the water, did you, did you have any idea what you’d do?
RB: Oh, I wanted to go to sea. Right.
Q: Right. Which you did in the end.
RB: You see, my father was the only one in, throughout my family -I can show you sailing ship papers out there, I can show you with discharge, which I don’t want to bore you with now, discharge books of all the family, all in the merchant service. Two uncles, RNR in the First World War, but merchant seamen. And I was born with a love of the sea. But in 1926, my father done one trip in the First World War, in the Camito and he didn’t take to it at all. He had a sort of gentle upbringing I think, so he vouched for the army. Unfortunately for him, by then the Kaiser was defeated, so he got marched to Northern Ireland. But he didn’t want to know it. But he got a job in the hospital in 1921. Things were hard in those days, you had a job to get a job and he took a job in the hospital, he’s a clever bloke, the old man, intelligent. No chance. And he had children coming along. And in 1926, we moved from Pond Head in a cottage there, up to utopia really, Rock Cottages at Ham Green, cos my father had a job with the hospital. Now you have to remember, in those days Bristol Corporation as it was, owned Ham Green Hospital. And they were a much more enlightened council than rural Somerset down here. I mean we went up there in 1926, into Rock Cottages, bathroom, hot water, unheard of in this village, in any council house. Well there were no council houses built then. So we went up there. But my love was Pill, I was always down here. But added to that, there was the magic living in this row of cottages. Down on the river front there was Adam and Eve and Horseshoe Bend, it was that stretch of water there, with the ships going up and down, and you could hear the whistles at night and that. And I used to sit up in the bedroom window, and they were all asleep in the house, watching the lights go up, hearing the clanging of the fire doors ‘cos it was stoke holes in those days, you know. And the shouts and it was just in my blood right, and as soon as I was fourteen, I, I wanted to get to, get away there, you know. There was a couple of, a few times afterwards I mean I wasn’t so enthusiastic, but I never lost the love for it. And it was tough going in those days, you know.
Q: You worked as a tug man quite a number of years didn’t you?
RB: I went in the tugs in 1935, my intro…what a magical place Avonmouth was then. You look at the robot atmosphere of this port and, and Bristol as far as I’m concerned, and you see the magical enchantment of Avonmouth in the days of my youth. The hiss, the puffing of the locomotives and the hoot, the clang of the grain elevators, the whine of the cranes, the capstans heaving the thing, the shouting and the bawling, the characters, all the dockers, different characters and names and that, a pulsulating [sic], live place you know, seamen from all nationalities and the magic of it all and the beautiful ships, […] and […] like there, look. There’s my first ship, the Cavina .
Q: Oh, a banana boat?
RB: Yeah, a banana boat. Oh just a magical world. And my first introduction was, it was the truck [break in recording] and the marine artist, he asked me for all the details to do that painting. And when he’d finished, he, he gave me that. But my first introduction was the Junction Cut. It was pouring down with rain, it was a sou’west gale and the Triton was bridled down on the port quarter of a ship called the [Nanache], [ph] a Welsh tramp company. And Tug Wilson, the old mate, was there with his heavy weather gear on. And, “Get aboard,” he said, “And make a cup of tea.” That was my introduction to tug boating and it was a tough life I’ll tell you. And it continued to be so for boys. But you see today, bureaucracy, they wouldn’t allow it. I mean you’d come in the locks, low water ebb, freezing winter’s night, you’d have to jump in the recess ladder and go up there. And take the tug ropes and things like that.
Q: I’d read in some of the articles you wrote, I mean no question of food being supplied. You took your own food.
RB: Oh you took your own food, yeah.
Q: And there was no radio?
RB: Oh gosh, no, no, no. I think there was one skipper had a radio aboard the tugs in Avonmouth at that time, but there was no warning. I mean if you went, usually on the, the yardarms, at the signal station, the south cone would be flying or whatever to denote there was a gale wind coming from that direction. And like in the Triton when we go down channel seeking, the only means of communication would be for the skipper to go ashore off to the signal station at Barry, and find out the information there. You were, you were cut off and, then when you came up channel, you would fly the - there was no radio telephone and all this baloney in those days, you know, and they were just as efficient - and you would fly the appropriate numerals for whichever port you wanted to go in. I think it was, oh I forget now. I think it was four and eight for the old dock, and I can’t quite remember for the new dock. But then the signal station at Clevedon, at Walton Bay, they would report you by phone, same with the big ships, that you were coming up. And of course there wasn’t many tug boat men could signal. Pilots could and the ships, the deep-water ships obviously, wasn’t many coasters. But what a different world, what a channel, full of life, small coasters, barges running up to Bristol with the coal for the gasworks and that, you know, but all prudent seamen. And when I read today and I hear of this, saving this in-shore lifeboat down here from Portishead. What a load of bullshit baloney because, God almighty, in those days the commercial traffic, they were prudent seamen. You never read of them getting in trouble. The, from when was that, it was 1935. I went deep water in 1938, joined the Cavina. I can honestly say that I don’t think I can remember one incident. Probably there was. Where the lifeboat, it was Weston-Super-Mare, Barry then, was launched for a commercial craft in distress. And of course it was no yachts. People never had the money. A few yachts, yeah, but not many.
Q: You said that it was just as efficient then as it is nowadays. Let me just get it straight how it worked, that if, if a ship was, if a vessel was coming in after a voyage and it was gonna require a tug, the radio station phoned to give…?
RB: Ah now, the, the deep-water craft had a radio and they would radio in their requirements before they came.
Q: But then how did the tug find out that it was required?
RB: Well, this is the thing. You would lock out from Avonmouth, this was the sort of life it was. You could lock out from Avonmouth and go into, over into King Road, and drop the hook for a ship’s so, so-say due. And you could do that for two or three tides, but she’d been held up by bad weather and she, she hadn’t bothered to report. She might send one message, ‘Might be a bit late’, but you never had the precise ETA you would get today through being able to pick up a telephone and all that. And another thing about it was, you’d go out there, lock out at three hours to flow, put the hook down and they’d all go down playing cards. Bloody boy would be up in the wheelhouse keeping lookout to see if she’s coming up past Battery Point, and you could go out there from three hours to flow say to two hours ebb or an hour and half’s ebb prudently, if it’s a deep water ship and loaded. And there was no means of recalling you, telling you, and they wouldn’t think of it. The signal station weren’t gonna waste time on a tug, we’d all go back in again. And go out again the next tide and it was, you’d have your anchor down by the King Road on a lovely summer’s morning. You could smell the bacon and egg from the different tug boats and the pilot cutters would come out and pinch some coal for the, the, the pilot cutter in Portishead Hole. Because they had an eastern station then, you know, and also the Gloucester boats. But it was a different ball game, it was no, and everything was done by whistle. I mean I’ve lain in my bed when I was in the, in the tugs, and I’ve, I’ve followed ship’s progress from King Road. We say that she was one of Rea’s, and I’ve heard the long and four shorts blowing for the tug, cos it could be King’s and Rea’s there. And then I’ve heard the response from the tug and then she’s made fast and then I’ve heard two blasts which means ‘get her on the port bow’ and I knew she was coming round the pier, you know. And then three blasts, ‘fast towing’, and you’d hear the hoots and the toots going through the dock. And then you would hear the final four blasts, ‘finish, let go’, you know. And look at the ships, look at the beauty of the ships, look at them, the banana boats. The time I was in ‘em, I loved it. It was hard work, five o’clock in the morning.
Q: How, how hard was it? How many years were you on ‘em to start with, on the banana boats?
RB: I was, I was in the West Indies when war broke out and I went up for a gunnery course with fights before the war. Marine superintendent six months before the war, he said, “Would you volunteer for a gunnery course?” And being young and stupid, of course I volunteered. And I went up on the Flying Fox, done me training on a four inch, and a three inch ak ak. I can always remember the, when we were practising on the three inch, on the foredeck, the Wills’s girls going across on the Gas Ferry, used to make remarks and all that. But sadly about 18 months later, those same girls, probably some of them got killed. And then, then I was in the West Indies when war broke out, came out, came home on the Camito, went back to the West Indies again on the Camito. That trip we had Jim Mollison and Amy Johnson on that voyage. I remember it because she was a drunkard.
Q: Amy Johnson was? Oh?
RB: Yeah, well known and of course they come over and joined the air ferry afterward. Then when I came home, by virtue of the fact I was seaman gunner, I joined an oil tanker and went out east. And I was in one of Fyffes, course they lost a hell of a lot, they left, left with seven ships I think it was. Most of the ships I was in got lost. I was in one during the war, the Bayano, I was in there when we sighted the Prince of Wales when she came up through the convoy. And, and then when peacetime came, I rejoined the Cavino, the Bayano rather, and then the Cavino. I was also in the Ariguani, and the Golfito. Actually I went down, oh when I came home from the Camito I went down the west coast in one of the B boats, the Nicoya. And they used to call her the booster ship because everything that, Fyffes was a wonderful company, Elders Fyffes. It depended on the mate. The Cavina was, oh she was a workhouse but I loved every minute of it. The Nicoya, they called her the booster ship because every new innovation, they tried it out on the Nicoya. And in the firemen’s mess room, there were beautiful paintings, oil paintings on the panels of the White Star liners. Really they were magnificent and every time that ship came home, the marine superintendent ensured that they were maintained, you know. And this apparently had been an artist, Lovelorn, and he’d jumped, went away to sea as a fireman and during the voyage, he painted these paintings. After I left her in Garson, we docked on Christmas Day 1940, that was the end of the Nicoya. I got out of her and the next voyage she was gone with all hands. It was the luck of the draw, see.
Q: When, when you say on the banana boats it was hard, it was a workhouse, can you describe that a bit?
RB: Well I’ll describe it. See that ship there, the Cavina, when I joined her as a boy, they worked the D watch and we turned to, we were called at five, not the watch keepers. The watch keepers used to have to work a field day, that was three hours, three times a week. Monday, Wednesdays and Friday, beside their watch, they had to do three hour’s extra work. It was called a field day. But the day workers in the Cavina, we got called at five and we turned to at half past five. Seven, seven o’clock, I would come off whatever I was doing. Holy stoning, or squeegeeing and get the seven-bells breakfasts along for the lookout man and the quartermasters. And then I would wash up and you had to go back amidships, and in heavy weather, going down that, into that well deck, to get the food. And it was all open kits in those days, afterwards they got more intelligence and there were serving thing. And, I won’t describe the work in detail to you but we finished, you had a smoko all at half past ten, quarter of an hour, smoko about quarter, three o’clock for a quarter of an hour. And we worked till half past five, four o’clock Saturday because it was boat drill. The only day off was Sunday but then you’d turn to Sunday morning to wash, wash the ship down, you know, all the way through. But, it was wonderful. To me it was because I had a pride and it’s lasted me throughout my life, it was a wonderful training for me. I was with old seamen, some of them sailing ship men, and I had a pride in the ship. They, they were beautiful ships. The teak rails were all polished, the, the paint was glistening, you know, and it was a ritual what, you left end, you left end shed in the old dock Monday morning and you went down the locks, and you lay in the locks all day. And they were gleaming white, and they were a picture, and the courtesy flag would be flying from the fore topmost. Denoting the West Indies, you were going to the West Indies, on the starboard yardarm would be your Blue Peter, on the port yardarm would be the Royal Mail pennant. And everything was correct and proper and if you looked at the luggage labels, you carried the aristocracy of England in those days.
Q: You’d always be full of passengers on the way out?
Q: You’d always be full of passengers on the way out?
RB: Oh yes, pre war, and homeward bound.
Q: And homeward?
RB: Yes. Oh God yeah and you only had to look at them, coming up channel they put the passengers’ luggage on the prom deck, fore she docked. You only had to look at it, mate, and one trunk there would keep a working-class family for a twelve month. Leather, nothing but the best. Well Princess Royal travelled on them for years. The cricket team used to go out to the West Indies and the, oh and that West Indies, magical, magical. Yes, the old sailors, it was piratical just in the days when I was there, as it must have been a hundred years ago. Rum, good Lord above, rum, beautiful mulatto women. I mean there was a class barrier in those days, as we all know. But there was no mistaking the intermixing of the white and the coloured people because some of those women were absolutely beautiful, mulatto women. And then you’d get down to Kingston, charge passengers and mail. You’d load so many bananas there and then you’d go round the islands, Bowden, [Arcbessel/ Boscabel], Montego Bay and Port Antonio was the last. And then you were homeward bound again, you know. And the banana boat, it was terrible living for’ard mind, in that first five days outward bound, heavy weather. Cos the banana boats kept to a schedule and they couldn’t afford to lose behind time, you know. And she’d be plunging her nose down and, and shipping ‘em green.
[knock on door]
Ray’s daughter: Hello.
Q: Anthony Smith, me dear.
Ray’s daughter: Oh hello, I’m Ray’s daughter, just come up to use your washing machine a minute.
RB: Okay, you carry on duck. She, she would be shipping ‘em green, you know, and the, the foredeck would be full up and there was swill up through the, the for’ard alley. And though I’d been in the tugs all those years and been round the coast and all that, I was seasick for seven days and seven nights.
Q: How about the, the passengers with their classy leather cases? I mean they presumably got very seasick on the ship like that, wouldn’t they?
RB: Well they would, but then they had every comfort, magical company. There was practically a crew member for every passenger.
Q: All right Ray, but there’s something I don’t understand, if you’ve got that much money that you can choose, why wouldn’t you choose to go on a bigger liner that might be more stately, you know?
RB: Because there was no, well because you’d have to diversify [sic] to New York and then go down. But the thing was, after the, and it wasn’t always, it was the win…the wintertime, you’d probably get four or five days heavy weather. And the thing was, there was no such things as stabilisers and that, in those days. But after that, south of the Azores, magical wasn’t it? Fifteen days out. And up would go the awnings, covering the ship all over, you know. And that was another work of art. You would, you’d have those awnings up in a day. You’d [?] your head, well decks, boat decks, sun deck, marvellous.
Q: So it was your job in the crew to look after the passengers as much as the bananas?
RB: Not us, not the sailors. That’s what I was always proud of as a sailor, is there’s a very derogatory term that sailors use for the, for the stewards, and I won’t repeat it because it is derogatory.
Q: Oh come on, repeat it.
RB: Well, pisspot jerkers. And, yeah that was true, and they were a different breed of men. Very, very able chaps and that but, the sailors were primary[sic] for the ship, maintaining the ship, the rigging. I mean you’ve only got to look at the mast there, there’s over a hundred foot in that, you know, you had to paint them and all that.
Q: So you’d hardly come into contact with the passengers?
RB: Oh we’d see them, quite often.
Q: Oh right.
RB: Oh yes, yeah. Yes, oh gosh yeah. Oh they were quite friendly but there was a social distinction in 1930s that there isn’t today, you know. And they, people with money, they were moneyed people, they were moneyed people.
Q: And about the cargo, did the bananas take any looking after on the way over?
RB: That’s another thing. You use, it was cooling. Lot of people think it’s fridge but it wasn’t. They call them fridge engineers but it was a cooling system in those days. And in the two banana boats I was in before the war, it was the job of the ordinary seaman to go down, say that was a hold, between the ship’s side and the banana pens, was alleys on each deck. And it was four decks. And you’d have to go down and read the temperatures. And there was banana, you come across, when I hear these tales of alarm, about, “Oh we’ve found a tarantula spider in a bloody banana”, I think God we used to see dozens of them, snakes, banana rats. But the most, most chilling time was when, as I said war broke out and you had to go down taking these temperatures. You know, I used to think, “Blimey, if she gets a hammer now, there’s no chance”. And then after the war you see, as quartermaster, I had quartermaster then in the Bayano the, the thing you had to look out for was the illegal immigrant. I mean there was little traps like that you see, and you’d open the trap and these, these big eyes shining at you, “Man, can I come out?”
Q: What did you do about it?
RB: Had to get to, we had to get ‘em out, and if you haven’t left port, put them ashore. But if you had left port, you had to carry ‘em with you. But one trip we stopped in the Bayano, I think it was and transferred them to the Araguani, which was outward bound.
Q: Right. But presumably a number of them made it over here?
RB: Oh sure they did.
Q: And then they’d apply for residence?
RB: Yes, I expect there’s still some Bristol West Indians now who came across that way. Actually I had a Bristol ship, a West Indian shipmate in the Bayano. He’s a remarkable bloke. And the bosun was a West Indian, son of a piloting family from Jamaica, whose name escapes me now. But then of course in those days, when we used to go into Port Antonio, Flynn used to come aboard and drink with the firemen. Erroll Flynn, his yacht was moored there. And oh, on two or three occasions he came aboard the Bayano and cracked a bottle of rum with the, the firemen ah.
Q: He liked their company?
RB: Oh man, you should see some bloody antics down there in those West Indies before the war. Oh boy, I mean it’d take a, you swept round, you could get a bottle of rum, the old sailors, God almighty they were biffered in it, they’d keep a bottle of appamonie [ph] by the side of them when they woke up, but never failed to do the job.
Q: A bottle of what?
RB: Appa[monie] [ph].
Q: What’s that?
RB: That’s the cheapest we could get. There was the Icehouse, the Black Cat, oh loads of ‘em just up round the, the gates from, from Kingston, and Kingston market and Ma Brown on the, she’d be on the quay wall as you came in. Boiling hot sunshine, lovely. Come home with a tan in the wintertime, you know. Ah it’s a great life, I enjoyed it. And I took it in my stride when war broke out because I was still young, you know, and it’s, although I was quite happy on that run, I was determined if war hadn’t broken out, I was gonna get out of it and diversify, you know, which the war coming along, hastened that.
Q: What would you have done if it hadn’t been for the war, then? How would you have diversified?
RB: Oh because in those days you could pick your ship, you see. Opposite the Royal, there was the Shipping Federation. This was the magic password to a young boy in those days. You’d look at it today as I said, on about robots and all that. There’d be a small notice pinned up, ‘British so-and-so’, this is tankers, British tankers, take for example, ‘Docking so-and-so, so-and-so, requires cabin boy, deck boy, ordinary seamen’, and then it put a list of the replacements they wanted. Well for a kid if, if they liked the, the, the rig of him, you know, the mate’d look at him and say, “Yeah”, and the first trip to sea, he could go. He could go.
Q: If he was going as a cabin boy, he wouldn’t need any experience or anything, just…?
RB: No, no, no, he could ship out as a cabin boy or deck boy.
Q: Just a willing lad?
RB: Yeah, or a fireman trimmer. But that was a start, the trimmer, he would be the bloke that trimmed the coal from the bunkers out. I’ve wrote poems about it, I’ve wrote a poem about, I wrote a poem about the banana boats and I’ve also got a poem about the firemen, because as I say, the banana boats were coal fired, and often I’d look down in the fiddley, which is looking down into the stoke hold. And it’s like Dante’s Inferno, you know, the crash of the doors and the sight, and the descriptive, obscene adjectives of the firemen, which sometimes used to drift up through the vents to the first class passengers sat on the boat deck. You know, you’d be working up there, painting or splicing a rope or something, or tightening an awning, and you hear all these expletives coming up through the vent. And boy some of those hard case mind, those firemen.
Q: Would you, would you let me read one of those poems that you wrote?
RB: Yeah I’ll let you have ‘em, you can take ‘em away and peruse ‘em if you like. I wrote some poems about the war. I had a couple published.
Q: Did you?
RB: Yeah, I had…
Q: I mean what I’ve got in mind is that if they fitted in, we might get one of them set to music and..
Q: Cos we’re gonna have a few songs in the show.
RB: I write poems from the way I expressed it. Probably they’re not, not right really, you know but…
Q: I don't think there is any ‘right’ personally. I don’t think there’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with…
RB: Well I like Masefield, I love Masefield, cos he speaks as a, he speaks as a sailor, doesn’t he?
RB: I don't know whether it’s in this one. Would you like a cup of tea?
Q: I’d love one, thank you very much.
RB: Di? Di? [shouts to his daughter] [laughter] Bloody book’s staring me in the eye somewhere. Di?
RB: Looking for this thing, and we were coming back up channel, all huddled in the wheelhouse, as the wont in those days, mate, skipper, Fred Evans, his brother Hector, myself in the wheelhouse, down below Dabby Weston, who I’ve wrote a poem about in there. He came from Bedminster, what a character. Anyway we were coming up through the fog, another thing, fog in those days, you see, no radar or anything, just had your courses and your time. Any rate, we were coming up and the, you heard the klaxon of the English and Welsh grounds. I can remember it so clearly the way that vessel used to sound. It used to go [makes sound of different foghorns]. That was the English and Welsh grounds. And then all of a sudden, through a shaft of light, it cleared a bit, sunlight, and we heard this, we previous, we heard this banjo. We were looking at each other in bewilderment and here’s this skipper with his crew around him, this southerner singing Negro spirituals. And the, he had got no [height?] Now isn’t that funny? I put that in the story and a bloke, his name escapes me now, wrote to ‘Ships Monthly’, that was 1937 I think it was. 1994 the story was published, 1994 or ‘5, it’s not important, wrote to me saying that, he, they’d passed the schooner and they’d never, they’d seen the same thing and never knew what it was and thanked Ray Buck after all these years, for the name of the schooner, because they hadn’t known. He’d been in a sand dredger going by, because patchy fog, you see, heard and seen the same thing. Any rate we, we got hold of her and we took her up to Newport and she was all clued up, she was lying at anchor, no sails. I don’t think she had an auxiliary motor. In fact I know she didn’t.
RB: And we towed her up Newport River and unfortunately swinging her, the transporter bridge at Newport River in the upper regions got two concrete gazoons and swinging her on the port hand against the flood, the flying jib, the bowsprit broke off. But I used to correspond with a well known master mariner in New York called Captain Hawthorne who was an authority on everything. And I wrote to him years afterwards and he sent me a photograph of the [Edna Hoy?], the five-masted schooner. And that was it. And you see the thing was in those days, you could be down channel like that, we used to run barges to bring the coal up, the Welsh steaming coal for the banana boats. And, that was a slog, wintertime, especially on a neap tide, down around the lightship and up by the deep six and up to Newport and the slog back round, you know. The spring tides you would go across the sands. Now you could do that all the week and you could come back on a Friday evening and the, the tugboat runner would be on the pier head at Avonmouth, the old pier’s all filled in now. And he would shout out, “Let her run Fred.” And that meant let go the barge, let the barge run in a lot and then he’d just, the other thing you know, and then, “Come on, say if you want your money, and then run on down to Barry mate and do one [Haynes’s] [ph] at the weekend.” And that described the article, part of the article then, where I wrote, we were going down there, and we nearly filled up off the Welsh shore and we came in, back in and that wonderful deep waterman, Jasper Mallett, made us some bloody spotted dick out of the scraps of stuff and that. Jasper Mallet, wonderful little fellow, little heart of the Merchant Navy, he was torpedoed twice in the last war.
Q: What was it you, you shouted, “Take steam, sir”, is that right?
Q: Yeah, and it was, would they invariably say ‘yes’ then?
RB: Oh yes. Yes.
Q: And that was a contract?
RB: Yes, yeah, verbal contract.
Q: Thank you very much.
RB: There’s some biscuits here, Di.
Di: I’ll bring them in. Couldn’t get your cutlery cos you…
RB: No, that’s all right.
Q: I mean the rate would be agreed without even…?
RB: Yeah, there was a standard rate, there’s, Roberts the Commonwealth Towing Company of Avonmouth, who I was working for at that time. Boy that was an outfit. Prior, prior to picking up that ship, the Viking, we were down channel and they were, they were a terrible outfit really, short of supplies all the time. You always got your wages but they had five tugs and they were laid up, up the western end of the dock. Triton, Steelopolis, the boats usually working, Falcon, Mercio, Wolfhound. Now if they had two ships on a tide, two ships on a tide, they would go up the Labour Exchange and pick the blokes up off the dole. And, for to crew the ships - have your tea. And this particular day we were down channel and the Steelopolis was anchored, well she wasn’t anchored, we were adjoining each other and the two brothers, Vic and Bill, who died only a couple of years ago, they were the two brothers of the company. They were arguing which ship was going back to Avonmouth. In the end Bill won the argument so he give us all his spare paraffin and thing’s like that, we went on down channel. But oh boy they never have any stores at all. And then when you, when you towed them away, we never towed the Viking away, towed the Abraham Rydberg from Barry. And what was the other one? There was another one. Then you would chase afterwards, throw a heaving line with the pillow aboard for the note to be signed and she would give it back to you. But it was a magical thing, you know, you’d be towing this sailing ship and all of a sudden, you’d see her loosen out her sails, you know. And you used to, could almost feel the wind getting behind her and then she, we could do twelve knots in the Triton, and the skipper then would know it was time to let go.
Q: Did you ever sail under sail, under canvas?
RB: No I didn’t, apart from two years ago when I came round the land, and I’ll show you the photograph to prove it, in a topsail schooner, the [Lucia Borgia?]. There she is. Came round from Plymouth and when we were clawing off Land’s End to get leeway, I thought, “What the bloody hell am I doing here at my age?” There was a force eight.
Q: How did you feel?
RB: Oh, okay. Oh yeah, didn’t make any difference to me.
Q: What was it about the Waverley? You used to, you used to…?
RB: I tied ‘em up.
Q: Oh right, you used to hobble her.
RB: Mmm, I don’t, I don’t, see there’s, there’s the sailing ship, the Viking that we picked up.
Q: In’t she beautiful?
RB: And there was the tug, the Triton. You’ve probably seen that, ‘Ships Monthly’.
Q: These are fine photographs.
RB: And that was our Sharpness.
Q: Where do you get photographs as good as this?
RB: Ah, there you are. That was the Cavina in those days. That was loading bananas in the West Indies in Kingston, there’s Port Antonia. Now that was something that should have been recorded, the wonderful chant of the blokes on the barges in Oraca Besser and Bowden, as they load the bananas. Two would be down there, two on a platform on the ship and two inside. And those wonderful musical chanting songs that they used to sing as they did it. You never stop. Never stop.
Q: Can you remember them at all?
RB: Oh God, no. But, sailors, sailors that were down there do. We never took any notice of it in those days, see. That was the other poem. It was published in ‘Ships Monthly’ in 1977. I came home one night and I’d had a few and it all came running back to me and I thought, “I’ll put…” I mean the way of it’s, expressing me thoughts there was the way Jack felt in those days, you know.
Q: I didn’t know why he comes to mind, but you didn’t know a character called Jack Avent, did you?
RB: Yeah, Jack Avent, smashing bloke.
Q: You remind me slightly of him, that’s why he comes to mind.
RB: Used to be in the Gloucester’s.
Q: I played cricket all my life and I used to play with Jack up at Easton-in-Gordano.
RB: Oh my brother used to play cricket for Lodway. Jack, fast bowler, oh he’s had his name in the papers every week.
Q: Must have played against him. You just, just for a moment there, you reminded me of him.
RB: Oh smashing bloke, Jack Avent.
Q: Oh about, four or five years ago, something like that.
RB: Yeah. What was his wife’s names?
Q: Never met her.
RB: Susie I think?
Q: Don’t believe I met her. He was a lovely old bloke.
RB: Wonderful bloke. Mmm, I knew Jack well.
Q: Did he live down here or up in Easton?
RB: He lived at Easton. When we used to live at Hillside, up in the middle of the Ham Green hill there, he used to come to our house to parties when he first come here, yeah. Lovely bloke, Jack.
Q: [reading out, laughing] ‘Over here, the going is rough’. Have you got any thoughts about…?
RB: Pound notes?
Q: Settle for that. You can’t use them anymore, can you?
Q: I’m thinking about the closure of the docks in 1972. I mean that’s the last official commercial load, all the ships going in even then I think. A lot of people think that it was hasty or there was political pressure going on, Welsh ports in there maybe. Or road transport trying to get rid of, you know, water-borne transport, and it generally left a bit of a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. And of course people miss the hustle and bustle of the docks working nowadays. I mean given that we can all see because of containerisation and the way world trade has gone, probably something, you know, it couldn’t be maintained the way it was, nevertheless do you feel, I mean of course you feel sad, but do you feel bitter, do you feel betrayed in some way by the way that was all handled?
RB: Well I think instrumental, and I’m probably an individual isolated in my point of view about it, I think the architects of the destruction of the Bristol Docks was a) the gradual increase in road transportation but I think also the Bristol dockers had a part to play with it. I think the militancy of the dockers, as far as I’m concerned, hastened the demise of the paternal port of Bristol authority which they were, paternal and maternal. I mean to say, blokes were weeks on end on sick leave, wonderful employers. But during my time at sea, after the war and hobbling, hardly a bloody month went by without there wasn’t some petty strike or another. And what happened at the end of the day, most of them got damn good payoffs like the miners. The demise of the merchant seaman, I feel sorry for, who was neglected. Some blokes done 30, 40 years at sea. Did they get any payoffs, 30 or 40 thousand? Not damn likely. Did they strike during the last war like the dockers and the miners? No they certainly didn’t. So I have very strong feelings about that, but being a blue Tory, true blue Tory, they might say, “The son of a bitch would talk like that, wouldn’t he?”
Q: I was talking to a bloke, I don’t think you’d know him, called Ernie Thatcher. I thought that, lives in Horfield. He’d been a merchant seaman pretty well all his life. In the war, he went down six times.
RB: Mmm, not surprised, not surprised.
Q: And another thing he told me, and one or two other people have corroborated this, and you probably know it yourself, you get sunk, your wages stop from that time.
RB: Oh yes, yeah. Yeah, I think you’ve got, I think you got a month’s wages. I got off Milford two o’clock one morning, we were going into Milford, outward bound going, used to go in there for convoys see, 40 or 50 ships in Milford Haven. And we were going in there for convoy, pitch dark in the middle of the night, and collided with a federal boat and we nearly sunk. But we went back up to Barry, it was fortunate really. And We got a month’s pay and a fortnight’s bloody shipwreck leave and I never got me feet wet. But the nearest I, the worst I had, I was in the Battle at the Atlantic and the D Day landings but the worst fifteen months I had was on the Alex-Tobruk ferry run, ’41, ’42 and that was a scary old time. Because Jerry used to rule the skies out there now.
Q: That was Alex, Alexandria, Tobruk?
RB: Alexandria, Tobruk, yeah.
Q: You did that fifteen months?
RB: Yeah we went out there in ’41 and came home in ’42. I didn’t do it the solid fifteen months. We got dive-bombed once and lifted the bloody ship out of the water and melted all the white bearings in the engine and we all thought she’d been hammered but she wasn’t. But put us in dry dock, it put us out of commission in Port Said. Yes it used to be funny because when we, first day we went up Tobruk, first time we went up Tobruk, there was a hell of a lot of ships sunk out there, war ships and merchant ships. There was an Italian cruiser had been sunk there and the only part of her left was her after-deck and the Aussies, they were right bastards, but they were closely, close affinity with merchant seamen. And they’d set up a Bofors battery on here for the Stuka dive bombers that used to come round, you know, and I said to the port transport officer, one day when we were in there, on this makeshift pier, which is made out of Italian rations, that’s what we’d tied up to. And I said, I said, “Those bloody Aussies always appear drunk?” And he said, “They are drunken bastards”, he said. I said, “How come?” You know, in the middle of the desert siege and all that. He said, “They dive down, Italian and French ships carry a wine store see, and these Aussies are diving down.” They’d discovered that and getting the bottles of wine, see, and they, they could have fought ten thousand Stuka dive bomber. And we used to go out past them, and they said, “Get your knees brown, you limey bastards. Go on back to Alex and Sister Street”, you know, and they used to chuck out all the […] sort. And a funny tale about that, you know, years afterwards I came down from Japan in one of Hain’s. And we went into Sydney and I got on the beer on Circular Quay there and got in with some Aussies and they were driving a team of horses, they were wonderful guys, you know, blokes about my age. And when they found out I was, been on the Tobruk ferry run, and they know by my conversation, oh Jesus, I couldn’t go wrong, could I? I missed the ship, missed the ship and she went to Jilong and I got aboard her three days later. Oh Christ, isn’t that funny, all those years afterwards? Cos Aussies, they sacrificed a lot at Tobruk. Funny old life.
Q: Yeah. Were you, when the docks were closed in ’72, were you, you, where were you working then?
RB: I was hobbling.
Q: You were hobbling?
Q: Into Avonmouth?
Q: Right, so the closure of the City Docks didn’t directly affect you?
RB: Not really, not really. What affected us, which restricted our wages really, was the fact that the West Dock didn’t take off. I mean it was petty strike after petty strike. The container cranes went. I remember one Russian line we lost to Tilbury amongst others. It was petty, it was, and we, we were all, all the sufferers. I don't think strikes do any good at all. Never seems to solve any problems in this day and age.
Q: It’s pretty…
RB: Because we miss the magic of Bristol, you see. You can imagine. And especially with a helmsman steering the ships up. I mean Bristol Steam, Sloane’s, and Coast Lines, they never took pilots. They only took helmsmen. And they’d come in the river - I’ve known a Bristol steamship come in the river at three hours to flow, beat the sound sucker in. The flat rock would still be exposed at Pill, there’d be hardly any water in the river.
Q: When you say they didn’t take a pilot, but took a helmsman, didn’t the helmsman have the knowledge that the pilot had?
RB: For the river, oh definitely, yes. Yeah. I mean without being egoistic [sic], the, the helmsman was just as much an authority for the river as any pilot, as far as I’m concerned. Although probably a pilot would dispute that. And in a bigger vessel, well it’s sure he’s in charge. But we had a magical understanding with Bristol Steam captains. In fact one rung me up the other day, Wally Cates, and wants me to join the Merchant Navy Club Association. And I’ve got a letter out there of thanks from ‘em, thanking all the helmsmen, you know. I mean the [stop?] gates at Bristol go on, I think it’s about an hour to flow, on the big spring tides. So, if you’re a local bloke coming in to Bristol, you wanna get up and beat those stop gates and we used to. We’d have those two ships, the Echo, the Apollo, we’d have ‘em gone, gone past Pill at two and half, two and half hours to flow, and the boat put away and they’d be up there, and beat the stop gates. So they used to think the world of us. Because if you didn’t beat the stop gates say on a spring tide, say high water at nine, ten o’clock, meant it’s gonna be twelve o’clock, one o’clock in the morning before we’ve got up on your berth. And with the old Bristol Steam, you could always tell if they’d been in heavy weather, running the Guinness, cos you’d smell it soon as you got aboard ‘em.
Q: I’ve, I’ve heard stories, which I’m sure must be true, that, you know, there’d always be a barrel of Guinness accidentally opened by the…
RB: Probably. I’ll tell you one thing. There was a well known ship used to run to Bristol, called the Starling. And it’s all too late for ‘em to do anything about it now. And one Christmas, General Steam Navigation, she was coming in, and we’d arranged that we’d have a load of stuff. And one of the blokes is still alive now, an ex-hobbler, Jim Mayo. There was four of us. Cos when you got up to Bristol, you tended the moorings and the locks, you know. And rode out in the boat, made fast alongside, all the loot went down and when we‘d got up round the horse-shoe bend, you’d slip the boat, Jim in, he went over to the Gloucester Bank to escape the tides, sculled back with about thirty bottles of prime port and brandy. And when we got up to Bristol, the Customs come aboard there, they searched us and that, but the bloody loot had already gone. How many times that went on, I don't know. But that’s one incident.
Q: You, you read, I mean in the old histories about Pill, about smuggling out of Pill, I mean obviously that was true and why wouldn’t it be? Smuggling was a national industry, probably one of the most profitable industries in the country so why wouldn’t Pill have been part of it? All through the, you know, 18th century, 19th century?
RB: I think, I think one of the reasons was, I think the, the cutters perhaps going down to the westward would get in with the French luggers and that and get some, some brandy, you know. Mind, cos I mean you’ve got to have a healthy respect for Customs. They could treat you very badly.
Q: Somebody, somebody was telling me that, you know that statue of King William on horseback in Queen’s Square?
Q: They said it, nowadays he’s facing out to, towards the docks, you know, down towards the tramways there. But they said in the old days, it was the other way round. And there was a poem or a song about him and I, they couldn’t remember it in full so I can only quote the bit they knew, which was, “His face towards the Customs House, his arse towards the docks.” [laughter]
RB: Very apt, very apt, yeah.
Q: Ray I’m very grateful to you. I’ve got…
RB: Oh it’s been, it’s been good, you know, to talk to you and we know some of it might be for posterity.
Q: Well there’s several, let me stop that.
[break in recording]
RB: And the Bratts and the City boats going to the States and everything, and the different nationalities, the girls down around the docks there, the pubs, international set sort of thing. A wonderful live atmosphere, and I tell you one night, we were up for a Dan, lovely summer’s evening, big Dan, Lorenzo Dan, and I was the helmsman. And we got in the Bristol locks and the mate come up to the captain, and he said, “You, we cannot go yet”. And he said, “Why not, you’re mate?” and he said, “There are women aboard and I can’t find them”. And the pilot said, “We’ve bloody got to go”, he said, “The tide’s running away,” he said. “We’ve got to get underway.” So…we’d get underway and when you go down the river, see, the, the hobbling boat was always towed on the starboard side. Lovely summer’s evening, big ship, red funnel, you know, all the picture and everything. So they find these women coming down the river, see, so they got to go down the pilot ladder in the boat, and they’re cursing us and there’s all the people along the Somerset bank, you know, and wives and all that. And we’re sculling the boat over to the Lamplighters and they’re calling us all the bastards under the sun. But they were, they used to live aboard the ship and some of ‘em were decent girls you know. And some of ‘em were very, very beautiful, you know, some, some, I know they were prostitutes, but by God there were some, but that was the, the picture of Bristol in those…and then in a lunchtime you’d see a few of ‘em drunk, it gave such, it’s a lifeless image now, isn’t it?
Q: What period are you remembering when you talk about it?
RB: Well I come ashore in ’56. That would be about ’56.
Q: So it was the post-war period you’re talking about then?
RB: Yeah, post-war period, yeah. ‘Course the City boats, there used to be some big ships go up there. I steered the second biggest ship ever to go up the river and I also steered her down and the pilot that took her up was Robin Beck, who’s retired and lives in the village. And the pilot who took her down is unfortunately in an old people’s home now, Captain George Diggins. And her name was the Gemma Dorf and she was up in Sharpness with timber. And the captain’s so apprehensive of going up the Bristol river that he got the agents to bring him down in a taxi, and he went up the Portway and down the Portway and what he seen, vindicated his doubts, so he wired his, his owners in Hamburg and suggested that they discharge all at Sharpness. But timber was such a high freightage, the Hamburg agents immediately wrote, told him if he wasn’t going to take this ship to get the hell out of it and somebody else would. So the Gemma Dorf, she went up to Bristol, 357 feet long, over perpendicular, it’s quite a length isn’t it? But it was a big spring tide and she went up there lovely.
Q: And you were at the helm?
RB: I was at the helm. Robin Beck, it was his first big ship up the river. And he said to me, we’re not on the tape are we? He said to me, “Ray”, he said, “I’ve hit the port quarter coming in the river”, which he would do, see, big sweeping tide, here’s the south pier like that and there’s the river. And the, as she comes round on her starboard helm, the tide’s sweeping her up and catches her just before you can get the port helm on her, just touches and flattens the railing. So that’s made him nervous. And when she come up the straight, said to me, “I’ve touched the port pier, port quarter coming in, Ray”, he said. And I got hold of her and I thought, “Oh she’s lovely, lovely steering ship,” you know. I said, “She’s all right, Robin,” I said. “When we go round the Horseshoe Bend,” I said, “Keep the stern tug slack.” And she went up there like a dream. Well there was, the commander of the port then was Walker, six foot four, had the Arctic medal. Pompous naval officer. Used to get pissed as hell. Half the time he was pissed out of his mind, beard, very impressive man. And he was worried about her passage up the river but he’s fortifying himself through the evening, you see, and he stands on the Horseshoe Bend and watches her goes up, then I think he went in the Progress and had a couple more, and then the Nova Scotia. And in the end he ends up at half past eleven in Brown’s Café, which, of all places, you know where I mean?
RB: Next to…it was a wonderful place in them days for bacon rolls and down-and-outers and he ends up there with all them. So that was the Gemma Dorf.