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Life at sea

18 March 2008 by stepheng

colourful, embroidered book showing flags

Margaret Scobie’s scrapbook

I always think of Easter in terms of crowded church services, frolicking baby lambs, daffodils and chocolate eggs – it is not a festival which has any obvious seafaring links. Easter is traditionally a time for relaxation and leisure activities but for centuries seafarers would have seen little difference from one day to the next during the days of sail. Pursuits such as model-making and perhaps art work including scrimshaw had to be fitted in during quiet periods.

A cultural change blew in when steam supplanted sail on merchant ships criss-crossing the world as the British Empire reached its zenith. By the 1880s steam ships had largely taken over from sailing ships in the British merchant fleet.

Eventually the steamship era brought better conditions for most seafarers. Only the firemen and trimmers, who kept the ship’s furnaces supplied with coal, continued to work in particularly harsh and unhealthy conditions. Their salvation didn’t come until after the Second World War when oil replaced coal as fuel on most ships.

However, leisure facilities for seafarers on most ships were very limited before the 1950s. Officers and ratings relaxed by reading, writing letters home or playing cards, chess or similar games. Smoking was very popular but alcohol was strictly controlled.

On both passenger and cargo ships, crews often organised elaborate Crossing the Line ceremonies for their own and passengers’ amusement when ships passed over the equator. Boxing matches were also popular.

By the 1950s and 60s better facilities were gradually introduced. These included recreation rooms, film shows, deck tennis, bars and swimming pools. A large ship might also provide gym facilities and a separate TV lounge.

Exhibits in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Life at Sea gallery include items used by Dorothy Scobie, of Liverpool, who joined Cunard White Star Line as a stewardess in 1939. After serving with the Royal Navy during the Second World War, she rejoined Cunard. From the 1950s until her retirement in the 1970s, Dorothy worked with Ellerman Lines and Belfast Ferries. On display is an embroidered scrapbook cover (shown) made by Dorothy while at sea during the 1950s plus three sketches made by one of her shipmates and kept in her scrap book.

A model of the Atlantic Conveyor, the well-known container ship built in 1985, gives an idea of the scale of this vast vessel. She has a crew of just 18 and the leisure facilities on board surpass anything available 50 years ago. These include an indoor swimming pool, sauna, cinema, sports room, TV and video/ DVD library room and even a conference room.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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