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Sling your hammock

8 June 2009 by stepheng

I can see it now – the strange carving of a man’s head on a stout wooden pole half hidden in the shady garden. It was one of the curiosities brought back by the man whose family lived at the house. He was a sea captain who did not return from the Second World War.

The head and pole looked Polynesian, hewn from the wood of a tropical forest before ending up in a Liverpool garden. The face would stare at me as I swung languidly in the hammock slung between the pole and a tree – an indelible childhood memory.

Before 1914, accommodation on British merchant ships was very primitive. Crews usually lived together in cramped quarters with basic washing, eating and toilet facilities. Even the cabins occupied by the captain and other senior officers were usually very small and basic.

Living conditions didn’t greatly improve until the 1950s and 60s when old steam ships were replaced by motor ships. On today’s ships crews have many facilities including comfortably-furnished cabins, excellent food and sporting and leisure amenities.

Displays at Merseyside Maritime Museum include a seaman’s hammock dating from about 1900. Hammocks were used for hundreds of years before bunks and beds became common. Seafarers would sling their hammocks in some convenient place and, when not in use, they could be easily stowed away. If a sailor died, his body was stitched up in his hammock and buried at sea. Hammocks were used on both Merchant and Royal Navy ships until the 1950s

A seaman’s horsehair mattress from the 1920s was used on the steam coaster, Enid. Wooden bunks were fixed to the sides of fo’c’sle (forecastle) below decks in the ship’s bow (front). Mattresses were placed on the bunks. They were known as “donkey’s breakfasts” because they were traditionally filled with straw.

Drawing of two men in wooden room

1848 illustration of the fo’c'sle of a sailing ship.

An 1848 drawing (pictured) shows the basic conditions in the fo’c’sle of a sailing ship.  It graphically illustrates the damp, claustrophobic conditions. Two seafarers are seen trying to relax after a makeshift meal as the ship lurches heavily in rough seas.

Crews had to supply their own bedding, towels, soap, a plate, mug, knife and fork.

Photographs include washday on board a modern steamer in the 1930s. On many older ships dhobying or washing clothes was done in a bucket on deck. In contrast is the officers’ saloon on the BP tanker British Duchess in the 1960s. By this time, officers enjoyed particularly good living conditions on board ship.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).

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