Alistair Kerr


By Alistair Kerr

In the early ‘50’s I was working as a Cargo Supervisor with the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  Put simply, my job was, loading or discharging, to keep the cargo moving.  In those days South African Railways and Harbours, the country’s biggest employer, ran the South African port system.  The Union-Castle Company had an office in the Main Street and we worked from a smaller office in the port area.  My bosses were the two Marine Superintendents, a strongly contrasting pair.  The senior man rejoiced in the name of Captain Cornwallis Jasper Clutterbuck.  He had commanded several of the Company’s ships, including the Llandaff Castle, which was torpedoed off the Natal coast.  (The story goes that he gave the skipper of the surfaced U-boat such a blistering stream of invective, that he submerged without bothering them further!)  He was a short, florid-faced man, a typical bluff old sea dog who believed that, no matter if you had some flaw in your character, if you’d been to sea, you had to be a good man.  The junior man, Captain Marriott, by contrast was tall, quietly spoken, immaculately dressed in character more like a naval officer, which by virtue of his RNR appointment, he was.

In those days, the Union-Castle Line served South Africa with a weekly passenger and mail service (Southampton, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and return).  Their ships were elegant liners, with unique lavender-coloured hulls, sparkling white upper works and black topped red funnels.  They had a huge cargo capacity with seven holds, most of which were refrigerated to carry fruit on the homeward voyage.  Port Elizabeth was the port where the ‘mail ships’ crossed each weekend.  Early each Saturday morning the “Homeward Bounder” came in from East London and the ‘Outward Bounder from Cape Town.  Of course there were also the Intermediate ships, which provided a Round-Africa service, both east, and west-about and also the cargo ships, which had no schedule.  However, it was the ‘mail ships’ which kept me busy every weekend.

Let me take you back to a typical weekend’s work in 1953.  I live on a hill overlooking the harbour and each Saturday morning at about 6:00a.m., if I look out of the back door I can see the ship, (say, today it is Arundel Castle), coming round Cape Recife inwards from Cape Town.  That tells me that I have nice time to have a cup of coffee, get on my bike and down to the Dock office.  There, I engage the casual Cargo Watchmen who are supposed to see that the Black ‘wharfies’ didn’t do any pilfering, (the Black workers were separately engaged by our Company stevedores, Messina Bros), and we all move down to the berth.  By now, the ship is gliding through the entrance between the breakwater and the Charl Malan Quay, with the powerful tugs C.F.Kayser and John Dock coming alongside to swing her to the No. 2 berth.  As she comes alongside, I record the draught fore’n aft (Why? I never knew!). With the lines made fast, the gangway goes up and Capt Clutterbuck and I go up to be greeted by the First Officer, we take the lift to the bridge deck, the “Boss” to call on the Captain while I go with First Officer to collect all the cargo papers.  While this ritual is being enacted the ‘round-the-coast’ passengers are leaving by the main gangway while the wharfies are streaming up the other.  The cranes are moving into position as the hatches are opened and, within some 15 minutes of arriving the first slings of cargo are coming out and it’s time for me to go to breakfast in the Second Class saloon. (I knew my place!).

As the day goes on, I visit all the holds especially to check on any heavy or awkward lifts  and to assess progress. I also keep in touch with the SAR&H staff in the cargo sheds and with the Duty Officer in the ship.  “P.E.” is the Motortown” of South Africa in those days, with General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen all having assembly plants there, so much of the general cargo consists of those big crates and boxes of parts.  Today, though, we have a heavy lift in No.2 hold.  With any other ship that wouldn’t be a problem, but the ‘Arundel” is very ‘fine’ for’rad, and the heavy lift derrick won’t plumb the railway truck.  So it’s necessary to book a tug so that, while the stern lines are eased off, the bow can be pushed in close enough for the load to be placed in the wagon.

With that done, work goes on until 5 p.m. and knock-off time. Sundays, depending on the amount of cargo, can be ‘pressure’ days because, if she is to reach East London on time the next morning, the ship must sail by 6 p.m. and I’m proud to say that we always got her away on time.  With all the cargo out, all the paper work done, the tugs are called, the gangways come down and soon the “Arundel Castle” is easing away from the quay.  Those powerful SAR&H tugs make short work of swinging her round and in a short time she is gliding out of the harbour and heading north.  Over at No.2 Quay with its underground cool stores the “Pretoria Castle” has completed loading apples, oranges and wool and within a short time is following the “Arundel Castle”, but heading off to Cape Town.

When I started in that job, I had already become quite fluent in Afrikaans, but Capt Clutterbuck cautioned me never to let on!  As a ‘Kiwi’, it was assumed that I didn’t speak it and it soon became apparent why it was important not to ‘let on’!  That weekend work was a ‘gold-mine’ for the SAR&H staff and the longer they could “hang the job out”, of course, the more they were paid!  It was an intriguing contest, but made easier for me, because by eavesdropping on various conversations, I could ensure, for example, that the stevedores sent out ‘big heaves’ in their nets!  Just when I left the job to return to N.Z., I took a great delight in engaging my Afrikaans friends in conversation in their own language, but I must say that they took it all in good fun!  In that port, in the mailships, every weekend, we would regularly shift up to 2,000 tons of ‘break-bulk’ general cargo with eight cranes from seven holds in something like fourteen working hours.  I wonder how that rate would compare with, say, Wellington in 1953!

The Intermediate ships were a challenge.  In their ‘Round Africa” route, they would call at more than 15  ports so loading and discharging became a delicate problem for the Second Officer when it came to considerations of stowage and stability.  One of the cargos we loaded there was tyres from the local Goodyear factory.  They were an awkward stow.  One day I was watching some going into a ‘tween deck when an elderly passenger started to ask a lot of questions about rates, delivery times, etc. I didn’t think too much of it, as passengers often took an interest in cargo work.  However over lunch, the Chief Officer said to me, “I see you’ve been chatting with the nobility.’  I was a bit baffled and asked him why he said that.” Oh,” he said, “that old chap who was talking to you by No.3 hatch was Lord Nuffield”!

The Company’s cargo ships were three former” Fast Empire” ships, the Kenilworth, Good Hope and Drakensberg Castles and the five fast “R-class ” fruit ships, the Roslin, Rowallan, Roxburgh, Rochester and Riebeeck Castles.  These presented a rather more relaxed working atmosphere in that, while time was of the essence, there was no strict timetable to worry about.

Loading the fruit ships was interesting.  As I mentioned at No.2 Quay, there were underground cool stores.  The cases of fruit were stacked into wheeled frames that could be wheeled from the store under hatches in the quay and hoisted into the hold from where the cases were carried to the stowage area.  I enjoyed working with the Black wharfies.  They were mostly from the local Xhosa tribe and I soon picked up enough of that language to get to know them.  Once they got into the “swing” of the job, they worked with a will.  I never ceased to be amazed how they used their traditional work-chants to move heavy loads.  For example, they’d move a car part box weighing over a ton from the side to the square of the hatch simply by means of putting along rope round it, with six men on each end.  A leader would strike up the rhythmic song, which the others would take up, heaving in time on the rope.  After a few seconds the box would shake a bit and the next thing one saw it gliding out into the square of the hatch!

Now, of course, the ‘ mailships’ and, in fact the Company have gone.  The Charl Malan Quay has been extended to provide the necessary area for container storage and I don’t know what happened to the cool stores.  However, when I was back there four years ago, I was able to stand on the steps of our former Dock office, and remember what had been a very interesting and happy time of my life.

From Alistair Kerr 4th Dec. 2006

Greetings Owen,

I came across your interesting website the other day.   In 1949, I did a nine-month trip in a ship which I have never seen listed in any UCMSCo Fleet lists. She was the Fort Carillon and her Master was Capt Black I joined her in London initially to fill in two weeks on a run up to Middlesbrough and back as I had a job in a Shaw Savill ship coming up.(I had not been home [NZ} for two years! However, Ted, my watch mate  on the trip told me that he was signing on for the Foreign-Going voyage as she was to stay in Port Elizabeth for three weeks and he was to be married. He asked me to be his best man so after much 'nagging' I did that, met my wife (who was the chief bridesmaid) and that was the end of my sea-going career. Well, not quite! We had been in EVERY port between Suez and PE where we loaded a full cargo of bombs for the RAF Base at Suez then all the way back again to Walvis Bay, Hamburg and London.I did a round trip to NZ in the Dominion Monarch and came to SA on a delivery job in the SAR&H new tug J.D.White.  

I married and settled in PE and after a job at the GM factory became a Cargo Supervisor, (although for some reason I was referred  to as The Clerk In Charge!), for the UCMSCo. My job was to keep the cargo moving, loading and/or discharging, liaising with the ship's officers, the stevedores and the SAR&H guys ashore.   My boss was Capt C.J.Clutterbuck ,Marine Supt. and his assistant was Mr. Frank Marriott. ( I note that your Register lists a Norman Clutterbuck as Marine Supt. at Cape Town. Could this be the same man or a relative?). My boss was well-known when as the Master of the Llandaff Castle after being torpedoed off Madagascar, he unleashed such a torrent of abuse at the Commander of the surfaced U-boat that he pushed off!   I have many stories about him and Marriott, if you want them.

Capt Black was just as described in your website. He was unusual in that, unlike so many Masters in British ships he actually engaged the common AB's in conversation! Yes I can remember one early morning off the East African coast, (Lindi, I think it was) I was on the wheel when the promised Pilot didn't show up as we drifted ever closer to the shore. All Capt Black said was "Crumbs! Where on earth is that jolly Pilot?"   So unusual was he that he and Mr. Steen, the Mate actually came to Ted's wedding and also visited the family for a party some days later! I remember him with real affection.   Have you any information on the Fort Carillon? I don't know how long the Company had her. I do know that she later became the Mount Royal and I have a photograph of her under that name, in PE of all places! I remember that if we were in port with a Mailship or an Intermediate ship, we had to haul down our house flag!

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