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Continued from Bill Taylor's Memoir, Preface


MY EARLY ADVENTURES IN THE MERCHANT NAVY


Bill Taylor, October 1941

T. W. (Bill) Taylor, October 1941

My adventures started when I was fifteen years old. My parents, Ada and Fred Taylor moved to Folkestone, England from Kingston Upon Thames. The Boys College I had been attending would have insisted that I stay at school until I was eighteen, but by moving I managed to slip through the cracks and managed to finish with school. I will say that during the four years I was there, I received an excellent education which was a big help in later years. I now felt free to make my own destiny. My older brother, Kenneth, got a position as Deck Engineer on a Canadian Pacific liner, Montcalm, sailing to Canada. When Ken was on leave, he would tell me of his experiences and this made me more determined to try my luck at sea. I wrote to the Canadian Pacific offices in London to see if I could get work on one of their ships. I received a reply and went for an interview. The Shore Superintendent of the Catering Department told me I could join the Empress of Britain at Southampton on the 29th of July 1939. I felt now I was on my way and reported as ordered.


Kenneth Taylor WWII
Kenneth Taylor
Deck Engineer
SS Montcalm

SS Montcalm

When WWII began, the SS Montcalm was requisitioned by the Admiralty to serve in the Royal Navy as the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Wolfe. At that time, Ken Taylor transferred to another Canadian Pacific liner serving as a troopship, the SS Duchess of Bedford.

Photo Source: George Musk's Canadian Pacific: The Story of the Famous Shipping Line (Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada Ltd., Toronto, 1981).

On arrival, I was told I would be a Comme-waiter, a trainee, but first I would have to buy my uniforms. A Ship's Chandler came on board and measured me, took my order, and supplied me with blue pants and some white jackets to keep me working until my uniforms were ready. The arrangement was each trip we paid some money according to what we could afford to clear our accounts.

I soon found out there were very few rules regarding how many hours we worked. When we sailed we had to start work at 5:30 am for scrub out. This meant scrubbing a section of the hallways every morning before breakfast. Breakfast over, which had to be fast, temporally I had to work in the Silver Room, cleaning silver and supplying the galley with what they needed for serving the meals. Every meal was served silver service. All this was happening and I started being sea sick, not helped by the fact that our accommodation was in the stern under the laundry and over the propellers. The combination of the ship rolling and the vibration of the propellers really took its toll. I felt it would be easier to jump over than suffer, but I was not alone, and had others to commiserate with--all for three pounds, nineteen shillings per month. Illness did not allow you to avoid work, so I carried on. When we entered the Saint Lawrence River, Canada, I suddenly felt much better and was never sea sick again no matter how rough the sea was.

Arriving in Quebec we tied up at the new Empress of Britain dock. After the passengers disembarked, we were allowed to go ashore, so with some friends I had made, we went to explore the town. Although we had very little money we quite enjoyed ourselves. Cake was 5 cents and hot dogs 5 cents. One of the boys who had been on the ship for some time told me we could make extra money by showing people around the ship as the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the "Queen Mum") of England had just previously sailed on her.
Empress of Britain at Quebec before WWII

RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Empress of Britain entering Quebec before WWII.
Photo Source:"Empress of Britain: Lost in Action in the Service of her Country, October 28, 1940" (CPR, Montreal, 1940).

He explained that you had to stand near the gangway and the Master at Arms would allocate the tourists to us usually groups of about eight at one time. You showed then around the lounges, the swimming pool, library, etc. for about half to three quarters of an hour and then took them back to the gangway. Then they would (or should) give you tips and thank you. The tips had to be shared with the Master at Arms. If this was not done, you would not get any decent people to show around for tips.

One of my early show rounds I was given consisted of six nuns and four other tourists. Not a very promising group. The Master at Arms and I did not see eye to eye so I had been given the worst crowd--I thought they would be a dead loss. However, being as pleasant as I could, I gave them a really good time. While I was answering their questions and giving them any information they asked for, they were very pleasant. On the way to the gangway one of the nuns thanked me and slipped me a ten-dollar bill (that was a fortune to me in those days)! The tourists gave me another six dollars. I was now rich! I hid the ten and after saying goodbye to them at the gangway I gave the Master at Arms three dollars and me seemed very pleased. I had now found the method of survival.

We were sailing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic: Southampton - Le Havre, France - Quebec, every week one way, Saturday to Thursday. On my next trip I had my uniforms so I was put to work in the first class dining room to help the waiter, "Tilly" (his proper name was Alfred H. Till). Tilly was one of the best waiters and he had served the King and Queen when they were aboard. He instructed me at what I had to do and warned me to be careful with the passengers as they were all very sick and could at times be very finicky and awkward. One passenger was Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian newspaper magnate, who later worked in the wartime British Ministry of Aircraft Production. There were various happenings on board, far too numerous to mention. When not working in the dining room, I had to work the elevators during the afternoon so I was kept very busy, but some of the passengers were very nice and gave me tips. I still had lessons every night. Every trip, to Canada or back to England, Tilly always gave me a share of the tips. He was really generous. (I was very saddened to learn some time later that Tilly was killed when the Empress of Britain was bombed by a German aircraft on October 26th, 1940. I heard that Tilly was courageously attempting to rescue some children at the time of his death.)

Then came the last peacetime voyage. When we loaded passengers in England at Southampton, we noted that the dockside was full of gun emplacements, so we knew war was imminent. We loaded far more passengers than we had accommodation for in first class, as all cabins were full. Passengers were to sleep in the gym and squash court and anywhere we could accommodate them and they were only too pleased to have gotten on board to leave England. We sailed on the 2nd of September 1939. We went to the Le Havre, took on more passengers who arrived by tender, and then headed out to sea. The next day I was sent to see the Bridge Officer's Steward who told me that war had just been declared--it was Sunday, September 3rd, 1939. We sailed full speed and headed off far to the north of our usual route, into the iceberg zone. You could feel the cold penetrate the ship like a refrigerator. The Captain maneuvered his way through them and finally arrived in Quebec late but safe on Friday, September the 8th. By that time, quite a few ships, of which the SS Athenia was the first, had already been sunk in the Atlantic by submarine.

Duchess of Richmond

This photo of the pre-war Duchess of Richmond is from R.D. Turner's Pacific Empresses: An Illustrated History of Canadian Pacific Railway's Empress Liners on the Pacific Ocean (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, B.C., 1981).

Passengers were disembarked and painters started to paint the ship gray. Various items of value were packed and taken ashore, gradually stripping the ship. They were unsure of what our next date of sailing would be. About three days later, about 50 of the catering crew including me were told to pack our bags as we were being transferred to another Canadian Pacific liner, the Duchess of Richmond. When she docked near our ship we boarded her and were put in the third class cabins (quite comfortable) and settled in.

THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR

We sailed immediately to Halifax, Nova Scotia. On arrival we anchored in the inner harbour, Bedford Basin. Nobody seemed to know what was going to happen next. We stayed six weeks--no one was allowed ashore for leave and we soon got really bored. I heard we were waiting to join a
Map of Eastern Canada
convoy that was being formed for sailing to England, and finally we sailed as part of a very large convoy. I stood on deck and ships seemed to straggle the ocean as far as I could see. Some of us were put on Submarine Watch. As it was the end of October, the weather was getting very cold and our clothes were not suitable for a deck watch, so we wrapped ourselves in blankets.

The crossing appeared to go fairly easy and we eventually arrived in Liverpool, England in November. The passengers disembarked and we were paid what they said were our wages and given tickets to Southampton, our port of sailing. I received five pounds. I do not think we were paid in full for the time spent on the Duchess of Richmond. (ie. not paid the money owed for being classed as "DBS"--Distressed British Seamen).

I was lucky that a fellow a lot older than I, befriended me and told me that he knew Liverpool and that as he was going to London, would show me where to go. The blackout had started and we could see nothing, but he found the way to the railway station. After hours of waiting we got on a train going south, but we were told we would have to change trains at Crewe. We looked for our next train-- the station was crowded and chaotic. When we found the train it was packed like sardines. My friend was a big fellow, so he was able to force a space for us in a carriage and we managed to get some sleep. We had been on the go for 24 hours a least. At the London station he took me to the ticket office and had them change my ticket for Folkstone. Then he found my station where my train would leave from and then left me. He had been a very good friend. We parted company here and I travelled on and finally reached my home.

SOUTHERN RAILWAY INTERLUDE

After having been at sea, other work seemed to bore me. I tried several jobs but could not settle. I went eventually to the Southern Railway offices in Folkestone and got a job on some cargo boats, SS Tunbridgeand SS Deal, sailing from Folkestone to Boulogne, France and Dover to Calais, France.
Map of English Channel
I was Relief Cook and anything else that was needed. We carried horses and cargo etc. and sailed every two days weather permitting--the English Channel could be very rough, but it did not bother me. They decided we should be armed, so a Sergeant and two soldiers came one morning to teach two of the crew how to load and shoot a Lewis gun. It was installed on top of the cookhouse. I decided it would come in handy if I could use it. I told the Sergeant in charge I belonged with the men being taught and should also have instruction. He said OK and I learned how to load and shoot with tracers for night. I got away with my bluff and got a certificate of competence. The crew was really unusual. Quite a few had been gunrunners in the Spanish Civil War. They were really tough, but the greatest people to sail with. I could shoot a rifle as I was taught at school so they got permission for me to shoot at any loose mines floating near us. I should have mentioned previously that the ship was so old, the only way to get water in the galley was with our old-fashioned hand pump.

We were warned the Germans were dropping magnetic mines in the Channel and some ships were getting sunk, so it was getting dangerous for us crossing. Eventually they came and fitted the ship with degaussing cables, which reversed the magnetic field of the mines. Of course, it you hit one you would still blow up. As the war in Europe heated up there were many German planes strafing and bombing all over the coast. By that time our regular sailings had been stopped and we had been sent to Southampton. Then our coaster was not deemed to be of much use anymore, and we were discharged in April 1940, shortly before the Battle for Dunkirk and the Fall of France.




Bill Taylor's Memoir is continued in Part Two


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