Merchant Navy

Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and much of twentieth century Liverpool people relied on the Mersey and the access it provided to employment and other markets for their livelihoods both at sea and at home in the factories, warehouses and dockland areas. The decline of the North West’s textile industry after 1950 impacted significantly on Liverpool’s role as a distributing port. The change in transportation of goods with the advent of container haulage hit the docks, and the people who worked and lived there, hard. The cultural as well as economic links between Liverpool and other ports across the world are strong.

John McGuirk was born in Bootle in 1931. His father was a dock worker, a very unstable job as daily work was never guaranteed. After working in a couple of factories after leaving school, at the age of 16 John decided he wanted to join the Merchant Navy. In the following extract John describes his training and first experiences of going to sea. The excitement and lure of visiting other countries and especially American cities such as New Orleans, New York and Mississippi, quickly made John forget about his initial traumas of going to sea and as he put it his Merchant Naval career “it was just one great adventure.”

Length of audio clip: 2 mins 39secs

Hilary: What was your first job on the ship?
John: I was…when anybody …you went to the training school for three months and when you go to your first job you were deck boy, and that involved getting the meals up for the lads from the, that was not your main job, that was part of your main job you were still working on the deck but you were working with A-B’s you know and getting to learn the jobs, you’d learnt of it in the training school but there is a lot of romanticism about the sea, the romance was in the sailing ship days so all that went, but a lot of the things hung on the fact that you walked round with a knife in your belt, you know made you feel wotsit and you had your, you did still need that because there were always ropes that you had to cut and a marling spike cause you had to learn to splice ropes together and make eye holes, things like that. And that was the interesting part, the rest of it mainly was maintenance of the ship err the, the ship I’m talking about …well every ship it got painted from the top of the mast right down the sides, [unclear] they’d come home like a brand new ship and that was your main job. Oiling and greasing tackle err…
Hilary: Is this as a deck boy, is that what you would do?
John: Oh aye as a deck boy, you learnt to master heights and things like that and you’d do, the system was, the routine was that you did err twelve months as a deck boy, then you became a Junior Ordinary Seaman, then you became a Senior Ordinary Seaman then you became an Efficient Deck Hand and then you became an A-B, so…
Hilary: What’s an A-B?
John: Able Bodied Seaman, that means you were a fully fledged thingy you were supposed to know everything then, you err you could steer a ship, you’d go aloft, you knew all the flags, you knew everything there is to know about a ship you know and err but there were ways around that like. My first trip, the ship when I came home from Miami ship I said ah that’s me finished [laugh] the old story of it, I’ll give it one more go and I remember this fellah saying “John I’ve got a coaster here” and I said “coaster,” cause I know what they are you know only about eighty or a hundred foot long something like that and I went a coaster God I’d die on one of them, seasickness and then he went it’s on the Belfast run back and forwards to Belfast and he said I’ll tell you what and I’d only done three months at sea as a deck boy and he said I’ll give you Junior Ordinary Seaman if you take it and I went oh alright then. So I stopped being a deck hand and he gave me Junior Ordinary Seaman and I got better wages [laugh]

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