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CAPT'N PETER ASHCROFT, EXPLOITS OF
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(FOR THE INTEREST OF WHAT ARE NOW BECOMING ANCIENT MARINERS !)

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SITE UPDATED APRIL 3RD.2017

'THE EXPLOITS OF PETER ASHCROFT' HAVE BEEN EDITED AND ARE NOW READABLE.   FOLLOW THE HIGHLY AMUSING RECORD OF THIS REPROBATE'S TIME DURING THE GRAND OLD DAYS OF THE 'LAVENDER HULL MOB'.

(If you are still in the land of the living Peter why not give me a call.  Brockville, Ontario 613-345-5571 or let's have a go on Skype - nickname coombie.
If anyone else knows of his whereabouts apart from the local gendarmerie please let me know. Thanks y'all.)

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This site has no commercial intent and is purely for the interest of sea and ship loving people. Any images may be downloaded for personal interest but any use for commercial purposes is strictly forbidden without permission from the originator. For any questions please communicate with the site manager

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DAVID HAISMAN HAS ADDED HIS STORY REGARDING TIME SPENT WITH UNION-CASTLE TO THE SITE WHICH MAY BE READ BELOW BEFORE BEING ASSIGNED TO 'SEA STORIES'

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ENJOYING A FORCE 8 JUST BEFORE SMOKO....

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Anchor Line's TAHSINIA at Yorkhill Quay in the 50s.

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                  THE LAVENDER LADIES


                 By David  Haisman

                                            

                   On the Cape Run

 

 

                       My first ship with the Union Castle Line was when I signed on to the Edinburgh Castle in October 1956 as an Able Seaman. This ship had been launched in October 1948 by Princess Margaret in Belfast. In January 1954, this vessel had set up a new speed record between the UK and Cape Town of thirteen and a half days.

                         To say that this was the first time that I had sailed with this company was not quite true as I had sailed as a passenger at 11 years of age on the Pretoria Castle, the 28,000 ton sister ship to the above on her maiden return voyage from South Africa. As a family, we were returning to England after my father's five years' posting with the Admiralty to Simonstown naval base in South Africa had ended.

                       When the Pretoria Castle was launched in 1947, it was considered at that time to be quite an unusual event whereas the launching ceremony was conducted by radio from South Africa.  The story goes that Mrs Jan Smuts, wife of the South African Premier, General Smuts, pressed a button at their family home in Pretoria, South Africa, which in turn, sent out radio transmissions that activated the launching trigger over 6000 miles away on the Belfast slipway.        

                         The company's ships operating out of Southampton at that time on the Cape Mail Service comprised mainly of eight passenger vessels of well over 20 000 tons. There were other intermediate ships and fruit boats operating out of London and some other major ports but the following were the main Southampton to South Africa passenger fleet  They were the Pretoria Castle, Edinburgh Castle, Athlone Castle, Cape Town Castle, Stirling Castle, Carnarvon Castle, Arundel Castle and the Winchester Castle.  Sailing on five of these ships and serving as a seaman on four of them I can honestly say that I had a bit of an affection for those handsome liners.  They were beautiful ships to look at when at sea and proportioned with their superstructures and funnels much the way many seamen believed a ship should look in those days. They were commonly referred to by many in the industry as  ''The Lavender Ladies'' and it was thought by some, that this livery was an ideal base paint to alter the ship to battleship grey in case of being commisioned for war service. I wouldn't know too much about that but it was seaman type rumour that the Pretoria and Edinburgh Castle were so designed  that their top decks could be easily transformed in order to operate as aircraft carriers. A brass plate on their promenade decks informed those passengers that were of the keep fit variety that jogging or walking eight times around the promenade deck would equal one mile. 

                     Built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, they were distinctive by their streamlined bridge fronts, clipper style bows and cruiser sterns. To see those lavender coloured hulls with red boot topping, white superstructures along with their red funnels and black tops, they were indeed a pleasure to the eye of the ship lover and for those that appreciated the good lines of a passenger vessel. I was always impressed by the sturdy construction of these vessels and their sea worthiness along with a good turn of speed although they always cruised well below their capabilities which was well over 20 knots. This enabled these ships to keep an extremely reliable timetable which must have been the envy of many other shipping company's on regular service runs.

                       Apart from the usual shipboard smells of paint and diesel oil on many ships, all Union Castle vessels had their own distinctive strong smell of fruit, particularly of the citrus variety, wafting around the decks which wasn't too unpleasant as I recall.  Some of this company's lifeboats were of the mainly moulded or carvel variety and powered by the ''bar maid'' system, unlike many other operators of that time. The cross benches had an upright handle on the port and starboard side of  each cross bench in the lifeboat and the occupants pulled them back and then pushed forward in order to propel the boat. The linkage in the bottom of the boat consisted of a series of universal joints from each set of ''barmaids'' which in turn, connected to a main propellor shaft running practically the full length of the boat. The advantages of this system was that anyone could use them and there wouldn't be any requirement to rely on oars, sails or engines to clear the boat away from a sinking vessel.                

                     The signing on of crew was usually done on board on a Monday before the Thursday sailing after seeing the ship's doctor for clearance. After signing on with the company and then the Board of Trade articles, many seamen would apply for an Advance Note which was an advance on wages. The uniforms issued for deck crew were quite basic consisting of 2 pairs of trousers, 2 shirts, a blue beret and a sea jersey with the words ''Union Castle Line'' emblazoned across the chest.  The other deck crew, namely A/B Quartermasters, wore the typical Royal Naval uniform much the same as some other transatlantic liners.                    

                   Every week throughout the year, one of these ships would arrive in Southampton from South Africa at 0600 hours on a Friday morning and on Thursday during the same week, another would sail at exactly 1600 hours and you could practically set your watch by them.                       

 To illustrate the near perfect timetable that this company kept on this service there was, mounted on a wall in a pub in Durban, an eight pointed star, much like a compass rose, that could be rotated to indicate the positions of any of the eight liners at any given time.  For example, on each point of the star was a ship's name pointing at one of the ports of call  or positions at sea, fixed on the outer circle.  This in turn would reveal the positions of all the other seven ships at that time. How many other shipping company's boast such a timetable?  (See my rough diagram)

                       On voyages from Southampton, these ships carried a wide range of general cargo with plenty of farm machinery, vehicles, whiskey, spirits, confectionery, cosmetics, clothes and shoes. I mention particularly shoes because in order to prevent pilfering which was always a problem, the footwear for the left foot would go out on one ship and the right foot, out on the next ship sailing the following week! The ships on this service had  a two class passenger carrying capacity of around 650 in total, the majority were of Cabin Class passengers and the remainder of around 200 First Class.

                  The outward bound ports of call were mainly Las Palmas in the Canary Islands for bunkers and then on to Cape Town. From there it was around the coast to Port Elizabeth and East London and then on to Durban, sometimes stopping at Mossel Bay before returning to Cape Town.  Whilst in Cape Town it was nearly always necessary to moor the vessels up with two, 10 inch insurance wires attached to huge shoreside coirs fore and aft, along with normal moorings, due to the massive swell at times within the dock basin from the influence of the Cape Rollers. To see these huge liners surging with strong forward and rolling movements against their moorings  alongside of the berth  was something not normally seen when a ship of that size is lying alongside of the berth.  To give the reader some idea of the size of those wires, they, like other mooring wires,ropes etc. are measured by their circumference.

                    On the homeward run, they would usually drop anchor at Funchal off of Madeira before returning to Southampton, the whole round voyage taking just six weeks. When anchoring off of Funchal, the company insisted that an Able Seaman go ''into the chains'' and swing the lead prior to dropping anchor. I've no doubt at all that the anchor probably landed in the same hole on the bottom of Funchal harbour every trip, but this was the routine and they were sticklers for that.

                   On the homeward bound voyages, the cargo's usually comprised of a wide selection of seasonal fruit, cape brandies and wines and nearly always gold bullion. On arrival in Southampton, the gold bullion would be taken to berths 43/44, the Cunard White Star berths, for shipment to New York.  Seamen in those days were of the opinion that the Titanic also carried bullion, shipped up from South Africa as this process had been on- going for many years previously. always of course, in the utmost secrecy. When serving on the  old Queen Mary and Elizabeth, I can remember gold bullion being loaded in Southampton, along  with furs, jewellery and perfumes being loaded at Cherbourg, all of which was stowed in the ship's bullion rooms right forward.

                  These strong room  facilities were inspected every 4 hours throughout the voyage by the Master at Arms and the officer of the watch and to my knowledge, these valuable cargo's have always arrived safely at their port of destination. However, this was not the case on one particular voyage with Union Castle Line when returning from Cape Town in the early 1960's.  If one would like to take the time to go through Southampton's Southern Daily Echo's archives going back to that time, it will be found that the gold consignment had been stolen during the voyage and was later discovered hidden in a sand box up on the ship's boat deck. Several members of the crew as I remember, were arrested as a result.

                  The Winchester Castle was bult by Harland and Wolff  in 1929 and was originally built with two funnels although one was removed later in order to streamline her appearance. I joined this ship as an Able Seaman in  September 1957 and did a couple of trips on her to get away from the British winter and enjoy some of the good weather down the Cape, just the same as many other seamen did at that time.

                   The Carnarvon Castle was another old Union Castle ship built by Harland and Wolff in 1926.  Like some of the other older vessels in the fleet, she was later re- engined to increase her speed for the growing passenger numbers and to maintain the valuable mail contract. As with other ships of the line she had been commisioned by the Royal Navy for war time service and like most other old ships, the crew accommodation wasn't up to much.

                 I signed on to this ''old girl'' in September 1958 and the reason I chose this company's ships occasionally was as a result of having some good friends in South Africa at that time. As an unestablished seafarer in those days, qualified Able Seamen were in short supply and we could choose our ships to go where and when we pleased. Ships of this size would have to have a specified number of qualified seamen as laid down by the Board of Trade and they were becoming difficult to find when national service ended.

                     I've always found it remarkable, that throughout my seagoing career on passenger liners, I could never remember a child going over the side or being lost at sea despite their attempts to climb every ship's rail in sight.  With adults, it's quite a different story with the odd suicide attempt taking place on the old 'Queens' when I sailed with Cunard. During our watch when on docking bridge lookout, we were instructed to keep an eye on passenger decks especially at night around  that end of the ship.

                   The 25 000 ton Athlone Castle was the sister ship to the Stirling Castle and had carried out a wide range of trooping voyages throughout the war before returning to the U.K. and the South African service around 1947. Built by Harland and Wolff in 1935, she was launched by Princess Alice of Athlone.

                    Whilst I was serving on board the Athlone Castle in 1959, on crossing the Bay of Biscay  during one voyage, an almost successful early morning suicide attempt took place. The ''Bay'' was kind to us on that particular day with early morning sunshine, good visibility and a gentle swell.  On the 4-8 watch during washdown, one of the seaman spotted a young woman jump over the stern rail and on hitting the water, disappear below the turbulence at the stern.  Immediately, the 'Man Overboard ' signal was given and the ship was put hard over in a 180 degree turn, heeling over and causing, as we heard later, much broken crockery from the dining saloon and galley as they were laying up for breakfast.

                     Engines were put on dead slow and lookouts were posted on the 'monkey's Island' (on top of the wheel house) and also right forward in the bows as well as up in the crows nest with binoculars. With the sun glinting on the water and all eyes straining to look for someone's head, an object no bigger than a football, there comes a realisation of how difficult it is to find someone in that vast expanse of water from a huge liner. It was however, her lucky day as it didn't take too long to spot her and an accident boat was lowered to pick her up. It has been said that when a would be suicide jumps off of the great height of an ocean liners deck, they usually change their mind after hitting the water and resurfacing. Not so with this young lady.

                   Once the accident boat drew alongside of her,she refused to be helped into the boat until a couple of seaman jumped into the water and literally shoved her into the boat. At that specific moment, her dressing gown came off and the distraught woman ended up lying in the bottom of the boat stark naked. Seamen, being the gentlemen they are,quickly took their shirts off and covered the poor woman up as the boat drew alongside of the ship with several hundred crew and passengers lining the ship's rail and looking down at the scene beneath them.   She was quickly taken to the sick bay and kept under close scrutiny for the remainder of the voyage.   Had the Bay of Biscay lived up to it's name for extreme heavy weather on most crossings, there may well have been a far different ending to this story for this young woman. 

                   In Cape Town, a local old negro with a shock of white hair would meet every Union Castle liner on arrival and deliver newspapers to the ship's officers and crew. He was known affectionately by everyone locally and throughout the fleet as ''Snowball'' and even in the sixties, he was thought to have been well over 90 years of age although no one was ever  quite sure of that or if he ever knew his date of  birth.  He had delivered papers since when he was a very young boy and would sleep on board ship whenever he could find somewhere to bunk down until the ship sailed. It was company policy that no one should be on board at night from shore -side unless they had official business to be there. With ''Snowball'', he was like a company mascot and no one took any notice when he stayed on board any of the Union Castle ships when in port. It was estimated that he was well over 100 years of age when he died and one of the company's vessels took his body out on the homeward bound voyage for burial at sea.

                    Going back in time, the Union Castle Line ship, Saxon,  built in 1900 by Harland and Wolff of around 12 000 tons, was a ship that  featured at times in my mother's life when as a  young girl in South Africa during the early 1900's. Her and her parents had sailed on this ship for visits to the UK on the odd occasion and their last voyage was to join the Titanic in 1912. Originally built for the Union Steamship Company, she became one of Union Castle lines' work horses until being finally scrapped in 1935.

                     In 1977, the Union Castle line, after well over a hundred years on the cape mail service, wound up with the final arrival of the Southampton Castle at Southampton in October of that year.

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