All this I was to learn. At the end of the summer holidays I received instructions to join M/V Port Brisbane in the Royal Albert Dock, London and arrived on board on August 17th 1956 for my first voyage.
The Captain (or Master) was a very remarkable man, although I did not fully realise it at the time. His name was Francis William Bailey, and in the 57 years since I joined his ship I have made constant attempts to research his history. This has not been easy as he doesn’t appear in any reference books that I can discover, or on Google or Wikipedia or any of the usual websites. None the less I have learned quite a lot about him from those who also sailed with him. Now, for the first time, I have attempted to tell his story, albeit incomplete and unlikely now to be fully revealed.
He was a fearsome man with a deep, rasping voice. I remember him towering over me when he had cause to question my behaviour (which, I am ashamed to say was a fairly frequent occurrence). Yet his application to sit for a Masters’ Certificate in December 1920 gives his height at five feet and nine inches – a good six inches shorter than I am. That was the sort of impression he gave. I have managed to find one photograph, taken when he was Master of the Port Jackson in 1947 and it could be the only one in existence. Unlike today, the habit of casual photography was not much practiced at sea in those days.
Francis William Bailey, always known (though not to his face) as ‘Bill’, was born in Belvedere, Kent, in the south of England on the 19th July 1896, which would have made him sixty years old when I joined his ship in 1956 as the junior apprentice. There is no record of his education or early life but I have discovered that his first voyage to sea was as an apprentice in a West Country barque called ‘Tralee’ in 1910. In 1956 I was on the bridge logging the engine and helm orders when I heard his story of that voyage. As we entered the dredged channel of Port Melbourne Harbour Captain Bailey was in full whites (as in the picture) with epaulettes and cap with gold scrambled egg round the peak. He presented a figure of great dignity and, to me, some menace. A small and equally immaculate Australian pilot stood by his side, his head coming up to the captain’s armpit.
“Have you found Jesus yet captain?” asked the pilot brightly and a-propos of nothing. He was a born-again Christian apparently. Bill considered this remark in deep silence. After a pregnant pause while the rest of the bridge personnel tried not to catch his eye, he answered.
“See that breakwater pilot? I built that f*g thing, stone by stone!”
The pilot went very red and there was no further conversation between them. Later the Chief Officer, Roger Holmes, explained what he had said.
“You see lads; the Old Man was a young apprentice on a sailing ship which was a pretty hard life in those days. He went ashore to a dance in Melbourne and met a pretty blonde Aussie girl. He fell in love and ran away with her; jumped ship if you like. They caught him after a week or so when his money ran out and the local magistrate gave him two weeks hard labour building the breakwater before they shipped him back to England as a DBS (Distressed British Seaman).”
Looking at his records, which I have in front of me, I can see that he was appointed third mate of the SS Indrabarah (to be renamed Port Elliot in the following year) on 30th October 1915 when he would have been nineteen years old. She was a four-masted, 12 knot ship built in 1910. He passed his Second Mates’ Certificate in steam and sail in October 1916 and went back to sea as second mate of the Port Elliott in November that year. He passed his First Mates’ Certificate in London on April 2nd 1918.
On Christmas Eve 1920 (of all days) Bill Bailey passed his Masters’ Certificate of Competency in Steam. The examiners in those days must have followed Scrooge’s work ethic. He married soon afterwards, but I have no details of his wife, children or family life. He progressed through the ranks of Port Line in the 1920’s and 1930’s being promoted to first mate of the Port Melbourne in 1928.
At the time of the great depression of the 1930’s he remained in employment in that capacity which was fortunate as Port Line had one of their ships full of young officers and engineers that they had no means of employing as officers with so many of their ships laid up for want of cargoes. All the able seamen aboard had second or first mates’ certificates and all the deck officers had all passed for master, even the fourth mate.
Finally, on 27th March 1939 he was finally appointed as Master of the Port Bowen for her forthcoming voyage to New Zealand. This should have been the acme of his twenty-four year career with the company; a time of great achievement for him, but after hubris comes nemesis. In the early hours of July 20th 1939 the Port Bowen ran aground one mile to the west of Wanganui, North Island and became a total loss.
Before he died I was in correspondence with John Devlin, the fourth mate of the Port Bowen on that voyage, who had sailed round the world on the square rigger ‘Joseph Conrad’ as an able seaman, taken his second mate’s certificate and had been accepted by Port Line. He had the eight to twelve watch and had been taking bearings and dipping ranges of lighthouses. He found from his observations that the ship was well to the west and had overshot the place where she was to anchor to load cargo brought out in lighters from Wanganui. Bill Bailey treated John’s observations with bad-tempered contempt.
“When I want your advice on how to run my f*g ship son, I’ll ask for it!”
None the less John switched on the then new-fangled echo sounder as a matter of prudence. At midnight when the Third Officer came on watch, John whispered to him’
“Stand by for the bump!”
The ship ran aground shortly after the change of watch. Maersk Line
Bill Bailey was blamed for his error of judgement but retained his Masters’ Certificate. He travelled back to England as a passenger on another Port Line ship to face the directors in Cunard House, Leadenhall Street, London. Here he was threatened with dismissal but pleaded that they had not heard his side of the story. He mentioned his wife and family that he had to support, plus his twenty-four years of otherwise exemplary service with the line. The war had started and many of the company’s experienced officers were in process of being called up for service in the Royal Navy. After some debate they decided to reduce him in rank to Chief Officer and appointed him to the Port Wellington, then alongside in Avonmouth.
Many years later I sailed with a Captain called Bill Clough who was the second mate on the Port Wellington that voyage. He told me he had arrived by train, late at night at Avonmouth station in a heavy downpour while the port was being bombed by German planes. There were no taxies and he stood miserably in the blackout getting wetter and wetter with all his luggage for the four-month voyage. It was a winter’s night, late in 1939, cold and miserable. He said that he thought things couldn’t get any worse until he heard a stentorian voice from the other end of the platform.
“I can see you skulking there Clough! I’m mate on the Wellington, so don’t think you’re going to have it easy!”
It was ex-Captain Bailey, and Bill Clough’s heart sank into his boots.
The Port Wellington was on her homeward leg from Australia with refrigerated cargo and 12 passengers when, on the 29th November 1940 she was attacked by the German surface raider Pinguin commanded by Kapitan Ernst-Felix Kruder. Her bridge was shelled when she tried to broadcast an SOS, her radio operator killed and her Master, Captain E.O. Thomas, mortally wounded. The Port Wellington was sunk by shellfire and the Pinguin took the 82 survivors aboard, including the dying Captain Thomas, and seven women passengers. In due course Bill Bailey was lodged in a civilian POW camp in German for the rest of the war.
It was full of Merchant Navy personnel with no real ambition to escape and that the commandant, who was an old and tired reserve Wehrmacht Lieutenant-Colonel, turned over the running and administration of the camp to Bill who controlled the German guards and Allied prisoners with a rod of iron. For his war services as a POW he was awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by a grateful King George VI on November 21st 1945.
After the war, Bill was made a temporary colonel in the British Army and put in charge of the Flensburg area of British-occupied Germany. As the actions of the Pinguin had caused him to lose his sextant and binoculars when the Port Wellington was sunk he reasoned that he was entitled to war reparations in respect of them, these being expensive items for an impoverished sailor. He conducted a personal raid on an intact German destroyer in the local harbour and relieved the ship of a fine Plath sextant and a pair of top-quality Zeiss binoculars, to the fury of their (German) owners. In later life he was inordinately proud of these items and woe betide any apprentice or junior officer who asked to borrow them.
Back in Port Line he joined the Port Hobart (which carried 150 passengers) as Staff Captain and was finally appointed as Master again, to command one of the Port Line Liberty Ships that the company managed for the Ministry of War Transport, the SS Samleven. Bill then commanded several Port Line ships and ended up serving as the Commodore of the Port Line, from 1958 until his retirement in July 1959, aged 65. For this period he remained in command of the Port Brisbane.
I left the Port Brisbane in August 1957 after completing two voyages under Captain Bailey’s command. I never saw him again. I was told later that his years of heavy smoking had caused him to develop diabetes and hardening of the arteries and that eventually he had to have a foot amputated. He was given a farewell voyage to New Zealand by the company with his wife, both as passengers. Even though he was in a wheelchair, he insisted on wheeling himself around the deck to watch the hands at work, then lecturing the young chief officer on what was wrong with his work organisation.
He was an iron man who few dared to cross but he could be sentimental and soft on occasions. I remember him talking to me while we transited the Panama Canal.
“Take it all in son, I’ve been coming through here for forty years and there’s still a lot that’s new and interesting every time.”
On his last voyage when he and his wife were passengers, their ship was berthed in Lyttleton, South Island. For some reason they were unable to visit Christchurch as they wished, so the local manager sent Mrs. Bailey a big bunch of flowers as some compensation. It is reported that Bill was so touched that he was almost in tears.
He died in Hertfordshire in England sometime after 1967. He was in every sense a fine shipmaster of the old school and just the sort of person one needed as a mischievous young man just freed from the tough discipline of a training ship. It’s 55 years since I last saw Captain Francis William Bailey MBE but I will never forget him and nor will many of my compatriots in Port Line who sailed with him and who have contributed a great deal to this little memoir.
David Arnold was born in June 1939 and always yearned to go to sea. He served in various capacities on cargo and passenger ships, mine hunters and nuclear submarines. He is a retired Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve living at home in rural Sussex, England with his Australian wife of forty-six years. Since leaving the sea in 1971 has navigated many famous ocean racing yachts including Peter de Savary’s Victory and Sir Edward Heath’s Morning Cloud. He was CEO of the British America’s Cup Challenge in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1986/7. He holds an Extra Master Mariners’ Certificate.