(Tony Gower is an Englishman who was kind enough to write a memoir about his days aboard Oronsay. In
the same envelope arrived another memoir, written by his maternal grandfather which begins on page 1 of
this issue.Your Editor is indebted to Mr Gower for his double submission. Like grandfather, like
grandson—both young men were determined to go to sea.)
by Tony Gower
It was September of 1954. I was 22, foot-loose and fancy free.I had spent the recent summer
working in an hotel as a general factotum, part hall-porter, part relief barman, part kitchen porter, part
What should I do for the winter? I’d always hankered after going to sea, so approached the Orient
Line offering to take any berth they cared to offer.I was told to report to their office at Tilbury, having first
satisfied them that I had completed my national service. This I did and was taken on in the catering
department as a potato peeler and given a date to join their ship, RMS Oronsay, some days hence. This I
Walking along the dock, I was immediately impressed with her size. Built by Vickers Armstrong
in Barrow-in-Furness, she was launched in June 1950. Over 700 feet long by 90 feet in the beam with a 31
foot draft, she had a gross registered tonnage of a little over 28,000-tons. She was powered by Parsons
marine steam turbines capable of developing a maximum of 42,500 shaft horsepower. These drove twin
screws and, flat out, she would top 22 knots. She had a buff-colored hull and funnel with white upper
works, more of a handsome ship than a beautiful one. The only thing that marred her appearance was a
black, 14-foot extension like a witch’s hat to her funnel; this was to carry exhaust gasses clear of her decks.
Accommodations were provided for 668 first class passengers and 830 tourist class; there were 621 crew
members and me.
I mounted the gangplank and sought directions to where I should sign on. Following these, I went
though the brief business of signing articles and found that I had already been promoted. On the strength
of a summer working in an hotel, I had been appointed as assistant pantry man to work down aft in the
tourist pantry. I was allocated a berth and directed where to collect my bedding. I also found my cabin—to
be shared with seven others—and stowed my gear.Six of us were much the same age, the other two were
perhaps ten years older. One of them showed me how to fold my bedding to make up a bunk—to this day,
I remember how!
Next thing was a visit to the slop chest to draw working clothes. These comprised blue and white checked trousers,white T-shirts and white
hat. These had to be paid for but not at that time. They would be deducted from your pay at the time of
paying off at the end of the voyage. In addition, you had, free of charge, a clean kitchen towel every day for
use as an apron-cum-ovencloth.
It just so happens that I have my deduction sheet for that voyage in front of me now and I see that
slops amounted to six pounds eighteen shillings; that doesn’t seem very much but when you consider
wages were twenty-four pounds a month, it was quite a percentage.
Here is what we had to do to earn that twenty-four pounds ten shillings and where we did it. To
say that so-and-so was on A Deck or F Deck is not very helpful without knowing, at least roughly, where
they were. Oronsay had nine passenger decks. The uppermost was Sun Deck, next below that was A Deck,
also known as Boat Deck. Then on downwards through the alphabet to H Deck. H Deck was, to all intents
and purposes, below the waterline, devoid of portholes. Next up from there was G Deck—often known as
Main Deck—where much of the crew was accommodated. Above that was F Deck and on this deck, about
amidships running aft, were the galley, pantries and first class (top side) and tourist class dining saloons,
first class for’ard of the galley and tourist aft.
The pantries were between the galley, where food was cooked, and the dining saloons. Here the
pantrymen would pass the food to the waiters (wingers) who would then serve their passengers (bloods).
The tourist pantry, where I worked, was approached from the galley by a very short alleyway.
Without going into great detail about layout, suffice to say there was a salad room, a still room, cold meats
room and a hot press. Oh yes, and a toast machine situated behind the hot press. On the starboard side was
the area for washing up all the crockery and cutlery for the tourist dining saloon.
The very best jobs were the salad room, the still room and the cold meats room; once secured,
guarded jealously. The very worst was the toast machine, a fiendish device. It stood on a waist-high bench,
some four feet long and about two-and-a-half feet high, maybe a little more. It was built from two courses
of fire bricks, with about a four-inch gap between them. The top was enclosed. In the gap were the
electrical elements that did the toasting, and an endless belt complete with hooks ran down this gap and
then along the front. The pantryman in charge would hook bread on the hooks as they passed by and take
off toast after it emerged from its passage between the elements. The pieces of toast then had to have the
crusts removed, cut diagonally and then wrapped in a napkin, two or four slices at a time, before being
placed in a wicker basket for a waiter who might want toast. In northern waters in winter, it was tolerable;
in the tropics, the heat was unimaginable.
I was a new boy, first trip to sea; who got the toast machine? Joking aside, it was very hot in the galley and pantries, and everyone sweated profusely. To
compensate for this, there was a very large iced water tank in the pantry, obviously for waiters to fill their
carafes for passengers, but also very much for crew. Standing next to this was a large container of salt
tablets and we were encouraged to take three or four a day to make up for what we had sweated out.
We started at 7 a.m. The position you worked in the pantry dictated your first activity. For
instance, the man in the salad room would go down to the cold store with a couple off the press and collect
that day’s salad: lettuce, endive, escarole, chicory, tomatoes, cucumber, radishes, etc. and a bag of crushed
ice. This would be taken back up to the pantry and the washing, cleaning, slicing etc. would take place in
preparation for filling salad bowls at lunch.
The still room man would check that he had sufficient tea, fetch milk from the dairy and start to
put tea leaves into the individual tea pots.
The toastman would go to the bakery and slice up loaves on the machine for breakfast toast and
loaves for sandwiches, which would be made up later by the salad man who did not have to prepare salads
Then, as breakfast time approached, the men on the press would fetch all the hot dishes from the
galley: porridge, bacon, eggs, sausages, smoked haddock, etc. Then the waiters would arrive from the
saloon and visit whichever position held the food they required. They always wanted toast.
It was hectic because there would be 400 people wanting breakfast at the first sitting; when that
was ended, there was a short break whilst everybody replenished their stocks. Then off we went again for
the second sitting.
After the final breakfast had been served, you got the order: “Wipe it down.” This meant literally
that. Everything was wiped and in some cases, scrubbed. Any spare food was collected and dumped
overboard through one of the two gun port doors in the galley. The deck would be “soogied,” scrubbed
down with hot water and a commercial liquid and then squeegee’d dry.
It is now about 9:30 a.m.and we were free until 11:00. Usually you would have a shower and go
on deck for an hour. In hot weather, you would sun-bathe or, as it was known, “getting the bronzey.” In bad
weather, you would take to your bunk. Incidentally, on Oronsay and, I think, all Orient Line vessels, the
deck space for male crew members was the for’ard and fo’c’sle head. Women members had a separate
area. The crew bar was in the fo’c’sle itself.
Lunch was much the same story as breakfast, except there was no toast. The salad man was at his
busiest. The still room man had no drinks to prepare, so he served a hot dish, usually fish. With the order
“Wipe it down,” you did just that as at breakfast except no soogieing.
The time by then was about 2:30-3:00 p.m. Again you would go for a shower, then on deck again.
More bronzey, if it was bronzey weather. Then back up to the pantry again at about 4:30 to prepare for
dinner. Except the salad man. As his job was the best in the pantry, he would do kids’ teas. It meant going would make up sandwiches for distribution around the lounges for passengers to nibble at during the
evening. This would entail some 300 slices of bread to be buttered to make 150 full rounds, each trimmed
and cut into four. The difficulty was thinking of fillings—cheese and pickle, tuna and mayonnaise, egg and
Then came “wipe it down.” again, the same procedure as breakfast, including soogieing. It was
now 9:30 p.m. and you took a shower and went up on deck. Or maybe into the “pig” for a drink or just to
spend an hour or so having a chat before turning in.In the hottest times, you often took blankets up and
slept on deck. That, in general,was the daily procedure seven days a week when at sea. The main variation
to that was boat drill. I believe passengers had more boat drills than the crew. Obviously, passengers join
and leave the ship at different ports but the crew were mostly there for the whole voyage. When boat drill
was called, you left your place of work and made your way to your allocated boat on A Deck, collecting a
life jacket from one of the lockers kept for the purpose. I cannot remember if the ship stopped or just slowed
The lifeboats would be swung out and you would climb aboard, making sure your jacket was
properly fitted. There were powered lifeboats but most were fitted with equipment where the occupants
operated levers situated in front of them as they sat on the thwarts, transferring that motion to the
There was nothing very complex about the drill but it did familiarize you with where to go, how
to get there and what to do when you arrived should there be an emergency. Lifeboat drill also afforded
young deck officers the opportunity of assisting young bikini-clad girls to adjust their lifejackets.
One other variation was fire drill at your place of work. This consisted of little more than standing
by a particular item of fire-fighting equipment to which you had been previously directed; it might be a
bucket of sand, a fire extinguisher or a hose reel. One of the officers would come ‘round to see that this was
being done and ask one or two questions. relating to a fire that might occur in the place where you work. In
the galley, their questions would mostly relate to fat fire.
“Never, ever, throw water on it.”
“If possible, cover with a wet cloth if it’s not too big and remove the source of heat.”
“Use a foam fire extinguisher if a larger area.” (I hope I have remembered those instructions
Entertainment came in two forms—that which was provided by the company and that which was
The company entertainment was a film show. In good weather, a projector would be set up under
the break of the fo’c’sle and the film projected across the for’ard deck onto a screen fixed to the
superstructure. There was a hybrid form where the company would provide the ship’s orchestra, providing
they had an unused hour or two of their time. They would play in the fo’c’sle, all the current popular music
of the time, plus a lot from the thirties. To a man, they were first class musicians. They would often be
joined by any members of the crew who could sing or yodel or whatever. It should be pointed out that
amongst the cabin stewards and waiters there were many who were “resting” actors or minor cabaret or
musical stars so these sessions often turned out to be very entertaining and of quite a high standard.
The purely home-grown variety would take the form of boxing or wrestling bouts. For these
occasions, a ring would be set up on the well-deck’s hatch cover and any who fancied could take part. Quite
a few were of the “Hopeful Haymaker” variety but one or two were useful amateur boxers and wrestlers.
There were also the humorous types—one in particular an assistant head-waiter in the tourist saloon called
Jacky Hasswell. He was over six feet tall and big with it; I think he must have been more than a purely
amateur wrestler and when he came into the ring, it was not as “Crusher Bloggs” but “Dandy.” He would
be resplendent in bejewelled boots, a scarlet leotard and a magnificent half cloak of gold lined with silver,
complete with an attendant to hold up a gilded looking glass so that he could coiffure his hair. Now, I may
have got the colors wrong but it was something of that nature. In fairness, on that trip there was no other
person on board who could go up against him in a regular bout but in the galley one of the cooks could play
a beautiful limp-wristed boxer. Their three-minute rounds were hilarious.
These boxing and wrestling matches were very popular and well-attended and many passngers
would come to the for’ard end of their part of the ship overlooking the well deck just to watch. It may
not sound very much—the odd film show, concert or boxing match. The time at sea between ports was
usually only a night or two, the longest between Colombo and Freemantle on the regular line voyage to Australia or Honolulu on the trans-Pacific voyage (6 - 8 days if I remember correctly). And
those interludes would nicely break up those longer periods at sea.
One other event that took place from time to time was a burial at sea. Although it did not affect
our working routine, we were well aware of it. It is not surprising that when you consider there were 2000
souls on board, deaths occurred. The actual committal took place at dinner time, if I remember correctly.
The ship would stop—of which everyone was aware—and after a short service, the body was committed to
the deep; then the engines started up again and we continued on our way. Although not personally
involved, it left a sense of sadness for a while, someone’s loved one cast over the side in a spot impossible
to visit again.
The foregoing is, I think, a fair account of our duties. The hours were long and it was, at times, a
“work up” but we had little responsibility and the company was, for the most part, very congenial. There
were some variations during cruising or for some special reason, which will come to light later.
Mentioning responsibility reminds me of the hierarchy. In overall charge was the Head Chef; he
ran the whole galley and pantries, also other areas such as the dairy and bakery. Although there was a head
baker who was fairly autonomous, it was still the Head Chef at the top. Under him were the cooks—how
many, I do not know,
but there were lots—who dealt with roasts, grills, fish, vegetables, sauces, curries, in fact, everything that
appeared on the menus.
There was also a Ship’s Cook, responsible for cooking for the crew, who all ate in the crew’s
mess. I never ate there. Like all pantrymen, I ate in the pantry and I’ve never eaten so well since. I mean it:
We dined on curry, steaks, wing ribs, York ham and tongue. There was Roquefort, Stilton, Bel Paese, Port
Salut and Cheddar. I also developed a taste for smoked salmon that, happily, I retain to this day. Peaches,
passion fruit, lychees and mangostines. Have you ever tasted a mangostine? They’re out of this world. Figs,
guavas...I wonder if it’s too late to go back? Sorry, I digress.
The Head Chef kept his eye on the top-side pantry, but down aft, we had our own “Big George,”
big because he was big and George because that was his name. There was also a Head Pantryman, Nick
Carter on my first voyage. He must have been near retirement, having been at sea since the year dot. He
never went ashore, having visited wherever it was, dozens of times before, except Sydney; perhaps he had
a liaison there. My lasting memory of him concerns mint sauce. There was roast lamb for dinner one
evening and he had given me the job of preparing the mint sauce. Having chopped the mint sufficiently
fine, I placed it in a large stainless steel pan, added the vinegar and then asked for the sugar.
“Sugar?” he said in horror. “For tourists? Certainly not. It makes ‘em sick!”
As a little aside, some 20 odd years afterwards, I was reading a newspaper, the Mail or the
Express, when I turned a page and there was a spread about Cuisine at Sea. It featured an interview with
the then Head Chef of P & O, complete with a photograph of one Sean Kinsella. Sean had been the Grill
Cook on Oronsay when I was there. It did not surprise me that he had done so well—he was always
immaculate and had that something extra that suggested he would go a long way.
Another person who deserves mention is the main deckman or ‘pig steward,’ as he was known.
His function was to clean the bar, the showers, the heads and keep the working gangways clean. He was
also responsible for closing portholes should there be a threat of foul weather, either fog or heavy rain or a
bit of a blow, an obviously necessary precaution. You would often come down from a spell in the pantry to
find the glass light down over the porthole or, if rough weather were expected, the steel deadlight as well.
This might soound a little claustrophobic but it was never for longer than necessary and, although the crew
accommodations were not air conditioned, ventilation was not restricted to the porthole; every bunk had its
individual blower that could deliver fresh air in whatever direction you chose; there were also bunk lights.
To describe the voyage in too great a detail might be boring but, typically, you would sail from
Tilbury, although Southampton was used for some sailings and arrivals. Many of the ports of call were for
only a brief visits such as Gibraltar and Kalamata in Greece were for no more than an hour or two. The
ship would lie at anchor and any passenger alighting or boarding would be ferried to and from shore by
ship’s tender. Naples was also for a short while but, as you were tied up at the dock, you could get ashore
for an hour or two to that “no-man’s-land” that exists around every dock area that is not representative of
the port or country you happened to be in. In Naples, it didn’t stop you from being pestered by small boys
trying to sell you souvenirs, watches, jewelry, silver and occasionally their sisters.
Apart from picking up passengers at Naples, a few English-speaking Italian crew members
occasionally joined the ship, either waiters or cabin stewards. I never inquired and can only speculate:
During the fifties’ line voyages to Australia, the company carried many emigrants, sometimes Italian
emigrants who joined there; perhaps these Italian crew members may have been for their benefit.
Port Said was a longer stay. Often tours were arranged for passengers to visit various sites of
Egyptian antiquity. This meant an overnight stay; additionally, the ship had to wait to get into convoy to go
through the Suez Canal. Having an overnight stay allowed us to go ashore for dinner. I had traveled to
come extent in Europe but Port Said was totally different. Different modes of dress, different smells,
different sights, shops open to the pavement, horse-drawn carriages in the streets, crowds of people and
vibrant with life. Egypt, of course, was an Islamic counry and I was susprised that alcohol was available.
Since it was, I did the tourist thing and sat at a roadside bar and drank Stella with ouzo.
Leaving Port Said, you headed south through the canal, still watched over by the statue of
Ferdinand de Lesseps in those days, and then down through the Red Sea, the southern part of which I
always thought was the bluest blue I ever had seen.
There was a brief stop at Aden, a dry, hot, dusty port with little to offer save beggars. One I remember had
hideously deformed legs which someone told me had been done deliberately when he was a baby in order
to gain more sympathy. I did buy a sharkskin hat there which I wore for years in the garden until my wife
made me dispose of its tattered remains. (To be continued in the Fall Gazette.)