Dr Leo John De Freitas, reflects on his father’s life as a seafarer and how the Mission to Seafarers offered him support when he needed it most.
“My father was never forth-coming about his time at sea no matter how many times I asked him about it. It was a period of his life that ‘just happened’ and was terminated abruptly due to accident, a woman (of course) and a new life. He was hopeless with dates, names of the ships and boats he sailed on, voyages he made and events that occurred. He certainly had no time for ‘romanticising’ life at sea as a deckhand in the mercantile marine in the 1930s and he had, in any case, no skill in drawing pictures in words or embellishing his experiences. What follows is what a son remembers from the snippets he dropped.
One holiday in the 1950s we, my father and I, were walking along the sea-front at Hastings, in East Sussex, when he suddenly stopped, told me to stay that side of the road and crossed over to stand before a lady with a collecting box. I saw, to my amazement, that he put a one-pound note (which was a lot of money for us at that time) into her box. When he returned to me, I asked him about what he had done. ‘Just paying back a favour I suppose’ was his cryptic reply. Nothing more; but I never forgot the act and clearly neither did he.
Many years later, now in my thirties and he in his sixties, I reminded him of that day and his act of generosity and to my surprise he too remembered it.
‘But who was it you gave the money to?’ I asked.
‘The Flying Angel’ he replied.
‘And who are they?’
‘People who help seamen in trouble.’
‘And you were in trouble as a seaman?’ (he had for decades left the sea and was a carpenter).
‘During the war, I think it was’ he said. ‘Yes, right at the beginning.’
“My father may be said to have ‘run away’ to sea sometime before his 20th birthday. He was an ‘Island boy’ in Trinidad at a time and place where work and opportunities in the Caribbean islands were very scarce to come by, but he had managed to ship out (illegally I was led to presume, certainly unofficially) on a Norwegian ship as a deck hand. He had made the break from the Islands and was looking forward to a life of freedom and success (an early act of defiance/intention was to have a shipmate ‘tattoo’ the word ‘Liberty’ on his chest surmounted by a crude rendition of an eagle.) However, this was not fated to be.
Without being melodramatic about it, the men of our family have never enjoyed unqualified triumph in life (my grandfather, for example, was a failed merchant of Portuguese descent who lost most of his wealth in Surinam in bad debts owing him) and my father, unwittingly, was continuing the custom. He sailed off just as the Second World War was about to break.
His Norwegian ship was making back to its home port but called in to the London or Cardiff docks (my father was uncertain about this) first. Once there his Captain insisted on paying him off as he was a British subject, and this would be a home port.
My father ignorant of all official procedure (he was always to be at odds with bureaucracy and officialdom) left his berth and entered the world of the docklands with little money, no friends, no experience and (most importantly) no official papers – barring a letter of recommendation from the captain. At this point my father’s recollections became very vague but what was certain was that he quickly found himself very much alone and destitute in an uncaring world. A very unpleasant experience. Without official papers he couldn’t get work on any ships – and in any case his ‘experience’ was not exactly extensive – and his money quickly went.
At this juncture he recalled what his mother’s parting advice had been: “If you are in trouble, go and see your priest.” He was in trouble; his meagre money had run out, he had no food, no accommodation and just the clothes he stood in. So, he sought out a Roman Catholic priest for help. The ‘help’ he was given was something along the lines that such-and-such an alley backed on to cafes and restaurants and he might be able to find scraps there! That was it. Nothing more. No immediate relief of his condition and needs, just go and search for what others had thrown away to survive on.
His brief life as a fo’c’sle seaman had brought him into contact with socialist ideology and this dreadful encounter with ‘his’ priest, and the apparent lack of compassion shown to his condition, pretty well ended his religious convictions; he never ever lost the fear of fire and brimstone the Church threatened, but he was more than suspicious of the established religions from then on – which was good, as it was the basis of many many riotous discussions and arguments we had across the years!
At this point enter the Flying Angel Mission. He couldn’t recall the exact details of how they found or rescued him, and all he could tell me was ‘They found me, fed me, put me in a sheltered place and got me a berth’. For this he was forever grateful. He did return to sea (what marvels the Mission could achieve! But then there was now a full-blown war on and the need for seamen was serious and immediate) first on coasting vessels (which he apparently hated for no reason he could tell me) and then deep-sea ships. In time he joined the T42 programme, a fleet auxiliary group, and served on ocean going tugs (one he thought was called the ‘Samson’ which he joined in Texas, where it was being built, in order to sail it back to Britain). ‘I was lucky, I suppose’ he once said, ‘I never came under fire although we towed a number of damaged and sinking ships into ports. We lost one, and I tell you boy there is nothing so sad as to watch a ship slip beneath the waves before your eyes. There goes your home, your livelihood, your world. Horrible and horribly, deeply, sad.’ It was the closest I got to my ‘seafaring’ father’s heart and his words made a profound impression on me.
Whether at this time or later I believe he was made a junior petty officer (bosun), but his good fortune was not to last long. Splicing a wire hawser a strand flew back into his face and he was blinded in one eye. This (‘he thought’) happened in Malta. He was sent back to Scotland and was discharged unfit for sea duties but given the opportunity to re-train as a carpenter which he did. He had already met my mother, Catherine, at a dance in Dundee and he sought her out and they made a life of it together for the next fifty or so years; she died aged 98 and he died 8th February 2019 aged 102.
I am certain I would never have known this anecdote from my father’s brief sea life had it not been for that chance encounter on Hastings promenade with the lady collecting for the Flying Angel Mission to Seamen (as I think it was then entitled). My father certainly never forgot what he owed to the Mission even if he made no song and dance about it. It wasn’t his way.”