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Christmas at sea

Online exhibition

Now that December has arrived and our thoughts turn to Christmas, we take a look at those who have spent their Christmas at sea. Seafarers, by the very nature of their work, often found it impossible to be home for Christmas.

This online exhibition of items from the Maritime Archives and Library considers the merchant seafarers and passengers who spent their Christmas at sea and looks at how they brought some traditional festive cheer to the day. Select each thumbnail to see the full image.

Journal of FW Tritton, a steward on a voyage on the 'SS Ghazee' from Birkenhead to China, Japan and Odessa in 1890. Tritton had left the Mersey in October 1890 and was in Kobe, Japan on Christmas Day. Read the transcript on the page below. Reference: DX/684/1/1 Handmade Christmas card by G Smith, catering crew member with the Booth Line. Smith sent this Christmas card home to his mother from the Booth Line ship, 'Hilary' whilst on a voyage from Liverpool to South America in 1911. On Christmas Day 1911 the 'Hilary' left Madeira on her return journey to Liverpool. Reference: DX/744 The message inside G Smith's card reads 'A tiny card and words so few, Oh! what a simple token, And yet a seal of friendship true. A link to ne'er be broken. A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year is the sincere wish of G Smith. RMS Hilary. At sea. Xmas 1911. Reference: DX/744 Handmade crew menu from the 'SS Jekri' in 1927 (detail on the right shows the section hidden by the pink flap). The Elder Dempster ship sailed from Sierra Leone, West Africa on December 21, heading home to the UK. Reference: DX/1058 Copy of Christmas message from King George VI to British and Allied Merchant Ships on 24 December 1942, received by the 'Comedian', Harrison Line. The 'Comedian' was part of convoy ON153 crossing the North Atlantic when she received this message.  She had endured horrendous weather and successive U-boat attacks and her captain in his description of the crossing said 'Although I have served in both wars at sea, and in the employ of the Harrison Line, this was my worst experience'.  The message would no doubt be a welcome lift to their spirits. Read the transcript on the page below. Reference: DX/2456 Wartime log of Jack Hanson in Milag Nord, including a message from the British Red Cross. Hanson was captured from the ship 'Rangitane' of New Zealand Shipping Company when it was intercepted and sunk off East Cape, New Zealand on 26 November 1940 by a German commerce raider. He kept this wartime log during his imprisonment.  Reference: DX/1948 Wartime log of Jack Hanson in Milag Nord, including Christmas greetings from the German prisoner of war camp Milag Nord, 1942.  The verse reads 'And the sun sinks in the west, There's thoughts of those I love the best. To them, and all, I sincerely send Christmas Greetings, and apend, The hope, that nineteen forty-three, A Happy, Good New Year, will be'. Reference: DX/1948 Crew menu from Blue Funnel's 'SS Patroclus', in the shape of a funnel (both sides shown). The 'Patroclus' was on the return leg of her trip to Japan. She left Kobe on 6 December, heading for Liverpool. On Christmas Day she was at sea but still managed to have a traditional Christmas dinner with turkey, mince pies and Christmas cake.  Reference: DX/2312 Children's Christmas party menu from 'RMS Queen Mary', Las Palmas Christmas cruise, December 1963. This was the Queen Mary's maiden cruise. Changing travel trends in the 1960s eventually led to more emphasis on cruising for Cunard. Reference: DX/1915 Inside the 1963 Christmas party menu from 'RMS Queen Mary' is the announcement 'Father Christmas arrives at 4.30pm' and a list of party goodies: 'Peaches and Custard, Fruit Jelly and Blancmange, Christmas Cake, Yule Log, Christmas Ice Shapes, Iced Lollies, Nuts, Christmas Crackers, Fresh Fruit, Lemonade, Milk, Orangeade'. Reference: DX/1915


FW Tritton's journal, 25 December 1890

Shown in the first image in the gallery above.

"Beautiful frosty day. Being Christmas Day we had the ship dressed. On each of the masts we had a large holly tree and another on the bows and one on the flagstaff aft. We also had large bunches of holly at the ends of our yards and right from the bows stretching over both masts to the stern we had a long string of flags and pennants which looked very pretty blowing about in the breeze. The saloon was correspondingly decorated. For dinner we had turkey, jugged hare, beef curry, duff or Spotted Dick as the sailors term it, Sipsy cake, peach soufflé, fruit and wines of every description. So you see we could not have done better at home."

Christmas message to 'SS Comedian', Harrison Line

Shown in the 5th image in the gallery above.

"To "British & allied Merchant Ships", All areas.

The following is a gracious message from HM the King addressed to the British Merchant Navy & Fishing Fleets - Buckingham Palace -

Today is Christmas Day, the festival of peace & home, but most of you to whom I send this message, the officers and men of the Merchant Navy & Fishing Fleets, are spending it far from your own folk. It is to them that your thoughts are turning as you stand your watch on the bridge, or at gunstation, in the engineroom, or stokehold, and they too, you may be sure, are thinking of you with gratitude & pride. In that, the whole nation joins them, for there is scarcely one of us on shore who does not know the extent to which the safety of our common heritage of hearth & home depends on you. At this festival of peace, in the midst of a world at war, I send you greetings & pray in the old familiar words that you & the ships in which you serve may return in safety to enjoy the blessing of the land & the fruits of your labours.

George RI"