Life on board for the children

formal portrait of the 3 Bech children

The Bech family pictured around 1935, left to right Barbara, Sonia, Derek.  Reproduced courtesy of Derek Bech.

City of Benares departed at 6pm on Friday 13 September, 1940 from the main landing stage at Liverpool. She was to be part of convoy OB (outward bound) 213, made up of 19 vessels, with City of Benares as the Commodore or lead ship. Normally a ship would not have wanted to depart on such an unlucky date, but they had no choice as the Royal Navy escort group sailing with the convoy had to leave that day in order not to be late to meet an incoming convoy in the Atlantic in a few days time.

On board were 90 children from the CORB scheme (referred to as the Sea Evacuees, or ‘Seavacs’ for short), who had spent the two previous nights in temporary dormitories at The Sherwood Lane Senior Girls School in the Fazakerley area of Liverpool. Two of these, Michael Brooker and Patricia Allen (from Liverpool) had the misfortune to be on the CORB ship Volendam which had sunk previously, and were looked upon as veterans by the other children.  

Ten more children were also to set sail, not part of the CORB scheme but whose parents could afford to pay for a private berth. They had spent the night at the famous Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. Amongst them were the Bech family from Bognor Regis – Derek aged 9, Sonia aged 11, Barbara aged 14, and their mother Marguerite.

Listen to Derek explain their reasons for going, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

colourful poster advertising the ship in a newspaper supplement

Front cover of Supplement to the Journal of Commerce, 30 September 30 1936, with shipping poster showing City of Benares by Frank H Mason. From Maritime Archives, reference DX1264, shown with kind permission of IHS Maritime and Trade.

There was a team of 11 to look after the CORB children, including three male and three female escorts.  

Also on board City of Benares were 91 other passengers. Her crew of 203 was made up of 43 European and 166 Asian crew (at the time called 'Lascars'). As lead convoy ship, there were also six convoy staff on board, making a total of 406 on board.

For the children, the ship must have loomed large on the quayside, exotic and exciting as it was supposed to look on the shipping posters (but painted dark brown and black and with extra guns fixed to the decks). For most of them it was a big adventure. They were used to rationing, air raids, bombings, and from modest backgrounds. The comfort and relative opulence of the City of Benares must have made her seem like a floating palace and one giant playground all in one. 

Listen to Barbara describe the luxury on board, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

The CORB children were housed together at the aft (back) end of the main deck in the 3rd class accommodation. They were kept apart from the paying passengers (including the non-CORB children like the Bechs), some of whom had no idea that the CORB children were on board.

Listen to Barbara explain how little they knew about the other children on board, or read the transcript below.

The CORB children were looked after by their escorts, and filled their time playing games in the enormous playroom and enjoying what must have seemed like huge meals after rationing at home.  After three full days and four nights at sea, they had settled down for a fifth night on 17 September, 1940.  


Reason for going

Derek Bech: "I don’t really remember how it came about other than the British Government was encouraging families to evacuate away from the coast because they thought the Germans would invade and that we’d all be exterminated so my mother, as Barbara says, had a distant relation in Canada and she wrote to him, a simple letter asking whether he could accommodate us if we managed to get a passage and he said yes."

Luxury on board

Barbara Partridge (nee Bech): "It was exactly as it would have been stocked for it to going out to India and I mean in our dining rooms there were the Lascar waiters, blue turbans, white tunics, with blue jacket on top, white napkins over their arms, two to each table and a menu as long as you get now."

Lack of knowledge

Barbara Partridge (nee Bech): "I think was what so different from nowadays, it was a ship that had done the route to India and it had 1st class accommodation and 3rd class accommodation and in those days they were completely separate and there was no communication between the two lots of passengers, there were doors, they had different decks, they had different lounges, they had different dining rooms, and we discovered, I think subsequently, we were sort of given cabins in what was the 1st class accommodation, very comfortable, they weren’t even bunks you know we each had a bed each, my sister and I and my mother and Derek had a cabin opposite with similar layout, very comfortable indeed.  And there was a big dining room and a 1st class lounge was lovely and a little corner which was a library, which since I was a bookworm that’s where I spent my time, and you could go out on the decks in daylight, nobody was allowed on deck once it was dark, and I think to begin with we had no idea that the 3rd class accommodation had been almost entirely occupied by Seavacs - children.  We just didn’t know they were there and it was really you know we never enquired who was in the other half of the ship."