Wednesday: I served on...

Captain Rostron & silver cup

© Liverpool University

Shake hands with the Captain

As the 20th century progressed, new technology from radar to automatic steering, made the captain's life easier. This, however, was more than matched by the growing social demands on his time. Captain Arnott of the QE2 wrote in his diary:

'365 handshakes with incoming passengers in 34 minutes.'

There were two situations when the captain never left the bridge - entering or leaving port and foggy weather.

Commodore Arthur Henry Rostron (1869-1940)

Bolton-born Arthur Rostron was one of the 20th century's most famous seafarers. He was captain of the Cunard emigrant ship Carpathia when, in 1912, he rescued over 700 survivors after the Titanic sank. This silver loving cup was presented to him in 1912 by Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown on behalf of the survivors who saved up to honour the Captain and crew.

Meet The Crew

Franconia officers & crew

Franconia officers & crew © University of Liverpool

The type of seafarers on board changed dramatically in the 20th century. The fall in the number of crew who sailed and maintained the liners was more than balanced by the growing numbers who looked after the passengers. Their job was to ensure that 'crossing was half the fun'.

Bellboys  (also stewardesses)

Bellboys (also stewardesses) © University of Liverpool

Fourteen year old bellboys scrubbed the decks before changing into their uniforms for inspection between 7-8am. They spent the day running errands for passengers and crew.

The doctor was always busy dealing with daily surgeries, occasional life-or-death dramas and the trivial complaints of passengers who had too much time on their hands. From the 1920s liners had 'hospital stewardesses'. One of their duties was to assist in childbirth.

Bedroom, deck, dining room and lounge stewards were on call from the moment a passenger woke until the last person left the dance floor. Although their basic pay was low, the best stewards could earn more than the captain through tips.

Stewardesses were originally employed to look after female emigrants and children. They were asked 'to ensure decency and order and suppress any indecorum amongst single passengers.' On White Star liners, married women could request to be looked after by a stewardess. Cunard charged extra for personal stewardesses for those women who were so used to servants that they could not dress themselves.

The Sergeant-at-Arms was the liner's policeman. On sailing day he stood at the top of the gangway looking for troublemakers. At night during the crossing, he patrolled the decks.

The working alleyway

Hundreds of seafarers - butchers, kitchen boys, laundry women and storekeepers - worked long hours out of sight of passengers to deliver the service that Cunard and White Star promised.

In hot weather the kitchen was like a furnace. During a storm it could roll at a 40 degree angle. Sharp knives flew from the work surfaces and boiling liquid splashed from the pans which were only filled two thirds full in such conditions. There were over 50 cooks on a large liner.

The butcher's shop prepared meat for the kitchens and carved roasts ready for the dining rooms, while the storekeeper was in charge of the larders. He worked with the chef and the purser to plan the menus and avoid waste.

Most liners had their own print shop. In the 1950s, on each day of the crossing, the Queen Mary's printers delivered 18,000 menus as well as The Ocean Times newspaper and the programme of events for each class of passenger.

Deck boys and donkeymen

Passengers rarely met the deck and engineering crew who steered the liner, looked after its vast machinery and kept it shipshape from mast to boiler room.

Liverpool teenagers often went to sea as deck boys on the liners. Each morning they rose very early to scrub and hose down the decks before the first passengers came up for exercise before breakfast. They also painted empty cabins and cleaned portholes.

The donkeyman and his team of greasers kept engines and other deck equipment like cranes and capstans running smoothly. In the early days of steam, such machinery had been powered by a donkey engine.

The black squad

Hundreds of men made up the 'black squad' of firemen and trimmers working deep in the hold of early 20th century liners. They stoked the coal to feed the boilers that kept the engines running. The work was almost as hot, dirty and dangerous as that of a miner, especially in rough seas. Many of the black squad on Atlantic liners came from Liverpool. They were tough, hard-drinking men who rarely mixed with the other crew on board.

At the start of each watch, the look-outs climbed up a ladder within the mast to reach the crow's nest, around 200 ft (61 m) from the deck. Armed with powerful binoculars, they scanned the ocean for rocks, icebergs or wreckage. In fog their job was vital. They had to be good sailors as in rough seas the mast might swing 50-60 degrees every two minutes.

Crew in Pig & Whistle

Crew in Pig and Whistle © University of Liverpool

Off duty

Off-duty crew relaxed in the Pig 'n' Whistle – possibly named after a popular pub near Liverpool’s Pier Head,. While officers had their own messes and wardrooms, female crew had few opportunities for social life other than meeting in each others' cabins. The routine of darts, singsongs, betting and card games was sometimes broken when a celebrity passenger made a guest appearance.

On the Olympic (1911) 24 stewards shared the same amount of space as a couple in a first class cabin. Half a century later, many crew cabins were still quite basic.

The food was usually good. Although they often had to eat standing up, stewards enjoyed leftovers from the dining room or a steak from the kitchen. When they returned to Liverpool on leave, many seafarers longed for beans on toast.


Listen to Frances Milroy - Lady Assistant Purser on the Queens

Read a transcript of the audio clip