Hearth and home

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Photo of man and woman arm in arm

Photo sent by Mrs Alice Solomon in Sierra Leone to her husband. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

A young Merchant Navy officer lived opposite us and for months his mother would wait with growing anticipation for him to return home on leave. There was always a big party when Gordon arrived – so packed that they took the downstairs doors away to make more space. The following morning empty beer bottles were placed neatly around the front gate – and at intervals all the way to the bus stop.

The downside of going to sea can be that seafarers leave home, family and friends for weeks or months at a time. In the days of sail they could be away for several years and no-one would know whether they were alive or dead.

While many mariners and their families are often able to cope with this occupational hazard, others cannot. Long voyages and lack of contact made family life especially difficult for the crews of sailing ships. Sailors on steam and motor ships usually benefitted from shorter voyages and faster communication. Occasionally, captain’s wives and children accompanied them.

Today seafarers stay in regular touch and close family can even accompany them on some ships. The arrival of mobile ‘phones, texting and e-mails in recent years means that mariners can communicate with home in many parts of the world and even on the high seas with cheap satellite links.

On the other hand, many seafarers have found leaving the sea to be a painful experience. The longer someone is at sea the harder it may be to leave or “swallow the anchor”. My late cousin Ken Guy was a chief petty officer in the Royal Navy and experienced major challenges after he left. He was so used to people obeying his commands that he had few interpersonal skills.

Marriage and parenthood often marked the beginning of the end of a seagoing career. For many the experience was made worse because jobs were hard to find ashore.

In the Life at Sea gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a display called Family Life.There are photographs sent by Mrs Alice Solomon from Sierra Leone to her husband who served as a clerk on the Volta Palm in the early 1950s (one is shown here).

A creamware jug inscribed The Greenwich Pensioner was possibly made in Liverpool between 1780 and 1800. Two retired sailors, one with a wooden leg and the other with a hook for a hand, are seen sitting outside an inn.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).