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Peter Lyon: A Life in Merchant Shipping

Peter Lyon

Published 4th November 2016

My father was born in Dumbarton and after the 1920s economic crash sought his fortune in Australia, before travelling to Hong Kong and then India in 1938. His timing was fortunate, as many of his contemporaries were murdered by the Japanese. My grandfather was among those taken prisoner in Hong Kong and tortured by the      Japanese. 

I was born in Bombay in 1940. We had a pretty good lifestyle, although there were occasional riots as India was seeking independence. I spent six years there. I wasn’t really aware of the political landscape at that age, although you are aware when people shoot at you from time to time.

I remember coming to England on a ship called RMS Scythia, a White Star liner converted to a troop ship. I caused my parents some anguish because I disappeared after boarding and was found with some Italian prisoners of war who made a great fuss of me, as they would any child. 

On my sixth birthday, I was supposed to be allowed on to the bridge of the ship, but was disappointed to be told that I couldn’t. They had sighted a mine in the Mediterranean, which had to be blown up by small arms fire. That was a pretty good birthday display as far as I was concerned!

In Liverpool we had a big family reunion with relatives, including my grandfather who’d been repatriated. I did go to school in that time and had difficulty in understanding the scouse accent. They had the same problem understanding me!

My family eventually moved down to London. The winter of 1946-47 was extremely severe and of course I had never known cold weather before. My parents found it hard to adjust with rationing after the war. If you were not local it was difficult finding good meat and my father couldn’t buy cigarettes as they were sold under the counter to regulars. I recall we had no furniture because it was all waiting in India. It took a long time for it all to be shipped over. In our lounge we only had two deckchairs, a couple of rugs and a tiger skin! 

My father used coupons to have clothes made for me and my brother back in India. We had different sizes that we would grow into, but these clothes didn’t accord with what everybody else was wearing in London! We both had to learn how to fight from a fairly early age to defend our honour.

I attended grammar school and when the time came to decide what I wanted to do for work, I decided to go to sea. After a year as a cadet in Southampton I joined the Merchant Navy as an officer cadet at 17, with Liverpool’s Blue Funnel Line. At that age, you’re handed all of the dirty jobs. When you become an officer, you need to understand how everything aboard the ship is done and you can’t tell somebody how to do something unless you can do it yourself.

I spent most of my 13 years in the Merchant Navy on the Far East Run, travelling to places including Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, China and Thailand. There are long periods of inactivity on ocean trips but there are also many perils of the sea – accidents, illness, collisions, fires, groundings, refugees – so every journey is unpredictable. One of the biggest problems in the Merchant Navy is the way stevedores load cargo. Things are thrown in and are damaged and this led to all sorts of enquiries and delays.

At the time of the Great Revolution of Chairman Mao and his Red Guards, visits to China were fraught with danger. Guards would come on board merchant ships and demand that we shut down all of the ship’s wireless operations and navigational equipment. They would come on board, search the ship and even take over the captain’s cabin. Soldiers would sit in the lounge with their feet on the table demanding booze and cigarettes.

On one occasion, we reached Shanghai and Red Guards came aboard. We were searched at gunpoint and then marched ashore, where we were lined up in the freezing cold. Strangely, we were asked if we would like to play a game of ping-pong. Six of us agreed to a match. 

We were whisked off to a wonderful club called the Shanghai Seamen’s Club, which had one of the longest bars in the world. It was a place where sailors and traders of different nationalities would all meet, as Shanghai was a fantastic trading port. Me and five other sailors then walked into a huge marble hall to a round of applause. I looked up and there was a big sign saying ‘Shanghai Youth Team versus England.’

The Shanghai table tennis team came in with T-shirts, shorts and sweatbands on whilst we wore trousers, jackets and leather shoes. Of course, we were absolutely hammered! So I was an international table tennis player, and played very poorly for my country! 

After losing, we wanted to return to the port, but our car was gone. The only option was rickshaw bicycles, so we attempted to hire one. It proved difficult and we got the impression that the Chinese felt it would be socially unjust for us to pay people to peddle us around the city. So we said ‘Okay, let’s do it the other way. You sit and we’ll peddle!’ So the six of us sailors all raced through Shanghai! The Chinese drivers must have enjoyed it as they started betting on the outcome! 

China could be a strange experience. People would try and stick Chairman Mao badges on us and we’d have competitions to see who could collect the most. Sometimes, our communications would be shut down for several weeks, as they were very concerned about us taking note of Chinese warships and passing details on to the Royal Navy.  

The Royal Navy at Hong Kong would sometimes try to persuade us to do that - write down names of Chinese warships. We’d tell them to take a hike. If the Chinese ever suspected us of such things we’d have been locked up and a spell in a Chinese jail wasn’t very attractive!

It was commonplace to spot sea creatures on our trips. During one voyage in the Southern Ocean we embedded the bow of the ship in the carcass of a large whale and we couldn’t shake it off. We spent a couple of days heading for the West coast of Australia dragging this stinking carcass until we reached Albany, where some guys literally hacked it away from the boat. When we travelled from Indonesia to the east coast of Australia we would navigate around the Great Barrier Reef and there were all sorts of sharks. Nobody went swimming!

Eventually, merchant ships started to reduce the size of crews because of competition with container-ships, and a lot of the shipping companies disappeared overnight. I got out just in time in 1969, after 13 years, and joined the Port of London Authority. From there, I took a job with the National Ports Council, a government agency, as head of nautical research. That was all going well until Margaret Thatcher felt that the axe should fall on just about everybody and the whole place was shut down. 

I formed my own maritime research and consultancy practice with colleagues in 1980. We provided expertise on port operations around the world, eventually working in about 40 different countries. Much of our work was based in Hong Kong. There was always very good cooperation between the various European countries, which is why I’m sorry to see that we’ve voted to leave the EU. Those links have taken many years to build. 

My work involved a lot of travel and was quite varied, as container-ships can carry anything from household goods to hazardous materials that require in-depth risk analysis. I sold the business to a bigger company. They have taken Eagle, Lyon, Pope Ltd on to the next level. 

I met my wife Margaret in 1963. One of the things that always struck me about travelling was the different customs and greetings. Margaret comes from a little place in the north-east of Scotland, so when I agreed to pick her up for our date at half seven, to Margaret that meant 30 minutes to seven. When I turned up at 7:30pm, she was rather displeased! But we married in 1965 and are still together over 50 years later.

For 20 years, we owned a motor cruiser and enjoyed travelling. Margaret has joined me on trips back to some of my favourite places in the Far East. I have also returned to Bombay, where I was born. I was with a client and his aunt lived in the same block of flats that I grew up in. So I went there and we enjoyed a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label.

I remember seeing a well-polished brass sign in the lift, reading ‘Servants not allowed unless accompanied by children.’ The sign was still there when I went back. 

We lived in London near the edge of Epping Forest but after I retired it seemed unnecessary to have a big place so we moved to Billingshurst to be nearer to our three children and grandchildren. We moved in just a few days before Christmas and everybody on the street dropped in a card and offered help. We have the occasional street party and when it snows everybody helps clear the driveways. 

I joined the Billingshurst and Weald Probus Club, which is a great way to meet people. Margaret and I also volunteer with the Community Minibus Scheme, which recently received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. 

During our move here, I found a shoebox with some medals and a little silver pocket watch which belonged to my grandfather, Captain Henry Griffiths. I was quite taken with it as a child. My mother used to tell me about my grandfather’s adventures. In the First World War he was taken prisoner aboard a German cruiser before being released and in the Second World War he was captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong. Having found his old items, I felt compelled to find out more about merchant shipping during the First World War.

I found it very difficult to get any real information at all. I discovered that most of the merchant shipping logbooks were cleared out long ago, and records for only one year in every five were kept in the national archives. I bought many books but couldn’t find much in-depth coverage of what really happened to merchant seafarers at that time. 

I was becoming a bit annoyed by the lack of material available. So I thought, well, if there aren’t any good books on the subject, then I will bloody well write one!

The research was a struggle but a German historian connected me to the naval intelligence archives, which proved fascinating. Some of the information has only been recently released after 100 years of protection under the Official Secrets Act. So I was going through documents in a locked room with a security guard for company.

Merchant seamen didn’t have a good public image and because of this they were seen as dispensable and treated in the most appalling ways. They were civilians working on normal trade routes, just trying to get around, and yet they suffered a very high loss of life; far higher than the Royal Navy, without any of the heroics. So I wanted to find out what sort of men they really were and reveal a few unknown stories because the loss of life was horrendous.  

I uncovered many interesting stories. One was from the inquiry of the Lusitania, an ocean liner sunk by a German submarine in 1915 with the loss of 1,198 lives. I was fascinated by an account of the Morton brothers, who left Liverpool on a ship across the Atlantic to New York, only to discover it was then heading on to Australia. The brothers didn’t fancy that trip so they cabled their father in Liverpool and he sent them £38, enough for two tickets home. As it turned out, the Cunard liner needed crewmen, so the brothers were given a seaman’s berth. Armed with £38, they had one hell of a night out in New York before boarding the ill-fated Lusitania. One of them was extremely courageous and helped save many lives. 

I also found a story of a woman aboard a sinking ship, who refused to board a lifeboat until she had rescued her favourite pink hat! There are also some cases in which dreadful things are rumoured to have happened.

‘Merchant Seafaring Through World War 1: 1914-1918’ (ISBN: 9771910878415) is my first book. I posted the manuscript to various publishers and ended up besieged by self-publishers on the internet who told me that my marvellous book deserved international exposure, even though they had never read it! 

Eventually it was published through The Book Guild and is available at Waterstones and local bookshops. I’ve had good feedback and it could be that I produce a second edition as some interesting material has come to light recently.  

There was a huge ship building programme after the Second World War and trade was very good throughout the 1950s and 60s. Now crews are much smaller due to the costs involved, and merchant seamen enjoy very little time ashore and the social life isn’t the same. Looking back, I think I was in the Merchant Navy at the best time in history, so I’ve been very fortunate.

Interview: Ben Morris
New Pictures: Toby Phillips