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15 October 2014
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A Cabin Boy's Letters

by beryl phillips

Contributed by 
beryl phillips
People in story: 
Dennis Collier
Location of story: 
Merchant Navy somewhere at sea
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 March 2004

Dennis Collier age 11

My story begins around June/July 1941 - I was only 5 years old - I was living with my mother in Farnborough, Kent, when she received a telegram informing her that my brother, Dennis Collier, was lost at sea. The memory of her reading that telegram will live forever in my mind.
I believe that some time in 1940 my brother, aged 16, decided he would run away to sea. He joined the Merchant Navy. don’t know the why’s and wherefore’s as my mother and father never discussed the subject after the war, but I believe he told the authorities that he was 18 at the time. He had been a good swimmer at school and had won a silver Junior Championship Cup in 1938 when he swam for the Beckenham J.T.S and J.T.D Sports Day. I can just remember him carrying me on his shoulders, he was a good 6 ft tall, when I was 4 or 5.
I remember that my brother, who was 11 years older than me, was a very loving brother and son and after he joined the M.N. he wrote a few letters to my mother some of which I would like to share with you.
During those first few months that my brother joined the Merchant Navy, he wrote several letters of which 3 have survived. The first (undated) was sent from T.S. Vindicatrix, Canal Berth, Sharpness Docks, Gloucestershire:-
"Dear Mum & Dad,
Thank you so much for your postal order which I received on Friday. I do hope you are keeping well as I am, and I hope you will soon settle down in our new home. Well dad & mum I’m afraid I’ve got a dissapointment for you. I have inquired about getting home (Ireland) on leave to several of my shipmates but I assure you It is imppossible for me to get over their in the time which I am allowed for leave. Even if I could manage to get over their I couldn’t get back.
I shall be at this place for another two weeks. I am going in for my exam and I am sure I shall pass so I shall need your consent to get any leave. What you have to do is write to the captain, (put it in your next letter to me) and ask him if your son can have his leave in his seventh week.
When I come back from leave I shall proberly be hear for another 4 weeks.
I’m afraid I shall have to go to Grandmas for my leave. I hope you understand what a dissapointment this is to me.
I’m so sorry you had to sell the car at £3 still I suppose it was the best thing to do. I should go home next Saturday week. So as you see there is not much time. ........."
The rest of the letter is missing.
The next letter is dated Oct. 11th 1940 from the same address:-
"Dear Ma,
I want to thank you very much for your parcel. Everything that was in it was exactly what I shall want when I get to sea, and that wont be more than two weeks. Think of it only those few days and I shall be earning £8-10-0 per month, and oh boy wont I be glad.
I shall get a pair of boots out of the stores, and they will put it on my bill. I shall have to do this as I wont have time to get them mended.
When I go to sea I can have an advance off the following months wages, but I don’t want to do this if I can help it. But if I will be in dock for perhaps a week what am I going to do for cash if I don’t draw any money.
I shall pay in for a pension, (2s sd per week) and also as soon as I can I’m going to see the purser about letting mum have money every month, you know what I mean, send her a little to help her along, and when I get some leave I shall then give her the bulk of it. The idea of paying mum so much a week is; that if anything should happen to me, mum would get compensation. On the other hand, if I didn’t give mum any money per week, she would not get any at all.
I had a letter from grandma (dads) and she says she’s been very ill. She sent me 2/- P.O. and so I wrote back and thanked her for it and hoped she would soon be better. I wrote to Mrs Smith and she wrote back and sent me a loverly parcel with a 20 packet of fags, a swiss roll, some biscuits, half a doz. apples and best of all 3 of my woollen shirts. I have already wrote back to her. (Please don’t think I wrote and asked her for these things).
Since I passed my lifeboat I have been in what they call working party and believe me this is hard work. I’ve managed to get a pretty easy job though, painting. Me and another fellow have to paint the mess deck and bed deck. I have had jobs like scrubbing and even cleaning out the lavatories for a week, but I was taken off these when I had my arm (?).
Every Wenesday we have a half holyday and we usually have running, boat pulling or swimming. Blow me down was it cold in the water last Wenesday. In the evening we have silent pictures and sometimes they are quite good.
I go to the pictures every Saturday regular. Every other evening I play snooker, in fact I’ve played so much that I’m really good now.
Well now ma I think thats about all except that I should sooner keep my ring on me so Cheerio for now, hoping to hear from you soon.
From your Everloving Son DENNIS XXXXXX
ps (Thank dad for the Bible)
pps (talking about growth of Beryl, you want to see me now) XXX,
Love to you all, XXX "
The ring he refers to was given to him by his father and I think it belonged to his Uncle Edgar Collier who had been killed a few years before in China.
Then, later on in 1940 just before Christmas, Dennis wrote the last letter my mother received from him:-
"Dear Mum & Dad,
Please forgive me for not writing before this, but I think you will understand when I explain. You will remember when I was at Liverpool and wrote home to you, asking you to send me a £1. Well, I received the money on the Friday I think it was. Well to get on. On the Saturday morning me and my pal went out to get what I wanted. Then it was getting on for 12 oclock and 12 is (or rather was) our dinner hour. When we got back I said to him "We’ll go out this afternoon and get the rest of the stuff, and then says I, I’ll have 5 or 6 bob left and we’ll go to a dance.
Evidently we weren’t destined to go to the dance for at exactly 1 oclock we were summonded over to the federation. They had a ship for me, but not for my mate. Me and my mate talked it over and we agreed that I should go. So, I went. I went down to "Sign-on" and have a look at the boat. It’s a "Union Castle" boat. The accommodation is the best one could wish for.
When I’d signed on I asked for an advance note so that I could send you £2 but they asked me how much I owed the sea school and when I told them £2.13.6 they said, "We’re terribly sorry but I’m afraid you can’t have any more than you owe them. Well I hope you understand now why I haven’t sent you any money. But just you wait till I come home and will you have a surprise.
Well dear mum I suppose you want to know why I haven’t wrote before.
Well I’ll tell you.

I signed-on on the Tuesday and we sailed for "Cape Town" on the Wenesday.
We sailed out of Liverpool at 11 oclock.
The weather was fine and everybody was in good spirits until, half past four in the morning.
Suddenly the was a terrific bump and it nearly through me out of bed. Everybody put on there boots and rushed up on deck to see what on earth had happened. When we got up their there was another boat with her stern all torn away and our bows hanging off.
Anyway the skipper of our boat gave immediate orders to turn back.
You see they didn’t know to what extent the damage was.
Next day found us three miles off Glasgow.
Well we layed there for 3 weeks and then came down to a little port where we are now.
There wasn’t much damage except a bit of our gear and the captain had a broken leg. (We’ve a new Capt. now.)
I don’t think theres any more I can say about that except we are going to sail (next bit was cut out) now theyve repaired us.
Well I suppose you want to know what work I do and what the grubs like and the accommodation.
I’m what the A.Bs call a "Peggy". I look after the sailors. You know like a mother. I wash up, clean there rooms, keep the lavortories clean, scrub floor and get there grub. I’m woke every morning at 6 oclock and I have a wash and make a cup of tea for those who are up.
At 7.15 am I wake up the rest and lay the table for breakfast. They finish their breakfast at 8 am and I wash up. Then I clean the lav. the mess room, their rooms and my own room. If I get done early I have a smoke or go on deck, at 12 I get the dinner, wash up again and I’m off all the afternoon till then I get the stores for the next day. Now mum listen to this this is what I get every day for 13 men 1-1/2 lb of butter, 4 lb of sugar 1 lb of tea ½ lb of coffee 3 loaves and 2 tins of milk. How would you like that. Well ma thats all about my work except tea at 5 pm, wash up, and bed, or a game of cards a jaw or listen to the wireless.
Now about the grub all I can say its marvellous how they do it we get fish & chips, eggs and bacon, steak and tomatoes, or currie and rice, for breakfast, lovely dinners and always a hot tea. And supper if you want it.
Now about the accomadation.
All the quarters are painted white, and theirs one cabin between 3 sailors. (I’ve got a small cabin to myself though.) The floors are all red sandstone. In each room there’s an electric heater a wardrobe a table and of course your bunk. (We’ve sheets as well). The lavortory is all tiled and we’ve also got a shower in the mess room. I’ve got (I say "I" because I’m in charge of all the grub, etc.) Cutlery, cups, and plates, and best of all a larder.
So you see I’ve got a fine job. Well ma I think thats all I can think of now. I’ll be seeing you about 2 months after Xmas, so keep me a big bit of turkey, and a piece of pud.
Well cheerio for now and all the best
From your ever
Loving Son
With all my best wishes for a Merry Xmas & a happy and prosperous New Year to you all.
P.S. I hope Beryl will soon be able to make a better job of writing a letter than I ever would. xxxx
Oh by the way. You cant reply to me yet as I’m not sure which is our first stop. Still I shall write again as soon as possible.
I’ll be looking forward to seeing you in 2 months time. XX"
I believe that my brother went missing at the beginning of 1941 because I have a letter from the Registrar of Seaman, Wood Street Schools, Cardiff in reply to a letter my mother had sent on 20th March 1941 asking them to trace the whereabouts of her son. All they said was that he was engaged on the S.S. "River Lugar" 165909 Destination: Foreign and that the owners were Ayrshire Navigation Co .Ltd., 33 High Bridge, Newcastle-on-Tyne.
My mother received a letter dated 15th July 1941 from Ayrshire Navigation Co.Ltd., 9 Kensington Terrace, Newcastle-on-Tyne saying:
"Dear Madam,
We regret to inform you that we have been advised that the s.s. "RIVER LUGAR" was torpedoed and sunk on the 26th June and that we have no news regarding Mr. D.J. Collier.
We trust however, that he may have been picked up by another vessel and if this is the case we should have news shortly when we will pass it on to you without delay.
In the meantime, we offer you our sincere sympathy at this very anxious time, and are,
Yours truly,"
Then my mother received another letter from the same source dated 17th July, 1941.
"Dear Madam,
Further to our letter of the 14th instant, we very much regret to say that we have no news of any further survivors and in view of this we felt it our duty to give the Ministry of Pensions a list of the members of the crew who are still missing, We have no doubt you will receive a form from them very shortly, but if not we suggest you get into touch with your local Ministry of Pensions Office.
We enclose herewith form which will enable you to claim, from your local Mercantile Marine Office, Ministry of War Transport, for loss of effects and we recommend that you get into touch with any Shipping Federation Office who we feel sure will give you all the assistance you may require.
Whilst we have not abandoned all hope of hearing of further survivors, we feel that as each day passes this hope becomes less and we can only trust that we may have good news to pass on to you which we will do immediately.

The balance of Mr. Collier’s wages will be deposited with the Mercantile Marine Office, NEWCASTLE, as soon as we are able to ascertain the amount, but we fear that this may not be for some little time yet. We will however, write you again advising you again advising you the amount of wages paid in as soon as ever we are in a position to do so.
You may find it necessary, in order to establish your claim for Pension, Insurance, etc., that you will require a Certificate stating that Mr. Collier is missing and this can be obtained from the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, Wood Street Schools, CARDIFF, at the cost of 2/6d.
We extend to you our deepest sympathy at this very anxious time and we trust that if there is anything we can do to assist you in any way you will not hesitate to give us the opportunity.
Yours truly,"
My mother did eventually manage to get £1 a week added to her Old Age Pension in 1962!
My mother had further letters from the Ayrshire Navigation Co. Ltd. One dated 22nd July, 1941 stated:-
".....The members of the crew who were picked up by an H.M.S. vessel have been landed in WEST AFRICA, and we are sorry we are unable to give you any address. However, we expect they will arrive back in this country towards the end of August, and if you write us again then we shall do our best to put you in touch with these survivors."
And another dated 15th August, 1941:-
".......... we have now had an opportunity of interviewing Mr. Tudor Jones, A.B., who, with five more men, was landed in West Africa.
It is with the deepest regret we have to inform you, that Mr. Jones fears the Master, Officers, Engineers and the remainder of the crew were lost when the vessel sank after being torpedoed late on the 26th June.
The vessel sank quickly and Mr. Jones together with the other five men were picked up from a raft by a naval vessel which steamed round the wreckage for some considerable time looking for further survivors but, unfortunately, without success.
Mr. Jones was unable to give us any information whatever regarding any of the missing members of the crew as he was unable to recognise anyone on board the vessel after she was torpedoed, but he feels sure that had further members of the crew got away from the ship they would have been sighted and picked up by the naval vessel detailed to search for survivors.
We offer you our deepest sympathy in the great loss which has befallen you and as many other dependents of officers and men of the Royal Merchant Navy, who, in the face of all dangers, are willingly carrying out their duties in accordance with the best traditions of sea.........."
My mother received a letter from the Rev. G.F. Dempster of the British Sailors Society dated 25th August, 1941:
"Dear Friend,
It having been reported to me that among those missing from the above named ship is Mr. D.J. Collier, whose home address I possess, I am writing to extend to you our sincere sympathy in your anxiety, and to offer whatever help may be needful and within our power.
I regret to state that there has been no further news of any survivors, and in your sorrow I trust that you are looking towards God for health and strength. ................ "
And yet another letter from Ayrshire Navigation Co. Ltd. dated 9th October 1941:-
"Dear Madam,
We regret that owing to the loss of the Master and ship’s papers, there has been considerable delay in completing the Accounts of Wages for the crew of the above steamer.
We are please to say, however, that these accounts have now been completed, and that the balances of wages have been deposited with the Superintendent of the Mercantile Marine Office, Ministry of War Transport, Newcastle-on-Tyne.
We understand the accounts of wages are forwarded to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, Cardiff, for checking and that claims for the balance due can be made at any Shipping Office.
The balance of wages due in respect of Mr. D. Collier, O.S., amounts to £22. 13. 9.
We trust that you are now recovering a little from the shock of your great loss, and we again offer you our deepest sympathy. ............"
A letter received from the Ministry of War Transport, Mercantile Marine Office, Dock Street, London, E.1. dated 20th October 1941 address to my mother, Mrs.M.A.E.Collier, in Farnborough, Kent, read as follows:-
"Dear Madam,
D.A.C. Collier, deceased, ex "River Lugar"
With reference to your letter of the 13th instant, I am directed by the Ministry of War Transport to pay you the sum of £36.0.5d. being monies due to the estate of the above-named seaman.
A Post Office Order (less 1/- commission) for the amount is enclosed and I shall be glad if you will kindly sign the attached form W. & E.6 before a witness and return it to this office at your early convenience. ................."

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