The Port Sydney alongside in some antipodean port. A typical example of the company fleet.

Nearly forty years after the Port Line house flag was hauled down from the yard of the last grey-painted Port Line ship, what do we remember about this company? What was the Port Line we knew? If we worked for this line, we might be forgiven, if we are a certain age, for thinking of our experiences as just one element in a golden age of British shipping, which came to a grisly end in the 1980s in an age of redundancy, flagging out and the disappearance of the Red Ensign from the world’s seaways and ports.

There was the Port Line of history, whose antecedents went back to the days of sail and the three founding companies of Tyser, Corry and Milburn, which came together  just before the first world war to become the Commonwealth & Dominion Line,. Bought a couple of years later by the Cunard Line, C&D changed its name to the Port Line in 1937, its directors “officially” recognising that as everyone referred to the line by the way it named its ships, it would be sensible to do the same. This was the “brand” by which it would be known for the rest of its life.

There was the Port Line of reputation. This is perfectly encapsulated by Ian Farquhar in his splendid history of the company and its associates “The Tyser Legacy”. This is a book which provides just about the best explanation of the liner conference system ever written, an excellent history of the trading relationship between the two Commonwealth countries and the UK and the important role of this shipping company in their development.

In his first chapter, Ian Farquhar tells us what the company we knew was -“Last century Port Line Limited was one of the finest cargo liner companies employed in the main line trade between Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdon/Europe. For over 50 years it held more than 20 per cent of the trade between New Zealand and Great Britain and around 15 per cent of the liner trades from Australia to UK/Europe”. There, in a nutshell, we have it.

Did we think much about our “legacy” as we set off each voyage to the far side of the earth? Our main focus would be upon the voyage in hand and the small society of 60-70 people that were aboard our ships. There would have been those who had indeed been part of that legacy – senior officers who wore medal ribbons, who, if they might have been reluctant to talk about the years of conflict, would sometimes reminisce about a pre-war Port Line, in which they had spent their youth.

They might, if pressed, talk about the long years of the depression, laid-up ships, sailing on coal burners and how we young chaps “never had it so good!” On each ship we could see the Roll of Honour of Port Line people who had died in vessels lost in the war and were thus reminded just how lucky we were that all of this was in the past. And in a fleet which ranged from the very latest in ship design to ships that were older than most of us aboard them, we could see reminders of the life that these older people had known.

Chipping paint on a 30 year old Port Fairy in 1958, one would reveal the layers of wartime grey, sandwiched between those of pristine peacetime white. Engineers aboard the 1925-built Port Dunedin would have been told that this was the very first motor ship the company had ever employed, a pioneer in the days of steam. If you sailed on the Port Victor, Vindex or Quebec, you could not be ignorant of the wartime roles of these ships as aircraft carriers and as a minelayer, or the proud record of the old Port Chalmers in Operation Pedestal in the Malta Convoys. Aboard the elegant streamlined “new” tonnage, which began with the Port Auckland and Brisbane, you were aware of being aboard a ship which attracted admiring looks from envious seafarers aboard more ordinary vessels.

“The old ships were always the best”, people used to say, usually when they had safety left them and were either ashore or signed onto something more modern. It wasn’t entirely hyperbole – there might be a more relaxed atmosphere, with younger senior officers, less formality and perhaps more fun.  It was however  interesting that such a view was not always held by our engineering brethren, who, as we walked back from an evening ashore, would hang back as we approached the berth, just to check up that the lights were burning.

But even the oldest ships were beautifully maintained to the end of their days. “What on earth did you do with a crew of 70?” – people accustomed only to modern lean manning might ask. There was no idleness aboard a Port Liner, you might retort, remembering all that gear to overhaul, the endless soogying and painting, the brightwork to be brightened, the decks to be holystoned and the brass to be polished, ad infinitum. Reputations would rest on the appearance of the ship as she arrived in home waters, or within critical scrutiny, out on the coast.

“If it moved grease it, if it didn’t, paint it” might seem an odd maxim to those accustomed to an era when you can run a 20,000teu container ship with twenty people aboard, but it is what we did. Engineering colleagues would sometimes point out that their deck department shipmates didn’t know the meaning of hard work, while they spent happy days in port pulling units and practically rebuilding their Doxfords, B&Ws and Sulzers, as the deck department minced around in their smart uniforms.

When Port Line died, it was like a death in the family, and there was a lot about that company which demonstrated its humanity and “family-like” ethos. With around thirty ships, it was never so big that individuals would get lost in a mass of bureaucracy or dehumanising corporate systems. The Port Line we knew was able to cope with individuals, with special requests to sail on a NZ or Australia-bound ship, take leave on the coast, or accommodate people up for tickets or needing sea time.

Our Port Line society was small enough for the circulation of “reputations”, or the development of “characters”. “I hear you have been appointed to the Port X , with Captain Y – I don’t envy you” – might be a friend’s reaction. Then you got aboard the X and found that you could get on quite well with Captain Y, who might have been a bit of a disciplinarian, but had a lot to teach you. When two Port boats were in port together, it was a chance for friends to meet. The little house magazine GWCZ Calling was scrutinised, not least because it was interesting to know who was sailing on which ship. Homeward bound after a long voyage, the company gossip retailed by the regular pilots would quickly circulate around the ship. It was the family, he was talking about and we wanted to know the scandal.

There were real characters, whose singular characteristics became the stuff of legend, whose feats and foibles were the source of endless exaggeration as the years progressed. Masters who were said to conduct themselves like the principal character in the “Caine Mutiny”. There were some who required their flags to be raised and lowered with the notes of bugles at morn at sunset. There were some, dare we say it, who drank rather more than was good for them. With so many Hebridean petty officers on company contracts, it was not unusual for a Port Line ship to leave port on the coast to the skirl of pipes, the locals drying their eyes at our tuneful departure. They might have just been glad to see us go.

Our family included fabled Hebridean petty officers, all wonderful seamen but with their own almost global reputations. Many the tale was told about Boatswain “Steam 0n Deck Mc.....”, who had gained this celebrity as a young AB of colossal strength, when on a ship with steam winches, he had overheard the second engineer asking for power to be put on deck to load a crate of engine room spares, a crankshaft or a whole new liner (the details are vague and largely lost in the sands of time.). “Never you mind the pluddy steam” said this mighty man of action, as he swarmed down the gangway, lifted the huge load on his gigantic shoulders and after staggering aboard, dumped it with a crash at the Second’s feet.    

In the Port Line family, and the ports into which we sailed into regularly, we built up a network  of friends and familiar faces that helped to ease the passage of our ships. In London, there were colleagues in the Dock Office who were important to us, people from 88 Leadenhall Street would sometimes come with us around the continental ports; good for both ship and shore, with something to learn from each other. We would get to know the superintendents and shipworkers in the loading and discharging gangs, the company shore gang and the regulars up and down our gangways. Out on the coast, there was our NZ or Australian “network”, our regular agents, many of whom would become friends, in two countries, where most of felt very much at home.

It wasn’t all beer and skittles. It was a different age then, with two year articles and no great iron bird to fly you home after a three month “tour”. A MANZ Line spell on a thirty year old ship (still with forecastle accommodation) was not every seafarer’s cup of tea and the company had a nasty habit of shanghaiing people, ostensibly for a “quick three or four months to Australia and back”, but with a sting in the tail. Then on the first day of the discharge in Sydney, there would be a sinister smile on the face of our superintendent Captain Russell, as he bounded aboard with the new orders, which would see the voyage extended, sometimes to a year or more. If you were single and fancy-free, the ship a happy one, it was a case of “more days, more dollars”. But for those with commitments at home, it sometimes seemed very hard, and possibly unnecessary, when there would have been sufficient volunteers available, to avoid using the press gang.

But in those happy days before instant communication and the dreaded containers, we sailed off to the other end of the earth mostly in a mood of eager anticipation. “You can’t go any further without coming back again” was a sort of refrain on the Kiwi-bound ships and even a month at sea with not a lot to feature on the horizon, was no real hardship. We didn’t envy the hardy souls of the North Atlantic storms as we ran through the trades into the blue waters which were our just deserts. It wasn’t that boring,

And we had two months on the Kiwi or Aussie coast to look forward to, so that always seemed to make the long ocean passages more tolerable. Our shipboard society in those generously manned ships was large enough to function well, with the task of the fourth mate being to organise competitions, sort out the library and generally prevent the onset of boredom, throughout the whole ship’s complement. There would be twelve passengers to get to know, endless golf to play on those gleaming pitch-pine decks, horse-racing and a cinema under the tropic stars, with the thrum of the exhausts and the ship gently rolling, the occasional “whsht” of a beer-can being opened.

Homeward-bound we had the UK and leave to anticipate, a bit of rest after the more energetic fun and games of the coast. With little weekend working, many of us ended up knowing New Zealand or Australia better than we knew our homeland. It was small wonder that so many of us settled and made our lives in those friendly countries. It is not surprising that the Southern Hemisphere Vintage Port events are so well-supported, with those former “prisoners of Mother England” and those who lured them to those happy shores.

Cynics may talk about “Board of Trade” acquaintances, but in Port Line there were real friendships made, that have lasted down through the years. There was a genuine esprit de corps, we knew we were part of something rather special, doing a job that would almost certainly shape our views and conduct, in our subsequent careers. “We weren’t paid that much” said a Port Line friend a few years ago “ but I would have done it for nothing!”

In the 21st century we are terribly fixated on the importance of a period in formal higher education to lubricate our career prospects. As the famous BT advertisement emphasises, you really need a degree in an “ology” to progress, with a third class degree in creative dance, media studies or sports psychology the very minimum for a CV.. It might be suggested that in the Port Line we knew, whatever our rank or rating, we were graduates of the University of the Sea and that the company was the rather exclusive College in which we were the very privileged Fellows.

And indeed after the Port Line was just a memory, very many of its “graduates” were to distinguish themselves in both the maritime world and elsewhere. It would be hard to find anyone who had not gained from their experience.

Even from the distance of nearly forty years, it is still sometimes difficult to view the end of Port Line without a pang of real regret. It was, of course, by no means unique, with so many fine British shipping companies disappearing in the late 70s and early 80s, when their owners seemed to lose the will to live. There are still no really watertight explanations as to why the UK so precipitously withdrew from an industry in which it had been so dominant, for so long.

After all, there were Norwegians and Danes and Dutch and Germans and Japanese companies that managed to soldier on and indeed to prosper. Had we lost our “feel” for ships? Were we too dominated by the accountancy and spreadsheets, the demand for instant results, the reduction of long-term planning into strategies for the current financial year and the need to placate the shareholders?

Were we just too complacent, because shipping has remained as the only viable method of carrying the stuff of life around the world in sufficient quantities, and still looks set to grow at the same rate as world trade? Answering such questions need to await another occasion, but somebody has to operate all those ships we will continue to need, even if they do not fly our ensign, or indeed our house flag.

The years roll by and none of us are getting any younger, so the annual meetings of Vintage Port must sadly come to an end. There is a huge debt owed to Tony Braithwaite and Cyril Simmons for all their hard work in maintaining these delightful meetings over the years and they deserve the thanks of all who have enjoyed these events. The Vintage Port Website will of course continue to help friends keep in contact and memories sharp.

Thus we can continue to recall happy times in the Port Line, when we can share all those increasingly exaggerated yarns of times when we spent two months on the coast, the sea was always blue, we only ever ordered beer by the case, the wharfies were always on strike and there was a nurses’ home full of lovely ladies, within ten minutes from the bottom of every Port Liner gangway. It was the Port Line we knew.


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