story icon Charlie Phillips Story

Contributed by: Charlie Phillips
1952 - 2004

Deep down I am a country boy. I never seen the sea before until the Queen came to Jamaica after the coronation. I was a wolf cub at the time and for weeks we had been practicing 'Akela, we'll do our best 'DIB DIB DIB 'DOB DOB DOB' looking forward to meet the Queen and the coronation. It was a very hot day when she came. I'm from a place called St. Mary, deep down country boy. That's where Noel Coward and Ian Fleming used to live. When the Queen came to Jamaica I went with my cub pack to meet the Queen. I was handed a Union Jack and we went off to the docks to see the royal yacht Britannia coming in. We were waiting all day for the Queen to pass practising 'Long Live the Queen! Long Live the Queen! Long Live the Queen!'with our Union Jacks. It was a very hot day. When she did pass me she didn't say anything to us and we were all amazed 'after spending all that time. So we met with other scout leaders and cub jamborees and we all went for a swim. That was the first time I had ever been to the sea. I was so fascinated to see the royal yacht and the other escort ships which came to Jamaica during the Queen's visit. I went back to the country. Lo and behold, four years later we came to live in Jamaica and my parents came to be higglers. We used to wait for the tour ships to come in and we used to try and sell them something or try and escort them somewhere or show them around Kingston harbour. At that time Kingston was a main shipping port in the Caribbean, because Kingston Harbour was a natural harbour which was very deep, so you could get ships of any size and any draught.

quote... I can still see in my memory how we used to be on the waterfront just to get the latest news on what's happening abroad. It was just part of our life. ...unquote

One of the first ships I can remember was Royal Mail, the Lombardy. The draught was so low. The Royal Mail at that time had a big influence in the Caribbean. When I was about 8 or 9 I used to make extra money when these tour ships used to come in. they used to throw coins off the ships into the water and we used to dive and pick the coins up. Every afternoon after school I used to go down to the pier and watch different ships coming in. It was the era of big immigration to England. The Reina del Pacifico was Pacific Steam Navigation Company ship 'that was one of the up-market passenger ships which used to come to England. I used to make extra pocket money when one of these ships used to come in and we would run errands for people, going to buy last minute cigarettes, last minute newspaper so that they could bring it to England as a souvenir for their family.

Amongst some of the cargo ships I used to remember hang around at as well was the old Jamaica Producer, Elders and Fyffes' Golfito. I can still see in my memory how we used to be on the waterfront just to get the latest news on what's happening abroad. It was just part of our life.

When I was a kid I was suspicious that one day would I be going to England. Lo and behold five years later I came to England. I didn't know I'd be travelling on the Reina del Pacifico. This was a one of my most memorable experience for a nine-year old. We visited different ports. I visited different countries. We visited Cuba, Bermuda, and I saw Santander in Spain and we ended up in Plymouth. Ever since then I've had a fascination for ships and docks and the sea.

My first attraction to Docklands was in about 1956. My father was also had connection with the docks and seamen. Every Saturday we used to come down to Leman Street. They had a building there called the Colonial House. It was one of the first Afro-Caribbean centres for people from the Commonwealth, seamen, guys who used to stow-away. After they had served their twenty-one days in jail, they'd all meet at the Colonial House. There were also well known characters around at that time between Leman Street, Cable Street and Prescott Street. We used to have a small mixed community. Some of the Caribbean characters of that time had names like George Towford, Johnny Mack, Bajan Foto, who was an ex-seaman. One of my favourites at the time was an ex-show ground boxer 'he was also the lightweight champion of Jamaica in the thirties or forties 'at least that was what my Dad used to tell me. He was called Kid Hartley. He would always meet you with a punch and would think he was still champion. He used to tell us fantastic stories in the barber's shop in the Colonial House 'all about his days at sea and how he got bombed and when he was a prisoner of war. He always mentioned a ship called the Prisoner Star 'that was the last ship he served on, before he came ashore.

quote... At the end of the royal Albert Dock there was the Jamaica Producers, and I just went on board and asked them have they got a job. They offered me a job as a galley boy, and that was the first time I went away to sea. ...unquote

In those days in Docklands there was also a big Maltese community and a big Somali community, and a big Asian community. Everyone seemed to get along. But one Saturday we didn't go down there because there was a punch up between the Maltese and the African Caribbean community. That was the only time we missed it.

Hartley was a fascinating guy. He was a good friend of my Dad. He used to come out with stories of when he was in Egypt, in Africa, in Australia, when he was in South Africa during the war. He had travelled all around the world. He was the one that made me say one day I'd love to go to sea. Before I left school I still had this attraction for the water. Two of my other schoolmates lived in Docklands near Greenland Docks. From their house you could see ship funnels. One of the things which fascinated me about docklands - it had a smell. In one part you could smell hide, one part you could smell sugar, one part you could smell sulphur.

Two years later I tried to go to sea without much success. Sometimes you go down to the pool in Prescott Street, sometimes you go down to Charlie Brown's and there would be plenty of hustlers who would say they could sell you a job. Outside Charlie Brown's was the main contact point for going on non-registered ships. I used to go in the West India Dock and look at the Harrison line and other ships. I used to go in St Catherine Docks, Millwall Docks by beating the gate and getting on with the watchman. I used to make some excuse to have an appointment. I was most familiar with the Royal Docks. The only ships you could get a job on were the Royal mail and the Jamaica Producers. One day I was walking along the docks having been turned down by the Royal Mail, walking right down from Royal Victoria down to Royal Albert and across to King George V. At the end of the royal Albert Dock there was the Jamaica Producers, and I just went on board and asked them have they got a job. They offered me a job as a galley boy, and that was the first time I went away to sea.

Sometimes the docks were so full of ships, there were ships abreast that you could walk across each other just to get ashore. When I signed on I used to go for long walks from the Victoria Docks right across the Royal Albert to the George V. You'd start off with Royal Mail, then you'd come down to Canadian Pacific, then you'd come down to Blue Star, then you'd come down to the New Zealand Shipping Company, then you'd come down to British India Line - like the Uganda and Kenya. Over on the far side you see some of the old Cunards, the Union Castle lines. There were ships galore to choose from.

When the banana boats used to come in, they'd unload the bananas and dump the ones which weren't ripe in a barge. I used to take the green bananas home, because for the Caribbean community they weren't available in the shops. My Dad had some friends who used to work on the Jamaica Producer and they would always bring rum up and typical Jamaican cigarettes of that time.

We used to have to scale the fence. If we got back late to the docks at night time and gates were closed, we used to walk down to Silvertown and jump over by the old Spillers factory.

Docklands has changed so much over the years. Great Britain had one of the biggest merchant shipping fleets. I remember travelling around and in every port you could see British registered ships. Nowadays you travel the world and you hardly see one. Sometimes it brings sadness to see what great engineering went in to build London docks - when you look at it, nowhere in the world had such engineering structure

This is an extract from a contribution made at Reminisence Conference on the History of West Indian Seamen held at Museum in Docklands on 28th february 2004. This conference was organised by Tower Hamlets African Caribbean Mental Health Organisation working in partnership with Moving Here and the Museum in Docklands.

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