NOSTALGIA: In memory of the men who fired the navy around world

Here we see British sailors covered in coal dust after coaling ship. How much dust is in their lungs?
Here we see British sailors covered in coal dust after coaling ship. How much dust is in their lungs?
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I received a letter from Michael Northeast who, before retirement, was the Civil Port Health Officer in Portsmouth.

Mike sent me a report which I have had to abridge, but here is a short part of the text.

‘In Victorian times coal was one thing Britain was not short of.

‘There was also a great railway network to shift it around.

‘Oil was a product which we had to pay for and also pay to have imported.

‘SS Great Britain could carry 1,200 tons of coal, enough for her boilers to produce enough power to take her from Bristol to New York.

‘The amount of damp boilers produced caused bulkhead sweating with condensing moisture.

‘All bulkheads and decks were hot. This eventually caused foot disease in stokers breaking down with chronic infections.

‘Many naval personnel were invalided and discharged through the stressful environment they worked in.

‘Stokers were paid an additional sum because of their workload. They also needed to be fed well.

‘There were cases of stokers collapsing, heat apoplexy and sometimes blindness in extreme cases.

‘This may have influenced the introduction of canteen messing in the 1930s.

‘Some stokers worked in boiler and engine rooms where the temperature was so high, especially when ships were around or below the Tropic of Cancer and above the Tropic of Capricorn, increasing the problem severely.

‘With the introduction of oil the benefits were severalfold.

‘Boilers could be smaller, ships could travel twice as far, greater speed was available and there was less smoke to announce the ship’s presence.

‘By the outbreak of the First World War destroyers were constructed to be oil-fired as were Arethusa class cruisers.

‘Capital ships such as the Queen Elizabeth class were partially oil-fired,’ says Michael.

The job of coaling ships made every member of the company and everything else filthy with coal dust entering every scuttle and hatchway.

I am sure modern sailors are more than glad the era of coal-burning ships is well and truly in the past.

•Back in Victorian times much of the population was starving because of low incomes.

Disease was rampant thanks to a lack of nutritional food, but not all were in the same boat.

In 1848, Effie Gray, later married to art critic John Ruskin, wrote to her mother: ‘On Monday we dined at Lady Davy’s, a very select party attended. The dinner was most substantial. 1st course, two different soups; 2nd, turbot and oyster patties; 3rd, leg of mutton, along with chicken and tongue entremets, Champagne and seltzer water with ice broken and handed round to put in tumblers; 4th jelly and plovers’ eggs put around like a little castle; 5th duckling and asparagus. For dessert there was pine (apple) ices and preserves, the tablecloth being kept on.

•Last week I wrote about how the Edinburgh Military Tattoo had gone downhill.

I received several e-mails from readers who mostly agreed with me.

One reader mentioned the Festival of Remembrance held at the Royal Albert Hall each November and how that too had deteriorated.

‘Why do they now have ‘‘pop’’ opera singers putting in their two pennyworth?’ the reader asked.

Another asked what on earth had happened to the presenters?

‘They seem to have no knowledge of military speak?’ he said.

Another mentioned commentators talking over military bands when they play.

‘They just seem to love the sound of their own voices.’