03/09/1955 Ian Jones joins the Alfred Holt Ship SS Helenus at Birkenhead, Liverpool as an engineering cadet. Helenus was to be the first Blue Funnel ship dad would serve on, and it would be 3 months later he disembarked 16/12/1955 again at Birkenhead, just 8 days before Christmas. Helenus was the first of the H class Alfred Holt ships built in Belfast by Harland and Wolf in 1949, just 4 years after the end of WWII. Helenus was a steam turbine engined ship of 10,125 Tonnes, the second of her name, her predecessor having been sunk by a torpedo from U68 off Freetown, Sierra Leone, 03rd March in 1942. Helenus was 522ft long and 70ft wide and could make just over 18 knotts and was delivered to the Ocean Steamship Company (Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel Line) in October of 1949
I can imagine my Father being both excited, and perhaps even a little intimidated, as Helenus was the pride of the Holt line when he joined her in September of ’55 and Ian Jones was just a cadet, on the first rung of a ladder that could easily be pulled right out from underneath you…… if things didn’t go to plan. Liverpool was the gateway to the world if you let it be, although the post war years had meant poverty for many and the city looked like a bomb site, in fact was still a bomb site in many areas, following the Nazi attacks on its industry and its docks, Alfred Holt and his like offered a very real escape route and many signed up to take it!
The merchant navy was a prestige escape for whoever was looking for adventure and Alfred Holt and the Blue Funnel Line only wanted the best they could get, there were plenty looking for work, there were plenty to choose from, and that meant there was fierce competition to get into the Blue Funnel training programme. I remember my father studying long into the evenings in the back bedroom of our house, the exams were serious and you needed a high level pass to be considered for promotion. This was the first example I ever had of someone taking study seriously, it put me off and I resented being made to study in the same way for my 11+ exam……I passed it nonetheless, but I resented it, and took a path of resistance whenever further exams were looming, a stupidly childish thing to do which put me back years, but taught me a valuable lesson, Twice over!
Back in the day the Blue Funnel line didn’t only rely on transportation of goods, many of the ships also carried passengers on the routes to China, Australia and the edges of Empire. Those working for the Blue Funnel Line were not only deck and engine room employees, but also representatives of their company, with a very high expectation of standards by their employers. Those travelling with the Blue Funnel line in the day were of a pioneering spirit, or those with exotic business interests in the far reaches of the British colonies. The Blue Funnel adverts of the time have become iconic collectors pieces and the few I have collected myself are prized reminders of the days when Liverpool truly was the gateway to the world
Helenus had been designed in the 1940’s to take cargo, predominately, but to also accommodate First class passengers, in the sort of luxury they expected, whilst travelling to the exotic ports she would visit on her trade missions. Alfred Holt had become known for their China and Australia runs, these were scheduled trips and paying passengers could reach such exotic locations way before Transatlantic and long haul passenger air-travel was widespread.
The passenger accommodation, even though considered First Class, would not rival the 1912 Titanic “luxury” standards, space being somewhat of a premium, but it was of an excellent standard considering the post war austerity the nation was under, it was certainly up to high enough quality “hotel standards” as to attract the travelling classes in enough numbers to keep it viable up to the 1960’s, where international flights were far more common place, this was the turning point for the Blue Funnel line and passenger services were reduced significantly at that point.
I was lucky enough to spend a day on Helenus after my father had left Blue Funnel, somewhere around 1967 or so, we went to the docks and were allowed to tour her, spending considerable time in her engine room where my dad would have spent every waking moment when on watch. Helenus was a Steam Turbine driven ship and sadly I have no photos of her from the day, hardly surprising for a Six or Seven year old let loose around such a huge “playground”, but I loved being in the belly of such a huge Ship….
Helenus wasn’t the only Blue Funnel ship I got to visit and my abiding memories are that I loved the alien environment, the huge cylinder-heads and valve trains with their rocker shafts, the suspended walkways with their see-through iron paths snaking through the air surrounded by ducts and pipes of all sizes…. valves and gauges everywhere. Half way through the day on Helenus, we were sat in the Officers mess and given a quite wonderful meal, the envy, I am sure, of anyone in a high class hotel of the time, Helenus will always be a part of my childhood, I loved her then, I still do now, even though she is long gone
So, it was into this vessel Ian Jones, Cadet Engineer, stepped in September of 1955, the first step in an Eight year merchant navy career that would see him cross the seas of the globe, from Birkenhead in his home town of Liverpool to Hong Kong, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, to New York and Capetown and ports beyond……..In so doing, he and my Uncle Keith, would have an influence on my life that I never guessed, started a fascination with Steamships that would see me travel the globe visiting their resting places and, whenever I could, researching their stories, the crews, the cargoes and the reasons they floundered…….