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SS Mahseer. Cargo Tallying

In the dry cargo ships of the 1960’s, cargo tallying involved standing in the ships holds counting cargo items as they were loaded onto or unloaded from the ship by the port's dockers. Cargo was moved to and from the holds using rope slings or nets attached to the wire cables that in turn ran on pulleys fastened to the ship’s derricks. These wire cables were then secured to the drums of the ship’s winches. The holds were not the most pleasant places to work in, because they could be crampted, dusty, excessively hot or absolutely freezing cold, the latter particularly when refrigerated cargo was being handled. The deep holds were often very poorly lit.

These were the days before Health and Safety became a major industry so dust and hazardous material handling were not treated in the same way as they would be today. Protective clothing and breathing masks were noticeable by their absence so the cargo tallying rig of the day might be an old boiler suit or Khaki shirt, shorts and flip flops.

The tallying aids provided by the ship or shipping company for the purpose of recording what was loaded or unloaded from the ship were sheets of paper, a clip board and a pencil. I never saw any of the mechanical counters that you see today on for example a ferry when the numbers of passengers coming on-board are logged for passenger safety purposes.

When cargo tallying work was carried out on Thos and Jno Brocklebank ships it was undertaken by the navigating cadets or junior navigating officers. In my experience, no junior officer from any other department was ever called upon to perform cargo tallying duties. The exception was the Radio Officer (R/O).

Even today, long after the role of R/O has moved into history, the topic of cargo tallying generates fierce debate and divides opinions amongst the R/O brotherhood, as to whether it was a legitimate activity for an R/O to undertake in port when watch keeping or wireless station maintenance work was not required.

Some shipping companies such as Alfred Holts Blue Funnel Line made it clear as a condition of employment that additional work such as cargo tallying or Purser administration duties were required as part of their R/O’s role. In such cases there was never any ambiguity as to the obligation to do it. You accepted the job with Blue Funnel knowing what was required of you.

Even on Brocklebank ships, as far as I know using a junior R/O for cargo tallying work was not standard practice. The first (and only) time that I was requested to do this work was on my second deep-sea voyage as a junior R/O on the SS Mahseer. The ship was in the Red Sea on its outward bound voyage to Colombo.

The first inkling that I had of a request to tally cargo was when the Chief R/O mentioned that the Mate (second in command to the Captain) wanted me to do this work on arrival at Port Sudan. I must admit that this development put me on the horns of a dilemma.

The idea of being called upon to do cargo tallying had never, ever entered my mind as a possibility, as it had never been mentioned on the previous voyage on Mahseer where I had sailed with the same Mate and was certainly never brought to my attention as a condition of service when I was interviewed for the job in the Liverpool office by Brocklebank’s Chief Radio Superintendent.

It is I think worth mentioning here as background information that unlike the training systems in place for junior staff in the navigation and engineering departments, no shipping company in the early 1960’s operated an apprentiship or cadetship system for radio officers. You had to qualify at your own expense before ever going to sea and in the case of Brocklebank’s when I initially applied for a job, they insisted on me possessing both a Post Master General’s First Class Certificate of Competence and the Ministry of Transport Radar Maintenance Certificate as a condition of employment. These were the highest level certificates that were available to a British R/O at that time. When the tallying request was made I had sufficient sea time and experience acrued from my first voyage to take sole charge of a cargo ship's wireless station as a Senior R/O.

If you have stayed with me this far you might be asking what has my training and qualifications got to do with cargo tallying to which I have to reply not a lot in one sense but a great deal in another because when the Mate asked me to go down the number four hold to tally cargo I refused.


The image shows the steam driven winch next to the number four hold on the port side of Mahseer's sister ship the SS Manaar. On Mahseer the winches were all electrically driven.


My refusal had not been anticipated by the Mate so you can imagine the response that it provoked. I was issued with dire warnings as to the consequences of my decision. At that time I could not use the excuse of having urgent radio maintenance work to do because honestly we did not have any and the Chief R/O being a man of high integrity would not have been prepared to invent some even if I had asked him to do so, which I didn’t. My reasons for refusing to tally cargo namely that it was not appropriate to my role and was at odds with all of the training that I had undertaken was dismissed out of hand. The outcome of this extremely short but somewhat fractious meeting with the Mate was that within about ten minutes of that meeting ending I was summoned to appear before the Captain where the request was repeated.

The Captain who I liked immensely had taken over command of Mahseer halfway through the previous voyage. He explained that it was a legitimate request and that I could be disciplined for refusing by being logged (my refusal to be formally entered into the ship's log book), having my pay docked or even for me to receive an adverse record in my discharge book at the end of the voyage (or all three). He then repeated the request for me to tally cargo in the number four hold.

Having made my decision earlier and not wishing to go back on it, I repeated the reasons for refusal that I had given to the Mate. Again these reasons were not accepted as valid. I could also recognise the thin end of a very thick wedge because I could see that having agreed once that I would then be called upon to tally cargo in every port throughout the remainder of the voyage. I remained adamant that I would not tally cargo even if my decision ended my sea-going career (which an adverse report in my discharge book would ensure). I therefore said no for the final time.

The Captain then said that he would not take immediate action against me but would write to Brocklebank’s Head Office in Liverpool seeking advice on what to do. To his great credit he said I would not be asked again to tally cargo until Head Office issued instructions. That is how matters rested. I believe that the Captain had a private word with my Chief about my work on-board Mahseer but I was never told anything about what they discussed.

After Mahseer departed Port Sudan, the voyage continued as planned with visits to Assab, Masawa, Djbouti and Aden, before the final leg to Colombo. At the end of discharging our cargo at Colombo I was summoned to the Captain’s cabin once again and told by him that the company had still not replied to any of his letters regarding my refusal to tally cargo. He admitted that the failure of the company to issue instructions was a matter of great regret to him but I must admit I was relieved because it let me off the hook for a while longer.

He then said that as the matter remained unresolved he would not make any further cargo tallying requests during the remainder of the voyage. He was true to his word and I have to acknowledge that he and all the navigating officers including the Mate, were always helpful and friendly towards me throughout the remainder of the voyage.

When we arrived back in the UK, the ship paid off in Tilbury. I was naturally apprehensive about whether I would receive an adverse report in my discharge book but as it turned out I need not have worried because I received a Very Good assessment for both conduct and ability.

I was however instructed by Brocklebank's radio department to stay with the ship and coast it round to Liverpool in sole charge of it's wireless station, which I did arriving in mid October. On arrival at Liverpool I was asked to go and see the Chief Radio Superintendent for what I considered was likely to be a dressing down and probably my dismissal from the Company.

Given all of the likely scenarios that I had run through my mind during the weeks running up the that meeting, what happened after I was ushered into his office was something I had never ever considered as the likely outcome. The Chief Radio Superintendent who was an absolutely charming man who you might now describe as “old school” had been with the company for all his working life and had interviewed me when I had first applied to Brocklebanks for employment.

From the outset of our meeting he was welcoming and extremely friendly towards me. He said (with just the hint of a smile on his face) that my refusal to tally cargo could not be condoned although he fully understood and sympathised with the stance I had taken. He then said that the company did not wish to lose me so I was to go on leave and when I returned it would be as a Senior R/O! He then congratulated me on my promotion!

As I left his office to go home he smiled at me again and said remember John it is a tradition within the company that Senior R/O’s never do cargo tallying work under any circumstances. I smiled back and with a very light heart I left to go back to the ship to pick up my gear and to go home on leave.

My stance in refusing to tally cargo was based on my belief (still held to this day) that Radio Officers should not have been required to do that type of work unless they had accepted it as a condition of employment and before they had signed Ship's Articles.

I also do not now believe that refusing to tally cargo alone led to my promotion to Senior R/O because at the end of the coasting voyage to Liverpool I had not signed a company contract so was free to seek employment with a range of other shipping companies that were actively recruiting at the time.

At the core of the issue on whether an R/O could be re-deployed on other ship's duties was the ambivalent and sometimes off-hand attitude some ships officers (at every rank and from all departments) had towards the R/O. Some did not understand the role and even fewer were interested in finding out what we did. They saw an R/O's job as peripheral and unimportant to the ship's management because from their point of view R/O's were not directly involved in the core activities of navigation (not true), propulsion or feeding. They only saw an individual in a comfortable radio room reading a book. A further source of irritation to them was the free time available to an R/O when the ship was in port loading or discharging cargo. Safety of Life at Sea that was the raison d'etre for the R/O was, it seemed to me, to be an alien concept to many because in the British Merchant Navy of the time, long after the end of World War II, most sailors would serve their whole careers at sea without their vessel being involved in a Distress or Urgency situation that threatened their own personal safety. In those emergency situations the R/O's role was critical and of vital importance.

I never did seek employment with another shipping company. I stayed with Thos and Jno Brocklebank Ltd until I made the voluntary and unforced decision to give up the sea in order to seek a new career ashore. Looking back on my time at sea I have always considered myself to have been extremely fortunate and privileged to have been employed by that shipping company and to this day I treasure the letter the Chief Radio Superintendent sent to me wishing me well in my future career. After my second and last voyage on Mahseer and during the rest of my employment with the company, neither I nor any of my junior R/O’s ever got any requests to tally cargo.

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