Barry Merchant Seamen

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Firemen, Trimmers and Stokers

The Real Heroes Of World War Two

If, as Winston Churchill insisted, the Battle of the Atlantic "was the dominant factor of WW2", then the seamen of the Allied Merchant ships involved can feel a justifiable pride. Indeed, in May, 1940, worsening steel shortages almost brought about Britain's surrender. Imports of iron-ore were crucial and it was the small, under-powered ships of South Wales which played a major part in keeping that trade going. With their deadweight cargoes of coal out, iron-ore home, they were totally unsuited to the weather conditions in the Atlantic. Very often, unable to keep up with the convoys, they were easy targets for the U-boats. Torpedoed, the iron-ore ensured that they sank like a stone, their crews rarely survived. The 'down-below' crowd on such ships were particularly at risk. Working in temperatures of up to 100 degrees, in singlet and dungarees, even if they could climb up out of the stoke-hold, they died in the freezing conditions of the Western ocean.

This general story of their working wartime life has been assembled, from many sources, by one of their comrades on deck. He was always warmly dressed - and, aware of the conditions, able to assess the best way to escape if the ship was attacked.

The 'down-below' seamen were responsible for working the boiler rooms and their adjacent coal bunkers. Collectively, they were known as the 'Black Gang', a term that lasted well into the diesel era. Strictly speaking, 'Black Gang' referred to the trimmers and firemen - the men in the stokeholds and the bunkers. 'Stoker' and 'fireman' are two different titles for the same job, but the term 'fireman' is almost exclusively used on ships. The normal 'Black-gang' might consist of six firemen, two trimmers and a 'peggy'; altogether, on a '3-watch' ship, a total of 27 men.

'Trimmers' have always been needed because the firemen require a constant supply of coal. Even lower in social crew status than the men they served, they bunked and messed separately. 'Trimmers' have always had the dirtiest and the most physically demanding jobs on the ship - the absolute bottom of the engineering hierarchy. Needless to say - they received the lowest pay.

Being a fireman involved much more than shovelling coal and maintaining the fires and this required more skill that they have been given credit for. The fireman would keep a careful eye on the fires, not only through the furnace doors, but through the ash-pit doors as well. There were usually three fires to a boiler - two 'high ones' and a 'low one'. In the picture we can see 3 'furnaces' and the fire tubes above.

Dark shadows visible beneath the fire-bars indicated the presence of clinkers - hard, fused lumps of coal or non-combustible minerals. These 'clinkers', along with areas laid too thick with green coal, would prevent sufficient air from passing through the fire. Steam output, as well as economy, would suffer if this was allowed to continue unchecked.

The fireman did not want to see tongues of flame leaping around in the furnace; the flame within the furnaces should burn with a high intensity, looking more like an incandescent cloud of vapour rushing from the top of coals towards the rear of the furnaces - it was not a 'fire', but a bed of incandescent fuel on the grate. By the colour of the cloud of flame and the surface of the fire, the fireman could judge whether or not the coals were properly spread and if they required any additional working. To summarise: -

So; the fireman rarely had the luxury of leaning back on his shovel; once the furnace had been fed, the fire had to be maintained throughout his watch, so that all the coal burned properly and efficiently - with the hottest, cleanest fire possible. This required a lot of work right up close up to the open furnaces. Further; feeding the furnaces, with their insatiable appetite for coal, was a physically demanding and exhausting job. During each firing cycle, prior to adding coal - and as necessary - the fireman would perform any or all of the following.

All of this was accomplished in a matter of minutes - as quickly as possible - so that the furnace and ash-pit doors were opened for as little time as possible; preventing too much cold air (if you can call 100 - 120 degrees F cold!) from entering the furnace. On the big ships, all this effort was coordinated by the use of a 'Kilroy's Stoking Indicator' - a remorseless electromechanical equivalent of the man who used to beat the time to which the slaves rowed the ancient galleys!

Initially raising the steam in a three-furnace boiler was a skilled job. To ensure a gradual increase in the temperature of the various parts, and to diminish, as far as practicable, the stresses due to their expansion, the task would rarely take less than eight hours.

Laying fires

The three furnaces would often be lighted together, and no fixed rule can be given as to the absolutely best procedure in this respect. The practice of first lighting one furnace only, and after an interval dealing with the others, was, however, considered the best method, and this will be described.

Lighting the fires

To light the fires, the oily waste, etc., is kindled and the furnace door is left wide open, and the ash-pit doors closed. This ensures that there is a good draught through the fire, and the flame is carried over the coal laid on the furnace bars and ignites it. Both the furnace and ash pit doors of the other furnaces are then kept closed to prevent the access of cold air. Lighting the fire in one furnace tends to set up circulation in the water, and promotes uniformity of temperature throughout the mass.

As the fire burns it is continually topped with hand picked coal, and after about two hours there will be a fairly substantial fire at the mouth of the furnace. After this has been done, it is usual to light one or both of the wing fires from the fire in the central furnace. These fires are made at the front of the bars and constantly topped with hand picked coal, the furnace in a similar manner to the middle furnace. If only one wing furnace is lighted at first, the other would be similarly treated about one hour afterwards.

Spreading the fires

After about four hours the centre fire is 'spread' - i.e. the fire, which till now has been at the front of the furnace is spread over the partially ignited coal on the remainder of the bars. After the furnace door is closed and ash-pit door opened. This admits air underneath the furnace bars and promotes the combustion of coal throughout. The other fires are similarly treated at about the fifth or sixth hours, at the discretion of the person in charge.

About this time the water has begun to boil and pressure is beginning to show on the gauges. The rate of combustion can now be regulated by the amount of opening given to the draft plates - depending on the time at which steam is required to move the engines.

Maintaining The Fires

Maintaining the fires also involves periodic cleanout of the ashes within the furnaces - the advice of one old manual is, "add only enough coal to the fire-bed to maintain the fire - just enough, but no more, this prevents the fire getting thin or going out in places".

When at sea

In convoy - just when all this was going on, the 'Bridge' would ring for more revs to keep station in the convoy! As the steam is still back, the Engineer is into the stokehold to chase the firemen! The ash pits look a bit dark, so it is 'in with the slice to break up the fires and let more air through the beds'. Eventually, hopefully, up comes the pressure, until it is right 'on the blood' - the red line on the boiler pressure gauge at 225 pounds per square inch. Now is a good time to get some extra feed water into the boilers, which will also prevent the safety valves from lifting. That would be frowned on by the Chief, as that would mean wasted coal and water. (And might interrupt his afternoon nap!)

Out in the stokehold, the trimmers are getting the last of the ashes up, by shovelling them into the ash bucket. Each time it is full, one of them opens the steam valve on the ash-hoist and up she goes. When it gets to the top of the fiddly grating, a primitive type of automation tips the bucket down the ash-chute, and into the sea go the ashes.

The trimmers would also be moving the coal from one area in the bunkers to the next in order to maintain a constant available supply of coal at the bunker doors for the 'coal-passers'. Coal-passers are also rated on the sign-in sheets as 'trimmers'. The trimmers see to it that a pile of coal is always at the ready at each fireman's feet. They also keep the piles of coal evenly adjusted, spread out - or 'trimmed'- which is where their name comes from.

While in port, most of the crew could count on 'going ashore' at one time or another - and blow off a little steam. Unfortunately for the trimmers, when the ship is 'bunkering', they had to stow the coal being loaded and trim as the coal was loaded and moved about - with nothing more than a wet rag tied over their face to keep the choking dust out of their lungs. All, of course, under the watchful eye of the chief engineer, who kept a close watch on the ship's 'trim' and made sure she did not develop a list.

Back at sea again, their work continued with the same wet rag for protection and only a portable safety lamp hung from the deck beams above to aid their vision as they worked into a dank steel catacomb that pitched and rolled with the motion of the ship. On a long passage, the pace of their work increased as the fuel in the lower bunkers was depleted and it became necessary to move coal from the upper reaches into the lower bunkers.

The trimmers who worked as coal-passers had things a little better than their counterparts in the bunkers, but worked equally as hard, replenishing the coal pile of each fireman from the bunker doors across from each furnace and, as required, took away ash and clinkers raked out of the ash-pits and fires. The coal-passers also helped to 'wet-down' and clean up the white-hot debris raked out on to the boiler room deck plates at the end of each watch from whatever fires were being cleaned at that time.

The fun didn't stop there. When the demand for coal eased - in heavy weather when speed was reduced - the trimmers were often set to work doing other filthy and difficult work throughout the machinery spaces. They were often put to work cleaning and degreasing machinery, cleaning and painting in the spaces beneath the engine room deck plates. Basically; any unpleasant and filthy job you can think of that didn't require the touch of a skilled or semi-skilled rating.

They were also in the greatest danger; very early in the War bitter experience showed that when ships were torpedoed, the concussion could shear off the bolts at the top and bottom of engine room ladders, and they would fall down. As a result engine room crew would find it impossible to get out. It became standard drill to leave the engine room skylight open, and a rope with overhand knots, at approximately four feet intervals, would be hung from aloft. Some of the older crew members found that was a bit much, so an old pilot-ladder would be borrowed from the Bosun! All in all, it is quite easy to see why the Black-gang humour was legendary.

The coal was slack and full of slate
And that's what beat the four to eight.
The eight to twelve were all good men
But they were beat by half past ten.
The twelve to four did their best
But they were beat like all the rest.

In Moscow streets the blood runs deep -
The 12 to 4 can't get no sleep!

That last line I remember from some old fireman somewhere, sung to the tune of the 'Red Flag' - I offer it as my own tribute to those who slept on the other side of the Focsle head.

Of course, managing the Black Gang required a bit of savvy on the part of the engineering officers on Merchant Ships; the stokers and trimmers were hard men - they had to be - and supervising them required an approach that was neither too lax nor too heavy-handed. Again; while their job was certainly the most unappreciated, it was one of the most vital; without them, the ship simply didn't run. Despite all of the hardships - and their lowly status, they took an enormous amount of pride in their job.

And on shore...

I remember the first time I saw this statue, we were in one of the little small Buenos Aires 'Collectivos' - small buses driving along the Paseo Colon - going to the mission. We passed Rogelia Yrurtia's 1907 massive monument - 'Canto al Trabajo' - 'Song of the Workers'-. As we pondered the sociological significance of the bronze muscle-men pulling a large boulder, one of the firemen got it in a nutshell - "They'll never get it through the gate". The wide 'Paseo Colon' was also home to the 'Liverpool Bar', it was there, in 1942, that I first saw 'Kitty' do her 'Fireman's Dance'. She was a seventeen-year-old, slim young thing, dressed in singlet, dungarees and with a sweat-rag round her neck. She had been well taught - she knew that there were three fires - 'two high ones and the low-one' and she would pick up her shovel, open the fire door, and 'put a pitch on'. Then it was, in the correct order, pick up her slice, rake and 'pricker' bar; work the coal over the 'High one' and then go on to the first low one. When she had finished the three fires she would get out her tobacco and papers and make herself a 'roll', moistening the paper on the sweat of her brow. Her finale was to wander over to the ashes and urinate on them... there were no toilets in the stoke-hold! I was honoured one day, when her uncle accompanied us to the local cinema... I hope she lived a long and happy life.

© 2008 David Simpson et al.