Sunday, 11 November 2018

WW1: remembering the women serving at sea to and from India

On this key day for remembering war's end, 11 November 100 years ago, it's good to recall the many women seafarers  who sailed. 
Yes, at least 1,700 British women were at sea in the war years. The commercial navy was not male-only.
And some 53 died at sea, about 3 per cent of all British seafaring women in that war.
They didn't look like the rosy-cheeked young stewardess in this advert. Many were over 45, even over 50. Some were mothers or motherly-looking. Many were buxom, and even tough. 
And they were white, because shipping companies thought white lady passengers would feel it appropriate that their temporary female 'servants' were not brown-skinned.


Who were these women seafarers and what was the pattern of their wartime life? 
The British India Steam Navigation Company records permit a good understanding of women in this company, which may be fairly typical of at least a score of other shipping companies. 
BISNC was the main company taking military men, their wives and children to and from India. It was one-class and seen as more friendly than P&O, which became its parent company.
 Mrs Constance Richards, was a widow of 51. She had been working for the BISNC for thirteen years, going mainly to Bombay and Calcutta. 
Like half the company's pre-war stewardesses Constance stayed on - and on - even though war increasingly made the seas dangerous. 

The general public thought the wartime ocean was not at all a suitable place for women.But these seafaring women were often responsible for keeping a whole family fed. 
They needed the wages. The company and seafaring life was their home. And perhaps they didn't want to leave their shipmates to shoulder the burden alone, or leave the company with staffing problems when men went off to war.

BISNC 's Mantola 

On 8 Feb 1917 German submarine U-31 torpedoed Constance's ship, the Mantola, off Fastnet, Ireland. It began sinking in very rough seas. All except seven Lascars managed to get into lifeboats.  
Shelling recommenced until  HMS Laburnum appeared. This naval ship tried to tow the Mantola, and failed; it was left to sink. 
All the survivors were landed at Bantry, about a hundred miles away, a day later.

It must have had a gruelling impact on Constance because the BISNC Court of Directors granted her '£42 being one year’s pay'. 
They agreed that 'owing to ill-health [she] is not likely to be again fit for service, also that she was 12 years in the service with a VG [Very Good] record.' (1) Very few women ever got such compensation. (But all were always 'VG').

SEA WOMEN AT WAR: BISNC                                      

The bigger picture of BISNC stewardesses like Constance Is that when the war started in summer 1914 the number of stewardesses nearly halved,from 48 in 1914 to just 25 in 1915.
Why? Partly because too few female passengers were sailing to justify the company paying out wages for women workers. Male stewards did the work instead, never mind propriety.
In 1916 women worked on 32 of the company's 38 voyages. Their ships were the Manora, Malda, Matiana, Mantola, Morvada, Mongara, Mandala, Merkara, Karagola, Neuralia, and Kyarra. Some did several voyages a year, despite the mines and u-boats.
In 1917 very few women were sailing, just 28. And by 1918, the last year of the war, there was just one BISNC stewardess  afloat.  
You can see from the table below that by 1917 women were sailing on only a third of the companies' voyages.

Voyages by women crew out of total voyage of BISNC ships that year


Most of those sailing in the war were stalwarts from the pre-war years.  But fresh women wanted to do such work, even though it was dangerous and despite munitions work on land paying more. 
Newcomers carried on seeking a job at sea in all the wartime years: 34 women applied in 1917 alone. 
Did they know what they'd be letting themselves in for at sea? No, only in four cases.The other 30 had no sea experience at all. This suggests that the avid potential staff might have been rather naively in search of adventure without understanding the perils.


Liners were often turned into hospital ships to bring wounded troops home. This happened in BISNC too. The story of the Rohilla disaster in 1914 appears at

Mrs Fanny Roberts of Isleworth was a stewardess on the Rewa, which became a hospital ship in late 1916. It sank in February 1918, No women aboard died. 
Age about 37 (she was creative with her birth-dates) Fanny was the only Merchant Service woman aboard her ship. With her were 20 male ward attendants, who may have been the ship's former stewards. 
After the war she stayed on until 1939, making 61 voyages.                                                            


After the war many former employees came back.  The table shows how great the increase was in 1919. 
Florence Crafter, a stewardess in 1915,  was one of those who went on to  sail for the rest of the peacetime years. Born in 1884, and from Cambridgeshire, Florence made 51 voyages from January 1920 to 1937. 
By contrast Miss Evelyn Moss, Florence's shipmate from the Mandala to Bombay in 1915 , just did two post-war voyages then left BISNC, and apparently left the sea too. 
It was always a sought-after job, with more applicants than vacancies. Usually only around ten per cent got as far the interview stage.


In other words, seafaring women were sailing the seas on passenger ships - or even just trying to - despite the wartime dangers. 
Those who did so, like Sarah Lillian Ellis (age 58) on the Manora [see below], were  awarded, like male shipmates who'd been sailing long enough, the Mercantile Marine Ribbon and Medal [pictured], plus the British Medal Ribbon and Medal. (2)


(1) National Maritime Museum archives, Court of Directors' records, 

Vol 1, 24 October 1917, p260, BIS  /1/16.


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