Our Debt to the Merchant Navy

Duration: 5:27 minutes
Accession No: TWCMS : 2009.319
This story has been viewed 12054 times

Keith tells us about his time in the Merchant Navy and also some of the memorials to those who served in the Merchant Navy.

By Keith Atkinson


Other information

This story was inspired by the Doxford engine from the collections at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

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Video transcript

Hello, my name is Keith Atkinson. I am seventy-one and now live in South Shields. My background, very briefly, is having served an engineering apprenticeship at the Sunderland Engine Works of William Doxford and Sons, building very large marine diesel engines which are the size of large houses, while two months short of being twenty-one I went to sea with the British Shipping Company and into the world of the British Merchant Navy. This took me to just about every place in the world.

Life was quite hard and the sea voyages long and one would be away from home from anything up to two years at a time. My starting wage at that time was thirty-eight pounds and fifty pence per month. During this time I worked with my studies and was promoted through the various ranks from Junior Engineer to Chief Engineer and after a period of serving on numerous ships as Chief Engineer, I was promoted to Superintendent Engineer with a fleet size of almost sixty ships. This entailed being involved in the maintenance of the ships, planning repairs and organising dry dockings and overseeing new shipbuilding for the company. Being stationed in the United Kingdom and also in Singapore for a couple of years.

In 1979 with my young family growing up too fast, I decided to become a land lover and became involved in running marine engineering companies and accepting senior managerial appointments at various parts of the world, including off-shore petroleum operations in Mexico and then Mozambique being involved in the management of the port of Maputo and in the training of Mozambiquian personnel.

For the last fifteen years, prior to my retirement, I was Managing Director and Senior Consultant of my firm of marine surveyors and technical consultants. Being now fully retired I still hold on to my vocational chairmanship of the Tyne Area Shipping Club, which I do enjoy and it really is to do with this that I wanted to highlight one or two points about the Merchant Navy. A little while ago I put together a website for the club and it is interesting the comments I receive from people all over the world. Recently I received an email from the National Secretary of the Merchant Navy Association in London advising me that Newcastle City Council had been very busy regenerating part of the city called Old Eldon Square. This is home to the official war memorial of the city. Within the regeneration included the installation of some 40 wooden seats. These seats were dedicated to commemorating various regiments, associations and services. Each seat had been fitted with a bronze plaque for the particular grouping and also incorporated pieces of bespoke artwork which show the official crest of the organisation. These are fitted into the arm rests at either end. We understand that an elderly war veteran who had served in the Merchant Navy had suggested to the Council that perhaps a seat could be dedicated to those who died in action while serving in the Merchant Navy. Well, this suggestion was acted upon and on Remembrance Sunday, the 8th November 2009, the new seat was unveiled. Following on from that I wrote a letter to the gentleman in Newcastle Council saying how brilliant it was to have this tribute but questioned whether we should not have something larger and a more permanent memorial to the Merchant Navy. Bearing in mind that more people perished in the Merchant Service than in any other service. And also, that there were many thousands of people who served in the Merchant Navy from the North East of England. I received a reply saying that he agreed with me and suggested that in the first instance I approached the Lord Mayor of Newcastle who had been very active in the project of the installation of the seats. A letter has been written so we shall now have to wait and see what happens. If it is agreed and the project goes ahead I will put it on the club's website which is www.tyneareasc.org.uk. I should mention that South Shields does have its won excellent Merchant Navy memorial, the bronze statue was the work of the artist Graham Ibbetson and was unveiled by Countess Mountbatten of Burma on 19th September 1990.  

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