Heroes of the British Merchant Fleet
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 14 Nov 1946, p. 87-97


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Burns, John Allen, Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
Description:
The speaker's background and history as a member of a family of shipowners. His interest and keenness in the traffic of the sea that he wishes to communicate. The term "Overseas Trade" and what it means. A story of the speaker's great-grandfather. The expansion of the Merchant Navy in a single century, symbolized in the contrast between the "Brittania" and the "Queen Elizabeth." Ships and Men: the continuing cause and concern of the British Sailors' Society, whose Board of Directors is represented by the speaker today. A brief history of the Society. The international scope of the Society. Work and activities of the Society. Speaking in particular of the Clyde area where, in 1940, the Admiralty established the Headquarters of the greatest Naval Base in history, and where later on the Fighting French established their Naval Base. The importance of the Clyde. Historical events at the Clyde. Survivors from torpedoed or mined ships brought into the Clyde, always with a representative of the Society to meet them and to ensure that instant relief was given in the way of lodging, medical attention, food, clothes and money. The Clyde now, the days of Rescue Ships and survivors now being over. The work of the British Sailors' Society during peacetime. The speaker's visit to Canada in order to establish closer relations with the Society's Dominion Council and to make a survey of the work being done. Some details of that work. The desire to see established in Canada a Welfare Department similar to that in Britain. The function of such a Welfare Department. The Ocean Library Service. The development of an Ocean Games Service. Other characteristics and activities of the Society. The importance of the Society to every aspect of a sailor's life. Plans for a great extension of the Society's activities throughout Canada. Some concluding remarks on Canada and Canada's membership in the Commonwealth.
Date of Original:
14 Nov 1946
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
HEROES OF THE BRITISH MERCHANT FLEET
AN ADDRESS BY LORD INVERCLYDE
Chairman: The President, Major F. L. Clouse
Thursday, November 14, 1946

MAJOR CLOUSE: Gentlemen of the Empire Club of Canada and our audience of the air. At our meeting last week the tremendous importance of our export trade was emphasized. Exporting the large volume of raw materials and processed goods from this country means a considerable movement of these goods by ships. Canada's dependence upon ships is, more than ever before, vital to our national life and prosperity. And how equally true this has been of the mother country-both importing and exporting--for hundreds of years. In this community, so far removed from tide-water, we seldom rub shoulders with those men-of-the-sea and consequently our thoughts too seldom turn and our appreciation is too seldom expressed to those heroes of the British Merchant Fleet--those courageous men who have kept the life lines of supplies open in peace and wartime on the seven seas. Through you, Sir, director of the British Sailor's Society, we salute that great body of great men -upon whatever water they may be and wish them godspeed and a safe return as they "go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters".

Our guest of honour today, John Allen Burns,Lord Inverclyde--a graduate of Eton and Sandhurst, though an officer in the army having served with distinction in the Scots Guards in both World War I and the last war-is by tradition a man of the sea. He is a great grandson of Sir John Burns-founder of the great Cunard Steamship Line. The tang of the sea seems to follow Lord Inverclyde relentlessly. In 1940 it was by the sea in a fishing boat that he made his escape from St. Nazaire just a short jump ahead of the rapidly advancing Nazi tank columns. He had another breath of the sea when serving as A.D.C. to the Governor of Gibraltar. For many years he has been a director of the British Sailor's Society and for over twenty years chairman of the Society's Scottish branch. Also for many years he has been active in both the Royal Life Saving Society and the Corps of Sea Cadets.

It gives us much pleasure, sir, to ask you to address us. Gentlemen-Lord Inverclyde.

LORD INVERCLYDE: Mr. President, Members of the Empire Club of Canada, and fellow-guests.

Have you ever thought how much windows, and what we see out of them, affect our ideas?

I f from your window you see busy streets and factories, the town will dominate your thoughts; if you look out over green fields and happy farmsteads, your ideas probably are mostly of the country; but if you are as fortunate as I am, and your windows look out over the sea, then your thoughts linger often and long on ships. Ships returning to safe harbour with their hulls bruised after long and hazardous voyages; ships making outwards to the far horizon; ships passing up and down the coats of our sea-girt Homeland.

For the next few minutes look with me through my window; you can see not quite the ocean but one of the greatest gateways-the Firth of Clyde. Away to the North, up to the skyline, run the long green hills of Argyll. Below, there is the wide silver stream of an estuary famous the world over for its beauty and its trade-and for its ships.

Since childhood I have looked on this lovely vista. Mine has been a family of shipowners and I have watched the traffic of the sea with an interest and keenness that just now I should like to communicate to you. When I was a boy I gazed in wonder at the last of the windjammers bearing a burden of memories of the historic days of sail. You won't see them now, but instead, her successors-the freighters after long tussles with the Atlantic enjoying the calm waters of the Clyde; tankers and tugs; truculent little coasters and sturdy wee "puffers." Until recently if it happened to be your lucky day, you might have seen the "Queen Mary" and the "Queen Elizabeth" whose size and magnificence not even the hills could dwarf, nor their war-time coats of grey diminish.

While there is a lull in the boundless unceasing traffic of seaborne trade, let us step away from the window and examine the map that hangs upon my wall. Here we have another. seascape. The Seven Seas, criss-crossed by the lines of the big shipping routes; the innumerable ports, large and small, of the Americas, of Canada, of Western Europe, of Africa, of the Far East and of the Antipodes.

These are the high-ways and by-ways of our Merchant Navies, British and Canadian and of many other Nationalities. Across these thousands of miles to those distant ports our ships of all sizes sail through fair weather, through storm, on their lawful occasions. "Overseas Trade" we hear mentioned often; and glibly "We must develop our overseas trade". Well, "Overseas trade" means these thousands of ships, these thousands of trackless miles and many more thousands of men -and the hazards of the unpredictable sea.

I often wish that I could look back--as well as out through my window to the coming of the squarerigged ships that laid the foundations of our over-seas trade with India, China, Africa and the rest. Those days passed; oak gave way to iron, sail gave way to steam, and from this Firth of Clyde the first steam-ships left their births and set out past those changeless hills across the broad Atlantic.

As has already been stated by your President, my greatgrandfather, Sir George Burns, was one of the founders of the Cunard Line. One day, when he was only 17, his eye caught sight of a startling advertisement in a Glasgow newspaper of that time which read as follows: "STEAM PASSAGE BOAT; The "COMET" plying between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh for passengers only. The subscriber having, at much expense, fitted up a handsome vessel to ply upon the River Clyde between Glasgow and Greenock to sail by the power of Wind, Air and Steam, he intends that the vessel shall leave the Broomielaw . ." and so on, and it was signed "HENRY BELL", 5th August, 1812".

George Burns was down at the Broomielaw the next day in good time to witness the novel sight of the "COMET" steaming away from the quay. She was only 40 feet in length of keel, her engines-which cost £ 192-were 4 horse-power and she drew 4 feet of water.

With the same keen interest with which he had watched the experiments in gas in his school-boy days, George Burns watched the progress of steam, the great power that was to revolutionize the history of the world. I wonder if he dreamt, perhaps, that he was to have a big part in its development?

A story is told of my great-grandfather when, in 1829, he built in Glasgow a paddle-vessel named "AILSA CRAIG" for the Clyde-Mersey trade.

Friday was the most suitable sailing day from the economic view-point, but not from that of superstition; whereas to sail on Saturday would mean the breaking of the Sabbath.

It was then that Mr. Matthie, one of his partners, wrote from Liverpool to point out that a Friday sailing would not synchronize with the Canal Traffic and, half in jest, he added that it would be better to sail on Saturday and provide a Chaplain aboard.

To his amazement, my forebear took the suggestion seriously, and went so far as to say that he and his brother would share the whole cost of the experiment. The "would-be" wits of the Broomielaw jeered at Captain Hepburn and his "steam Chapel" as they called the "Ailsa Craig", but in a very short time the custom was firmly established and for 12 years the "Ailsa Craig" sailed on Saturdays.

Later, George Burns was destined, with his partners, Samuel Cunard who was born at Halifax and McIver of Liverpool, to build the "BRITANNIA", 207 feet long and with a displacement of 1,154 tons-a very daring venture in 1840. But the pride of the fleet and Clydebuilt!

About a hundred years later, from my window, I have watched the latest ship of the Cunard-White Star, the "QUEEN ELIZABETH", the largest liner in the world today. The contrast between the "BRITANNIA" and the "QUEEN ELIZABETH" to me symbolizes the expansion of our Merchant Navy in a single century.

SHIPS and MEN--It was Queen Elizabeth who proclaimed the f reedom of the .seas to the ships of all nations. Historians have praised the daring and resourcefulness of the Elizabethan sailors, but nothing has happened in the past 1,000 years, which compares with the dauntless courage, endurance and 'skill of our Merchant Seamen who stood up without flinching or complaining to the onslaught of the pirates of the 20th century.

SHIPS and MEN--these and their needs are the immediate and continuing cause and concern of the BRITISH SAILORS' SOCIETY whose Board of Directors I am here to represent today. It is the oldest Society working for the welfare of Seamen, having been established in 1818, and if I speak chiefly of its activities in Scotland it is because I am more conversant with them there than anywhere else, although I should emphasize that we have a chain of stations in most of the principal Ports throughout the world, manv of which I have seen, on the Continent in the Mediterranean and around the coast of India, in Iceland, South America, the U. S. and Australia. And I should explain that although the word "British" appears in our title or designation, the services of the Society are available at all times to seamen of every nationality, and there are records of many men who have gone round the world keeping constantly within the broader limits of the Society by making use of its world-wide services.

In September, 1939, the British Sailors' Society had only 3 premises in Scotland, while at one period during the war we were maintaining there no less than 23 Sailors' Rests or Canteens, from Aberdeen in the North to Stranraer in the South, and from Oban in the West to Grangemouth in the East. Today, when we have closed those that had become redundant, we still have more than a dozen in Scotland alone in full operation, and amongst these of a very fine, permanent Sailors' Centre built at Greenock in 1943. This building has 84 single bedrooms and a private chapel. It was declared open by the Duchess of Kent who described it as providing "the finest residential quarters for Seamen in this Country" and this year we were honoured there by a visit from Princess Elizabeth, who on a previous occasion had been graciously pleased to declare open our modernized Sailors' Home at Aberdeen.

In addition, in 1942, the Society built a 60 ft. twin Diesel-engined Ambulance Launch and this vessel rendered meritorious service bringing casualties ashore in the Clyde Anchorages in all weathers.

Work in all these Hostels to which I have referred, and all of which I visited from time to time, was of an intense nature but I should like to speak in particular of the Clyde area where, in 1940, the Admiralty established the Headquarters of the greatest Naval Base in history, and where later on the Fighting French established their- Naval Base.

Few people realized at that time, in 1940, that with the growing importance of the Western Approaches, the Clyde Estuary, and adjoining lochs, were to become the focal point and haven for the great Armada of ships and men, which, and who, kept our Atlantic life-line intact. The situation was' completely different from that of 1914 when the Irish ports were open and they were the main Naval Bases in the West.

The importance of the Clyde was increased by the enemy's bombing which paralysed the English Channel ports and the southern seaboard. As the battle of the Atlantic became more and more intense, and U-boat activity reached its peak, the Clyde became No. 1 base for the British Empire.

When the Home Fleet temporarily deserted Scapa Flow after the sinking of the "Royal Oak", it sought the shelter of what we call "The Tail of the Bank", and during those days every type of warship and merchantship was to be seen at the anchorage off Greenock, secure behind the impenetrable double row of steel nets which formed the anti-submarine boom stretching from the Cloch Lighthouse over to Dunoon and which I could see from my bedroom window.

Exciting weeks and months followed and although one could not freely talk about it, we watched with growing interest the comings and goings of famous ships on mysterious missions.

It was at Greenock that I-f.M.S. "Rodney" accompanied by the new aircraft carrier "Victorious" and cruisers and destroyers, arrived from the engagement and destruction of the "Bismarck", while other craft fresh from hunting down enemy submarines in the Atlantic often returned there with captured Nazi sailors, and German ships too, intercepted on the high seas.

On the Clyde were assembled great convoys of merchantships for every theatre of war, and on occasions fleets of several hundred ships were dispersed over the anchorage, a million tons at one time, and the crews of most of these ships were aided, directly or indirectly, by the British Sailors' Society through its seven Hostels within the area.

For two years, or more, day after day, and at all hours of the, night, winter and summer, shipload after shipload of survivors from torpedoed or mined ships were brought into the Clyde and there was always a representative of the Society to meet them and to ensure that instant relief was given in the way of lodging, medical attention, food, clothes and money.

There were many sad spectacles among these survivors, many landing in scanty attire and with bare feet and frozen limbs, until the time came when the Society was able to step into the breach by maintaining on board each Rescue Ship, 100 sets of warm clothing, the sets being replenished each time the vessel returned from a rescue operation, and in this particular connection I should like to mention with deep gratitude the gifts in kind sent over to us by the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, whose association with the Society dates back a long time--indeed to the First World War, in 1916, some 30 years ago.

Those days of Rescue Ships and survivors are now over. White wings are to be seen on the Clyde again, our River Steamers, paddle and turbine, many of which have been on war service since Dunkirk, have been redecorated in their coats of many colours and have resumed the wearing of their "old school funnels", while our lighthouses have shed their camouflage and glisten again in the sun like giant snowmen.

But in peace, as in war, the work of the British Sailors' Society goes on.

I came to Canada in order to establish closer relations with the Society's Dominion Council whose Headquarters are in Toronto and to make a survey of the work being done. Since landing at Halifax on the 14th of September, I have flown across to the West Coast and back on two occasions, and I have visited every place from Port Alberni to Sydney where the Society is represented. Good work is being done at the various centres and an endeavour will now be made to provide better canteen facilities and a higher standard of accommodation-that is to say that each man should have a room to himself; for be certain that the seamen, when ashore, values his privacy as much as any other man.

But I should like to see established in Canada a Welfare Department such as we have in the Old Country. To this department the seaman comes because he is perplexed. He tells of his worries-his home that is suffering because he is sick, or out of work, of personal troubles or ambitions. Or his wife or dependants come in distress through some change of fortune, or bewildered by some unfamiliar procedure. Often all that is required is to explain official information in simple words and at a pace which it can be assimilated by those unaccustomed to picking up new ideas.

Every year the Society helps between 125,000 and 150,000 sailors, and their families, in an infinite variety of ways such as providing fares to distant homes, fares to reach new employment, articles of clothing, books, medical comforts, arrears of rent, new dentures, artificial limbs, or helping them to get in touch with the authorities as regards pay, pensions and so on, while the Chaplains have the task of breaking the news of bereavements to wives and parents. Furthermore, the Society maintains an Ocean Library Service and there are well over 6,000 Library Cabinets afloat today, each Cabinet containing a Bible and 30 books by the best and most popular authors. These books may be exchanged at any Port throughout the world, where the British Sailors' Society is represented, and thus a presentation library is maintained in perpetuity.

An Ocean Games Service is now being developed along similar lines.

Sometimes we are asked why it is necessary for Societies such as ours to interest ourselves in welfare work when State provision is made to cover the need of seamen requiring help. The answer is simple. State provision is good and in most instances, once in operation, adequate in so far as it goes, but the machinery is inclined to be cumbersome and the virtue of the help we are able to give lies in the fact that it can be both immediate and, providing it is for seamen or their dependants., unlimited in scope.

I should add that the British Sailors' Society, which is supported entirely by voluntary subscription, is an interdenominational missionary Society and, while respecting the individual beliefs of sailors, its purpose is to promote their well-being in body, mind and spirit by demonstrating a practical Christianity. It touches the sailor at every point in his life. It trains him--for we have an officially recognized seatraining establishment for boys as well as a nautical school for young officers-it houses him, gives him recreation, tends him in his old age and helps his dependents. In short, it labours ceaselessly and devotedly for all that magnificent body of man upon whom the prosperity, indeed the survival, of the British Commonwealth so largely depends.

Dr. Johnson once remarked to his faithful Boswell that "the only difference between sea and prison life was the added chance of being drowned". This is no longer true. The sailor of today is not a prisoner and he has, perhaps, a wider knowledge .of the world than his fellow men. He has ambitions and the desire for better conditions and he is entitled, you will agree, to comfort and true friendship when ashore.

We are therefore planning, through our Dominion Council, a great extension of the Society's activities throughout Canada and I feel confident, Mr. President and Gentlemen, that we may count upon the support of the members of the Empire Club of Canada and of all who believe in the Brotherhood of the Sea, in furthering this vital work; and I would mention especially the need at Vancouver where it is essential that there be established at an early date a modern and well-appointed Sailors' Centre worthy of that growing Port, worthy of Canada and, above all, worthy of the Men- whom we seek to serve and to whom we, each one of us, are heavily indebted.

In conclusion, Mr. President, and in thanking you for the honour of addressing this company, and for your hospitality to me today, I should like to take this opportunity, since I am shortly returning home; of expressing my gratitude to all those organizations and individuals in the East, in the West and in the Prairies, who have extended such a friendly and warm welcome and who have given me much encouragement in my mission.

I shall take away nothing but thankfulness for the great privilege that has been mine to meet so many good people, coupled with a greater appreciation your vast domain and its tremendous distances, and a sincere admiration of your way of living.

We in the British Isles, as they in the United States, have been strengthened by a mixture of races, but you right here have no lesser claim to the motto "E Pluribus Unum", for it is out of much variety of country and a great multitude of races that you are making Canada great, and one . . . While your association in the Commonwealth is such that it is "Fashioned not of parchment, but of men's hearts and minds".

May Canada prosper and be strong, and continue to flourish in the British tradition.

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Heroes of the British Merchant Fleet


The speaker's background and history as a member of a family of shipowners. His interest and keenness in the traffic of the sea that he wishes to communicate. The term "Overseas Trade" and what it means. A story of the speaker's great-grandfather. The expansion of the Merchant Navy in a single century, symbolized in the contrast between the "Brittania" and the "Queen Elizabeth." Ships and Men: the continuing cause and concern of the British Sailors' Society, whose Board of Directors is represented by the speaker today. A brief history of the Society. The international scope of the Society. Work and activities of the Society. Speaking in particular of the Clyde area where, in 1940, the Admiralty established the Headquarters of the greatest Naval Base in history, and where later on the Fighting French established their Naval Base. The importance of the Clyde. Historical events at the Clyde. Survivors from torpedoed or mined ships brought into the Clyde, always with a representative of the Society to meet them and to ensure that instant relief was given in the way of lodging, medical attention, food, clothes and money. The Clyde now, the days of Rescue Ships and survivors now being over. The work of the British Sailors' Society during peacetime. The speaker's visit to Canada in order to establish closer relations with the Society's Dominion Council and to make a survey of the work being done. Some details of that work. The desire to see established in Canada a Welfare Department similar to that in Britain. The function of such a Welfare Department. The Ocean Library Service. The development of an Ocean Games Service. Other characteristics and activities of the Society. The importance of the Society to every aspect of a sailor's life. Plans for a great extension of the Society's activities throughout Canada. Some concluding remarks on Canada and Canada's membership in the Commonwealth.