An Australian Merchant Seaman’s Story In His Own Words – Bill Heath

Australian Workers Film Guide


Part of a series of interview segments produced by the SUA/MUA in which retired Australian merchant seamen recount their working lives at sea as well as their engagement with union campaigns and activities. Each episode features a seaman, or sometimes a pair of seamen, sharing their story in a largely unstructured and extended interview. They form an important on camera collection of oral histories about Australia’s unionised merchant seamen.

In this episode seaman Bill Heath recounts how he started work as a cook at 19 years of age.  There was plenty of over time for cooks so they were well paid and never went on strike over wages – the 1950s wages award was good. He remembers that they always helped each other and bonded together. Through the union they would communicate with younger members and donate to orphanages. Bill became federal secretary for the Baker’s Association.

The seamen worked hard and they were always hungry, so there was always plenty of food – but it was not very healthy food.   Some ships had up to 20 cooks and 12 months of work entitled you to 2 weeks leave.  There wasn’t anything on the ships to buy and the government ships lacked gear and soap. You had to make sure you had good shoes and sharp knives.  ANL ships got last priority with waterside workers, while private companies from Melbourne had all the waterside labourers. Air travel displaced passenger ships and the 1700 strong union dropped to 500 members. The new ships also required fewer workers and the owners tried to run the ships as cheaply as possible.

Special Notes/Achievements

Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 60 mins

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Film Director: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Producer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

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Film Cinematographer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Editor: Jennie Finch, Jamie McMechan,

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