An Australian Merchant Seaman’s Story In His Own Words – Billy Dean

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 Billy Dean begins by recounting how he started as a 15 year old deck boy in 1947. Coming from a poor background he left school at 14, and seven boys from his street went to sea.  After starting, he had to wait three months before joining the union. He worked on tugs on the rivers, but hated them and went back to seafaring, which cost him his marriage, being away for months at a time.

Depending on tonnage, he remembers the ship could have many cooks and some ships were better equipped than others. Many ships had to be hand loaded, such as timber, one piece at a time. So it would take a very long time to load, sometimes weeks at a time. The seamen all voted Labor. For every twelve months, they would get two weeks leave, but they were not allowed to come back to the same ship. Disputes would go on for months, holding up ships over issues such as working conditions. The British ships paid very low wages, but many Australian seamen were stranded in Britain. Back in 1947 there were 123 shipping companies, so it was a very big industry and employed many seamen.

Swedish ships were far superior to Australian ships, and you had to join their union. They ate plenty of fish on those ships. Australian ships were very old and complete wrecks and seamen in other countries would refuse to load them because they were so dangerous.  One such vessel had cracks at many places, and could only do 6 knots. They would mix lots of concrete in order to block holes in the ships. Billy believes that today the comradeship on the ships is gone.

Special Notes/Achievements

Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 67 mins

Film Release Year:

Film Shooting Format:

Film Aspect Ratio:

Film Distribution Format:

Film Colour:

Film Director: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Producer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Writer:

Film Key Cast:

Film Executive Producer:

Film Cinematographer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Editor: Jennie Finch, Jamie McMechan,

Film Sound Recordist:

Film Composer:

Film Production Company: