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

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 Jones recounts how he started work as a 16 year old in 1919.  The sleeping quarters were very Spartan with three in a cabin and the strongest claimed the best bunk.  The deck boys were separated and protected, and had less responsibility and were paid less.  The deck boys didn’t know anything about unions. Once the deck boys became seamen they were treated differently.

On the docks the merchant ships had preference, with the government ships always having to wait.  The work was hard and there was always plenty of food, although it was not that healthy. Billy remarks that, “When you sail with someone you are mates forever”. He remembers that in Bass Strait, 600 ton ships would be tossed around by gales.  Billy remembers 1949 as a year of turmoil with strikes everywhere, after which he became involved in unionism.  Ships were delayed due to shortage of crews and then they had to pick names out of a hat, after which a fairer roster system was introduced. Billy believes that modern Australian shipping is in demise, with general cargo ships disappearing. It’s all about big business not shipping. He thinks that the way to move cargo is by rail, not trucks.

Special Notes/Achievements

Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 49 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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