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 Frank Finch recounts how he started in 1947 on a Norwegian tanker when he was 15. The ship had an international crew with sixteen nationalities – Norway had a huge fleet of ships, but never had enough crew. Working 12 hour shifts and eating lots of seafood he earned 12 pounds per month in Norwegian kronor. Frank also worked on American oil burners as well as a six month contract with the US navy. They provided a blanket and mattress but no linen and there were no safety regulations, they just had to get the ship to New Guinea. He didn’t like working on the English ships because they were poor. The American ships on the west coast had strong unionism.
He joined the Australian army to get back to Australia and remembers during a strike Chinese seamen gave them a bag of rice to keep them going. They would have rice all the time. Australian meals were standard but not as good as the American. Australian conditions would only improve over time, after many years of struggle. It was 1959 before they got ice cream for example. Soap and linen came later as well. The seamen used grey blankets, unlike the officers who used better quality coloured ones.
Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.
Author: J Bird, 2023