An Australian Merchant Seaman’s Story In His Own Words – Jim Steele

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 Jim Steele explains how he started as a 15 year old in 1943, onboard a 1913 coal burner dealing mostly with coastal trade. He remembers the food quality being entirely dependent on the cook. Accommodation was acceptable and they were given some linen, one clean sheet per fortnight and some soap. Conditions on the ships continued to improve over the years. Eventually, they even received ice-cream, but it was always a struggle to get anything more. He remembers that the ships always have libraries, even librarians.

In 1972 a vote passed allowing women to go to sea. He remembers refueling American ships during the war which were used to repatriate Japanese prisoners after the war. They would get supplies from these ships. Jim has a strong anti-war sentiment. He remembers an Australian-built ship, subsidised by the Australian government, but it was Japanese seamen who took her away and sneaked her out of port.

He believes the Seamen’s Union to be the best in the world. Whatever problems the seamen had, the Union always attended to them. The stop-work meetings were a great source of information, so too was the journal, though these days it is not that impressive. Governments will splurge billions on road projects, but not one cent on shipping; “ships don’t wear out roads”. He thinks the Seamen’s Retirement Fund was the greatest thing that ever happened for the seamen. Many blokes managed to retire with enough wealth to not worry about the future.

Special Notes/Achievements

Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 117 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: