Time and Tide: Oral Histories


Name: Colin Spicer
Year of birth: 1938
Place of birth: Gillingham, Kent
Place of residence: Walmer, near Deal, Kent
Occupation/s: Merchant Navy Engineer


‘I grew up thinking Hitler was quite a hero as he blew the roof of me school at one stage and you didn’t go to another school then, you didn’t go to school for six months until they’d repaired the roof.’

 ‘I met my dad for the first time when I was three. I saw him the second time when my brother was born when I was five. So I never knew this man who suddenly after the war came into our lives. And er, he’s always called me ‘The Boy’ and when I was 16 I became ‘The Old Boy’. In fact my brother calls me ‘The Old Boy’ now.’


Colin started his apprenticeship in Chatham Dockyard on 11th May 1953 and finished five years later, on 11th May 1958: ‘I was supposed to have done National Service but it was deferred because of the apprenticeship, and of course the natural thing was to go in the Royal Navy and by that time there was nobody wanted in the Royal Navy because they’d got enough recruits. So I can remember them saying all we can offer you is a truck drivers job in the Air Force and in the Army we will guarantee you can have either a bullet in your back at any stage in Cyprus or foot slogging it in the Malayan Jungle. And I said ‘No way’. Colin subsequently signed up to the Merchant Navy, as a Junior Engineer, in 1958.

‘These were the days when you didn’t have telephones and the only communication was a radio officer for emergencies, so you wrote to each other and when you got to port you gave gigantic letters to the agents who sent them home for you and likewise they came out.’


Colin got married in 1960, to a girl he’d met at primary school. 2019 is their 59th wedding anniversary! They moved into their own place in Rochester. ‘They called me back from honeymoon to say that they wanted me to join a tanker … and I protested strongly because you joined a tanker you could be away a year at a time. When I was at sea the minimum you was away was three months, three to four months was normal but a tanker you could be up to a year away. I said ‘I’ve only just got married’, they said ‘Oh don’t worry you’ll have extra seniority by being on a tanker’. So I said I’d prefer to come home occasionally! Anyway, the first trip I flew out to join, never flown in my life, flew out to the Persian Golf as it was then and um, always remember because somehow I had to grab a passport so I grabbed one quickly and I didn’t have a lot of money, you could have a joint passport then so having just got married we were both on the same passport which was a bit confusing for the customs who wanted me to point out which one was the seaman! And the first thing we did was come up to the Isle of Grain at Rochester!’

‘I always remember in Swansea as the ship caught on fire. We were lay on alongside the berth … and I was up having a cup of tea, Celia [my wife] in the cabin next minute the alarms went off. They blew the ships whistle continuously, and I said ‘that blooming ship’s whistle it got stuck before’ and I went running down below to shut it off, and suddenly realised the ship of the ship was on fire and they were telling everybody to leave rapid. So I first turned round to see where Celia was but she will always laugh about it because it was like an Olive Oil, wearing a very tight skirt trying to run down the catwalk of a tanker to be brought down the engine room where I was holding one of the other bloke’s hands. Always a sight to behold now! And I’ll always remember it because they said to her: “Colin’s gone down below, he is now putting on the pumps where they’re going to fight the fire. Now you can help in that way – I’m going to ask you to open this valve when I get the hose to this fire, so I will wave to you and you turn the valve like this.” She understood so in her keenness to be helpful she stood there waiting and when the chap got halfway to the fire he run out of hose so he then signalled to another person to bring him another length of hose which was misinterpreted by my wife who then drowned everybody fighting the fire, they got wet through. A long time ago but we laughed.’


 ‘11 Plus was a complete mystery, what on earth that was about I don’t know. So there was no point in trying so I was very fortunate in getting my apprenticeship because I was one of those people who, at secondary school in Rainham, I always had a god record of average good work … but when it came to examinations, I couldn’t take an examination for love nor money. So this was a big challenge for me to try to make head nor tail of qualifications. And luckily I did achieve it and in ’71 I got me Second Engineer Officer’s Certification.’ 

To get his experience with motor-powered ships, Colin joined Canadian Pacific and a tanker that was ‘a quarter of a mile long’: ‘I was on my own in the air conditioned control room, and I thought what a change, this is lovely, fancy giving you an air conditioned control room, til I found about that the air conditioning is to keep the electrical instrumentation stable, not for my benefit!’


‘It’s been a life where I’ve enjoyed every moment but I couldn’t go back to it now because like so many jobs it’s all changed completely. Chief Engineer doesn’t even go down below. I was lucky because all the time there was a problem I was upstairs in my cabin as Chief Engineer but they always said when something went wrong and everyone else was running around in circles they said you’d always sit down, calmly light one [a small cigar] up and say “Right, let’s thing about this before you make any silly moves”. I always knew, whatever happened, whoever was down below, you’re only as good as your full team. I can be standing in my cabin or up on the bridge and say I knew exactly what everybody was doing down below, because I’d done it myself. But then when I got my qualifications we entered an era when people came in with qualifications up to their ears but they’d never touched anything.’ 

‘Doing the night shift from 4 til 6 in the morning is a killer whatever state you’re in’

‘Yes [when I was on the tankers] I was away three months at a time but when you’re married and when you’ve got children and when you got activities and you’re stuck out here [the Channel] and you know that your child’s got a special presentation tonight and you can’t do anything about it, it affects your life. Whereas if you’re the other side if the world it makes no difference.’


Colin explains that when he was serving on tankers that travelled far afield, when you weren’t on the ship you only got a contribution to give your wife or your mother to keep you in food, ‘hence you’ve got so many seamen’s hostels in London and ports where people couldn’t afford to come off the ships and when they did they were almost like homeless so they went into a hostel until the next ship took them on. … If you were a registered port worker, a Port of London employee, you didn’t get any subsidy at all, which was pretty poor. … We used to get x number of days leave a year and people used to say ‘Cor, you get far more than me, I only get three weeks’, and we used to say ‘Have you noticed you get Saturday and Sunday off? When you’re at sea out there you don’t get Saturday and Sunday off’.

‘You never saw much of each other [on the big tankers]. When I got up, others went down below. You very rarely bumped into anybody for a social life, you had to be content with your own company.’


‘My grandad was born in a workhouse that was, he lived his first 18 years of his life in a workhouse. When he came out of the workhouse he was 18 and his gran took him in, cos you have to come out, his brother was born in there and his mum died in the workhouse, three years after he was born and he never ever knew who his father was, and his father was never, ever registered. He [Colin’s grandad] then married a girl and he went on the barges and when the girl was, had a child about seven months later and died soon after giving birth, and so here he was stuck with a young daughter… His daughter was adopted by his brother who had come out of the workhouse and suddenly was doing OK now as a postman so he adopted the daughter. Now my mum came on the scene 1911, and I grew up when my mum was a nurse and my Nan and Grandad and this other lady who, I always liked very much, she had a shop up in Gillingham with a companion who used to sell ice cream and that was wonderful, as a little lad, and this lady became a vital part of my life because I always knew her as Aunty May, family friends you always know as Aunty, they don’t have to be relatives. Since my mum died I found out it was my mum’s step-sister, they’d never talked about it. My grandad never spoke about being in the workhouse, my mum never knew that.’  ‘Much to his dad’s disgust and his mum’s disgust, my dad shot off to join the Navy because he needed to make some way in life. He was just an engine room stoker, or boiler room stoker, and travelled the world with them.’