Object of the Week

Turtle

The turtle in Whitby Museum was washed aboard the Whitby steamship ‘Ethelfreda’ which was mid-Atlantic on it’s voyage from Baltimore to Birkenhead in 1926.

A young deckhand looked after the sea creature during the voyage home. Some sixty years later that same deckhand, a little older now, visited Whitby Museum to be reunited with his turtle. After the visit he sent a letter of thanks to the museum including an account of his experiences that day all those years ago.

“Thank you for the opportunity to again hold the turtle which I did sixty years ago (1926-1986). These briefly were the circumstances.

The Whitby steamship ‘Ethelfreda’ was homebound from Baltimore to Birkenhead deep laden with coal, a commodity in short supply due to the General Strike of 1926. About mid-Atlantic we struck atrocious weather, gale force winds and mountainous seas. Looking back the worst I could remember, but then I was only fifteen and on the first voyage of my apprenticeship.

I was sheltering in the lee of the galley scuttle awaiting six bells (7am) to start my brass cleaning in the wheelhouse. The top bridge brass, the steam whistle up the funnel and the forecastle head bell were as green as grass and forever wet with salt spray.

AB Alex Sloan passed me clobbered in sou’wester, oil-skins and sea boots. He was going aft to read the sea log. The after-well deck was up to his knees even though the scuppers were spewing water all the time. He only seemed to be gone a minute when he returned to the well-deck ladder with a turtle in his hands, says he “Here you are lad it’s all yours”. It had been bashing itself first against the hatch-coaming then back to the bulwark with every roll of the ship.

I know and you know that I should have taken it to the leeside and dropped it back into the sea, but no; I fancied a turtle of my own. Our room was amidships and we had a bathroom next door. There was only one tap to the bath and it only supplied cold salt water. We only used a bucket of warm water from the galley for a sponge down. What better then; a readymade tank with a constant supply of salt water. I think the turtle and I were good friends for the next fortnight even if he was a bit restricted. End of an era.

We are in Birkenhead now and outside the bathroom is the Chief Officer, Mr Joe Harley, telling chippy to “Crate up that thing and we’ll send it to Sir John”, “But it’s my turtle Sir”, but being the smallest, newest and least important member of the crew, I don’t think he heard me.

The dockers didn’t seem too interested in discharging our coal cargo, the crew had been paid off, Mr Harley had been promoted to Master of the ‘Ethelwolf’, and Captain McCleod had given me rail warrant to Whitby and a week’s leave to enjoy home comforts. Towards the end of my week of idleness I was awaiting my friend at the bottom of Pier Lane. There, surrounded by herring and other assorted fish on Eglon’s marble slab was my turtle – very, very much dead!

Although sickened at the time I realised that I couldn’t have kept it in captivity much longer and so I lost sight of it for at least twenty years. Then on a very wild day on a visit to Whitby I rediscovered it at Pannett Park Museum and have revisited it many times since. So thank you Mt Harley and everyone else involved. I hope it was not too much trouble. Sincerely yours, Sidney Brown.

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