by Joy Peters
The fabulous sixties was an interesting decade. A time of great liberalisation: the Beatles, Elvis Presley of course, Carnaby Street in London, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile crisis that nearly brought the world to nuclear war. The assassination of John F. Kennedy shocked the world - most people can recall precisely what they were doing at the time.
In 1963 Marcia Fenwick was a bright sixteen-year-old girl who sought to follow in her father's footsteps as a British Merchant Navy navigating officer. Her father held a Master Mariners (Foreign Going) Certificate of Competency and was now Captain of his own ship with the P & O - Orient Lines. Marcia had developed her interest by joining her father on a cruise during which she was able to spend time on the bridge and chatter to the officers of the watch. At that time, girls were unable to enter the profession although they were able to secure employment at sea as assistant pursers and stewards. Deck officers were always regarded with admiration and it was very much a male-dominated career. The thought of having females in such a capacity was unthinkable. Marcia was determined to break through this artificial glass ceiling - or deck head as she phrased it.
She wrote to her MP and through this received a response from the Board of Trade stating that there were no regulatory reasons for denying females the right to qualify for Certificates of Competency - a requisite to enter the profession. Britain was behind the times in this regard as some countries, notably the USA, did allow females although the numbers were miniscule.
Marcia was doing well at her grammar school and managed to pass ten GCE O-Levels with distinction. Her teachers wanted her to stay on to complete A-Levels and then go on to an Oxbridge university. Marcia would have none of it - she was determined to follow her heart and go to sea. She applied to the many nautical colleges in England and Wales and eventually found one, the Reardon Smith Nautical College in Cardiff, which would consider admitting girls. She excelled at interview and was offered a place, together with one other girl. Initially treated as novelties, they soon showed that they were at least the equal of the boys. Marcia obtained a First class Honours Certificate in her final examinations at the end of the twelve-month course. This merited a nine-month remission of qualifying sea time - normally four years - before she would be eligible to sit for her Second Mates Certificate of Competency.
Finding a shipping company that would allow her an apprenticeship or cadetship was something else. Her father's company would not admit women nor would many others. Eventually, she was invited to an interview with a British shipping company and to her ecstatic delight was offered a Cadetship. Accompanied by her mother (her father was away on a voyage) she attended a nautical outfitter to be measured for her uniforms - Blues and Tropical whites - and was soon joining her first ship, the MV Clan Matterson, at Birkenhead docks. The Clan Matterson was a cargo liner which also had accommodation with twelve cabins for fee-paying passengers.
She reported to the First Officer as advised in her written reporting instructions. He was a burly Scotsman by the name of Mr Stuart. Marcia gained the impression that he was none too pleased to have a female Cadet to look after - after all she was the first ever female to join the Company in such capacity. Sexism was accepted in those days and Marcia was fully aware of the difficulties she would face but she was absolutely determined to succeed in her chosen career. Mr Stuart regarded her as a 'bit of skirt' but in spite of such feeling, underneath it all he was a genuine type of guy who Marcia felt she could work with if he were to give her a fair chance. Marcia was a bit of a celebrity. The Shipping Company could see the possibilities of positive press publicity, and before they set sail Marcia's 'First British female cadet' story was published in a number of tabloids.
The Officers of the Clan Matterson were all British but the crew were Indian. Marcia had her own cabin and steward. She found it hard to believe that his sole purpose was to look after her and to serve tables in the Officers dining room. Marcia's first voyage, a three-month return trip to South and East Africa, was all she had anticipated and more. She loved the challenges. Entering and leaving port, her station was on the Bridge assisting the Third Officer, Captain and Pilot. At sea and in port she didn't keep watches but was engaged on day work, reporting to the First Officer at 8am each morning to be assigned to various tasks designed to familiarise her with all aspects of ship maintenance for which the First Officer was responsible.
She was allowed study time, which in those days required set work administered by correspondence. In port she was allowed some time off, which allowed her to don civilian clothes and facilitate sightseeing. She loved the life. The Deck Officers by tradition looked after her and mindful of her low pay (in those days she received only £13 a month of which she had to tip her steward £3 a month) treated her to outings and in the Officers 'smoke room'. Marcia was an extremely attractive eighteen-year-old girl with an engaging and bubbly personality. But no one on board ship took advantage of her or made any sexual advance. There was an expression 'never to poop on your own doorstep' of which everyone was mindful and respectful.
The Clan Matterson's first port of call on return to the UK was Avonmouth, and Marcia was signed off to enable her to take a period of leave. She rejoined the ship at Birkenhead in early December for the start of her second voyage. The Clan Matterson sailed once again for South Africa on 22 December. The crew remained largely the same as on the previous voyage. Marcia's first Christmas at sea was an emotional event, being her first away from home. The ship docked in Las Palmas on New Year's Eve for bunkers (fuel oil and fresh water). Marcia purchased a couple of bottles of remarkably cheap Bacardi Rum (her favourite tipple with Cola) from the dockside before the ship set sail for Cape Town.
After the pilot was disembarked, the First Officer came up to the Bridge and rather curtly addressed Marcia.
"I'll see you in my office, Fenwick, as soon as you've been dismissed from the Bridge."
A few minutes later Marcia knocked on Mr Stuart's office door.
She walked in and was invited to sit down.
"I've received a copy of your correspondence course report from your last voyage."
"I've not read it yet, Sir."
"It doesn't make pleasant reading, Fenwick. Some missing and uncompleted work schedules; hurried and incorrect work resulting in an assessment of an unacceptable D. This really isn't good enough. I give you plenty of study time - it appears that you've not been using it to study."
"I think I deserve an explanation rather than an apology, Fenwick."
"I found the work a little monotonous and repetitive and put it aside. I just forgot to catch up with it. I'm sure I'll soon be back on track."
"You're a bright girl, Fenwick. However, in future I want you to report to me with every completed module from now on. Understand?"
Marcia left the office quite crestfallen and went below to her cabin. She opened the letter addressed to her and then understood why Mr Stuart had summoned her. The report was pretty bad. She poured herself a Bacardi and Coke and then went and showered and dressed in her tropical mess kit for the New Year celebrations to be held in the Officers Smoke Room. She had a second drink before leaving her cabin. She felt quite low.
At 21:00 hrs ship's time she entered the Smoke Room and participated in the celebratory buffet and drinks party. The Second Officer noted her subdued state and attempted to cheer her up. Marcia had a few more drinks and began to feel rather tiddly. At 11pm the radio boomed the chimes of Big Ben heralding the British New Year. Ships time was an hour behind GMT.
The passengers were holding their own party in their lounge and had invited the off-duty officers to join them. Most of the officers made their way to the passengers lounge as soon as the British New Year was in. The Second Officer escorted Marcia. More drinks were consumed before Marcia felt sick. She stumbled towards the door leading out onto the deck and managed to open it with some difficulty. The fresh air took hold and she remembered nothing until she woke in her bunk with a splitting headache.
Daylight streamed through the porthole. She was still dressed in her white mess kit but it was splattered with grease marks. She jumped out of her bunk to be greeted by the sight of her steward standing in the doorway. She looked at her watch and was shocked to see it registered two o'clock. Surely not? It was daylight so she realised it was not two in the morning. Her steward spoke.
"Memsaab, First Officer wants to see you on the Bridge at 16:30 hrs. But first you must get cleaned up. I'll fetch you some tea."
Her head spun and she rushed to her washbasin and was violently sick. She stripped off her clothes and donned her dressing gown. She went to the shower and scrubbed herself clean. When she returned to her cabin, her steward was holding a tray of tea with some dry toast.
"Memsaab, I'll take your uniform and try my best to clean it. Get dressed and don't forget to report to the Bridge at 16:30 hrs."
"Thanks Yasvin. What happened?"
"First Officer will tell you Ma'am."
At 16:25 hrs she made her way to the Bridge, not daring to be late. She reported to Mr Stuart, now Officer of the Watch. She approached him, came to attention and saluted."
"Cadet Fenwick reporting as instructed, Sir."
"Do you have any recollection of last night, Fenwick?"
Marcia relayed her recollection of events leading up to her opening the door to get out onto the deck.
"Do you not recall being extremely rude to Mr and Mrs Phillips before opening the door."
"They were concerned about you and asked you if you were OK. You told them to 'get out of my fucking way'."
"No Sir. I don't remember anything like that happening."
"You are extremely lucky that they remained concerned about you. They followed you out onto the deck and found you lying down on No 3 hatch on top of the derrick rigging. Mr Phillips came back and raised the alarm which enabled two of the officers to assist Mrs Phillips to take you back to your cabin and place you in the recovery position. You are an utter disgrace, Fenwick."
"I'm terribly sorry, Sir. I just got so drunk and lost control. It won't happen again."
"I need to give thought on how we deal with you, Fenwick. I need to have a discussion with the Captain who of course is aware of this, as indeed are the entire ship's company. In the meantime you are confined to your quarters. You will not leave them until further notice. Your steward will bring you meals as required. Use your time usefully. Firstly, draft a letter to Mr and Mrs Phillips apologising for your dreadful behaviour towards them and thanking them for the subsequent assistance they provided. You'd better also make sure your studies are right up to date. Reflect on your conduct. You will not receive any visitors during your confinement. Now go."
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