My Father and the Merchant Navy

by Norma Aubertin-Potter

M y father, Norman Alfred Potter, was born on 24th February 1904 at Greenwich, was married on 29th November 1947 in Begbroke, and died at Kidlington on 10th December 1974.

Wedding 29th November 1947, Begbroke.

He joined the Merchant Navy in 1919 and to his great disappointment was invalided out in 1944. He rarely spoke about his time at sea and it was only after my mother’s death on 10th June 1988 when I found his log books that I was able to see the extensive trips he made.

These log books I photocopied and then deposited at the Museum of Docklands, Museum of London who had shown an interest in them. My intention was then to make a spread sheet of the dates and places. Naturally this slowly dropped down my list of things to do until suddenly in March 2020 I was furloughed from work and had time to spare.

MV Port Freemantle

He sailed from London on 24th June 1919 as a junior assistant steward on the SS Pangbourne of the Power Steamship Company going to Morocco.

Back in London his second trip was from the Victoria Docks leaving 18th September 1919 on the SS Barinia as a cabin boy; its destination is given as 'Foreign'. This may have been the early trip to Russia which he described to my Mother saying they were not allowed off the ship unless they wore the Hammer and Sickle — it being the time of the Russian Revolution. How I wish he had kept a diary.

Between 17th January 1920 to 9th August 1921 he sailed eight times to the Mediterranean either as a Cabin Boy or Second Steward. After that followed trips to the West Indies, Brazil, Montreal, twice to China and Japan (in 1928). In 1930 there were trips to the North Pacific; and in 1933 – 1940 he sailed to New Zealand, Australia, and the United States (he loved San Francisco). Two of the trips to New Zealand were undertaken after the declaration of war against Germany. The first he left Glasgow on the MV Port Huon on 12th February 1940 returning to Cardiff on 23rd June 1940; and the second again on the MV Port Huon leaving from Cardiff on 10th July 1940 and returning to that city on 1st December 1940. By this time he was Chief Steward.

The last four trips in the log book give the destination as 'Foreign' but from what little he told my Mother I know they were to Murmansk. Three of these trips were on the MV Port Fremantle; the first left Liverpool on 17th September 1941 and returned to Swansea on 29th March 1942; the second left Liverpool on 20th April 1942 and returned to Avonmouth on 28th September 1942; and the third left Avonmouth on 5th October 1942 and returned on 23rd October 1942 to Birkenhead. The short duration of this trip may imply damage or mechanical failure of some sort. Four days later he sailed on the Port Campbell from Liverpool, returning to that city on 10th May 1943.

It must have been shortly after this return that he received a near fatal injury while in dock — a severely fractured skull and serious internal injuries. He had no memory of what happened except walking to the ship's wash room in the morning and waking up many days later in hospital after a long operation. Port security believed that he must have disturbed some form of sabotage. To his dismay he was formally discharged from the Merchant Navy on 21st February 1944. His parents had moved from London to Oxford to avoid the bombing and the Oxford Medical Board passed him on 13th April 1944 as Grade III — fit for light work. He went to work in Radiators Factory in Woodstock and there met my mother who was working as a welder. They married on 29th November 1947 at Begbroke where my mother lived with her parents, the Merchant Navy gave him permission to wear his uniform.

Because of his injuries they had been told they could not have children so I was rather a surprise when I appeared in 1949!

My father remained at the factory ending as a chrome plate inspector until his retirement.

List of the places and the number of times he went there; in total he made 81 separate trips:

  • Morocco 1
  • West Indies 9
  • New York 1
  • Foreign (possibly Russia) 3
  • Brazil 1
  • River Plate 3
  • Mediterranean 8
  • Coasting 12
  • North Pacific 10
  • Spain 3
  • Montreal 6
  • China/Japan 2
  • Continental 1
  • New Zealand 5
  • United States 5
  • Australia 7
  • Russia 4

For readers interested in pre-war shipping — here is a list of the ships he sailed in:

  • SS Pangbourne
  • Sambre
  • Navasota
  • SS Barinia
  • Conway
  • Chaleur
  • SS Campeador
  • Antonia
  • MV Lochmonar
  • SS Almagro
  • Naviva
  • Nebraska
  • SS Carpio
  • Cardiganshire
  • SS Severn
  • Lochgolf
  • TSS Port Wellington
  • SS Port Hunter
  • TSS Port Caroline
  • TSS Port Nicholson
  • MV Port Fremantle
  • TSS Port Campbell
  • MV Port Huon

SEE ALSO by Norma Aubertin-Potter:
My Father and the Merchant Navy
Honoured at Oxford
My Lockdown Books
To Zoom or to Teams
Future Historians and the Pandemic of 2020

Norma Aubertin-Potter is a resident of Kidlington Village and a member of the Kidlington and District Historical Society.

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