One of the things I love about the culture of writing is the use of the post. By which I mean good old paper, stamps, envelopes…sending poems out into the world with an SAE and a good luck wish, and then waiting for the word back; the convivial exchange of books through the post; the thud of a magazine on the door mat; occasionally a real letter from another writer.
This week I put Royal Mail to another use by sending postcards to some of the addresses listed on the passenger list of the SS Ormonde’s 1947 voyage from Kingston, Jamaica to Liverpool. All passengers were required to give an address before embarking the ship, though many, like my dad, didn’t have addresses since they were coming to England for the first time. Like others, he gave the name of the Colonial Office on Wimpole Street, Some listed the Central London YMCA.
Why am I sending out these postcards? I’ve been writing poems in the voices – imagined voices – of some of those passengers, and it occurs to me that some of them might well still be alive. It’s not their permission to represent them I’m after exactly – since the poems make no claims to telling the truth – but something in me feels unsettled about using their identities, and another part of me is thrilled by the idea that I might hear back – if not from the passengers themselves, perhaps from someone who knew them.
Of course, I might well hear nothing…especially since some of the addresses no longer seem to exist. One address is given simply as “New Houses, Pontypridd, Cardiff”. I sent a postcard anyway.
The Ormonde travelled from Kingston to Port of Spain to Bermuda, then onwards to England. My dad travelled Cabin Class (C class), as did most of the colonial migrants, but there were plenty of passengers in A and B Class – not all of them were travelling to find work. The next part of my research might be to find out about some of those passengers.
I’ve only sent postcards to the people I’ve based poems on – two boxers who listed their address as Hallam Mews, WC1;, a young dressmaker who embarked at Kingston; a nine-year old schoolboy, and the six “distressed seamen” who hitched a ride home on the Ormonde. That term applies to any seaman who finds himself at port without a ship. In wartime, this might be because his ship has been sunk, but at other times, the sources I found suggest drunkenness, “womanising” and imprisonment as more common reasons. I had fun writing those poems.
The names of eleven stowaways must have been added to the passenger list when they were found out – and I know they were found out, since the Evening Standard of that week carries a news item about their trial in Liverpool. The address column by their names is empty – not even the Colonial Office or the YMCA are listed. That blank space seems to make their stories more poignant to me, since in my imagination a man with no place to go, might well take his chances.
As for me, I’m waiting for the postman.