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Duty Calls for a Junior Assistant Purser

Coming from a middle-class working background l was a little surprised when I joined P&O to find that rank and class still had a large part to play when I joined my first ship SS Oriana back in 1973. The purser’s department had the Purser at it head. My first purser was Jim Ewen who was an old-style head of department who as a lowly junior assistant purser rarely spoke to and certainly did not socialise with. The ships officers had moved over from a uniform of long white trousers and long-sleeved jackets to shorts and short sleeved shirts, but Jim stuck to the long white trousers, perhaps he had bad legs.

Under the purser were three deputy pursers, admin David ‘Fingers’ Burleigh, catering Brian Hockey and accommodation deputy purser Timmins. Then came the senior assistant purser Stuart Bennett who was in charge of the bureau followed by assistant pursers, woman assistant pursers affectionately know as WAPS and at the bottom of the heap were the junior assistant pursers.

Here rank comes into play. Each night after the bureau closed a junior assistant purser or assistant purser would be nominated as duty assistant purser on call all night should anything untoward happen. Now in the 1970 there were no mobile phones or even pagers available so during the night of your duty you had to inform the telephone operator of your whereabouts as you moved around the ship.

The telephone exchange was manned by tele ops under the watchful eye of Irene the chief operator. As a junior l used to spend the odd hour in the telephone exchange as you got a feel for how the ship operated and Irene was a great font of knowledge and could be relied upon to steer this wet behind the ear JAP on the track to take as incidents unfolded.

In the event that you could not sort out the problem, then you called upon the duty deputy pursers, but let me tell you, you explored every avenue available before you dragged your boss out of bed in the middle of the night.

When I joined Oriana, we spent quite a few days in Southampton before setting sail on a five-week trip to Australia. This time was spent stocking the ship and generally getting the ship prepared to be away from the UK for a few months.

Princess Room - SS Oriana

With all the passengers onboard, we set sail in the early evening to great excitement from the newly embarked passengers and certainly from this excited junior officer. As it would happen the first night at sea, I was duty assistant purser and sure to form about one in the morning I was dragged out of bed by the constant ringing of my bunk side phone. A stowaway had been discovered in the Princess room. I met up with the night watchman to discover the guy was a little the worse for wear and did not appear to have cabin allocated to him.

You must remember back in the 70’s virtually anyone could come on the ship to see their friends off, all you needed was a boarding pass and these were dispensed like Smarties at a children’s party. An hour before sailing announcement were made for anyone not sailing on the ship to make their way to the gangway and leave the ship.

On this occasion the guy had had a skinful of booze and fallen fast asleep and was not discovered until most of the passengers were fast asleep in their bunks.

I quickly started to learn about life once I had joined Oriana. I was not on night duty again for quite a few days as Oriana had quiet a good number of assistant pursers to spread the load.

On the next occasion I was chatting to Irene in the telephone exchange when just across the foyer at the entrance to the cinema a lady collapsed, as I was virtually on the scene I realised that it was a little more serious than too much wine and called out the medical staff. The poor lady had had a brain haemorrhage.

I had not realised when we set sail from Southampton that so many passengers would be lost to “Davy Jones Locker” before we arrived in Sydney. I had been fairly friendly with an elderly couple and sadly the lady lost her husband, she requested that l attend the funeral which was held in the small lobby by one of the gun port doors and the gentleman’s remains committed to the deep. This was my first time to see a burial at sea and had a profound effect on me at time.

I was beginning to believe that all the strange events happened when I was duty a/p. On my third round of duty there was a suspected man overboard, which l am very pleased to report was a false alarm.

Yes, it was a very rapid learning curve in those first few weeks and we had not even got to Australia yet.


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