Jack Mainland: “You mentioned boiler suits earlier; what clothing did you wear at sea?”
Bill Ballingall: “On watch in the engine room, it was simply a boilersuit and underpants, shoes and socks, and I always wore a sweatband just above my eyebrows. At the end of the watch, apart from the shoes, of course, it all went into the changing-room washing machine. These washing machines were pretty basic; just a small impeller that whirled the water and churned up the clothes, sometimes managing to tie the lot into a tight knot. Again, in the early days, we didn’t have the luxury of a second ‘clean-water cycle’, and so we rinsed our stuff by sort of dancing on it whist having our shower. Then it went over the top rail in the engine room, to be dry for the next watch.
On some ships, the Second Engineer required apprentices to wash their boilersuits, and gave us time off on a Saturday morning to do this. Highly irregular in Company regulations, but at sea there was no recourse to this practice. On one particular ship I was being put upon to wash the Third Engineer’s boilersuits as well, which seriously hacked me of. After a few months of this I ‘accidentally’ let a red woollen sweater slip into the washing machine along with his boilersuits. He then had to wear pink boilersuits for the rest of the trip. And I no longer was required to wash his boilersuits.
In Europe or in temperate climates, we would be required to wear the ’rig of the day’ when ‘topside’. This comprised traditional black ‘square-rigged’ double breasted jackets complete with a double row of the Company’s brass buttons, and gold braid on the sleeves, indicating rank. Known as ‘Number 1’s’. Engineers had a strip of purple between each stripe. In the tropics, it was whites; shorts, and short-sleeved shirts. White stockings. When wearing these shirts, the braid was on epaulettes, worn on the shoulder.
Strictly speaking, we were supposed to wear white deck shoes as part of our tropical uniform, but most of us wore more conventional black shoes, and the white shoes tended to gravitate into the engine room. They were quite good as engine room shoes; leather soles, and they lasted fairly well until such time as the canvas uppers fell to bits, and they went ‘over the side’.
Boilersuits became rather well-worn, or torn, as the months went by, and an engineer might well be wearing one boiler suit on watch, a second one drying over the engine room rail, and a third across his knees while sitting on the engine room bench, undergoing running repairs. There would be condemned bed-linen scrounged from the Butler or Chief Steward (British Crew), sail twine and beeswax form the Bos’n, and a sailmaker’s needle from the Mate, emulating 8 stitches to the inch – mail-bag standard used in prisons(!) – in sewing on a patch.
There was one curious anomaly on the ‘uniform list’. Special ‘engine room’ shoes could be obtained from navel outfitters; slipper-like things, all leather, with the soles attached to the uppers by little wooden pegs, rather similar to short match-sticks. All well and good, but after some months in a hot, humid, and often oily environment, the leather became quite soft, to the extent that the wooden pegs became loose and worked themselves right through the soles. From time-to-time you might see an engineer sitting on the engine room bench, shoes and socks off, solemnly pulling little wooden pegs from the soles of his feet with a pair of pliers…”