When seamen became sea going stockmen

18 December 1998

When seamen became sea going stockmen

Tony Collop was an

apprentice officer in the

merchant navy in the 1950s

and served on many of the

ships transporting livestock

around the world. It had its

humorous moments, he


COWS, sheep, prize rams, pigs, dogs and cats. At one time or another I have carried them all as cargo on various ships. They had to be looked after rather more carefully than, say machine tools, fed and watered at inconvenient intervals, but basically they were freight exported from one country to another.

Back in the 1950s there were no specialised ships to carry them so we built their pens on deck on a one-off basis. Specialists were not employed to look after them, no cattlemen, just us. As apprentice officers we were usually given the job of feeding, watering and mucking them out. If they calved, which they often did, then the second mate or chief steward was the midwife, with our rather shaky assistance.

My first experience was in 1951, shortly after joining my first ship. We took 10 heifers from London to Malta. Everything was fine until the Bay of Biscay when we encountered one of the worst storms of the century.

The cow pens, specially built of wood, kept getting damaged by heavy seas and were in danger of being washed away completely. We spent day after day roped together, often up to our waists in water, rebuilding and shoring the pens up. The ship arrived at Malta five days overdue on a trip which usually only lasted 10 days. Because of this, the Maltese authorities refused permission for the cows to be disembarked – their foot and mouth disease immunity papers had expired.

So, we were stuck with them. We discharged the rest of our cargo in Malta and backloaded British Army stores for discharge at Port Said. After Port Said, we part-loaded cotton at Alexandria and then on to Cyprus to load potatoes for the UK.

Offered in turn

The first calf was born between Malta and Port Said – without any assistance from us. He escaped from his pen and was found on deck. Since we did not know which cow gave birth to him, we offered the calf to each of them in turn. If they kicked out at him, we considered this a rejection and kept on trying until one of the cows accepted him. Two more were born after that, but the second mate got to them in time and supervised their delivery. They were finally discharged at Famagusta. Ten animals had left London for Malta and 13 were gratefully received at Cyprus – papers or no papers.

The next occasion was something of an epic. It happened two years into my apprenticeship when I was sailing on an old tramp steamer. We were on a voyage from New Zealand and Australia to Mauritius and all the ports in South and East Africa from Cape Town up to Mombassa.

In Adelaide we loaded 15 cows for eventual delivery to Mombassa. A few days later, at Fremantle, we loaded five prize rams for Durban and 200 sheep for Mauritius. The sheep were going to be slaughtered on arrival, being part of the islands meat supply for the month. We also loaded a deck cargo of apples on the forward hatches and onions on the after hatches.

The sheep were shorn on the dockside before being loaded. My aunt, who happened to be living in Perth at that time, came down to visit me on the ship. She took one look at the cows loaded in Adelaide and said that they were going to calve soon.

Not in calf?

"Oh no they wont," said the captain who was passing by, "Ive been assured by the shippers that these cows are not in calf"

"Oh yes they are," replied my aunt "and its not going to be very long either." She was right of course; aunts usually are.

The five prize rams were magnificent creatures with beautiful white fleeces which were left unshorn. The apples belonged to someones granny and the onions stank. People said that they could smell the ship a couple of miles off.

Our first port after Fremantle was Mauritius where we were due to offload the sheep, apples and onions. We arrived there too late in the evening to enter Port Louis, so we remained at sea drifting and waiting for sunrise.

The captain and chief officer decided to shift all the sheep from the after deck to the fore deck, clean up the mess they had been making for the past three weeks and then herd them back aft to their pens. All 200 of them and all before the pilot boarded at 6am. We two apprentices with the bosun and carpenter were going to carry out the operation. But the old man and mate were on call to give advice if necessary.

"How are we going to get the sheep up forward?" I asked.

"Oh, just find the Judas sheep and hell do the job for you," replied the mate as he and the old man retired to their cabins for a quiet drink.

We went over and looked at the sheep and 200 of them gazed solemnly back at us.

"Which ones the Judas?" asked the bosun.

None of them showed any sign of wanting to betray their mates. Dredging deep into my memory I seemed to recall that Judas sheep were sometimes called bellwethers.

"Itll have a bell round its neck," I said, "to attract the other sheep"

"In that case, the bloody thing would have been ringing the last three weeks," stated the bosun.

None of them had a bell. The crafty Aussie herders had probably taken it back after the sheep had done its job, saving the bell for the next consignment.

We got most of the sheep from the after deck through the alleyways on to the fore deck. But about 20 of them found the entrance to the engineers accommodation – whose door we had forgotten to shut. The fourth engineer woke up to find his cabin a sea of sheep. He could have walked to his cabin door on them. After we shooed them out, he was left with a wall to wall carpet of good manure.

Eventually, we got all the sheep forward, swept up their mess, pitchforked it all overboard and washed the deck down. Then we had difficulty getting the sheep back aft again. We got them as far as the deck area in between the bridge and engineers accommodation when we saw the bosun causing a bottleneck.

I climbed up to the next deck on the bridge housing to see what would happen next. The captain saw me there and told me to stop messing about and jump down on top of the sheep. To this day, I dont know if he was serious or not, but I jumped.

I landed on the backs of several sheep and set off a stampede. They charged the bosun and carried him down aft on their backs. In fact he ended up in the pens with the sheep. I was left midships sprawled out on deck thoroughly winded.

After Mauritius the sheep had gone and my aunts prediction started to come true. Our cows delivered a total of five calves. They were so small they could squeeze out of their mothers pens. They loved doing this and enjoyed a good run round the decks. Our ship was a flush-deck ship and they used to start running – always down the port side of the after deck, round the stern, up the starboard side, round the focsle and down the port side again. Circuit after circuit, faster and faster.

Thunder of tiny hooves

If we were painting in the outside midships alleyways, we would suddenly hear the thunder of tiny hooves. It was a signal to stop painting, jump up on to the bulwarks with our paint pots until the herd had passed; then jump down and continue painting until they came round again.

The five prize rams were also still with us. Their white fleeces had turned black from the funnel smoke, so the captain and chief officer decided they should be cleaned up a bit. Again, it was us cadets, bosun and chippy who did the job.

We got some Teepol, mixed it in a bucket with hot water, held the rams down with some difficulty and washed them. Then we hosed them off. The first attempt turned them piebald but it was better the second time.

Suddenly we received orders to dry-dock in Durban before continuing north. This was a disaster because the cows and calves, destined for Mombassa, would not be allowed to land in Durban and there was no way they could stay on the ship in dry-dock. They would have to be slaughtered because of the ever-constant fear of foot and mouth disease. The prize rams were due to be off-loaded at Durban anyway so their papers were OK.

On board, we were quite upset by this turn of events. We had got fond of our animals – especially as we were getting unaccustomed fresh milk every day. However, the shippers in Adelaide and the receivers in Kenya must have protested vehemently because we eventually did a ship-to-ship transfer in Durban harbour before going alongside. The cows and calves were off-loaded directly on to a different ship and continued their journey to Mombassa without touching the shore at Durban.

£45 a voyage

We used to like dealing with cows and sheep – not least because we used to get good bonuses for it. We would split the wages which should have been paid to the cattleman between us. I received £45 that voyage which was good money in those days. My wages then were a miserable £7 10/- a month and even the second mates salary was only £36. We never lost any of the cows, calves or prize rams although five of the 200 sheep died on us.

See more