Socialist Brevities: A Life on the Ocean Wave-Under Capitalism

I am afraid that, like many other people, no doubt, my conception of sailors has been coloured by the familiar picture which adorns Mr. Angus Watson’s sardine tins. I have never doubted that our sailors were boys of the bull-dog, and not the whippet breed. But this conviction has been sadly shaken by the following news item, which appeared in the “Daily News” (11/1/29) :

Sharp criticism of the seaman’s working con­ditions is being expressed by Mr. Ernest Bevin, general secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union, and the officials of the Marine Section of that body.

These conditions, it is alleged, are responsible for the highest death-rate of any class of workers.

In this week’s issue of the “Seafarers’ Record,” published by the Union, a comparison is made between the air space of the living and sleeping quarters of sailors, and that of work-house inmates and convicts.

The legal minimum allotment of space to the sailor is 120 cubic feet, but it is stated that the locker and fittings deprive the occupant of 32 cubic feet, giving only 88 feet net.

The space given to a workhouse inmate is 400 cubic feet, and to a convict 800 feet.

Mr. Bevin contends that official figures—showing death-rates much more serious than among miners—do not indicate the full difference, as many sailors leave the ships when they are ill, work for a time in some shore job associated with shipping and dock work, and are not necessarily classed as mariners when they die from the illness contracted at sea.

Mr. James Henson, who contributes an article on the subject, quotes an official statement that seamen’s mortality exceeds the average by 48.8 per cent., while the death rate from accident is 430 per cent. higher.

Mr. Henson adds that for every 112 miners who die of tuberculosis there are 221 deaths of sailors from the same cause.

It is stated that on many ships the bunks are occupied by relays of men, and that the air is constantly foul. Liability to tuberculosis is attributed mainly to this condition.

Tribute is paid to one or two British ship­ owners who have greatly improved the sailor’s accommodation in ships built since the war. But it is alleged that the British standard is much below the average of American, Dutch, Scandinavian, and some other foreign vessels.

The Transport Workers’ Union intends to start a vigorous campaign.

It would appear that when our sailors are not “going down to the sea in ships,” they are going down to the tubercular ward of the Infirmary in an ambulance !


 The “Daily News” for February 15th contains a contribution to the Sex Equality Debate by Mrs. Eva M. Hubback, who is prominent in the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. Among the feminist arguments put forward we get this gem :—

“The married women of to-day, therefore, except for the comparatively few with estates and incomes of their own, are entirely dependent on (a) their husband’s power; (b) his will to maintain them adequately. What is the result? It is that her income and the sum she has to satisfy the needs of her children are measured —not as in any other profession by her ability, and by the requirements of her job—but by her husband’s ability and employment, or lack of it.

Nowhere is there any other profession where rewards are in this way totally divorced from either services or needs.

Thus a first-rate mother with half a dozen children, whose husband is a labourer and perhaps unemployed at that, will be engaged in the hopeless task of making bricks without straw, and of trying to carry on her home making and child-rearing duties on a totally inadequate income.”

And the proposed remedy? Now look serious, the remedy is :—

“That a wife should be given a share in her husband’s income.”

!!! Let us hope that when the wife gets a share of what is left over after the unemployment pay has been divided amongst eight persons, she will not expend her stupendous portion at night clubs, but will put it by so as to be able to leave the price of a packet of woodbines to her progeny.


(Socialist Standard, July 1929)

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