IMAGE OF THE MONTH, FEBRUARY 2024

NEPTUNUS OCEANI REX

Steven C. Smyrl, M.A.G.I., F.S.G., F.I.G.R.S.

Some years ago my step-mum gave me some papers from among my late father’s effects, stuff he had been holding on to for years. Among the bundle of papers were my grandparents’ passports dating from the 1950s, recording where they were stationed when my grandfather, James Christie Smyrl, served in the UK’s Royal Air Force. For periods at a time, they called home places like Southern Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – (1950), Libya (1955), Aden (1966) and Germany (1970).

In 2015 my dad told me in detail about his time in Southern Rhodesia, where he had gone with his parents after living for several years in Belfast with his ageing Aunt Margaret & Uncle Charles Lyttle. They were stationed in the country’s second city, Bulawayo for the three years leading up to 1952. While there his brother, Jim, was born in 1951. My dad told me that after Belfast, Bulawayo was like nothing he could ever have imagined – the colour and dress of the people, their language, the sun and the heat, and the lack of water, often leading to dry, dusty land. They lived in a spacious house, complete with shady veranda and two domestic staff. It was a far cry from the family’s terraced house in Belfast and their tiny, wooden seaside holiday cottage at Bangor West, on the coast of Co. Down, where he spent many a wet, blustery weekend.

When my dad left Rhodesia in 1952 he was aged 9 and it was by train from Bulawayo, via the capital Salisbury (now Harare), travelling all the way down to Cape Town to board the RMS Edinburgh Castle bound for Southampton. It was a long journey, covering just short of 1,200 miles. For a little boy, he said, it was magical…the ever-changing scenery as they passed through open countryside. He spent his time running up and down between the carriages, hanging out of the windows of the doors, scanning the distance for the long necks of giraffes or the easily distinguishable colour and pattern of groups of zebra.

He said that by contrast, although the time spent afterwards aboard ship was monotonous, each day the same, it was still exciting and proved to be the beginning of his life-long love of the sea – in later life he was to take-up deep sea diving and run two fishing boats off the coast of West Scotland. By chance, combing through the papers mum had given me, I found three items relating to that sea journey. One was the sailing ticket dated 3 November 1952, recording the date of sailing as 7 November, via Madeira (I learnt online that the journey took two weeks exactly). They were allocated berth number 498. The second item was a printed 8-page colour souvenir brochure of the sailing, complete with detailed information about what services were offered aboard and a list of all passengers.

The Edinburgh Castle was the largest ship among the 30 vessels forming the Union-Castle Line, being 28,705 tons. It could accommodate 650 passengers and was launched in 1947. It had shops, a library, a doctor and hairdresser and several restaurants. Breakfast was served at 7:30am, followed by lunch at midday and then afternoon tea from 4pm. In the evening, there were two sittings for dinner: 6:30pm and 7:30pm.

A note in the brochure, redolent of times past, reads “Passengers are requested to ensure that children in their care do not cause disturbance to others…particularly during the hours 2-4pm when many passengers are resting.” No doubt they needed to rest before consuming yet more food from 4pm!

That can’t have stopped the children’s fun though as my dad said there were activities laid on for them each day. And to prove this, the third item I found among his papers was a certificate, dated 13 November 1952, certifying that David Smyrl had been “initiated in the solemn mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep”, signed by none other than Neptunus Oceani Rex himself. After his time in Africa, my dad settled again for a few years with his aunt and uncle in Belfast.