Leaving home

I never intended to leave home for good. For a long time, I’d had an urge to travel after finishing my apprenticeship. Having little money, becoming a ‘ten-pound tourist’ was my best option. My choices were Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia or Rhodesia. I picked Australia as I had an uncle in New South Wales.

Ray’s farewell from ICI

Ronnie knew I wanted to travel, and I knew deep down that she was not keen to follow me. Although I cared for her, it was in some respects an easy way out of a relationship that would have eventually ended.

The Everly Brothers – ‘So Sad’ 1963
We used to have good times together
But now I feel them slip away
It makes me cry to see love die
So sad to watch good love go bad

That year was one of the coldest winters on record, with many parts of Britain covered in a thick blanket of snow. The train from Middlesbrough, full of migrants all heading for Tilbury Docks, was very slow and crowded. The heating system was frozen and Gordon, Glenice and I were in a cramped, uncomfortable carriage.

The winter of 1962-63

After we set off, I wandered along the train corridor looking for a better spot. I found myself confronted by a sign. ‘First Class-No entry’ and beyond it, rows of empty carriages. I went back and told Gordon and Glenice. We bypassed the sign and settled down in one of the empty carriages.

Eventually the ticket inspector arrived and we thought he would kick us out but he let us stay. By the time we alighted the train at Tilbury Docks we were quite rested and fresh. Gordon Patterson, who was working in London at the time, was there to see us off – the last familiar face from home.

The ship was the RMS1 Stratheden, a beautiful old P&O liner on its last voyage before being de-commissioned. We travelled to Australia on travel documents only. As Australia was a member of the Commonwealth, it was deemed unnecessary to have a passport.

Unfortunately, I didn’t keep the Travel Warrant. I discarded it shortly after my arrival. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was an important document and it was the only verification of my legal status that I had.

On 26th January 1963 I was directed to cabin 204 on H deck, just above the water line. Five other single lads shared a cabin that was just large enough to hold three double bunks and a few small lockers. After depositing my rucksack on one of the vacant beds, I made my way back on deck. It was a very moving sight, with crowds of well-wishers on the quay and passengers on the ship holding multi-coloured streamers. Family and friends called out last messages, hoping to be heard above the ship’s hooter and band.

As the ship slowly edged away from the dock, the streamers stretched and one-by-one snapped and drifted forlornly into the sea. The shouting and cheers faded away and loved ones slowly transformed into unrecognizable specks. The Stratheden slipped out of the Thames, passed Gravesend, the Isles of Grain and Sheppey, passed Sheerness and steamed out into The North Sea.

I did not return to England again until 1967 when Helen and I spent twelve months living and working in Middlesbrough before we had any children. Helen worked as a primary school teacher and I worked on the construction of the new oil refinery at Teesport.

Next: The ship

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  1. RMS – Royal Mail Ship. Also known as SS Stratheden – Steam Ship