Captain George Purssey Phillips: A Career in Clan Line 1897-1938

Photographic portrait of Captain Phillips, in Clan Line Captain's Uniform
Captain George Purssey Phillips

In mid-1935, Captain G. Purssey Phillips took charge of Clan Macpherson, the 21st and final Clan Line ship of his long career with the company.  Now 62 years old, he arrived not merely as Master, but as Commodore of the Fleet; and Clan Macpherson, as Clan Line flagship, sported a special swallow-tailed pennon.  The ship, built in 1929 was the largest that Captain Phillips had ever commanded, and he marvelled at the private quarters allocated to him as captain.  He had a four-room suite with an actual double-bed instead of the usual bunks.  It was the most luxurious and comfortable accommodation he had ever had on a ship.  This modern steam ship was a very far cry from 19-year-old George Phillip’s first ship when he’d signed his indentures with the Jock Willis Shipping Line and joined the sailing ship Cutty Sark as a trainee.  Yet his first voyage as Clan Line Commodore took him to Australia to pick up a cargo of wool, exactly as the Cutty Sark had done on his very first voyage back in 1892.

The Cayzer Family Archive holds little information regarding the historic officers and crews of any of our lines.  However Captain Phillips is a rare and fascinating exception to the rule.  He retired from Clan Line in 1938 after 41 years with the company, and subsequently wrote his autobiography, “Two Million Miles on Salt Water”, published by Stanley Paul in 1939.  It’s an unique insight into the career progression of a “typical” young officer on a Clan ship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Captain Phillips had enough adventures along the way to make his memoirs anything but typical.  We’ll post some more stories from his career in the future, but to begin, here’s an overview.

George Purssey Phillips was born in Folkstone in 1873, into a family of mariners.  His father, also named George, was the master of a coaster running between Folkestone and the North of England.  His mother Sarah died when her son was only 10 years old.  A few years later George’s father was badly injured when a steamer crashed into the brig he was captaining, during a storm near Harwich in March 1888.  The Harwich lifeboat had to be sent out to rescue the entire crew, and George senior was brought back to the family home in Folkestone.  He died there of his injuries in November, leaving just two children, George and his sister Annie.  Annie, seven years older than her brother, had been running the family home since her mother’s death, and begged George not to go to sea so long as she was single.  15-year-old George dutifully got a job in a local post office.  Four years later, Annie got married, whereupon George promptly left the post office and, just under a month after the wedding, signed indentures with John Willis, owner of the Jock Willis Shipping Line.  At 19, he was somewhat older than most apprentices, but he had at last got his wish to go to sea. As luck would have it, his first ship was the legendary clipper Cutty Sark.

George’s apprenticeship on Cutty Sark and another Willis Line ship, Dharwar, took just under five years, and ended in March 1897.  In April he sat the Board of Trade exam for a certificate of competency as a 2nd Mate (i.e. 2nd Officer); clearly his ambition was to be a deck officer like his father.  There were four levels of Deck Officer below the rank of Captain, and the first qualification you could achieve was the 2nd Mate’s certificate which would allow you to take any one of the posts from 4th to 2nd Officer.  For George fresh from his apprenticeship, his first post was indeed 4th Officer, on his first Clan Ship, Clan Lindsay, under Captain Joseph Schofield.  George had left the wind-powered Willis Line for the modern steam power of Clan Line ships.

George travelled on the Clan Lindsay for three voyages over two years.  On his third voyage, the Lindsay was wrecked off the coast of South Africa one windy and fogbound night.  The wooden lifeboats were smashed as the crew tried to launch them, and finally the entire crew, plus one or two civilians who had come aboard at the previous port (East London) to make short trips up the coast, piled into the last lifeboat and endured a cramped and freezing cold night together.  Looking back after almost forty years, George recalled this as one of the worst nights he ever had at sea.  In the morning the locals came down to the beach and with their help the crew were finally brought ashore.  Once everyone had returned safely to East London, an inquiry into the wreck of the Clan Lindsay was held.  Although blame was apportioned to one or two of the senior officers as well, the Captain bore the brunt, losing his Master’s ticket, and his job with Clan Line at a stroke.  It’s clear from his memoir that George thought back then, as now, that this was harsh punishment for what had been an accident at the time.  But he had also seen first-hand the responsibility that a captain bears, regarding the ship and all those aboard her; and he thought himself very lucky when later in his career he too found himself before a board of inquiry, but was absolved of blame, and kept his job.

Back in Britain, George was promoted to 3rd Officer on the Clan Macneil, again for three voyages over two years.  In 1899, he left the Macneil and sat the Board of Trade 1st Mate’s certificate.  He failed.  Clan Line management was unconcerned, and simply sent him back to sea for another year as a 3rd.  His new ship was Clan Macfadyen, under Captain Sibery.  The Captain was (said George) a genial man whom he enjoyed working under, but who suffered badly from gout.  On one notable occasion George, keeping watch on the bridge on a very stormy night, had to go and help the Captain back into his bunk, as he’d rolled out when the ship pitched, but was unable to get back up into bed by himself because of the gout in his legs.  With the ship still rolling around, George struggled to get the Captain back into bed; and the whole process was undoubtedly very painful for the Captain himself. “Altogether, it was quite a memorable night,” wrote George, “and I learned more nautical expressions from the agonized Captain than I had ever imagined existed in the languages of all the harbours of the world.

On his second attempt, George successfully passed his 1st Mates exam, and was promoted to 2nd Officer.  Two years later he sat the Board of Trade Master’s certificate.  This was his Captain’s ticket, but as he commented further on in his memoirs, “…there were a good many men with Master’s Tickets in their pockets who were thankful enough even for second officers’ posts”.  In 1902 he was one of these men himself, and went aboard his new ship as 2nd Officer, just as before.  However this ship was the then-Clan Line flagship Clan Murray, under Commodore Beer.  George turned 29 about a month into his first voyage on the Murray, and probably never imagined that one day in the far-off future, the Commodore of the Clan Line Fleet might be him.

George began 1903 by getting married in the early new year.  He and his wife Lilian went on to have three children, although family life would have to be fitted into the rare gaps between voyages for several decades to come.  With his Master’s certificate in his pocket, George also gained his promotion to Chief Officer in 1903.  He sailed on four ships as Chief Officer over the next nine years.  The standout ship during this period was the Clan Maclachlan, on which George endured what he later described as “the two most miserable voyages I ever spent during my career at sea.”  He did not name the captain with whom he did not get on: “I don’t mind sternness; but it is hard to have grumbling with it all the time.”  The outgoing Chief Officer whom he’d replaced on the Maclachlan even warned him that two voyages would be his limit.  They were.  On his next ship, the Clan Macintyre, George inadvertently became the last known person to communicate with the bridge of the SS Waratah, a passenger ship which passed the Macintyre one stormy night in 1909, sailed over the horizon the morning of the next day, and then vanished, without trace.  The Macintyre was the final ship on which George would serve as Chief Officer.  In October 1911 he walked aboard the Clan Maclaren as the newly-minted Captain Phillips, Master of the ship.  He was 38 years old, and now entirely responsible for the ship, and everyone aboard her.  Captain Phillips saw his first command as a way to show the company management that their faith in his leadership skills was justified.  In the event, the voyage was something of a nightmare.

It started badly from the beginning when Captain Phillips (as he’ll be known from hereon) was allocated an English crew.  While officers on Clan Line ships were at this time universally European, the crew were generally lascars (sailors) from what was then unpartitioned India, part of the British Empire, and thus equally British subjects.  This unexpectedly all-English crew were drunk even as they came aboard, and things did not get much better from there.  “In all my years at sea” Captain Phillips wrote, “I never remember so much drunkenness and ill-behaviour among a crew as I experienced on this voyage.  And I have seen some bad ones! Every time we touched land the whole crew were inspired with one devouring ambition – to run ashore and get drunk.”  The Maclaren was sailing to New Zealand and Australia: bunkering at Durban en route, the ship acquired three stowaways.  But once they arrived in New Zealand, the crew started deserting by leaps and bounds.  Eventually the stowaways were offered the chance to sign onto the roster as ordinary seamen to fill some of the gaps.  The last group of four deserters were rounded-up by the authorities and sent to Wellington for Captain Phillips to collect on his way to Australia to pick up the last part of the cargo.  The four men deserted again, as soon as the ship stopped to bunker in New South Wales.  It was the final straw.  George reported the desertions yet again to the authorities, but took the Maclaren out of port before the deserters could be found and returned to the ship.  “I think my log, that voyage, had more desertion than entries of any other kind.” The journey home was strangely uneventful by comparison.

Captain Phillips’ next voyage included an unexpected order mid-journey from Head Office, to move 94 camels from Sudan to Somalia.  It was tricky enough persuading the camels to use the gangplank, but once aboard they were kept on deck in two large pens.  Shortly after leaving Sudan the ship hit rough weather.  The camel handlers who were travelling with the camels, were very sea-sick and took to their bunks for several days. This left the crew and officers to feed, water and clean up after 94 equally seasick camels.  One camel died, and was given a burial at sea, but the rest of the herd were safely delivered to Kisimayu Bay in Somalia, as ordered.  The bay was small, and the Clan Maclaren got stuck on an uncharted coral reef on the way in.  It was not easy to get the ship off the reef, but Captain Phillips managed it by the skin of his teeth.  The ship’s hull took a beating and Phillips worried that he’d breached the hull, but a Lloyd’s agent further along the East African coast in Mombasa, took a look and issued a certificate of seaworthiness.  The chief engineer later reported badly damaged concrete lining in one of the lower holds, but there was still no obvious sign of water damage.  To be on the safe side, Phillips had another Lloyd’s agent check the hull again, on the way home.  Eventually Captain Phillips got the ship safely back to Britain and into a Clyde drydock. There he saw the real extent of the damage: he had not actually holed the ship, but the iron plates at the bottom of the hull were severely buckled.  Some of these plates needed to be replaced entirely.

Naturally there was an Inquiry in Glasgow about the accident.  However, unlike the outcome of the previous inquiry that young George had attended, back in 1898, now as Captain Phillips, he was fully exonerated.  Once the Clan Maclaren was repaired, he undertook two more voyages in her, before coming ashore for about a year to work in the Clan Line Marine Superintendent’s office at Tilbury Docks.  He returned to command in August 1914, taking the Clan Sutherland to Australia and New Zealand just as war broke out.  This first trip was enlivened by another spate of desertions at Sydney, this time by officers, who presumably hoped to avoid war-service by disappearing in this way.  The Shipping Master at Sydney refused to let the Sutherland sail, since the Chief Engineer now found himself the only certificated engineer still aboard.  But the deck officers had also been decimated which would at the very least affect the rota for the watches.  A little jiggery-pokery included some temporary deck promotions, and hastily signing on a young newly-qualified Australian engineer, as 4th engineer.  One of the deserters, the 3rd engineer, turned up unexpectedly, somewhat the worse for wear and looking for his ship from which he had been absent without leave for over 24 hours.  The Shipping Master offered to have him detained, but there were no other engineers to be had, so Captain Phillips grabbed him and promoted him to 2nd engineer.  With two certificated engineers aboard, the Sutherland could finally leave Sydney, and return home.

There was one more voyage on the Sutherland, before the inevitable transfer, this time to the Clan Fraser.  By now the danger to freight shipping from German submarines was significant.  Captain Phillips was not exactly pleased to be ordered to load the Clan Fraser with 120 tons of dynamite and other explosives for transport to Bombay.  The voyage was nerve-wracking enough, but one night on the journey the Fraser passed within radio contact of another freight ship defending itself against a U-boat.  The flashes of gunfire could be seen in the distance, and the desperate SOS was broadcast repeatedly for hours.  As a rule, no ship will ever ignore an SOS from another ship, but Phillips could not risk changing course to help this vessel, considering the cargo in his own holds.  The Clan Fraser held its course, but the flashes of gunfire in the distance were still visible as they sailed away, and the SOS fell silent after a few hours.  Captain Phillips found this incident very distressing, and it’s one of two events that really stayed with him even in retirement.

After about two years on the Clan Fraser, Captain Phillips moved to the Clan Forbes in 1918 as a temporary replacement for the Forbes’ regular captain, who was off sick.  En route to Jamaica, Phillips met up briefly with a fellow Clan captain, Captain Southard, whose ship, Clan Macdougall came into port just after the Forbes.  Captain Southard had already survived the loss of a previous command, the Clan Macleod, thanks to a U-boat in 1915, and now strongly believed that his days were numbered.  The Clan Forbes set off for Cuba the day before the Clan Macdougall left port.  The Macdougall met with a U-boat only a day or so later, and Captain Southard went down with his ship.  Captain Phillips managed to get the Forbes safely back to Britain, on both this and a second voyage.  He was then relieved of this command in favour, presumably, of the original captain.  A week or so later after the Clan Forbes set sail again, she was torpedoed in the Mediterranean.  Towards the end of 1918 Captain Phillips was appointed Master of the Clan Urquhart.  The war was not yet over when he set out, so the U-boats were still a serious threat, but far worse than this, Spanish Flu broke out aboard the ship just as it left port in Beira, Mozambique.  Many of his men were seriously ill, and some died.  He wrote several pages about his distressing experiences dealing with this pandemic; and as we are now in a similar global pandemic, his account seems horribly familiar.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Captain Phillips transferred to the shore staff for six months when this voyage was over.

By now, Captain Phillips was only six ships from retirement.  The second of these last half-dozen ships was the Clan Macvicar, which he joined in March 1920, and left in 1925.  He made the first of the two longest trips of his career when he left port in 1922, and returned just over one year later, in 1923.  Phillips set out on his final voyage as Master aboard Clan Macvicar in July 1924.  The Macvicar arrived in New York Harbour in mid-December; this was Captain Phillips’ first ever visit to New York.  When the ship docked, Phillips went ashore to report to the Clan Line agents in New York.  In his absence, the 4th engineer, Donald McLean, accidentally opened a hot steam boiler in the engine room.  The room flooded with boiling steam, trapping MacLean and the 2nd engineer, George Wilson, who risked his own life by preventing steam escaping to fill other sections of the engineering room where engineers were working.  Though badly scalded, McLean and Wilson both managed to get out of the engine room and were taken immediately to hospital, but McLean died the next day.  He was buried in a cemetery in Brooklyn two days later with many sailors from other ships in port attending the funeral alongside the crew of the Clan Macvicar.  The Macvicar did not leave New York Harbour until after Christmas, and Wilson recovered sufficiently to be able to rejoin his ship before she sailed.  He was not the same cheerful man he had once been, and barely spoke for a few months afterwards.  The whole incident weighed very heavily on Captain Phillips, and cast a pall over the rest of what was to be the longest voyage of his career.  He recommended George Wilson for a Board of Trade bronze medal for bravery at sea which was awarded two years later.  But the tragic, unforeseeable death of his 4th engineer was the second incident that haunted him all his life.  Meanwhile he had to command the ship a good nine months longer, as the Macvicar would not reach home until around September 1925, a voyage of 14 months.

Captain Phillips’ next command was the Clan Matheson, which he joined in December 1925.  To his amazement, when he arrived in New York Harbour in May 1926 he found his wife, Lilian, waiting for him on the dock.  She had made a secret booking on one of the transatlantic passenger liners, and arrived a few days earlier to make sure she’d be able to surprise him when his ship arrived.  Captain and Mrs Phillips enjoyed exploring New York and Washington DC together, although they were a little disappointed to find no speakeasys or gangsters, as were reputed to be abundant in the USA during prohibition.  At last Mrs Phillips went home, and the Clan Matheson sailed onwards on her designated route.  After a few more voyages, Captain Phillips left the Clan Matheson in 1928, and moved to the Clan Mackellar, where he lasted only one voyage, as he did not like the ship.  His second ship of 1929 was the Clan Monroe, which would be the ship on which he stayed the longest (five and a half years).  His wife travelled over to the USA to meet him again one year and together they enjoyed an American Independence Day in Virginia.

After eleven voyages on the Clan Monroe, it was once more time for change. It was 1935, Captain Phillips was over 60, he’d been employed by Clan Line for 38 years, and he was now the most senior of the Clan Line captains. He was granted the title of Commodore of the Fleet, and his flag ship would be the fairly new Clan Macpherson. Later he said that this was his favourite of all the Clan ships in which he had sailed. Only three years later, in January 1938, Captain Phillips set off on his final voyage before retirement. There were no surprises, there was no drama, nothing went wrong. All too soon, Captain Phillips was arriving back home, firstly at London Docks and then back to Scotland where the ship would be handed over to his successor. As he left the Macpherson, his officers presented him with a gold-mounted umbrella. He had retired aged 65, and left the sea for good.

For his retirement, George had bought a bungalow in the Surrey Hills, where he and Lilian settled very happily.  There were no views of the sea, and no stairs or ladders to have to run up and down, and there was a garden, which George really enjoyed tending.  He named the new house “Dharwar” after the Willis Line clipper on which he had once sailed.  In December 1938, there was a reunion luncheon aboard the Cutty Sark, then at Greenhithe.  Only fourteen men remained of all those who had once sailed on her.  “She was my first love,” George wrote at the end of his autobiography, “and it was fitting that I should go back to her when my time came to say farewell”.  He died five years later, of natural causes, in 1943.