Grandfather’s Ashes

Frederick John Hunter (1864-1943)

(Originally written by Robert S Hunter for the magazine Sea Breezes 20th November 2003)

He died in 1943 when I was less than three years old, so my recollections of this kindly old seafaring gentleman with silver hair and a silver beard are limited to the outings he took me peddling my three wheeler to the park in Mansfield Woodhouse where we lived. He used to sit and talk with the other old gentlemen on the veranda of the green painted wooden bowls and tennis pavilion whilst I cycled round the paths in fear of the grumpy old “Parkie” who accused me of digging up his flower beds for worms.

I seem to remember a warm dark coloured winter coat he wore and a black homburg hat, which gave him great poise and dignity, and for some strange reason an air of tranquillity.

Not that his departure meant that he left the family, for he has continued to be a major influence on us, my parents, my brother and myself, as much today in the year 2003 as he was then prior to 1943

The real legacy he left was his set of carpentry and sail-maker’s tools and equipment which my elder brother John inherited and used with great enthusiasm whilst I watched, learned, and helped, together with two white canvas carpenter’s aprons which had pockets and paint and varnish stains, and tied at the front in a masculine way rather than at the back like my mother’s kitchen aprons. They were too long for him to begin with so a tuck had to be put in at the front.

The existence of those tools and the work they accomplished to me represented my grandfather. I remember chisels, screwdrivers, two bradawls, pliers, a brace and bit, a plane, a spoke shave, a rasp, a sail-maker’s palm, needles, beeswax and twine, a parcelling mallet, a marlin spike; mysterious and exotic equipment kept in an old canvas “hussive or huswife” as I think they were called, all of which helped to set my young mind and future interests.

Born in 1864 in Portsmouth I think, where he was able to develop his interest in things maritime, I know little or nothing about his early life except that he travelled great distances from the North American Continent to the South China Seas; he went to sea in sailing ships and then steam ships with Ben Line and China Mutual Steam Navigation Co. before trying his hand as a farmer on the prairies of central Canada near Winnipeg when covered wagons were still the normal mode of transport.

My father was born there in February 1903 when the temperature was 40 below zero Fahrenheit, the third of three sons: John, David, and my father Frederick or “Little Freddie” as he was called. They had two dogs Nigger and Towser and a sledge, and that is all I know except that once grandfather accidentally cut the end off his finger which he promptly replaced and bandaged up in the hope that is would heal itself. It did, but came off again during a very cold snap a few years later. What happened after that I don’t know.

The family returned to Newcastle upon Tyne about 1909, taking three months en- route over the prairie by wagon and train, through the Great Lakes to the St Lawrence, and thence by passenger steamer to the UK. Father at the age of six entertained the other passengers by standing on his head for 6d.pieces which he insisted on calling “quarters” with his Canadian accent, and grandmother obtained the recipe for rice fritters from the chief steward which has been a family favourite since.

Grandfather obtained his “Steam Endorsement Ticket” and became master of a classic “Three Island Tramp” S. S. Glenroy, owned by Robert Livingstone of Livingstone & Conner, built and registered in West Hartlepool in 1899 by Wm. Gray.

S.S. Glenroy
  S.S. Glenroy
Captain Hunter with the Ship's Crew
     Captain Hunter with the Ship’s Crew

He was on his travels again to the West Indies, to the Southern States, to Savannah Georgia, back to Bristol and Manchester with baled cotton, and also to the Mediterranean until after the outbreak of war in 1914.

For whatever reason, possibly wanting to do his bit in home waters, but also to spend more time at home, he went into colliers sailing the dangerous but vital route from Newcastle and the river Tyne to the Thames back and forth.  The North Sea or German Ocean as it was then called was a battleground, with Hartlepool and Scarborough being bombarded by the German Fleet, and grandfather did not escape hostilities, being torpedoed at least once, and rumour has it twice.

On the known occasion he was torpedoed a few hours south-bound out of the Tyne, all the ship’s company took to the boats in the middle of the night before the vessel sank, rowing into Seaham Harbour where at that time of night there was nobody on duty to receive them. They walked to the local Seaman’s Mission, many in their night gear where they banged on the door to wake people up and were duly fed and watered and given clothing. The story goes that the following morning, having had a glimpse of grandfather, the local children in the street mistook him for King George V.

That’s all I know of his life except that he and grandmother lived in retirement for a while in Chatham where he had a sailing boat on the Medway with a dipping lug sail which later served as a tent for my brother and myself during the war until he was given a proper one; and after that it was used as a waterproof cover of one sort or another, protecting a sailing dinghy my brother built in the garden in 1956.

As a Master Mariner and a farmer on the prairies of Canada he must have travelled many thousands of miles during the course of his full life by ship, by train, and by “prairie schooner” as the covered wagons were called.

The purpose of this yarn is to recall with honour, with respect but with some amusement, for I am told he had a sense of humour like my own father, the unexpected travels he experienced after his death for a period of nearly 36 years, before he was finally put to rest in 1979.

When he died there was some vague reference to him being cremated and his ashes being scattered at sea; but there was a war on, we lived almost as far from the sea as was possible in the UK, and anyway coastal areas in general and ships in particular were out of bounds to the ordinary public wishing to carry out private family rituals.

Grandfather was cremated, but at the suggestion of the undertaker Mr Welch who had upstairs premises in an old stone building opposite the church; his ashes were presented to father in a light oak casket complete with brass plaque and handles, measuring approximately 2ft x 1ft sq.

Where this casket was kept in our house in Mansfield Woodhouse I do not remember, but possibly in one of the basement rooms which was furnished as an air raid shelter complete with bed, food store and grandfather’s lucky swastika clippy mat on the floor, the sight of which on one occasion during the war caused the gas man to summon the Special Branch to make a raid on the house.

We moved to South Shields in 1948, the first leg of what turned out to be a long journey for my grandfather, but back to his old stomping ground of Tyneside. This move coincided with my first recollection of the casket being on view in the house when it appeared as a piece of domestic furniture next to my mother’s side of their bed. Rather tastefully it was partially covered with a linen cloth to serve as a bedside table on which was placed a lamp, and her morning cup of tea at the weekend when it was father’s turn to make the tea, and I was privileged to sit in the middle of the bed. Quite why it was at her side of the bed rather than father’s I have often wondered, but suffice it to say it was there serving a very useful purpose undisturbed for over ten years until my teenage curiosity got the better of me.

It must have been 1954 or 1955, I was home from school on holiday renewing my acquaintance with the things around my home, my brother was away at sea with Blue Funnel, father was at work, and mother at the golf club. I uncovered the top of the box, read the brass plaque for the umpteenth time, examined the handles and how it was put together, picked it up to see how heavy it was, tilted it and something inside gave a heavy clunk followed by a swishing noise. I imagined the clunk to be a scull and bones rattling about. I put it back very carefully exactly as it had been and said nothing.

I thought about it and a few days later a similar lone opportunity presented itself. I went to the garage to find a screwdriver and pliers, grandfather’s own tools, and then to my parent’s bedroom from which it was possible to see the entrance to the Tyne. I picked up the casket and tilted it again to repeat the clunk and the swish, and then with it placed in the window on great-grandfather’s Crimean War Wooden Box now serving as a blanket box, and with hands shaking the curious 14 year old started to unscrew the two brass studs and the four large steel screws which held the lid in place. The lid was fitted and had to be eased off very carefully not to leave any traces, revealing inside a pale pink terracotta oval bowl 12 inches long, 6 inches deep and wide, together with a lid, broken in two pieces. This was the clunk. The swish was the ashes which looked like fine grey Growmore, about two pints of it no longer contained by the bowl but running freely within the wooden box. No scull and no bones, which was somewhat disappointing, but fascinating to me non-the-less. I put everything back without trace and told no one; that is, until my brother was home again at the same time as I was. I think I may have had at least another two looks before I told him.

We went through the same drill again, this time needing only the screwdriver as the procedure was well tried by now and the fastenings much easier to turn. He had a look, this time feeling the stuff between our fingers; then we put everything back tidily, with the understanding that only we would know about it.

Some hope that was!!!

A few days later, possibly feeling his superior age and responsibility, my brother introduced my mother to the fact that we had “been in the box,” but adding that “Robert had been in first.”

Far from being cross she too admitted that sleeping next to it for years, she had been curious but never thought to investigate further. However, now that the seal had been broken as it were, she too was eager to “open the box-but don’t tell father!”

Her approach to the contents was very different from ours. She had reached the stage in her life which comes to a number of people in mid life, where plastic bags of one form or another together with elastic bands are to be used wherever and whenever possible to contain anything which is containable, whether they require it or not.

A lesser form of “Bag Lady”!

Grandfather’s ashes no longer contained by the pink oval bowl but left to swish around the bottom of the box were demanding to be tidied up and contained by a suitably sized (preferably unused) plastic bag secured by a stout elastic band; clearly for reasons of decorum and maintaining things properly! This was duly carried out by the three of us, the bowl and the two pieces of lid removed, the plastic bag and contents returned to the oak casket and the lid firmly screwed down for possibly the sixth time by now, and the box returned to the bedside, with a repeat of the instruction “not to tell father.”

We didn’t tell a soul, but the following Easter when John was home from sea and I from school there on the window ledge in the dining room was a wonderful display of pink and blue hyacinths resplendent in a pink terracotta oval bowl! The three of us kept our secret, but father wouldn’t have noticed the new bowl if it had been put in front of him. Thereafter that pink bowl put on its display each Easter for those in the know for many years, coming to regard it as an annual ritual of remembrance for grandfather.

My brother married and my parents moved with myself to another home in South Shields, but I think at that point the casket was carefully placed in “the cupboard under the stairs” out of the way. The property was a bungalow with no stairs, but the hall cupboard was always referred to as “the cupboard under the stairs” because that is where the stairs would have been had it been a house.

The annual Easter hyacinth show continued, I married and father retired, but remained oblivious to the events of the previous years. I think with all the other events in his life at that time and the casket stored out of the way in the cupboard he had probably forgotten that he still had the responsibility of grandfather’s ashes.

Approximately 1971 my parents were planning a trip of a lifetime taking several weeks, commencing with a sea passage on the Leda from the Tyne Commission Quay to Norway, ten days in a first class hotel in central Oslo, a train journey back across to Bergen, and then taking the Hurtegruten coastal passenger ferry service north calling at all the ports on the way, eventually to Hammerfest and the North Cape, well north of the Arctic Circle to see the midnight sun, and then return.

I thought, what a golden opportunity for mother and father to carry out this long overdue duty and scatter grandfather’s ashes in home waters as it were, in the North Sea. Keen to discharge this responsibility which was beginning to trouble her, we opened the box for the last time, we thought, and arranged for her to take the package in her luggage; but still father wasn’t told. She preferred, she thought, to tell him the whole story from start to finish and the plan for disposal when onboard the ship but not before, at which point she presumed he would be keen to finish the job.

I took them to the passenger terminal to start their holiday without a word to father, I received post cards without a reference to the plan or its execution, I picked them up several weeks later but resisted the temptation to ask until father was pre-occupied and I was alone with mother.

Much to her surprise and relief when she told him the story, he had seen the genuine respect for his father, but also the humorous side to the whole story; and yes, he also thought it a golden opportunity to discharge his long-standing responsibility.

It was not to be however.

On several occasions on each of the three ships they sailed preparations were made, the elderly couple on the boat deck with a plastic bag concealed under his coat, to be scattered over the side whilst saying a few private words; but father got cold feet on each occasion, for fear of being observed by some undefined authority and accused of disposing of illegal drugs. At the age of nearly 70!

Grandfather’s ashes had accompanied them across the North Sea to a hotel in Oslo for ten days, back to Bergen by train, all the way north to a point five hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, and all the way back again to their bungalow in South Shields.

On that trip grandfather had travelled further than many of the voyages he had made as a Master Mariner, and visited places he would never of dreamt he would visit in the whole of his sea going and farming career.

The following day I replaced the package in the box, screwed down the lid, and returned it to the cupboard. Until his death eight years later I never mentioned the event to my father and neither did he to me. Sadly I felt an opportunity had been missed, but there we are.

In the spring of 1979, after a time of illness father died and with my brother living in Liverpool mother asked me to arrange everything for her. Before the undertaker Mr Johnston arrived to discuss the cremation I broached the subject of the oak box and contents still residing in “the cupboard under the stairs.”

On her behalf would it be appropriate for me to ask him to look after grandfather as well?

I told Mr Johnson the story just as I have recounted it to you now, and after listening intently and with some amusement which lightened the occasion, he responded that he would be honoured to look after them both, father and son, at the same time.

He took the casket that afternoon much to my mother’s relief, with a wink and the after-thought that he hoped father and son had got on with each other!

I hesitate to think what current European anti-pollution authorities would make of this story; storing and exporting human remains to foreign territorial waters without a permit with the intention of scattering them indiscriminately outside territorial waters, but then having the audacity to re-import them again, still without a permit!

Now in 2003 exactly sixty years after his death, having retired myself from a career in shipbuilding and marine construction, I find myself drawn to the man who was my grandfather, but who sadly I hardly knew other than through the few tools and personal possessions he left behind, the family stories, two photograph portraits of him, two photographs of his ship the Glenroy, and a group picture on deck of him and the crew taken on 24th May 1914 in Savannah, Georgia.

Interestingly, tucked away for many years for fear of upsetting him, also my brother has two pictures taken of Glenroy wrecked under the cliffs at Les Falaises in the Mediterranean in 1916, at approximately the same time grandfather was being torpedoed in the North Sea off Seaham Harbour.

Unexpectedly I find myself wishing to celebrate the life of this larger than life, talented, and experienced, but gentle man; and without conscious effort I appear to be doing just that by re-creating the S.S. Glenroy in the form of a 1/96 scale model, with the detail taken from the photographs I have, as I believe no plans or drawings exist.

Additionally, to complement the model, I have commissioned a ship portrait from a leading UK marine artist who is fully familiar with the classic “Three Island Tramps” of the late Victorian era, and delights in depicting them in their natural environment.

As an added bonus my quest for authentic detail of Glenroy has unearthed information on her and sister ships in maritime reference books, and amazingly a third photograph of her has come to light, lightship leaving Bristol passing under Brunel’s Avon Suspension Bridge, with just visible, identified by the angle of his cap and the stoop of his shoulders, grandfather himself, standing on the starboard bridge wing; after a span of nearly 100 years.

On my kitchen walls for display I have a collection of old carpenter’s and sail-maker’s tools which I have acquired in recent years; chisels, screwdrivers, a bradawl, a brace and bit, an auger, a box plane, a spoke shave, an adze, a sail-makers palm, all repeats of the tool kit my grandfather had, plus others which were used by shipwrights and carpenters at that time.

When busy with the model surrounded as I am by the photographs, I can sense his presence looking over my shoulder making sure that “the boy,” his youngest grandson gets things right, but in his honour I wear a white canvas carpenter’s apron which I have made for myself, which has two pockets, paint and varnish stains, and which ties at the front.

R S Hunter


Frederick John Hunter


Summary of Employment before 1914

1885-87 – Stewart & Simpson, London – Barque Jeanie Louthe(?) – 2nd Mate

1887-89 – T Jolby & Son London – Barque Clodian – 1st Mate

1889-91 – Ben Line Steamers – SS Binglou? – 2nd Mate

1891-92 – China Mutual Steam Navigation Co – SS Oopack – 3rd Mate

1892-94 – China Mutual Steam Navigation Co – SS Kintuck – 2nd Mate

1895 – Indo China Steam Navigation Co – SS Tigris – 1st Mate

1895-98 – China Mutual Steam Navigation Co – SS Kaerow(?) – 2nd Mate

1898-00 – SS Ching Wo – 1st Mate

Intervening years – based in Winnipeg, Canada, Farming

1909-14 – Robert Livingston, Livingston & Conner, West Hartlepool – SS Glenroy – Master


During and after WW1 coasting in the North Sea between Tyne/Tees and the Thames; believed to have been torpedoed twice, on one occasion southbound off Seaham Harbour, bringing all on board ashore there by lifeboat in the early hours of the morning.

Note that the exact spelling of some ship names is doubtful as the information is taken from indistinct hand writing.

RSH 20-01-2006


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