Nannying on the banana boats

English: Accra (ship) Built 1926. 9337 tons. 1...
English: Accra (ship) Built 1926. 9337 tons. Owned by Elder Dempster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Julia le Brun was born in 1865 in St Brelade, Jersey, and was just two when her parents left the island and moved to Liverpool in 1867. At 21, Julia married Leo Andrew whose father, Henry Andrew, was stationmaster at Woodside railway.

Julia and Leo had five children; the marriage eventually broke down when Leo failed to earn enough to make ends meet, and he walked out, leaving Julia and the children to fend for themselves.

Desperate to keep the family together, Julia found a job with the Elder Dempster shipping line, ‘but it meant going to sea for months,’ says her grand-daughter Joan. ‘She had no choice but to leave her eldest daughter Mabel, then about 14, to look after the younger children.’

So in 1910, at the age of 45, Julia went to sea, on board the Elder Dempster banana boats, plying back and forth to the west coast of Africa. On the first trip Julia was away for five long months.

‘We know that in 1920 she was working on board the 4,800-ton MV Elmina,’ says Joan. ‘She was the only woman in the crew of 115. She was officially down as a steward, but we gather that she was like a nanny, looking after passengers’ children.’

‘Elder Dempster were unique at the time, paying men and women the same wage for the same work,’ says Joan. ‘And the wages were higher than for equivalent positions on dry land.’

The wages might have been higher, but so were the risks.

In her 26 years on the African run with Elder Dempster, Julia was shipwrecked twice, torpedoed twice in World War 1, once off the coast of Holyhead and had malaria twice.

Quite apart from these extreme events, tropical storms and tornados were normal hazards on the African routes. A typical round trip would take seven weeks or more, and even within sight of the Mersey on the way home, ships could be delayed for hours, even days. There they would be, hove to and anchored, waiting for the fog to lift, or the gale to blow itself out, or the dockers to call off the strike – or whatever the reason was.

Still, the trip could be beautiful, through clear waters under brilliant blue skies, with flying fish and dolphins tracking the ship. Cargoes would include cocoa, rubber, ivory, palm oil, even gold.

‘Julia is renowned for sending back all sorts of exotic goods to her family as well as money; there are family photos with beautiful silk dresses that are said to have been sent by Julia,’ says her granddaughter. ‘It must have been exciting opening parcels from her, covered in exotic stamps and postmarks.’

After the Elmina was sold, Julia joined the crew of the MV Accra, on which she served till she retired in 1936. ‘She was forced to retire when the National Insurance system came in,’ explains Joan. ‘They found out how old she really was and retired her immediately.’

Like so many seafarers before her, Julia had lied about her age to get her first job, but instead of the normal practice of adding a few years, she subtracted a whole decade. When she left Elder Dempster she was 71 years old.

After her retirement, Julia returned to shore life in Walton with her family; she died, aged 92, in 1957. Joan says, ‘She was just my grandmother. I didn’t realise what an life she’d had till I was much older.’

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