The Elder Dempster Liner Accra
by John Shepherd
First published in The Bulletin of December 2008
Built by Vickers Armstrong Ltd. at Barrow in 1947 Yard Number 948
Official Number 181100, Signal Letters GJSW
Gross tonnage : 11,600 Net : 6.448 Length: 452.9 ft. Breadth : 66.2 ft.
Owned by Elder Dempster Lines Ltd.
Two Doxford diesel engines, twin screws Speed ; 15.5 knots
The Accra was ordered in February 1945 as the first of Elder Dempster’s new passenger ships to re-introduce the three-weekly passenger service from Liverpool to Lagos. The new Accra was launched at Barrow on 25th February 1947 by Mrs Creech-Jones. She left Liverpool on her maiden voyage on 24th September under the command of Captain C.C. Cave, and initially the ship carried a black hull.
Just over two years later, in November 1949, the Accra suffered a broken crankshaft and she arrived back at Liverpool on one engine, five days late. She was returned to her builders at Barrow for repairs and during this period she was repainted with her familiar grey hull and green boot topping. In 1960 much-needed air conditioning was installed on the passenger decks.
The Accra leaving Liverpool on her maiden voyage, 24th September 1947
Photo: Elder Dempster
Accra’s service in the Elder Dempster fleet was brief and on 8th November 1967, having completed 171 voyages, she sailed from Liverpool for Cartagena, Spain, where she was demolished by J. Navarro Frances. Disturbed conditions in West Africa,which affected Elder Dempster’s traditional trade, played a part in the relatively short career of the Accra.
First published in The Bulletin of December 2008
Liverpool on a grey September day in 1952 did not present a particularly auspicious start to life in Africa. I had travelled from Euston on the boat train that, on arrival at Liverpool, had snaked its way across the streets, under the overhead railway and alongside the Mersey to Riverside Station. I was allowed forty cubic feet of luggage as a newly appointed Colonial Education Officer and I had two large wooded crates of household goods, a tin trunk that was intended to deter the voracious insects of forest or desert and suitcases for my cabin. Each piece carried the Elder Dempster logo and a big letter ’T’, this being my initial to aid identification in the baggage hall. Customs and Immigration had to be cleared, currency regulations were strictly enforced and only ten pounds sterling could be taken out of the country in cash. Baggage handlers were busy trundling trolleys onto the ship and I walked along a gangway into the entrance hall on ‘B’ deck. My previous voyages to sea had been in the cramped quarters of wartime troopers, this was very different, and it was First Class!
Cabin stewards came to meet passengers and I was taken in hand by a stocky Liverpudlian who led me to ‘D’ deck where I was to share a two-berth cabin. It was quite basic, the was a wash basin, two chairs, a tall cupboard and storage space below two bunks, one of which was below a porthole. Bathrooms and toilets were situated nearby. My cabin mate was already installed, like me he was bound for Nigeria on first appointment as an Education Officer.
There was little time to explore the Accra. The boat deck was damp and windswept. There was a generous allocation of space for public rooms which included a library, card room, smoke room and lounge. The entrance hall, still busy with embarking passengers, contained the purser’s office, a shop and hairdressing saloon for both ladies and gentlemen.
Passengers were directed to the first class dining saloon on ‘E’ deck to meet the purser and make their table bookings for meals. The saloon was panelled in African hardwoods and the floor was covered with thick linoleum that could easily be washed down if need be should spillages occur in rough weather. One end of the saloon was dominated by the captain’s table, an elongated oval which seated nine guests. It was flanked by tables for senior officers. Crisp white table linen, sparkling cutlery and glassware shone in the subdued lighting. Tables seated four, six or eight passengers; senior colonial officers and company directors were guests at the captain’s table and those of his senior officers. First-tour young men like myself were placed where the purses thought fit, usually close to the doors to and from the galley.
Prior to departure all passengers had been asked to provide details of rank, titles, decorations and branch of service or company to Elder Dempster. Each of us received a passenger list and it was a formidable document. It included all the hierarchy of the colonial service, company directors of banks or the United Africa Company and bishops of African dioceses. There was fair number of nursing sisters, women education officers and a handful of unaccompanied wives travelling out to join their husbands. There were very few children on board as it was Government policy at that time to discourage parents from taking them to West Africa. Indeed, before the Second World War the reputation of the West Coast had been so bad that wives of colonial officers were allowed to accompany their husbands only with the greatest reluctance and had to pay their own passage. The development of anti-malarial prophylactics and the tremendous contribution made by wives in West Africa in the war effort had done much to relax the attitude of the British Government from the 1950s onward.
The second-class passengers were accommodated aft in four-berth cabins. They had their own lounge and dining saloon, as well as a small area of deck space. The list included missionary families and a few Africans returning home from studies in Britain.
As the Accra was tied up at the landing stage, dinner on the first night was informal. The ship’s bar was closed and the open decks were deserted. Liverpool was wet, cold and dismal. However the dining saloon was warm and inviting and for those of us newly qualified from universities and used to the spartan diets of post-war Britain, the menu was staggering! Soups, hors d’oeuvres, fish, choice of entrée, sweets, cheese, biscuits and coffee were served deftly and efficiently by stewards immaculate in bow ties and white jackets.
After dinner I wandered up to the boat deck to find a force 10 gale howling up the Mersey. Departure was postponed for 24 hours. The bars remained closed and the crew were taking unexpected shore leave, but the passengers could not go ashore because of immigration restrictions. Worse too was the knowledge that Liverpool was playing at home, and our cabin steward went ashore to watch them.
The following morning, a Sunday, the Accra’s engines were throbbing and she eased off the landing stage with the assistance of two tugs. At breakfast we could see the Irish Sea foaming past the potholes and there was a pronounced motion on the ship, dip and role, as the Welsh hills slipped past to port and the dining saloon emptied rapidly and many passengers suddenly felt an aversion to bacon and eggs or fresh grilled kippers. Fiddles were rigged and the stewards swayed sure-footed with laden trays.
The Bay of Biscay was quite benign after the Irish Sea and soon the dining saloon was full, the deck chairs were busy with passengers wrapped in rugs, whilst others were walking brisk circuits of the boat deck. The bars were open and everything was duty free. Life was good!
Shipboard routine was quickly established. Early morning tea with heavy white china bearing the Elder Dempster crest came on a silver tray with a selection of fruit. Breakfast was available from 0800 – 0930. The menu was huge: fruit juices, all cereals known to man, fresh fruit, fish such as grilled sole, bacon, eggs, mushrooms and American hash with fried potatoes, bread in variety and Danish pastries.
Passengers staggered away to walk the deck, search out library books, plan deck games or just slump into deck chairs in sheltered corners. In the card room the bridge fanatics had established themselves. They played all morning, most afternoons and every evening. The children on board were actively discouraged from entering the room and only the bar stewards were really welcome to replenish pink gins or brandy gingers at frequent intervals.
At round 10.30 a.m. hot bouillon was served; this would be replaced by ice cream once the Accra was in the tropics. At 11.30 the lounge bar and the smoke room bar opened, the beer was popular but seasoned colonial officers preferred a pink gin! Luncheon was served from 12.30. After lunch was a quiet time, many passengers took a siesta either in their cabins or on deck where the weather was becoming ever warmer. At 3.30 p.m. tea – cucumber and salmon sandwiches with cream cakes to follow – would be served by the stewards, or it was available on a “help yourself” basis in the lounge. Dinner was now a formal occasion for all on the captain’s table and those of the senior officers. The gentlemen wore stiff shirts, bow ties and mess jackets and the ladies were in long frocks, some with elbow length gloves.
The Accra’s first port of call was Las Palmas in the Canaries. This was anticipated in great excitement for, in 1952, it was a ‘free’ port. Goods not available in England or available but subject to a heavy import duty were to be had virtually ‘at-cost’ in Las Palmas. Our stay would be short because of late departure from Liverpool. Many local traders came on board and set out their wares on the boat deck.
As the passengers returned to the Accra for an evening departure, they found changes much in evidence. The swimming pool had been filled, the ship’s officers had exchanges blue serge for white drill shirts, shorts and long white socks. We were now only a few days away from Africa and flying fish as well as dolphins reminded us that we were in tropical waters.
The Accra’s dawn arrival at Freetown evoked memories of my wartime visit some nine years earlier. On that occasion the harbour was filled with a southbound convoy and two frigates rushed out into the Atlantic to ambush a wolf pack that had shadowed us for much of the voyage. Then, as now, the bum-boats came out to meet us. There was no deep-sea wharf at Freetown in 1952 so lighters for the cargo, and disembarking passengers went ashore by launch.
Once the Accra was underway again news came that the onward postings had been received. Colonial Officers going to the Gold Coast or Nigeria had to wait until the ship left Freetown to learn of their final destinations. All postings were advised to the ship in Morse code and against my name I found ‘Kathina’. I looked at the map near the notice board and could not find it. An ‘old hand’ soon put me right: “That should be Katrina, the radio officer got his morse wrong and read four dots instead of three. I hope you play polo – the Emir is dead keen!”
The voyage continued around the bulge of Africa and into the Bight of Benin. The Accra was never far off the land and by day the high cumulus could be seen building up over the coast, heralding the heavy rain of an equatorial afternoon. Takoradi was our next port – a new creation to serve what was then the Gold Coast, within a few years to be Ghana.. Here there was a deep water quay with berths for six vessels, yet only a few years before Elder Dempster ships had anchored offshore and surf boats, paddled by Kroo boys, had carried passengers and cargo ashore through the surf. It was the Kroo boys’ proud that passengers were safely landed without even a splash on their topees.
The Accra could carry 150 deck passengers and a large number boarded at Takoradi. Many were semi-itinerant labour seeking work in the boom city of Lagos. Some came with their families, ladies with cooking pots, charcoal, yams and bedding rolls. The forward deck was a mass of busy, vociferous, colourful people, working space was restricted and this did little to improve the tempers of officers and deckhands working the ship.
The following day found the Accra steaming slowly into the harbour at Lagos. To starboard was Lagos Island, the old Colonial capital. Apapa wharf was on the port side where the Accra would berth. This was the end of the voyage with customs and immigration facilities to be cleared. In the early 1950s these presented no great problems although the ‘old hands’ said that to wear a King’s College, Lagos tie ensured a speedy passage through as all the officers claimed to have relatives at K.C!
It was all exciting; Lagos was noisy – and noisome – colourful, brash and already alive with nationalism although the goal was still nine years away. I spent one night in the house of the Inspector General of Education. My onward journey north was to be by train, but the track had been washed out so I spent the next fortnight fuming at the Ikoyi Rest House – a former R.A.F. camp that had little to recommend it. It was ill lit, damp, humid infested with mosquitos by night and lacking basic facilities. It was an inauspicious beginning to what became, in the end, five very happy years up country in Katsina, where I never played polo, but enjoyed my cricket!