Retrospective: The Transvaal Branch of the World Ship Society

Last month Glyn Price mentioned that he still had some WSS mirror tiles at home and it got me thinking about the Transvaal Branch of the WSS.

In Memory of Howard, Colleen and Penny Burr, as well as Roger, Rudi, Tom, Archie, Ken, Bill and all of those former branch members who have crossed the bar.

By now everybody should have cottoned on to the fact that I am a ship enthusiast, and way back last century, round about 1985/6, I used to read the “Ships Monthly” magazine, and they often mentioned The World Ship Society (Aka WSS). Living over 500 kilos from the sea meant that there were very few options available for ship watching, but I wrote away to the UK and asked whether there were branches in South Africa or whether I could join the WSS as an overseas member. To my amazement I received a reply that informed me that not only was there a WSS in Durban and Port Elizabeth (Cape Town was home to the Ship Society of South Africa), but there was also one in Johannesburg!  For those that are not aware of it, Johannesburg used to have a very large container depot at Kaserne which sort of made it a port!

I wrote a letter to the address provided and was contacted by Roger Perry, the local branch secretary. He informed me that the Transvaal Branch of the WSS used to meet on the last Thursday of the month in the Laurette Room of the Railways Recreation Club in Sturrock Park. Back in those days I did not drive so I have no idea how I got to the first meeting, but I was amazed because I was suddenly not the only ship fan in the town and there were others like me with differing interests applicable to the maritime sector.  The branch was founded in 1983 by Howard B and Ken M who were very fortunate to find Roger Perry, who agreed to manage in the secretarial positions. The first committee election was held in the pub of the Devonshire Hotel in Braamfontein by a show of hands. Ken was chairman until 1987 and then Howard  was elected, while nobody could replace Roger Perry. My memory is kind of hazy at this point because I think I attended my first meeting after February 1986, and the reason for this sneaky suspicion is that in February 1986 I had gone down to Durban to see the QE2, and a week after I left Durban  the Canberra called and the branch had gone down to see her and had a ship visit on board. 

QE2 in Durban. February 1986

Ship visits? at least twice a year (sometimes more), the branch would take a trip down to Durban to look at the ships,  and they were often quite boisterous outings with all manner of odd things happening to us. But, more about them later.  The branch also held slide shows, video presentations and maritime themed talks, an auction evening, photographic competitions and generally just got together and talked ships (and drank beer). The people were a mixed bag of which most had not served at sea, although we did have one very loud former naval person who liked to think he was back on HMS Rodney. The crowd tended towards the eccentric too and over the years that I was a member I got to know them quite well. Now over 30 years later I am still in contact with at least 3 of them.   

For 1988 the branch scheduled the following monthly programmes:

  • January: Slide show featuring Hong Kong (Roger Perry)
  • February: Slide show featuring Boston (Roger Perry)
  • March:  Warships: Wasa and WW2 (Colleen H and Bill K)
  • April: Titanic video (Bryan P and myself)
  • May: “Social Event” (Bring and braai at Bryan P’s house)
  • June: P&O Liners. (Illustrated talk by David Hall-Green)
  • July:  Annual General Meeting
  • August: 2nd Annual Photographic Competition
  • September: Tall Ships video (Bryan P)
  • October: Auction of nautical items
  • November:  “Social event”
  • December: Highlights of ’88 slide show.

My first Durban trip with the branch took place in March 1987 and was to see the cargo ship Arrow Prince. She would be the first cargo ship that I had ever been on although I do not recall much about her, but amongst my stash I do have a slide of her, albeit a bad one.

Tom W, Howard B, Cecil C and Bryan P on board Arrow Prince

Prior to my QE2 trip I had bought a Ricoh SLR with a  standard 50mm lens and this would accompany me on most of my travels and on the Durban trips that I went on. I also acquired a 28mm and a 70-120mm zoom lens which were pretty much de rigueur if you were taking pics of ships. The long lens was especially useful when photographing inbound ships from the North Pier.

There was also a huge camera bag, small tripod and a pair of binoculars (aka “The Nocks”) that became part of my Durban wardrobe.  I was also due to take my first cruise at the end of 1986 on board the Achille Lauro and was already booked to present a slide presentation about my cruise as soon as I had my slides and prints processed.  I also changed to slide film for the camera and would continue taking slides right up till my last cruise in 1997 (and now I am stuck with them).  I had received a voucher for Kodak film when I had bought my camera and it was touch and go whether Kodak would process them as they pulled out of South Africa shortly afterwards.  We all moved across to Fuji, Agfa and Konica slide film after that. 

Arrival in Durban. 26/12/1986

In 1985 I had met Bryan P on a train while reading about the Titanic and we shared a mutual interest in the ship, he too expressed an interest in joining the branch, and he was way more energetic than I was though, and soon became a very active member of the branch and accompanied us on many branch outings, he also served on the committee in 1988.  I also recall the following people from back then: Neville D, Glyn P,  Tom Welch, Bryan P, Rudi V D, Bill K, Archie and Jean R, Arie B, Ken G, Rob I, Colleen H, Maureen and Roger H, Clive B,  Don B, Clive B, Henry A,  Eric N, Tino and Julian M, Chris A, and I am sure more names will crop up as I write further. 

The Durban trips were fun though, and we would depart from Johannesburg at some ridiculous hour piled into one or two cars, and then would book into the Lonsdale or Malibu Hotels in Durban before heading for what was then the Ocean Terminal. Often we would meet up with David H from the Port Natal Branch and eventually would also get to know Cecil C and Trevor J quite well.

I do recall visiting the Missions to Seamen, Port Control Tower, the JR More, and we got on board  some of the harbour tugs, the floating crane, pilot boats and even the floating dock and dry dock. It was a hectic weekend with very little sleep, pie gravy and chips for lunch, messing around in the pool bar, Adams Bookshop, and lots of reels of film. We did not frequent the beach! The following Durban trips have been catalogued so far:

In those days photography was still reasonably affordable but as the years passed it became increasingly more difficult to afford the processing. I went from 7 reels of film on my first cruise down to 2 on my last. 

scanned slide collage (1500 x 505)

For me the biggest highlight of any trip was an excursion out to sea on the pilot boat RP Jackson or John Cox,  or an afternoon on one of the harbour tugs.  Actually, just being in the harbour was wonderful, and I really miss seeing ships from up close. 

The Port Natal Branch also had custody of the tug JR More that formed the largest part of what was to become the Port Natal Maritime Museum. We had a free run of the vessel and I took many interesting images on board her, and I even got to steer her in my imagination, peering out of the bridge windows while holding onto the helm. 

Every year we held an annual dinner and occasionally held braais at member’s houses. Howard and Colleen B and their daughters Alison and Penny were always hospitable and I have many fond memories associated with the family and the braais. Howard, Colleen and Penny have all passed on and they are sadly missed. Roger Perry has also passed on and we all mourned the loss of that gentleman. 

At some point Bryan and I founded the Titanic Society of South Africa and we ended up sharing members and monthly programmes with the WSS.

Titanic display at Sturrock Park

The parent body of the WSS would circulate video tapes to overseas branches for members enjoyment and I got to see many places and vessels that I had only dreamt of. The WSS expanded my horizons considerably and I would fibbing if I said I did not enjoy being a member. 

Ken taking a photo of me taking a photo of him taking a photo of me taking a photo of him taking a photo of me taking a photo of him….

Rudi Van was the next member of our circle to emerge and Rudi, Neville and I would soon be making trips down to Durban in an unofficial capacity,  and I got to go on board a number of passenger vessels as well as going on cruises as a small group.  Sadly Rudi has also passed on. 

Of course there were always stupid things happening to us, and the most memorable happened when we headed down to Durban during the height of the Apartheid craziness. Photography had been banned in the harbour unless the photographer had an official permit, and we did not know this when we headed down to Durban in 1987 to see the container vessel Giovanna S. While we were waiting to go onboard we took some photographs of the tugs at the tug jetty because it was not every day that got to see the Coenie De Villiers and Dirk Coetzee together.  My memory of this incident differs from the report of the trip but you can read about it on the official Durban Trip Report from the October 1987 edition of the Reef Knot  

From then on we would organise permits before leaving Johannesburg and had no more close encounters of the Konstabel kind. 

MSC was probably the one company that bent over backwards for us and I went on board a number of their container ships over the years whereas Unicorn and Safmarine were not as amiable as we would have liked.

MSC’s Rosa S. A regular caller in Durban

Sometimes a glib approach worked best and we were able to see many ships thanks to Rudi smooth talking his way on board. Transnet/Portnet were reasonably helpful too, depending on how you approached them, the tug and pilot boat crews were stars. I just wish that we had been able to do something for them at the time.

RP Jackson (L) and Coenie De Villiers (R)

We were lucky that we could spend a lot of time on the tugs and even stayed on board through the night, although on some occasions there were no shipping movements at all.  A decision was made that we would try to find a way to acknowledge those who we visited, and those ships that we traveled on and we settled on a mirror tile with the branch logo on it. It was not perfect but we had them done at almost no cost so we went ahead and ordered them.

I am still trying to find out which ships got one for the crew bathrooms, but hope to have a better list one of these days. As far as I can tell plaques were presented to: Canberra. Monterey. Achillie Lauro. Symphony, Vistaford, The 1958 built Rotterdam as well as the 1997 version, Royal Viking Queen and Sun and possibly a few others. We did not seem to keep a list, 

Royal Viking Queen

After each trip we would return home with our empty wallets and full rolls of film, and would do a slide show at the next meeting. If only we had had the freedom of modern digital cameras way back when. Unfortunately our large slide collections have been rendered redundant by digital photography although I have had most of mine scanned over the years with mixed results. 

Ken and I at Howick Falls during a Durban trip. Scanned from a slide.

In 1986 the branch was donated a large waterline model of the Windsor Castle. It was housed at Santarama Miniland in the South of Johannesburg. The plan was to restore the model and possibly display it at the site. However, the ships at the miniland were in an appalling state and we offered to restore them too.

The place seemed to be under the control of a certain officious individual (no names, no pack drill) who did his best to scupper any work that we undertook and he actually chased volunteers away as opposed to trying to attract them.  We pulled out of the project very quickly, moving the model to Howard’s house in early 1989.  Unfortunately the ship was eventually broken up and is gone forever (that in itself is quite a story). I still have a lifeboat from it amongst my stuff and that is probably the only part of it that has survived. 

Santarama became somewhat of a disaster in its own right and in later years the organisation was desperate for volunteers but nobody would go near the place. I really blame that individual for the way that things turned out.

Vistafjord during our March 1990 Durban trip

The branch also produced a monthly newsletter appropriately named “The Reef Knot” and the poor editor was fortunate that there was always something that we could print, because the shipping industry is a large and very interesting one, and we all became budding writers in our spare time. But, it is an onerous job and it was always difficult to find somebody to do the job. Unfortunately getting the newsletter printed and the ever rising cost of postage became a disaster, but I know I always looked forward to each issue but managed to avoid getting landed with the editor’s job.   I am reproducing some of the articles from the newsletter, the first being the official Durban Trip Report from the October 1987 edition of the Reef Knot.  The 3 images below are typical of the Reef Knot covers in the pre-computer days. (Left-right: January 1988, February 1990, October 1987)

I have also uploaded the April/May 1988 Durban Trip report.  All of my voyage reports on this blog are expanded versions of the original reports that I wrote so many years ago for the Reef Knot.  Unfortunately due to problems producing the Reef Knot, it had to revert to a single sheet monthly offering entitled “Ship’s Log”. 

Port Control tower

The one place in Durban that we did get to visit was the Port Control Tower on the Bluff which was on a raised lighthouse type structure within what was then a military base. The visit was part of the May 1989 Durban trip and no photographs were allowed on that visit. When we did get to visit in 1996 the rules had become lax and I took some amazing photographs of Island Princess sailing from the Bluff.  Unfortunately I have no close up photos of the tower itself, and it is unrecognisable now having been rebuilt a few years back. 

The view from the tower is amazing and I really regret that I do not have more images taken from there. It used to be a favourite spot for promotional photographs of ships, and many of the Union-Castle Line ships entering or leaving Durban were photographed from that area. 

I was no longer a member by 1999 as too many other things had happened to me and I really lived a bit too far away and could not drive at night. The branch had moved to the Edenvale Community Centre, and in September 2007 they relocated once again to the Lombardy East Bowling Club. It proved to be a very short stay; membership attendance was already dropping off dramatically until it got to the stage that there were more committee members at the meetings than actual members. The writing was on the wall, and the committee reluctantly took the decision to bring down the curtain on this branch of the WSS at the end of that year after 24 years of existence. Co-founder Howard Burr, Neville D, Brian B and Glyn P were the last committee members 

For the brief period when I was a member I enjoyed it thoroughly and learnt one heck of a lot and the legacy of ship photographs and ephemera that I have are a direct result of being a member. I really owe a lot to Ken and Howard because they taught me so much. The strange thing is that when I moved to the UK it never occurred to me to join a UK branch, and I see there is one in Gloucester but there are no buses that way at that time of the night so I will give it a miss. 

The WSS still lists the following branches in South Africa. 

Thanks for the memories guys, safe harbours to us all. 

DRW © 2022. Created 05/01/2022. Many thanks to the members of the branch for sharing that brief period of their lives.  Special thanks to Glyn who provided me with information about the last days of the branch and all the Reef Knot scans, as well as Ken who shared how it was started.

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