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Stourbridge born man on slow boat to Bogota

By dan shaw  |  Posted: September 27, 2012

Postcard of SS Crynssen sent from Trinidad by Eric Rolph to his uncle in Netherton in 1930

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AN interesting cache of letters, written 82 years ago, has been kindly loaned to the Bugle by Nona Bloomer of Far Forest, near Bewdley. They have been in her family’s possession for many years and were written by a relative, Eric Rolph, a young bank clerk from Birmingham who, in 1930, sailed across the Atlantic to take up a post with a bank in Bogota, Colombia.

Nona and Eric were not blood relatives but were cousins by marriage. Nona’s aunt, her father’s sister, married Eric’s uncle and it is through this connection that Nona believes her father came to have the four letters.

Nona has tried to find out details of Eric Rolph but information is sparse. She believes he was born in the early 1900s (the 1911 census gives his age as 3) in the Stourbridge district, probably in Lye. By 1930 his family was living in Yardley and he was working for a bank in Birmingham but Nona does not know the name of it, or which bank in Colombia he joined.

The letters indicate that Eric went to Colombia on a five year contract but we do not know what happened to him once he arrived in South America, how long he stayed there, or if or when he returned to the UK. Are there descendents of Eric Rolph who may be able to tell us more? Eric wrote the letters to his parents while en route to Bogota. He sailed from Dover on board the Dutch steamship SS Crynssen, landing first in Barbados, then visiting several islands in the Caribbean and sailing along the coast of South America before eventually travelling inland to the Colombian capital.

The letters cover the entire voyage of 33 days and make vivid reading of a world long gone. His journey reads something like a novel by Somerset Maugham and Eric experienced adventures far beyond the scope of the average young Brummie lad of the 1930s.

We reprint his first letter, which covers Eric’s crossing of the Atlantic with a mixed bag of international passengers and crew:

“Saturday, March 22nd, 1930. As no doubt Tommy has told you, I met Linsell in the tea room at Dover. After the ship left Dover (non-stop to Barbados) we had a turn on deck and watched the white cliffs vanish in the twilight. We then had tea along with two young Irish mining students bound for Puerto Cabello in Venezuela.

“After sitting in the smoke room for some time we had dinner. At my table sits the ship’s doctor, a very jolly little Dutchman who, of course, speaks English quite well. Next, a German, Loewens, a fine chap about 45 who speaks German, Dutch, English, French and Spanish. He has been up to Bogota on many occasions but this time is bound for Curacao along with his Dutch colleague, Van den Kaay, who sits next to him. The latter also speaks Dutch (he is Dutch), German, English and Spanish. I cannot tell his age, he looks about 25 but is married, has a little girl and is grey haired (cause and effect probably). He is a top-hole fellow with a very fine face. Next to him sits (occasionally, as he is a poor sailor) Heap, a Yorkshireman out to Maracaibo as a draughtsman with British Controlled. Then Linsell, myself, and Mrs Little, a Scotswoman with two little girls, aged four and seven, bound for Trinidad.

“We then had coffee in the smoke room with Van den Kaay. He is a most interesting fellow. Has been out this way once or twice and had a few years with the Royal Bank of Canada in Mexico City.

“We turned in early, about 10.30. Linsell and I share a cabin. It is quite a luxurious place. Two portholes, one electric fan, two lamps, one wardrobe, two washbasins, cold water, and two little basins to clamp on the side of the bed in case ones back teeth become submerged (anglicize – vomit).

“Sunday, March 23rd. Have got my bath down for 7.45. At this hour comes a knock on the door. Morning cup of tea. Next, another knock ‘Mr Rolph, your bath ees ready, sare.’ Put on dressing gown and lurch to bathroom. Glide into one large bath filled with hot seawater followed by a sluice in freshwater. Return, shave in hot water supplied by cabin steward and dress, etc.

“Quite a good breakfast today. Grapefruit, cornflakes and cream, kippers, boiled egg, roll and butter, banana, coffee. Must bag memo and send to you.

“Breakfast about 8.45, then a book from the library (I got ‘The Bridge of San Luis’, a topping yarn by an American, you must get it). [Editor’s note: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, 1928] Read this in the smoke room but eventually abandoned this in favour of the ‘passing show’ and a chair on deck. Morning chocolate and biscuits at eleven.

“The weather was fine but windy with a heavy swell and the boat was pitching rather badly.

“I began to feel dicky but staggered into lunch. Mr Heap was the only absentee. Linsell reported that he had heard him making queer noises downstairs.

“Had coffee in the smoke room and watched the white Lizard lighthouse vanish. This was the last we saw of Britain.

“2 o’clock, Sunday. The ship is small, 4,300 tons and has a cruising speed of 12-13 knots.

“There was a horrid wind in the afternoon and the boat started to pitch like blazes. Just managed to pip Linsell in a game something like shove ha’penny on deck and watched a few ships passing and the antics of the gulls following the ship (they have done so since Dover).

“Went down about 4 feeling as if I had a floating kidney and promptly shot the cat (once only). If I have offended anybody’s delicate sensibilities by my somewhat crude references to my pancreatic ailments, I must humbly apologise.

“Felt better but decided to spend the rest of the day in my bunk. Steward came in at 7.30 and prevailed upon me to have something to eat. I managed to suck up some chicken and a bunch of hothouse grapes and fell into a gentle slumber. Linsell too had his in his bunk. That ship sure was cavorting some, guy.

“Monday, Mar 24. Lay in bed feeling horrid, sucked up a spot of tea, had my bath and returned, feeling bad and with a face which would have made this paper look dirty. Got back into bed and clamped my little basin by my side. Did not use it. Had some toast and tea brought in. Read in bunk until lunch. Had it brought in – pea soup, cold chicken and pork and a bunch of luscious purple grapes (note how strong I am on the food, it is just about perfect on board this vessel).

“Read until tea (tea, toast, all I could manage). Felt better but did not think it worth while to go into dinner, so I had it in my bunk. Some most wonderful slices of iced melon – sweet, not like we get it in England – fish and potatoes, followed by a huge plum. Then eleven hours of the good old fashioned sweet and dreamless.

“Tuesday, March 25th. Got up feeling OK, ship not moving so much or else I don’t notice it. Breakfast as usual, then a turn on deck. Weather is mild but overcast. I do not need a coat.

“There are several Dutch students bound for Curacao (a Dutch colony) to study geology. They are about 20-24 and are fine chaps. They come up, grab your hand and say ‘Good morning, my name is Hummeldinck’. Your move then. ‘Good morning, mine is Rolph.’ You are then acquainted.

“Had a game of deck golf with Linsell, Hummeldinck, Dowley (one of the Irish), MacGillivray (a pure Dutchman, not a Scot), Westerman (Dutch) and another Hollander whose name I did not catch. I came in fifth after several excursions into the rough.

“There is a first class gramophone in the lounge, the best I have ever heard. It is at present playing Tin Pan Alley’s magnum opus ‘Sonny Boy’. I should say something to the steward about it but I do not know the Dutch for the raspberry.

“Great Britain (Linsell and myself) beat Ireland (Dowley and Doherty) easily in a shove ha’penny international. Ireland opened well but their thumb-work deteriorated.

“Went up to the wireless room and got the cup tie results. Good old Hull. I don’t know whether we shall get the replay result. [Editor’s note: Arsenal 2-2 Hull City, FA Cup semi-final, Elland Road, 22/3/30] Music “Read most of the afternoon until tea, served in the lounge, a pot of tea and a few baskets filled with cake, biscuits and sandwiches. Ate this to the accompaniment of ‘You’re the Cream in my Coffee’, ‘Piccolo Pete’, ‘Moscow’, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ ‘Tip-toe Through the Tulips’, etc, ad lib, not forgetting the ‘Hungarian Raspberry’.

“After tea read till dinner. A sumptuous menu: Salade Polonaise, soup (Indian – hot stuff), halibut and mashed potatoes, roast mutton, baked spuds, kidney beans, spinach, macaroni, roast pigeons, flaked spuds, fruit salad, vanilla slices, cheese and biscuits, fruit and nuts, coffee in ye panelled smoke room. I wish John were here, he’d have the time of his life. Lunch is not quite so elaborate. They combine the joint and game courses.

“Then had a game of sgrelbok (the Dutch shove ha’penny) [Editor’s note: correct spelling, sjoelbak]. Came in a good second to MacGillivray (the Dutch boy).

“We are having a spot of bother about dressing for dinner. Linsell and I do not want to. The Dutchmen are guided by the English, or so they tell us. If we dress they will follow suit. If we do not they will not. Our plot therefore is to stop the other English dressing. One poor mutt dressed first night. Says he feels comfortable in a boiled shirt. Liar! Next night the male half of a newly wedded couple (Houghton) dressed. Female influence probably. ‘Oh! Maurice, you must put on your dinner jacket. Mr James did last night!’ Tonight there was another addition, Van Seckendorff, a German, but we refuse to weaken. We have extracted unconditional promises from the Dutch lads not to dress in any circumstances whatever. We’ll larn ’em.

“Sat in the smoke room with Linsell and Van den Kaay drinking (me) lemonade, (Linsell) stout and (V Kaay) lager. About 11 were joined by MacGillivray. A real boy, has camped out up the west of Scotland and has climbed Mount Etna in Sicily. He talked to improve his English, which he speaks as though his thorax were having difficulty in overcoming a hot potato. Decided that I would teach the three of them Newmarket. Mac, although he could hardly speak English, picked it up completely after one hand. He is 6ft 5 and thinner than me.

“Wednesday, Mar 26. A wonderful day, not a cloud anywhere and a cool wind, summer at last. Have just been lounging on deck doing nothing. Managed to imbibe a spot of nourishing beef tea at 11 o’clock. Atta boy! “Thursday, Mar 27. Not so bright today. Saw three dolphins in the sea after lunch and one or two birds identified by Professor Rutter’s son as being Mediterranean Shearwaters. A clever young man this. We got jawing about birds, in the course of conversation I asked him if he ever saw any eagles in Holland. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘we do not have them on the mainland but they have been introduced on the Frisian island.’ I wondered how anyone could ‘introduce’ eagles anywhere, but we talked about them for a time and some of his statements sounded a bit daft to me. ‘But where can they nest in Holland?’ I asked. He looked blank. ‘I do not understand,’ he said. Eventually I found out that he was under the impression that we had been discussing hedgehogs, the Dutch word forwhich sounds like our English eagle.

“Read all afternoon and ate a huge tea. Did not have any dinner except a bunch of grapes as I was not feeling up to the mark. I am writing this in my bunk about 8.30pm. We are just running into a mild gale. The ship is pitching like fury. She is a small vessel and is loaded light. She jumps about like a flea on a hot flatiron. All I can hear here (hear, hear!) is the steady whooshwhoosh of the waves as she digs her flat nose into a particularly huge roller (3rd time pays for all), punctuated by the steady throb-throb of the engines, with the occasional syncopations caused by the noise of loose deckchairs sliding about the deck above. Crash! A piece of hot cymbal work by Linsell’s golf clubs which have just fallen down. Every time the old hooker junks down into the bottom of a trough one feels a queer judder as though her plates were starting. Ugh! Apparently they have not or else you would not receive this letter. Logic.

“The captain informs me that we shall pass the Azores at about 7 tomorrow morning. I don’t’ want to get up that early so I think I will just let them pass without doing anything in the matter.

“I close on a note of hope; she has just juddered like the forks of a heavy model taking Old Stanaway at 60. Ow! “Later:- Linsell has just come in and told me that the judder is caused by the screw coming clean out of the water as she dips. We counted; it came out 20 times a minute. Tables are moving about in the saloon and one has been smashed.

“Friday, Mar 25. Two hours late passing the Azores, owing to the gale. Could not see them, owing to fog. Everywhere is very damp. She kept on giving loud blasts on her siren.

“Sent off a radio letter to you. This would reach a ship just approaching England and would be written down and sent to you as soon as it touched there.

“Sat up half the night jawing with the Dutch students about the Boer War, English schools, English pronunciations, mountain climbing, rarefied atmosphere, camping out, cycling in Holland, jazz music, racial characteristics, games, typhoid fever, and other subjects of a widely diversified nature. This is far more interesting than if I had come out on an English ship.

“Sat, Mar 29. We are beginning to make things hum a little on board. Four of us got singing this morning on deck and decided that we should liven things up a little after dinner. About 8 we gathered in the smoke room for a singsong. 16 of us round a table, half of us British and half Dutch (all the students). We had ‘Clementine’, ‘Under the Lilacs’, ‘Three Blind Mice’, ‘Froth-blowers Anthem’, ‘Landlord, Fill the Flowing Bowl’ (by far the best this, encored several times and sung at spasmodic intervals during the rest of the evening), ‘Alouette’, ‘Loch Lomond’, ‘Swanee River’, ‘Daisy’ and umpteen others, not counting jazz. You have no idea the amount of fun that can be extracted from a song when it is sung in two languages and 16 accents.

“About 12 we really began to move. Half the Dutchmen were semi-pickled, the two Irish were blotto, one Dutchy was engaged in the amusing pursuit of throwing his hat into an electric fan (unscreened) and the doctor was in a corner with an array of empty glasses in front of him, semi-stewed. At the end we all tried to dance ‘Ring-aring of Roses’ round the purser. The meeting then broke up in disorder.

“Sunday, Mar 30. Formed a committee this evening to organise some games. We are going to have a fancy dress ball on Wednesday and on Tuesday a treasure hunt with clues in English, Dutch and German, so that everybody has an equal chance. We are also going to do the ‘crossing the line’ horseplay but as we do not cross the Equator we are using the Tropic of Cancer, which we hope to cross on Tuesday. I represent the English contingent on the committee. Yah!

“Had another singsong after dinner, a shorter one this time, as the weather is getting decidedly warmer. We have passed through part of the Sargasso Sea today. Don’t believe any of the legends or yarns you hear about it. All you can see is a few chunks of seaweed floating about. Also a magnificent sunset, rivalling those I saw in Skye.

“Fun at dinner tonight. We had crackers and someone heaved a paper at me. I retaliated and hit a Dutch loon. He picked up a chunk of ginger and did his stuff. I ducked and it caught Loewens, the German, bang on the shirt-front and there it lay, like stout Cortez ‘silent upon a peak in Darien.’ Curtain.

“Monday, 31 Mar. A blazing hot day and cloudless sky. I have today got as sunburnt as I should in a week at home and I just anointed my face with oil. Sunbathed in the morning and saw heaps of dolphins jumping after flying fish.

“In the afternoon went specially up into the bow of the ship to watch for flying fish. The very small ones are no bigger than dragonflies. The big ones look like swallows. They skim out of the water and over the waves, up wind, fluttering their fins occasionally to assist their flight, which sometimes is over 100 yards long.

“In the afternoon we had horse races. I took a snap. 6 horses (wood) are lined up on a grid and dice are thrown and the horse moves up according to the amount. I backed the winner of the first race and won 3/6 for my bob but had no other luck and finished 3/- down.

“Tuesday, 1st April. Another very interesting day. Got knocked out of the shuffleboard tournament (first of the games) in the first round and then went down to have look at the engines along with the chief engineer. This is an oilburning ship. The temperature downstairs was 120 degrees, oily slippery stairs, sweating negroes, whizzing flywheels and gigantic big end bearings, a long shiny propeller shaft, inspection covers on the furnaces, which, when opened, allowed us to see the flame inside through blue glass, condensers, pumping machinery, refrigeration machinery, dynamos, and over all a smell of oil and hot metal and terrific heat. Then went up on deck for a cool.

“The westerlies have blown themselves out and we are now in a belt of calms. The sea is a mirror, so smooth that one can see the reflection of the motionless pearly-white clouds. I went up into the bows of the ship. Before me stretched a sea of wonderful luminous blue unbroken by the slightest ripple except where the ‘take-off’ of the flying fish made a line on the surface. The contrast between this blue and the creamy white foam caused by the ship was very beautiful. The calm of the water made it possible to see many fish, mostly flying fish, which were very numerous, but I saw my first sharks, little fellows only two feet long, very pretty too.

“This afternoon we had our potato race. It was unsuccessful. Then we had the bull board in which I reached the final and was outed by one Heap, a twister, a scurvy knave. He is not popular on board and I am afraid his victory was not either.

“Later. Have just covered myself with glory. The Dutch boys invited Heap and myself to join in a training spin round the promenade deck 16 times (16 x 115yds = 1840yds). They only wanted a slow spin but Heap, to display his prowess, wanted to make a race of it. So I kept on his heels until lap 12 when I started to sprint. He swallowed the bait and started to run like blazes. Just when I felt about collapsing point near the end of lap 15, he dropped out and I managed to stagger round the last lap before I sagged down, but I pipped the blighter. The Dutchmen still had 4 laps to do. My time was just under 8 mins which considering the shape and size of the deck was not too bad. Shade temperature was 77°. I was wet through and was led downstairs to a long warm bath and a sharp short shower, then a cool draught of 98 lemon squash.

“Dressed for dinner, my first time. After dinner I strolled on deck and watched the phosphorescent gleam of the water. Then played V den Kaay for a drink (at sjoelbok) and lost – I always do. My wine bill is getting to assume quite considerable proportions although I am TT myself.

“Wednesday, 2nd April. We have left the calms behind and there is a following wind now, the North East Traders. The weather is of course perfect. The sun is almost vertically overhead and very hot but the winds are cool. We are now in the Tropics. All the ship’s officers are dressed in white this morning, very nice they look too. The purser looks fetching, we have christened him Pansy. He is 6ft 1 and weighs 14 stone. Bad on his pins, poor feller.

“First this morning was tugof- war, individual knock-out. Doherty won, he weighs 14 stone and is as strong as a bull. All he did was lean on the rope and draw it in. Then we had Great Britain v Holland, won by the former. Then a wheelbarrow race in which I (as a wheelbarrow) and my pard (V d Kaay) reached the final but were defeated. Then a pillow and bucket flight. I have photographed many of the events. You will find them interesting.

“The weather today is great, it is just about as hot as I have ever known it in England but much hotter than I have ever known it by the sea. There is a cool breeze.

“I wish the voyage would go on forever. I could serve out my five years here. Incidentally, Linsell says that my 6 months leave is included in the five years. That is to say, I come home after 4 and a half years. Also, if I serve on the coast at all I may come home sooner as 3 months on the coast counts for 5 in Bogota. I do not think so, but he may be right. I hope he is, although if we have the good times we are planning to have we may not want to come home (I don’t think). Linsell does not wish to remain in Britain after his first contract. He prefers working conditions abroad and, of course, they are much better than at home, the only snag being the occasional fits of home sickness which he says come on during your first year or so away.

“In the afternoon we had cock-fighting, which I won. After dinner there was dancing on deck. I did not dance, partly because I was stiff and sore after my cock-fighting exertions but mainly because the talent does not come up to the high standard to which I have been accustomed at Yardley, the Masque, and elsewhere. Ahem!

“Thursday, 3rd April. First thing this morning we had a treasure hunt. I was 10 minutes ahead of everybody at the final clue but could not find the treasure and eventually came in second. Jolly good fun. Clues in English, Dutch and German.

“Have put on my Yardley blazer today. It is the first and only blazer on board. I am the sinecure of all eyes. People, the Dutch especially, come up and ask what it is all about and I explain, sometimes through the medium of my interpreter V den Kaay.

“Ate practically no tea today as I was preparing myself for the farewell dinner. This is the last dinner on the voyage before the first port is reached. After that nothing is quite the same. Some people leave the boat, new people board it and the ‘happy family’ spirit is diminished.

“We went into the saloon, which was decorated with Dutch, English and German flags and also a huge Easter egg. The first item was hors d’oeuvres. All the lights were put out and this was brought in on a tray in the centre of which was a sort of Chinese lantern made of thin transparent pastry with a lighted candle inside. Very smart. Then the soup. At this point the wines (gratis) began to circulate. First a light Bordeaux, then Moselle, then Chateau d’Yquem champagne. Unfortunately, I am TT. At one time there were 28 glasses on our table (7 diners). Then grilled rainbow trout and mashed potatoes. Next mutton (just the meaty ‘eye’ of a cutlet – no fat) roast with potatoes flaked, and peas, kidney beans and carrots. Then slices of breast from cold turkey with lettuce salad. Then a most wonderful pudding made of a hollow chocolate mould filled with ice cream. Then liqueurs and plain chocolates, Christmas crackers and sweets. Then fruit, purple grapes and delicious plums. Then the coffee. 97% of the diners were at this time semiintoxicated, that is to say there was one person sober.

“Then the speech making. The captain, a bit of a linguist, made one in Dutch, then one in English, then one for no reason other than the fact he was half-stiffened, in Spanish. We then adjourned to the music room for the presentation of the prizes won in the deck sports.

“The captain did the presenting. As a committee member I had a place of honour. My prize for the ‘cock-fighting’ was a gent’s natty wristwatch.

“The Southern Cross (a name full of romance, but, as a constellation, the stars are much over-rated) is plainly visible every night now. The nights are wonderful. I think that this fortnight is the most vivid and lazy I have ever experienced. Tomorrow, about 12, we sight land and we reach Barbados about 2.

“This is badly expressed and badly written. The first is due to laziness, the second to an inability to write in an oscillating ship. Eric.”

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