The Cruel Wait

A wife and mother of trawlermen talks about fear

When 15-year-old John Bratley went for his first trip on a Grimsby trawler a Granada team went with him. Deckie Learner on Wednesday tells the story of John’s tough, 22-day journey to the Arctic Circle and back with an £8,000 haul of fish. John’s 33-year-old mother MAVIS BRATLEY tells here the story of the Grimsby wives and mothers who wait and worry

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 12 June 1965

I REMEMBER it so well … it was a Tuesday. Television cameramen were busy in the docks filming my 15-year-old John off on his first trawler trip to the Arctic.

But I had lived it all before. My mind went back to when I was a 17-year-old bride watching my husband sail away. This time it was my son.

As I stood on the docks. I remembered the wave of loneliness that swamped over me every time I watched my husband’s trawler diminish into a speck on that unrelenting North Sea. Was all this to happen again?

Surely I should be used to it by now. I was born into a Grimsby fishing family. When I was 14 I was a fish worker. Three years later I married my trawlerman.

I was 17 and from the moment I was married I knew what it was to be lonely.

I saw my husband for three short days every three weeks. Like thousands of other Grimsby wives I lay awake at night listening to the wind howling round the docks, worrying and waiting for the boats to come in.

Then would come the great day. My husband would be home. For three days we painted the town red. Then came that waiting again.

A huge wave
Off the coast of Norway… and stormy seas
A woman looks through a window pensively
The face at the window of a mother who waits… and worries. Mavis Bratley at her Grimsby home

This went on year after year. We had four children, but they saw their father for only six weeks a year. It was a life I had to accept, for the sea was in my husband’s blood. Twice he tried to give it up, but each time he went back.

Last year, ill-health forced him to take a shore job, and for the first time we were together as a family all the time in Carnforth Crescent, Grimsby. At long last my husband was with me and the children.

My dream didn’t last long. For recently, my only son John, said: “I want to go to sea.”

My sleepless nights and days of waiting were about to start again.

One hope I had was that John would go through three weeks of seasickness wishing he had never set eyes on a trawler. Then he would go back to the safe barrow boy’s job he held in the docks.

He had never been on a boat in his life, but had grown to love the sea through hearing his father talk about it. He knew how I felt about it—he also knew I wouldn’t stop him going. He was found a job as deckie learner on board the 800-ton Ross Renown.

But I had five weeks’ grace. John had to go to Grimsby’s nautical school. It was here that he was chosen for a documentary film about life on a trawler.

I was still hoping. I didn’t believe John was really going until he came home with his brand new fisherman’s kit. I didn’t dare tell him how worried I was.

Then came the day. The cameramen lined up to film the farewell. I couldn’t remember half the things I wanted to tell him. He was upset and hurried out without looking back … Another part of my heart had gone out into the North Sea.

The weather at home was terrible. Storms, heavy rains and gale-force winds – I kept waking up at night thinking about him. It was as if the clock had been turned back.

I tried hard to stop myself thinking about the things I knew could happen to the boats out there. I just kept thinking he would be cold and tired and homesick.

I kept saying: “He will be home safe and sound and so fed up that he will never want to go to sea again.”

Then came a letter from John’s firm. I imagined all sorts of things. But it said that John would be home in a couple of days. I waited hopefully to hear that he was a one-trip sailor.

But as soon as he came home I could see he was itching to get back. He had almost grown up overnight. And he hadn’t been seasick!

But I do feel proud of the way he has settled into a tough job.

When he is older I will tell him: “Give up the sea when you marry. Don’t make your wife suffer the life I had to. A woman wasn’t made to watch the sea and wait.”

I’ll tell my daughters, Jean, who is 14, Janet, 10, and seven-year-old Sharon: “Don’t marry a fisherman. It is not worth it for three days’ happiness a month.”

FOOTNOTE. There is a focal point in our home. My husband Arthur and I often glance at the calendar. There is a red ring round the date of John’s next homecoming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *