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    Avis Part Sixteen - No Fish, No Supper!
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(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)

1957 was an auspicious year; the US Base was officially opened, the Duke of Edinburgh visited the island, and 18-year-old Corbett Williams arrived in Georgetown. Life in Georgetown before 1964 was very different to the comparative luxury of today. All residents of Georgetown, except for the St Helena Government Police, were Cable & Wireless employees or their dependants. The C&W Manager reigned supreme, both as Company Manager, and as the Resident Magistrate responsible to the Governor for the running of the island. The population of Georgetown hovered at just over 200; 66 from the UK, and about 147 from St Helena. This included the 15 European and 17 St. Helenian families, and a total of about 50 children.

The mid-50's was a time for improvements by C&W, with a steady drive to replace some of the older naval houses. Some, like Bungalows No.3 and 4, were completely demolished and new properties built. Others such as Bungalow No.5 kept some of the original walls. The C&W Works Department at that time employed up to 70 men. You may wonder what on earth they all did - work is the answer. The typical working day was 7am to 7pm, as overtime was very common, and readily accepted! Protective clothing was non-existent, no overalls or boots were provided, with bare feet not unusual. Walking down to the pier in bare feet during the afternoon would see Corbett avoiding the tarmac road, as it was far too hot to walk on!

All work was done by hand, no mechanical aid, just a pick and shovel. Not even a concrete mixer was used, even on a project such as laying the concrete floor of a house. Bungalow No.47 and No.47a stick in Corbett's mind; the slab for the two houses was laid as one, and involved a lot of levelling. Concrete for the thick base was made by just four men, who continually mixed the cement by hand, while others laid the concrete. Sand for all building was collected from the beaches. Four men could load up to nine lorry loads a day, with just a shovel and hard work. By the time the Chinatown bungalows were built in 1966 however, the works department had become quite mechanised; they had a concrete mixer and a Bray loader crawler.

Arriving to work in Ascension from St Helena was an achievement. With high unemployment, only the better workers managed to get a job. Brought ashore by the Wide-awake launch, at the pier you were issued with the basic requirements of life, an enamel plate, an enamel pint mug for tea, a knife, fork, a spoon, and of course the most necessary of all items, a bucket! If you lost any of these, there were no replacements; it was not unknown to take some of them on leave in case they disappeared. Accommodation for new arrivals was in the old two-storey barracks demolished in 1966. For Corbett it consisted of a small 6 foot by 10-foot room containing a bed, two thin "biscuit" mattresses, and two horse blankets. No sheets, no chair, and no table, just the bed and your suitcase in the corner. Mind you, others have commented that the old barracks was great for those who enjoyed watching the stars, just lie back in bed at night, and see the stars through the holes in the roof. One of the first tasks was to read through the Ascension Rule Book. This impressive list of Dos and Don'ts for C&W staff (mostly Don'ts), took the best part of an afternoon to digest.

Meals were taken in the galley. The unaccompanied workforce was divided into three messes, A, B and C, each with their own Mess Organiser who would draw rations and pass them on to the cooks, and then to collect the cooked food. In those days the food was cooked on paraffin stoves. Each individual was issued with a weekly ration of jam, butter, and cheese; other rations were issued to each mess. The Galley had three long tables arranged in the room, one for each mess, and each also had their own store cupboard where the food and the plates were kept. Breakfast was one rasher of bacon and one egg. Only one problem; you only had breakfast three days a week! On the other days you had bread, and some of your personal issue of jam, butter and cheese. When it was gone, there was no more. The men had a rota for washing up the plates and clearing the tables, with each taking a turn. Mind you, only the plates were washed in this way, each man guarding his knife, fork and spoon. If you left a piece of cutlery at the table, it would most likely disappear! Corbett remembers leaving his knife, fork and spoon in the mess one evening. When he remembered them 30 minutes later, it was too late, and he had lost his spoon and his fork. The solution? Wait for someone else to leave theirs lying around!

Lunch was the main meal of the day, with supper being served at 7pm. If you were late for your meal, no food! Supper however, depended upon the men who spent the afternoon fishing. From 1400, these men would be charged with catching sufficient fish for the Galley, the F1 Mess, and also for the UK families, who paid seven shillings and sixpence per month to have a daily supply of fresh fish delivered to their kitchen. The fish were caught, cleaned and delivered in time for supper. Charlie Young who was to be a driver for Cable & Wireless and then Ascension Island Services for many years, had his first driving job on Ascension Island delivering fish - the vehicle? A wheelbarrow! With the Galley being at the end of the delivery chain, the range of fish delivered there was rather restricted, and was usually conger eel, so the normal supper in those days was fried conger eel and bread. At the right season, an alternative was Wide-awake eggs. Cable & Wireless was granted a licence to collect the eggs, and they were a welcome alternative source of food. Individuals in those days were also granted permission to collect small numbers of eggs for food. (All collecting of eggs is now banned, of course.) Four Wide-awake eggs and bread was a typical, and satisfying meal. Each mess was allocated a small reserve for supper in case the sea was rough, and the eggs were out of season, but in cases of prolonged fish shortage - No fish, no supper!

In fact, food seemed to be regularly in short supply in those days, especially for the men who spent 12 hours doing heavy manual labour. Of course, you could always try your own hand at fishing, no problem. Just tell the Police where you are going, and they would give permission. In fact, anyone going fishing, or to the mountain, had to tell the Police where they were going, and book in on their return. In the case of trips to the mountain, you had to ring them on arrival, and on returning to Georgetown, ring before you left the mountain, and report to the Police on your arrival back in Georgetown. The F1 staff also had similar restrictions, although they were required to notify the Cable Office before travelling.


Copyright © 2000, Graham Avis
Created by Stephen C Fowler
Last revised on the 9th of February 2002