CAPT. ROBERT MARSHALL PURVIS

21 February 1917 – 2 September 2007

 

3rd mate, 1938, aged 21

his family background:

Bob was born in South Shields at the mouth of the River Tyne into a family with a tradition of piloting. 

There have always been ship's pilots on the River Tyne. Until the piers were built, the many shoals and sandbars made navigating the entrance to the river treacherous so we can be certain there have been Tyne pilots since Roman times, when it was the main supply route to Hadrian's Wall.

  l to r: his father George, grandfather James and his uncle Thomas.   His father was coxswain of the Tynemouth lifeboat from WWI to 1936.

 There is a craggy outcrop guarding the southern entrance to the River Tyne known as the Lawe Top. It was here, overlooking the harbour that, for centuries, Tyne pilots have lived to be close to their work. And it was here, on Baring Street, where George 'Oftner'* Purvis and Julia Grant lived with their 4 sons and 2 daughters.

 (* 'Geordie oftner' because it was said that he was 'oftner on duty than off')

The mouth of the River Tyne and the Lawe Top. The red line marks Baring Street, the family home now lost to the site of the roman fort of Arbeia

It was here that Bob was born on February 21st 1917. His middle name 'Marshall' being his maternal grandmother's family name, reflecting the close knit community he came from. When we look at censuses we find Purvis', Grants and Marshalls all living within a few hundred yards of one another. 

His career:

The destiny of all sons of Tyne pilots was to be sent to sea with the expectation they too would become Tyne pilots.  And so it was that the four Purvis sons were sent to sea at 16 as ship’s apprentices in the Merchant Navy.

2nd mate, 1941, aged 24

In 1938 a young woman called Edna Aspin met a handsome young ship's officer at dancing classes.  And so it was that she'd came to know Leonard, the youngest of the Purvis brothers, for 2 years until on evening, at the Hedworth Hall dance, she saw him sitting with another young ship's officer who, by his looks, she guessed was his brother.  That young officer was Bob, who came over to ask her to dance, spent the rest of the evening dancing with her and walked her home. The rest, as they say, is history.

19th January 1942

Before his first voyage around the world Bob went into the chemist's shop in his home town of South Shields and bought this camera:

1937 Kodak Vest Pocket 127

The photographs he took with it show us that he passed through the Panama Canal in 1937:

  

 and bunkering in Wellington, NZ: 

(enhancement of the ship's name reveals 'City of ?????', confirming it as Ellerman Hall Line ship)

and that he was in Cape Town, New Year of 1938:

 

 In 1939 we see him on the deck of the ice encased m.v. Vaclite in the North Atlantic:

   

(the m.v.Vaclite was torpedoed and sunk 30th Jan 1940)

 ....... then in the Caribbean aboard the Edwy R Brown in both 1939 and again, here, in 1940

by the twenty-pounder gun on the Edwy R Brown in the Caribbean aged 23

 There are others: street scenes in Sydney, Australia; dockside in Basra, Iraq and his ship moored in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1940 we see him at weapon's practice on the ship’s bridge:

In all Bob circumnavigated the world three times.

“A head sea, North Atlantic, March 1940”

 Like so many men who lived through the war he would never talk about his experiences, but we do know that at least once his ship, the m.v. James J. Macquire, was mined.  Only two months before he passed away did he reveal how, at that time, fate had played its part in his life.  In 1940 he transferred from the oil tanker m.v. Edwy R Brown for another posting.  Why he did this is unknown, although we suspect it was due to having come ashore to study for, and take the exam for, his next mate’s ticket. Only later did he discover that, on its next voyage, the Edwy R Brown had been torpedoed and sunk with all hands off Iceland. His ship transfers had twice saved his life.

the Edwy R Brown at anchorage in Bedford Basin, Halifax, July 1940

During the 2nd World War he served on oil tankers in the Caribbean and later on the Atlantic convoys. On one occasion he demonstrated his leadership and self-confidence when he took command of his ship to depart Halifax and join its convoy when the master was too drunk to take command.

For enlargements of these early shipping photographs, as well as others photographs taken with his Kodak 127 camera, click HERE.

As they are on another website, you will need to use your browser back button to return.

 

 

1st Mate with Edna aboard the liberty ship S.S. Al Raurdah in the Clyde, 1943

 That young officer married Edna in 1942, soon after got his Masters ticket and then his Extra Masters ticket to become a pilot so that, in 1946, he became the youngest Trinity House pilot on the river Thames at the age of 29. He subsequently served with Trinity House for 11 years becoming ‘Choice Pilot’ for the France Fenwick shipping line, highly valued for his ability to take ships up the river in all weathers, even in the notorious London smogs of the 1950’s.  It was during this time that his children Malcolm, Maureen and Anne were born.

pilot coming on board – thought to be late 1940's

 His voyages around the world had persuaded him that Canada was the best country in the world and where he wanted to live.  So it was that on April 11th 1957 the family arrived in Toronto.

There we spent 4 and a half happy years before returning to England.

    

 

 In the years that followed he worked both in England and abroad.  In Libya he was mooring master for both Shell and Esso Petroleum.

Port Brega, Libya, now aged 46:

 

top to bottom: Dec '63: aboard launch with Capt Warby's wife; Nov '64: Esso Lancashire at mooring; Nov '64: aboard Esso Lancashire

 Subsequently he returned to the Thames as mooring master at the Canvey oil refinery (1965-67) then Port Manager at Ellesmere Port, Liverpool (1967-70).  There then followed a spell as harbour master in West Bay, Dorset (1970-74):

West Bay Harbour Master 1974, aged 57

Subsequently he went on to captain merchant vessels in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Bahrain. Later still he took postings as harbour master in St Vincent and Papua New Guinea.  In pre-revolutionary Iran, he trained pilots for the Shah’s government.  Unfortunately we've as yet been unable to unearth any photographs of him during this period of his life.

Edna travelled with him to many of his postings and Anne and Maureen enjoyed the opportunity to visit and at times live with them.

on leave from Bahrain, 1979 aged 62

Bob had many fascinating stories to tell and one stands out for its topicality.  While in Iran his boat and crew of trainee pilots were fired upon by the Iraqis when they accidentally crossed the imaginary line in the middle of the Shat-al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq.

~ ~ ~

Apart from the sea Bob loved reading, and in particular books on history, geography and travel. He also maintained a keen interest in politics and current affairs until shortly after his ninetieth birthday. It was soon after that that his health began to fail. 

He loved corresponding and his cards, letters and interesting news items will be sadly missed, particularly by his granddaughter, Becky.

~ ~ ~

In his retirement he and Edna visited Anne in Sydney, Australia several times with the result that he fell in love with that country.

          

1992 ....... and clambering about on the rocks at Clovelly Beach just a week after his 75th birthday

back again in '95 to feed the wallabys!

Perhaps his one mistake was not to move out there while he was fit and able to do so.

The one aspiration he failed to achieve was to live out his retirement with a view over the sea.

~ ~ ~ 

Bob died in the Royal Bournemouth Hospital on the morning of 2nd September 2007 at the age of 90 years and 6 months.

~ ~ ~

 

This accolade from the late Capt. Stan Cheek, captain of the last ship he served on during the war:

"Best first officer I ever had."

And finally this from Shirley, his carer in his last months:

"He was such a lovely man. Always a gentleman."

~ ~ ~

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updated 28 Jan 2013 at 17:16