Exhibit of the Week – Joseph Sawdon’s continuous certificate of discharge – Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre

Joseph Sawdon
Joseph Sawdon

This battered little navy blue booklet, about the size of an old-style British passport, is the Continuous Certificate of Discharge issued to Joseph Sawdon. It is special because we also have lots of supportive evidence of his remarkable career. It records details of each vessel he sailed on, date and place of his engagement, his rank, date and place of discharge and, most interestingly, a description of his voyage. Signed by the ship’s master, it also records his ability and his general conduct, invariably very good.

Joseph Sawdon was born on 9 January 1896, at 34 Longwestgate, to a family of seafarers. His older brother, Charles, became Master of a Steamship. In September 1911 he was 5’ 6” tall, with brown eyes, dark brown hair and fresh complexion. Apprenticed for three years to Scrutton Sons and Co he was taught how to be a seaman. He was paid £5 for his first year, £8 for his second and £12 for his final year. He had a bonus of £10 on the satisfactory completion of his indenture. But he had to provide for himself “all seas bedding, wearing apparel and necessaries”. He was provided with “Sufficient Meat, Drink, Lodging, Medicine and Medical and Surgical Assistance”

One of inside pages from the Certificate of Discharge booklet.

One of inside pages from the Certificate of Discharge booklet.

By September 1914, he was at sea, bound for the West Indies. His World War One service record shows he sailed the Mediterranean and to India, to the West Indies again, and intriguingly, to North Russia! Much of 1917 is shrouded in secrecy, but he was on Government Service, until November 1917, when he sailed to the USA and again in March 1918. By the end of 1918 he was back in the Mediterranean, at Malta, but still on Admiralty Service until June 1919. As a result of this war service he was awarded a general war medal for 1914-1918, but also the splendid more unusual Mercantile Marine medal for war service 1914-1918.

In the interwar years our Continuous Certificate of Discharge shows he sailed from Barry in Wales to Mexico several times, from Swansea to the River Plate, Stockton to India and Brazil and the USA, usually serving as 3rd Mate. World War Two saw him on active service again and he trained on a Merchant Navy Defense course. By November 1942 he had completed several Merchant Navy A/A Gunnery Courses as 3rd Officer.

His life took a very dramatic turn when in October 1942 he was one of 30 survivors of a merchantman sunk by enemy action and rescued by a ship of the Canadian Navy. A Canadian newspaper report, with most details redacted, can only say that they landed in an “East Coast Canadian port”. Joseph reported for duty both in Canada and North Eastern USA, but evidently his health had suffered and he was discharged from Merchant Navy Service as being physically unfit on 27th August 1943, back in Hull.

Our story ends with his World War Two medals, again a general service medal, but also the Atlantic Star. We are so fortunate to have a very detailed set of documents, all very kindly donated to us, recording the seafaring life of this son of Scarborough, described by the captains under whom he sailed as “hardworking and strictly sober”.

Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre, 45 Eastborough, is open Wednesday to Sunday inclusive, from 11am to 4pm, and is run entirely by volunteers and public donations. www.scarboroughsmaritimeheritage.org.uk