Sketch by Jack Chalker

The Beginning

The Beginning

In September 1937 a mother of eleven children and grandmother of five said goodbye to twelve of her family at her home in Innellan, near Dunoon on the lower Clyde Estuary, to set out on a long journey by paddle steamer and steam train, first to Glasgow and then via London to Southampton.  Only a few months short of her 63rd birthday she was on her way by routine P&O mailship to join her husband of 40 years in the Far East.  She would be in Singapore about a month later, but with no inkling she was not to return to Scotland for more than 8 arduous years.

Mary White was born beside the Clyde in 1873, her husband David Baldwin being born not far away a year before her.  They married in 1897 as the British Empire neared its peak of expansion and to understand their story better we should look a little closer at the British imperial world in which they grew up, worked and travelled.  The places described here were only a part of that empire but were familiar to them and later to their descendants as we spread around the globe.


The British Empire

With the booming expansion of the Victorian British Empire through the nineteenth century much of the world map came to be coloured pink to show it was ruled from Britain.  At its peak the Empire is said to have covered some 25% of the world’s land area and 20% of its population, and despite the ravages of the First World War much of this remained intact into the 1930s as Britain rebuilt, and continued to prosper from, global imperial trade.

In North America the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867, with British Columbia joining in 1871, the peaceful frontier between “children of a common mother” having been settled with the United States.

In Southern Africa, aggressive British expansion had led to the Zulu Wars in 1878 before Cecil Rhodes was granted mineral rights in 1889 in a land that was to become known in his honour as Rhodesia.  After the Boer Wars of 1899-1902 the South African Republic, too, was brought into the Empire.

More peacefully, the various independent Australian colonies were combined in 1900 into the Commonwealth of Australia within the British Empire.

 In the Far East, the British had become powerful traders in China with a secure port and base at Hong Kong on a 99-year lease from China.  By then India had become long established as the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire and its fabulously profitable sea-borne trade.

In South East Asia, south of Malaya and its trading port at Singapore, lies the large equatorial island of Borneo and it was there that the first Rajah Brooke of Sarawak had been established in 1841 under the protection of the British Crown.  His was a personal trading empire based on the town of Kuching on the Sarawak River in the south-west of the island.  On the northern coast a town called Sandakan had been founded in 1879 and the British North Borneo Company headquartered itself there in 1881 to "administer" the colony :  now the Malaysian State of  Sabah.


Victorian Britain

By the late 1800s Scotland had experienced 100 years of "Clearances" of Highlanders & their families from the northern mountain & island areas and many of these people, some might say those unlucky enough not to emigrate to America, Canada or Australia, found their way to the Glasgow area.  Indeed, Mary White's surname could indicate a family of Highland origin since many “cleared” Highlanders are said to have chosen colours to replace their Gaelic family names and so disguise their background.  Over the same period Glasgow had experienced its share of the Industrial Revolution which had swept through the whole of Britain drawing in abundant manpower whose enterprise, money and inventiveness allowed the city to grow swiftly as a centre of trade & engineering skills.

As the British Empire developed over a century and a half it came to rely on a large Merchant Navy to carry its goods, passengers and mail and a strong Royal Navy to defend it.   In the latter part of the nineteenth century  – as David & Mary Baldwin grew up – these ships depended increasingly on steam machinery to drive them, with many associated engineering developments.  Steam power was the white-hot technology of the day, upon which the Empire's continuing prosperity, profit and success depended :  much as information technology's  microchips & computers drive and sustain global business today.

Glasgow and the Clyde Estuary played a major role in the development of merchant and naval vessels and the machinery that propelled them, Bell having demonstrated his steam-propelled paddle steamer "Comet" on the Clyde as early as 1812.  Hence along the 20 miles of the Upper River Clyde from Glasgow to Gourock the banks were lined with shipbuilding yards supplying vessels for the trade and defence of the Empire, and the engine works for the steam engines to power them.  In 1897, the year of the Baldwins' marriage, Parsons demonstrated his revolutionary steam turbine vessel "Turbinia" at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Review of the Fleet off the Isle of Wight.  David Baldwin, however, was destined never to work these new machines, his whole career, into the 1930s, being spent with the older steam reciprocating machinery.

Some  other inventions of the period during which David Baldwin and Mary White grew up and married give an idea of the rapid changes and excitement of these times.  The first telephone message was passed on a wire by Alexander Bell in 1876,  the Kodak box camera was patented in 1888, and first radio transmission made by Marconi in 1896.  The right to vote having been given in 1867 to all men over 21, the Labour Party was formed (with notable impetus from Keir Hardie and people of the  Glasgow area) in 1893.  Closer to David Baldwin’s working life, the Institute of Marine Engineers was formed in 1889 for the mutual benefit of the many thousands of practically-based, hands-on, sea-going engineers needed to run the Merchant Fleet.  As far as I know, he was, despite his long experience, never a member.


The Baldwins

 Mary White, the youngest of six brothers & sisters, was born just after Christmas 1874 at Inverkip, near Gourock on the River Clyde where the estuary turns from west to south :  an area known locally as The Tail o’ the Bank.  Her husband, David Baldwin was born in October a year earlier in Gourock itself, third of five brothers, and followed the footsteps of his engineer father and blacksmith grandfather by training to be a marine engineer. Mary and David married in Gourock in 1897, just after his 24th birthday.  The map of  Glasgow and the Clyde Estuary shows where they spent their early years.

It's hardly surprising that David Baldwin, like thousands of other Clydesiders, became involved with ships and their engines, eventually qualifying and being employed as a merchant ship engineer officer, so combining the challenge, satisfaction and rewards of working at the technological frontier of his day with the excitement of world-wide travel, yet most often within the relative comfort and security of the British Empire.

It’s difficult today to chart the Baldwins early life so long afterwards, but glimpses of where they were and what they were doing are given by the dates and places of their childrens' births and a few photographs.  One cousin has a formal portrait of the two Baldwins photographed on 23rd April 1899, in Hong Kong showing that they were not long married when they first went to the exotic & exciting Far East.  This is confirmed by Mary, the eldest child having been born in December 1900 at Kowloon Dock (Hong Kong) 3 years after their marriage, and then David (known, strangely, within the family as “Toosie“) in March 1902, also at Hong Kong, 15 months later.  Both events suggest David's continuous employment in the Far East from the age of 27, accompanied by his wife.  Janet (Jenny) was next, another 15 months later, in June 1903, but by this time the growing Baldwin family had returned to the Clyde, about 4 to 6 weeks sea voyage from the Far East, her birth being registered at Gourock.  In 1906 their second son John was born but by this time the Baldwins – presumably accompanied also by their other 3 children - were in the Far East again since he’s reported, somewhat unusually, as born in Saigon in the French colony of Indo-China.

By August 1908 when their fifth child Violet (known, again strangely, as “Dodo” within the family) arrived, Mary Baldwin was back at Gourock and after that she seems to have remained on the banks of the Clyde for the next 14 years or so.  Her five births between 1913 and 1919 are registered as either in Dunoon or in the village of Innellan, four miles to the south.  The gap between Violet (1908) and Kathleen (1913) suggests she was left on her own with the children, for much or all of these five years.

 It was during this period, as the prospect of war loomed over Europe and therefore also over European overseas empires, that a small coastal steamer called the Channel Queen was built and launched in 1912 at Goole, an inland port above Hull on the River Humber.  We shall meet her again later, as the SS Baynain.

A few days before her 39th birthday Mary Baldwin gave birth to my mother, Kathleen (Kathie) in December 1913, followed in 1914 by another girl, Daisy, who died soon after birth and for whom there is no formal registration.  Then in February 1916 came Jeanie, who survived only until the end of 1918, by when another boy

Hugh had been born, in May 1917.  He was followed by the last of the family, the twins, Douglas & Pearl, in February 1919.  Pearl died after only 2 days and more tragically Douglas too then died in April 1920, aged 14 months.

The birth dates of the last five children suggest this was a period spent largely at home, if not all the time, then at least with frequent visits.  A skilled marine engineer would easily be employed productively in any number of wartime Clydeside engineering jobs vital to support of the Merchant and Royal Navies :  in occupations reserved from military call-up.  Pleasant too to live in Dunoon or Innellan and commute easily to the Clyde shipyards and Glasgow by steamer and train.

David Baldwin was certainly at home towards the end of the War, because in 1918, probably in late summer just before the Armistice of November 1918, he won a gold medal in the pairs competition of the Dunoon & Argyll Bowling Club.  We’ll meet that medal again.

In the five years between 1908 (Violet) and 1913 (Kathleen) the family, perhaps with no father at home, moved from Gourock to settle initially in Innellan, my mother Kathleen, Jeanie and Hugh all being registered as born there.  At some time, maybe when David returned to live at home as World War threatened, they then moved to James Cottage in Mary Street, Dunoon.  That’s the street where the Dunoon and Argyll Bowling Club still has its greens and clubhouse – a convenient stroll from home for the champion-to-be.  They certainly were living there in 1918 when David Baldwin bought a plot in Dunoon town cemetery to bury his infant daughter Jeanie, and they were still in James Cottage when his mother-in-law, Janet Chalmers White, who had been living with them, died in February 1920.  Today, however, there’s no house in Mary Street with the name James Cottage.

Baldwin Family


There they are in a special family portrait showing the proud parents and their 6 children as they were in about mid-1914, just as the Great War (World War I) was about to break over them.  My mother Kathleen is about 6 months old, making her father David 40 and her mother Mary 39. I don't know what happened to them during the War from 1914-18, but they could count themselves lucky :  father too old and too important to the industrial war effort ;  and sons David & John too young at 12 and 8, to be called up for wasteful slaughter on the Western Front or the new terrors of unrestricted U-Boat warfare on Atlantic convoys.

In this war, Japan was an ally of Britain, France and the USA.





 m. 1897



































Hong Kong











Hong Kong


































































































Douglas & Pearl






















Dawson Creek






























Dawson Creek















































Donald Hamish






























Maxwell John
























On the western bank of the Clyde Estuary , Innellan today can seem a small place which is difficult to get to and shows little activity.  It was not always so.  To get away from the grime and disease of big industrial cities such as Glasgow, rich Victorian merchants and businessmen built holiday homes in the countryside and on the sea-coast to which their families could escape at least during the summer months, and to which they often began to retreat for longer periods at other times of the year.  Husbands and fathers could regularly commute from the distant city, either at weekends or even daily as transport became faster and expanded further.

Its secret was the same steam machinery as powered the Empire trade, with networks of railways running out of the big cities, and in the particular case of Glasgow also a network of "steamer" routes criss-crossing the Clyde Estuary. Having built ships capable of circling the globe, it was as much an amusement as a necessity for Clydesiders to turn their ingenuity towards miniature versions  -  which would carry them, their families and their goods swiftly, safely and to a reliable schedule around the waters of the Clyde.  Most Clyde steamers were propelled by steam reciprocating engines (which the passengers could watch being worked) driving side paddlewheels, their proud owners giving them resounding Scottish names such as Caledonia, Waverley, Jeanie Deans or even as a humorous reminder of their engineering prowess, Queen Mary the Second.  To berth the steamers Innellan, like many another Clydeside village or town, had its pier ;  a wooden structure which stuck out from the shore with a small white-painted waiting room and warehouse at the outer end.

Innellan Pier

I’ve included a photograph of it which also shows how it was extended for larger steamers to be able to berth.

The pier-head was at the centre of this purpose-built holiday and commuter village with the Village Hall and Police Station nearby, and in due course the War Memorial and a garage and petrol pump for the increasing number of motor cars.  Here all arrivals and departures by steamer could be watched closely by the village worthies -  and the taxi drivers - since these city visitors and their affairs supported the local population.

On the hill immediately above the pierhead towered the magnificent white-painted Royal Hotel  - now gone having been burnt down and demolished in the 1950s  -  and just to the north side of it, up a steep stepped lane and overlooking the pierhead, was a house known as The Cliff which is still there today.  It was here, back in Innellan and above the heart of the village, that Mary Baldwin found herself probably in the 1920s with a large family of 7 growing children, but often with her husband away at sea.

I can imagine her in 1920, her mother having died in February of that year in Dunoon and her remaining twin Douglas in April, watching from the windows or garden of The Cliff for her husband’s imminent return from a deep-sea trip ;  his arrival by steamer and progress up the pierhead towards the lane leading to his home and family.  But the Royal Hotel, although mainly intended for a wealthier "class" of customer, also understood the need to cater for thirsty locals and had provided a Public Bar cleverly fitted into the side of the hill below the hotel, right on the main road by the pierhead.  It’s still there today as the last trace of a once-magnificent hotel.

Perhaps Davy Baldwin, now in his mid-to-late 40s and dry after his long journey home, would be tempted to have a homecoming drink  -  just the one, mind you !  -  and to amaze his fellow drinkers with tales of adventure in the Orient, whilst catching up with the local gossip.  Amongst that might be sly comment about his children and their own wild adventures :  the four Baldwin girls now 20, 16, 12 and 7 and the Baldwin boys of 16, 14 and 3 with no father regularly at home to keep them in check . . . .. !


Between the Wars

David & Mary Baldwin

Singapore 1920’s

The next photo of  is marked as taken in Singapore, but date unknown.  To me the Baldwins look to be about 50 years old, although appearances in these old-style clothes and photographs can be deceptive.  They could have been back together in the Far East in the 5 year gap between two of the children born on the Clyde, Violet (1908) and Kathleen (1913), which would put them then in their late 30s, but the lack of new babies in this period suggests, noting their track record, that they were apart.  And who would have looked after the bairns, now aged from 2 to 10 ?  David & Mary seem older than thirty-somethings and the next opportunity for them both to get away from Britain would not be until after the War years and family deaths of 1920.  If the year of the photograph is, say, 1922 then they’re in their late 40s ;  about 48 years of age and now with 7 children ranging from Mary at 22 to Hugh at 5.  I remember being told that David Baldwin was Chief Engineer of the John W Mackay, a Cable-Laying ship working in the Far East in the 1920s, laying some of the first submarine cables in the Singapore and Hong Kong areas.  Perhaps it was during this period that Mary found her way back to the Far East to join her husband once more.  This is supported by a cousins’ recollection that Mary Junior, the eldest child, was left at some stage on her own to look after the other children whilst her mother travelled for an extended period.  Unsurprisingly, Mary Jnr. decided thereafter to take up nursing training – away from home - at the first opportunity.  David Junior also left home at an early age and made his way to Canada.


John W Mackay

I have a watercolour of the John W. Mackay on my wall, and she probably was the highlight of David Baldwin’s sea-going career.  Amazingly she was still around in the early 1970s as a fully working cable-ship and I visited her with my parents at Plymouth docks in 1974 when she was taking on fresh crew and cable for a Trans-Atlantic cable-lay.  The high-tech wonder of her day, her low pressure steam boilers and reciprocating steam engines seemed antique by the 1970s – at the advent of the Royal Navy’s gas-turbine warships -  and from a different world than the latest high-accuracy satellite navigation aids strapped to her upper deck.  In the wood-panelled officers' mess we saw the mess table where each officer always sat in the position allocated by rank and post, the old table-top grooved by 50 years of hot plates placed in exactly the same positions, meal after meal.  The Master sat at the head of the table facing outboard and at his left hand sat The Chief Engineer.

David Baldwin

Chief Engineer - SS Jobe

The 1930s

By the 1930s David Baldwin seems to have left the John W. and become established in Borneo.  His solo photo shows him in 1933 working as Chief Engineer on board the SS Joby, a small cargo ship with European officers and Asian crew, registered in Kuching, Sarawak. By now aged 60, this would still have been arduous work for a man of his age in the heat of the Equator, although the Joby was a small ship, and perhaps easy to run for an experienced deep-sea engineer with plenty of crew.  I’ve also included a photo of a steam cargo ship, probably very much like the Joby, lying alongside the godown wharves at Kuching, Sarawak in the 1930s.  The photo's origins are not clear, but I can imagine "The Chief"  (as he now liked to sign himself on postcards and Christmas cards) sending it back with a cryptic message for his wife and children still at The Cliff in Innellan.  There were many attractions to life in Borneo which made it preferable to the cold, wet, windy shores of the Clyde Estuary . . . . . . 


Before WW2 - Looking South across the Sarawak River


Next Chapter

The Long Journey



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[Baldwin] [The Beginning] [The Long Journey] [Settled at Sandakan] [War] [Release] [Last Words] [Re-Discovery] [Conclusion]


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