The museum holds a rich archive of diaries recording voyages through the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869 to provide a more direct route from Europe to Asia via the Mediterranean and Red seas. To mark the canal’s 150th anniversary, curator Kim Tao shares an edited extract from the diary of Michael Walker, a 33-year-old chiropodist who emigrated from England in 1953 with his wife Mildred (aged 32), a teacher, and their children, Nicholas (five) and Elizabeth (three), on the P&O liner Maloja.
Tuesday 10th March 1953
Left Bristol [in south-west England] this morning on the 9.00am London train. Arrived at King George V Dock [in east London] at 2pm. Supposed to sail at 6pm but this later amended to 6.30 tomorrow morning. To bed early. Children most intrigued with sleeping in the bunks.
Wednesday 11th March
None of us had a very good night. Great activity on the dock – busy little tugs fussing around like hens with chicks. Cast off 6.45 and passed through locks, which took about an hour.
Michael and Mildred Walker on their wedding day in Bristol, England, July 1945. Reproduced courtesy Elizabeth Bissaker
Thursday 12th March
Entered the Bay of Biscay at 6pm and celebrated by having roast pork for dinner and then dancing. Boat began to roll a little more. Dancing was rather difficult as one minute we would be going uphill and next we would be chasing downhill. I expect we shall get used to it.
Friday 13th March
Expected great things from the day and date, but the day passed quietly enough.
Saturday 14th March
There have been some cases of pilfering on board, so we must be careful to leave nothing lying about. Must let the purser have our cheques.
Sunday 15th March
Had best night so far. Summer dresses and shorts are beginning to appear and most people beginning to colour up. Saw land at about 9.30am on the port bow and this gradually increased until we entered the Strait of Gibraltar at 1.30pm.
Monday 16th March
I spoke too soon. There was quite a heavy sea last night and I became a victim at about 10.30pm. Children all ill this morning. Mildred, so far, has been unaffected. They are starting school for the children tomorrow and Mildred is volunteering to help.
Tuesday 17th March
Sea much calmer today. Came within sight of North Africa several times during the day and saw snow-capped peaks of the Atlas [Mountains] range.
Wednesday 18th March
Approached Malta at 4pm. Town [of Valletta] looked very battle-scarred and seemed to be uninhabited until darkness fell and the lights came on. Heard today that the Captain had had a fall and is going ashore for x-ray – fractured ribs.
Thursday 19th March
Had a quick look at part of Valletta. Surprised how cheap a lot of things were – watches in particular. Some lace being made, most fascinating, but couldn’t afford to buy any. Sailed at 1.30pm having picked up 69 people bound from Malta to Australia.
Michael and Mildred Walker with their baby son Nicholas in Bristol, 1947. Reproduced courtesy Elizabeth Bissaker
Friday 20th March
Cloudy with a cold north-easterly wind and the sea becoming more and more rough. Didn’t feel too good after lunch. There has been quite a bit of ‘tummy trouble’ since we left Malta.
Saturday 21st March
Our cabin steward was most concerned about my sickness and laid down the law about what I should and should not eat. Hope to go ashore at Port Said [in Egypt] tomorrow.
Sunday 22nd March [Suez Canal]
Woke to the sound of capstans turning and found ourselves at anchor at Port Said. We were already surrounded by Arab rowing boats selling – or trying to sell – all sorts of stuff to the passengers. The boatmen threw ropes up to the passengers and they were used to pull up baskets with anything one wanted to buy. Most of the stuff looked very attractive at a distance but did not bear very close scrutiny. We only bought some small things – a wallet for Mildred, a fez each for the children and a hat for myself. We were rather disappointed that we were not allowed to go ashore. The Egyptian authorities would not recognise our Documents of Identity as they had no passport photograph on them.
We cast off at 1pm and started our slow, five miles per hour journey through the Suez Canal. On account of the wind we had to steer a zig-zag course through the canal to avoid being driven into the bank. The country on either side of the canal is very barren, especially on the east [Arabian side] where it is little more than desert. On the west [Egyptian side] it is a little more cultivated, with occasional clusters of Eucalyptus trees, bushes and Arab villages. At intervals down the canal are ‘gates’ – signal stations which control the passage of ships. Ships travel in convoy through the canal. If two convoys are in the canal at the same time, travelling in opposite directions, the smaller convoy has to pull into the side to let the larger pass; or else tie up while the larger convoy users pass by. We should take about 15 hours to get through the [193-kilometre] canal. Canal dues are terrifically high. For a ship the size of ours it costs something like 3,000 pounds to pass through. Even so it’s cheaper than going round the Cape [of Good Hope in South Africa].
Nicholas Walker wins a footrace on board the P&O liner Maloja, 1953. Reproduced courtesy Elizabeth Bissaker
Monday 23rd March
Went on deck and saw the town of Suez. A town of white buildings with the tall white minarets, from which the people are called to prayer. At 7.30am we came to the end of the canal and passed Port Tewfik.
Tuesday 24th March
Played off some rounds of sports competitions. Mildred and I had a win in the mixed quoits, but were both beaten in the singles. I won my game of darts. Heard today that Queen Mary had died. Were rather surprised that no public announcement was made on the ship. Mildred tried to explain to Nicholas how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Don’t think she made much headway.
Wednesday 25th March
A very hot day – about the hottest to date – and very little to look at except water! Elizabeth is still off her food and rather ‘grizzly’. This stifling heat is making us all a little irritable.
Thursday 26th March
Saw the lights of Aden [in Yemen] at about 7pm and anchored in the harbour at 8.30pm. Disembarked fairly soon and went ashore in motor launches. As eastern towns go, Aden is fairly clean, but one could still notice that strange, indefinable smell peculiar to towns and villages in the East. We got back to the quayside just after 11 and were entertained by small boys diving for coins. We learnt later that one such boy had been taken by a shark two nights previously.
Friday 27th March
The children on board are getting very noisy and out of hand. If it wasn’t for the school in the mornings it would be bedlam!
Saturday 28th March
Mildred and I were eliminated from the mixed quoits, Mildred lost her mixed tennis. I managed to get into the darts semi-final. Quite a lot of people sleeping on deck these nights, but we haven’t tried it yet. We think we would rather have the comfort of our bunks.
Sunday 29th March
Had our portholes opened at midday and were promptly swamped and had to have all our bedding changed. On our trip to the cabin our steward presented me with a bottle of Guinness. He seems to take a fatherly interest in us and loves the children.
Monday 30th March
Played my darts semi-final and was beaten. We are now five hours ahead of GMT [Greenwich Mean Time] – and have to go on another five before we reach our destination. We keep putting the clock back and imagining what they are doing at home or what we should have been doing if we were still there.
Tuesday 31st March
Started to write our mail in readiness for posting at Colombo [in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka], which we reach on Thursday morning. Didn’t feel much like writing.
Nicholas and Elizabeth Walker in Belrose, Sydney, 1960. Reproduced courtesy Elizabeth Bissaker
Wednesday 1st April
Still very hot and humid. The children and I are now sleeping with nothing on, and Mildred with just enough in case the steward walks in! I understand the Maloja has three more trips to do before she is broken up – if she lasts that long. She is really very comfortable though. The Captain, who fell down some steps and broke some ribs soon after we left Tilbury, is now fit again and back on duty.
Thursday 2nd April (Maundy Thursday)
Sighted the coast of Ceylon at 9.00am lying low on the horizon in a veil of mist. We were impressed by the greenness of the grass, trees and shrubs and when we passed the racecourse it might well have been a corner of England. Next land we sight will be Australia.
Friday 3rd April (Good Friday)
The children were a little ‘touchy’ today. Elizabeth is eating better again and is the better tempered of the two. The children have their meals separately and as there are 355 of them – more than I thought – this is probably a good thing.
Saturday 4th April
The highlight today was the ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony. We actually crossed the line at 3.30am but King Neptune didn’t hold court until 10.30am. Several people went through the initiation ceremony, were plastered with flowers and water, and tipped into the pool.
Sunday 5th April (Easter Day)
Mildred went to Communion at 6.00am and I went at 7.00am. The Baptist minister preached and spoke at great length about nothing in particular. He is a missionary so perhaps we don’t understand his style.
Monday 6th April
I think we shall all be glad to get on dry land again. This is really the dullest part of the journey as we see no land at all from Colombo to Fremantle – over 3,000 miles [4,800 kilometres]. It’s the children’s fancy dress party tomorrow and Mildred has been busy all day making costumes. Nicholas is going as Robin Hood and Elizabeth as a nurse. Had my fortune told. He said we would not settle in Sydney, but would make another short sea trip and then settle down. Mildred had hers told too and apparently is going to have another baby. Let me get a job first!
Tuesday 7th April
Went with a party from our dining room to visit the bridge. Saw the radar and navigation charts and asked what the crew probably thought were a lot of stupid questions. Children fancy dress in the afternoon. Nicholas was very upset because he didn’t win a prize, but soon got over it.
Wednesday 8th April
Spent part of the day getting our costumes ready. Mildred went as a window cleaner and I went as ‘got the sack and gone to the dogs’. The winners were two young fellows who wore sacks and were chained together as convicts and called themselves ‘Assisted Passage’.
Thursday 9th April
After lunch Nicholas and I threw a bottle containing a letter off the stern of the ship. Our position was roughly 600 miles [1,000 kilometres] northwest of Fremantle. I wonder if the bottle will ever be found.
Friday 10th April
A lovely day again. Warm and sunny and we did some sunbathing. We haven’t done much up till now as until Suez it would be too cold and after Suez it was too hot.
Saturday 11th April – Arrived in Fremantle
The sun was coming up behind Fremantle and it was really a glorious sight. We had to be up early as we had to have a medical inspection to show none of us was showing signs of smallpox. It was only a case of filing past the doctor with arms bared to the elbow, so it did not take long. We were most impressed [with Perth]. Every house was different – none of the rows and rows of identical houses one sees in England.
Mildred and Michael Walker celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in Belrose, Sydney, 1985. Reproduced courtesy Elizabeth Bissaker
Sunday 12th April
We went to Divine Service at 10.30am. Just as the service ended we passed the Mooltan, our sister ship, on her way home. Everybody rushed to the side and waved handkerchiefs and took photographs. The two ships dipped their flags in salute, but we passengers were most disappointed that there was no blowing of hooters or some such noisy salutation.
Monday 13th April
Nicky’s [sixth] birthday. Gave him a small present and one Mother gave us before we left. He was very thrilled to get a card from the Captain – all children who have birthdays on board get one. This has naturally been a rather quiet birthday for him. We must try to make it up to him when we land. We thought we might take him out to tea while we are at Melbourne.
Tuesday 14th April
Cold and grey today with occasional drizzle. The [Great] Australian Bight, of which we had heard such terrible things, has been very calm.
Wednesday 15th April – Adelaide
Adelaide arranged a heatwave in our honour. We docked in Outer Harbor at 8.15am. After lunch we caught the train into Adelaide. Every so often we would come to a level crossing which had no gates, but with a bell ringing frantically to warn motorists and pedestrians. The train made such a noise that they probably couldn’t hear the bell anyway.
Thursday 16th April
While we were sitting on the starboard side this morning we saw our first shark – at least we saw its dorsal fin which I suppose counts as seeing a shark.
Friday 17th April – Melbourne
Arrived at Melbourne at 8am. We found quite a nice little café and had a very welcome tea. Prices seem high at first, but as the prices shown on the menu include a pot of tea and as tipping is not generally practiced in Australia, it doesn’t turn out too badly.
Saturday 18th April
We had a couple of drinks with [passengers] Don and Joyce in the smoke room. Joyce gave us the creeps by telling us she had seen Don’s late father twice in their cabin during the trip. I hope her tales won’t keep us awake tonight.
Sunday 19th April
We had a magnificent send-off [from Melbourne]. Most of the people who had disembarked came down to see us off and I have never seen so many streamers in my life. There must have been hundreds of them and it was really a lovely sight.
Monday 20th April
Spent a good deal of the day sorting out and packing. This has been a most enjoyable trip on the whole. It is hard to believe that we shall be leaving the ship tomorrow. We shall then have to settle down and try to make some money and get the children to school.
Tuesday 21st April 1953 – Sydney
Passed through the Heads – the entrance to Sydney Harbour – just after six o’clock. What we did see impressed us very much – wooded hills dotted with houses and many small inlets and bays. We first saw the famous Sydney [Harbour] Bridge at 7am. This harbour claims to be the finest and most beautiful natural harbour in the world and I should think the claim is justified. We docked at Woolloomooloo instead of our original berth at Pyrmont so did not pass under the bridge. We caught a taxi and drove to Manly via the bridge. Went to bed feeling very tired, but happy to be ashore. I hope I shall soon be able to fix myself up with a job.
Michael Walker worked as a chiropodist at Farmers department store in the city, while Mildred found a teaching position at Seaforth Public School in northern Sydney. Contrary to the shipboard fortune teller’s predictions, the Walker family settled in Sydney, living in the Northern Beaches suburbs of Manly, Fairlight, Balgowlah and Belrose. Michael later started his own chiropody business in the Trust Building in Sydney and Mildred was a principal at various schools in the city’s northern suburbs.
The author wishes to thank Michael’s daughter, Elizabeth Bissaker (née Walker), for permission to publish extracts from her father’s diary.