ONE-HUNDRED years ago, in 1920, Gilbert Henry Attrill of Haylands, Ryde, began his steward career on Cunard ships Aquitania and Berengaria.

He stayed with Cunard for three years, despite yearly cuts to wages paid to merchant seamen.

British shipping lines deemed the annual pay cuts as necessary to stay afloat as the nation struggled to recover from the crippling cost of the 1914-1918 war.

Unemployment was high across Britain, so finding other work was near impossible.

In 1923, Gilbert’s luck changed when Southampton’s city leaders doubled the docks size to welcome America’s giant liners into Ocean Terminal.

What had not been anticipated by UK shipping magnates Cunard and White Star, whose home port was Southampton, was an exodus of their captive cheap labour.

In New York, the United States Lines spent millions on their new liner Leviathan ­— the largest in the world ­— ready for her maiden voyage on American Independence Day.

It proved to be Attrill’s independence day too ­— freed from the downward spiral of pay.

For Cunard and White Star, the perfect storm broke when two calamitous events coincided with Leviathan’s July 4 sailing date.

America had welcomed immigrants on an annual quota basis by giving assisted passage on the transatlantic liners.

By 1923, rocketing numbers of British and Europeans were desperate to seek a new life away from their austerity hit nations.

The USA yearly quota was almost filled within weeks, and America announced no more incomers could arrive after Jun 30.

That same day, Attrill was working on Aquitania when the ship tried to dock in New York before midnight.

Immigration officials, overloaded with processing thousands of men, women and children, refused Aquitania permission to dock.

During this miserable chaos, a farcical third event turned in Attrill’s favour.

The draconian USA Alcohol Prohibition Law was newly imposed that same day.

All US ships were banned from carrying any liquor onboard, and all UK ships could only serve alcohol when outside the three mile coastal limit.

Any remaining alcohol, when inside the three miles, had to be in sealed holds.

Transgression would mean crippling fines for a ship’s captain.

UK ships, stuck in New York harbour waiting to discharge panicking passengers, were desperate to dispose of unsealed liquor before a US Inspection boarding party arrived.

Passengers were treated to free drinks, and some captains ditched cases of alcohol overboard to avoid hefty fines.

Amid this mayhem, Leviathan enjoyed calm waters in final preparations to depart.

While Aquitania’s captain sought a solution for immigrants not allowed to leave his ship, his crew were permitted to land.

Attrill and many of his shipmates quickly went to Leviathan’s pier and signed on as crew.

The attraction for British men was the American pay rate, and Gilbert doubled his money overnight.

Leviathan weighed anchor and sailed on July 4, and a week later she arrived in Southampton.

Southampton’s mayor and other dignitaries were welcomed aboard, as were the British press.

Also on the dockside were British police ­— there to arrest Attrill and the other ‘deserters’.

As Leviathan had crossed the Atlantic, outraged British shipping owners demanded the arrest of all their deserting crews.

The estimate was that 1,000 had ‘jumped ship’ during those few tumultuous days to join the new liner and others of the American merchant fleet.

The beleaguered Aquitania captain finally negotiated disembarkation for all his passengers.

In Southampton, the British police’s request to board Leviathan was declined by the captain until his lavish celebration with the mayor’s party was concluded.

At midnight the police were still waiting quayside.

The next morning, they boarded with a list of deserters’ names supplied by Cunard and White Star.

Only three men were found and arrested. All the others ­— including Attrill ­— had slipped ashore and gone home to their families on four days shore leave.

A special law court was hastily convened, and the three men were a test case for all the deserters.

The Judge was unconvinced by the prosecution case and couldn’t find any law that had been broken.

Dissatisfied, Cunard and White Star had questions asked in the House of Commons about the grave situation the UK merchant fleet now faced.

Parliament advised the British Shipping Board to increase the pay and conditions of their crew.

The bloodless mutiny by the deserters had won them a rare victory. They had risked imprisonment when they seized the day on July 4.

I’m proud to say Gilbert Attrill was my grandfather.

He served on Leviathan, his favourite ship, until the Great Depression years.

Another story for another day.