University of Oxford
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Malcolm Spence - "Our Tommy and the refugee ship"

online resource
posted on 2024-06-05, 19:08 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

In the famous writer W. Somerset Maugham's biography "Strictly Personal" he recounts his perilous journey on a Tyne collier, the Saltersgate. Maugham had to leave his home in France onboard the Saltersgate alongside 500 other refugees. They arrived at Marseilles and were refused entry the same thing happened in Oran, Algeria, they finally made it to Gibraltar.

Conditions onboard the ship were appalling with no clean water and insufficient rations. Four people went out of their minds and one woman died. After 20 days they finally made it to Liverpool. Maugham praises highly the crew of the ship and pays particular tribute to the Steward of the ship which is the contributor's father Tommy Spence.

Because of Tommy Spence's efforts his son says" I believe it was because of his efforts in feeding these hundreds of refugees that he was recommended for and received the British Empire Medal, which was given to him by His Majesty King George VI at Buckingham Palace in 1942. I asked him once what the king had said to him. It's well known that the king had a speech impediment. So I was not surprised when my dad said he didn't hear clearly, but I like to think it might've been."

"Well done, our Tommy!"

More details are in the attached interview transcription or audio.


Item list and details

1. Story book (4 pages) 2. Shields Gazette article on the British Empire Medal 3. Photo of the Tyne collier Saltersgate 4. Photo of Tommy Spence collecting his British Empire Medal 5. Photo of British Empire Medal 6. W Somerset Maugham's biography 7. Tommy Spence's discharge book (4 pages)

Person the story/items relate to

Thomas Milburn Clark Spence

Person who shared the story/items

Malcolm Spence

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

He was his father

Type of submission

Shared at Ocean Road Community Centre, Tyne and Wear on 18 November 2023. The event was organised by South Shields Local History Group.

Record ID

93862 | SSH010