I made a surprising discovery recently while going through some old family photographs. These had lain unnoticed for many years until we were clearing an old family home and discovered them in albums stored in dusty boxes under a bed. One of the albums was from my Grandad, a mysterious figure whom I scarcely knew because he died over 40 years ago, and who never spoke to the family about his early life. Yet here were whole areas of his younger self brought to life in photos from all around the world, particularly from the 1920s: albeit the photos provoked as many questions as they resolved. Many of the photos were unlabelled so the locations and people in them remain unknown and probably impossible to identify after nearly 100 years.
It became clear that, as a 23-year-old, Grandad was a junior officer aboard the Red Star Line SS Belgenland (read more here). In fact, from 4th December 1924 he was aboard this large liner as it embarked on a famous 133-day world cruise. The cruise was, apparently, one of the longest attempted by a luxury liner at the time and was advertised as “The Largest Ship to Circle the Globe”. Grandad has a whole album of photos taken around the world from the Belgenland, capturing many places alongside snapshots of the ship’s officers and crew.
One that caught my eye in particular is the one featured here. The photo shows a passenger train running at speed in a desert environment quite close to the ship. Unless my eyes deceive me, it is possible to make out ESR on the locomotive tender. So I deduce that Grandad took this from the deck of the SS Belgenland as it sailed along the Suez Canal in Egypt. The train is steaming along the parallel railway line, most probably the stretch between Port Said and Qantara West, and presumably heading towards Ismailiya and beyond.
The curious thing is I was on this spot in 1992, never guessing Grandad had passed that way 68 years earlier. It is a small world isn’t it? Even more curious I suppose is that when I wrote Steel in the Sand in 2002, and was researching historical pictures to illustrate the first edition, I didn’t know Grandad had taken this photograph. As I own the copyright, I suspect this photo might form the cover of some future version, perhaps when I come to update the book in time for Egyptian Railways’ 200th anniversary in 2052!