BARROW ship’s carpenter Gordon Burrow had to turn his hand to all manner of tasks at sea – but none so odd as a the request to build an iron lung for a woman who fell seriously ill with suspected polio.
Mr Burrow, now 81, and living at Northfleet in Kent, kept news cuttings from his moment of fame almost 60 years ago while serving on the Barrow-built liner Orion.
Poliomyelitis can cause rapid muscle weakness and before the development of a polio vaccine the usual approach was to use an iron lung to maintain breathing.
These steel and glass pressure vessels were not carried on liners – but they were provided with the plans to make one from wood and whatever was available.
Mr Burrow, originally from Ancaster Street, Barrow, said: “We were sailing from London to Sydney and there was a lady who went down with polio.
“The skipper said: ‘I need an iron lung’.
“I said: ‘Tell me what you want and I will make it’.”
A search was made of the ship for suitable parts, mostly plywood.
He said: “I made the majority of it and the ship’s plumber made the pipework
Mr Burrow said: “She was in a bad way and had trouble breathing.”
Fortunately the woman’s condition did not deteriorate as quickly as expected and she did not need to be placed in the completed iron lung.
An article dated May 21 in 1959 noted: “The liner Orion arrived in Sydney yesterday carrying an improvised iron lung built on board to save the life of a woman passenger.
“The passenger had become ill soon after leaving Colombo on the voyage from London.
“The ship’s surgeon, Dr S. Stainton-Ellis said he had diagnosed the woman’s complaint as suspected polio.
“Her chest muscles were affected and there was a danger she would suffocate.
“Dr Stainton-Ellis said he had decided to build an improvised iron lung to keep the woman breathing until she reached Fremantle.
“Ship’s carpenter G. Burrow, of Barrow, and ship’s plumber A Newcombe, of London, had worked non-stop for 36 hours to build it.
“The lung was made of plywood, engineroom piping, two pairs of bellows and rubber for sealing portholes.”
The woman was said to be aged about 30 and had been travelling to Melbourne with her husband and two children.
Another news cutting kept by Mr Burrow from 1959 noted: “The lung is still aboard the Orion as an example of the ingenuity of the liner’s crew.
“Plans for an emergency iron lung, drawn from one made on the liner Ruahine some years ago, are carried on all Orient liners.
“Dr Stainto-Ellis said that the lung, six feet long and two feet by two feet, had been tested by one of the crew and worked satisfactorily.”
Barrow liners had already played an important life in Mr Burrow’s life – he met his future wife on one.
A cutting from a London newspaper on August 8 in 1958 noted: “A couple who met two years ago when they were both working on the liner Orontes were married at All Sains’ Church, Kenley, on Wednesday.
“Miss Ann Vincent, daughter of Mr and Mrs Osman Vincent, of Cliff End, Purley, was children’a stewardess in the nursery aboard the liner.
“Mr Gordon Burrow, son of Mr and Mrs Thomas Burrow, of Ancaster Street, Barrow, was the ship’s carpenter.”
One of the more unusual sights Mr Burrow saw from Orontes also made headlines.
He was among crew members to watch a midnight prank as three sailors painted “For sale” in huge black letters on the side of the ship MV Port Hardy in dock at Pyrmont, Sydney, Australia.
One sailor, standing in a rowing boar was heard to shout: “What am I bid for this beautiful ship – do I hear half-a-dozen bottles of beer.”
The first of many ships served on by Mr Burrow was the Accra – launched at Barrow in 1947.