HE was Britain's first rock 'n roll idol who was once dubbed our answer to Elvis Presley.

Chirpy Cockney Tommy Steele who has become pop's latest knight was seeing stars in his eyes when he worked as a cabin boy on the Southampton ocean going liners.

He had been set for a life on the ocean waves but in between his seafaring duties he would sit in his cabin, strumming his guitar and dreaming of becoming a rock star.

And it was a dream which became reality and set him off on a voyage which led to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic.

In his biography Bermondsey Boy he tells how as a 15 year-old he arrived in Southampton on the milk train from London to sing on a Cunard liner.

But it nearly sailed without him because he got hopelessly lost in Southampton, wandering around the empty streets, ending up outside the civic centre miles away from the docks.

He started to panic but suddenly saw the high cranes and recalled: “Then I saw the smokestacks. The high majestic funnels of a host of ships, tall ships, great hulks of tradition waiting for me to climb aboard. My run became quicker to keep up with my heart.”

But as he walked up the plank to RMS Scythia he was not entirely impressed with his new floating working place.

The ship, which sailed on her maiden voyage in 1921, became a troop and supply ship during the Second World War.

Scythia was the longest serving Cunard liner until September 4, 2005, when her record was surpassed by RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.

Back in the fifties when Tommy stepped aboard the liner it was overshadowed by the mighty Queen Mary, very much pride of the Cunard fleet.

When he looked across at the three funnelled Queen Mary his chin dropped. But Tommy grew to love his ship, even although it only had one funnel.

His cabin boy wages were two pounds five shillings (£2.25p) a week and from this he sent home thirty bob (£1.50p) to go towards the family budget which left him with plenty to keep his head above water.

He experienced his first shipwreck when he was 15. His ship bumped into another ship amid all the icebergs and sadly two people from the other vessel died.

He said: “We put boats into the water to try and rescue them but it was too late. We had to return to Quebec to have the bend in our bow fixed.

“But I loved going to sea, being part of a motley crew and great camaraderie.”

After his trips at sea he returned to the Port of Southampton from New York laden with the new wave fifties music. It was while his ship was docked in Norfolk, Virginia, US he heard Buddy Holly.

It was a lightbulb moment for the teenager who fell in love with rock 'n roll turning his back on the British skiffle craze. And as they say the rest is history.

Back on dry land Tommy, who was born Thomas Hicks in Bermondsey in 1936, played himself into the history books by becoming the United Kingdom's first home grown rock 'n roll star.

He became a household name with the Steelmen and they hit number one with Singing The Blues which was to be the first of a string of hits.

Now every teenager wanted to be like Tommy Steele who had learned his trade in places like the famous 2i's Coffee Bar in Soho which had spawned other pop legends like Cliff Richard.

And it was on the decks of the Southampton based liners that Tommy had his first taste of being a song and dance man, entertaining passengers and crew.

He used tips from his cabin boy wages to visit Broadway, dreaming that one day his name would be up in lights.

It came true. He went onto become one of the greatest song and dance performers of all time on stage and screen. His film credits included Half a Sixpence, The Happiest Millionaire and Finian's Rainbow.

Little did he think that when he was wandering the streets of Southampton looking for the docks his name would be up in lights at the city's major theatre.

Five years ago he took centre stage at The Mayflower when he saluted another showbiz icon in the Glenn Miller Story – a spectacular musical portraying the life of the world's most famous band leader.

And he trod the same boards as Ebenezer Scrooge in Bill Kenwright's festive tale, Scrooge The Musical.

Tommy felt he was living in a show business fairy story after being knighted in the Queen's Birthday honours for his services to entertainment and charity.

He said: “It is wonderful and I have not come down to earth yet.”

It was good that he caught that ship in Southampton all those decades ago or else he might have missed what became a voyage to fame.

Article by Duncan Eaton.