In 1897, Walter was given his first command: the Flora, a third class cutter of 60 tons, patrolling the familiar Irish east coast waters of the Kingstown District.
On 12th July, bidding goodbye to the Seamew I boarded the train en-route for Kingstown, the headquarters of the cutter Flora to which I had been appointed. Arriving the following morning, the Flora not being in the harbour, I reported myself on board HMS Melampus, the coast guard ship. That evening the Flora arrived and the next day the Senior Mate in command turned over his responsibilities to me and left to take up his new appointment.
Within a few days we were underway distributing coast guard stores along the east coast of Ireland. This district extended from Lough Foyle to Crook Haven, a long stretch of coastline and only two tenders for all the work, one gunboat and one cutter and the gunboats frequently on detached duty. Consequently there was always plenty of work and very little idle time. No sooner would one list of orders be executed than another was forthcoming. This appointment turned out to be very tiresome work, seeing as there was far too much for one small cutter and a gunboat and for me it meant long and wearisome watches and much broken rest.
At the end of the year when the usual period for submitting a list of repairs required, and it being a good many years since heavy repairs were carried out, a long list was prepared that would lead into hundreds of pounds, at the same time pointing out that a general survey was long overdue and suggesting that the vessel be sent to Devonport for that purpose, with the hope that the repairs required would not be considered worth the expense and that the old craft would be condemned. Unquestionably the time for abolishing the sailing cutters and replacing them by steam had fully arrived but the gentleman sitting on the office stool at the Admiralty, always averse to change, was not yet convinced that such was the case.
With the approach of the Xmas season the usual annual leave was granted, myself remaining at my post of duty.
In due course the submission that the Flora be sent to Devonport for survey was approved and orders received to that effect.
For some weeks there had been a succession of south west gales and Kingstown Harbour was packed with wind bound coasters. Having orders for Devonport, like the wind bound coasters, we were waiting for the favourable opportunity. In company with a number of other windjammers two attempts were made to get away with the result that on account of the bad weather all had to hard up and run back to Kingstown.
On the second occasion of running back an attempt was made to pass through Dalkey Sound inside Dalkey Island, but miscalculating the set of the tide and losing the wind, for a few minutes there was a danger of going up on the rocks. The end of the Flora appeared to be in sight causing me to experience an unpleasant sensation. However by prompt action and a little manoeuvring we got clear of a tight corner.
After further delay bringing us to the middle of February with indications of an improvement in the weather, and the wind north west, all the wind bounders were setting sail. With the clanking of the windlass – a sound that has passed into history – the mud-hooks were soon raised and the skippers with a light heart and more cheerful outlook were sailing gaily to the southward. But, alas, the cheerful outlook was of brief duration; by nightfall the promising north-wester had expended itself and the wind backed to the south west, the coasters turning back one by one. During the day’s run good progress had been made, out-sailing the black diamond carriers. There were now only two three-mast schooners ahead of us which were soon lost to sight.
By midnight the Tuskar light was in sight, but none of the coasters in view. The wind was now back to south west and not much prospect of a run down to the Longships. Being disinclined to run back to Kingstown it was decided to heave-to while it was still daylight. At 4 a.m. the wind veered to the north west, the sheets were eased and a course set for the Longships. Making a good day’s run with wind enough, before darkness set in the mainsail was stowed and the storm trysail set in preparation for any strong wind that might arise during the night. At 4 a.m. the Longships light was in sight and soon we were running away for the Lizard with a free sheet. By increasing sail at daylight, anchor was dropped in Falmouth harbour that evening. After a stay of three days, sail was set for Devonport; on leaving the harbour one of the three mast schooners mentioned was sighted, she had just then arrived.
On arrival at a naval port it is customary after making the number to await instructions as to where you are to moor. After waiting some time without receiving the signal, I ventured to proceed up the Hamoaze, with a fresh wind and strong tide and not much room to play about under sail, made fast to a buoy. Not having received permission so to do, this constituted an offence under the port regulations. Immediately there was a signal to appear at the office of the King’s Harbourmaster, who laid down the law in no uncertain terms, giving me a real dressing down.
The following day the vessel was taken into the dockyard, shipped to a gantline, and all stores returned for survey. The boats were condemned and most of the stores consigned to the scrap heap. Shipwrights came on board testing the timbers by the boring of numerous holes. To my disappointment not a rotten timber was found, the surveyor deciding the vessel was fit for further service and worth the expenses of the necessary repairs. By the time the estimates were prepared and authority obtained to proceed with the repairs, several weeks had passed. In due course orders were received that the repairs were to be carried out by the dockyard.
The men of any of HM ships when in the dockyard are not only subject to the discipline of the ship. They are also subject to the yard discipline as enforced by the yard police and when leaving or entering the yard anyone infringing the rules is liable to be detained by the police guard at the gates.
On my returning from a weekend leave an order awaited me to appear on board HMS Melampus, our parent ship that happened to be in dock, to be informed that the chief petty officer of the Flora was on board under arrest. That when entering the yard gates he was noticed by the police to be under the influence, was detained and searched and found to have a bottle of spirits in his possession. A clear case of intoxication and attempted smuggling spirits into the yard. He would be kept there to be dealt with under the King’s Regulations. I was glad to think that it was entirely out of my hands and would be directly dealt with by the district captain. As usual the case was reported to the commander in chief with the result that the man was dis-rated to a petty officer and discharged to the naval barracks for general service. He was never very dependable. Consequently I was not sorry to see the last of him.
As another chief petty officer was not sent until the vessel was almost ready for sea, all the work of refitting the rigging and gear fell on me keeping me very busy every day.
By midsummer we were clear of the dockyard hands and sailed for Queenstown to embark stores for naval reserve batteries and coast guard stations, this keeping us busy for several weeks.
In the late summer we apt [sic] to be at Kingstown and the district ship was also in the harbour. It should so happen that a regatta sponsored by the Dublin pilots was taking place, one of the pilot cutters being used as a committee vessel.
My boat’s crew, thinking they would like to enter the gig for one of the races, requested permission so to do. After some little hesitation the request was granted by me. A boat’s crew from the district ship was on board of the committee boat about to take part in a race, in charge of a warrant officer. As so frequently happens on regatta day, drink was being handed around freely and after a time my men commenced to show its effects. If the warrant officer had been anything of a man instead of an officious busybody, he would have ordered the men into their boat and back to their ship, but instead he returned to the Melampus and reported that the men from the Flora were drunk and disorderly. I was immediately sent for to explain the meaning of this and the names of the men were entered on the defaulters list. The next day they were paraded before the captain and punished with a few days blacklist. After the defaulters had been settled with the captain turned on me and gave me a dressing down for allowing the men to be there. But that was not the end of it as will be seen later.
In the autumn a fleet of mackerel drifters were working off the south coast of Ireland. The Flora was detached from the parent ship and placed under the orders of the inspecting commander at Kinsale for fishing duties; at sea during the week and in harbour over the weekends. This change of duty was most agreeable and not nearly as tedious as that of waiting on the coast guard stations.
In a few weeks the inspecting commander was superseded and when his successor turned up, whom should it be but our friend Tim of the Bulldog! On my waiting on him he at once recognised me as the mate of the cutter Rose when he was employed on North Sea work. He mentioned the commander of the Rose and remarked that something must have been known about him in the parent ship. To myself I answered “yes” and you were the sneak that gave him away.
In seniority I was now second on the list for promotion to chief officer. Calling at Queenstown late in the year, the cutter Fly attached to the district ship at Bantry happened to be there swinging at the moorings week after week with nothing to do. Going on board for a friendly call, to my surprise the chief officer in Command was none other than a Senior Mate who had not before been in command and had jumped over three officers his senior. Apparently, when as an ordinary seaman serving on the Cape Station he was the bowman of the captain’s gig – and in other ways handyman – with whom he became a bit of a favourite and had used his influence in the promotion of Mr Snips. I made no comment but thought the more.
Having finished with the fishery duty and again working under the orders of the District Captain, when taking a rest over the weekend in Kinsale harbour, the Fly bound for Bantry came in on Saturday for shelter. On Sunday morning Tim, the inspecting commander – already mentioned as a vain sort of man – caused a signal to be made to the effect ‘that church parties from the cutters were to land and join the military party at a given point, taking up a position – as the senior service – in front of the military. He would be present’.
Snips in the Fly immediately set sail, raised the anchor and left the harbour. There remained four men and the chief petty officer available from the Flora. These were landed as a church party and I had no doubt that Tim being there to meet them in his uniform must have felt rather disappointed in not being able to make a better show before the military officers as he undoubtedly intended to do.
The following morning I was commanded to appear at his office. His opening remark was:
‘I ordered church parties to land yesterday and the Fly put to sea”.
“Why didn’t you put to sea?”
“I carried out your orders sir. If anyone else put to sea I would put to sea. I steer by my own compass sir and not follow others”.
Respectfully, I added if Mr Snips had been at sea as many days and nights as I had during the last year he would not be so eager to put to sea and would be glad of a day’s rest.
Tim wanted to find fault or to have it off on me because the church parade stunt had not palmed out as he intended. His orders were obeyed so there was no opening for a reprimand on that point. Then he fell back on the appearance of the men, saying their uniform was untidy, they were slack in their movements and that the chief petty officer did not know his duty. And so the interview ended. This, one of the little annoying pinpricks that one is apt to get now and then from a fussy superior wishing to impress one with the weight of his authority.
Later, when working under the direct orders of the district captain and ordered to be at Kinsale by a given date, the captain coming there to inspect the Royal Naval Reserve battery would carry out the annual inspection of the Flora at the same time.
On the day of the inspection the captain came on board accompanied by Tim, the inspecting commander. The captain ordered the commander to inspect the men’s clothing. This he did and reported favourably with the exception of two men recently joined from the naval barracks in Devonport. The captain immediately caught on to that – men from the naval depot where everyone is expected to be fitted out complete to the last button – in this case sent out with their kits incomplete – now was his chance to have one back on the commodore at the naval barracks. He would have it represented through the proper channels. How small, how petty, even the senior officers of the senior service can be – never losing an opportunity to have their own back on one another.
The captain was about to retire and as it was not likely that I should see him again I took the opportunity of asking him if he would recommend me for promotion. He replied “the admiral asked if I wished you to be promoted. I told him I thought it would do you good to miss a turn. I will ask him to give you the next.” That gave to me the sequel of the regatta incident at Kingstown, his reprimanding me, and the promotion of Snips. My promotion did not come about until twelve months later. I was tired of the constant work in this small craft, not very thrilled to know that I had been jumped in promotion and must spend another winter in the same command but there was nothing to do but to carry on and keep on smiling.
After knocking about on the south coast for a few months, arriving at Kinsale on 20th December, orders were received to remain and give Christmas leave two weeks to each watch. I was granted twenty-one days and Tim feeling a bit sporty and to show his authority gave me 48 hours for a start before commencing the twenty-one days. Of course I was pleased at that and thanked him for the concession. At the expiration of my leave, returning to Kinsale on a dark, dreary winter day to a lonely cabin and an empty cupboard, to say the least was not very cheering but it was all in the game of life and with patience the change would come. Leave having finished, and the crew back to duty, orders were received to proceed with the distribution of ordnance stores to coast guard stations along the south coast; a rotten job at the season of the year with endless waiting for an opportunity to land.
Spending a few days in Crookhaven, and there being little variation in our diet, it was proposed to visit the sandy cove at the head of the harbour in order to obtain a supply of cockles, where they could be found in abundance. The distance to the nearest railway station was far too great to think of marketing them as a paying proposition and there they increased year by year until they could be collected in sacks full with very little trouble.
As the men were enjoying themselves digging the cockles out of the sand, a man from a nearby cottage appeared on the scene somewhat amazed at our collecting the shellfish. He enquired what we intended doing with them.
“Eat them?” he repeated. “The Lord save us, they are not fit to eat.”
The men replying with a few jocular remarks, Paddy added “the dogs won’t eat them, the pigs won’t eat them, the goats won’t eat them, and ye are going to eat them. If ye eat them, it’s poisoned ye will be”.
Nothing that we said would convince the man that they were good for food and sold at a good price in Dublin. Thus showing what little value is placed on a thing when it is there for the taking.
And so the days and weeks passed with very little idle time. Spending a Sunday at Kinsale after a tiring week, in the afternoon when everyone felt that the time was his own, who should appear at the coast guard station but Tim the commander – his wife not being with him he was apparently at a loose end – accompanied by a military officer. To show to this officer his authority as the senior naval officer present, he ordered the coast guard to make the following signal: ‘inspecting commander to Flora – proceed in execution of previous orders at 4 a.m.” After a little while he came on board. The sails, as usual when remaining at anchor for a brief period, were roughly furled. Throwing his weight about, in order to impress the soldier, he started with petty fault finding, about this, that and the other. Remembering his unofficial visit on board the Rose in the North Sea I was on my guard to keep silent. Finally he took his departure, threatening to report me to the district captain. The latter was merely the threat of a blustering busybody whose head was slightly swollen with his own importance.
Apparently this charming officer was acquainted with the inspecting commander at Queenstown who had promised to give him a donkey. Seeing that we had a few runs to make between Queenstown and Kinsale fetching projectiles for the Royal Naval Reserve battery, he sent an order, if his scribble on a scrap of paper can be so described. The writing was not very clear so I read it to be ‘call on Captain N__ of the Howe for a donkey and fetch it back for me on your next trip”.
HMS Howe was the flagship at Queenstown and I thought that possibly Captain N__ might have a residence on shore and have a donkey that he no longer required. To go on board the flagship – in my endeavour to track down the whereabouts of a donkey – most certainly seemed ludicrous. However that was as the scribble was interpreted and on board the Howe I proceeded to make enquiry for Captain N__ informing the lieutenant of the watch the purpose of my call. He replied, “Better come down and see the navigator, he will be able to tell you”. Accordingly he conducted me to the smoke room and there introduced me to the Navigating Commander. There were quite a number of officers there taking it easy.
Unfolding to the navigator the reason of my coming on board, by whom I had been sent, and had he a donkey for the Commander at Kinsale, threw him into a fit of laughter. He was highly amused and quite jolly with me at the idea of coming to him on such an errand. Apparently Tim was well-known to him as well as to some of the other officers. As he called aloud to another officer: “I say Jones that idiot Tim X__ at Kinsale has sent this officer here for a donkey”. This called for various remarks and suggestions as for what purpose he required the animal, the officer suggesting that he might require it for a mate. It was really too funny for words. There were roars of laughter and josh, in which I presumed to join. The scrap of paper was then produced and after close perusal the navigator deciphered it: “Call at Captain N__ house for a donkey etc.” that is the Inspecting Commander here, he said, I can give you his address.
The unheard of errand, such as coming on board of the Flagship for a donkey had caused so much merriment and fun for the navigator and the other officers in the smoke room that he said: “Now you must join us in a drink before you go”. Finally wishing me luck in tracking down the ass, I took my departure. Eventually the donkey was found, taken on board and conveyed to Kinsale, the Commander being quite pleased with his present and pronounced the animal to be sound in mind and limb.
In August orders were received to be at Kingstown by a given date. It turned out that the Flora was to be placed at the disposal of the Dublin Pilots Regatta Committee, to act as the committee vessel on the day of the regatta. As ordered, the Flora was at Kingstown in good time and on the appointed day the usual procedure was followed. In the first place the caterers arrived with a liberal supply of eatables and the wherewithal to keep the company well lubricated and merry. Then the committee, all dressed in holiday attire, and bent on making a red letter day of it, arrived on board soon to start the first race by firing the Flora’s three pounder cannon thus denoting that the sports were now on.
Friends of the committee were soon coming on board in unlimited numbers – no doubt with a view of sharing in the feast so liberally provided. Until by sheer weight of numbers they took charge below in my cabin, also the men’s living quarters. We were powerless to control them and the committee mixed up in the crowd were powerless to carry out the programme or start the various races in time. Small boats were so crowded around the vessel – heedless of the warning to keep clear of the starting gun – that when firing one of the blank charges to start a race, one fellow standing up in the boat, fortunately with his back toward the gun but so close that the force of the explosion – and possibly fright – sent him forward overboard. Lucky he got away with nothing more than a wet suit. As the hours passed everyone was more or less merry, not to say excited, arguing and shouting their opinions, of the sailing of the yachts, or the boatmen in the pulling races and whether the prize went to the “roight bhoy” in the swimming race. In the end all were agreed that it was the “foinest” regatta to be held in Kingstown.
After the fun was over, myself and the crew were able to find our feet in our own quarters. In my sleeping cabin I found a couple of bottles of whisky, a bottle of wine, a cooked chicken and some cakes. No doubt placed – and forgotten – by someone as a bit of extra for himself. Having occasion to remember the pilots regatta I was not sorry to see the last of them.
Remaining at Kingstown while awaiting orders the usual night leave was granted, but sometimes a man not wishing to stay on shore overnight would come on board in a waterman’s boat.
Included in the crew was an Irishman – not the only one – a muscular strongly built sturdy young fellow, somewhat of a bully in his way and after a drink was apt to be troublesome and always ready for a fight.
One calm night – about midnight – I was aroused by a terrific racket alongside – something quite unusual. Going on deck to ascertain the cause it was found that this able seaman, decidedly under the influence, had apparently come down to the harbour wishing to come on board. A boatman, consenting to bring him off, took him into his boat. On the way, the boatman, paddling the boat along steadily, seemingly annoyed his passenger, that he was not making more speed. Then he became quarrelsome using abusive and threatening language against the boatman. As soon as the boat came alongside instead of getting out of the boat, he turned on the boatman attacking, punching, and thrashing him. For safety the boatman climbed on board. By this time the drink was working on the fellow. He pushed the boat away from the vessel’s side, drifting down the harbour, shouting and yelling that he would drown himself. The night being so still he could be heard all over the harbour. At last we heard him take the plunge overboard. Fearing that he might be drowned, the boat was manned and, in charge of the chief petty officer, sent to pick him up. By the time they reached him he was back in the boat assuming a threatening attitude to anyone coming near. At last our boat got hold of the painter and towed the waterman’s boat back alongside.
Immediately – the man now mad drunk – jumped inboard and spotting the boatman, gave chase after him around the deck, the boatman screaming like a pig about to be placed on the block. Fearing what injury he might do to the boatman, watching our opportunity, the chief petty officer – a strong man – and myself laid hold of him, others coming to our help. After desperately struggling and narrowly escaping going overboard through the open gangway, a rope was passed around him, securing him to a stanchion and holding him there until the fire in him had died down. Of all the men that I ever saw with a little drink taken, I never saw one to run amok as on this occasion. As an officer I should not have laid a hand on him – it is never done – but have left it to subordinates.
The next day when reporting the matter on board of the district ship, my friend – the warrant officer of the regatta incident – said that he heard the noise during his watch and thought of sending a boat. Had he done so it would have been himself first in the field with a report on the conduct of the men of the Flora. That would have possibly reflected on me. The captain, after hearing my account of the conduct of the man, awarded him with the full scale of punishment permissible under the regulations and ordered that he was to be taken back to the parent ship, the first lieutenant assuring me that the captain of the forecastle would keep him in his place in a manner not practicable in the Flora.
In the next few weeks our employment was that of distributing stores. As far as I was aware there were no prospects of early promotion with the outlook of spending another winter in this hard pressed little vessel. However my promotion did not tarry so very long. To my great satisfaction on the sixth of November my advancement to the rank of Chief Officer – according to the regulations – a corresponding rank to that of a Lieutenant – for command of HMS Fly stationed and attached to the district ship at Bantry, appeared in the list of promotions and appointments. That raised with me the expectation that I would have a little less knocking about during the coming winter, as the Fly was not so constantly employed as the Flora. An old shipmate and friend came to relieve me. I did not envy him, seeing that the vessel was under sailing orders for Queenstown.
There was scarcely ever breathing time in harbour and my two years and three months was more than enough. The navigation and care of a small vessel is the same as a larger one, but in the former there are not so many competent watch keepers to share the duty.
Leaving the old Flora without any regrets and wishing my old friend and shipmate the best of luck I took my departure to take over the Fly at Bantry.
Chief Officer Snips in command of the Fly now appointed to a first class cutter had served a considerable part of his time in steam, with only a few months experience in the class of cutter to which he was now appointed. It is a well-known fact that the judicious handling of a sailing vessel can never be acquired under steam. Neither can it become an acquired art in the space of a dog watch. In this case – as will appear later – it worked out with dire consequences.
My friend who superseded me in the Flora was unfortunate in that he grounded his vessel twice within twelve months, lost his command and reverted to Senior Mate.