The Fly was a 3rd class sailing cutter of 60 tons. Walter joined her as an Ordinary Seaman in the Limerick District which covered the whole of the west coast of Ireland with a base at Tarbert in the mouth of the River Shannon.
Attached to the Valiant were four coast guard cruisers, the Imogene (steam), Victoria, Stag and Fly, sailing cutters, usually employed in the protection of the revenue, removing coast guards and their families, carrying stores etc. In the month of February 1881 these tenders arrived at Tarbert for the annual inspection. The parent ship being fully manned, it was decided to lend a few extra hands to each tender. Volunteers were called for. As there was not much comfort in the Valiant, I offered myself for service in one of the cruisers and with three other ordinary seamen was transferred to the Fly, a cutter of sixty tons, the smallest of the three, with a crew of twelve and brought up to sixteen for the time being.
On joining the Fly I had no idea of the nature of the employment of this little craft. To my surprise I found that the commander had risen from the rating of an able seaman and held the rank of Chief Officer Coast Guard Cruiser Service, with corresponding rank, uniform and pay of a junior lieutenant. This interested me very much, for it opened up to my vision a possible career. The commanding officer was Mr Samuel Jenkins, a person of few words, a strict disciplinarian and a trusty officer, the second in command, H. Smith.
After a day or two the Fly set sail for the removal of a few coast guards and their families; it being a hard winter month, a rough time was experienced. Well I remember my first few days and nights on board this small cutter on the west coast of Ireland and how wretched I felt. Fortunately I had provided myself with an oil coat and sea boots and in this sense was better protected than the other men joining the Fly at the same time as myself. They suffered from the exposure and lack of sea clothing.
Very soon I got accustomed to the work and settled down to the conditions of service in small ships. On the whole there was more comfort than there possibly could be in the Valiant. The living quarters were clean and dry and enough room for all hands without overcrowding. The cooking range was in the centre, so that in the watch below there was the comfort and warmth of a fire.
After a few months we were again in company with the parent ship and, being anxious to become an able seaman as soon as possible, I made a request to be taken on board the parent ship for examination. I believe my commander spoke for me, but the staff commander, before whom I appeared to answer questions put to me by the boatswain’s mate did not speak to me or test my intelligence for himself, expressed his dissatisfaction and turned me down.
Within a day or two an order was given that I was to return to the Valiant for discharge with others to the receiving ship at Devonport.
During the four months that I had been in the Fly, I had become impressed with the possibility of early promotion in the Cruiser Service and had decided that the small ship service would suit me much better than service in the fleet. And that to become the commanding officer of a cruiser would suit me much better than a warrant officer either gunner or boatswain.
I was sorry to hear that I was to be discharged and promptly made a request to see the Captain of the Valiant, to be allowed to remain in the Fly, and to my joy my request was granted. The Fly was ordered to Galway, the usual headquarters, where moorings were laid down inside Mutton Island for the use of the cutters. The ship was placed under the orders of the divisional officer who used the cutters for visiting his coast guard stations work on Arran Islands and in Galway Bay.
In the early months of 1882 the commanding officer was superseded by an officer new to the west coast of Ireland. The crew very soon discovered that he was a very eccentric man with a peculiar nervous habit of winking or blinking. He was soon dubbed with the pet name of Flick.
In July orders were received to proceed to Devonport for general repairs, the Admiralty tug Seahorse towing us across the channel. On account of strong weather the tug sought shelter in Valencia harbour. The following day on leaving the harbour, the sea being high at the narrow entrance, with the speed of the tug the Fly shipped somewhat heavy water and to our amusement our friend Flick blinking more than usual and shouting “let go, let go” went to show his lack of ordinary courage.
On arrival at Devonport the ship was placed in the hands of the dockyard authorities, and the crew turned over to the Royal Adelaide receiving ship – for victualing and accommodation only – going to work about our own ship daily.[*]
After a long wait for an opportunity to be examined for able seaman I passed on board the Royal Adelaide and was rated AB on the 19th of October 1882 with a wage of one shilling and seven pence per day, providing one’s own bedding and clothing.[*]
In the middle of November the crew re-joined the Fly, and toward the end of the month set sail bound for the west coast of Ireland with a load of stores for coast guard stations, arriving at Killybegs in Donegal, all stores distributed, about the 20th of December.[*]
Orders were received to proceed to Galway, but strong south west gales detained us wind bound for many days. On Xmas day our bold commander ordered sail to be set and preparations made for getting underway, thus keeping the crew in a state of uncertainty all the day. This was apparently done on purpose to annoy the men.
During the third week in January 1883 the Fly sailed from Killybegs bound for Galway with a strong fair wind from the north east. Not many hours after leaving the smooth water of the harbour, Flick, who had no nerve, went below complaining of a pain in his back, leaving the navigation to Smith the chief quarter-master. A good run was made under small canvas with plenty of wind and sea. On reaching the vicinity of Arran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay a winter gale from the north east freshened to hurricane force that gave our little craft a severe testing and the crew a bitter night riding it out under storm canvas. Our gallant Flick remained below in his cabin throughout the long dark winter night, probably coward-like comforting himself with hot drinks. After the storm had abated, and the vessel within the smooth water of Galway Bay, he was on deck once again in full command.
In the early summer of this year a word came that I was to be sent to the Valiant by the steam cruiser Imogene for draft to Devonport. By this time I was fully determined that, if possible, I would continue in the cruiser service. On my arrival on board the Valiant I lost no time in requesting to see the captain to be sent back to the Fly, explaining that I wished to become permanent in the cruisers. This request was granted and in a few days I was on passage to Galway to re-join the Fly. I am by no means sure how long I shall be allowed to remain as no rating below a leading seaman can become permanent for cruiser service.
The Fly was under the orders of the divisional officer all through the year with nothing very exciting or interesting. A very monotonous job for the commander, absent from his home and family and nothing attractive or of interest in the town of Galway. The only open door was the public house so there was at least some excuse if a person at times went over the mark.
Flick was seen on shore by the captain of HMS Valorous in a condition unbecoming an officer. The Fly was ordered to cruise in the vicinity of [the] Arran Islands by way of a punishment until further orders. It so happened that the weather was fine and fish abounding; by dropping a line over, a large pollock or cod would be hooked. This pastime gave us some sport as well as a welcome addition to our daily ration. After a period of three weeks we were ordered to return to Galway. The crew being all young men at a care-free age, always found something that Flick had said or done to bring about a laugh or a joke.
On one occasion with the Divisional Officer on board, going down to visit the islands, Flick had arranged with the Captain of a coal steamer to give us a tow, getting underway at four am. At this early hour he did not appear to be in a very happy frame of mind and was consequently tantalising and harassing the watch on deck.
The Divisional Officer, a really fine type of an officer, usually referred to by Flick as “Harry Bluff,” cautioned him not to go too far. His reply was rather insolent and as he had nothing else on which to play off his temper, he threw the ship’s pet overboard, a splendid young retriever. That annoyed me very much to lose our dog in this cruel manner.
As Xmas was approaching, we were wondering if we were to get leave. About a week before Xmas an order came for fourteen days leave for each watch. On a Saturday afternoon a bad time to start on a journey from the west of Ireland, Flick gave the order that the first watch was to proceed. Another man and myself set out for Cornwall knowing very little about the route. That night we slept in Dublin, awaking on Sunday morning wondering how we could get to Holyhead. Eventually we were advised to go to Kingstown and cross by the evening mail boat. Making our way to Kingstown harbour, a kindly Irishman hearing our talk, assured us that Captain Slaughter, who was an old navy man, would give us a free passage, and that he would be coming down very soon. In a very short time the Captain hove in sight and our friend not waiting for us to speak pulled up the Captain himself. “Beg your pardon your honour these men would be wanting a passage to Holyhead if you please sir”. The Captain asked us a few questions and very kindly told us to go on board at which stroke of luck we felt very happy. Arriving at Holyhead about midnight there was nothing to do but hang about in the waiting room until seven am, that being the next southbound train suitable for us.
The holiday was all too short but pleasant to spend the Xmas at home. The few days having expired, in company with my shipmate, we set out on our return journey. On our arrival at Plymouth we fell in with our Chief Petty Officer, who told us that our worthy officer who had been keeping up Xmas, had got himself into trouble by threatening to shoot one of the crew with a revolver and that the man so threatened went on board the gunboat that was moored in the dock and reported what had taken place, consequently Flick was placed under arrest.
The senior officer not wishing to press the case against him raised no objection to the doctor placing him on the sick list and sending him into the local hospital from whence he was sent to a naval hospital where in due course he was pronounced unfit for further service and invalided out, securing his full pension according to his rank. We were not surprised to hear what had happened as this strange man always kept a revolver in his cabin and we sometimes wondered if he would use it on one of us or on himself.
One night when I was the watchman, and he being in a rather bad mood was calling me anything but my name, and threatening what he would do, as everyone was asleep below, I must confess that I did not feel very comfortable and placed a handspike handy in case of an attack, fortunately it was not required.
In due course another officer was appointed and took command early in 1884; an Irishman with a kindly genial disposition and with every consideration for his men.[*] After this officer had been in charge a few months the vessel was ordered for duty in Clew Bay, the bay of islands and rocks. The mate having left and his successor not yet joined, the next to the commander was a young petty officer.
Scarcely had we got clear of Galway Bay, when our genial skipper was noticed making frequent visits to the rum locker. There being no-one to check him in any way, before nightfall he had gone well over the mark and the petty officer looked after the navigation to the best of his ability.
The next afternoon a gunboat passed us very close and our officer under the influence and dressed in plain clothes was seen waving his cap to the commander of the passing ship. I was sorry to see this good officer – that could be trusted with anything but the keys of the rum store – so degrading himself.
In a small vessel there was usually quite a good comrade feeling between those comprising the crew, with the introduction of one disturber of the peace it made it uncomfortable for everyone.
About this time an AB joined the vessel, an Irishman, who had been dis-rated from a petty officer. He had not been with us long before he showed himself a perfect nuisance and a pest, detested by all hands. If there was any drink to be found he had it and was at these times capable of doing any wickedness to anyone.
One Sunday afternoon Mike, who had been on shore to mass, came back in a rather quarrelsome mood and started annoying a young fellow, Taff Evans. Taff was cleaning a heavy brass candle socket. He stood Mike’s annoyance as long as his temper would permit, when he let fly and struck Mike on the side of the head with the socket and down went Mike before he knew what had happened, that quieted him from that day.
On the 20th of March I underwent a successful examination for leading seaman and was promoted to fill a vacancy in the Victoria on the 1st of September.[*] The days passed merrily by and Xmas drawing near, we were looking forward to a couple of weeks leave, but in this matter there is nothing sure.
About the middle of December we set sail with the divisional officer on board on his round of visits. In standing in rather close to the shore for one of the coast guard boats to come alongside, the vessel took the ground. This caused a bit of excitement; there is nothing so disagreeable for a seaman as feeling the ship’s keel touching the bottom. Fortunately the tide was rising and after an hour or more we got away without damage.
The officer visited all his stations, with the exception of the south Arran Island, as he was doubtful if he could land. After waiting off the island for two or three hours, he decided to make the attempt and signalled for the boat to come off. At this station the only landing place was on a sandy beach and the station was specially provided with a canvas canoe similar to those used by the local fishermen, light as a cork on the water, and safe when skilfully handled. The canoe on coming alongside, the coast guard assured the officer that it would be all right to land. He boarded the canoe and set out for the shore. On nearing the beach he could see that the heavy swell was breaking on the shore. In attempting to land, as the canoe drew near to the beach a breaking sea caught her, rolling her over like a bladder and throwing the occupants into the water, they landed with nothing worse than a wet suit.
The next evening, on returning to the anchorage in Galway Roads it was pitch dark and blowing strong, not fit for the boat to land. It was therefore decided that when the tide suited, to run the vessel into Galway dock. A tricky undertaking with the winter flood waters from Lough Corrib coming down the river running past the dock entrance. When the dock gates were opened the vessel was got underway. It was a wild and dirty winter night. The attempt was made to sail into the dock but unfortunately the Commander made the mistake of not setting sufficient canvas to have the vessel under perfect control and to shoot across the running stream when approaching the dock, consequently we failed, the tide setting down the river drove the vessel to leeward onto the rocks.
This was far more serious than taking the ground the day before, seeing it was high water there was no chance of getting off again until the next high water. She was bumping and grinding heavily on the jagged rocks, and as the tide receded was left high and dry. It could then be seen that there was considerable damage to the keel and bottom of the ship. It was a question if she would fill or float on the rising tide. I was despatched with a message, across the rocks and swamps into Galway, to order a tug to come to our aid at the next high water.
With the rising tide fortunately the pumps were just sufficient to keep the hold free of water. With the straining and grinding the vessel was leaking badly. The tug succeeded in towing us off and into the dock, where extensive repairs had to be carried out before the Fly was again seaworthy. There was no Xmas leave for the crew that year and so closed the year 1884.
Toward the end of January 1885 the ship was ordered to Bantry and the headquarters of the district ship. The voyage was commenced with moderate weather and a fair wind. As the day advanced, dark and threatening clouds were arising over the western horizon with a freshening wind, the prospects not very good for so small a craft exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean.
About midnight, being then off Loop Head, the wind veered to the south west, increasing in force to a strong gale with a high sea. Reefs had to be taken in and the sail shortened. With the increasing sea in the turbulent waters at the mouth of the mighty Shannon, much heavy water was shipped, fittings washed overboard, and canvas blown away.
After being hove to for several hours the commander decided to run for shelter in the River Shannon, coming to an anchor in Scathery Roads. South west gales such as are prevalent on this coast during the winter months continued with greater or lesser violence for three weeks, keeping us weather bound. At this time the expedition for the relief of General Gordon was on the move and daily at all risks a boat was sent to Kilrush for newspapers.
On arrival at Bantry an enquiry was held on board the district ship as to the stranding of the Fly in Galway Bay. The outcome of the enquiry was to the effect that no blame was attached to the Commander. Fourteen days leave was granted, and I made my way home, glad to be clear of ship routine if only for a few days. Money being scarce, the cheapest route had to be taken, Cork to Plymouth by the weekly trader commonly known as the “pig boat,” paying a deck passage fare of ten shillings and giving a sailor half a crown for the use of his bunk for the night.
On my arrival in Plymouth on a Sunday evening and making my way into Union Street, and to see the crowds of young people apparently full of fun and enjoying life brought home to me all that I was missing when compared with the loneliness of the West of Ireland, and to think that after a few days off I must return to it for a further period was to say the least rather depressing.
After a few pleasant days with my friends I found myself once again returning to re-join my ship at Bantry. Unlike the merchant seaman, there is no such thing as staying ashore for three months and then seeking another ship; in my case the day and hour of returning on board must be observed, or be treated as a leave breaker or deserter. On arriving in Cork on a Sunday morning I found the next train for Bantry was four a.m. on the Monday. My leave expired on the Sunday so in this case I was bound to be charged with leave breaking. In making my way to the railway station in the early morning hours, two constables trying to be funny stopped me, cross-questioned me as if I were a felon and threatened to take me to the police barracks. Of course I knew they had no right to interfere with me, so I thought that I would be funny as well, so I acquainted them with the name of the ship at Bantry and said “now I will take your numbers and when I get on board I will report you”. They soon altered their tune, “sure we didn’t mean anything, we know ye are a decent sailor, for God’s sake don’t speak about it when ye get back or ye’ll have us spoiled entirely”. I passed on, leaving them in doubt as to how their fun might come back on them.
On my reporting myself on board the district ship, the commander, an understanding officer, allowed my four hours over leave to pass. I was immediately transferred to H M Cutter Victoria, a much larger vessel than the Fly with a crew of twenty eight, all told.[*]