In 1893 Walter joined the sailing cruiser Rose, a yawl of 130 tons, as Second Mate. This took him to the Hull district which stretched from north of Berwick-on-Tweed to Cromer in Norfolk. This was his first long service in the North Sea.
North Sea Police
My transfer to the sailing cutter Rose attached to the district ship Galatea, headquarters at Hull, took place on the sixth of February, eighteen hundred and ninety three. This vessel was employed almost all the time on North Sea fisheries protection. The commanding officer was a free and easy person who did his part to make his crew contented and happy. It was quite a different atmosphere for me and I fully appreciated the change.
In April I was sorry to hear that the commanding officer was to be superseded by an officer with whom I had been shipmate. And knowing his weak point I did not look forward to his appointment with the greatest of pleasure. Notwithstanding his one fault, he was a free hearted, free handed, good sociable shipmate and in every way a through sailor man. He took over his command at Hull, the ship being under sailing orders for Sheerness with condemned stores.
The following day we were underway running down the Humber on passage to Sheerness, making a good run and discharging the stores at the dockyard. During the few days at Sheerness awaiting orders I had a weekend leave. In the meantime he had been indulging. A boat from a liquor store had called on board and secured an order for twelve dozen bottles of beer. On my return at midday on Monday, to my annoyance, I found this stuff had been delivered. I think if I had been on board I could have persuaded him not to make such a heavy purchase at one time.
New sailing orders were received to cruise for the protection of the trawling fleets working in the eastern part of the North Sea between the latitudes of Jutland and the Texel, the usual summer fishing grounds of the Hull, Grimsby and Yarmouth fleets.
After drawing three months’ supply of provisions and stores the vessel was underway as per orders.
It was found that the bar was being consumed rather freely so that steps had to be taken to place it under lock and key. During the night I stole quietly into his cabin and placed all the bar in the spirit room of which I held the key. The next day when looking for a bottle of his beer I had to confess that I locked it away for safety. He did not express any displeasure, as he knew my motive was to exercise a little check, in that where at all times he did not control himself.
In the course of a few days we fell in with Hewitts Yarmouth fleet commonly known as the Short Blues or Barking fleet, Barking Creek in the River Thames being the original home port before making Yarmouth their headquarters. This, the largest fleet of trawlers in the North Sea numbered about two hundred smacks.
In company there was the mission ship with medical and other comforts, the inevitable Dutch coper, licensed by his government to dispose of tobacco and light wines but no spirituous liquors. Now is added the police cruiser for the maintenance of good order and discipline as between the fishing craft of different nationalities. While in company with this fleet there was a good supply of fish daily which helped out and added a little variety to the navy rations.
With large sailing fleets of trawlers working together it was absolutely necessary that there should be a leader and a system of uniformity between them in carrying on their work. That is to say the trawls should all be shot over the side about the same time, all vessels spaced out on the same tack and the trawls hove up at the same time. In order to do this an experienced skipper was deputed and recognised to act as the leader and was known as The Admiral. His movements and orders by signal were strictly followed.
After the smacks had been towing all night, their trawl net sweeping the ocean’s bed, collecting a display of food for the fishmonger’s stall, must reach him at the earliest possible moment.
In the middle or morning watch the signal from the Admiral would indicate “heave up”; sail would immediately be shortened on board of every smack, the warps brought to the winch and the trawls hove up. The large bag of the net was opened and its contents – seaweed, sand, crabs, coarse oysters, all kinds of shellfish, sometimes a sea boot or some other gruesome reminder of a mate that had made his last voyage together with numerous small fish of no market value, all mixed with the prime marketable fish – shot out on deck. The crew would then sort out and pack, in fish trunks, according to quality, ready to be passed on to the retailer by the Billingsgate merchant, all saleable fish. All immature fish, still alive, together with all silt and valueless fish would be thrown back into the sea to be caught another day.
Then came the ordeal of loading the small boat and ferrying the trunks to the fish carrier, always attended with great risk and frequent loss of life, especially with strong winds and a rough winter sea. To see the small boats alongside of the carrier like ants around a beetle, clustered as close as possible with two men to a box standing well poised and ready to bang the box in on the carrier’s deck as she rolled over and gave them the opportunity, was always a thrilling sight with exciting moments.
The admiral, whose smack was denoted by a special flag, after boarding his fish would sail away to the fishing ground decided on for the next haul, to be closely followed by all the smacks numbered in that particular fleet. On meeting the ground that that had been decided on for shooting the trawls the admiral would indicate to start on the port or starboard tack, as found most suitable to the direction of the wind and tide.
While the smacks were hove to near the carrier and boarding their fish we usually took the opportunity of lowering a boat and boarding some of them for particulars required for our weekly report, sent by fish carrier to the Senior Fishery Officer, at the same time receiving a few fish which the skippers were most liberal in passing over.
After cruising in company with this fleet for two weeks and requiring water and fresh meat a course was set for Heligoland. The island at this date had been conceded to the German government, the governor being a rear admiral. On arrival, as usual our commander waited on the governor who paid a return visit in person. He spoke good English, was very free and easy and offered any assistance and a welcome to such requirements as the islanders could supply.
The island has no good natural springs of fresh water. For domestic purposes the population depended on tanks. At the brewery there was an indifferent supply of a poor quality, possibly good enough for the beer. From this source we were glad to fill the water tanks.
After a couple of days, having obtained fresh provisions from Cuxhaven, together with a supply of cigars and perfumed waters for sweethearts and wives, the anchor was weighed and a course set for the fishing grounds to the northward, off the coast of Jutland.
On the second day out, the weather moderate and a smooth sea, the gunboat Bulldog hove in sight, also on fishing patrol. The lieutenant commander known by the pet name of Tim; a vain sort of man given to boasting and sounding his own trumpet, apt to throw his weight about should an opportunity occur, made a signal that he would ‘come on board’. He was senior to our officer so there was no alternative but to accept the signal. I was sorry to hear that Tim was coming on board as our commander was a little flush with the stuff obtained at Heligoland. Not so bad, but bad enough, as I suspected, to be unguarded in his words.
Tim paraded and inspected our ship’s company, inspected the lower deck and the cabins; in fact, carried out a sort of general inspection, possibly exceeding his duty. Told our men what a smart crew he had in the Bulldog and how well they figured up at their last inspection, showing his inspection book which he had brought with him. No-one on board of the Rose was much impressed by this bit of showing off. At last Tim raised the question with our commander of handling vessels under sail – probably he had never served in a sailing ship – but he knew all about it and could box about any craft under sail under any circumstances and as no-one could teach him anything in seamanship.
The Bulldog was steam with fore and aft sail and Tim declared that he could take his ship into Gemunden harbour under sail alone. After listening to this braggadocio, our commander became somewhat incensed and replied: “You sail the Bulldog into Gemunden harbour? You go and hang your ** self”. Tim remarked: “Take care you don’t hang yourself”, stepped into his boat, shoved off and returned to his own ship.
It may be mentioned that the mission ships, under the auspices of the ‘Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen’ supported by voluntary contributions, sailing in company with the trawling fleets, served a very useful purpose, attending not only to the spiritual needs but also the material wants of the fishermen. Tobacco could be obtained duty free and comforts in the way of sea clothing at a moderate price. If any of the fishermen fell sick or received an injury – the latter a very common occurrence – there was usually a doctor who had volunteered his services for a voyage – and a sick bay with medical comforts and willing attendants to nurse them back to health.
On a Sunday, divine worship was held on board and, weather permitting, any of the smack- men wishing to attend would assemble on board and enjoy the free and easy service conducted by the skipper or a clergyman who had come out for the voyage. This gave the men an opportunity of meeting with their old shipmates and friends and a friendly chat, a welcome being extended to one and all.
The smacks usually remained at sea for eight to ten weeks, obtaining water and provisions from the carrier. The crews were separated and cut off from the comforts of home, the company of wives and sweethearts, with little or no social intercourse with their fellow man, leading a hard and exposed life, rarely free from danger. Neptune was for ever letting loose his fury on their frail crafts and Davy Jones never weary in lifting the cover of his locker and claiming them in ones and twos, yea in hundreds. Fog and the snow storm, the latter their greatest enemy, always disastrous in its results, when collisions became inevitable with frequent foundering of the smacks with all hands. The ferrying of the fish during the winter, always attended with danger, had been known to claim the sacrifice of eight lives from one fleet alone on one morning and this ferrying continued day by day, week by week, through the long dreary winter season.
In the great March gales of 1893 no less than 360 smacks men and boys paid the supreme sacrifice. This disaster was always spoken of as the Great March Gale. Another disastrous storm remembered by the smacks men of Yarmouth and Lowestoft claimed 165 lives from Yarmouth alone. An able nautical writer once declared “that of all the forms of seafaring life there is absolutely none comparable in severity, exposure, hardship and storm peril to that of a smacks man”.
The fishing fleet is driven to and fro,
Their sails are torn in ribbons by the blast
Which smites the trembling vessel on the bow,
And lays upon the deck the falling mast.
Amidst the roar of winds and crash of waves,
Swept by the billows’ fury from the deck,
The smacks men sink to deep unfathomed graves,
While drifts their boat, a storm tossed, helpless wreck.
About 1850, foreign businessmen in Germany, Holland and Belgium, seeing the lonely and isolated conditions under which these men spent their lives, conceived the idea of fitting out small vessels and sending them to sea for the purpose of trading with the men of the fishing fleets. At first they appeared to have dealt fairly with the smacks men in the sale of various articles of clothing, food and tobacco at one shilling and sixpence per lb. As trade increased and a greed for gain on the one hand and a thirst for strong drink on the other, the commodities for sale were increased in the form of strong drink. A bottle of rum at eighteen pence, brandy two shillings, gin at one shilling, aniseed brandy two and three pence, all vile stuff correctly termed ‘firewater’. Honest trading was very soon superseded by barter, first of rough fish, of little value in the English market, but considered as prime by the foreigners. If there was no money the foreigner would take their fish, spare sails, ropes, or nets; that was all ‘monish’ to him. In many instances the smacks men became so degraded and incapacitated by the vile liquor supplied by the coper that the result was that of considerable loss to the owners.
In 1892 this question became one of public interest and one Mr E J Mather put forward the suggestion of fitting out a mission ship – already mentioned – as a counter-attraction to the coper. This was carried into effect the same year.
Eventually an international commission sat for the consideration of the sale of commodities on the high seas. An agreement was reached that any vessel wishing to trade in tobacco, clothing, food, light wines etc. – spirituous liquors forbidden – must first obtain a licence from their government and that a flag should be flown with the letter S on a blue ground thus indicating that they held such licence. This, together with the influence of the Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, wrought a great change for the benefit of all smacks men and, in fact, sounded the death knell of the foreign coper (grog ship).
On reaching the northern fishing ground the Great Northern Fleet of Hull were sighted. The mission ship and the coper were present. The fleet worked on the same system as the Short Blues, a carrier arriving daily with general supplies including ice, fish trunks and the mails, loading and returning to Billingsgate with the hold full of trunks of fish. As there were no foreign trawlers or drifters working on this ground, the Hull men had it all their own way, and nothing happened needing the special attention of the fishery cruiser.
All the trawling fleets regarded the Sabbath as a day of rest, all work being reduced to a minimum. After boarding the fish the trawl remained on board until evening, giving the crews the opportunity of taking it easy, and if so inclined, to visit the Mission ship.
Remaining in company with this fleet for two weeks, in compliance with orders reaching us by the fish carrier out from Billingsgate, a course was set for Harwich. With light winds and summer calms we were several days in crossing the North Sea, the somewhat brackish drinking water obtained at Heligoland running short before reaching port.
After a week in Harwich and having replenished with provisions and water, orders were received to proceed northward, the North Sea herring season now about to commence with the drifters working between Berwick and the Tyne. The Rose and other cruisers were deputed for duty in company with the drift fleet, making North Shields the headquarters and working alternate weeks at sea. It was now summer, and the most pleasant time of the year for the monotonous patrol duty of the fishing cruisers.
Very soon the Dutch coper arrived on the scene with his supply of tobacco etc. for sale, open to all wishing to purchase, flying his flag with the letter S denoting that he was conducting a lawful business on the high seas and that no customs or naval authority could interfere. The fishermen could obtain tobacco at one shilling per pound and who would blame them for filling their pouches from this source.
It was, however, suspected that those with the spirit of venture and a touch of the smuggler in their blood would chance a few pounds and run the gauntlet of the customs man when returning to port with their fish. The only thing that a cruiser could do was to take the numbers of those boats making repeated visits to the coper and send the numbers for the information of the customs, whose duty it was to arrest any attempt at smuggling. Trade was not always so brisk with cruisers hovering about.
On returning to North Shields for a week in port, the vessel was moored just under the High Lighthouse, really a private house on which was erected a small light tower, from which was exhibited one of the leading lights for entering the river. This house was the property of the Tyne Commissioners who were responsible for the river navigation lights.
The light keeper in this case was usually one of the Elder Brethren, appointed to the post more for the honour than for its remuneration. In addition to the salary he had the use of this rather commodious house rent free. At this time the light keeper was an aged retired ship master, a widower and very much of a puritan, his house being run on strictly regulated lines, the door locked and lights out with great regularity. There was apt to be a very attractive and charming young lady acting in the capacity of house-keeper for the old captain now nearing eighty. Our clean and smart looking little craft, moored just under the drawing room window from whence the movement of anyone on deck could be seen, attracted the attention of the charming young lady.
HMS Castor was moored ahead of us; the officer in charge and his wife were on visiting terms at the lighthouse. The young lady expressed a wish to go on board the Rose. Our brother officer very quickly arranged this little matter with our commander. On the day appointed the officer from the Castor, his wife, the young lady and her lady friend – staying with her on a visit – duly arrived on board. Everything was polished to look its best and gave our craft a yacht-like appearance. A pleasant hour was spent, a sociable cup of tea handed around and in due course, the visitors took their departure evidently well-pleased with their visit.
This was followed by an invitation to the commander and myself to visit the lighthouse to meet the old captain. On meeting the old gentleman, we found him very jolly, entertaining and hospitable. He regaled us with deep sea sailors’ yarns of icebergs, whales and sharks, sea elephants and sea serpents. On the whole with the entertaining captain and the attention of the charming young lady and her friend, a pleasant afternoon passed all too quickly. Our commander, a widower, was doubtless most favourably impressed.
Being desirous of a little respite from the sea and ship routine, an application was made for three week’s leave which was approved, making my way home glad of the privilege of a summer holiday.
On my return it was found that the commander had been placed on the sick list with an injured foot and not able to walk. The medical officer, an admiralty agent, had ordered his removal to sick quarters on shore for his attention, a rest and a cure. It was conveniently arranged by the doctor that he should be accommodated at the lighthouse under the care of the accommodating captain and the charming young lady. Orders from the senior fisheries officer were that the mate was to take charge, proceed to sea and carry out the patrol duties as usual.
With four weeks on shore in such comfortable quarters and no doubt special attention from the medical advisor with good nursing and landsman’s comforts, he returned on board in the best of health much benefited by the change. This no doubt had the desired effect of clinching matters between the charming young lady and her patient.
The herring drifters were now fishing further to the southward and making their landings at Grimsby. It was quite time that we had followed the fleet southward and changed our port of call from Shields to Grimsby. Under the circumstances it was quite excusable if the commander was induced to make Shields the port of call as long as possible.
September now drawing to a close there was no further reason for returning to the Tyne. All hands had enjoyed the time spent at North Shields and were sorry when the day came to say goodbye to the good people that we had met there.
Making Grimsby the port of call and taking advantage of a week in dock to overhaul and refit our rigging and running gear in preparation for the winter gales, on a fine bright autumn day, with the close of the holiday season, the last of the trippers were taking advantage of a day at the seaside. The vessel was moored alongside of the dock wall and quite a number of trippers stood admiring our trim little craft and watching the blue jackets at their work on deck and aloft. The work was going on quietly and orderly. I was standing on the deck giving instructions to the petty officer when, for some inexplicable reason, one of the able seamen working at the mast head lost his balance and came hurtling down onto the deck – a sickening sight and one long to be remembered by the bystanders. First aid was rendered; an ambulance and a doctor were soon on the spot who ordered his removal on shore.
Before reaching the hospital he had died of his injuries. Such an accident would naturally cast a gloom over the ship’s company for several days. After the usual inquest and verdict of accidental death the funeral was carried out with naval honours. This having delayed us in dock over the date due for sailing, immediately on returning on board preparations were made for sea, leaving the dock on the next tide.
The most of the herring fleet were now making Lowestoft and Yarmouth the ports for marketing their fish. With Dutch, Scotch, Lowestoft and Yarmouth boats, the North Sea from Smith Knoll to the Gabbard Lightship was crowded with drifters riding at their nets with their riding lights exhibited. It was lights and more lights in every direction. It was always up to the cruisers not to be caught in the midst of the numerous drifters at night if avoidable. When this did happen it would mean hours of sailing and dodging one boat after another before reaching the outer edge of the fleet. With the steam cruisers there was always the risk of the propeller becoming entangled in the nets. Sometimes when the fleet had reached the fishing grounds and before sunset started to shoot their nets, after lighting up time the cruiser would find herself surrounded. Not a desirable position in case of a gale arising. It took us all our time to keep clear and the humble trawler was simply driven from the grounds for many weeks.
In the week in harbour, Harwich was now the port of call for all fishing cruisers employed with the drift net fleets.
With the early days of November shortening, the long and uneasy nights lengthening, our periods at sea were not quite as enjoyable as the bright days of June with the trawling fleets.
At this season of the year the drift fleet being so numerous, the admiralty had eight vessels employed, policing the fisheries from steam and from sailing cruisers. There were also Dutch and Belgian cruisers employed on this patrol.
On the fifteenth of November, this being the date for relieving our opposite number and resuming the patrol for a week at sea, we proceeded from Harwich with the weather moderate, passing the relieved cruisers on their way in to take up the berths vacated that morning. The fishing ground from twenty to ninety miles from Harwich was reached in comparative comfort, the weather continuing moderate until the evening of the seventeenth.
We were then cruising about fifteen miles to the south east of Smiths Knoll Lightship, with a fresh wind increasing as the night came on to a moderate gale with a rough sea. The day following, the wind having moderated and the sea gone down, the sun shining brightly and the prospects pleasing, opportunity was taken to have a good clean up both below and on deck. It was a quiet and pleasant day, just such as that so much appreciated by the butterfly sailor, the yachtsman. It being Saturday and no Sunday market for herrings, as usual there were comparatively few drifters at sea. As it was customary for the Scotsmen to leave for home about the middle of November, some had taken their departure that day, no doubt embracing the prospects of a fine passage.
Thus the fishing ground was comparatively clear of fishing craft, and well for us it turned out that such was the case. There was a very large fleet of Dutchmen further to the eastward. These Dutch drifters were of considerable beam in proportion to their length and constructed on the lines of an oblong box, rounded at the bow and stern, very flat in the bottom, with a large hold for storing the fish in casks, which were salted on board ready for the markets. They were propelled at a slow speed, with one sail, and were designated by the English fishermen “Dutch bombs”. The crews were composed of a hardy race of men, who commenced the herring season at Shetland in June, and followed the fish to the southward, continuous in their work in all weathers until the close of the season in late December and making for their home port as often as they had a well-filled hold.
On the night of the 17th the commander had not had much rest and was looking forward to a little better night. After an unusually fine day the sun went down behind a bank of cloud and the darkness of a November evening came on, with a gentle breeze and a smooth sea. Our position was about forty five miles E.S.E. of Lowestoft Ness. Sitting in the cabin with the Commander enjoying the pipe of good fellowship, with every expectation of a moderate night; about 10 p.m. he remarked that as he had a broken night on Friday he would very soon be seeking the comfort of his bunk.
Within a very few minutes the wind commenced to freshen and we soon heard the order from the deck “shorten sail”. “Time to move” remarked the commander, hastily pulling on his hard weather clothes. I went through to my cabin, pulled on my sea boots and oilskin coat and hastened on deck. Faster than I write, the wind was rapidly freshening. Word was passed for all hands and rouse out the watch below. There was evidence of an approaching storm, sail must be shortened, boats got in on deck and everything made snug and secure in preparation for the worst – knowing that after a North Sea winter gale there is usually a tale to be told. With the greatest difficulty the small sail we were under was further reduced, the topmast housed, boats secured, bow-sprit run in, and all made ready for whatever might come. By the time this had been done the full weight of the storm was on us from the north coast, accompanied with torrential rain and blowing with hurricane force. The jib had not been shifted for a smaller sail, a matter of some importance. With the force of wind, the Commander was afraid to meddle with it, thinking it would soon blow away, when, if possible, the storm jib could be set. The expected seldom happens. It held on through the gale, to the discomfort of the vessel, which would have stood up to the punishment much easier under the spitfire.
We were now being driven away, before the gale, as helpless as a raft. In reality, a hundred miles an hour hurricane – over fifty two pounds pressure to the square foot – buried in sea, spindrift and rain, and as dark as pitch. For an instant a bright light appeared right ahead, probably a flare, shown when quite close by a poor fellow as helpless as ourselves. Then again a craft passed under the lee, close alongside, just cleared each other and nothing to spare. It was felt that the risk of collision was one of our greatest dangers. Would we drive afoul of another craft and batter one another to pieces?
And as hour after hour passed without any abatement of the storm, not knowing what might happen from one minute to another. A night of fury and terror; Neptune was doing his uttermost to sweep the sea clean of every craft afloat. The eighteenth of November was my birthday. There was a passing thought that it was quite possible it might prove to be the last of birthdays.
As soon as the vessel was snugged down and nothing more could be done, the Commander’s one weakness immediately became apparent by his ordering me to draw him a pint of rum from the store locker. His ration was a half a gill of rum a day, the same as any man. Knowing quite well that if that order was obeyed what would happen, he would soon require more and the responsibility would be left with me. Under the circumstances I said “no, but you can have a gill”. That proved sufficient for several hours. The keys of the spirit room – by his approval – were always in my possession and he knew that I was acting in the best interest of himself and all hands by declining to draw unlimited drink for himself.
The storm raged with unabated fury all through the night. The refit of running gear at Grimsby stood up to the storm. Not a rope or a pin gave away and the little craft behaved very well. The weight of the wintry blast pressed her lee bulwarks under the sea thus far and no further and when apparently she was at her last and could suffer no more, with a super effort she would lift and free her deck only to be pressed under the following minute. Thus it continued until the break of day.
Shortly after daylight the first craft sighted was a Scotsman, like ourselves hove to under a rag of canvas. As we passed at no great distance a heavy breaking sea curled right over the drifter which led the Commander to remark “there is nothing movable left on her deck”. Drifting past she was soon lost to sight. Other craft were sighted, some hove to, others running away before the wind and sea – one a Dutch steam patrol. With the poor visibility … the chance of sighting a lightship or a mark buoy on the shoals or sands and so round the South Foreland to the more sheltered waters of the channel. Our companion cutter for the week out was driven away to the southward and eventually found shelter at Newhaven with loss of canvas, spars, and other damages.
In company with the Commander we kept the deck ready to act in any emergency – until daylight when the Commander went below for a meal and a couple of hours rest. At ten a.m., the nineteenth, he relieved the deck and I had a couple of hours rest. The storm was still raging with a high sea and our position uncertain. To bear away for the shelter of Harwich harbour would be attended with too great a risk. So far we had no loss or damage. There was no alternative but to ride it out to a finish.
During the afternoon the wind lulled a little. Naturally we thought the worst had passed but, alas, in the first dog watch it had again increased and by eight p.m., the commencement of the first watch, had reached storm force. The vessel had throughout the gales made so much leeway and had been driven so many miles to leeward that by midnight the Gabbard Light was in sight. This did at least give us our position and was estimated to be distant five to six miles, dead under our lee. With the Gabbard sand – which in its long history had torn the deck from many a storm tossed craft – right to leeward of a pitch dark night blowing a whole storm, and the sea lashing your frail craft with increasing fury, to say the least, was not calculated to induce the most pleasing thoughts even in the most stout-hearted.
What with the sea finding its way below into the living quarters and the difficulty of keeping a fire or preparing hot food we all had a pretty bad time. In the middle watch – twelve to four – some of the men now showing signs of strain through the heavy washing we had experienced for so many hours – the Commander ordered “splice the main brace”, an extra allowance of rum was issued to each man.
At daybreak on the Monday, being then about one mile to windward of the light ship, with no sign of any abatement in the gale, orders were given to slacken the sheets and allow the vessel to move through the water in order that she would fetch inside the sandbank. As soon as this was done and she gathered a little weigh with the high sea running, she completely buried herself, the water going over her as it would over a half tide rock. This was attended with the risk of losing the mast or other damage. Very soon the vessel was again hove to and fortunately drifted inside between the Gabbard and Shipwash sands. During this bit of manoeuvring a sea swept the Chief Petty Officer off his feet, throwing him against the skylight injuring his leg and causing him to stay on shore for several weeks.
By noon our hearts were cheered to find the wind moderating with the prospect of making a harbour before nightfall. As soon as the conditions of wind and sea permitted, a decision was reached to put the helm up and run for Harwich harbour. The wind was still blowing with the force of a gale. In due course the anchor was dropped within the sheltered waters of the desired haven between four and five p.m., after fifty six hours as tough a gruelling as any sailor could meet with in a lifetime. A strongly built vessel, good canvas and good gear, stood up to the strain bringing us safely through where many craft not so well found were lost. For loss and destruction in shipping around the British islands the gale was reported to be without precedent with a recording of one hundred and seventy one wrecks.
With us the wind was steady north east, but near the coast line the wind veered around the compass, bringing ships at anchor for shelter in the Downs, Dungeness Bay, Portland, Falmouth, Penzance and St Ives bays on a lee shore. The coast was strewn with wrecks, ships riding at anchor in shelter being driven ashore with the change of wind, with appalling loss of life. In St Ives this storm is well remembered and to this day forty four years after is spoken of as the “Century” gale. Three steamers were driven ashore, one named “Century”, in the case of two with the loss of all hands. Several of the Scots drifters that left Yarmouth on the Saturday failed to reach their home ports.
Many, many there be, oh, greedy sea,
Who have found their grave and all in thee;
And many more who pace thy shore
Wearily wishing their life were o’er.
Thou heedest them not, cruel sea,
It concerneth thee not the sorrows that be –
The many wrecks, and the widows’ weeds,
Memorials sad of thy cruel deeds.
Call them not cruel, the deeds are thine,
But neither wish, nor will, nor act of mine.
Here we pass to the Ruling Power
Which shapes the life and the little hour.
Rev. W Johnson
After the usual turn in harbour and the storm forgotten, the patrol with the herring drifters was resumed, and so the days of November and December passed, the number of drifters dwindling daily and everyone on board looking forward to a few days leave at Xmas.
The vessels employed on the fishing patrol were dismissed by the senior fishing officer on the 20th of December with orders to return to their respective stations. On this date the Rose was at Harwich, the weather rather stormy. There was however no time to lose if we were to arrive at Hull and home in time for the Xmas dinner. On the 22nd, although the outlook was not very inviting, an order from the senior officer present, received by signal “proceed in execution of orders” brooked no further delay. Accordingly we were soon unmoored, the sails set and underway. With the weather moderating and a fair passage the Queen’s Dock at Hull was entered on the morning of the 24th. The Commander, after reporting to the senior officer, returned with orders that the first watch could immediately proceed on sixteen days leave; I, having been granted twenty one days, no time was lost in boarding the train and setting out for home. Arriving at St Austell the following day, my lady friend joined me and together we journeyed to her home where the Xmas dinner awaited us.
After four days of my leave had expired, on a Saturday afternoon a telegram was received “return to your ship immediately”. Guessing that something had gone wrong on board the Rose, in accordance with orders I set out forthwith on my return journey to Hull, feeling rather disappointed that my long expected leave had been so abruptly terminated and having to leave my honoured father who was nearing his end and whom I was never to see again. The long and dreary train journey through the night landed me on the following morning at the colliery village of Normanton. Not a very cheerful situation, seeing there was no train for Hull until Monday morning. There was no hotel, not even a place for a cup of tea, so there was no alternative but to hang about and make the best of it. The hours passed slowly and wearily but it gave me my only chance of seeing a colliery village. About eight p.m. a couple of railway officials hove in sight, who informed me that a theatrical party passing through to Hull by special train would stop at Normanton and possibly they might allow me to take a seat. This cheered me considerably seeing that I had expected a night in the station waiting room. On the train drawing up at the station I modestly approached the theatrical manager, who lent a sympathetic ear to my story and kindly consented to my sharing his coach for which kindness I was most thankful.
Arriving at Hull at the close of a very depressing journey I wended my way to the Queen’s Dock got on board my ship and to my own room, glad of such comfort as that afforded. It was certainly preferable to a railway station waiting room.
The Commander, who remained on board with one petty officer and part of the crew, intending to take his leave at a later date and fit in the wedding at the same time, had apparently during my absence been celebrating his birthday.
A day had been appointed for certain officers from the parent ship to come on board to carry out the annual survey of stores, repairs required etc. In the morning that these officers came on board the senior lieutenant, a hard stern man with a sallow complexion and piercing dark eyes, one of those men apparently always ready to pounce on a weak stumbling subordinate, brought with him the doctor whose duty by the way would be to examine the medical stores.
When they arrived on board the stores were not ready, the Commander was in his bed and not able to get out when called by the petty officer. After waiting some time the senior lieutenant ordered Sawbones to go below and ascertain the cause of the non-appearance of the commander. On the medical officer returning on deck and making his report the surveying officers immediately took their departure.
The outcome of the visit of the surveying officers to the cutter Rose having been laid before the district captain, he ordered the placing under arrest of the Commander and of his removal to the district ship. Certain charges were laid against him and the case submitted to the Admiral Commanding Coast guard and Rescue, who, after a few days, without even informing him of the offence with which he was charged or giving him an opportunity to offer a defence ordered that he was to apply for his pension. The application having been prepared he was allowed to proceed on leave to await its award. His marriage to the charming young lady took place very soon after. This early ending to his service career was naturally a great blow – more especially as he was awarded a petty officer’s pension instead of that of his rank as he expected; an unusually severe punishment for the first offence.
Let us turn back to the incident in the North Sea previously mentioned when Tim came on board.
In the same sense as the Rose, the Bulldog was a tender to the district ship at Hull and when at that port the officers were apt to be on visiting terms with the officers of the parent ship, spending time in the ward room and smoking room. I have not the least doubt that on the Bulldog returning to Hull, Tim must have told the story in the smoking room of his meeting with the cutter Rose and boarding her in the North Sea, enlarging on his impressions of the Commander, thus prejudicing the first lieutenant against the day that the Rose would return to Hull and the lieutenant commander remembering this, when coming on board for survey brought with him the medical officer and that for an express purpose.
Mr X thinking his treatment unfair made representation and opened up correspondence with the proper authority with the result that the Admiralty proposed to reinstate him and to try him by a court martial. But this proposal he declined to accept. That was a fair proposal on the part of the ruling authority and as he declined to accept nothing further could be done. I think it would have been wise to have accepted the court martial. It was a first offence. He would have appeared before a board of naval officers – a guarantee of justice – in all probability dismissed his ship and very soon reappointed elsewhere. If he then thought that he could not trust himself, an invaliding trick could have been tried – under such circumstances by no means unknown – leaving the service with a pension according to his rank.
The ship was now due for general repairs and was placed in the hands of a shipbuilding firm for that purpose. That gave us a few weeks in dock and wore away the hard months of Jan, Feb and March. After a few weeks another officer was appointed to the command of the cutter Rose, joining early in March. He was an officer with whom I was well acquainted having been shipmates and I was sure of having a comfortable time under his command.
Under ordinary conditions it had been my intention to ask for a few days leave in February for the purpose of making one at a wedding party. But being in temporary charge and responsible for the refitting this was now out of the question. It was arranged that my fiancée should come to Hull and that the nuptial knot should be tied there. In due course she came along and our first move was to look up the registrar in order to make the necessary arrangements. On making enquiry for the office of the said official I was informed it was in the land of “Green Ginger”. Never having heard of the district it was concluded that my informant was jesting. Enquiring still further it was found that my first informant was correct, “The Land of Green Ginger” being a certain street in the city of Hull. Interviewing the chief clerk, he asked the question what day we desired the ceremony to take place. And when informed on Friday, the sudden change of expression on his countenance was a study, denoting that he was sorry for us proposing to take such a step and so much risk as to wed on that day. We explained that there was no time to lose and that we wished to get the job over. His reply was “no-one ever got married on that day” and further that it would inconvenience the registrar as he usually took the day off. Arrangements were then made for the necessary official to present himself at the place appointed on Saturday. The Rev John Elsworth officiated. It was a plain and private affair but nevertheless Elsworth made such a good job of the splicing that the ends have never drawn asunder in the least, standing the strain perfectly.
In early April, the vessel having undergone a thorough refit, we sailed from Hull with orders to take on the patrol with the trawling fleets on the eastern fishing grounds of the North Sea. Having ascertained the grounds on which the smacks were working, within a couple of days we made contact with a large Hull fleet working to the northward of Heligoland. The Mission Ship and the Dutch coper had already appeared on the scene. Day by day the routine went on – shooting, and heaving up the trawls, packing and ferrying the fish to the carrier with visits to the coper for tobacco, and the Mission Ship for attention to injuries of various degrees -poisoned hands, sea boils and other troubles common to the smacks man. This was the fine weather season and the police patrol was carried out with no great discomfort to anyone.
After eighteen days out, a course was set for Heligoland for a supply of water and fresh provisions. On arrival the usual courtesies were observed and the authority of the governor attained to remain for that purpose.
It was of the greatest interest that one observed that the fortification of the island under German control was now going on apace. Vast sums of money were being expended on the construction of a breakwater to make the anchorage safe at all times. Strong concrete facing was being built where the face of the cliffs was crumbling. Heavy gun platforms and encasements were in course of erection. The island had undergone a considerable change since our visit the previous summer. It was evident that it would soon be a stronghold to be reckoned with – as we truly discovered in the Great War. The visits to the island by the fishing cruisers did not continue to find favour with the German government for long. Probably they thought that notes might be made of all that was going on, and more seen than they would desire. Consequently the following year the port of call was changed from Heligoland to Esbjerg in Denmark.
After leaving the islands a visit was paid to the ‘Short Blues’, a Yarmouth fleet of smacks working on the Borkum flats, a very prolific ground in medium size plaice at this season of the year. In certain patches on this fishing ground the trawls were apt to entangle and bring up quantities of oysters of a large coarse variety of no market value. Frequently our men would secure a bucket or two and fish out the most edible which they were glad to have by way of a change. The previous summer one of the men had found a small pearl in one of the oysters which he succeeded in selling for a great price. Now the more oysters they could get the better they were pleased. Everyone prizing open the shells diligently searching for the coveted prize which alas they failed to find.
One Sunday afternoon the search for pearls having gone on without any luck, and the oysters looking so tempting, a tub of the smaller ones was selected for consumption, the men devouring them rather freely. After an elapse of time Murphy, an Irishman, came to my cabin complaining that he was not feeling well.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s a pain I have below here sir”.
“Ah that’s nothing; you will be all right after a while”.
Murphy, certainly looking a bit woebegone, added “It’s sick I am sir”
“Go to the cook and get a good drink of hot water, that will put you right”.
As suggested, he obtained and drank the water and soon afterwards became violently sick. Others followed, changing their sunburnt brown appearance for that of a sallow green, very soon to hang their heads over the side feeding the fishes. A drink from the ‘fore-topman’s bottle’ – number one in the medicine chest – set them all right by morning. There was evidently something disagreeable in these deep water oysters to upset the men as they did. Or possibly it was the result of oysters for nothing ‘struck them down’. That day was long after remembered as Oyster Sunday.
Having completed the usual period with the fleet of smacks a course was set for Harwich. Owing to light winds and calms our progress in crossing the North Sea was very slow, with the result on the last day out we were down on the last case of biscuits.
On the expiration of our week in harbour fresh orders were received to proceed northwards and cruise for the protection of the herring drifters working between Berwick and Hartlepool; making the later port the headquarters for mails and supplies. With fine summer weather there was nothing to complain of in this duty.
Under the commander, Mr H Smith, the crew had settled down comfortably and we were what is generally termed ‘a happy ship’. He was of a quiet genial disposition, never got flustered, most conscientious in carrying out his duty, a firm disciplinarian setting an example in himself, genial with his men – by whom he was highly respected – without losing dignity or authority.
By the commencement of October Grimsby had become our headquarters. One particular afternoon, it being the date for putting to sea, it was flowing strong with an angry and threatening sky. The vessel was towed out of dock and under such weather conditions it was fully expected the Commander would bring the vessel to an anchor in the river, but with A. S. orders were orders, and although sailing craft of all descriptions were running into the Humber for shelter, we proceeded to sea. I ventured to remark that “I would hesitate to put to sea on such an evening, even to please a king”. He replied it was his duty and he saw no reason to the contrary. In the first watch the vessel had to be snugged down under close reefed canvas and hove to, to ride out a strong north east gale when we might have remained in the river without a question from anyone.
The next week in harbour was at Harwich, this being the port of call during November and December. These rest periods gave me the opportunity of spending a little time on shore with my wife, an agreeable change after sixteen years and very little of that time clear of the ship.
The herring season now drawing to a close had passed with nothing of importance calling our attention.
In the middle of December after a week at sea, the Rose was dismissed, proceeding direct to Hull – the port of the parent ship – to give Xmas leave and to refit. We arrived at Hull and berthed in the Queen’s dock on the 17th December. The crew were granted the usual annual leave, the Commander took the opportunity of taking three weeks leaving me in charge.
On Xmas day the watch on board were allowed the usual liberty for merry-making and enjoyment. The Xmas dinner composed of goose and turkey with the usual trimmings followed by a plum duff – made from a recipe known only to the cook – having been disposed of, and the mess deck cleared up, a few friends came on board for tea. Everything was carried on orderly and everyone having an enjoyable time.
Immediately after tea the visitors landed, some of the men who had been granted leave landing at the same time. Seeing there was nothing out of the ordinary going on, about 7pm leaving the petty officer in charge, I landed to join my wife at our rooms. At 9 pm a man came to tell me that one of the crew had fallen into the dock and had not been rescued.
Proceeding on board immediately, it was ascertained that the man had been on shore for a short time. On his way back to the ship, in the darkness and deceptive light, he had walked into the dock. It happened quite close to the ship and the watchman hearing the splash gave the alarm of “man overboard”. The petty officer and others rushed to the spot with the lifebuoy and lines but they were too late. He sank immediately and nothing could be done. By grappling, the body was soon recovered, life being extinct; a sad ending to the Xmas festivities. There was a verdict of accidental death and the funeral carried out with naval honours.
Early in January the North Sea and the northern counties were swept by a very severe hurricane accompanied with a heavy fall of snow. A number of smacks that had probably been in port over the Xmas holidays had put to sea from Hull and Grimsby that day. They soon fell right into the teeth of the storm with the result that ten Hull and three Grimsby smacks foundered with all hands. The damage to house property in the city of Hull was very considerable. This was succeeded by a severe frost that continued for several weeks, the dock being frozen to a great depth and the River Humber full of floating ice, hanging up shipping and making navigation difficult. This great frost was general over the country and nothing to equal it has been experienced since.
An unusual sight in this country was that of a steamer from the Baltic that had encountered the blast of the snow storm and the freezing conditions while crossing the North Sea. Where the sea had been skirting her on the starboard side, together with the frozen snow, the vessel was a solid mass of ice from stern to shore. Such a sight being so rare, thousands of people visited the dock to see the ice ship.
In connection with the loss of the smacks already mentioned, a subscription list had been opened in the interest of the dependents of those lost. At this time there was a noted theatrical party holding the board for the pantomime season. It was arranged that this party – in costume – should play a noted football team, the gate money to go to the lost smacks fund. On the appointed day many thousands of people assembled in the grounds to witness the game which was carried out under anything but the orthodox rules and full of amusing incidents unknown to football.
The snow which had been lying on the ground for three weeks was still frozen and very slippery. The enclosure was crowded. Mr H. S., my wife and myself were standing where the ground sloped a little. By some means I slipped and losing my balance brought down Mr H. S. and my wife, they in turn bringing down several others. This caused great amusement to the more fortunate and added to the fun of the fair. To see one after another prostrating themselves and that quite involuntary!