Aboard the Seamew on the Harwich station

Walter was promoted to Senior Mate in 1895 and joined the Seamew, a 376 ton steam tender based in the Harwich District which covered the stretch of coast from Cromer in Norfolk to the South Foreland light.

My First of Steam – the Seamew

In February word came of my promotion to Senior Mate and of my appointment to HMS Seamew, a steam cruiser attached to the Harwich district built in 1852. Fore and aft rigged on three masts and intended with low power engines for steam and sail combined. As a schoolboy I had been friendly with the son of the coast guard officer who would allow us the use of the boat when it was afloat in readiness when the Seamew was expected. Often I saw this old craft creep into Mevagissey bay to embark the coast guards for their drill or annual cruise on board of the district ship, little thinking at the time that I should one day join the navy and serve as one of her officers.

On the 22nd February I bade farewell to my shipmates including Mr H. S., my highly respected commander with whom I had spent two very pleasant years, and proceeded to Harwich to take up my appointment. The Commander who appeared to be quite affable extended to me a hearty welcome. That impressed me as being a good start and promised well for my comfort as his senior mate. He was a dapper little man with a very red face. His skin was tender and sometimes, with the combined effects of the sun and sea spray, his face was the colour of a boiled lobster. He was a kindly disposed, quiet, good-tempered and sociable shipmate. Easy to live with – that stands for much on shipboard – but a weak disciplinarian, lacking in personality, a timid and faint-hearted seaman.

Seeing that I had served in sailing cruisers from the age of eighteen, the changeover to steam was a new and pleasant experience. Although the primitive, low power, horizontal engines would only drive the ‘old bus’ seven knots in smooth water, and that conditional that it was not necessary to waste steam in sounding the whistle too frequently. With her finely built lines and the help of sail, with a fresh breeze she would easily do ten knots.

She had a clean and spacious deck and excellent cabin accommodation. The Commander occupied the main saloon cabin, the senior mate right aft to himself, with a sleeping berth off his main cabin. The second mate had a roomy cabin on the forward side of the engine room. There was a clean and open mess deck with ample room for the petty officers and men; a really comfortable old craft.

In the first two months after taking up my appointment the vessel was employed in the removal of coast guards with their families and effects from one station to another. Quite a comfortable employment and work easily carried out when compared with removal by a sailing cutter. On completion of this round of duties the vessel was ordered to Lowestoft for general repairs, the contract having been given to a private firm at that port.

We berthed at moorings close to the ship building yard in readiness for entering the dry dock.

On a Sunday afternoon when the yard was closed, everything quiet, nothing moving in the harbour and very few people about or on board of the various craft moored above the bridge, the wind suddenly commenced to rise, rapidly increasing to the force of a storm, carrying everything before it. A new house in course of erection within sight collapsed, a workshop in the builder’s yard had its roof torn off and carried a considerable distance like an umbrella. Boats and yachts broke away from their moorings. Vessels’ sails not securely furled were soon torn adrift and beaten to rags. A thirty foot yawl on the shore rolled over and over like a barrel. I was anxious lest we might break adrift, extra ropes and chains were soon got out, thus enabling us to hold on in safety. This storm, which lasted for two hours, was rather remarkable in that it was quite local in its extent, only covering a few miles but leaving a lot of damage in its track.

On completion of the repairs the vessel left Lowestoft under orders for Sheerness, there to embark sundry stores for distribution to all coast guard stations in the Harwich district.

Sheerness, the headquarters of the Commander in Chief of the Nore, was under the command of a most exacting officer. He was well-known in the service for his accuracy in dress and pride in his personal appearance. It has been said that, when in his office, an officer would never be admitted until he was first attired fit for the interview and that he kept a pair of trousers in which he never sat down, thus maintaining the straight line of the crease in perfection! Consequently everyone under his command had to be always on their guard with special attention to detail.

It was the custom every Sunday morning at the church parade of all naval ratings for the ships’ companies of all small ships in the harbour to land for parade and inspection by the Admiral. At these inspections he was most particular as to the correctness of uniform, both of officers and men. No detail, however small, would miss his eye. Some few months previous the regulations had been altered in reference to officers’ sword belts. Being a little slack in this respect, I had not as yet had my belt brought up to date. After arriving on the parade ground with the men all ready for inspection and knowing that my uniform was incorrect and that it would probably call for a snub from the Admiral, I was not feeling very well pleased with myself. After a short time, a fellow officer – a perfect stranger – one of the barrack staff, spotted my belt. He remarked “you’ll be for it directly, old man. The admiral will be sure to spot that belt. Anyway I am not on duty this morning; you had better have mine, that will save you”. Gratefully accepting his kind offer I passed the muster without comment – a trifling incident, but under naval discipline counting for very much, and showing the spirit of comradeship in the service.

With the distribution of stores and a few removals thrown in, the fine summer months soon passed, bringing us to September when the senior fishing officer would be asking for extra vessels for the drift nets patrol. The Seamew was detached for this duty, making Harwich the port of call for the week in. The large fleet working from Lowestoft and Yarmouth were attended by the usual number of patrol vessels, the duty continuing until late December with nothing of special interest to record.

The commencement of the New Year found us at Harwich giving annual leave to the crew. On the expiration of the leave-giving period orders were received to proceed with the removal of a batch of coast guards with their families occupying several weeks. In early April the vessel was ordered to Yarmouth for annual refit in a private yard. By the middle of May we were again on fishing duty cruising for the protection of the herring fleet. One fine morning after the usual muster and inspection, the commander ordered the carrying out of cutlass drill. Instead of leaving it to the petty officer, I took charge of the drill party carrying on with the drill on the quarter deck. After a few minutes one of the ordinary seamen turned sulky and threw his cutlass on the deck – under the Naval Discipline Act a very serious offence, bringing a sure three months imprisonment. I was sorry to see this and not wishing to see the young fellow punished, and to give him a chance, gave the order ‘ground swords’. I then approached the youth and whispered to him not to be foolish and when the order was given ‘take up swords’ to obey the order, reminding him of the seriousness of disobeying. On resuming the drill and giving the order ‘take up swords’ he remained defiant disregarding the order. The commander who was on the bridge making a note of this little incident descended from the bridge and ordered me to fall the man in on the quarter deck. He simply gave the order ‘about turn’ and returned to the bridge leaving the man standing facing the bulwarks. There the fellow stood hour after hour, mute and silent, probably considering what the end would be. At nightfall he was dismissed and thus the incident was closed. The commander, not wishing to injure the young fellow, took this simple course of punishment, instead of the more drastic according to the regulations.

This ding dong of a week out and a week in continued until the middle of September when the vessel was withdrawn from fishing duties for the purpose of embarking the District Captain for the inspection of his coast guard stations. During his time on board I was sorry to see the Commander – a pleasant and sociable shipmate – liable to an occasional lapse, in such a condition that he could scarcely stand on the bridge. The captain, who was on deck took no notice, at least he did not appear to do so. Of course while you can stand and carry on no-one can accuse you of being unfit.

In October the commander, not being well, was placed on the sick list and remained ashore for treatment for several weeks during which period the senior mate was authorised to take charge and continue with the fishing patrol to which we had returned. During one week out in November we struck a heavy south west gale which gave the old craft and the engines a severe testing. The engines were not powerful enough to keep her head on to the wind and sea, consequently it became necessary to set the storm canvas and heave to, thus riding out the gale in that way.

December – the commander now being back to duty – brought with it severe gales and heavy snow storms, making the drift net fishing very trying for the fishermen. Like ourselves, they were not sorry to reach the close of the season. About the 20th the patrol vessels were dismissed, the Seamew returning to the headquarters at Harwich from whence the crew were granted the usual Xmas leave.

The smuggling of liquor on board of HM Ships is always considered a serious offence and to show to what extent men will try it on the following little incident will show. The assistant ship’s steward, who had been a petty officer and had been dis-rated in another ship, on one occasion when returning from leave, coming off in a shore boat, instead of coming inboard by the gangway – the deck being clear except for the watchman who turned a blind eye – he climbed in over the bow. It so happened that I came on deck just at the moment that he landed on the deck. Seeing this little irregularity the chief petty officer was sent for and ordered to fall the steward in on the quarter deck, suspecting there was a reason for not using the gangway to get inboard. The chief petty officer was ordered to search the man. Doing this casually there was no result. When ordered to try again, a bottle of whisky was produced. He had laid himself open to severe punishment. I am sure the CPO was sorry for the unfortunate steward and would screen him if he could. Having no desire to see him punished and to give him a chance, the C P O was ordered to break the bottle over the side. With a mild caution he was thus dismissed, the matter to go no further; the watchman, only, being a witness of this little episode.

The second mate, a man of great stature and broad shoulders, with a deep stentorian voice, cultivated on the hills of Devon, had no way of getting the best out of the men. He was for ever rubbing them up the wrong way and yet he would never press a charge against anyone for punishment but his deep-toned voice and strong language would be apt sometimes to turn the men sulky. It was on these occasions that the senior mate was called on to play the part of peace-maker and smooth things out. This was easily done, as the men regarded his outbursts as so much froth and bluster and all on the surface.

He was the greatest authority on the theory of navigation that I had ever sailed with and by figures could prove any problem. The influence of tidal streams or ocean currents could be ascertained by a simple sum in arithmetic. Error of the compass from whatever cause arising could be most easily adjusted. There was little that he did not profess to know about the safe navigation of the ocean highways from all and every aspect.

In due course promotion found him in command of a very fine steam coast guard cruiser. In the first year of his command – with all his professed knowledge of the science of navigation – he placed his vessel on the rocks twice with the result that he lost his command. So much for theoretical against practical navigation!

It must be said that this officer was a comfortable mess mate, always willing to help the senior mate in every way, consequently there was no disagreement and the days passed pleasantly.

The second mate who relieved our friend from Devon – a perfect stranger to me – was a native of Wales. Quite a different type of man with a dark sullen expression, silent, aloof, sulky, appeared to be without a ray of sunshine in his make-up. Resented any order from the Senior Mate and was more of a hindrance than a help in carrying out the ship’s routine. This became so pronounced that I found the conditions so intolerable that I could not possibly sit at the same table to take a meal. That was not very pleasant and I was not sorry when the time came for us to part company.

In the chief engine room officer we had another type of man to deal with – a Scot by birth. One of those sea lawyers that would like to question any authority the senior mate dared to exercise over the engine room staff, maintaining that he was responsible to the commander only, fond of quoting the King’s regulations in all things; just one of those men that would get on the back of any officer if he had half a chance. He had to be kept in his place by a firm hand, given direct and concise orders – without a second word – that had to be obeyed or take the consequences. Some are apt to make life and duty stiff and strained, when it might well be free and easy. This man was one of those.


The early months of 1897 were spent on the usual coast guard work followed by a period in dock at Yarmouth for annual repairs. During our stay at that port celebrations in connection with the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria were carried thorough by the civic authorities. The Seamew being the only naval ship in the port, the Commander, officers and crew attended representing the navy.

In July orders were received that the vessel was placed at the disposal of the senior fishing officer for fishing duties. After a period at sea, on returning to Harwich I became aware of my appointment as senior mate in command of a second class cruiser stationed on the east coast of Ireland.

My two years and five months service in the Seamew was really a very pleasant time. I was on the best of terms with the commander. There was no trouble with the crew; they always worked well and never once grumbled when called on to put in some extra or special work. On the whole there was a mutual good feeling and those days long past one can now recall with pleasure. Some of the petty officers and seaman that I had the pleasure of meeting years after did well, rising to officer rank; two of them, J H Feadon and James B Newman obtaining the rank of lieutenant commander.

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