Dr Mary Jones has entertained herself during Covid time by writing a novel of historical fiction. The story starts with a group of Naval Officers who join the Royal Navy around 1865 and ends at the battle of Jutland. It will appear on Persona Naval Press, one part each month (a la Dickens without the expertise!) Names of people and ships have been changed but the historical veracity of personalities and events has been intended. Corrections will be gratefully received.
It is hoped readers might enjoy it over a morning coffee – or a gin and tonic before the sun goes down over the yard arm – others may just enjoy their drinks!
Part 1 – Cadets
Chapter 1 – The First Day
The boy had not the first idea of the Royal Navy. He had never even really thought about it until today as he stood waiting in the flatboat ready to board the Training Ship. That would have meant new thoughts and he liked the old ones. He had thought of the uniform. He did not like new clothes – so the same uniform every day appealed to him and he saw plenty of uniforms around him in the flatboat, brass buttoned jackets with brass buttoned waistcoats and white shirt fronts with various neck ties just like his though some of them seemed pretty creased and even grubby. He flicked a speck off his own immaculate white shirt and adjusted his own uniform cap, he liked its badge with the gold oak leaves. He was rather proud of the waistcoat.
The flatboat fidgeted on the water and bumped against the landing stage beside it. The wind which had been blowing earlier was getting up again. There was a hiatus, something to do with rigging the gangway ladders and the officer in charge of the boat was arguing with two officers on the platform. What had happened? Their voices could be heard but not what they were saying. Other louder voices were heard. They came from Cadets leaning out over the main deck of the ship, gesticulating, shouting, throwing things, Ephraim could hear their taunting voices, ‘New! Name? Class?’
The noise and shouting was hurting his ears. How could he think? He had rarely heard anything but silence in the Manse and he had grown used to that – even to love it. Was he really going to have to endure the atmosphere which these louts promised? How should he, how would he, behave in this school in a ship? He had little experience of anything outside his home life. His father was clever, and Mr Moulton was brilliant but why was he here? How had it come to this?
Cadets pressed against each other to be first on the gangway. The river Dart was choppy and the boat suddenly bucked. Ephraim’s knees gave way, his bony head came down and struck the soft belly of a large youth pushing next to him. His strangulated, ‘Sorry’ was followed by, ‘Hellfire you are!’ and the youth’s fist came up with an oath.
Ephraim tried to slide down into the gunwales to allow the injured cadet to get off first, but a petty officer grabbed him roughly, waving a list.
‘Ephraim Browne – Browne with an e.’ Oh Lord, why did he say that?
‘Number one, Mister Ephraim Browne – ‘with an e’!’ the officer shouted up the accommodation ladder, and gave Ephraim a black look as he crossed his name off a list.
Ephraim shut his eyes and prayed that he would not fall off the ladder, that he wouldn’t be hit by one of the flying missiles thrown from the jeering cadets above, that he wouldn’t be sick. He wasn’t. He didn’t. His boot slipped on the lower rung, but he gained an uncertain foothold and held on until he got to the top, to the safety of the deck. The rain which had been trying to fall all day was turning to sleet and the damp deck was becoming slippery, he feared being able to keep his feet but he managed to get to the stern of the ship on the side where the other new arrivals were congregating. ‘Was that port or starboard,’ he wondered; the last of the cavorting cadets were being chased from the deck by a ship’s corporal.
‘Get off and leave the young gentlemen alone. You’ll have your chance with them soon enough.’ A wind blustered after them, and for a moment the ship seemed animate, registering the creaks and groans of its old age.
A harassed looking officer came striding down the deck towards them, ‘Lieutenant James. The sooner we get you lot to some shelter for mustering the better. Follow corporal Haddock here,’ he indicated a petty officer emerging fortuitously from a hatchway, ‘A gentleman commonly known as ‘Fish’ for reasons which I am sure the more perspicacious of you are able to work out. He’ll show you the way.’
‘Fish’ gave the officer a dubious look and proceeded to lead the group of new cadets up a short ladder to a cabin under the poop deck.
‘You don’t look up to much,’ he said, ‘Pack of drowned rats.’
Ephraim agreed as the ‘drowned rats’ jostled for position and tried to knock each other off the steps of the ladder.
There were other cadets already assembled in the cabin lounging officiously on the benches. Ephraim knew they had arrived earlier with their fathers and been received and shown round the ship by the Master at Arms. Lesser mortals did not have that advantage. Ephraim’s father had been unable to leave his clerical duties and travel down from Taunton with him, but Ephraim was not sorry. He did not want to draw attention to himself in any way. The other boys would have all come from public schools and crammers and were likely all Anglican but at least they were all gentlemen. You had to be guaranteed to be a gentleman by nomination even if you only came from a modest captain’s nomination and a dissenters’ background, like him – of course it was a help knowing Admiral Gladwell. He had been his patron with Captain Pullen. Some of the Cadets looked so young – the twelves he presumed – and some of them swaggered like ‘men about town’ – must be the nearly fifteens – like himself. Agitated penguins, he thought, as they bustled around in their dark peaked caps and white fronts. ‘Fish’ disappeared, and a new petty officer came in, declaring himself to be Sergeant Bose. His blue seaman’s jersey stretched tightly across his barrel chest and he wore a swollen purple, broken nose. Ephraim could not take his eyes off it. Had he been a prize boxer? Ephraim’s father had enjoyed a few rounds in the ring in the early days and was an enthusiast for the new Queensberry rules; he had even given Ephraim a few lessons. It looked as if Bose may have lost a few rounds. The sergeant was now loudly explaining the joining procedure,
‘Listen out carefully, Misters. You all take one of these cards. Each card contains the number of the cadet’s table at mess, his hammock, class, and watch, port or starboard. You see you keep these at hand now. I don’t want anyone coming to me at dinner bleating ‘Sergeant, I can’t remember what table I’m at, and I’ve lost my card,’ because I won’t remember it for you and there won’t be no dinner. He started calling out names, ‘Sebold, Polwhele, Gail, Mason.’ Boys went forwards to pick up their cards. Ephraim stood on the edge of the circle, dreading the calling of his name. Why was he shaking? He wished he was not so tall. He wished he had not come.
‘Mister Browne! Where is Mister Browne?’ Ephraim tried to hide his trembling white fingers as he took his card from Bose’s red, calloused hand. ‘Port table six, starboard watch, hammock number thirteen.’ A good thing he was not superstitious!
The other Cadets were pushing their way through the group with their cards, making for chums they knew. There were shouts of recognition.
‘Paddy, old fellow, great to see you again, how’s the old bog land?’
‘Anybody bumped into Stinker Harris?’
‘Didn’t expect to see you here, Johnson. Thought you got plucked.’
‘No such luck! Heard Field got ploughed.’
Ephraim doubted that the speaker even recognised the pun. The cadet he had accidentally head butted had found friends and was lording it over them, there were sycophantic shrieks of laughter. He heard others excitedly comparing details:
‘I say Trotter, you’re at my port table!’
‘Are you in my watch, Golding?’
‘Sebold, what’s your hammock number?’
‘I’m next to you Fraser!’
‘Make sure you ‘int a snorer, then!’
There was no one Ephraim wanted to be next to, snorer or not. Sharing a table was bad enough after the quiet meals he was used to in the Manse with his father and Mr Moulton, but a swinging hammock with a snoring inhabitant just a few feet away! He had not sufficiently considered sleeping arrangements in this school on a ship.
‘Alright. Stow the racket you lads! You’ve got your hammock numbers, now time to pick up your chests. Flaherty over there, is a marine servant,’ he pointed to an emaciated looking man in the corner, ‘He will take you to the chest room where you will find your own marine servants, one to every six cadets. They will look after your chests and clothes and help you set up your sleeping quarters in the Hustan.
‘First and second terms are in the Hustan, third and fourth in the Training Ship. Get your chests and get to know your places on the lower deck; then it will be time for dinner in the mess.’ A cry of approval went up. Those who had not come with fathers and enjoyed the novelty of a stay at the Exeter Railway Hotel the night before with a good breakfast in the morning, had had nothing to eat since meeting each other at Paddington Station at six thirty that morning. Was starvation to be the order of the day! Ephraim noticed that the cadet he had accidentally injured was elbowing his way to the front.
‘Back!’ Sergeant Bose lifted a restraining hand. ‘Follow Flaherty and try to look like prospective naval officers.’
They followed the wraith-like Flaherty along the narrow, enclosed gangway which joined the stern of the three decker Briton to the bow of the two decker Hustan. There was barely enough room for cadets to pass each other.
‘No pushing and shoving,’ Flaherty’s thin, wheezing voice had trouble getting out, ‘there aint room for it. Cadet got crushed against the wall last year.’
Ephraim was careful to keep to the back.
‘If it’s not such a big ship as Briton, Sir, what happens when there is a storm?’ a young, red headed lad called out nervously. ‘Will we get more seasick in our hammocks?’ There was a wave of laughter.
‘You must not Sir me, Mister. There are ‘eads ‘ere for such as are sick,’ Flaherty replied loftily, ‘And you’ve got a washbowl, aint you?’ But Ephraim noticed there was more movement on the deck of the smaller Hustan; it shifted perceptibly under their feet with the tilt of the rising waves as they stepped out on to the cold, windy deck.
‘Flaming freezing!’ shivered a cadet as Flaherty herded them across the deck. They peered expectantly into various cabins.
‘Alright, stop gawping, this is the cabin for your sea chests and belongings. You can pick up your own chests now or wait for a marine servant to do it.’ Flaherty sat down indifferently, as two or three other marine servants came in.
Ephraim didn’t see the point of moving his chest if he could get someone else to do it for him. Messrs Gieves had seen to it that chests ordered in London would find their way to the chest room in Hustan without his help. He had never had occasion to think of lifting his chest at home since his father and Mr Moulton had always packed it with loving attention and handled it accordingly. Watching the others, he thought the chests seemed quite heavy. He noticed his own pine box with its brass label and rope handles was standing in a corner. He made to move towards it but as luck would have it, the cadet he had accidentally hurt was in the same corner. His shrill voice squawked up and down – surely at his age, his voice must have broken – it was at odds with his dominating behaviour. But what an ass! The high pitched laugh which took an intake of breath before it rattled out even made him sound like an ass. ‘A fat ass!’ Ephraim thought, certainly big – but blubbery, folds of flesh were to be seen around the neck and signs of a paunch beneath his waistcoat. The ‘fat ass’ proceeded with a shout and a peremptory wave of the hand to demand one of the servants see to his chest. To Ephraim’s surprise, the ghost like Flaherty unwrapped himself and sauntered over. Effortlessly, he lifted the cadet’s heavy chest on his shoulder and swung it round to catch the cadet a blow on the side of his head. There was a high pitched yelp. ‘Fool!’ shouted fat ass lifting blood from his temple, ‘look what you’ve done!’ Flaherty continued imperviously on his way.
Ephraim waited until they had gone. The other available servants had vanished – he would have to carry the chest himself now. He bent to the task and found that with a bit of lifting and dragging, and sliding it down the short accommodation ladders to the sleeping deck with the help of a fair haired cadet who introduced himself as Bowen, he could manage.
‘Thank you’ said Ephraim, ‘You seem to have a knack with these things.’ He placed the chest on the worn, splintery planks of the dark, lower deck under hammock number thirteen. The putrid atmosphere made him want to gag.
‘Oh, you will soon get used to that,’ said Bowen. ‘You superstitious?’
‘Of course not! Don’t agree with that sort of thing.’
Once the chests were in place, cadets eyed the rows of hammocks slung above them. ‘I say you fellows, Jenner, how do you get into these things?’ Bowen was trying to reach up to his hammock and pull it down.
‘You pull down this rope at the sides, the hammock comes down and you sit in it with your legs astride and then lay back. Watch that the knots don’t get where you don’t want them and ruin your prospects!’
‘That’s all very well. How do you get it up again?’
‘You don’t – until you get out and pull the rope again.’
‘Looks like a baby’s cradle – fine bed for a naval officer!’ snorted another cadet. An impressively good looking one, thought Ephraim, not without a tinge of envy.
The marine servants stood around, disinterested in the cadets’ activities until Ephraim saw the good looking cadet stroll up and with an air of languid confidence, take something out of his pocket and hand it to a servant lounging against a bulwark. The man sprang to attention.
‘John Dealer. At your service, sir. Allow me…’ He ushered the cadet back down the deck between the rows of numbered hammocks to the end, even darker and more odorous. ‘Ah, I see sir, you are the last one down here, but I think we can get you a bit nearer the scuttle.’ He pulled the cadet’s chest over to where a small port let in a little more air and light. A weak beam from the scuttle caught the brass name plate. It revealed the Honorable Frederick Fitzmaurice. Dealer took out a piece of chalk and drew a mark on the deck around the Honorable’s chest, ‘I would just point out, sir, that this is your allotted area of deck. And you, keep out of it!’ he shouted, kicking away the contents of a chest being unpacked next door.
‘Darn cold in here!’ The Honorable Fitzmaurice stamped his feet.
‘One might be able to provide an extra blanket, sir, and if I may just show you,’ Dealer reached up to unhook the hammock from the beam above and courteously instruct the Honorable Fitzmaurice on the art of habitation. He had to hold the swinging cradle still as the ship was buffeted by a blow from the rising wind.
‘That is enough! I’ve got the idea!’
‘I shall remain on hand, sir, in case you need me. Just let me know,’ and John Dealer unobtrusively patting his pocket, went out backwards.
Ephraim sat on his chest – the place was obviously corrupt! He watched the others. He didn’t know any one and he didn’t want to know anyone. This was not what he had imagined. He looked at his chest morosely. He hadn’t paid much attention to it when it was being fitted out, too busy reading Newman’s Apologia that week – exciting reading for a young evangelical – especially that bit about Newman’s conversion. No room for that here. Now everything had suddenly changed – his whole future was summed up in this wooden box, three foot six by two by two foot three; he had measured it when it arrived and now it was a space that held all he possessed, stashed under a hammock in a space with barely enough room to walk round, even if one wanted to, on a gloomy, queasy, lower deck at the mercy of wind and wave, where he would have to live for the next four terms, confined amongst these noisy, over excitable immature boys. His sole identity a polished brass name plate! Why had he let his father convince him this was a good idea? How could he have agreed to give up his peaceful, civilised life at home for this? Of course, he knew it meant everything to his father to have a son follow in his footsteps but then surely, if it was a mistake, he need not stay? He had chosen the Navy to please God and his father. His father had given up his sea life as a naval instructor to serve God at the Dissenting Academy, surely he too,could do that. But was this what the Lord really wanted for him? And anyway, what did he want? He hardly knew – but not this. He listened to the shouts of his fellow cadets as they opened their chests and enthusiastically vetted their contents and despaired.
‘Cripes, she’s forgotten my execrables.’
‘Crikey! We’ll have to see it then!’
‘Don’t reckon it’ll be worth seeing.’
‘Shortcake biscuits, anyone?’
‘Good old mater!– plum cake!’
Ephraim supposed he should do the same and check his chest, but he knew it would only have its regulation contents. A number of anxious mothers had added irregular food supplies for their beloved sons, but he knew his father would never have thought of it, his tutor would never have dared it and his mother had died when he was born. It was strange to think of her in these circumstances, he rarely thought of her at all. There were more promises of shared tucker as fellows who had been to the same schools greeted each other, and others tried to make new friends with their own offers. He noticed a boy with an Australian accent digging cheerfully into his chest.
‘I say, it’s a Colonial! Here you are Aussie,’ and ‘fat ass’ threw him a biscuit.
But Ephraim had nothing to help make new connections even if he had he wanted to. A fellow who had only been to dame school and only had his father and a tutor for instruction, had little to offer as a friend, anyway. He had probably had the best instruction available, but it had been a lonely life with few friends and none of them interested in joining the Royal Navy. So he would just avoid the other Cadets as far as possible. Especially the one that he had accidentally head butted – the ‘fat ass’! There he was now, throwing his weight around again, already a circle of prospective, grinning cronies around him.
A bolt of wind caught the ship and rattled the cabin walls. The young red head looked worried, ‘Surely, it is not always as rough as this down here?’
A marine servant looked up.
‘Lordy, mister, this is nothing – just a little squall come up, just wait till you get to sea.’
‘What’s the matter, ‘carrots,’ you want to keep your hair dry?’ Fat ass’ shrill voice cleft the air. The cronies laughed again.
By now the cadets were getting restless. Chests were sorted, hammocks stowed above, and some scrapping and shouting had started. They were hungry waiting for the corporal to come and announce food. A fight started. Something about a dropped coin. Of course, it would be ‘fat ass,’ thought Ephraim. He was wrestling with the boy he had called ‘carrots’, and ‘carrots’ was getting the worse of it.
An older cadet who had been watching, leapt up.
‘Stollman, you swine, you’re standing on it.’
‘Course I’m not!’
The older cadet stood in front of the bully, bent down and stood up again, he produced a shilling from behind his ear and flourished it in Stolman’s face. ‘Is this it?’ he asked. The astonished Stollman took a step backwards. The magician put his foot over the coin on the floor and picked it up. He gave it to the the red head. ‘I think this is yours.’
There were murmurs of amazement all round. ‘Comes in useful sometimes,’ said the cadet and went back to sit on his chest.
The young red head was just squaring up again, when justice was defeated by the re-appearance of Corporal Haddock. He even looks like a fish, thought Ephraim, pointy nose and goggle eyes, with a nasal voice that sounded as though it was under water.
‘Time for dinner, mess-room in Briton – get alo’g – and don’t let me see anyone not eati’g!’
‘Chance would be a fine thing,’ shouted the young Cadet determined to assert himself now that he was out of danger. Ephraim remained sitting on his chest to let the other cadets go by. None of them seemed to notice him. He sent up another prayer and got to his legs.
‘No running along the bridge,’ shouted the Corporal, ‘Reportable offence – and watch it with this wind getting up.’
The mess room on the Training ship was filled with the noise of riotous cadets. Numbered tables were set out under the ports in order of seniority with an equal number of Cadets to each table. One table at the bottom, noticeably sparsely laid and without butter, was labelled Defaulter’s Table. Ephraim took his place at table six and looked at the unappetizing brown gristle set before them. The boy next to him was shivering. He looked under nourished.
‘Mervyn – Mervyn Blake,’ he said and held out his hand.
‘Browne – Ephraim Browne.’
‘It’s not fair!’ Blake looked up, ‘The news have to sit under the steam pipes and you can’t feel a thing, the others get to sit beside them. It’s not right! I’m freezing.’
It was certainly a far cry from the warm house Ephraim had left behind but at least, he observed gratefully, Stollman was on another table. There was no order. Cadets were reaching over each other to grab the food they wanted. He hoped an officer would appear and bring some control. The quieter and politer of the cadets were losing out. As it was, it didn’t worry him. Food was the last thing on his mind, but Bowen, seated on his other side, thought otherwise. He pushed some of the meat pie on to Ephraim’s plate. ‘I say, eat it, Browne, while it’s here, those fellows will take it all at this rate!’
Ephraim made an effort to get it down. There was small beer on the table and he could hope for some of that although he wondered whether his father would have approved. The fellows at the top had finished and were now up and throwing bread and biscuit and aiming at the ‘cheeky news’. Ephraim observed that the one at the centre had a particularly good aim. He felt a hard pellet hit the side of his head. ‘Why him?’ he was outraged, ‘He had not done anything!’
‘Stop that you ruffians!’
The command came from an officer standing at the door. He was in frock coat, dark trousers and gilt buttons. He was accompanied by a corporal.
‘Master-at-Arms,’ Bowen whispered.
‘Lord Farrel you little skunk, you should know better as a cadet captain, giving such an example to the young gentlemen on their first day. I saw you scrambling for biscuit. Disrated – report for defaulters tomorrow! And please note, young gentlemen,’ he said looking fiercely at the lower tables, ‘Tomorrow we’ll have any of you reported for misbehaviour if you cannot behave yourselves. Now get out the rest of you, and leave the first term to hear what corporal Melrose has to say,’ and the Master-at-Arms left as quickly as he had arrived, leaving Corporal Melrose to take the field. As the older cadets rose to rush from the room, Corporal Melrose’s heavy hand waylaid the cadet captain’s shoulder, ‘Just the first term! The rest of you, can go and mend your manners, oh yes,’ and he sent Farrel on his way with a sharp kick to the shin before turning to address the newcomers. He stood in the centre of the room; his eyes stared at the remaining cadets, voices quietened. There was silence:
‘Now Misters,’ the voice had an aggressive sybillance,
‘You all remember who you are, and what you are ‘ere for, oh yes.’ No matter what sort of warts you turn out be, whether you pass out number one or number ninety one, you are still going to be h’executive officers, oh yes, and that means you are the cream of the Royal Navy. So you’d better start showing it or you will soon be whipped cream.’ He smirked at his little joke and allowed it to register. ‘I’ll be ‘avin my eye on you, and my eye sees straight and if my eye doesn’t like what it sees, you’ll know, oh yes.’
‘Has he got a glass eye?’ breathed Bowen.
‘And a linguistic disability,’ said Ephraim.
‘So, straighten up now or I’ll ‘ave some of you for slackin’, oh yes and Captain Cole won’t like that. He’ll be here in a minute to start you on your way. So, look sharp, oh yes, and get ready.’ Lieutenant James made a second appearance and announced that Captain Cole was approaching. Cadets brushed themselves down and settled at once into appropriate officer like positions on the benches. Throats were cleared and faces raised in expectation. Corporal Melrose gave the Cadets a sour look and strutted out.
Footsteps were heard approaching, heels clicked, and the Lieutenant announced, with deference, the entrance of Captain Cole. Voices rose and ceased, as a tall, affable looking man, accoutred with shining sword, four gold braided stripes on his sleeve, a row of medals on his chest and golden laced shoulder epaulettes, strode into the room. All the Cadets immediately saw their futures decorated with bars of medals and wreathed in gold braid.
Captain Cole expressed his pleasure at the arrival of the new cadets and said they would have a very good time on board the Training Ship if they attended to their work and behaved themselves. The ship was run by the ship’s Corporals and Sergeants who held the destiny of the cadets in their hands so far as the routine and discipline of the ship was concerned. They were always on hand to observe any infraction of rules and report them to him or the commander. Naval Instructors would teach them navigation and nautical astronomy and petty officers would ground them in the arts of knots and splices and the various branches of seamanship. They were all fortunate to have received a nomination and they would never regret their decision to serve her Majesty and the Royal Navy as commissioned officers. Their willingness to work hard and do their duty would please the great Nelson in his grave. There might be aspects of the ship which would strike them as hard but a life at sea was hard and that was what they had come to train for. He wished them every success and ‘confided his confidence’ in their future; Lieutenant James would inform them of future details. The Cadets provided a round of applause and the Captain left.
Ephraim observed through the port that a splendid Admiralty barge awaited him below as he left for a dinner ashore. Bowen observed that the wind had shifted from the south to south west and it was still bumping awkwardly against the ship.
‘Well, seems there was something of a hurricane last night while you lot were asleep. Lot of ships got damaged at Brixham.’
Lieutenant James then told them that as it was their first day, Petty Officer Jeffries, ‘a friend if you behave yourselves’, would show them round the ship and they could then familiarise themselves with the place and get to know their fellow cadets; they could try out the Training ship gigs or take themselves ashore for a game of football until tea. Steps were made in the bank, so easy to see where to go from the jetty.
‘The program for tomorrow,’ he went on, ‘Is the same as every day. Defaulters will rise for punishment at 5.30. The bugle will call the rest of you at 7 for drill and practical work until breakfast at 8 am. Lessons are from 9 to midday and 2-4.30. At 4.30 you will get an opportunity to land, relax and perhaps have a bathe until 6.45. Defaulters will be drilling during that time. Return on board at 7.15 for tea, 8-9 is evening study. Turn in at 9.45. Wednesdays and Saturdays are half holidays. There would be singing and dancing on Saturday evenings.’
Singing might be possible, thought Ephraim, but dancing? Lieutenant James concluded by wishing them all a successful future in the service and dismissed them. Ephraim wondered whether there would be a library; he did not think his fellows would be great readers but perhaps he ought to do something about making friends…’Love your neighbours’ applied, even here.
Dr Mary Jones asserts Copyright