Part 1 – Cadets
Chapter 5 – Band of Brothers
It was the first time Captain Sharp had seen the Training Ship. He was not impressed. The hulks were decaying, and the improvisation provided by the joining of the two of them typified the present stagnation of naval expenditure and thereby of defence. He had heard that the cadets were becoming wild and anarchic. He had seen much that was lax and deplorable, if not scandalous, when he perused the punishment book; offences that must certainly not be allowed to continue. Cadets must be made a credit to the Royal Navy, not a reproach. Their Lordships had appointed him to this commission as a man who knew how to turn boys into men. Although doing it on a man of war was one thing, trying to achieve it in a decaying old hulk of a ship with limited amount of practice rigging and only a few instructors was another. He must also remind himself that seamen were one thing – they could be flogged into proficiency – but trainee cadets, juveniles? They looked so young, voices barely broken. Yet they were boys destined to be the officers who would one day make the Nation proud of them and they were now his responsibility. He would just have to make the best of it. He would start first thing in the morning.
Cadets were thus surprised to hear that all terms were to muster at 6am the following morning to meet their new Captain.
‘What a time for a ‘pie jaw’!’ groaned Sebold as he and Ephraim made their way to Briton’s main deck avoiding the bullies of the senior terms who had become skilled in the habit of kicking passing legs. However, it was early spring now and to stand peacefully on the deck in the morning sunshine in a light breeze was a bonus. Sebold thought he would allow himself the luxury of not paying attention but that idea was blown apart by the appearance of Petty Officer Harvey, the drill sergeant, who appeared on the quarter deck announcing that the Captain’s address would be preceded by ‘fifteen minutes of heavy musket drill’. A pleasure for the drill sergeant no doubt thought Sebold as he shouldered his musket, but a torture to schoolboys unused to the weight of Black Bess. At the end of it he believed he had seriously damaged his arms. The cadets were now prepared to pay every attention to the new Captain as he was ushered onto the deck by the First lieutenant.
‘He’s short,’ said Bowen.
‘So was Napoleon,’ rapped Sebold.
‘Straight as a poker,’ admired Polwhele.
‘Poker faced as well,’ said Ephraim.
Captain Sharp’s small, ram-rod figure stood before them in formal dress; the lamb chop whiskers and sideburns, high stock and necktie, the frock coat, doing nothing to alleviate the iron visage which showed no favours. The voice was quiet and precise:
‘Gentlemen, if I may call you so, since after a perusal of your records I note a distinct lack of that behaviour properly associated with gentlemen. It seems you do not at this time validate the designation. Perhaps you are unaware of Glascock, 1848: ‘the Navy is a profession in which the first essential for success is conduct becoming an officer and a gentleman.’ Lest that be so, I have had it posted on your mess room notice board and I will expect to see it amended by the signature of each cadet to the effect that it is read, marked and learned. The ‘conduct becoming’ is still the first requirement of an officer in training and there is only one way to achieve that. It is by having clear rules and clear punishment. So, there will be new rules and new punishments posted on the mess board and ignorance of those rules will be no excuse. The rules will be posted and the punishments clearly alongside. Notice has already come to me of three infringements of rules recently, apart from the disgraceful and consistent bullying of cadets aloft. These three aforesaid offenders will be birched as will all others in similar circumstances. In the future, cadets will not be allowed to take gigs or shore dinghies above the anchor stone or below Kingswear. Irregularities on shore have come to my notice. Any Cadets trespassing on non-Training Ship property will earn second class punishment. Undesirable cadets will be sent away. Now gentlemen, to work, and to work with a will.’
The assembled cadets dispersed slowly.
‘Don’t like the sound of this.’
‘What did he mean about three cadets being birched?’
‘Perhaps he didn’t mean it quite as badly as it sounded. You know how they all like to sound strict and severe at first.’
‘Bring back Captain Cole!’
Life which had seemed relatively easy and in a good cause now seemed harsh and unfair when the possibility of birching and expulsion hung over them all. The new regime soon made itself felt. Cadets warned their parents:
‘Three cadets are being sent away this half. It is getting very strict, another three have been threatened….’
‘Jones got birched very unfairly. It was a great shame…’
‘More boys are to be birched …someone put some oil into some of the ink again and we have had our half holiday stopped and if the fellow is caught he will be sent away. There was one sent away the other day.’
‘My people would go mad if I was sent away …don’t mind being plucked, probably will be, but to be sent away,’ Bowen groaned.
‘You’ll never be sent away – you’re too good and too clever,’ Polwhele punched Bowen, he smiled.
‘I wish somebody would kick up a row about it,’ said Fraser.
‘We should,’ said Polwhele.
‘Oh, good!’ said Gail.
It was food that brought matters to a head. Food was not plentiful at the best of times and recently it had seemed to be getting worse. At least one parent had written to Captain Cole during the holidays complaining that her previously ‘stocky’ son had come home ‘looking pale and thin’, and the Staff Surgeon had sent home one or two letters suggesting their sons should be given tonics. Breakfast had just finished, and the supervising corporal Mulholland had just left, when Sebold commandeered the bench at the defaulters table and stood up on it and delivered himself of his growing disgust with the quality of breakfast.
‘This,’ he said, pointing out the watery morning porridge swill, the chunks of drying biscuit and the indeterminate meat hash, ‘This breakfast is diabolical! Not only is it ghastly, even if one brings oneself to eat it, but the hash is always left over from the day before and there is not enough to go round. With rigging to be climbed, heavy whalers to be rowed, cutlass drill to be done, sails to be manhandled, not to mention long paper chases at the weekends and other compulsory sports, it is a wonder that we Cadets have not collapsed with malnutrition.’ There were mutterings and shouts of agreement and imprecations called upon the galley but nothing was done about it. Some decided to sidetrack the problem of food by encouraging more parental contribution, others simply continued to prey upon the food of others. However, that did not prevent the majority of cadets becoming ever more rebellious.
It was left to Polwhele to lead the charge. Polwhele was unusual in that he was the only Cadet from Cornwall in his year. He was not abashed by the fact. Born in Pelynt near the impressive, historic manor of Trelawny, he was obsessed with the local hero and the Song of the Western Men. He could be heard generally giving voice to its various verses in any part of the ship at any time. There was not a cadet who had managed to evade them,
With a good sword and a trusty shield
A faithful heart and true
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish men can do
And when we came to London wall
A pleasant sight to view
Come forth, come forth, ye cowards all
Here are better men than you
Trelawny, he’s in keep in hold
Trelawny he may die
But twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why.
Trelawny was a rebel and a fighter. So was Polwhele, why else did he want to join the Navy? Why else did he have Pellew and all those Naval heroes? Why else did he decide to take on the new skipper? Why else did he need a crew? The sooner he collected enough recruits the better. He started organising secret meetings in private places out of the eyes of prying Petty Officers, and rabble roused with the cry, ‘And shall Trelawny die?’ He harangued small groups until he persuaded even timid Cadets like Wren to vote in favour of a deputation to see the Captain at the first opportunity and plead for, no demand, an extra ration of food at breakfast and supper. Sebold said it was a waste of time, and cautioned them about demanding extra rations. He said they should just ask the new Skipper to replace the awful stuff at breakfast with something better and leave it at that. Polwhele said they could start with that and then go on to other demands. Ephraim hoped to establish a more restrained approach to the situation. He buttonholed Polwhele in the mess, ‘I suppose you know Trelawny was an Anglican bishop!’
When Polwhele gained permission to see the Captain he was surprised and even apprehensive; when the Captain agreed to see a deputation of Cadets with him, he was gratified. He quickly collected his protest group. There was strength in numbers. Sebold thought it might come in useful for promotion if the Captain admired the delegation. He agreed to join. Ephraim had no doubt that this was a move towards justicia and needed no persuasion. Bowen was happy to be attached to the strength of Polwhele and Gail always felt safe in the presence of Sebold. Others like Mason were just committed to a better breakfast.
Scrubbed and polished, they waited nervously outside the mess room for the rarely seen Lieutenant James to lead them to the Captain’s cabin.
Polwhele was organising troops, ‘Young Gail, for heaven’s sake, slake that red hair down, you look like a squirrel. We don’t want to be run out at the beginning for sloppy appearance. Mason, for heaven’s sake pull up your trowsers. If you can’t keep them up, eat some more.’
‘Bit ironic in the circumstances,’ said Sebold.
‘You sure this is a good thing?’ asked Fraser.
‘Don’t worry Pol, it will be alright. We’re all with you,’ Bowen smiled.
Lieutenant James arrived. ‘Well, you are the brave ones, aren’t you?’ He checked their names off a list, ‘Admirable lads,’ he said soothingly. It made them uneasy. By the time they got to the Captain’s impressive headquarters several of them were already wishing they were not there. The Captain’s cabin seemed to take up the whole of the bow of the ship, with its big bay window and intricately fretted shining glass. Surely this was no place for them.
The atmosphere of the deck was quiet. Two sergeants stood sentry. They breathed in the welcome freshness of sea air.
‘Could stay here a bit longer,’ thought Ephraim.
Lieutenant James knocked on the illustrious door, ‘Deputation to see you Captain.’ He stood aside to let them enter.
The faint hearted sidled in, the middle ranks shuffled uncomfortably, Polwhele marched confidently to the front. He stood before the Captain who was almost dwarfed in the leather armchair behind the enormous desk. He was ostentatiously relaxed, leaning back with one hand draped over the side of the chair, but Sebold could see the other hand impatiently, nervously, tapping his knee. His face gave no messages of welcome or disfavour.
‘And what have you to say to me gentlemen?’
Polwhele breathed in, opened his mouth to speak, this was his moment, – and shall Trelawny die?
His voice took on the burr of its Cornish accent, his vowels shortened, he lost his ‘Hs’ and rolled his ‘Rs’, his cadences lengthened. A shadow of mild distaste crossed the Captain’s face, but he listened carefully. Polwhele enumerated and enlarged upon the Cadet’s complaints: the need for decent nourishment that would sustain the vigour and health of cadets, the necessity of enough provision to cover the appetites of young boys, dangers of malnutrition when there were diseases like measles on board, horrors of breakfast swill, and the unidentifiable meat hash. The orator in him rose to the occasion.
‘A dog would not ‘ave it, Captain!’
He subsided to a chorus of assent from his backers. They were hopeful. Surely Pol had done it! Captain Grant rose from his desk and thoughtfully examined the view from the big bay window. Then he turned and spoke.
‘You are quite right boys, it shall be stopped.’
Polwhele exhaled: ‘Trelawny had triumphed!’
‘However,’ the voice went on, ‘I would not wish you to be unhappy with what is put before you therefore I have decided that it will be removed. Nothing will take its place. Cadets should be grateful for what they have and not complain. No.2 punishment all round. Dismissed!’
Polwhele opened his mouth but knew he could say no more. Lieutenant James escorted them out.
The cadets were aghast!
‘Now look what you’ve done, Polwhele.’
‘Not his fault, Fraser.’
‘That captain hasn’t a human bone in his body.’
‘Hope I never serve on a ship with a captain like that,’ Mason grunted.
Sebold was sanguine, ‘What did you expect? This is the Training Ship. We’re trained to obey and endure.’
Ephraim was moved to anger, ‘Not to obey and endure the unjust! That was unjust,’ he said. ‘What did we expect? We expected Justice, Justicia. That was injustice.’ He turned to Polwhele, ‘And shall Trelawny die? Of course not! We must do something.’
Polwhele’s face lightened, – ‘Prepare for manoeuvres!’
And that was what really started the second term birchings as Ephraim saw it: The Trelawny Gentlemen’s Dining Club, dedicated to the provision of food to starving cadets. It had eight founder members from the deputation – Polwhele, Browne, Sebold, Gail, Fraser, Wren, Bowen and Mason – but news had got around and a couple of other chaps wheedled their way in – Featherstone and Halling. After a week it had to change its name. Polwhele had given them respect for Trelawny but, darn it, they must have a British name:
‘What about Britannia’s Best?’
‘Ref. the Armada? Armadilloes?’
‘Don’t be daft!’
‘British Braves? – We will have to be brave if we get caught smuggling food in.’
‘I will not call myself a British Brave!’ said Sebold.
‘Drake? Drake’s drummers?’
‘Come on, – there’s only one name we can have,’ said Fraser, ‘and even Polwhele will agree, Nelson.’
They were all agreed but it was not much easier. Several clubby titles were suggested around Nelson:
‘That means stealing – sounds a bit unethical,’ said Ephraim.
‘Nelson’s band – too much like the brothers, aiming a bit high?’ asked Mason.
‘Nelson’s nibblers – because we want to eat?’ Gail ventured.
‘Nelson’s Notables,’ said Sebold. ‘We all want to be Admirals , don’t we? Notable Admirals to go down in history. We can be nothing else.’ And so ‘Nelson’s Notables’ was settled on until Polwhele tried to upgrade it to The Notable Band of Brothers.
‘Too much of a mouthful.’
‘Just Notable brothers – band implied,’ said Ephraim.
‘Could be worse.’ said Fraser.
‘I like it,’ said Wren.
Nelson’s Notable Brothers were to be an exclusive dining club providing food as befitted naval officers. If they were not to receive a decent breakfast from Admiralty, they could at least provide themselves with additional sustenance themselves in a civilized manner. Membership by invitation only.
After throwing out a series of rules, they settled on a simple manifesto:
‘A Nelson’s Notable agrees to provide food to be shared by all members in a convivial and supportive atmosphere and to uphold the wellbeing of members in all circumstances.’
Membership to be by invitation only. Food to be obtained in as many ways as possible, from illicit purchase to parental connivance and kept for sharing at a meal together in designated times and places. Justicia Omnibus, was to be their motto and since there was a level of risk involved, Polwhele wanted them all to swear an oath of secrecy in Nelson’s name. But Ephraim declared that was unbiblical and against God, ‘Let thy yes be yes and thy no be no.’ He also pointed out the fate of the Tolpuddle farmers who had been deported in 1834 because they swore oaths. Polwhele was disappointed but decided to drop the matter of oath taking. Like many another distinguished group, ‘Like the Masons,’ said Fraser, they promised to refer to each other as brothers – ‘Nelson’s Notable Brothers.’
‘Nelson’s Notables will do,’ said Sebold. They would just make an agreement to be bound to each other and secrecy would be implied, said Mason, ‘No member would dream of betraying another, anyway.’ Members promised to press parents for extra cakes, biscuits and chocolate whenever the permitted birthday parcel was imminent, and vow to share it with the Notable brothers. Sebold quickly organized an arrangement whereby Mrs Dunwell at the Fat Teapot provided flapjacks which could be bought at the turnpike. So whenever Halling passed on a cross country run he picked them up. Halling was their fastest runner and he always managed to turn up at the front at the end of the run, looking immaculate with the flapjacks concealed under his well endowed shorts. Sharing sessions were held with Nelsonic bravado in secret, pre-arranged places, and the first food was always eaten with the left hand only, in honouring tribute to Nelson.
The trouble came with the turnpike biscuits. Mrs Dunwell had told ‘Half Harry’ at the turnpike about those poor starving boys in the Training Ship, and how they had to smuggle in a few flapjacks to keep going. Harry said he had seen some of ’em and ‘didn’t know as how they could get up the rigging with them little bodies’. When Mrs Dunwell suggested Harry should sell some biscuits which Mrs Dunwell would make and take some for himself, he thought it a great idea. She explained the Cadets were not supposed to buy food outside so he must keep it a secret. She had arranged a password with the leader of the rebel cadets. If any poor, unfed lad came up and whispered ‘Nelson Notable’, ‘Half Harry’ could sell him the biscuits and Harry could keep one for himself. He was more than pleased, so a new treat for Notables on Sundays was to go in free time over to the turnpike and buy a biscuit or two. Sebold insisted that these biscuits must never be brought on to the Training ship. Some of the Notables thought Sebold was being unnecessarily cautions, but Polwhele agreed and said if one of them was ever found out that would be the end of it and Mrs Dunwell would get into trouble. So the Notables continued to carry away their secret cache of Sunday biscuits and eat them when and where they could.
All was well until Featherstone tried to be clever and curry favour with Staines and boasted that biscuits were to be had if you knew where to get them. Once turned upside down and almost thrown over the side, he told them that you could get them at the turnpike. So much for Sebold saying Notables were naval Cadets and therefore did not need to be sworn to secrecy, and Polwhele saying Notables would rather die than let a brother down. ‘First lesson in naval life – you can never trust all your officers even when they are your friends,’ thought Ephraim.
Staines knew nothing of passwords and illicit turnpike arrangements. When he turned up demanding that ‘Half Harry’ sell him biscuits, Harry refused.
‘Mrs Dunwell says you ain’t got ‘the word’. You need ‘the word’. I ‘int gonna tell you, I’se forgot it!’ and he planted himself squarely in front of Staines.
Despite the name ‘Half Harry’, he looked twice that on the physical side. Staines decided discretion was the better part of valour and opted to go straight to see Mrs Dunwell himself and make arrangements to buy as many biscuits as she could make available. The redoubtable Mrs Dunwell explained that buying biscuits at the turnpike was against the rules for cadets. Staines’ unexercised attempts at blandishing elder ladies went nowhere, Mrs Dunwell picked up a broom and told him to ‘get’n out of ‘ere’ before she ‘called the Bobbies!’ Angry and frustrated at his humiliating lack of power in the Fat Teapot, he decided to go where he could effect matters. He had a private word with Corporal Melrose.
‘Might do you some good, Corp. Some cadets are buying biscuits at the turnpike. Ask Featherstone.’ He said no more, but Corporal Melrose waylaid Featherstone at morning drill. The flustered boy blustered that he knew nothing of such things. Melrose spoke of defaulters and birching and sacking but said that he could keep Featherstone’s name out of it if he would give him three names to take to the Commander. Featherstone worried about the decency of this for a few moments but then decided that Nelson’s Notables had always been a bad idea and it was the fault of those fellows, Polwhele, Sebold and Bowen that the whole thing had happened. Polwhele was altogether too full of himself, Sebold was a conceited fellow and Bowen was a milksop. It served them all right.
Melrose had words with the grateful Commander and the Commander had words with the Captain. The Captain had words with the three guilty cadets.
‘This intolerable disobedience cannot be ignored. You have proved that you are leaders, but you have brought your fellows into disrepute. You are officers and gentlemen but have used your initiative to entrap Mrs Dunwell and deceive Harry at the Turnpike. I trust you will all be naval heroes in the future, but you must learn when and how to handle the qualities of your leadership.’
Captain Sharp looked after their departing figures and sighed, he took a small sip from the bottle of brandy kept for comfort in his desk drawer. Now there would have to be more birchings. His new post was beginning to be even more trouble than he had anticipated. There were 23 boys in the sick bay now suffering from the latest outbreak of measles, and he had to deal with these schoolboy pranks. He had been given the names of three cadets; three boys he already learned to like. He had been watching them since the business of the deputation and knew they were likely to be the future leaders of the service. Of course, they would try and get round the rules, what young officer worth his salt did not do so. He remembered himself as a young midshipman in Diamond on the Australia Station when they had killed the last of the sheep and even the weevily bread was running out, they had left the ship with a Sub Lieutenant for some sight-seeing and had noticed while walking along, bread being sold from a roadside trader. Sub Lieut. Merrifield had ostentatiously looked the other way, a fellow cadet engaged the trader in conversation, and they had quietly subtracted a couple of loaves. But what had been the outcome of that? It had been the Achilles heel of the Sub Lieutenant who had gone on to show himself to be congenitally ‘soft’. Eventually, as a Lieutenant on a later ship, he had argued with his Captain against the flogging of a seaman. That had been the end of his career. It had been the start of Sharpe’s resolve to steel himself against sympathy.
Of course, the boys were hungry, of course their breakfast slop was unpalatable, but they must learn that that would be the fate at times of a boy going to sea. Hunger and uneatable food was a part of the training, they got enough beef and bread and beer during the day. To make such an arrangement with Mrs Dunlop and sneak her biscuits into the college was an infringement of rules and brought the status of a future officer and gentleman seen begging for free food, into bad repute. What did it say about the Training Ship – that it starved its cadets? No, the boys would have to be birched. He would have liked it not to be so. He knew that there were murmurings in public and in the Admiralty that he was becoming too severe. He knew that at least one Member of Parliament had expressed reservations about flogging in Briton but how else to limit the bad behaviour of cadets and fulfil his brief from Admiralty.
Also, it was nothing like that done at some of the famous public schools. Eton’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’ had passed but education and training were still done at the end of a birch be it land or sea. Now he would have to go and visit Mrs Dunwell. He could not leave it to a lesser officer. He must undergo the embarrassment and difficulty himself. The woman obviously had the best intentions but he had to make her see the error of her ways. He could not leave such a situation to become the talk of the town. He could see the newspaper headlines, a simple desire for extra biscuits would soon become ‘starving boys in the Training Ship’.
He had Burrage set out his top hat and frock coat, he did not want to intimidate the lady with his gold braid and formal sword. He would go ashore and take a private carriage down to the Fat Teapot. He hoped it might be bereft of customers when he arrived. It was not. There were a young couple leisurely imbibing morning coffee, and an old man huddled in the corner spinning out a cup of tea over an emaciated looking bun. There was no one else about. He asked the old fellow for the whereabouts of Mrs Dunwell.
‘Lord love you sir – where she always is – back kitchen over the teapot.’
Captain Sharp had imagined a small, round, comfortable teapot shaped lady but Mrs Dunwell was more of the tall coffee pot variety and she had a similar pungency in her manner. She straightened up, ‘Who might you be? I didn’t hear no knock.’
‘I do apologise, my dear lady, but I wish to have a word with you. I must speak to you on a serious matter, the matter of the turnpike biscuits.’
‘You want to buy some biscuits at the turnpike? Don’t they feed you neither?’ Captain Sharp felt less inclination to mollify, ‘Madam I assure you neither the cadets nor myself are in need of biscuits or any other nourishment you may provide.’
‘Then why can’t they buy extra biscuits at the turnpike straight out. Why the secrecy?’
Sharp tried another tack, ‘Madam, if boys were allowed to buy your delicious wares at the turnpike or anywhere else, just imagine what that would do to their appetites for their ordinary meals. No, seriously, my dear lady, boys are not allowed out of bounds. The turnpike is out of bounds, bringing food into the Training Ship is against the rules. We must not break the rules.’
‘Perhaps you mustn’t, I can and will when I hear of young boys going hungry, navy cadets or no. It’s a crying shame! So, what you here for? You going to do something to them young boys? What’s going to happen to them?’
‘They will be punished according to the regulations.’
‘You going to birch them, ain’t you? We hear about what’s going on down there. Poor little bodies being flayed to pieces – starving bodies. Should be ashamed of yoursen.’
‘Madam, I see I must bid you good day – I fear like so many of your sex you are all sentiment and no sense. I must inform you that if you become an accessory to infringement of naval regulations, there will be a price to pay. I have come to see you for your own good.’
‘You start threatening me, my good man and we’ll see who pays the price. I ain’t waiting to hear any more of this,’ and Mrs. Dunwell swept out of her kitchen. Captain Sharp wished he had come in gold braid and shining sword.
He returned to the Training Ship to reluctantly give the Commander his order for punishment: Cadets would be informed that it had come to his notice that boys were illegally buying biscuits at the Turnpike, and this action which not only demeaned the Training Ship but revealed deception and disobedience on the part of three Cadets could not be tolerated. Polwhele, Sebold and Bowen would be birched with three days to ruminate on their offence. All leave from the ship would be halted for two weeks.
Notables heard the announcement with horror and anger. There were cries all round, ‘We can’t leave it to Pol and Ulysses and poor old Bowen to take the can.’
‘We must do something,’ said Mason.
‘We must have a strategy meeting,’ declared Fraser.
‘We must stop it!’ said Ephraim.