Chapter Five – Senior midshipman on HMS Grafton

A Life Cut Short – The Edited Letters of Lieutenant Commander Ralph Lyall Clayton, 1885 – 1916

The new year of 1903 started badly: Ralph wrote to his mother,

It has not been a good beginning to the New Year, has it? With war between Russia and Japan and that awful disaster at Chicago. And now we have had another bad accident out here. There was quite a heavy gale yesterday afternoon and the Seattle steamer to Victoria broke down near the shore off Victoria. Tugs were sent out after her but they failed to find her. …it is said she has gone down with all hands…
We shall be very short handed as regards Lieutenants for some time. You see we have no First Lieutenant and the Gunnery Lieutenant…is in hospital.

However, Ralph could now look forward to a comfortable mess of 19 men as the Flora Midshipmen were going back to their ship before the next voyage down South. Grafton crossed the line in the middle of January but was then placed in Quarantine because she had ‘crossed the line from Panama.’ To pass the time there was a ‘not very high class’ concert by the men and then the ship was able to leave for Callas. Life became quiet, a bit of prize firing, but not much to write home about,

I don’t know my exact height, just about 6ft, I think, perhaps a little over but I hit my head so often against the beams that I never mind now and don’t take any notice of it.

They dressed the ship for the King’s accession. The Peruvian ships did likewise ‘and managed it pretty well….there are only about 8 guns in the Peruvian Navy whose business is only to salute. The Peruvian flagship is rather like a liner , has four small guns and no armour: the other ships don’t count as most of them are paddle steamers without engines.’

At Coquimbo in February there was more to tell. Ralph gave his mother details of his sight seeing, the winding train ride up to to Oroya where he avoided the hostile, spitting llamas and got a bad altitude headache, compensated for by a sudden, beautiful snowfall. The Admiral went up on a special train. When they got back to the ship they found the engines would not work properly necessitating a delay until next morning . When they left, there was,

another excitement…we ran ino a blackfish and got him so squarely that he stayed on our bow. The Admiral, Mrs.Bickford and Miss Bickford, Captain and in fact everyone flocked to the Forecastle. It was an enormous blackfish, something between 30 and 40 ft. ..we must have pretty well killed him at once he was awfully limp. …we had first to stop , and then go to full speed astern before he began slowly to slip off, and sink like a stone…didn’t do us any harm, just a tremendous wave each side…never heard of any other ship doing it.

Ralph said that the ship was going to ‘paint grey’, a novelty to him. ‘The grey doesn’t look at all bad though I don’t know that it is more invisible than the black.’ He heard that Commander Fair was to be replaced by Sandeman, recently promoted from First Lieutenant. The ship was organising an ‘At Home’. Like many of the young Midshipmen, Ralph hoped he would be out. He hoped their next stop, Valparaiso, would provide more interest. In fact, he found it ‘a fine city ..impressed me a good deal more because Victoria is so poor in comparison’.

There was more sight seeing in Santiago with good views of the city and admiration of the Almeda, ‘a wide street with four rows of trees down the centre. They keep their principal statues there.’ He searched for the statue of Lord Cochrane without success. He looked forward to going to Iquique and Arica Bay but was sorry to hear they would not visit the Galapagos. At Talcahuano he was interested in the several Chilean ships,

‘including the Cochrane, a funny thing that you can hardly call a ship: nearly as broad as she is long and looking as if she had been half a large battleship at one time. I don’t think Lord Cocrane could look down on her with much pride.’

Then it was time to return to Esquimalt. They left for Coquimbo at thirteen knots and made it in forty minutes from Talcahuano. They found Flora and the Liffey in. Liffey was due to be broken up when she had unloaded her stores and the other ships were raiding her for anything which might prove useful to them.

Communications with home relied entirely upon the letters which meant so much. Ralph’s letters are full of accounts of letters he has sent, letters he has received, letters he is waiting to send. At Coquimbo, he was delighted to hear that although it wasn’t ‘a proper mail day… only just heard of being able to send it. It isn’t going in the usual sealed bag but separately over the Andes’. News coming back from home was reassuring. Mother was well, Jack had won a scholarship to Eton and Bri had settled down happily at Marlborough.

There were also parcels bringing birthday presents:

‘I really didn’t guess what it was until it came just as I was opening it …a cigarette case…awfully good of you to give it to me and I won’t make too frequent use of it , both for it’s own good and mine. Thank Father very much for the knife….very useful for camping. One always forgets a tin opener….please tell Bri how pleased I was with the very good pencil case ..I have written to him at Marlborough enclosing some stamps.’

A ten shilling postal order came later.

Keeping watch, doing evolutions, preparing for coaling did not give Ralph much news to send home although racing and changes of command provided a bit of interest.

Yesterday we had a very good race between two Whaler’s stokers crews of the two ships; it was a three mile race and seemed no end of a distance. The Grafton’s boat won easily by a hundred yards. I think it was a good thing we did as the Flora’s are getting too cocky about their feats. Our new Commander and Gunnery Lieutenant arrived with the mail today. The former I like the look of but don’t much care about the other. There are 2 Lieutenants leaving tomorrow for England….one to take up a position in the senior staff at Whale Island, which is a very good billet indeed. It means certain promotion to Commander in three years.

Ralph was becoming anxious as to his next posting. He hoped the coming change of Admiral would help. Admiral Bickford was to be relieved by Commodore Goodrich. ‘We don’t know whether is bringing a ship with him, so we are no nearer knowing when we go home.’

However, July was enlivened by an unusual incident:

All the ammunition of the station Cordite, lots of Lyddite, guncotton, etc. are kept on an island at the top of the harbour, for target practice and for running torpedoes. Between us and the island lies a dismasted ship at anchor. The mate of this ship has a brother: the brother had a birthday and apparently spent it on board. The mate in a jovial mood found a gun and sent up several rockets. The gun is a signal from the magazine that there is a fire there; the Rockets are signals of distress of course. Result, tremendous panic, away all fire Engines, six in number, as fast as possible. All the senior executive officers go away with visions of Victoria Crosses. Messages to Admiral and Flag Captains. Then everyone left on board goes to sleep quietly and waits for the magazine to blow up. One of the Flagship boats arrives a good first at Cole Island and is met by a sleepy Marine with a hand lantern who wants to know whats up. Disgust of everyone. Officers especially are rather annoyed and threaten to cut the throats of everyone on the sailing ship. All arrive on board again at 9.30 and so ends the dangerous fire on Cole Island.

Again Admiralty exams are delayed but in August Ralph is delighted to tell his mother that, ‘at last I have got one of the Torpedo boats, No.40: I have been in her a week now…so now I am comfortably settle and doing nothing.’ However, when he had to start practice firing No.40’s engine broke down and to his disappointment he had to go back to the Grafton for a while. No.40 Torpedo boat was not hard worked. Apart from being involved in the prize firings the boat was at the Admiral’s service and transported picnic parties and the Admiral’s son on fishing trips. He enjoyed the unconventional housekeeping with a fellow officer, (Admiral Bickford’s son) that a torpedo boat necessitated, and the freedom and diversity of travel and work, ‘today we had to go out morning and afternoon training stokers and it was very choppy, we only broke one sugar basin but it isn’t pleasant to hear everything banging about in the cupboard and wondering what will be left. That is the worst of this kind of boat , she is so very light…..(photo in Army and Navy for June) I am not in command of the Torpedo boat. I wish I was, Lt. Bickford, the Admiral’s son holds that exalted position for the third year running which is rather a shame.’

Ralph notes that three Middies are being invalided home. One diagnosed with epilepsy and two with consumption, ‘one of the nicest fellows in the Gunroom is going home…looks as well as he could be …I don’t think he would have been sent home if it hadn’t been for the new doctor at the Hospital here who is a very clever chap and mad on consumption. I expect he could have invalided half the ship’s company if he could get the chance.’ A fourth Midshipmen was invalided shortly after in September.

October came and the first frosts, ‘these last few days it is very cold on the Torpedo boats , more so below than on deck.’ Life was enlivened on the Grafton by the Commander bringing on board a young bear he had bought for £6. ‘It is rather a waste of money as he us already four months old and has awful strong teeth which it uses unintentionally in play. He will soon have to get rid of it I expect.’

Ralph does not refer very often refer to other Captains but he writes of Baker, Captain of Flora, that ‘he is rather given to worrying the junior Captains of other ships when he gets the chance. He is not very popular officially in the fleet.’

There were now six weeks of preparations for the next South American cruise and Ralph did his duty in final farewell calls. The Torpedo boats were paid off and Ralph had to wait hopefully for another. Meanwhile,

Our bear is in a very flourishing state now. It is allowed to walk about the ship. Once it found its way down to an officer’s cabin on the Main deck. It eat his soap, gnawed his boots and finally went to sleep in his bunk. And today, an officer asleep in his cabin, woke up to find him eating his cigarettes by the hundred.

Grafton had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Flora in order to relieve Grafton and allow her to go South but unfortunately in coming she went ashore near Victoria. ‘From the time we got the news there was nothing but panic…since then we have made two futile attempts to get the Flora off and are not yet discouraged tho rather badly knocked about I think we shall be the greater wreck by the time we have got the Flora off. At any rate the Commodore will have a fine fleet to take command of, won’t he? He arrives next Saturday…..I am very sorry for Captain Baker , I am afraid he won’t get a ship again. He was quite confident of getting her off at first but each time we fail. Though we did move her this morning.’ Eventually, amidst cheers and the band playing they did manage to pull the Flora off the rocks. He promised his Admiral father a long account of proceedings and was disappointed to think that all the trouble, the Court Martial of the Captain and Navigating Lieutenant of Flora, the heavy work replacing the ammunition and stores that had been taken out of the ship to lighten her, would delay, if not cancel, his South American cruise. Ralph was midshipman of the court with the Commodore President and Captain Keppel and all Commanders of the Fleet. ‘The Commodore is undoubtedly nice looking but I think will have his own way in everything. He seems to be a little high handed considering the rank of the officer he is trying….If only it hadn’t been shown that Capt. Baker took a prominent share in navigating the ship I think he would have been acquitted and the Lieut. (N) dismissed the ship. As it was both were severely reprimanded.’

Christmas Day came with the Grafton decorated and the new Commodore and his wife visiting on board. ‘Mrs. Goodrich gave Christmas cards to all the men in the ship and sent 5 barrels of beer on board for them’. While the Flora was in dock being repaired , the officers were all living out of the ship in various local houses.

Then the Grafton was ready to leave for the South, well fitted out in terms of stores and provisions ‘in case she might be ordered to China or such….cases of jam in all corners of the lower decks’. Then it was down towards Acupulco and Ralph was soon complaining of the heat. It was the beginning of 1904 and rumours of the Russo Japanese war reached them. They wondered if there would be any change in their orders but nothing happened. News was scarce but they heard that Esquimalt was to be fortified and large supplies were being sent out. News of the war petered out.

Ralph was repeating his earlier trip south and there was less that was new to retail to his mother. There was a new Engineer Commander and Artificer Engineer and a new Gunnery Lieutenant was picked up at Valparaiso… ‘he is the 4th Lieutenant we have had. He is rather like Mr.Loxley, no.2 …I think he will be a big change for the better’. There was news of an earthquake at Lima – ‘many houses destroyed, the Cathedral tower split from top to bottom’. There was smallpox at Rio Janeiro and a revolution in Monte Video.

Officials at Santiago assured the British Minister there that everything was alright, and although the Consul here telegraphed to have a ship sent down, nothing was done. The English who live mostly on one hill had to fortify that and were under arms for quite a long time. They said that they frequently had bullets coming on thru’ the roof. Luckily, the hills above the lower part of the town are very steep and not easily attacked except form behind and they managed the keep the [?] out.

Ralph went up to Santiago with the Commander and a couple of others, but ‘not a popular trip …there is more to do down here’. Basically the cruise was proving uneventful and as they neared Acapulco Ralph had no idea of what they were going to do next. It was May and the weather was unusually cold, he wished they had a fire in the gunroom. There were exams to prepare for but, ‘practising for the Regatta is the great thing at present’. He was looking forward to getting back to England and going to Greenwich College to complete his final Sub Lt. exam in Navigation, ‘the first class begins on Sept. 24th but there are a great many in that already without counting the fifteen above me in my own term…the time for a Midshipman is three years and two months.’

By the beginning of June, Grafton had returned to Esquimalt for the Regatta and the exams. This time the Flora was the most successful ship, ‘Capt. Baker is much elated at the success of his crews and can talk of nothing else’Grafton did not do so well. The Admiralty exams on board which had been long delayed now took place, ‘French comes off tomorrow morning… After that there will only be the papers set by ship’s Officers in Steam, Torpedo, Gunnery and Seamanship to do the examination papers are not being looked over this year by the Naval instructors The usual plan is for the papers to be looked over and marks given. The result for each fleet are then sent all over the world. This year they want to get the papers home earlier and expect to have the results out earlier than they usually do….I think my board on my exam will be Capt. Fraser; Commander Parry of Egeria & our Commander…’

June was a busy time of evolutions, torpedo firing in the Straits of Vancouver Island at Port San Juan , and fleet manoeuvres . Ralph had to attack the harbour which he thought was easily defended by the other side so they didn’t expect to win, but it was all, ‘rather fun….you have to be careful of handling a torpedo in an improper manner. As if you touched the screws with your hand, you wouldn’t be able to do it again. – with that hand’. He had lunch with the Commodore and his wife who came on board, ‘she says that Goodrich castle and village are named after an ancestor of his’. But the Grafton was now expected to return to England in August and with all the activity Ralph began to think he would never get a board for his examinations, he needed three Captains and a Commander to be on it. ‘The three I want are Captain Fraser, Commander Parry and Sandeman…..I have had a chance of asking the Commodore and he does not like people asking that kind of thing’.

Manoeuvres supplied a diversion:

We were expecting to be examined by a patrol boat and you would have laughed to see us when a false alarm was raised. ….however, they had no patrol boat going…we expected them to land a searchlight from the shore [the Commander vetoed searchlights as upsetting the local people] and were very careful in getting the torpedo ready….anyhow we fired successfully…[but] the torpedo apparently hit the screw and I don’t suppose it would have injured the plating at all …there was confusion on board at once and two guns fired at us after we had fired a red star to show that we had fired a torpedo. It was all very amusing. The Commander was awfully mad. He made us steam round and round the harbour looking for the torpedo until one civilian crew mutinied. Then we went back to fetch the picket boat…We spent another hour and a half in vain search for the Torpedo and turned in at five after a very exciting night.

In July Ralph finished the Admiralty examinations in Seamanship, Torpedo, Gunnery and Steam. He still had to await his board. When it came it was Capt.Baker and Fraser and Commander Sandeman. Not quite what he had wanted. Then it was time for the Grafton to sail for home and Ralph to his next assignment – the final exam that would make him a Sub Lieutenant at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

(Mary Jones asserts copyright)

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