Chapter One – Ever your loving son… Letters from School and Britannia

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

Ralph Lyall Clayton was born in London, in March 1885. His father, Francis Starkie Clayton was a naval Captain on the Australia Station at the time, anxiously awaiting the birth of his second son,

Thank God for the blessed news… I was a prey to all sorts of horrid fancies. You must not think me very weak but I had a good cry over your letter (you must keep that to yourself) I hardly realised how great the relief was but thank God, they were joyful tears. I won’t attempt to discuss Master Ralph now tho’ we are so far apart we are a happy couple safe in each other’s love.

It is obvious from Francis’ letters home to his wife Edith, that Ralph was born into a loving home with devoted parents and a brother, Jack, two years older. Francis remained Captain of the frigate Diamond on the Australia Station for the first four years of Ralph’s life. He was realistic about the problems of bringing up young children as a naval Captain;

We shall have more difficulty with Ralph, I think, he certainly has a more determined mouth in his photo. I don’t expect I shall make much of a hand at managing them, A Captain of a man of war is too much of an autocrat and it is not a good school for managing children or people not accustomed to discipline.

Nevertheless, despite his reservations it seems Ralph had a further brother, Brian, known as Brie and a sister Molly. I have not been able to find further information as to dates of their birth.

We hear no more of Ralph until he is able to write his first undated letters home from the preparatory school, Eagle House at Sandhurst, which he attended with brother Jack. They were living at Wyelands, Ross, Herefordshire at the time.

Dear Mother – Thankyou for the ten shilliongs… we had a match…- send more penny stamps The lamps must have looked very pretty at the Aldrich – Blakes on the carriage ferry – Jack has bought a little penny cameras with dry plates and chemicals.
Now I will end my letter. I am ever your loving son, Ralph

This is followed by a second letter,

Dear Mother. There is a golf tournament going on now in the afternoon. We have football on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays. we had another paper chase yesterday and were caught again. Did you see the Eclipse on Friday night. It was only partial though their was not much left of the Moon at seven forty-five. We saw it all. Jack did not go for the paper chase yesterday either.We are both in different sixes. You did not tell me about the children giving Mrs. Haliday, and the other teachers, presents. Please ask Mr Haliday for the February Numbers of the Scholar’s Own, and the March and the March Number also if it has come. I am afraid if Molly took every one out for a ride, Garry, and Mrs Pussy and her kitten would not like to have been riden on. Some has gone wrong with the pipes, so that no cold water will come, unless it is carried down from the cold water tank. I am writing to Nannie this afternoon. It is very wet today, so we are not allowed out. There is just a month more before the end of the term now. Now I will end my letter, I am your ever loving son, Ralph.

In the April of 1897 at the age of twelve, Ralph moved on to Marlborough where Jack was already installed. Brief letters from Marlborough provide little information but he seems to have had a happy time there. He continued his lifetime love of reading and stamp collecting,’ please send February and March numbers of Scholar’s Own….I have nearly nine hundred and thirty stamps now.’

Although Ralph was destined for the Navy, Marlborough was not a naval crammer. At the 1875 Admiralty Committee on Cadet training, officers had been anxious to ensure that applicants came from the best public schools and Captain Thomas Brandreth, a witness to the committee, had suggested that an expense threshold be used to establish the most suitable academic establishments. However, this was not supported by other members of the Committee and most pre-Britannia/Osborne education remained commensurate with the expense of an average, middle class,private school. Mannamead School, with its ‘special Navy class’ offered ‘moderate terms’ in 1890. A ‘swell coaching establishment’, like Littlejohn’s at Greenwich cost over £50 per year, but the average cost seems to have been in the region of £40 to £45 pounds a year, which compared favourably with the best private/public schools, although Ormonde and Gladstone in the desirable venue of Kensington, charged an expensive 80 guineas a year which was equivalent to some Public Schools: Marlborough cost £72 a year, Haileybury, £80 and Charterhouse £90 -110. By 1905, there was to be no essential difference in the curriculum offered by a good prep school and that offered by a naval crammer.

In 1899 Ralph left Marlborough, having passed the demanding Royal Naval Entrance Examination in English, French (or other language) Scripture, History, Geography, Arithmetic and Euclid, (Book One). On Jan 21st, 1900, he entered the very different school of the Naval Training Ship, Britannia.

Ralph’s first letter from Britannia was cheerful. He ‘arrived comfortably’ at Kingswear and went at once on board, in the Britannia Launch, where he was immediately examined by the doctor. That safely over, he,

Went down to find my chest. Gieve was there to see that all was right…at half past six we had tea, which consisted of cold meat, bread and butter and cake. From then till 8.30 there was nothing to do. Then we went to bed. I managed alright in my hammock, getting in with the help of my servant. I did not sleep much though. In the morning we got up at 6.30 and jumped into the bath and out again. At 7.00 we were drilled for an hour on the poop, and then we went down for breakfast sausages, ham, hot rolls and butter. Soon after we went to our instructors to get the necessary books. After school, I got my Britannia, our magazines, I did not do anything till after dinner when I went to see father at the Castle Hotel. When I went on board in the evening I found all the Cadets of the other terms on board. We went to bed at nine o’clock.

Similar details for next day followed. Hockey was played in the afternoon. On Saturday evening the band played. On Sunday, Ralph was disappointed to find it was too wet for the usual run with the Beagles. He found two other boys from Marlborough had arrived, ‘One of them is Chambers…’ Ralph was pleased to find himself in the choir. He concluded his first letter home, ‘I think I shall like this.’

Life in the training ship Britannia in 1900 was probably as comfortable as it ever was. and Ralph was happy there. ‘I like this Britannia very much indeed’ although ‘there is rather a lot of maths as every other hour is spent with the Naval Instructor who takes math. By an hour I mean a division of two hours…’ He was thrilled to be in the company of ‘Five Torpedo Boat Destroyers in’ the estuary.

There seems to have been plenty of time for relaxation. Photography was popular and he asked his father to send him a camera for his birthday. He had his Scholars Own and Hobbies Magazine sent and his paintbox for painting flags in his notebook. When the paintbox arrived, it was later opened in the presence of the Chief Petty Officer who’ had suspicion it contained sweets’…. Ralph was surprised his Atlas was not wanted – ‘apparently never used here.’ …He wondered whether ‘Jack said anything about my prayer book and hymn book, he will be pleased to know we have fish on Fridays. (Jack was later to enter the church. He sent Ralph a prayer book on his birthday).

Ralph noted that ‘directly after breakfast every day there is an inspection by the doctor.’ Disease on the ship was causing concern and the Navy did its best to look after the boys. It was a contributary factor in the building of the new shore based College in Dartmouth. Ralph was in hospital for two days in March as a precaution, it proved to be nothing but, ‘It is rather nice being here. They feed you well and there is a very good view of the harbour’s mouth.’

Ralph showed an early interest in political life,

‘I wish you would send me a paper sometimes as you absolutely can’t get them here and none are taken in for the whole ship.’ It was the time of the Boer War and Ralph wanted to know what was happening, ‘What does he think Gen. Buller intends to do’ he asked his father. He heard only rumours, ‘one is that Kitchener is killed and Cronje’s army anihilated but I hardly think that is likely.’ He found the – ‘ relief of Kimberley very surprising…we have hardly heard any idea of its being done. At any rate it shows what we can do…’I suppose Captain Bearcroft had nothing to do with the relief….What do you think Lord Methuen will do now? He rejoiced in the performance of a conjuror who changed Boer Flags into the Union Jack.

There was a diversion when the German training ship, the Charlotte came in,

She is a three master: she is painted white. Two funnels, and a good many guns. From distance she looks very pretty, but close the German sailors don’t add beauty to the scene. I saw no Cadets till this afternoon when I met three. Their clothes are something like ours but of a brighter blue: on their caps is a small round badge with red white and blue circles.

The first term ended and the start of the second term came round quickly. Again, ‘I think I shall like this term’ but Ralph was surprised to find all his clothes disinfected on arrival.This was a new move on the part of Admiraly to protect the boys from the increasing risk of disease..Letters at the beginning of next term concern his requirements from home: the usual photography requests, catalogues wanted, the knife he left behind ‘in the workship or the bedroom’, lantern slides from home that he wanted to paint and tubes of paint to do it with: money for the subscription, 5 shillings, for the C.P.O. who had left last term. Life was once more full with sport and hobbies, photography and walks, ‘there are lots of Primroses about, in the hedges chiefly. Besides those and some violets, I have not seen any other wild flowers.’ He took up fishing, ‘but did not catch anything.’ The training brigs from Plymouth came in; the Martin, Seaflower and Liberty with boys from the Lion and other training ships, ‘we had a cutter race with them and beat them, although I think, they ought to have beaten us as they have more practice.’

There were trips out in the Arrow and the Siren on half holidays, second term,

You have to put your name down directly you get up in order to be able to go…The Siren is the larger and used to be a private yacht. It has a galley;two boats and two sleeping cabins….On here we have a regular tea while we are out while on the Artrow there are only buns and milk. …On Tuesday we had a race with the Royal Yacht. They had one and we had two boats – four oared gigs. Our two boats were first. The Yacht boat was manned by officers.

Second term exams soon arrived but Ralph was untroubled, ‘ As to father’s seamanship it has brought me on much more than the other’s have been…’ He was more concerned about hearing from Baden Powell, (who apparently did not answer his letter), getting a new Senf Stamp Album,, and receiving a new bicycle which arrived for him in July. In the event, Ralph passed 7th in seamanship,

The marks were put up on Thursday. I got 118 marks out of 200. It is a curious thing that in the exam, the boy who passed in last was second to the whole lot. Besides Seamanship, we have had Practical steam and Navigation…our other exams come off over the next three days and then they are over. …I did get a first in Seamanship, but it does not go by places but by percentage you have got out of the whole.

The second term ended with an outbreak of Scarlet fever keeping them aboard a bit later than usual, ‘Lord Charles Scot will come round for the prizes, I suppose’ (Ralph was not a recipient) and then it was home for the Christmas holidays.

No more letters to his mother appear until the start of the third term in September. ‘When I got on board we all had to go past the doctor in order that he might see if we had any illnesses etc. …The third term started well despite an outbreak of jaundice and scarlet fever. As usual there was plenty going on. He was excited by the ‘two German men of war in harbour now, training ships, …the Moltke …and the Gneisenau …almost exactly alike, painted white and ship rigged.’ There was a trip to Plymouth to be shown round some of the ships by their Middies. In Niobe, the Lieutenants gave them ‘a feed in the Wardroom.’ October saw the start of Winter Routine and the Mackerel fishing season. Ralph went out fishing in the ‘blue boat’ (one of the gigs available to Cadets in the afternoons) (?) ‘there were at least a hundred small boats in the harbour ‘… ‘great fun.’

A British training ship, the Cleopatra, came in to keep the Germans company, and the Cadets had to show them round Britannia,

The Germans seem to have rather a good time here as I have heard they spend £70 a day on them. A lot of them went up the river to Totnes yesterday …

There was good news from home,

I am awfully glad to hear that Jack got the Bowen prize. His name will be put upon the board in Upper School now. How did Molly manage to hear it before you. I wrote to Jack last Tuesday as I heard from him on Monday…..we have got an examination in steam on Thursday. It is the only exam.we have and does not count at all. It was only started because the exam. in steam in the second term was always badly done.

It took First Sea Lord Fisher’s Selborne Reforms to introduce naval Cadets to the serious study of steam engines.

The rest of Ralph’s letters are always concerned with his photography and its requirements; a report of the activity, successful or otherwise, of the Beagles; and an account of the weather – a very wet term, apparently. He was ‘sorry to hear there are going to be a lot dances but I suppose I can’t get out of them.’ We know how keen Jacky Fisher was on getting his young officers to dance! The prospect of exams and the burden of study does not appear to have worried Ralph. He told his mother that he did not know, ‘where I was in the last term’s examinations, as I did not know all the marks I can’t find out’ Perhaps he thought it better not to know…. There was a long correspondence with brother ‘Bri’ over mutual stamp dealing and credit arrangements and a ‘ short’ letter from sister Molly, ‘but I suppose I can’t talk about shortness of letters..'(it was length of letters that marked out Ralph’s correspondence as the years proceeded! ) He wanted a chamois leather to clean his instruments with. He wondered what his mother gave Molly for her birthday and hoped the Cat was alright and had recovered the use of her paw. He was looking forward to the choir outing and had enjoyed the latest concert on the poop. Exams were held despite an outbreak of Jaundice and Scarlet fever. There was an exam in steam which ‘does not count at all’ only started because exam in steam in the second term was always badly done.’ There were ‘a lot of dances but I suppose I can’t get out of them.’

In January of 1901 Queen Victoria died.

Yesterday, one class out of every term was to have gone to the Proclamation. The classes drew lots for who was to go and we got it, onl;y, when the Captain wired to know if we could go, the Admiral said we were not to. As it was we waited on board for an hour yesterday afternoon waiting for an answer. I was rather sorry not to go…

Ralph was disappointed at the lack of activity in Britannia – The death of the Queen has made very little difference here…Except that all the flags are half mast and the band does not play, everything is the same so that one can hardly realsie that she is dead. We shall have a memorial service next Saturday morning like all the other churches. We didn’t do anything to celebrate the Accession. We never seem to do anything patriotic.’

However on Feb 2nd, he wrote to his mother,

…you will be very much surprised to hear that I saw the Funeral Procession yesterday morning. The whole of our term, 60 of us and three officers went up.We left by 12.0 train on Friday, a Special. For some reason the greater part of the train was composed of !st class carriages so we travelled in great luxury. We were pretty well fed on the journey.They brought round ships buns and pasties …we all had tea baskets so you see we were not starved. …we reached Victoria station about 6.30. we formed up on the platform and marched to our lodgings, 20 of us going to Marlborough Mansions, Victorian Street and the remainder to Belgravia Hotel. Next morning…we started for the bottom of St James street about nine. The streets were not very crowded then though we had to fight our way at two places. There were any amount of naval officers allin full uniform…..we had to wait and hour and a half before the procession was to come. It was very cold …While we were waiting we saw Lord Roberts. Higher up the street were a lot more soldiers and other officers who were to form part of the procession and would start when the Queen’s body arrived at Vistoria. Of course we didn’t see a great deal of the procession because it was ahead of us. At 11.30 the troops directly in front of us, the Riflemen, began to move, with arms reversed at slow march.After these there were a lot more footsoldiers, then a battery of artillery, all the guns painted khaki colour. After that came Lancers, Horse and Lifeguards. Then more foot soldiers and another battery. After that foreign ambassadors and then several military bands with muffled drums, playing parts of one of the dead marches, Chopin, I think.Then following the bands came the coffin on a gun carriage, the gun all fitting being painted like the other guns.Over the coffin a white [satin?] pall and gold edgings, and on top, the crown, sceptre and two coronets. The guncarriage was drawn by six of the Creams [?] After some more soldiers came 5 royal carriages, the first of which contained Queen Alexandra. Then came about 500 bluejackets in straw hats, belts and gaiters. And at the end the Kings and foreign officials and a very large number of detached military and naval officers.The whole took 35 minutes to pass us. …we left as soon as we could…rather a squeezing over the bridge but we managed to do it in the end though a lot of us got separated. …Passing through Slough we saw the Royal train, all new casrriages, upholstered in deep purple …There were two royal engines with Royal arms on a purple ground. The Royal Sovereign was one of them but I didn’t see the name of the other…

Despite what he did not see, his mother must have been pleased with her son’s careful account of what he did see. Life returned to normal in the Training Ship. Ralph was pleased when the band started playing again, ‘the evenings have been rather dull without it.’ There were rumours of Scarlet Fever, Stoke Fleming has been put out of bounds because of it.’ A fellow Cadet Hamilton was in hospital with pneumonia.

Hamilton died from pneumonia on Feb.24 and his funeral was on 28th. It was to be Ralph’s first death amongst his naval colleagues,

Hamilton was buried at Townstal Church, the one on top of the hill. All the cadets were present of course, with a body of marines. We first went across to the hospital about half a mile away. The Cadets lined the avenue up to the Hospital. The coffin was born by 8 blue jackets. From there we went straight to the Church. All the Officers and Instructors were present in full uniform. The greater part of the service was held in the Church. At the grave at the end the Last Post was sounded, but there were no volleys over the grave because the Church is within the ground of the hospital and it was feared they would be heard. For the same reason there was no band, no funeral guns or band because of sick in hospital.

Admiralty decided it was better to be safe than sorry and on Feb 28th Ralph wrote his last letter home from Britannia,

Dear Mother,
No doubt you have heard by now that we are all going home on Saturday. It was a great surprise. Here was a rumour of it last night but I don’t think many expected we whould go. It was only when we came on board this afternoon that we heard. …

It now remained to be seen where the young Cadet would find himself next.

(Mary Jones asserts copyright)

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