A Life Cut Short – The Edited Letters of Lieutenant Commander Ralph Lyall Clayton, 1885 – 1916
HMS Grafton, the desired ship of Midshipman Ralph Clayton, was one of the Edgar class of first class protected cruisers. Despite a certain loss of armour plating they were exceptional seaboats and good steamers. Ralph joined Grafton on Jan 4th 1902. When he arrived on board he found the indispensable Gieve had ‘got the things from my chest before and all the other things my servant could have got.’ He was disappointed not to get his papers or his pay at once, as the captain had not yet arrived on board. After a leisurely weekend collecting all members of the crew, and the requisite steam trials, at the beginning of February Grafton was ready to set off for the Pacific Station. Ralph wrote to his mother,
We had it very rough Friday evening. It was curious that no one was prepared for it, so when we started rolling, the whole was kind of turned upside down. It was our guest night but we didn’t get much dinner owing to most of the gunroom servants being more or less bad. Altogether there was a great commotion. Our piano and tables had to be jambed up with uniform cases to prevent them shifting.
Grafton continued to roll and pitch for the next two days. Life was uncomfortable,
The Gunroom is awfully hot and stuffy as we haven’t been able to open the Ports since we left. It was too rough to land at Madeira and difficult at St.Vincent, The first anchor we let go had both its flukes knocked for and had to be weighed.Our second anchor held alright although we had to have anchor watch in case we should drag.We Midshipmen had to keep night watches.
They had to leave Madeira without the wine and whisky they had hoped for and sleep on deck because it was so close in the flat where they normally slept. When they eventually managed to land at St.Vincent, it was to take in 700 tons of coal. At first Ralph was pleased to know that he would get out of it. He was to run the steam pinnace. However,
It was nearly as bad as coaling. There was a pretty big swell, and going ashore we were pretty well covered with spray all the way in. It isn’t very nice, especially at night when you can hardly see because of it. Last night I stayed in the steam pinnace all night and slept there of course.
There followed the long hot voyage to Cape Verde and Montevideo. ‘I have been on the sick list for the last 8 days owing to the heat I think, and a slight attack of jaundice.’ The Chaplain got the Fleet Surgeon to ask if Midshipman Clayton could go ashore. The result was brief leave for both of them and a pleasant diversion of sight seeing, obtaining local stamps, and sampling Spanish food from a menu he could not understand. Ralph was impressed by the colonnades with statues – one of George Stephenson -but not with the engine they eventually found. It took a long time to get uphill to their destination and kept stopping. But Ralph was impressed by the beautiful scenery around them. He returned refreshed to the Grafton and enjoyed the voyage round Cape Horn to Valparaiso,
We left Punta Arenas at 2.30 Sunday morning. About five we came to our anchorage for the evening, a small bay opening out of the Channel. The Channel itself is really wonderful. It winds in and out among the mountains and hills and you appear to be surrounded by hills…many of the hills are snowcapped. We saw two large glaciers quite near. I took photos of them but they don’t come out any where nearly like they really are so they wouldn’t tell you much.
One of the features of Ralph’s letters are his careful description of the sights and sounds he meets with on his journeys. Like most young officers, he loved travelling and was always interested in the topography and geology of his surroundings. When he arrived in Valparaiso several officers immediately went off shooting but since Ralph could not go, the Captain kindly took Ralph and another chap ashore later. ‘The Captain got three duck, all the others together only one ‘ Next morning they left the Magellan Straits and entered Smythe’s Channel,
It is much narrower than the Straits and very deep …we went the whole way at 15 knots as the capt. was afraid the current might be too strong for slower speed. We anchored on Monday night at a place called Eden Is.. …..There are a few natives there who came off in the canoes. They are very dirty …All round you can see lots of notices with the names of ships which have been there and one of them had the name ‘Condor’ and date April 8 1899. The Commander had the board photographed and then took the board down to take to Esquimalt harbour dockyard. It will be rather amusing if he doesn’t find out his mistake before we arrive. The ‘Condor’ he means wasn’t launched until 1899 and didn’t commission for the Pacific until last year…
Throughout this voyage Ralph’s main complaint was that he had to run the Steam pinnace and was always carrying various officials backwards and forwards. So he missed any available time ashore in harbour. Added to which the Captain seemed to have a predilection for being at sea on a Sunday.
Ralph was fascinated by the six Chilean battleships in the Harbour,
One of them, the O’Hagan, the largest is quite a fine one, heavily armed with ( this won’t interest you)
Four 12 pounders.
It makes her very top heavy I should think having all the heavy guns except the 6″ on the Upper deck or above it. The other battleships are smaller but all heavily armed for their size and must be all rather bad seaboats.
Ralph continued to be stuck with running the pinnace and decided it was definitely worse than coaling when other Mids.went ashore and left him working. He managed to get to the dinner held for Midshipmen on board Warspite before she had to leave for home. When she left, ‘we manned the rigging and cheered them. They had the pendant flying on their way out’.
The Grafton continued her voyage up to Esquimalt in her newly exalted position. On April 13th,
We have reached San Jose de Guatemala at last…We have crossed the line now but we shall have it as hot as ever up to Acapulco….the temperature yesterday in the Gun room was 92% and outside where we are supposed to sleep it was 94%.
Near Acapulco.Temp in gunroom, 92degrees – outside where we are supposed to sleep 94%….half the night on the quarter deck. Lots of Turtles going to the Galapagos Islands. How they know which way to go I cannot think…
Two weeks later,
We have been having quite an exciting time at San Jose. To begin with, for two days we were expecting orders from the Admiralty to land two companies and maxims to seize the custom house. It was owing to some row with the Guatemalan bank which wouldn’t pay up for something or other….Anyhow we were ready to land at a moment’s notice. The Admiral was at Guatemala so we had to get all our orders by telegraph. There is a cable from England at San Jose so the Admiralty orders can come straight through.
Orders were planned to land and seize the custom house and then patrol the coast. But in the event the matter was settled and the services of the Grafton crew were not needed.
The second excitement was this. On Thursday about 8.23 pm just after dinner we were surprised to feel the whole ship vibrating just as if the engines were going full speed astern…someone said it was an earthquake. We all rushed on deck. The lights of San Jose wee moving up and down and waving about like anything for 20 seconds. The whole thing must have taken over a minute… Next day I spoke to the chief of the Cable Office, coloured chap..speaks English very well said one church in Guatemala had been destroyed, walls of Cathedral cracked. Another 5 secs and Guatemala would have been in ruins. Other towns were damaged and people killed. There is a chain of volcanoes running down coast….worst earthquake for 7 years at least.
Things settled down again after the excitement but there was sad news for Ralph as the ship neared Esquimalt. A fellow midshipman died of enteric fever…’he must have been feeling very ill but did not go to doctor for two days…two other officers on the sick list were sent ashore to hospital at San Diego.but this one, Wallis [?] Fleming was too sick to be moved’ The Admiral put into San Diego to land the invalids and there was a chance to visit Santa Monica but the shops were ‘not high class’. The men gave a concert on board ‘rather wild and a little vulgar but as it was only the first I expect they will improve’.
Grafton arrived in Esquimalt at the beginning of May. Ralph found the whole fleet was in harbour except the Amphion. Grafton was waiting to go into dry dock, ‘we want it pretty badly and we certainly look frightfully dirty besides the others.’ Ralph thought it a very pretty harbour which invited the use of a private skiff. ‘I should like to be able to have a skiff but that will have to wait. Almost all the Warspite’s officers have private skiffs even down to one midshipman’. He was glad to find that the dockyard provided a good reading room for school ashore, ‘there is not sufficient room on board’. Another advantage of Esquimalt, ‘the Admiral and his family have not gone ashore yet but we hope to get rid of them tomorrow’.
The yearly exams were due but Ralph seems as usual unworried by the academic side of his life, he did not let study interfere with his opportunity to go fishing, visit friends and play cricket,
The yearly exams come off in 3 weeks and a half…but the results probably won’t come out until nearly the June of next year. That is the Official results. Our Naval Instructor marks the papers pretty fast though and according to the marks, we get ten days leave or less afterwards…..
(note on exams?)
Our exams begin tomorrow and go on all week……I don’t think I have done badly but I shan’t be first though I may be second. We have got one or two more exams. French, Spanish and German; I am not going in for the last as I expect you well guess. Then there is seamanship, gunnery, and torpedo……
Exams were followed by painting ship for an Admiral’s inspection on June 11,’
We have been painting for the last three weeks and every bit of paintwork has been gone over. We have all got a lot of it on our clothes….the Admiral inspected the officers chiefly. He started in the conning tower after Killing most of the officers in turn he went round the ship. He had the Fore Bridge shot away during his rounds but he must have forgotten that as he went up on it a few minutes later. After that we had Fire Stations, Collision Stations, and the Landing Parties. After that, we, the Midshipmen had rifle drill.
Despite the maritime attractions of Esquimalt, life there during August and September became somewhat tedious for our rather serious minded young Midshipman,
Thanks very much for the books. The only thing is that I get through them so fast and don’t do anything else until I have finished which is rather awkward….I have been up to Victoria to try to get a butterfly net but I couldn’t do so, so I suppose I will have to get one from home…
He was glad that brother Jack had got the Marlborough prize and ‘distinguished himself so well – nothing unusual in that’.Jack went on to Oxford University. Ralph went off with his company to camp ashore and practice at the firing range where he was glad to be able to ‘ get hot or cold fresh and salt water.’ He heard was sorry to hear ‘ that ‘Tom Payne is going into the Navy as a stoker as I don’t think it is much of a life…our stokers have had a pretty hard time of it coming out and there have been numerous cases of their refusing work owing to the heat.and they are no worse than any others’.
Ralph was getting restless. Despite a few trips ashore (killing his first grouse) and practising at the rifle range which he was quite good at, (the carpenter got the highest score) he declared that he didn’t care where they went next, he just preferred to move around rather than stay in one place. He heard that they were to spend Christmas at Acapulco, ‘which won’t be so bad’. Before leaving, he had to pay a courtesy visit to the Admiral, ‘Today I am going to call on the Admiral. I don’t want to but I suppose I ought’.
When they eventually got their new programme, he was pleased that they were,
going to call on a great many new places than on their way up this year. Also another good thing is, we are going to have a ventilating shaft into the Gunroom from the Quarterdeck which will make a great deal of difference to the atmosphere. We have been trying to get it all the time we have been at Esquimalt and didn’t hope to as the Admiral said it couldn’t possibly be done …at some future date the government will also provide us with a fan; some time before the end of the commission.
There was a trip into dry dock and another Admiral’s inspection before the ship was ready to leave for her new commission. Ralph missed the inspection, since as a junior Middy he was a school in the dockyard every morning, but he enjoyed the time in dry dock.
In dock now for four days and at present we are having a very pleasant time. There is no electric light and we have to use candles which means no light at all. There is a new gunroom stove and we had it alight today. The smell from that mixed with the smell of paint is a most enjoyable compound.
We came in here Monday morning and it took about two hours. However, it is a very difficult job as there is only a foot and a half to spare on each side. All this week I have been going through a mining course so now I know all about it.We have laid a line right across the harbour and everything is arranged as it would be in war time.
They were in dock eleven days more than expected and Ralph could not wait to leave. The weather which had been consistently foggy became very cold – at least the Gunroom was to get a stove. It seemed to take a long time before the ship was ready for her new commission.News came in of new appointments,
There have been quite a lot of appointments to the Flora. Among them 7 Mids none of them senior in terms to any in this ship. Besides that, the 1st Lieut. and Gunnery duties was in the Britannia. He is a very nice chap and I think he will give his Mids a very good time….there are quite a lot of Hannibal’s now …a new set…2 mids, 2 subs and an Engineer.
Always family minded, Ralph made arrangements for his mother to buy Christmas presents for everybody while he was away. He was anxious that letters should continue to be sent when he was away, ‘you know if you wrote twice a day I should be glad to have them and you know that they all get read so don’t pretend that you don’t’.
The ventilation of the gun room proceeded apace, ‘both decks have been cut through now …even if we don’t get the fan at the foot of it we shall have two small ones so we shan’t do too badly’. It was much needed as they approached Acapulco. Ralph had never before coaled in a hot climate ‘and I certainly don’t like it’ but he was pleased that the ship was faster at coaling than ‘any other warship up to now in the port’.
Christmas day 1902 arrived, the end of his first year on Grafton, and Ralph was impressed with the way in which the ratings celebrated the day,
After Church…it is the custom for all the officers to go round the mess deck, to see the decorations in the messes. It was the first time I had heard about it and I was quite surprised at the way they had been beautified….the messes simply consist of a table and two stools each without any partition as a rule. So to begin with, they were all divided up by screens of flags which in themselves form a very bright sight.Then the tables are all laid with coloured stuff or bunting and all the photographs, etc. belonging to every member of the mess are displayed. The greater part of the provisions of each mess are also in evidence, then there are…. Chinese lanterns, a pretty sight.And in every mess there are one or two with slices of cake, oranges, etc. on plates which they press on everyone. …ingenious, a photograph of the Grafton put over an electric light and,holes pricked out down the mast, yards and sides which looks exactly like the ship when illuminated. All the officers from the Admiral and his family down to the Midshipmen went round preceded by the band..
The Midshipmen had a picnic – carrying everything a quarter of a mile, bathing in the sea and getting back after dark. The day had provided, ‘a good time’. Matters were improved when the Naval Instructor went up country to shoot duck and there was no school for a couple of days. – ‘they got over 120 altogether which wasn’t bad for a couple of days, was it?’
Thus ended the first year of Ralph’s commission in Grafton. He was happy. There was still much to look forward to.
(Mary Jones asserts copyright)