H.M.S. EDINBURGH AND WHALE ISLAND
H.M.S. Excellent again - King George's Gunnery Course - Improvements in Big Gun Targets - Service on H.M.S. Duke of Edinburgh - Making Ships look Pretty - Duke of Edinburgh's Interest in Gunnery - Invention of a Signalling Lamp - How the Admiralty treated it - Sinking of H.M.S. Sultan - A Unique Salvage Operation - Back to Whale Island - A Prophecy fulfilled - How a Cricket Pitch converted the Admiralty - Convict Labour - A Committee on Naval Uniform - A Naval Barnum - How the Royal Naval Fund was instituted - Farewell to Whale Island.
IN 1883 I was appointed to H.M.S. Cambridge, the School of Gunnery at Devonport. After serving there six months, I was transferred to H.M.S. Excellent, the Senior Gunnery School at Portsmouth. Shortly after I arrived, I was told that my idea of converting Whale Island into a Gunnery School was well-known, and that it was quite impossible ; a mud-heap the island had been and a mud-heap it must remain.
This was not very encouraging, but I made out a plan, showing barrack accommodation, with all the necessary gun batteries and instruction rooms, and laid it before Captain John Fisher (now Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone) who, after going most carefully into every detail, took it to the Admiralty, and not only was the conversion of Whale Island into a Gunnery
KING GEORGE AND GUNNERY
School accepted, but it was decided to begin the work at once.
In 1885, King George V., as a Sub-Lieutenant, joined the Excellent, to qualify in gunnery, and I was appointed as his governor. His Majesty passed most satisfactory examinations and displayed extraordinary proficiency as a rifle shot.
During the three years (1883 to 1886) that Captain Fisher commanded the Excellent, great strides were made in the introduction of breechloading and machine guns. An experimental staff, which was much wanted, was brought into existence, and the heavy-gun prize firing of the Fleet was changed. Heretofore, ships had used as a target a cask with a flag on it, and points were awarded according to how much over or short some one judged the misses to be. In 1884, Lieutenant Randolf Foote (later on an Admiral), the Senior Lieutenant of the Excellent, proposed that a large canvas target should be used, and that only shots actually striking the target should be counted. The firing ship was to steam along a marked-out base line at a known range. This proposal was adopted and remained in force for twenty-one years. In those days of the Excellent there was constant friction between the Commander and First Lieutenant. The Commander wanted to employ the men in painting and housemaiding the ship; the First Lieutenant wanted them employed in learning gunnery, the raison d'etre of the men's presence in the ship.
In 1886 I was promoted to Commander, and shortly afterwards joined H.M.S.
Edinburgh , the most modern turret ship of that time. With the co-operation of Lieutenant Peirse, a very smart gunnery officer (afterwards Admiral Sir R H. Peirse, K.C.B., M.V.O.), I started training the officers and men in hitting the target, using miniature rifles in the bores of the big guns, and introduced many other appliances that are in use to-day. But the innovation was not liked - we were twenty years ahead of the times, and in the end we had to do as others were doing. So we gave up instruction in gunnery, spent money on enamel paint, burnished up every bit of steel on board, and soon got the reputation of being a very smart ship. She was certainly very nice in appearance. The nuts of all the bolts on the aft deck were gilded, the magazine keys were electro-plated, and statues of Mercury surmounted the revolver racks. In short, nothing was left undone to insure a good inspection.
In those days it was customary for a Commander to spend half his pay, or more, in buying paint to adorn H.M. ships, and it was the only road to promotion. A ship had to look pretty ; prettiness was necessary to promotion, and as the Admiralty did not supply sufficient paint or cleaning material for keeping the ship up to the required standard, the officers had to find the money for buying the necessary housemaiding material. The prettiest ship I have ever seen was the Alexandria. I was informed that £2000 had been spent by the officers on her decoration.
In these circumstances it was no wonder that the guns were not fired if it could be avoided, for the powder then used had a most deleterious
A NEW SIGNALLING LAMP
effect on the paintwork, and one Commander who had his whole ship enamelled told me that it cost him £100 to repaint her after target practice. Fortunately, target practice could easily be avoided ; Admirals seldom asked any questions about it, as their ships were generally the worst offenders.
The Duke of Edinburgh, who was then Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean, was an exception to the general rule, and took a great interest in gunnery ; but in the conditions then prevailing - absence of competition, no encouragement from the Admiralty, and the general impression in the Fleet that gunnery was of no importance - it was impossible to improve matters.
As a Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Edinburgh had, in my humble opinion, no equal. He handled a Fleet magnificently, and introduced many improvements in signals and manoeuvring. At this period, when the Admiral wished to make a signal at night to all the ships, about half a dozen operators had to be employed making the signal in different directions, so that all the ships could see it. Even then it was difficult, as the signalling lamp got mixed up with the other lights in the ship.
It occurred to me that if we could put a light on the top of the mast the ships all round would see it, and that the difficulty of its being confused with other lamps would be removed. Accordingly I had a lamp made with a screen which we could pull up and down by means of a wire, and so make flashing signals. The Duke of Edinburgh adopted it in his flagship, and many other ships copied it.
This lamp had an interesting career, extending
over many years. The authorities saw the utility of it, but did not wish to adopt it - whether or not because it was my invention is a matter on which I will offer no opinion. So they turned it upside down, christened it the "Gravity Lamp," and introduced it for use in the Navy as their own invention.
As soon as it came into general use, this lamp proved a failure, as the shade, by its own weight, would not cut off the light quickly enough, and frequently would not fall at all. By way of obviating the difficulty they put springs on the top of it, but discovered there was insufficient room for them. Finally, after years of trial and waste of money, they were compelled to adopt my original suggestion, and a lamp of this description is still used by the British and other Navies of the world.
The only interesting and instructive event that took place during the Edinburgh's commission was the salvage of H.M.S. Sultan, one of our finest ships. She was practically raised by a French engineer with a staff of twelve men, and his method of raising her, novel at the time, is now recognised and used by all salvage companies.
It was on the 6th March, 1889, that H.M.S. Sultan, while practising firing torpedoes, struck on a rock in the Comino Channel. Every endeavour to tow her off failed, and seven days afterwards, during a northerly gale, she was washed off the rock and sank in 42 feet of water. An examination of the hull of the vessel by divers, revealed that the damages sustained were so excessive that all hope of getting her up was abandoned. The
THE SALVAGE OF H.M.S. SULTAN
Admiralty offered £50,000 to any one who would raise her and bring her into Malta Harbour, but the representatives of two or three firms who had a look at her agreed in regarding the task as impossible.
Two months later, a French engineer, named Chambon, who was employed in the Corinth Canal, paid her a visit and, to the surprise of every one, expressed an opinion that she could be raised quite easily. A contract was at once made with the Admiralty by which they were to pay £50,000 if the Sultan was in Malta Harbour before the end of the year.
Speculation was rife as to how many men-of-war M. Chambon would require to assist him, and how much plant he would bring. He required no help, and arrived in a tiny steamer called the Utile, with a total crew of twelve, six of whom were divers. The only plant he brought was brains.
He started his work on the 24th June by cautiously blasting away such rocks as were too close to the ship's side to enable the work to be undertaken on the holes that had been discovered. The task of closing up the larger fractures in the ship's bottom was then begun, and one by one the holes were sealed up in the following ingenious manner.
From templates taken by the divers of the curvature of the ship's bottom in the vicinity of the hole, a wooden frame was prepared. This was sent down, and the divers secured it round the hole. Across this frame planks were nailed, and as each plank was put in its place, the space between it and the plating was filled in with a
mixture of bricks, mortar, and cement, and thus a solid sheathing was formed over the hole.
The excellence of this work can be seen from the pictures on the opposite page ; it was a masterpiece of diving skill. Meanwhile the work of making watertight the upper deck, including hatchways, ports, and ventilators, was proceeded with, and the various pumps put on board by the dockyard were got ready for pumping her out.
At the end of a month, on the 27th July, all the holes were sealed up, the pumps were started, and the ship was lifted. Unfortunately a gale of wind sprang up. The Sultan sank again, and, in striking the bottom, did more damage to the hull. This disheartening occurrence only strengthened M. Chambon's indomitable energy. Directly the weather moderated, the divers went down, repaired the hull, and on the 17th August the pumps were started and the Sultan floated.
Then followed catastrophe number two. While she was being moved, the ship was caught by the current, and knocked up against a rock, displacing a patch. She filled, and sank for the third time.
The reports of the divers as to the extent of the damage done by this third sinking were very discouraging ; but nothing would deter M. Chambon from completing his work. Renewed energy was put into it, and, nine days afterwards, on the 26th August, the Sultan was up again and towed into Malta Harbour. I was in charge of a large party of men from the Edinburgh to assist in docking and clearing her.
The ship must have been splendidly built. After sinking three times and being on the bottom
for six months, she showed no signs of structural weakness. As the water was pumped out, we turned the engines and trained the guns, which showed that she was not out of line. In a month or two she steamed home.
At the Fleet Regatta we took the first prize very easily with a boat which had been converted into a model of our own ship. She steamed about and fired her guns in a way that must have been astonishing to the spectators who were not in the secret of her internal economy. The method of her working was this. Six men were employed in turning crank handles, which revolved the screw and sent the vessel ahead at a good speed. The Captain steered her from forward with his head in the pilot tower, and one man was allotted to each turret, training it round and firing the guns, which consisted of rifles in a tube. In the funnel was a small fire to give her the appearance of being under steam. Vessels similar to this one were used three years afterwards at the Royal Naval Exhibition, and twenty-five years afterwards, during the War, I was asked to construct a dummy fleet.
My two years and six months in the Edinburgh was a most enjoyable time - quite a yachting trip. We visited all the places of interest in the Mediterranean during the summer and spent most of the winter at Malta. Sometimes we went away for a shooting trip, and had excellent sport, I remember that one day at Patras four guns got three hundred head.
In February, 1890, I was obliged to say good-bye to this most comfortable ship and her charming officers. The Admiralty had taken the barracks at
COMMANDER OF H.M.S. EXCELLENT
Whale Island seriously in hand, and I was appointed Commander of H.M.S. Excellent, to superintend the bricks and mortar.
I found that my original plan for this island had been much departed from. Instead of the crescent right round the north side, a lot of detached blocks were being built, and placed in such a manner as to make expansion difficult.
Things generally were in rather a confused state. As the Excellent would not hold all the men, part of them had been sent to Whale Island and part to a ship in the harbour. This was very unsatisfactory, both for instruction and for discipline, and I persuaded the Captain (Captain Pearson) to transfer every one to Whale Island. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy I had made twelve years before, that Mud Island would become the Gunnery School of the Navy. We said good-bye to the old ship that had served as a Gunnery School for thirty-two years, and as she was eighty-one years old it was time that she went.
The architectural aspect of Whale Island was peculiar. Although many buildings had been erected and many were in process of construction, no attempt had been made to deal with the problem of road-making, levelling and draining. To have suggested such a scheme to the Admiralty would have meant stopping it for ever, so I went to work differently. By sending round a subscription list to the Navy I got enough money to make a thoroughly good cricket pitch in the centre of the island. It was well drained and chalked under, and stood out in wonderful contrast to the quagmire of mud and dirt surrounding it.
Shortly after the completion of this pitch, their Lordships, the Commissioners of the Admiralty, visited the Island. I took them across to the pitch ; they walked to it up to their ankles in mud, and orders were promptly given for the island to be drained and levelled. With the aid of four hundred convicts the work proceeded very rapidly.
As my particular business was to attend to the constructive works in progress at the time, and as most of it was being done by this class of labour, I had a good deal to do with the convicts. Those employed at the island were all men under a long sentence of imprisonment. Some were what the chief warder called "lifers," but the majority of them had committed no great crime, their fate being rather due to their parentage and early environment than to their own actions. They had not committed a burglary or attempted murder - they had not it in them to do so ; they were there for an accumulation of thefts, most of them having been brought up to thieve. Their minds were wrong and their constitutions bad, and it was probably only being in prison that saved them from dying. To have put them into a lethal chamber would have been far better for the majority of them, and for the State.
The four hundred convicts working on Whale Island were divided into gangs of twenty-five each, and each gang was supervised by a warder equipped with a sword and a whistle. In addition there were about twelve outlying sentries with rifles.
The convicts worked with spades, shovels, crowbars, heavy hammers, and all sorts of tools with which they could attack a warder, and I asked the
REFORM OF NAVAL UNIFORM
principal warder one day why the warders were so seldom attacked, surrounded as they were by men who could fell them at any moment. His reply was to this effect : "Our safety is in their blackguardism. An old convict knows that it is no use attacking a warder. If he kills him he will be hanged; if he even hurts him he will be severely punished. The 'old 'un 'knows what to do. He eggs on the novice to attack a warder and agrees to support him in an attack. The novice, falling into the trap, attacks a warder, whereupon the 'old 'un 'downs him with his spade and thereby gets a remission of his sentence. That is the reason why we are so very seldom attacked."
Convicts on the island were employed in every description of work - as builders, carpenters and blacksmiths, in making roads, erecting targets, draining, levelling and railway work. Their work was slow, but wonderfully good, and it was surprising what interest they took in it. The principal warder frequently pointed out to me how much superior his men's work was to that of the contractor.
Among the convicts were several well-educated gentlemen of all professions, the Church not being excepted. There was no lack of ability, and there was even competition between the gangs in carrying out their task ; the self-constituted leaders of each gang made the remainder do their work well.
In 1880, during my period of service at Whale Island, the Prince of Wales called the attention of the Admiralty to the state of naval uniform. The officers were practically wearing what they
liked, and the regulations had not been revised for many years. A committee was formed consisting of the Duke of Edinburgh, Captain H. Boyes, and myself, and I had to go up to London three days a week to attend these deliberations, to the great interruption of my work as Commander of the Excellent. Interminable arguments went on in the Navy as to what uniforms should be done away with and what retained. We took the opinions of an enormous number of officers, and fads and fancies of all sorts were put before us.
Ultimately a very concise book of regulations was drawn up, with copious illustrations, giving the exact shape and dimensions of every article of a naval officer's uniform. H.R.H. wanted pictures of everything for, as he wisely said, they convey much more than writing. The book has now been in existence for twenty-three years. Very few changes have since been found necessary, and we no longer see naval officers in the various fancy dresses in which they used to appear before the committee's report.
In the following year, although I was very busy in getting the new Gunnery School into order, I was again called upon to act in a "side show."
A certain number of philanthropic gentlemen wished to raise a fund to assist the widows and orphans and other dependent relatives of seamen who had lost their lives in the service of their country. A very strong committee was formed, with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh as patrons, and it was decided to hold a Naval Exhibition in London. I was put on the committee and asked to suggest some novelties
A MIMIC NAVAL BATTLE
that would draw the people. I was to be a sort of "Barnum."
The committee accepted my proposal to bring 150 men up from the Excellent, and give a field gun display, such as is seen every year now at the Naval and Military Tournament. My second proposal was to build a lake for the purpose of a mimic naval battle, using vessels of the same description as that I made in H.M.S. Edinburgh, as described on page 66.
This proposal met with a lot of opposition, as the lake and surrounding stands were to cost over £2000. The Duke of Edinburgh came to the rescue, however, pointing out that the novelty of a naval fight on the water was sure to prove attractive, and that with stand accommodation for 500, and two daily performances, the exhibition might reap a profit of more than £100 per day. The scheme was then agreed to.
Lieutenant Lionel Wells, of H.M.S. Vernon, greatly assisted me and introduced many new features of naval warfare, including the firing of a Whitehead torpedo. In the end it was found the lake had well paid for itself and had made more money than any other section. The exhibition indeed was a great success, and I believe had a balance of £50,000 after paying all expenses. This money was invested and the interest derived from it is to this day used to afford assistance to widows. The fund is called the Royal Naval Fund, and the patron is H.M. the King,
In 1882 great strides were made in perfecting Whale Island as a barracks, but its efficiency as a School of Gunnery advanced but slowly. For bricks
and mortar there was plenty of money, but none was ever forthcoming for providing us with the necessary guns and ammunition for instruction. Consequently the training of the officers and men, for which the establishment existed, was not what it ought to have been, though we did our best with what material we could get. All our firing was carried out at a cask with a flag on it, and the qualification of the men's shooting was assessed on where the misses went. In the Fleet at sea no progress had been made in shooting with heavy guns ; the appearance of the ships and the state of their paintwork still remained the prime consideration.
My time as Commander came to an end in January, 1893, when I was promoted to Captain. Three years of my career in the Navy had been spent in striving to make Whale Island efficient in barracks, comfort and discipline. I should add that as all new appliances for naval warfare came to Whale Island for trial, I was able to keep myself up to date in gunnery matters, and then I was appointed to the Ordnance Committee, on which I served until 1896.
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