|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " 139
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " - NORTH AMERICA
THE ship designated for my chief's flagship was the old Bellerophon. But, as she was not nearly ready, he went out by mail-steamer, and relieved his predecessor (Sir J. E. Commerell), hoisting his flag temporarily in the Northampton, leaving me to bring out the Bellerophon when ready. So off I went to Devonport, to take up my new job of fitting out; looking forward with much interest to visiting some of my old haunts, on a station where I had previously spent seven years - 1861-1868 - in the Ariadne and Cordelia.
The Bellerophon had been a good ship in her day; but she was twenty years old and quite out of date as a fighting ship. They tried to rejuvenate her by re-arming her with short eight-inch breech-loading guns in her battery, instead of the old twelve-ton muzzle-loaders ; but it was not a success. She was like an overloaded camel. Each succeeding commission had seen some new weights put on board of her, and nothing ever taken out. So, when we were finally ready for sea, we found that she was two feet deeper than her designed draught, and looked for all the world like a half-tide rock.
I pointed out to the Admiralty that in her overloaded condition the ship would scarcely be seaworthy, and that she would not be able to open her battery ports
140 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
and fight her guns, except in a calm; and the sequel proved that I was right.
About this time (1885) there was a perfect craze for naval economy. It was not confined to the Radical politicians. The Conservatives were very nearly as bad. Both parties wanted votes, and the only way to get popularity and votes was to reduce expenditure on the Navy and Army. As we were never going to have another war, it was obviously a waste of money to spend it on new ships of war. Money was wanted for social reform - i.e., bribery for votes. Naval economy therefore took the form of patching up old and obsolete ships. Some were re-armed, some were re-engined and some were unrigged; but the money spent upon these alterations would have been better expended on new ships. There was, however, a very strong argument against building new ships: They would themselves very soon become obsolete. Therefore it was better to wait until naval architects had arrived at some finality in their designs for fighting ships.
Finality in naval architecture !
And yet the people who used this argument were walking about, loose, outside the walls of a lunatic asylum.
Another argument of the economists took the form of declaring that, if we built new ships, we should annoy and irritate our neighbours, and cause them to build new ships also; and as all international disputes were, in future, to be settled by arbitration, we should only be wasting our money.
The people who used this argument were also walking about, loose, outside the walls of a lunatic asylum.
The term " seaworthy " is, of course, comparative. Plenty of unseaworthy ships put to sea and reach port
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " 141
in safety; whereas some ships considered in every respect seaworthy are lost. It depends a good deal upon what sort of weather they meet and how they are handled.
When we finally put to sea in the Bellerophon, I considered that she was on the border-line of the term " seaworthy," and I so reported to the Port Admiral; but I was told to go, and I went.
One of my chief anxieties was connected with the new guns. There was no proper way of securing them; nothing but the compressor and a small iron tripping-toggle which might easily become displaced; when the compressor would probably work loose and the gun would run out and burst the port open. But when I reported officially, and as strongly as due respect and discipline permitted, that I considered this arrangement entirely unsatisfactory and dangerous, I was gravely informed that the gunnery department at the Admiralty was of opinion that the vis inertia of the guns would keep them quite steady and prevent them from moving. To which I replied that I had generally found guns at sea developed a good deal more vis than inertia, especially in a gale of wind. But the Admiralty would do nothing; so I went to the Dockyard Admiral - who entirely agreed with my views - and got him to supply us with some rough timber, which we sawed up into shores, and the day before going to sea we shored up all the guns as snug as possible. It would no doubt have taken an hour or two to clear for action; but, then, we were at peace with all the world, and all future disputes between nations were going to be settled by arbitration.
The day after leaving Plymouth Sound we got into a nor'-west gale, and, as we were bound first to Madeira, the sea was on the beam, and the old, overloaded ship
142 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
wallowed in the trough of the sea and rolled very deeply. The wind and sea increased, and we began to dip our quarter boats into the water. The guns were all right, but, as I did not want to lose our boats, I rounded to, so as to bring the sea more on the bow, and lay to under easy steam and fore-and-aft sails, until the wind and sea abated, and then made sail for Madeira.
I have very little doubt, if I had trusted to the vis inertia theory of the gunnery pundits at the Admiralty, and failed to shore up the guns, that some of them would have fetched way, burst the ports, and the ship would have sunk.
I met my Admiral in the Northampton at one of the Windward Islands, and he transferred his flag to the Bellerophon, sending the Northampton home. We picked up some of our squadron of small corvettes, and then started to make a round of the southern division of our station, before going north to Bermuda and Halifax for the spring and summer - this being the immemorial routine for the flagship on the North American and West Indian Station.
I was looking forward with great delight to revisiting Jamaica, I had such pleasant recollections of many rides amongst the beautiful mountain scenery of that lovely island, and I promised to pilot my Admiral and show him the best of it; for I knew it all, from Morant Bay to Savanna la Mar. But, alas! I was never again to set foot upon its hospitable shores; for when we arrived with the squadron off Port Royal, we were met outside by a guard-boat, from which we learnt, to our great disappointment, that there had been several cases of yellow fever at Kingston. If we were to go inside the harbour, we should be quarantined in
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " 143
every other island. So we went on our way - but not rejoicing.
My dear old chief was still very sweet on sailing (there is no other word for it), even in the old Bellerophon. So we not only made most of our passages under sail, but, when opportunity offered, the squadron used to " try rate of sailing " to windward. My brother-sailors will know what this means, even if they have never tried it in an old, overloaded ironclad; and the land-crabs - if any of them are weak enough to read these " Memories " - must try and make a guess. It was a relic of the past, and it was one of the most interesting and exciting events of the old sailing days, when there was no other way of getting to windward. All races are exciting, even between cripples; and some people go from London to Brighton by coach or they did before the war. They get more fresh air, and so did we in the Bellerophon when we sailed.
When steam was first introduced into the Navy, in the early part of last century, we are told that the Admiralty of the day fought tooth and nail against it, declaring that it would spell ruin for England. If some of these fine old seamen could rise from their graves now, and see our thirty-knot light cruisers steaming against a fresh breeze, our Lion and Tiger in action, our submarines, and our flying squadrons (though not the flying squadrons of their days), how surprised the old boys would be, and how gladly they would admit that their methods were capable of improvement !
Bermuda and Halifax had always divided between them the honour of being considered the headquarters of the N.A. and W.I. Station. Bermuda in the spring and autumn, and Halifax in the summer, with a cruise
144 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
round the West Indian islands in the winter. Such had been the routine for the Commander-in-Chief for many years past, and such it still was in 1886. But it is all altered now, and Halifax has been made over to Canada.
The early spring found the Bellerophon at Bermuda, where there is a good Admiralty House, as there is also - or, rather, was - at Halifax; and as it was intended to make a good long stay at Bermuda, the Admiral's wife came out from England, and the Captain's did the same. And as the latter was delayed at New York for three or four days, waiting for the Bermuda steamer, she took a trip to Niagara on her own hook. A very sensible and sporting thing to do.
I knew Bermuda well, some years before, as a Lieutenant in the Ariadne and Cordelia ; but I never fell in love with it, as I did with Jamaica: I always thought its charms greatly overrated. There is nothing that can be called scenery, though some of the little bays and islets, washed by emerald-green waters, might be called " pretty "; but all the islands are low (there are supposed to be 365 of them, counting rocks), and the eternal cedar-trees become monotonous.
Nevertheless we spent a pleasant two months at Bermuda, and then dispersed our squadron of small cruisers and went on to the northern ports - Halifax, Quebec, St. John (New Brunswick), St. John's (Newfoundland), Gaspé, etc. This was all well-known ground to me, some twenty years earlier; but I found many of the places greatly changed and very few of my old friends left. New countries change rapidly; but the greatest change of all was in St. John, New Brunswick. The town was absolutely unrecognizable to me. I had spent the whole of the summer of 1866 there in
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " 145
the Cordelia, and at that time nearly all the houses were built of wood, as in nearly all the earlier Canadian towns - until they were burnt down.
I don't remember the exact date of the fire which wiped out the old St. John; but I think it was in the seventies. At any rate, the date is of no consequence to my story, as it was, practically speaking, wiped out and rebuilt in stone, between 1866 and 1886.
I found one of my old friends there at the latter date, who had been through the fiery ordeal, and he gave me a graphic and blood-curdling account of the scenes which took place during the conflagration. The fire seems to have spread with extraordinary rapidity; fanned by a high wind, it leaped from house to house and from street to street, devouring everything before it, and licking up the wooden houses as if they had been so many heaps of pine shavings. My friend and his wife (both of them rather more than elderly) had to run for their lives, leaving in their house the body of their son-in-law, who had died the day before, and who was thus gratuitously cremated.
While my old friend was relating his harrowing story, he frequently interrupted himself with the remark; " I assure you, my dear Fitzgerald, it was hell upon earth." And I took his word for it.
The new stone town is, of course, a great improvement on the old wooden one; but it was strange to me. It failed to recall to my mind any visions of the happy days I had spent there in 1866; and altogether the visit, for me, was rather sad and disappointing. I was twenty years older, and perhaps that had something to do with it.
Halifax was also a good deal changed, though not so much as St. John. The lakes around still held good
146 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
trout; but one had to drive some distance to get to those which were not over-fished, and the mosquito and the little black fly are very attentive - as they are all over Canada - and greatly dilute the pleasure of fishing. But I found it a good plan to take a couple of young midshipmen with me, to act as bait, when I went fishing; not bait for the fish, but for the mosquitoes, who greatly preferred their pink and tender skins to my weatherbeaten hide - especially as the boys would insist, in spite of all advice, in taking off their coats and rolling up their shirt-sleeves, thus actually providing for the enemy a wider area for operations. Nevertheless I did not escape altogether; for some of the bloodthirsty brutes were that ravenous that I verily believe they would have bitten through Pat Hagerty's old leather breeches.
Muskadobbit (phonetic spelling), about twenty miles to the eastward of Halifax, was said to be a famous place for white trout fishing; so the Captain of the Dido - my old friend Vandermeulen - and I got a week's leave and went off there to try our luck. The worst of it was that the fishing was nine miles from the nearest inn, and we had to row down that nine miles each morning to the mouth of the river, and then there was only about two hours' fishing in the whole day. It was a very curious sort of fly-fishing, for we actually fished in the salt water, and the fish only rose during about the first two hours of the flood-tide; but the sport was fast and furious while it lasted. One rod fished from the boat, while the other landed on a small low sand spit and fished from there. We fished with very large coarse flies, which a well-educated English or Irish white trout would not have looked at; but these unsophisticated fish took eagerly, not infrequently
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " 147
two at a time, and they were beauties, three and four pounders, fresh run, and as bright as a new silver teapot. No skill required and no mosquitoes!
The tide in this part of the world is very remarkable. Everyone who has ever looked at a map of North America knows the shape of the peninsula of Nova Scotia, separated as it is from the mainland for the greater part of its length by a deep bay, the Bay of Fundy. Well, on the Halifax side of the peninsula there is a rise and fall of tide of only eight feet; while at the head of the Bay of Fundy there is a rise and fall of sixty feet, the greatest tide in the world. The water seems to get bottled up in some way, and the flood-tide is preceded by a huge tidal wave, known as a " bore "; very dangerous for small craft, and rendering all navigation difficult, more especially as the Bay of Fundy is one of the worst places in the world for fogs.
St. John's, Newfoundland, was, as usual, reeking of salt-fish, the staple industry of the town. One soon gets accustomed to it; but on entering the harbour, if the wind happens to be offshore, the smell is appalling. The people are not rich, but, like all Canadians, they are extremely hospitable, and are very proud of being England's oldest colony. It is not an interesting place, even after you have got over the smell of the fish.
What shall I say of Quebec ? The Spaniards have a proverb: " Qui no ha vista Sevilla no ha vista marvilla."
May we not say the same of Quebec ? Was not the capture of Quebec by Wolfe and his handful of British soldiers a marvel - one of the wonders of the world ? But it is scarcely possible to realize the magnitude of the difficulties which had to be surmounted, or adequately to appreciate the audacity and genius of the
148 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
General who stormed the Heights of Abraham by night, without seeing the place with one's own eyes. It was one of those dramatic incidents of war which fix our attention and claim our admiration in a special and peculiar degree; not only on account of the military glory of the feat, but still more from its ultimate influence on the history of North America; for it gave the momentous decision as to a French or British Canada.
There were some people who thought it was weak of Great Britain to allow the French settlers complete freedom to maintain their language, their religion, and all their national institutions, undisturbed, in the very heart of a British colony still in its infancy. And it must not be forgotten that there was far more intolerance about religion a century and a half ago than there is to-day. But the sequel has shown that our enlightened policy - enlightened in advance of the age - was right. For it is impossible to believe that any less liberal and generous policy would have produced that spirit of loyalty to the Empire which has shone forth so brilliantly amongst the French Canadians during the present war. Moreover, those who know Canada well tell us that this loyalty would be equally conspicuous and equally sincere, even if France had not been fighting as our Ally.
The old Bellerophon had a narrow escape from leaving her bones on the shores of the estuary of the great St. Lawrence. We were deceived by the Barber. The Barber is a low fog, not more than three or four feet high, which rests on the surface of the sea during certain conditions of atmosphere, and it is apt to be most deceptive as to distances. I ought to have known better than to be taken in by the Barber, as I had navigated
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " 149
in Canadian waters on several previous occasions; but the rascal assumed his most deceptive guise, and thoroughly took me in. We were steaming along on the southern side of the great estuary, making for Father Point, to pick up a pilot to take us to Quebec. It was a flat calm, not a ripple on the water, and the Barber was spread upon the sea like a table-cloth. We had fixed our position by cross-bearings of lights during the night, and were shaping a course to take us up the estuary about two miles from its southern shore, in a depth of ten or twelve fathoms. As the day broke, we saw the shore, the trees, some houses, and the beach - or, rather, what we thought was the beach. In fact, the navigator and I would have been prepared to swear it was the beach. For must not a man believe his own eyes ? But, alas ! that rascally conjurer the Barber had spread his table-cloth not only over the water, but over the land, and covered up the low shore, for a mile or so inland, as we found out afterwards. However, we had leadsmen in both chains, heaving away gaily, and they were not getting soundings; so we went on with confidence. Then presently there was a low rumbling sound, which apparently came from the engine-room; we asked them down the voice-tube if there was anything the matter, and if they wanted to stop the engines. " Nothing the matter here, sir." But the rumbling went on; and as our leadsmen said they were getting no bottom with fifteen fathoms of line, we were sorely puzzled. An earthquake seemed to be about the only solution, only they don't have earthquakes in Canada.
The rumbling got worse, so I stopped the engines and put the helm hard-a-port.
" Now, Quartermaster, go into the chains, get an
150 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
up-and-down cast of the lead, and see what depth of water we really are in."
" Four and a half fathoms, sir!"
Put not your trust in leadsmen. We had been scraping along on a wonderfully level sandy bottom for about a quarter of an hour, and there was rocky bottom a few hundred yards ahead of us, when we stopped and turned off. There was no damage done but it was an uncommonly close shave, and I felt very crestfallen when I called the Admiral and told him I had been deceived by the Barber and nearly wrecked his flagship. He, too, had been wondering what was the matter in the engine-room.
About the only change I found in Quebec since my former visits was the absence of British troops. Canada had come of age. The grand old fortress was garrisoned with Canadian militia, and the British Army had lost one of its most popular stations.
On one of my former visits, during the sixties, I had met one of the battalions of the Rifle Brigade; and as it was the month of November, and as the snow was very nearly - though not quite - in order for sleighing, these sporting soldiers took me for some exhilarating sleigh-drives, with tandems. I remember it seemed to me that they were carrying rather too much sail; but they assured me that when they did capsize they generally managed to find a soft place.
On our way back from Quebec we stopped at Gaspé, where the Admiral had been given a few days' salmon-fishing for two rods; but as he was not well enough to go fishing himself, he turned it over to the parson and me. Todd, the parson, was a keen and experienced fisherman, and under his guidance I caught my first salmon.
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " 151
We had a most enjoyable trip up the Gaspé River to the fishing-station, where we found a comfortable wooden bungalow, fitted up with beds, armchairs, plates and dishes, cooking utensils, and all the luxuries one could wish for, and far more than we expected.
The banks of the river were thickly wooded, right down to the water's edge; so we had to fish from canoes, which is never quite such good sport - to my mind - as bank-fishing, but that was impossible.
We greatly admired the skill of our boatmen in poling our birch-bark canoes up against the stream of the rushing river, which seemed to be all rapids, except just at the salmon pools, which were few and far between; but they generally held a salmon. In some places the river must have been running eight or nine miles an hour, so that paddling was out of the question, and the only way of getting up against the stream was by poling with long, light poles, close in to one of the banks, amongst the branches of the trees, which overhung the river and got very much in our way. Not only great skill but great strength was required, to get the canoe up against such a rapid stream. Sometimes one of the poles would slip on the stony bottom, and then, in one second, the canoe would be whisked round broadside on and carried downstream twenty or thirty yards, before the man could get afresh grip of the bottom and check her. It was warm work and quite exciting in some places, as there were rocks just awash, which would have crumpled us up like matchwood if we had hit them.
The river was alive with white trout; but we voted them a nuisance, as we were after salmon and the trout spoilt our sport. The water was as clear as crystal, and on several occasions I could see a salmon rising to
152 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
my fly, when an impudent little white trout would make a dash at it, get himself hooked, and kick up such a bobbery that he disturbed the whole pool. It was very tantalizing. However, we got a few salmon and a great many white trout, and had a most enjoyable holiday.
When Lord Clanwilliam took up the appointment of Commander-in-Chief of the N.A. and W.I. Station, he was so near the top of the Vice-Admirals' list that he knew his command would be a short one, and that he could not possibly hope to hold it for the usual three years. In fact, it soon became apparent, from the vacancies on the full-Admirals' list, that he would only be able to hold it for a little more than one year, and this eventually proved to be the case. He was promoted to the rank of full-Admiral, and as the station was a Vice-Admirals' command, he had to give it up, and was relieved by Vice-Admiral Sir Algernon Lyons.
Lord Clanwilliam and all his staff came home to England by mail-steamer, and I went on shore on half-pay; but as I had been almost continuously employed on full-pay ever since my promotion (a very unusual piece of luck), I certainly had nothing to grumble about, and was not at all sorry to look forward to a little spell on shore with my family, to enjoy " the blessings of the land, with the fruits of my labours." Nevertheless, my joy at the prospect of being out of harness for a year or two was somewhat damped by the thought that I had, in all probability, terminated my service connection with my dear old chief, with whom I had served in four ships, and to whom I had become deeply attached. His was one of those rare characters, so unlike those of the men we meet in the ordinary course
THE OLD " BELLEROPHON " 153
of rubbing through the world, that it is safe to predict they will be misunderstood by many of those with whom they come in contact; and it used to annoy me greatly to see how frequently he was misunderstood. Not at all from any ambiguity in what he said or did, but - paradoxical as it may appear - for exactly the opposite reason; for there never was the slightest ambiguity about what he said or did; quite the other way. He spoke very plainly - perhaps too plainly for some tastes - and never minced his words, especially when he thought someone was trying to blarney him and talk him into believing something which he did not believe. Then his righteous wrath and indignation were very plainly expressed, to the mortification of the misguided individual who had been "trying it on " - with the wrong man.
I remember being much amused on one occasion, when he was Captain of the stem reserve at Portsmouth and I was Commander of the Asia. An order came from the Admiralty directing him to inspect and report upon a new invention for boat-lowering. The gifted inventor was allowed to fit up his apparatus on board one of the hulks in Portsmouth Harbour, and when all was ready, the Captain of the steam reserve came to inspect it. The inventor was quite an orator, and volubly pointed out to us the surpassing merits of his invention, and assured us that it was immensely superior to any other boat-lowering gear that had ever been used or thought of. When he had been talking for about ten minutes, it became obvious that he was very anxious that one of us should make some remark or ask some question, so as to give him a fresh start; but my chief said not a word, and I took my cue from him and remained silent, though I saw glaring defects in the gear
154 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
and also in the arguments which were used in recommending it.
At last, when it became evident to the inventor that no one was going to make any remark or ask any questions, he stopped talking; and then Lord Clanwilliam remarked, very quietly, " Ah, I have heard all that sort of thing before, from people who have never been to sea."
The poor man collapsed, and I felt rather sorry for him, as I had been in the inventing business myself, in a small way, and I knew the enthusiasm of it, and how inordinately fond one gets to be of one's own chickens, or, rather, of the eggs, even when they are addled and don't hatch out.
Lord Clanwilliam had for many years been associated with, and taken much useful interest in, Eltham School, and after his death a handsome memorial was put up to him in the school buildings. It was unveiled by Lord George Hamilton, who had been First Lord of the Admiralty when Lord Clanwilliam had been Junior Sea Lord. Lord George thus addressed the boys:
" I have come here with great pleasure. One reason is that the school is associated with one of the most distinguished Admirals. I mean the Earl of Clanwilliam, with whom I served when at the Admiralty. I assure you boys he was the beau-ideal of what a sailor should be. I knew him all my life, and feel so pleased to know that a beautiful memorial has been put up to him in these buildings. He was wounded early in life, and that wound gave him constant pain, which he bore heroically. You boys should think of him as your pattern through life; for, believe me, his constant thought was honour and furtherance of duty."
This is all quite true. He was a gallant and chivalrous gentleman. No one who had ever served with him
THE " OLD BELLEROPHON " 155
could fail to recognize and to admire his transparent honesty and whole-hearted devotion to duty. He never allowed his private feelings or personal interests to stand for one moment between him and what he conceived to be his duty, and he was quite unable to understand how any of his brother officers could do so, no matter what their rank might be, nor what specious reasons they might advance for trying to do so; his condemnation of such conduct was emphatic and expressed in no measured terms. Anything in the shape of shuffling or prevarication was equally obnoxious to him. It may perhaps be said that this is a mere platitude, and that shuffling and prevarication are obnoxious to every honest man. True - in theory; yet I am afraid I am enough of a cynic to look upon the word honesty as a comparative term. How can it be otherwise when we see our leading men, our lawyer-statesmen, making a statement one day and then finding it necessary to make an elaborate explanation of it next day, in order that honest men may understand - or try to understand - what it means.
In connection with what I have called the transparent honesty of my dear old chief, there often comes to my mind some lines in that grand old sea-song " Tom Bowling ":
" Tom never from his word departed, His virtues were so rare;
His friends were many and true-hearted, His Poll was kind and fair."
What irony is contained in those first two lines
^ back to top ^