|Links in my life on land and sea |
North Sea gales - Christmas Eve - Home again - "The Lofts," Sheerness Dockyard - A ball Chased by footpads - Dockyard "mateys" - Dockyard plunder.
WE sailed for England on the 19th of December, and, coming in for heavy gales in the North Sea, reached the Nore on Christmas Eve, when all who could be spared got leave and hurried off home.
It was late at night on Christmas Eve when I reached Ashley Lodge, and great was the rejoicing, as may be imagined. The nine months I had been away had altered many things, perhaps more in myself than in any member of our family. I stood on my own feet already, with some experience of life and adventures to relate.
I had a short and merry time at home, and then went back to my ship at Sheerness, lying in the basin, the officers and crew being turned over to "The Lofts" - now dignified by the name of Naval Barracks - a great improvement on ship life to all of us, and feeling like being half on leave. Nevertheless, that the Dockyard was still the quarter-deck, may be instanced by the fact that one of our midshipmen, Bevan by name, had his leave stopped for having his hands in his pockets, just as he was starting to go to a ball near Enfield, given by a daughter of the well-known sea-novelist,
Marryat. It was an ill wind, however, which blew me good, for he asked me to go in his stead. So I got leave, and taking his ticket, reached his aunt's house in plenty of time. She, however, was not going to the ball, but had arranged for a neighbour to take me in their carriage, which, however, already contained six girls when it came to our door, so that I found it a matter of some difficulty to crawl in anywhere. But a very small space sufficed for me, though I could only find sitting room on the carriage mat for fear of crushing their crinolines, where, however, as it was a bitterly cold night, I was comfortable enough, and indeed thought the three miles' drive rather short. It reminded me - only with a difference - of going to children's parties at Boulogne, five or six in a sedan chair. The dance was a particularly lively affair, but naturally in those mid-Victorian days there was none of that rushing about of six or eight men with their arms linked in the Lancers, knocking women over, stamping, shouting, whistling, singing, which makes a modern ball so refined an entertainment. Our pleasures were circumscribed by decorous manners and we had to rely on being able to dance well, or to talk to our partners without telling them risqué stories, which would, of course, be very dull and stupid nowadays, and would come especially hard on modern youth. The ball over, to my disgust, I found that Bevan's aunt had made other dispositions for my return, for the cosiness of the landau had ripened into friendship as the night went on, especially with one of that tight-packed party and myself. But now I was to go back in a brougham with two old ladies of sour and forbidding aspect. This so annoyed me that I said I would rather walk, declaring that I liked walking by moonlight. So the old ladies drove off and left me to my own devices.
My road lay almost straight, and I went off at a
CHASED BY FOOTPADS
dog-trot. About three quarters of a mile from Miss Bevan's house - where the road passed through a thick dark wood - a man sprang suddenly from the roadside and made a grab at me, catching my coat by the cuff. Fortunately I twisted myself out of his grasp and made a bolt for it, he following and swearing he would do all manner of things if I did not stop, and keeping close to my heels for a considerable distance. But as I was a fairly fast runner I kept ahead of him. As we cleared the wood I heard him blow a whistle, when, to my dismay, another man, bounding over the hedge, joined in the chase gaining rapidly on me, as he was quite fresh, and I was blown. I had just made up my mind to stop and give them up my watch and what money I had, when I ran plump into the arms of a third man, standing in the shadow of a tree. But it was a policeman ; and, in a moment, the men after me stopped, and bolted up the hill again. The policeman, however, did not follow, and learning whither I was bound, escorted me to the house. A fat, sleepy old butler, Mr. Partridge, was waiting to let me in, and when I narrated my adventure appeared greatly concerned, not for me, but for himself, for it showed him that the risk of being garrotted in this road was certainly great. He was right ; for garrotting was in full swing throughout England at the time, and only the "Cat" put it down.
I returned next day to my ship and endeavoured to cheer Bevan up by telling him what a delightful time I had had, and giving him a full and particular account of the tightly-stowed drive in the landau. "Ah ! Yes," he said. " I know those girls well."
Sheerness in those days - and I have never heard of any improvement in it since - was about the most deadly hole in Christendom, with no means of getting away from it except by an occasional tug-boat up the Medway to
Chatham, or by intercepting some small steamer passing up the Thames. Immediately outside the Dockyard gates began the town, a collection of squalid, miserable houses and shanties, for the most part occupied by the families of Dockyard hands ; by marine-store dealers, whose dealings were almost exclusively in property stolen in the Dockyard ; by bargee families ; and, of course, tap and beer-house keepers. The whole atmosphere of the place was demoralising, for though practically all Government property and its very existence depending on the Dockyard, vice was permitted to flaunt - I believe that is the proper expression for that kind of thing - unchecked. And if this moral atmosphere was depressing, what can be said of the physical aspect of the country ? A long, treeless road over a half-sodden plain intersected by deep ditches of brackish water led to Sittingbourne, the nearest town, a walk entirely repellent and uninteresting, which no one would take for pleasure, Sittingbourne itself only an enlarged Sheerness.
Thus we youngsters - from sheer force of ennuie all those weary months from Christmas to March - were literally driven to playing every manner of idiotic prank that came into our heads, or that practised ingenuity for mischief could invent. Moreover, as out of wise consideration for our morals we were hardly ever allowed to leave the Dockyard, it is obvious that the yard had to produce the raw material, and this, in the nature of things, could only be the men employed in the yard.
Therefore, all our tricks were at the expense of the Dockyard "Mateys," who, as their badgering by midshipmen is of immemorial antiquity, look on ships' youngsters as their natural enemy. Needless to say the Government system of employing literally hundreds of men more than would be required in a private yard, left these mateys with hours and hours of idleness on their hands, leaving
the field open for assault by their watchful enemy. For at any time of day, in any corner of the yard, we could always find two or three sound asleep, probably half-drunk, or waking up to go and get drunk. This was our opportunity. We would mix all their tools up in different baskets, or, if they were incapably drunk, would lash their legs together, or their necks to a ring-bolt ; pour water over them ; bury them under canvas if we found them in a sail-loft ; lock them up in cabins ; take away the ladder if they were at work in the hold of a ship ; in short, anything that could be devised to annoy them. It was very silly, no doubt, but it made us laugh, and we were very hard up for something to amuse us.
The theft of Government stores from dockyards, though carried on impartially everywhere else, had been reduced to an exact science in Sheerness Yard ; but the difficulty in dealing with the matter was that no one could draw the line as to what was theft, and what was "legitimate perks." It would have puzzled the unjust steward to see the difference between the - higher officials superintendents, harbour-masters, and such like - loading up carts with tables, chairs, wardrobes, and other items of household furniture, made with Government materials by Government paid labour, and despatching them to their private houses, and the Dockyard matey or policeman who passed through the gates, to the shop of the marine-store dealer, with their caps and pockets stuffed full of brass screws and Government tools, or their stomachs three times their natural size by reason of yards upon yards of bunting - more costly than silk - wrapped round them. But where the officials excelled in Sheerness was in the dimensions of things they stole, for it was discovered that thousands of highly valuable logs of timber, for making masts and yards, had disappeared out of the basins. This went on for years before it was discovered.
But it was the same in every Government dockyard, and may be still, for all I know, for there are still colossal frauds in most Government Offices, and though the only ones I can now vouch for were in the War Office, yet I do not believe they are less in the Navy than in other departments. It is, however, fairly certain that officers in the Navy are nowadays not concerned in these things, but in the constructing and shipbuilding departments the commission business still goes on wholesale.
* * * * *
After three weary months of Sheerness, we once more hoisted the Admiral's flag and found ourselves at Spithead, where we swung round our moorings for two months, Admiral Baynes finally leaving us. Early in May we sailed, in company with H.M.S. Rodney, for the Mediterranean.
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