Dorset Submariners

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HMS Ganges 1905

Although very proud to be submariner in the 1950’s,  I had started my Naval career as an  HMS Ganges Boy,  aged fifteen, in 1947.


Being proud of that training also,  I wrote a book about my Ganges experiences,  and as a result of this,  I attained a certain amount of publicity in the local  press.


As just one consequence of this,  I received rather unexpected feed back from a local Lady.  A  Mrs. Pippa Smith.  This Lady thought I might be interested in the experience had by her grandmother in 1905, when she was only about nine or ten years old,  as the daughter of a former HMS. Ganges  'wooden wall'    captain.

I only know  the little girl was called Marjory.


How right she was:  This little girl of that time, has written down a real gem of an insight into, 

' What the Navy was like in the 1905 era,   especially for   'Boy's'   training.'


I hope others will enjoy reading it as much as I did,  and so it might be appropriate to put it on our website.

At some point in the future it is also going to be included in a history of HMS. Ganges boys training.

                                                                      CHILD AFLOAT

Having recently enjoyed programmes on T.V. depicting life both ancient and modern in the Royal Navy, it seems a pity not to put down, while memory remains, a short record of a blissful year spent long ago, by a little girl lucky enough to be born a sailor’s daughter.


Some time in 1905, possibly the end of September, my father, then being in command of H.M.S. Boscawen III (earlier known as H.M.S. Agincourt) my mother, nanny and I joined him on board at Portsmouth. I think she had been undergoing a refit there in preparation for becoming a training ship for boys entering the Navy. Almost at once we sailed round to Portland, to wait until a berth was ready for us at Shotley, where new barracks were in process of being built.


We were not long at Portland, but must have been there in October as I spent my ninth birthday on board. I hadn’t really settled down and my memories are chiefly of dull, drizzly walks ashore, and watching large blocks of stone coming down on a sort of endless chain of trucks  I had found out somehow that the quarries were worked by prison labour, and kept a weather eye open for escaped convicts”  so I must have just had “Great Expectations” read to me. Eventually we sailed round to Shotley. It was a lovely, sunny, breezy trip but was marred by our running aground on a sandbank somewhere off Felixstowe, not long after I had watched the pilot come aboard over the side. We were stuck at an increasing angle until the next high tide, while I enjoyed myself sliding dawn the slanting deck of the poop (our province) and fetching up against the rail. However much I enjoyed this, it must have been a matter of acute anxiety to my father until the blame for this mishap was finally settled. There must have been a court of enquiry or something similar, because I can remember being banished to the poop while our dining cabin was occupied by various officers I had previously watched coming alongside. By wriggling on my tummy I was able to peep through a skylight and, before being hauled away and scolded, gained an Impression of beards, gold braid and swords, with (can it be possible?) cocked hats parked on a side table.


Our quarters on board were palatial and I suppose were those of an old time admiral. They comprised a large half-moon shaped after-cabin (my mother’s drawing room) opening onto a stern walk in which she kept potted plants. Leading from these was our dining cabin, on the starboard side of which was my nursery where nanny slept. Out of this was a tiny cabin for me, and a minute W. C. A saucer-shaped bath was secured by hooks over my berth. On the port side was similar accommodation for my parents. A door led outside to a spare cabin occupied almost continuously by a series of my family’s young female friends and relations. Beyond this was the galley presided over by our cook Lewis (who sported a chef’s hat) and used as a haven by our boat’s crew in bad weather. Our staff was lorded over by Bonser the butler, aided by a downtrodden youth in a striped blue and white jacket with brass buttons, called Haynes. Haynes, who was probably not many years older than myself was my bosom friend and, when he returned from leave, brought me a collection of his school prizes to read, thus introducing me to Coral Island and Gorilla Hunters by Ballantyne, and sundry Hentys and Fennimore Coopers.


Opening from the dining cabin a steep enclosed ladder led to the poop.  I can remember tripping over the sill at the top one day, and crashing down, holding a chair and all my drawing things, before bursting through the closed door at the bottom, where I was disentangled from the fragments of the chair with no worse results than fright and various bumps and bruises.


We were moored astern of H.M.S. Boscawen II, Commander F. Travers. She had previously been H.M.S. Minotaur. Between us and the shore was an old hulk., the Caroline, which had been gutted and turned into a swimming bath  the boys, when they had learned to swim. were “passed out” by doing the distance from her ladder to ours. Very few of them could swim on arrival, and I was told this was partly due to the fact that in those days there were not many facilities to learn in towns; while boys from homes by the sea often had a background of life with the fishing fleet, and preferred the prospect of a quick death to a futile struggle in heavy oilskins should they be washed overboard. My father’s coxswain Langworthy superintended my “passing out” and I am ashamed to say it took two tries, as the first time I managed to grab the painter held temptingly before my nose! After this, I was allowed to swim overboard at will, jumping In from halfway up the gangway, and I used to enjoy hearing the boys under instruction being exhorted “not to be beaten by the Captain’s little girl”. I always blame Langworthy for the fact that I hate diving.  I used to be taken to a queer contraption called a “swimming tray”, a sort of platform round a slatted wooden bath, through which the water flowed. There Langworthy, who was over 6 feet tall, would stand on the edge holding me at an angle above his head, and I would never know the precise moment at which I would be propelled outward and down. The terror is still with me.


The old black and white Ganges was moored further out into the stream. She was commanded by Captain Nicholson.  I don’t know his initials but he was not the Captain Wilmot Nicholson I knew during World War I when he was commissioning H.M.S. Furious in the Tyne (all very Hush. Hush! “If you are curious, I’ll tell you her name begins with F”). The captain of the Ganges, known to his contemporaries as “Noisy Nick”, was a marvellous being in my eyes. His cabin was filled with almost every trick gadget under the sun, and it was impossible to pick up anything that didn’t either play a tune, pinch or prick your finger or, favourite of all, make a rude noise. On one occasion, when I was asked to tea alone, the marine who came to announce the boat to take me home appeared somewhat taken aback to find his captain and a small girl having a lapping race out of saucers on the carpet. I can’t remember seeing the old Ganges go, but when she did the Boscawen II became H.M.S. Ganges and I changed my H.M.S. Boscawen III cap ribbon to H.M.S. Ganges II. I have never got used to the present habit of referring to ships without H.M.S. or “the” before their names. It sounds too familiar to me.


I spent most of my time on board, but if it was too wet, cold or blowy to play on the poop, nanny and I went for walks ashore either at Shotley or Harwich. At Shotley we had country walks and watched the barracks growing week by week. But I hated Harwich. The boats crew sent to pick us up used to arrive at the pier at about the time the fish train was due to leave for London. The cod were kept alive in slatted boat-shaped crates in the water. These were hoisted up and the contents emptied onto the pier, where they were clubbed to death and thrown into railway wagons. As we didn’t dare keep the boats crew waiting, we always arrived ahead of time, and had to listen to and watch this, before walking to the stairs through a slimy mess of blood and scales. Langworthy used to allow me to steer the boat (was it called a “galley”?) and I nearly died of pride the first time I brought it alongside our gangway, squeaking “way enough” and whatever was the command to hoist the dripping oars.


There were about 800 youths and boys on board, or possibly that included officers, crew and instructors. I fancy the boys were older than the present intake. I loved Sunday Church Services, as the singing of such a large male congregation between decks was most impressive. My father read the lesson and to her dying day, Mother remembered what she described as “the expression on his back” when he was able to read the one on a wife’ s duty to her husband, to two and a half females and several hundred males. Our Chaplain and his family lived ashore and I liked going to tea there as he would bring me home in a sort of wicker trailer behind his push-bike. In later years when my father had a coast-guard district in Devon, the older boy, Leslie Francis, used to come over from Dartmouth of a Sunday, as did so many of the Naval cadet sons of our friends.


There was always something to watch on board:  boys doing P.T. or learning to swim, row or signal. I learned semaphore at once and used to stand in the stern, moving my arms smartly (I had no flags) and hoping someone, somewhere was taking down my “messages”. I used to try and make out signals from other sources, but they were always too quick for me. I soon learned to climb a rope and the rigging aft. In summer there was an awning over the decks and I found that by climbing the rigging and emerging on top of the awning via the mast, I could slide down and fetch up with my feet against the rail to which it was lashed. There was a drop of about 30 feet to the water, but my family didn’t seem to know of this accomplishment or possibly care  (“after all, she can swim”) until one occasion when I was entertaining three little friends from Dovercourt in this manner, and was spotted by their enraged parents coming to fetch them. I was hauled into their presence, dressed down and promised dire punishment, but strangely enough this never took place! The Gym Sergeant was apparently worried by my scrawny appearance (really I was tough as old boots and never ill) and offered to give me P.T., so a trapeze was rigged up in the nursery and he used to come on wet days. I sometimes wonder now if nanny was the attraction!


Of course there were always boats coming and going, and I would rush to the rail if “boat ahoy!” heralded the arrival of some small craft. This would be answered by (I think) “Aye, Aye” or “No, No” according I presume to whoever was aboard. If it was my father or someone similar, the head of the gangway would be manned hastily. I don’t think my memory plays me false, but it seems ridiculous that he was “No, No” while lesser fry, including myself, were “Aye, Aye”.


People sometimes express surprise that I watch boxing on T.V. On board if boys were caught quarrelling below, they were brought up on deck and made to have it out with three rounds with gloves on. I discovered this by chance one day from my vantage point on the poop, crept down the ladder (forbidden) and arrived at the ring-side, where the enthusiastic supporters obligingly let me through. From then on I became an addict, and before long a chair would be placed for me, and a messenger sent to the marine outside our quarters to “tell Miss Marjorie there is a fight”. Whereupon I would drop everything, seize my cap, and not forgetting to “Salute the Quarter-deck” would rush off to sit in solitary and silent state. When it was over the onlookers waited for me to depart before dispersing. When the boat came to fetch me from my walks ashore my first question was “Langworthy, have there been any fights?” and if the answer was in the affirmative, “Were they very bloody ones?”


The local photographer did very good business when there was a new intake, as the boys naturally wished to send home photos of themselves in uniform. On one occasion he asked for permission to take one of me, and for many years the result adorned my grandmother’s desk. I was photographed in sailor cap and reefer jacket (the almost universal garb of my generation) kneeling on a large wooden “block”. I believe the postcards sold like hot cakes, but unfortunately our copy has not survived.


Once during the winter we had snow. The wardroom door was under the poop and I spent a blissful time, until authority intervened, balancing a row of snowballs on the edge, so that they could be pushed over when anyone passed below. I found the following in my autograph album the other day:


“A First Lieutenant’s life may be

Disturbed at times in Boscawen II

When coming on the quarter-deck

He gets a snowball down his neck

from Marjorie!”


The usual ship’s concert took place before Christmas and I was allowed to stay up for it, although it didn’t start until after my bedtime. I sat in a huge leather chair in the front row, with my family and their guests and various officers. There I listened entranced to a sentimental ballad by the gym sergeant (with his eye on nanny), to my first, but not last, hearing of “The green eye of the little yellow God" and a series of comic items that convulsed the audience, but strangely enough didn’t seem to amuse my mother and the other women present, as they all sat up very straight and didn’t catch anyone’s eye. Of course the programme had been very carefully censored, but not the inevitable encores.


All this time the barracks were progressing slowly but surely, encroaching on the nice fields where I had been used to walking. When the Officers’ quarters were completed they gave a grand garden party on the recently laid lawn, where not long before, nanny and I had found a lark’s nest. For this garden party I was dressed in a brand new white duck sailor suit, and I launched a model of our ship in an ornamental pond, while a band played nautical airs. The tiny bottle of wine refused to break, but I cut the red, white and blue ribbon hawser with a pair of suitably engraved silver scissors (since lost) and she slid smoothly into the water. I believe that later she was joined by a model of our sister ship. I wish I could find out where they are now, or if they still exist.


I suppose I was lucky in my age as, had I been younger, I should not have enjoyed it so much or gained so much from the experience, and had I been older I should undoubtedly have been sent away to school. As it was my education was sketchy in the extreme. For a few weeks a governess came off from Harwich, five mornings a week, but, when Mother found that my five minutes morning break had grown into half an hour, she decided to get rid of Miss Somebody and teach me herself. So for about one hour a day I had the three R’s, and the rest of the time read everything I could lay my hands on. A solitary child absorbs unconsciously I think, a certain amount of the conversation going on over its head, and certainly what with my broader life on board and mixing so much with adults, I found on rejoining my former schoolmates that I was a form ahead of them.


Just as the family decided they must really do something about their spoiled offspring, my mother found that she was having a baby so she, nanny  and I departed to a London flat. It was a long time before I realised things had been too good to last, and many years before I could forgive my sister for being, as I thought, the reason why I was done out of a second year afloat.





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