The Memoirs of Albert (Skipper) Stroud.
Albert’s hand written memoirs were found in a sideboard being thrown away during a house clearance. They were given to Maureen Smith, MBE, for safety, who then passed them to me so that others might share the content
I scanned and saved every page of the volumes and then started the work of transcribing them into digital text. Albert’s writing was fairly clear, but I had to recall my time on boats to translate many of the maritime descriptions.
In all, I transcribed much of chapter 1 and 2, published here. A busy life slowed me down and anxious that these memoirs were shared for posterity I shared my scans with the Whitstable Museum, so that their volunteers could carry on the transcription. Copies can now be purchased from the Museum. Take a memory stick with you and they will download the memoirs on to it for a small fee.
As a taster, the following will get you started.
“Lucky April Fool” – The Memoirs of Albert Stroud. Part 1.
I first entered this world on the 1st April 1898, at no.19 Harbour Street, Whitstable, Kent. This was the private house attached to the “Royal Native” public house of which my father Ernest Stroud was landlord. He had taken the house in 1894.
I was the sixth member of the family which was eventually to number seventeen in all, although two members, both girls, had died in 1896. Mabel the eldest being six years old, and Norah being six months old.
My earliest recollections of my mother are few, as she died in February 1902. What I do recollect of her is walking round carrying my younger sister in her arms, that would be Clara, born in November 1899, and scolding my brother who was playing on the floor with one of those stationary engines with the brass boiler and spirit lamp for raising steam.
I started school at the age of 2 1/2 years, at the Albert Street Infant School. At first, what we mainly did was to learn to plait paper mats, and thread different coloured straws and beads to make bead curtains. We also learned to sew, darn and knit and we started to write and do small sums. We had compulsory rest each day by lying forward with our heads resting on our arms across the desk. In the playground there was a maypole round which we learnt to dance and braid the ribbons round it.
In February 1902 as I have already mentioned, my mother died, together with my oldest brother Ernest, who was fourteen years old and my youngest sister Dorothy, who was tree weeks old, all three dying within nine days of each other. I have no recollections at all of these deaths, so secluded were we kept from sick rooms, but I learnt years later that my brother died from Quincy’s, and that my mother having got up too soon from childbirth to nurse him, caught pneumonia which took her as well as the baby.
I do however, have a faint recollection of the jollifications in 1903, when there was a double wedding. Before my mother died we had a girl of 17 or 18 years of age, working at the house and in the bar as well, and my father eventually married her in 1903. My father’s brother Alfred was married on the same day, hence the double celebrations.
It was his wife, my aunt Sarah, who in later years to, or gave me the information about the deaths of my mother, brother and sister. She told me how, on her death bed, my mother made Lucy, (the girl father married) promise not to leave the children. This promise she fulfilled to the letter, for I can say she was the only mother that I and my sister Clara ever knew.
The year is now 1904, and in January my brother Harold was born. This year too, being six years old, I left the Infants school and went to the “big boys” school as we called it. In fact, there were two schools, known then as the Trust School and the Board School. Years later these were known as the Endowed School and the Council School. I went to the Board School as my brother Alfred was at that school, although it wasn’t long after I started there that he was beginning to think about leaving, being in his thirteenth year of age. He passed what was then known as the “Labourer’s Exam”, being in the top class and therefore able to leave school before he was thirteen years old. We were well taught at the Board School, for in addition to the three R’s we were given lessons in History, Geography, Singing, Drawing, Painting, Geometry, Nature study and Science.
In 1906 my brother Stanley was born, but he had a very short life, living for only ten months.
School again. On occasion during the Spring and Summer months we would go for a ramble out into the countryside, and the next day have to do a coloured map of our route, marking out the Copses and the various landmarks as well as writing an essay on all the plant and insect life that we had seen.
We had several exams during the year and unless you passed these you never went up into the next class the following year. I was well known for being the top boy of the class in all these exams right through the school, yet when I sat for a scholarship, I failed to qualify.
At that time there were a limited amount of scholarships awarded, and in that particular year there were only three. These were awarded to the son and daughter of a schoolmaster, and to the son of a builder. I happened to be the son of a fisherman which was much lower down the social scale. However, I have never regretted my failure, as I could never have enjoyed a happier or fuller life than I have had, and who knows, I might have turned out a priggish little snob disliked by everybody. Now, through life, I have got a reputation which I wouldn’t swap with anyone in the world.
During this time at school and up to the age of nine, at midday during the dinner hour and when the seasons were right, I would go round the neighbourhood with a basket of bloaters, or in the winter months, smoked sprats. The latter were sold in bundles of twenty, at threepence a bundle, and the bloaters at two for three half-pence.
My father, in addition to being a publican, was also a fisherman and a dealer in shellfish. In the scullery of the public house, the large brick and copper boiler was used for boiling Cockles, Muscles, Winkles and Whelks, while the coal cellar, which was on ground level, was used as a smoke-hang for curing herrings and sprats. With so much shipbuilding and ship-repairing going on in the town, – there being four ship-building yards, – there was a good supply of oak chips for the smoke-hang, consequently the bloaters and sprats really were smoked that lovely dark brown.
It was at this time, or perhaps a little earlier, that we had the first motor-car in Whitstable. Four or five doors away from us was a gunsmith and cycle shop, with a repair shop in the passage known as Leggat’s Lane. The proprietor had a motor car which scared the wits out of us when he cranked up the engine to start it. I can remember a man walking in front with a red flag, and there was always one as well walking in front of the steam roller and traction engines during road repair work. We kids used to run across the road in front of the man with the red flag, and getting shouted at by him, we thought this was ever so daring.
I also remember too, the volunteers returning from the Boer War, marching through Harbour Street outside the pub, led by the band.
A well-known character in the town, and who was a regular visitor to the bar at mid-day – he only lived a few doors away from us – was a quaint old man, William Pettman by name, who went round pushing a closed-in box truck laden with cakes and buns. He was known as “Billy Plum Bun”. His cry was “Three a penny buns all new”, and in the winter time he would have a basket and a bell, and be calling out “Muffins and Crumpets”. In the bar he was a good sport, throwing the dice for buns and cakes.
When we broke up for the school holidays in the various seasons, Easter, Whitsun, six weeks summer holiday and at Christmas, there was nothing for it but to make your own recreation. Once May month was out we were allowed to go sea bathing, but not before, it being reputed as being bad for the health, it being said that until May was out, the “Ague was still in the water”. During the summer we practically lived on the beach and in the water, on occasion out into the woods or the surrounding countryside.
Some of the families would go hop-picking when the season started and we would see the farmer’s big wagons come into town to load up all the pickers belongings and other wagons to take the families who would be away for a few weeks, and if the hop harvest was late, the six weeks holiday would be extended for another week.
At Easter it was a real gay time upon Tankerton Slopes with games and skipping, the band supplying the music. It was the time too for special dishes. Hot cross buns for breakfast, and it was always boiled fish with melted butter and parsley sauce on Good Friday. Over the Easter we would have the Custard Tart well sprinkled with currants, and a Simnel cake at tea time.
Another activity of my father’s while we were at the pub was the making of mushroom ketchup, – when mushrooms were in season. We used to get countrymen coming with baskets and baskets of mushrooms which father used to buy and of course the old chaps could have a good “tuck-in” cheaply as well. At that time you could have a pint of beer, a big hunk of bread and cheese and an onion, a packet of five “Woodbine” cigarettes and a box of matches, and have a penny change out of sixpence.
At the top end of the bar you went up two steps to a slightly higher floor level. Here we had a “Polyphone” which played the large metal discs about 18 inches in diameter. You had to insert a penny to start the mechanism but of course, you could put in what you liked. Some of the discs I remember were “I must love some-one” from “Floradora” and “Angels ever so bright and fair”, from “Theodora” and “Messiah”, which of course meant the Hallelujah Chorus. On the bar counter we also had a phonograph with a very long brass horn suspended from the ceiling. This was also started by inserting a penny in the slot. It played the wax cylinder records. There were some tunes which my father would only allow to be played on Sundays and once that were played, both players were locked up. One of the tunes on the phonograph was “The Glory Song”, a great favourite this, while on the Polyphone it was the “Messiah and Theodora”.
There was once incident that I can recall, that happened one Saturday night. I was supposed to be in bed, but like all kids I didn’t always do what I was supposed to do, and peeping through the partly open door, I saw a drunken seaman come into the bar. My father had gone through to the tap-room for a moment or two, and as mother refused to serve the drunk, he reached over the counter and grabbed her by the throat. At that moment my father returned, and with one big rush got hold of this seaman by the scuff of his neck, and the seat of his pants, yelled for the bar door to be opened, and shot him clean out into the street. My father in those days was someone to contend with, being well built and as strong as an ox.
Another incident with its humorous side happened while we were at the pub. My eldest sister Florrie and my brother Alfred had both been sent upstairs for punishment for something they had done wrong, and father, thinking that things were rather quiet, crept upstairs to investigate and there he caught them taking turns with their mouths under the tap of a cask of Stone’s Ginger wine which stood on a stand on the landing. They were sent up to the garret and each locked in separate rooms. It was while up there that the ceiling fell down in the room where Florrie was and she always swore that it was punishment sent down from above for their misdeeds.
Back to the holidays and the seasons. As Christmas approached, we used our halfpennies and pennies to buy the chocolate and sugar mice and sugar ‘Fancies’ as soon as they appeared in the shops and put them away in a drawer ready for hanging on the tree when the appropriate time came, for we always had a tree and a party at Christmas.
That was the season when the grapes arrived in the shops packed in cork dust in large barrels and were sold at threepence per pound. Oranges ranged from 40, 60, 60 and even 80 for a shilling, with the very large ones at 20 for a shilling. Coconuts were threepence each, and all kinds of nuts were sold at tuppence and three pence per pound.
During the summer when the tides were right, we would rush home from school at mid-day, down to the beach for a quick swim, and then home for dinner, then back to school by 1.30 pm. As the tides got later, we would go down from school at 4pm and bathe before going home to tea. We were taught never to bathe after a meal until at least two hours had elapsed.
As the evenings darkened and the days grew shorter, some of us would get together in the fields and play “Holler, Whistle or Squeak”. Another game we played also was “Jack, Jack, Show your light”.
At other times when the evenings were lighter, we would go down to the Ship-yards and play “Hide and Seek” among the bulks of timber. If there happened to be a sailing ship on the slipway we would go aboard by ladder and onto the ship’s rail which was about twenty feet or so above the beach and see who could jump out furthest on to the beach. We were tolerated at the ship-yards because we never did any damage or stole any tools. In fact, if it were holiday time we would go and watch the shipwrights and the blacksmiths and the riggers at work, and many is the time that I have watched shipwrights with long augers boring into ship’s planking and timber, the planking being held in position by outsize cramps and then the big hardwood “treenails” hammered in for fastenings.
In the blacksmith’s forge too, I’d watch them forging bands and chain plates for the rigging, and in the Spring one could often persuade a blacksmith to make you an iron hoop and a “skeeter” with which to troll it along. Whip-tops and peg-tops too, all came out in the Spring of every year.
A fair number of shipwrights had large models of square-riggers about six to eight feet long. There would be two, three, and four-masted vessels which they had made in their spare time. They used to wheel them on trollies down to the “Backwater” as it was called, at the back of the harbour and by the Whitstable-Canterbury Railway station. It was a recognised sailing pond, though its proper function was to take the flood waters which drained down from the hills, and at a time when the water in the harbour was low, emptied by opening the sluice gate. At other times, it would be filled with sea water, and at dead low water railway workers would don long thigh boots and go down with “mud pushers” on long poles, the sluice gates would be opened and the ensuing rush of water would carry away the mud right out of the harbour and so keep the entrance a good depth for shipping.
I had a fore-and-aft rigged schooner, well over three feet long, which I used to sail on the Backwater. I don’t know how old it was but my brother Alfred had it before me, and the brothers that came after me, and it had belonged to my father, but I am getting ahead of my time, as this was when I was ten years old.
My father had a very serious operation in 1905. He had twisted his inside swinging up bags of oysters from the bottom of the boat up into the tumbrel that used to go down to the hard to collect them from the boats when the tide was out. He was in the Kent and Canterbury Hospital for some weeks, having had an internal operation of some severity. I can remember going to see him with my mother one Sunday. We went by horse drawn cart as no trains were allowed to run on Sundays. It was 61/2 miles to Canterbury and another mile to the hospital. Father was told by the surgeon who did the operation, that he would never be able to carry on work as a fisherman, but in December 1906, my father placed an order with John Collar and Bros, to build him his oyster smack “Game-cock”. She was launched in 1907, defying all superstition by being launched on Friday, 13th June 1907. He worked her until he was 77 years old, and in 1975, “Game-cock” is still going as strong as ever. My father used to say, that you can take too much notice of doctors.
In 1907, the powers that be decided that there were too many public houses in the Country and made drastic cuts in the numbers. In Whitstable some fifteen to twenty pubs were closed and the “Royal Native” happened to be one of them. It was surprising really because the town was flourishing with the amount of shipping connected to the coal trade, and the sailing barges bringing in corn, oilcake and meal. I have seen ships lying in the harbour three abreast, and another ten or twelve anchored up under the Ness, waiting their turn to enter the harbour. Coal was brought to Whitstable and went by rail all over Kent. My father and one or two friends would buy a ten-ton truck of coal and unload it. The cost was 17 shillings a ton, plus the cost for carting, for which the carter charged only a few shillings.
Once we left the “Royal Native” there was no more shellfish cooked, no more bloaters or sprats smoked, as there weren’t the facilities in a private house and so it was the case of having to rely on the earnings from fishing and oyster dredging in the various seasons for a living. We lived a lot in the winter on “Rock Beef”, the local name given to shellfish. We would go and gather mussels, dig for clams, boil whelks and mussels in the summer. We had glorious feeds of shellfish for supplies were unlimited. No wonder we built up the constitutions that we all have. It wasn’t all shellfish that we lived on, though I can think of nothing more tasty than a plate of fried mussels and bacon, or fried oysters and bacon, and if you’ve never tasted these you haven’t lived.
Oft times in the winter we would get half a bullock’s head from the butcher for ten pence on a shilling. Tuppence worth of pot-herb which consisted of a large swede or white turnip, two or three large carrots and a couple of onions. All went into the two gallon boiler with split peas, lentils, and pearl barley with a tuppence packet of Edwards dessicated soup powder, and before the lot was finished cooking, topped up with “twenty minute swimmers” (Dumplings). Good wholesome food which you can’t get these days, as it would appear that animals are now bred without heads for you never see them in the shops.
Another good “buy” for a family too, was a bullock’s heart which could always be had for a shilling, or a whole breast of mutton for threepence. There was offal too and very plentiful, and I would say that the younger people these days don’t know what ‘living’ really is, because it isn’t available in the shops. It’s all packets, tins and frozen packs these days.
In January 1908, another brother, Sidney was born, and it became another one for me to look after, for as each addition to the family came along, so I had to them keep an eye on. At this time I started early in the morning as a “roll boy”, going round with hot rolls. There were four or five bakers and half a dozen of us at each baker that used to start off at about 7am, with rolls straight out of the oven. They were halfpenny each or seven for threepence. We were paid threepence in the shilling for sales, and as an incentive, the one who sold most at the end of the week received an extra shilling on his earnings and so competition was great, with each one keeping secret his daily sales, so as to give nothing away to his competition.
I now had another job in between school hours, I worked in a greengrocers during the dinner hour, after school, and all days on Saturdays, for the weekly wage of one shilling and sixpence. He had a very long garden with some fine Victoria plum trees at the bottom of it, and only a week or two after three of us boys had been chased out of his garden by him, my father came home one day and said, “Old Billy Turner wants a shop boy, you can go up and see if you can get the job.” I was scared stiff that I might be recognised and yet I couldn’t go out and them come back and say that he had got a boy, for father would have still seen the notice “Boy wanted” when he went by again. Nerving myself and keeping my fingers crossed, I applied for and got the job, much to my relief.
My father was now a Town Councillor, he was proposed as a Candidate for the ratepayers, and was elected in 1910, and except for one three-year period, remained a Town Councillor until the end of 1927.
In 1909, we had another addition to the family and who was christened Harry Ernest, but was always called “Ernie”, and was followed in 1911 by another sister “Gertrude”, and so the family steadily increased.
I changed my job at the greengrocers for a much more lucrative job at one of the local doctor’s, the younger Dr. Etheridge. I say “younger” because his father had been in practice with the town before him. At this job I only went to the surgery during the evenings delivering medicine, and Saturdays cleaning up outside, chopping wood and fetching coal. For this job I was paid half a crown per week.
These jobs all helped the family exchequer for there were quite a few of us to feed and clothe now. Clothes and boots were a reasonable price, we could buy good leather boots at four shillings and eleven-pence per pair, and a suits of clothes consisting of a Norfolk jacket and knickerbocker trousers for four shillings and eleven-pence. I used to go to Hatchard’s the outfitters and bring four or five suits on approval as mother never went out shopping. This same shop is still an outfitters, being managed by the son who is nearly the same age as myself, or at least round about the seventy mark.
During the summer months when shrimps were plentiful, I used to go round during the dinner hour from school with a basket and a stamped half-pint glass measure, selling our own local caught shrimps from father’s boat at two pence per pint. They had to be that day’s catch too, you couldn’t kid the local people with shrimps caught the previous day as they could tell by the feel of them, consequently this meant working mostly at night and getting ashore between 8am and 10am, to get shrimps packed and away by train to places like Canterbury, Herne Bay, Margate, Ramsgate, deal, Dover and Folkestone, and sometimes to Ashford and Chatham, any surplus catch being sent to Billingsgate Market where they were often poor, and if there should be a glut in the market, you would even get a “dead letter”, and this for fresh caught shrimps. Out of season, if there were any shrimps to be caught, prices in Billingsgate would soar far beyond any price that could be obtained locally.
It was the same with fish, when fish trawling was in full swing we used to sell the smaller flatfish all gutted and cleaned and strung up for threepence per score, or a skate weighing up to ten pounds for ninepence. People would say, “I’ll buy one if you’ll skin it”. Whereas, by just sending it to Billingsgate with a bit of broken ice packed on top, skate wings would fetch eight to ten shillings, and sometimes more for a stone weight, which, being fourteen pounds contrasted greatly to what local people would pay.
The outskirts and the surrounding districts of Whitstable being farms and market gardens, fresh fruit and vegetables were very cheap. The growers used to come round with their produce, and knocking at people’s doors, with both eating and cooking apples, selling them at one shilling and sixpence and two shillings per half bushel basket, (Four gallons or 28 lbs). I remember too, the year that I worked at Billy Tanner’s, there was a glut of Victoria plums, all fine large fruit, and these were being retailed at two pounds for a penny, the shopkeepers saying that the price didn’t pay for the bags.
Saturday mornings after breakfast, it was my job to clean all the knives, forks and spoons with brick-dust, the knives being done on a board. The clean all the families boots and shoes for Sunday. These jobs being finished satisfactorily, you then received your “Saturday’s ha’penny”. Another job which I had to do at the latter end of the summer while the summer holidays were still on, was to sit out on a grass-patch that we had at one end of the garden and peel gallons of shallots for pickling.
Having a large allotment along the Whitstable to Canterbury Railway line, we grew a lot of our own vegetables of all kinds.
I being the middle of the family, Alf being six years older, and Harold six years younger, I was the dogsbody at it were for the jobs that had to be done. I had the younger ones to look after, take them down to the beach or out into the fields, a job that stood me in good stead in later years when I had my own family.
Sometimes on a Sunday evening, Father, Mother and all the family would go for a four or five mile walk out into the country, and on these occasions before setting out, it would be my job to clean all the brass rails and hood fittings on the “perambulator”, so that they shone and reflected the evening sun. On Sundays too it was Sunday School in the morning and afternoon, but now and again when we came out of Sunday School in the morning I would say to the others, “Come on, we’ll go and see grandma Smith and get some books”. This meant walking the six and half miles to Canterbury, it never dawned on us youngsters that she might not have enough food to give us a dinner, but she always did and we more or less always came away with some books to bring home. We thought nothing of walking the thirteen miles to Canterbury and back, and we used to enjoy it very much. Our parents were never unduly worried at our non-return for dinner on Sundays, the remark being, “Those young devils have gone to Canterbury again”.
The books that we got were what came from the Auctioneer’s after the sales were on and were lots that had had no bidders. These were all cleared out after every auction, and as Grandma’s husband worked as a porter there, he brought the books home. As he was her second husband we never called him “Grandad”.
If we didn’t go to Canterbury, there were always several uncles and aunts we could go and visit, and they liked to see us as well, and we more often than not came away a copper or two richer than when we went out.
On occasions we had Punch and Judy shows visit Whitstable as well as the Circuses and the Fairs with their roundabouts and side-shows. Whenever the circus came to town there was always a parade of the Artistes and the animals, the lions and tigers being in the horse drawn cages, and the circus band up in one of the decorated coaches. Two of the circuses that we used to get were Lord George Sanger’s which was based at headquarters in Margate during the winter months, and the other most notable one being Bostock’s Circus. I remember seeing “The largest rat in the world”, measuring three feet six inches from nose to tail. In later years of course, we know it as the Coypu which is such a pest in Norfolk.
One on the most popular fairs to visit the town was “Beeches Fair”. This had the best and largest roundabout of Ostriches and Galloping horses, with another new one called Japanese Airship. It was a large roundabout with cars that rose and dipped as they circled, like a switchback railway, but these being a wide covered wooden platform with only the rails visible. I suppose the lift and dip gave one the impression of being on a ship or in an airship. We also saw Blondin walking the tight wire sixty feet above the ground, and in the light of the Naptha flares we found it thrilling. [editor’s note; This may have been a handed down memory as Charles Blondin died in February 1897].
The town Regatta was ‘something’ too in those days, there being three classes of Oyster smacks racing. The first and second class had a flying start across the line, but the third class started from the shore. These smacks were anchored with sails stowed, the crews standing by their boats on the beach, and when the starting gun was fired, crews tumbled into the boats and rowed like mad to be first aboard. Once aboard, some would loosen and set sails while the others hove in the anchor. Father’s boat “Gamecock” was just the width of her stem too large for the second class, and so had to race with the first class boats and so was the smallest boat in the class.
Consequently, in a lot of wind the larger boats were more powerful and took the prizes, but we had an agreement between ourselves by which we pooled all the prize money and shared it equally so that all got a “day’s pay”. Naturally the winner kept any trophy or cup that was awarded in addition to prize money.
In light winds there was nothing to touch “Game-cock”, she would ghost along seemingly with no wind at all, and this is just what she did in the last regatta before the 1914-18 war. The first prize was six guineas and a silver teapot, and this is still in possession of one member of the family.
There were rowing races for all types of boats, Ship’s boats, Smack’s boats, and the pleasure rowing boats. There were swimming races too for all ages, walking and climbing the greasy pole, and the Miller and Sweep who fought each other with flour and soot.
A great deal of fun too was had with the “Duck Hunt”, in which a swimmer would be chased by two rowers in a boat, and they had to catch him. The swimmer could, of course, twist and turn as well as dive, and would never to be caught if he’d a mind not to, unless tired out. After quite a good session he would allow himself to make a mistake and be caught. The Regatta finished with the blowing up of a ship by remote control. An old ship’s boat would be partly rigged as a ship, and explosives placed on board, and a long cable fuse led away to a safe distance. This was all arranged and carried out by the Salvage Company that used to carry out salvage on wrecks dispersed around the coast.
The Carnival used to take place in November and there was a torchlight procession. There was very little street lighting except for a few gas lamps as Electricity didn’t come to Whitstable until 1910 or 1911. The torches which lighted the procession contained pitch and tar, and were always obtained from the shipyard. The smoke from these was terrific and the light ghostly, as can well be imagined. The morning after the Carnival, there would be several people searching along the Carnival route for silver and coppers, for all the money thrown to the collectors didn’t manage to fall into the receptacles, and in the crowds and dark it wasn’t possible to find it before daylight. It’s all different now with the Carnival taking place in August and the light evenings, with the judging taking place at the assembly point about 5pm.
I have previously mentioned about the amount of shipping we had at Whitstable in the coal trade. When unloaded they proceeded to Gravesend for ballast, which was chalk, before going north for coal. Sometimes the odd ship would go round to Cherbourg for road flints as these were the days of metal roads and before macadam. Latterly they did tar the main road in the town and scatter chippings over it all.
About every four years, the large county Council traction engine would come to re-surface the roads. They had a series of four pick-axes fitted behind the big rear wheel which, when set, would dig up the road to a depth of six to nine inches. This was then re-rolled with the large steam roller and resurfaced.
In those days when we had so much shipping in the harbour, we had a “Mission to Seamen” hall close to the harbour, and of course the Salvation Army band was in great strength. On Sunday mornings the band would play in various back streets, and on Sunday afternoons would play on the promenade at the foot of Tankerton slopes. In the evening they would gather at the “Cross”, a junction of four roads by the “Bear and Key” and the “Duke of Cumberland” hotels. Gathering in a circle, they would lay the big drum down on its side in the centre of the circle and under the tall lamp standard which stood there, and when the band played and popular hymns were sung, the spectators would throw odd coppers on the drum. This was in addition to the collection box which one of the “Lassies” brought round.
At about 7.30pm the band would form up and they would march up to the “Citadel” in the High Street. Because of modern traffic, all this has now passed away although the Salvation Army and the band are still there, but as I say, traffic conditions in the town now preclude any such gathering like those of the past.
During my schooldays, I remember a film company coming to Whitstable to film some shots for “David Copperfield”. There was a very large and old smack, the “Two Sisters” lying at the top of the beach, and the near-by shipyard workmen heaved her right over, bottom upwards and cut a door and a window in her side for Pegotty’s house. After the film was finished she was broken up.
On another occasion, a derelict East Indiaman, the “Herbert”, was towed from Harty Ferry where she had been laid up and was moored about a hundred yards off the shore at the “Horsebridge”. They partially re-rigged her to look like a ship-wreck, and between her and the shore a raft was moored with three survivors onboard, two men and a woman. One of the men was in a “serious condition”, and while still conscious, was having his will tattooed on his back. The name of the film of course, “The Tattooed Will”.
After this film was finished the “Herbert” was taken over and broken up by the adjacent shipyard, and her timbers were used to build a pier. At the seaward end a crane was erected to unload the Hoy barges which used to bring merchandise from London for the Hoy Trading Company, their stores and sheds being close by. This pier has now disappeared, having been demolished for safety reasons years after the winding up of the Company.
In the year 1910 or 1911, we had the first Electric Light Company formed in Whitstable, and electricity generated in the town. In the same year we had the first Cinema in the town. It started first of all in the Parish Hall in Oxford Street, but the following year the “Oxford Cinema” was built a few doors away. I was quite good at school, painting in water colours, and being acquainted with the proprietor of the Cinema, I painted a large picture of the “Titanic” after that disaster in April 1912. Later it was joined by one of the “Lusitania”. They stayed hung in the Foyer until well into the 1920’s when the Cinema was enlarged and redecorated. From 1912 until I joined up in 1916, I was given free entry to the “Oxford” whenever I wished to go, which was mostly every week.
These weren’t the first films shown in Whitstable though, for I remember one “Fair” coming and the Fairground was a plot of land which had been a rag and bone merchant’s yard and store, later to become the “Ice Works”, and later still the “Fire Station” and “Ambulance Station”. Across the road on the slope of the Horsebridge was erected a Marquee, and over the entrance in large letters “The Bioscope”. They had a twice nightly show of “Moving Pictures”. People sat on wooden forms in the front while those at the back stood up.
I can still recollect the name of one film which amused my parents. It was called “Father’s busy day at the Office”. Slapstick, with the business man and his secretary, and his wife coming into his office at an awkward moment and hitting him over the head with her umbrella and chasing his secretary round the office and out into the street. That was the only time I knew my parents to go and see any films for they never went to a Cinema.
I must go back to my last year at school now. As I mentioned earlier I had always been top boy in the class, and now they had no more to teach me at the school and so I spent my days drawing and painting Butterflies, Moths, caterpillars and all types of insects. These I copied from the Headmaster’s book, enlarging each subject to roughly eight or nine inches high. These were framed and hung up on the walls of the schoolrooms for future use in the Nature Study classes, being much easier than in the Headmaster’s book.
I was about the leave school now, having passed my Labourer’s Exam, and so from school to work. As a youngster I went as fourth hand in “Game-cock”, and worked “on the bow”. This meant that whatever I caught dredging was kept separate and whatever it was sold for, the boat took one quarter share. The share system in the Whitstable smacks worked this way, the crew normally consisted of three men and the proceeds of all catches was divided into four shares, one for each of the crew and one for the boat. This share for the boat was for upkeep and replacement of gear. Therefore, if you had a fourth hand working on the Bow, he paid one quarter of his proceeds which of course was the same ratio. For the best part of one year I only worked one dredge, the other crew working two dredges each.
These dredges weighed 28lbs each before being rigged. The rigging consisted of the “ground” which was made of galvanised wire rings, shut together similar to chain mail. The rings would be about 11/4 or 11/2 inches in diameter, each man making his own “ground”, and believe me there were many sore and blistered hands when these were being made, for the wire was by no means soft. At each side were “side-sticks” and a “catch-stick” fastened along the bottom, this enabled one to catch hold of, and empty the contents of the dredge on deck. The “upper” was a net made of hemps twine, the mesh being about an inch or so square, and was laced to the ground with leather or hide thongs.
Working on the bow was much harder that working abaft the rigging, for the bow being higher, by the time the heel of the dredge was on the rail, the rest of the dredge and its contents were out of the water and consequently heavier. Later, at fourteen, I was working three dredges as we were “musseling” at the time, catching mussels by the ton for the farmers to spread on the land for fertilizer. Four men could dredge up and load below decks, ten tons of mussels, – with a little mud at times – in one working tide which would be about six hours, then sailing back home to the harbour and unloading, cleaning up below and on deck, and if there was enough water to get out of the harbour again and onto your moorings ready to start work again next morning. A pretty hard day’s work by any standard. The price farmers paid for mussels in pre-1914, was ten shillings per ton.
If there were plenty of starfish about, we would go “five-fingering”, “Five fingers” being the local name for starfish. These were much lighter in weight than mussels and contained a lot more fluid, and consequently a lot of weight was lost overnight, the fluid draining down into the bilge so that you were constantly pumping out ship. Also, the hold had to be fitted up into two “pound” for the stability and safety of the vessel. There were long boards which rad fore and aft the length of the hold, and then these were divided athwart-ships by cross-sections down the centre and in both sides under the decks.
We worked four dredges each, these were lighter than the normal oyster dredges, and had smaller square “bits” so that they didn’t pick up any “cultch” from the sea-bed but only the loose stuff on the surface in other words the five-fingers. The size of the rings in the “grounds” were much larger and so were the meshes of the nets. It took several days to get a load and often you wouldn’t manage more than five tons in three or four days, because of the wastage in fluid weight. Each morning we went aboard we would take bags of sawdust, and sometimes sand to soak up and hold the juice. If you had starfish on board for three days or more, the stench below would be terrific, it would turn the paint lead colour and the smell would go right through one’s system.
The pre-1914 price paid for starfish was eighteen shillings per ton. At the end of a season of five-fingering, it would be the case of taking advantage of the first calm day and having all the floor boards up in the hold, taking all the ballast up on deck and thoroughly cleaning, doing the same with the bilges and everywhere else below. Unless you did this, you would never have a sweet smelling boat again, but I’m afraid that with some, it was a case of just chucking buckets of water below to drain through and pumping out again. [editor’s note; dried starfish were sold as fertiliser.]
Another thing we did too, although I only recollect one other boat beside ourselves in “Game-cock” doing it, and that was “Stoning”. This was always a last resort if there was a slump in all the other fishing and dredging activities, owing to the heavy work it entailed. It meant dredging for stone for the manufacture of Roman cement, and this was discontinued after the 1914-18 war.
This stone was the purified soil where the sea had washed away the cliffs. The stone out beyond Warden Point on the Isle of Sheppey was a harder stone than that off Swalecliffe just below Whitstable. The Sheppey stone we were paid eight shillings per ton for, and the Swalecliffe stone six shillings and sixpence per ton. Working out the “Back of the Island” as we called it, was much harder work, the stones being much larger and heavier, and being a harder stone they didn’t break up as easily as those off Swalecliffe, and it was sheer hard work to get some of them aboard. Sometimes a large stone would get wedged in the dredge between the “bit” and the “warbing”, and when you got it to the surface would have to get one of the other crew to help get it on deck, the weight being anything up to two hundredweight, and don’t forget. I was only between thirteen and fourteen years old at the time, as this was before the 1914 war. Having got anything between eight and ten ton in the one tide we would have to take the stone up to Faversham, to what had been originally a jam factory, but now was a kiln for burning the stone so that it could be crushed to powder and mixed with a certain type of mud dug out of mud banks in the river Medway.
It was a long winding trail up Faversham creek and if it was a head wind it meant being put ashore with a bowline in a dredgewarp over the shoulder and towing the smack up the Creek, the same as the horses towed the Canal barges. Once at the Wharf, it was unloaded while the tide was high and if possible, get away again and down to Whitstable. More often than not though, it meant staying there overnight and that meant sleeping on the wooden lockers. As there were only sitting height below, underneath the decks, it was to lie down as soon as possible and get a night’s sleep on the hard locker. The top lockers each side were about two feet wide, but the lower ones were only about 15 inches maximum width, so not exactly the height of comfort after a hard day’s graft.
We were able to appreciate the small comforts of life far more than people of the present day, who want paying for “unsociable hours” and to my mind spoon fed, and what is more they are discontented and haven’t the happiness that we enjoyed on literally next to nothing.
Early in March we put the dredges ashore and put the fish trawl aboard as the fish start to arrive about the middle of March. This would last about six weeks to two months and then the prices would drop and the fish began to ease off, and so ashore with the trawl and aboard with the shrimp gear.
I have already dealt with some of the fish trawling and shrimping, but I can also add that when working down the Prince’s Channel or the Queen’s Channel and the wind died away to a calm, then came the question of getting the shrimps to the customers, and oft-times we have got into the boat, two of us and leaving father aboard, rowed the twelve miles or so back to Whitstable, got the shrimps packed and away, then back into the boat and row back to the smack. Sometimes a light breeze would have brought her nearer to home and we wouldn’t have so far to row, but if it was still calm, it meant that once we got back aboard, it was to get the boat’s up on to the smack’s taffrail and row her back home, father rowing aboard the smack with a long sweep.
I was about fourteen or fifteen years old now and my brother Alfred had been away several trips in the Orient line ships to Australia. He being newly married and prospects at home on the water not too bright. We had got four hands aboard “Game-cock” and I was able get some good grounding in the handling of a sailing smack. Father being a councillor would often have a day ashore if he had an important meeting, and the tides were such that we wouldn’t get back home in time.
The three of us would go afloat and the other crew men would say to me, “Go on, you be Cap’n and take your dad’s place”. I had the confidence to do it too, and I can pride myself that I always made a good job of it, both on leaving the moorings and in “shooting up” to the moorings on our return. What a difference I found too in working aft as against working high up on the bow, as the smacks were low aft.
I had always been, and still am, very observant as to how things were made and done, and have made good use of the knowledge gained in this way. Another instance, apart from sailing and handling a smack was boot and shoe repairing. With father having so many council meetings and being on so many Committees, the boots and shoes when needing repairs had to be taken across to the “Snobs” (Shoe Repairer). He was also an Oyster dredgerman, one of the Freemen of the Whitstable Oyster Company. As well as repairing boots and shoes, he used to make the leather sea boots for the fishermen, and whenever I took boots or shoes to be repaired, I would sit watching him for hours during the evenings and I watched him make me my first pair of sea boots.
A pairs of hand-made leather sea-boots above knee height used to cost from thirty to thirty-five shillings per pair. With not an iron nail in them until the hob-nails and the heel and toe “clips” were put on. All of the “lifts” of leather in the soles and heels being pegged together by hardwood pegs.
At the shipyards too I was always watching and taking in all that happened, and in later years after I had been away yachting, and watched the big yards like Camper and Nicholson’s and their method of working, I could have taught our ship-yards quite a lot of “know-how” in various workings in the yard, both in the way of handling craft in the yard, and also in spar making.
As previously mentioned, we had this large allotment, and a larger part of the working of it fell on me, unfairly I used to think until Alf got married, then of course he ceased to be an interested party.
What with digging, helping with the planting, having to water in dry weather, and this meant carrying two 2-gallon watering cans forty or fifty yards along the foot of the railway bank and filling from a ditch with a fruit can, and I had a pair of yokes on which to hang the cans to carry the water.
What often happened too when we were working early tides, which meant we would be back ashore by 11am or thereabouts. I would be thinking to myself, “Ah, after dinner I’ll go for a bike ride as far as Ramsgate and Deal and back”. Breaking in on my thoughts would come father’s voice, “Chuck out a bucket or two of fivefingers and you can take them up to the garden after dinner and put them between the cabbage plants”, or it might be, “When we get ashore and you’ve had your dinner you can go and earth up the taters”. It was all according to the time of the year, I might have to go and plants potatoes, or put in peas and beans, or even cabbage plants. Also on Sunday mornings if we were at home, I would have to go up and cut the cabbage for dinner.
It had to be cut on Sunday, not on Saturday because it would have lost some of its freshness during that twelve hours or so, but if we were shrimping and we couldn’t get home until nearly mid-day on the Sunday, then it would have to be cut on Saturday evening as late as possible before dark.
There used to be three of us lads that used to go for these long cycle rides, we never reckoned to ride just round the town, but as far as Ramsgate and Deal which was roughly twenty miles each way, or as an alternative, Folkestone and Dover, the distance being roughly the same. We reckoned this as our pleasure and we took great pride in, and care of our bicycles.
We now come to August 1914, and my brother Alf – who had been back in the “Game-cock” for some time – being in the R.N.R. was called up. That left father and myself to work the smack, and as we were shrimping at the time we didn’t bother about a third hand. The catches were quite good and so was the market, and so my father was doing quite well, for me being only sixteen at the time, was only getting pocket money, sixpence per week, later raised to one shilling, in addition to my keep and my clothes. In those days, no boy took his own earnings until he was eighteen years old. I did manage to get mine though before I reached that age through arguing and “worry gutting” until I got it.
It was during one very hot day in August, and father and I were aboard “Game-cock”, having a general overhaul of her gear. I was loft reeving off new main halyards, and it being a very still day, sound travelled a long way. You could hear dogs barking, and people and children on the beach laughing and shouting, and so we didn’t take notice of noise until my father called out, “Come down and into the boat quick, there’s somebody in the water”. He had glanced shore-wards and happened to see a young lad swimming but being carried away by the tide away from the smack on the next mooring inside of us. I slid down the rigging and we were away in the boat, not bothering to ship oars, I took an oar and sculled the boat from the rowlock socket in the transom, leaving my father free to lean over the bow and pick up the lad by the seat of his pants. It was then that we saw three more people in the water hanging on to the side of the smack by the dredge warp “stops” hanging down from the covering board. Two of the persons, a man and a woman, were holding above the surface a ten-month old baby boy.
We took them aboard and rowed them ashore where they were taken care and we went back to finish our job. It appears that they were getting into the boat from aboard the smack, when the last to get in, stepped on the boat’s gunwale and so capsizing it. The accident was seen from the shore, but as we were nearest to the scene we arrived there first, the other boat which came out from the shore contained Harry Foad, the owner of the smack “Ocean Queen”, the smack the party had been aboard of, and the young lad we first picked up was his youngest son. He retrieved his capsized boat and towed it back ashore.
That same evening I went round to enquire how the survivors were and found that they were none the worse for their experience. It transpired that the lady lived locally and the baby was her son and the other young man was her youngest brother, down on holiday from London. While we were chatting, two more sisters arrived, one also being on holiday and the other one had, that week, started work in domestic service in Whitstable. Four years later she was to be my wife, and now in 1975 there is only one survivor of that meeting apart from myself, and it is the ten months old baby that was, and now a retired RAF Warrant Officer in his sixty second year and living in Worcester.
It was after this event that I started courting at the age of sixteen and a half, that I eventually persuaded my father to let me have my own earnings, and pay for my bed and board, and buy my own clothes. Although the war had been on for some months, we were still allowed to go to sea at our own normal occupation. About this time the “Derby Scheme” came into being, when you could enlist after the age of sixteen in whatever section of the armed forces you wished to join, have your medical exam and then go back home and to your job, and await your call-up when you reached the age of eighteen,
I joined the R.N.R Trawler section, going to Chatham for my medical, and having passed as fit, was given an R.R.N.T. armlet plus my one shilling, and sent home until called for. I was called up on my eighteenth birthday in 1916 to the Chatham Naval Barracks, H.M.S. Pembroke, for my training.
I occasionally met my brother Alf who was stationed at the ‘North Rock Aerial Station in the Dockyard, having been one of the survivors of H.M.S. Cressy, when she was torpedoed together with the “Aboukhir” and ”Hogue”. He later went as a gun-layer aboard merchant ships when they began to arm them with 4.7 inch guns. At the outset and until enough guns were available, they used to move the gun from ship to ship, and he went with the gun wherever it went.
We actually went through the Gunnery School at the same time, yet never saw each other as we were both on different gunnery courses. He was training as a G.L.3. which was for 4.7 inch guns for merchant ships, while I was on a Seaman Gunner’s course which was for 12 pounder high angle guns for Drifters and Trawlers.
The Gunnery course was very interesting, learning about different explosive, types of shells, and then you were ready for drafting to various stations. My first draft was a land based one, I was drafted to “Burntwick Island”, a small island in the Medway, attached to H.M.S. Actaeon, one of the old “wooden walls” battleships. We lived fairly well on a small island. Our mess being in an old forge, and our job was to lay out the fleets of anti-submarine nets, attach the E.C. Mines to them, having first wired up the detonators inside the mines.
The nets were then loaded aboard the Drifters which then took them out to the Anti-Submarine barrage laid across the Channel from the East Goodwin Light vessel to the Dyke lightship off the French coast. The batteries for exploding the mines once contact had been made, were situated on large flat-topped mooring buoys between each fleet of nets, and Drifters patrolled the line of nets and also kept watch for enemy seaplanes which would try and sneak in especially in hazy weather to disconnect the batteries from the nets.
Before proceeding further, I must go back to pre-1914 days when I mentioned our substantial meals of shellfish of all types, as well as fresh fish caught in the summer months.
During the winter months when the “Game-cock” crew consisted of my father and us two boys, we were marketing our own oysters. The four grades being 5/- per hundred for the large or the best, 3/6 per hundred for the second size, 2/6 per hundred for the third size, and if enough small or “buttons”, these were 1/6 per hundred. These “buttons” weren’t immature oysters, but oysters that had grown dumpy and thick instead of putting on a good growth of “fin” each year. On Sunday morning I would be detailed to go down the store and bring home what oysters were left, irrespective of size, and father would open up as many as three hundred for breakfast while the bacon was frying, these in turn being fried in the bacon fat. They were fried until the edges started to crisp, and that was enough. What a feed for breakfast, and we were talking about it one evening before my father died, and he said, “Yes, the top number that I opened was three hundred and fifty for breakfast. People who have never tasted this sort of food haven’t lived”.
I must make mention too of some of the sayings and remarks of some of the old fishermen, – those that aren’t too bad to appear in print of course. When the tides were getting round to high-water at mid-day, these tides weren’t very popular as it meant, especially in winter time, waiting outside the Bay, hove-to until there was water enough in to your moorings at six and seven o’clock in the evenings in the cold and dark. Just about fifty yards from our beach was the “Pearson’s Arms” pub, and of course open all day. There would be frequent visits there to “consult the glass” which wasn’t necessarily the weather glass either. Old Dido Foreman, a well-known character, who lived well beyond his ninetieth year, at that time worked the “Invicta” for her owner. His store adjoined ours, as did the “Swift’s” which belonged to my father’s two brothers, Herbert and Wallace. Another store on the same beach was the “Rebel’s” and she belonged to one of my father’s cousins, Jimmy Stroud. The Rebel later parted her mooring in a northerly gale, and listing down on the beach, the heavy seas smashed her decks in and broke her up. Dido would walk partly down the beach, cock his eye to the S.W. and turning to my father would say, “Well Ern, this is going to be one of those days you read about on Baccy paper”. Then perhaps after an hour or so, they would decide and say, “Oh well, we’ll lay it in and change tides. Be down at one o’clock in the morning and just save water off the beach”.
Another remark too of old “Luffun” Olive when discussing the types of weather we were getting one day said, “Well, what the ‘ell do you expect, for hundreds of years now they’ve been adding an extra day every four years, and now the bloody months are mixed up and we don’t know what month it is”. I think one of the prize ones though, is from another character, Sammy Tanadine. In the pub one day the Landlord “Squibber” Camburn said to him, “You’re mighty bloody clever Sammy, what water is there on the Dogger Bank?” To which Sammy replied, What water on the Dogger Bank?, Why salt Water you silly bugger, Salt.” Quip and similar conversations were bandied about, but they were unprintable as were a lot of the nicknames.
In 1914, my sister Winifred was born making another addition to the family, to be followed later in 1915 by another brother, Jack.
Back now to the War and Burntwick Island. I was at that assignment for seven months, and then with several others, was recalled to Chatham barracks for Sea Drafts.
On arrival there, two drafts were being assembled, one for Immingham to man the new Paddle Mine Sweeper that were being built, and the other Draft was for Dover for the Drifter Patrol. I was sent to Dover and on my arrival and reporting to the Drifter Patrol Office, was sent aboard as Seaman Gunner to the “Unity”, an old Yarmouth Drifter. We were a crew of nine.
It transpired that “Unity” was a duty Drifter to the Fleet working down off the Belgian Coast, and she spent a fortnight at Dunkirk, and a fortnight at Dover. We worked in pairs, our opposite number being the Drifter “E.A.B.”. We had twenty-four hours on duty and twenty-four hours standby, being relieved at the end of the fortnight by the Drifters “E.B.C.” and “Coral Hill”. Back in Dover we worked independently, having no special job, but on standby for anything that might turn up. One of these jobs that cropped up was for us to go out with the salvage boat “Moonfleet” with divers on board to go down and investigate a German submarine reported sunk.
We acted as Guardship while she was at anchor. The object of this was to find proof of a reported sinking, so that the Vessel claiming responsibility for the sinking could claim the £1000 award paid for each submarine proved destroyed.
Having seen the type of work we were doing at Dunkirk and the amount of time that we spent waiting for the Fleet to return to the Dunkirk roads, I sent home for a fish trawl which we put aboard the “Unity”, and with the permission of the Commodore at Dunkirk, who was in charge of the Port, we went out and did an hours fishing. When we hauled up, we had the biggest haul of fish that I had ever seen in a haul. As soon as we got the ground rope aboard, we could see that we were going to have a tough job in getting them aboard. Fishing up the Cod-end buoy, we got a rope round the lower part of the net and getting that secured tight, got the Cod-end on board, let that lot out on deck, tied up the Cod-end again and let a second lot down into it. Altogether, we made three cuts like this before we got all the fish aboard, and we were knee-deep in fish on deck.
The Commodore came down to the Quay and then aboard to have a look. We gave his Aide that was with him some prime Dover Soles, and he gave us permission to sell all our surplus fish to the Fleet, which consisted of Monitors and Destroyers. There was a Division of Drifters from the net barrage in harbour at the time, and all eight Drifters sent one hand each, down with their large buckets which we filled with fish, after which, we went out to do our rounds as we had stores, fresh bread, and mail for the Fleet as soon as they returned. We would wait hours for their return as there was never any regular time, and of course, we could get no information whatsoever from the Commodore’s Office.
That night I cooked thirty-six Dover Soles for the nine of us for tea. If that sounds a lot, I would remind you that we were all fishermen, and when fishermen have a fish meal, they have a fish meal. At that time, and when I was first married, I would think nothing of eating a whole wing of skate or half a dozen herrings at a sitting, and on many occasions have eaten fifty oysters and the top of a cottage loaf for my tea. We worked hard, but we fed well.
However, back to Dunkirk. The reason I said that I cooked the fish was the fact that, with the Skipper’s approval, I had taken over the Cook’s duties as regards cooking as he couldn’t get enough time ashore. He would hand over his Cook’s pay of sixpence per day when he had his quarterly pay-down, which was when the extras were paid. He also kept my gun cleaned.
One of the things we were all fond of, was steamed suet pudding with jam of Golden Syrup. As we had no large steamer on board, I would make three “Duff” in the 2lb stone jam jars, as these would stand upright in one of our large saucepans, side by side, with n risk of falling over. Our trawling went on day by day and was greatly appreciated by the Monitors and Destroyers crews, as it was all good fresh caught fish, and for them cheap too, for they got their large Dixies filled for a shilling or one and sixpence, according to how big our catches.
Surplus fish used to be bought by the canteen managers on board the big Monitors. It wasn’t long though before these sales finished. One day when we were passing over fish to one of the Monitors, the Captain asked us to give him a receipt for the amount the Canteen managers had paid us, and then, according to what we were told by some of the crew when we were taking them ashore on liberty, the Captain saw the fish weighed and then put a fixed price per pound on it. It appears that there had been complaints of overcharging in the Canteen, and this price fixing by the Captain didn’t allow the canteen manager a big enough profit and so he stopped buying it. However, it made little or no difference to us as we always got rid of what we caught. The night before going back to Dover we would go out and do a couple of hours trawling the share the catch out to give to our friends in Dover, and also to the staff in the Drifter Office who always looked after us.
It was in March 1918 that I got a letter from home to say that I had got another brother, Frederick, born that month. When I wrote back home I said that I thought about getting married and making a start, and it was on board “Unity” that I got leave to get married on April 20th 1918. It was while I was on “Marriage Leave” that the Epic of the “Vindictive” and the “Daffodil” took place at Zeebrugge. Later on while we were in Dunkirk, the blocking of the harbour at Ostend took place. We went with the Fleet and took of the nucleus crews from the Blockships, leaving the volunteer crews on board to take them into Ostend.
We got back to Dunkirk with them at 1.30am and at 5am we received a signal by messenger from the Commodore’s Office to proceed with the tug “Query” down to Ostend and find the “Sappho”, one of the old Cruisers that were used as Blockships. She had had a shell through her main steam-pipe in the boiler room, rendering her incapable of proceeding into Ostend and so completing the blockage of the harbour.
One very dark and moonless night, while we were at Dunkirk and the Fleet was anchored in the roads, one or two German Destroyers came down through, fired a few shells into the town, and fire two torpedoes into the bows of the Monitor “Tenor”, tearing a large hole in her bow. She slipped her cable and they beached on the seafront the East side of the harbour piers. They closed the breach in her bows and towed her away to Portsmouth for repairs. Whilst undergoing repairs, rumour has it they lengthened her bows considerably, improving her speed and manoeuvrability.
Also while on relief, the Drifter E.B.C. was lying at the quay in her berth alongside the lock-gate, she was sunk by the ill-fated Monitor “Glatton”. She was coming into harbour very slowly to berth alongside the quay and was just that few feet too far to the west, and not having steerage way and despite the fact that her engines were reversed, she just pushed her way through the E.B.C., cutting her trough to her keel. Later in Dover I was to witness the sinking of the “Glatto” in the harbour after she caught fire.
It was while we were back in Dover on one of our fortnightly spells, I had my wife down there at the time, we were being allowed to have our wives there, living in a furnished bed-sitting room, a message came aboard telling me I was to report to the Drifter’s Office, and on my reporting there was told that a Seaman Gunner was wanted for the Patrol Drifter “Jacob George”. She was on Anti-Submarine patrol. We went to sea the following day and the Patrol’s stint was there days at sea and two days in harbour. Once aboard and having one trip, I had the option of staying in her or going back to the “Unity” and her fortnightly stints over in Dunkirk.
I decided to stay aboard “Jacob George”, but I suffered for it in the long run for as soon as we shoved our nose out of Dover in any “weather” at all I was as sick as a dog. I must say however, that it never took me off my feet and I never missed a watch, but I couldn’t go below and eat, and when we came off watch, I would kick my boots off at the top of the fo’castle ladder, dive straight down below and into my bunk and lie on my stomach. If the weather was fairly reasonable and I went down for a meal, a cheer went up. More often than not it was the case of three days at sea “no grub”, with two days in harbour “stocking up”. All through my life I have never really got over seasickness, as you will see later on in this book.
I would normally go home to sleep when we were in harbour, going ashore just after six pm, but on occasions I would be required to keep my watch aboard if the rest of the crew wanted to go ashore. It was while aboard doing my watch one evening, there was a loud explosion, and going on deck saw the “Gatton” on fire, the flames reaching almost to the top of the three masts with the navigation turret above.
It appeared that her fuel tanks were on fire and that the fire sealed the only escape route for the men down below forward, and that there were some sixty off men trapped there with no hope of escape. The “Glatton” had that day, refuelled and stocked up with ammunition in preparation for her return to the Belgian Coast Patrol. The fire being uncontrollable, there were great fears for the town, for should the magazines blow up, it would have probably destroyed the whole town of Dover. The order was given to the destroyer “Broke” to torpedo and sink her to save the town, This she did and the “Glatton” capsized and lay on her starboard side with her “bister” showing above the water at low tide. There was some relief as well as grief and sorrow in Dover that evening, relief because the town had been saved from possible destruction, and sorrow for the sailors that had to die in the ship because rescue was impossible.
Of the parodies that are associated with all the armed forces, there were two that we had in the Navy during the 1914-18 war. The two, one on the Commandments, and one on one of the popular hymns were as follows:-
Six days shalt though labour,
And do all thou are able,
On the Seventh day, holystone the deck and paint the cable.
We are but little sailors weak,
Earning but 1/8 a day,
The more you work, the more you may,
It makes no difference to your pay.
We were now in the early Autumn of 1918 and the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic began to sweep the country. People were dying within an hour or less of catching it, and quite a lot of the Drifter crews lost their lives through it.
For two days at sea I had been slightly off colour, apart from my normal seasickness, and when we came in and anchored in the harbour, I reported down at the Sick Bay, and after examination was kept there with several others whiles various hospitals were contacted. After some hours of waiting, we were given in charge of a sick berth attendant, and put in a reserved compartment of the Dover – London train, stopping at Chatham where an ambulance was waiting to convey us to Chatham Naval Hospital high up on the hills on the outskirts of Chatham and Gillingham. This was the nearest hospital to Dover with any room for patients, all the others being full up. I was very fortunate in only having a mild bout of it, and when pronounced fit, was sent to Chatham Barracks. I tried to get back to Dover, but they wouldn’t allow it, but as I hadn’t any kit with me they couldn’t draft me anywhere else. They applied to Dover for my kit on several occasions, but the staff at the Drifter Office told my wife to hang on to my kit. This was one of the ways they looked after us, as we looked after them by sending them fish over from Dunkirk when in the “Unity”.
My repeated visits to an exasperated C.P.O. in the Drafting Office in Chatham asking to be returned to Dover brought this reply.
“It is in standing orders that no rating having been in hospital shall be returned to his former base “UNLESS APPLIED FOR”. These three words gave me the answer I was looking for. Writing straight away to the Chief in the Drifter Office at Dover, I mentioned what I had been told about Standing Orders. Within three days I had been applied for and on my way back to Dover, and back aboard the “Jacob George”. She lay in the Inner Basin flying the Quarantine flag as other members of her crew were also away with ‘Flu, and so I wasn’t allowed to ashore from her to go home, even though I had recovered some time previously.
It was while we were in quarantine that news of the Armistice came through to the relief and joy of everybody, and the din from ship’s sirens and whistles was indescribable. There would be no more Anti-Submarine patrolling, and that was one big nightmare relieved, for on this patrol we were patrolling up and down over the top of one vast minefield stretching across the Dover Straits.