George Bibby Hartford Account of Life in H.M.S. Britannia (Cadet Training Ship)
"Or told, to make the time pass by,
Droll legends of his infancy."
WHAT is your impression on entering a building or visiting a place for the first time ? Is it ever that which you have been told you will receive ? It is certainly never so with me. For instance, my first feeling on entering Westminster Abbey was not of its size, nor architecture, nor even the tombs, concerning all of which I had been duly primed and had great expectations. Not one of the prophecies was fulfilled, for the first thing I noticed in the Abbey was its smell. And so it was when I joined the Britannia.
There is a subtle odour about an old wooden warship which is entirely different from that of any other ship or building, an indefinable something, call it spirit if you will, which puts you into instant touch with her long-past life and vanished companies.
I left the Britannia in 1899; in 1924 I paid my first visit (shameful admission!) to the Victory, and my first whiff of Nelson's flagship recalled the Britannia in the most pronounced way, though twenty-five years had passed since I left her as a hopeful young midshipman.
All naval officers of the Executive Branch of about my seniority and above - many now distinguished and retired - passed through the Britannia. Have any of them tried to recall their first impression of the dear old ship ? If so, I wonder how many will find that it is the same as mine ?
My next impression of the Britannia was a physical one, and being also very painful, I will dispose of it now. Actually, the Britannia was composed of two ships, the Britannia and the Hindostan. They were connected by a bridge running from the Hindostan's bow to the Britannia's stern. There were some large baths built into the bows of the ships ; but despite their ample dimensions they were only two feet deep. Filled with salt water, the baths were cold in the mornings, when all cadets had to pass through them, and hot at night, when football players and followers of beagles were allowed to soak in them for a glorious ten minutes or so.
On the second night after joining the Britannia I was introduced to these baths, with the water heated. Now, unknown to the unsuspecting and confiding "New," whose knowledge was gained by bitter experience, and who was looked upon as fair game by his seniors - had they not learned in the same hard school? - the baths were heated by pipes running along the bottom, at the side. The pipes were absolutely unprotected, they never had been protected, and as the Naval College was being built in my time I don't suppose they ever were up to the time the old ship paid off.
Joyfully, in company with other youngsters who were equally green, and as unprotected as the pipes, the first thing I did on entering the bath was to sit down on a hot pipe. I must not dwell on the harrowing occurrence or the unholy rapture of the old hands who knew what was coming and were waiting for it; but as I write I vividly recall the direful happening and the swift leaps to regain an upright position. At first I seemed to be sitting on a lump of ice, then - but convention demands that I should draw the veil. All I will add is that I had to repair to the sick-bay to be patched up and find such cheer as I could in the knowledge that there were others in the same unhappy boat with me. I spent a most uncomfortable week as a start in H.M.S. Britannia.
The scar remains to this day. How many other naval officers are similarly decorated, and perhaps don't know it ? There must be hundreds, and it may be that some of them will set to work and find out for their own peace of mind.
As it is many years now since the Britannia was paid off - King Edward VII. laid the foundation stone of the College for Naval Cadets at Dartmouth in March, 1902 - and she was such a real link with the old British Navy of wood and canvas, it will be interesting to give a short description of her and her complement, and an outline of the life the cadets lived in her latter days. That life has passed, for there is as much difference between to-day and my time in the Britannia as there was between the Nineties and the period of the Crimean War and the Mutiny, to go no further back in history. There was no training-ship of any sort at that time, and boys after passing the farcical preliminary and medical examinations were sent at once to join their ships for sea service as midshipmen.
We know from what contemporary writers, especially naval officers, have told us how naturally the midshipman became the prey of everyone in authority over him, and how he retaliated by ceaselessly plotting to get to windward of them all. " A midshipman's life," wrote one officer, "consists almost entirely of three things, skipping up and down ladders, scheming to get ashore, and humbugging the devil-dodger . . . . He cannot jump on anyone, whereas everyone can jump on to him with the greatest ease. His first years are literally a struggle for existence."
Things were not quite as bad as that in my time - naval life, indeed, had improved out of all recognition even by survivors of the old sailing days; but, at the best, the newly-joined cadet was in for a salting. There were many stern unwritten laws which he had to pick up as best he could, for he was told nothing. Many things were done which are no longer allowed or practised, and with the passing of the old Britannia and the advent of the College at Dartmouth there came, I take it, "the nobler modes of life, with sweeter manners."
One great advantage of the Britannia, despite her obvious drawbacks, was that she was actually afloat as a commissioned ship in the Royal Navy, a circumstance that always provided a fascination not to be found in any building ashore ; and the whole environment was more romantic and exhilarating than a training establishment on land. The Britannia, which succeeded another ship of the same name that had run to decay, was built in 1860 under the name of the Prince of Wales. Launched at Portsmouth, she was one of the biggest three-deckers ever put afloat, and was meant to carry 131 guns. She was engined and screw-driven originally, but by 1869 wooden monsters had become utterly obsolete for fighting purposes, and this vessel, having had her machinery removed and with her new name of Britannia, became that floating school without whose training no cadet could aspire to the truly desirable position of Admiral of the Fleet.
The Hindostan was smaller than the Britannia, but still large, as wooden ships went, for she was a 74-gun two-decker. An interesting feature about her was that she was one of the famous ships built at Bombay, and, like her class in that region, was largely constructed of teak.
The linked ships were moored by chain cables in the snug expanse of the Dart, a little beyond Dartmouth, and that secure haven made it possible far all sorts of social and impressive functions to be held on board, while the stretch of water afforded space for the fleet of cutters, yachts, dinghys, skiffs and other craft available for the enterprising boys who had plenty of surplus steam to let off. The Britannia still had her foremast and bowsprit standing, but apart from that both ships were housed in, every use known to naval cunning being made of the considerable space available. Mindful of the higher nature of the merely young, and doubtless realising how much it stood in need of development, the Admiralty provided a church on the upper deck of the Hindostan.
The connection formed by the bridge running from the Hindostan's bow to the Britannia’s stern left the Britannia’s stern-sheets free for the captain's quarters, two decks down, and the wardroom, three decks down. The captain's quarters were most luxurious, and included a very nice stern-walk. Now that the Victory has been restored to her original state one can realise how much the stern-walk meant to a captain or admiral in a ship crowded with something like a thousand men. But the Britannia's stern-walk was even finer than Nelson's flagship, for she herself was a good deal larger than the Victory, and instead of having the flat stern, she was built with the round stern introduced by Sir Robert Seppings in 1829.
First and second term cadets slept in the Hindostan, and third and fourth term cadets in the Britannia. There was a general mess-deck in the Britannia, and the various studies were divided between the two ships. The church, or rather chapel, in the Hindostan was large enough to accommodate all the cadets at one time. There was, of course, always a large congregation, though not necessarily, I fear, of devout worshippers ; and the parson never lacked opportunity to exercise his powers. The poop of the Britannia was given over to "Divisions" on Sundays and to entertainments and various gatherings at other times.
A chief petty officer was attached to each term, and these were assisted by the cadet captains selected by the officers from the third and fourth terms. There were two chief cadet captains, promoted from cadet captains of the fourth term. The pair had a considerable amount of power and freedom, both of which they duly exercised, and they had the further glory of messing by themselves.
The instructional officers consisted of a navigating commander, R.N., to teach us practical navigation, four naval instructors, R.N., and several civilian instructors, including two French masters, so that we were strongly and efficiently staffed. It took four terms to pass through the Britannia, these being in all respects the same as those of the ordinary private school. There was plenty to do, and unless it was done, and done well, the Royal Navy was not the final destination or profession of the young cadet. The whole system inevitably meant that only the fittest survived ; but merciless though it may seem from some standpoints, yet without it there could not have been the successful endurance of the awful and prolonged trials of the Great War.
The cadets of these terms were known as "News," "Threes," "Sixers" and "Niners" respectively amongst themselves, and First, Second, Third and Fourth Term Cadets officially. They were not called after famous admirals, as they are to-day, this being one of the many changes in the College life compared with the Britannia.
We varied in age between fourteen and fifteen and a half years, and like all other institutions where boys are gathered together we had our laws and conventions, all of which were observed with a ruthless strictness. Custom had set a course from which there was no deviation. Some of these unwritten laws were of that extraordinary and mysterious character which you will never find outside communities of British boys. For instance, no cadet in a certain term was allowed to say a word indicating the term or terms above his own. A "New" could not, on pain of torture, say "Three" or "Sixer" or "Niner" in the hearing of one of those august personages; similarly, a "Three" could not say "Sixer" or "Niner," nor could a "Sixer" say "Niner." This rule was more rigidly observed than any other in the ship, and I can never forget the intense satisfaction it gave me as a "New" to collect a term mate and, in the safe privacy of some copse, exchange remarks, bringing in "Three," "Sixer" and "Niner" to our hearts' content. We exulted in our craven triumph.
These forbidden words were not allowed to be used by the unauthorised ones in any sense at all, and my first beating, very soon after joining the ship, was given for stating, when asked to do so by a second term cadet, and in my fatuous innocence, what two and one, when added together, came to ! It was a foul little trap, but as soon as a victim got the chance he set it to catch another, such is the depravity of boyish nature.
Fagging was carried out pretty freely, the rule being that there must be a term between the fagger and the fagged ; thus a "Sixer" could fag a "New" and a "Niner" a "New" or "Three." Here again was an addition to that knowledge which the newly-joined cadet had to gain by way of pain and sorrow, quite apart from his tribulations in grappling with the authorised curriculum. It was the chief amusement of the senior term cadets to set traps for the "New" as soon as he arrived on board, and until he had learnt his lesson the "New" had a pretty poor time.
I saw only one public beating, I am truly thankful to say, during my four terms on board the Britannia; and to this day I consider that there was a miscarriage of justice in connection with the case. But the law had been undoubtedly broken, and I suppose the authorities were anxious to impress us all with a stern example of the results of bullying.
The case in point was this: Three "Niners" were found bullying a "Three" ashore by a chief petty officer.
Now in that "Niners" were bullying a "Three" the law had been broken, and they clearly deserved punishment ; but there were extenuating circumstances, for the "Niners" were three of the smallest cadets in the ship, and the "Three" was a whacking great lout who had the physical strength to knock all their heads together and so at least have a run for his money. On the other hand, there was, of course, the practical certainty that had he made a fight for it he would have met his Nemesis in the end, since such an insult to the "Niner" term could scarcely have been overlooked. I hold, however, that he should not have allowed three cadets of the size these were to bully him without having a show for his money.
Moralising, however, is futile. The offence had been committed, and the only thing to be done was to inflict the necessary punishment, which was sufficiently severe, the sentence being that the guilty trio were each to receive a dozen strokes with the cane in the presence of the cadets.
We were fallen in on the poop in much the same manner as on Sundays, and the captain, the commander and most of the officers were present. A "horse" was placed in a convenient position, and the shrimps were brought up in turn and lashed to it.
A burly chief petty officer, having been instructed by the captain to "do his duty," laid on each dozen as hard as he could. It was a hateful sight - they were such little fellows - and we were thankful when it was over ; but to their lasting credit not one of them made a sound. They are now senior officers in the Navy, and have probably forgotten all about the incident ; at any rate, if they remember I am sure that they will look upon it as an inevitable part of the hard training of the period. Things in this respect have improved enormously, not only in the Navy but in the schools, and we reach the end of the journey with much pleasanter travelling.
A matter of daily routine which comes clearly out amongst my early impressions was a climb over the masthead. The foremast I have mentioned was somewhat smaller than the original, and had been set up in its place when the Britannia was converted for training purposes, and over this mast all the cadets went daily with unfailing regularity unless exceptional circumstances arose. The mast was rigged in the usual way in every detail, except that no sails were bent on to the yards. It had a top and crosstrees, the top being occupied by "Niners" and the crosstrees by "Sixers," these two terms going aloft first.
Now there are two ways of getting past a top on one's way aloft ; one is through it - the " lubber's hole " being provided for that purpose, for the encouragement of the faint-hearted - and the other is round it. The "lubber's-hole" offered no serious difficulty, especially with the help of shut eyes and a tenacious clutch ; but to work your passage round the top was in many ways a far bigger adventure than rounding the Horn, even in a wind-jammer. It was necessary to adopt the method of the common fly or kindred enterprising insect and negotiate the "futtock rigging," thoughtfully provided for the climber, in somewhere near the horizontal position. It followed that the unhappy "News" and "Threes" were forced to take the futtocks when going over the masthead, and the "Niners" in the top caused much amusement - to themselves - by rapping the climbers' fingers as they panted heavenward, possessed in some cases at least by a terror which they scorned to show. A net was spread out underneath to catch any unfortunate ; but it says much for the cat-like qualities and manly grip of the youngsters that I never heard of a cadet falling from aloft. I have often wondered what some mammas, horrified at seeing their boys climbing safe trees, would have thought if they had seen them outlined, fly-like, against the sky. Here again was an element in the ruthless weeding-out process and the training of the human machine to something like perfection ; but how excellent was all this seeming hardness when in later years the subject of it found himself in difficult places, and how grateful he was, in some small chamber of his memory, for all the kind interest that had been taken in his professional welfare.
The officers of the ship had nothing to do with these customs, which had been handed down from term to term for generations; but they winked at them, and within reasonable bounds let the cadet work out his own salvation in his own way and the way his betters thought good for him.
"Cheek" was another custom which was also very strictly observed, and here again was one of the idiosyncracies of boyhood, for while "News" and "Threes" were forbidden to "cheek" "Sixers" and "Niners" were not only allowed but expected to indulge in that pleasant pastime. "Cheek" consisted of wearing one's cap on the back of one's head - flat-a-back - swinging one's keys, which were worn on the ends of the lanyards, and wearing one's monkey jacket open. Obviously "cheek" could only be indulged in when no officers or instructors were about ; but there were many opportunities during the day when it could be carried out with joyful impunity, and these occasions were as sweet as unlawfully possessed apples.
The power exercised by the chief cadet captains was partly bestowed officially and partly acquired by custom ; and it was the all-powerful custom which gave these cadets the right to order "General Cheek." This was to my mind the most objectionable of the whole outfit of objectionable customs. I speak, of course, as a "New" or "Three," for I enjoyed them all to the full later, when I in turn became a "Sixer" and a "Niner."
"General Cheek" meant that all "News" and "Threes" had to "cheek," whether they felt that way inclined or not ; but it was optional for "Sixers" and "Niners," and consequently not a "Sixer" or "Niner" could be seen swinging his keys or wearing his coat open, though woe betide the "New" or "Three" who did not "cheek" to the fullest extent. Such an offender was closely watched by his seniors, and was instantly put to the torture if he slacked up for a moment.
We know from what we read and hear of the days not very long before my time that the youngsters who went into the Navy had an appalling commissariat and correspondingly bad quarters. I have indicated what our own quarters were like, and there is no doubt that naval cadets of my time were done "slap up" in every way. On board the food was excellent. We were not stinted in any way, and had everything in season. But make no mistake about it, if everything was really right the cadets saw to it that something at least must be made wrong; so it was decreed in my time that chicken was not in reality that familiar and welcome bird, but sea-gull.
The most delicious chicken would at times be put before us, but no - the unwritten law pronounced it sea-gull and unfit for cadets' consumption ; and so on these occasions the tempting dish was passed, and we ate vegetables and pudding - and doubtless they were all we deserved.
I am human enough to dwell lovingly on those good times, especially in view of what we lived to go through in the shape of food and the quality and price of things to-day, so let me tell a little more under this head.
There was a "Stodge Shop," or cadets' canteen, by the playing-fields, and there everything delectable could be bought at a very reasonable price, including delicious ice-creams in summer and "chohones" all the year round. A "chohone" was a cube about an inch across, coated with chocolate and containing layers of honey and marzipan and other sweet and sticky things to which the cadet clung lovingly. It was a penny a time, and cadets had as many times as possible. In this favoured resort also, every afternoon, ship's buns were whacked out to the cadets - one each, these fortifying creations being provided by a thoughtful Government that had been boys itself so that we should not perish of hunger between lunch and tea.
The "Stodge Shop" in my day was in charge of a Mr. Launders and his wife and daughter. He had a remarkably keen eye and a very retentive memory, qualities of which we highly disapproved, though he needed them both when you realise that he had to remember the faces of some 24.0 cadets every afternoon who had received buns, so that the remaining dozen should not be given a bun twice. I never met a cadet while I was in the Britannia who managed to get a bun twice in the afternoon, though it was a common practice to try. I only made the attempt once, and wished I hadn't, for Mr. Launders had a tongue as sharp as his eye and a way of putting things that made one look a pretty average fool in the eyes of the other cadets present. After my first failure I never thought it worth while to try and do him down again.
There were a dozen or so tables in the canteen, and some of these were, by custom, reserved for the exclusive use of "Sixers" and "Niners." Here these lords of creation would lounge grandly and order a "New" or "Three" who happened to be near to bring them such stodge as they were pleased to require. The most popular form of food was the ship's bun plus jam and cream - Devonshire at that. Jam and cream cost only a penny, and the bun being thrown in by benevolent officialism, the whole formed a truly economical and satisfying mixture.
From time to time midshipmen from a warship in port would visit their old haunts and wind up at the canteen. We looked upon these officers with awe and an admiration which I fear was influenced by the fact that it was the custom for them to order "Free Stodge" up to a certain total amount to all the cadets present. These midshipmen usually appeared in a blue serge suit and a bowler hat. It never occurred to me, until I too became a midshipman, that this was their only shore - going rig. Nowadays midshipmen are rich and possess many suits, including a dinner jacket and a tail coat ; but in my time we had one plain clothes suit only, usually of serge, and two pairs of flannel trousers. In summer-time we wore the flannel trousers with the blue coat when going ashore. At night, for dances and similar functions, we always wore uniform.
I have said that a pack of beagles was provided for the cadets. These met twice a week, as a rule on half-holidays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. It was unfortunate, but inevitable, that football games - pick-ups and practices - were also played on those days, and consequently football players, forming the majority of the cadets, looked down on the beagle followers. I seldom went out with the beagles, and so I must have missed a lot of fun. Commander (the late Admiral) Cradock was master in my time, and took a very great deal of trouble over them. Certain cadets were chosen as whips and exercised the beagles daily, and they also took an active part in the runs. They wore a special rig and looked very smart; but they were looked down upon and generally known as "Beagle Bitches." It took a good deal, however, to lessen the whips' opinion of themselves and they bore up well under this unflattering description.
The gymnasium was open the whole afternoon, and gymnastic instructors were in attendance to teach the cadets boxing and fencing. In addition to the attractions offered to the cadet in his spare time, I must not forget the delightful woods that surrounded the grounds. The best of these was known as the Skipper's Wood, for the sufficient reason that it was reserved for the use of the captain only, and was taboo to the cadet. It naturally followed that the cadet frequented this particular wood more than any other, but always stealthily and with much cover-taking, so that he should not be bowled out by the keeper, or, worse still, by the captain himself. Because of these perils a visit to the woods became a sport, and I and others spent many delightful hours stalking in the Skipper's Wood. There was always a special thrill in beholding the captain himself from one's hiding-place.
There was another sport and amusement which took place on Sundays, and was not exceeded in importance by any week - day sport. This was fighting between cadets. All differences of opinion were settled ashore on Sundays in the good old - fashioned way. There were no gloves to soften the blows - only bare fists and knuckles.
On Sundays "Sixers" and "Niners" were landed on the same shore as for week-days, and "News" and "Threes" were landed on the opposite side. All cadets were supposed to go for a walk, but actually they collected at some quiet spot where they would not be disturbed and made a ring for the fights. There were no rules. The pairs fought until one or the other acknowledged defeat - and I never saw a cadet admit that until he was beaten to a standstill.
The origin of a fight was usually crude and simple. One cadet would differ from another in his opinion on some subject. In the natural course of events both would get heated, and in the modern Parliamentary manner exchange personalities. This would lead to a challenge from one to fight the other on Sunday. To the cadets generally it was certainly a case of the better the day the better the deed. There was no secrecy about the conflict ; it became public property instantly, and the cadets discussed it with great gusto, and much speculation as to the result, until the day and the moment for decision arrived.
I suppose that few cadets of my time passed through the Britannia without having at least one fight on Sunday. I took part in some and witnessed many, but that which remains most prominently in my memory happened in my second term. It was between two cadets of my term, both unusually broad and strong for their age and both first-rate boxers. Each had his own strong following, and as the challenge was thrown down on a Monday we had the best part of a week for discussion and speculation.
When the time for the fight arrived we selected a clearing in a wood suitable for such a serious affair. It was a private wood, and we knew perfectly well that the owner was away and that the keeper was asleep after his Sunday dinner. It was summer, the day was perfect, and as about a hundred cadets were present, eager to form a ring, the whole of the circumstances for the event were ideal.
The combatants were stripped to the waist, and it was clear that both were out for business. There were no vexatious or pretentious preliminaries. On the word " Go ! " the two went. They literally flew at each other. No boxing for points here ; no numerous clinches to enable the boxers to rest secure on one another from time to time. Clinching was unknown in this business. It was a serious matter, to be settled once for all, and each party wanted it to be settled without delay. There was no attempt at guarding or parrying; the intention of each was to get in the most blows in the least time, regardless of consequences.
Such fierce fighting could not last long, and it never did. This was a short but very close affair. When A's eyes were both " bunged up" and B could only just see out of one we stepped in and declared B to be the winner. We were only just in time, for soon after the fight B's outlook also became totally obscured, and a little later an astonished and somewhat frightened officer of the day beheld the spectacle of two cadets, both temporarily blind, being led off to the ship by their friends. Neither was any the worse eventually for the hammering, and no official notice was taken of the affair.
The authorities must have known perfectly well that these fights took place, but I suppose they considered it wisest not to interfere, and in this I think they were right. I know that this point of view is not shared by a good many people. I am dealing with what happened in my own day and generation, when the outlook was so different. I never hear in these modern times of boys of from fourteen to fifteen years of age settling their disputes in cold blood, at a pre-arranged time and place, with bare fists.
The great event of the term was Prize-giving Day. If it was one's last term one's parents attended the ceremony for the home-going next day.
The programme was usually this: First the naval instructors and the masters would make their reports as to the progress of the cadets in the subjects they taught. Next would come the reading of the list of new cadet captains and chief cadet captains, followed by the pinning on of the badges of this rank by the captain's wife. Then the senior naval instructor would read out the list of prize-winners, and the captain's wife would present the prizes. Then would come the captain's speech.
Finally, came the speech of the Great Man. At every prize-giving in the Britannia a great man came down and gave the cadets some sound advice as to their conduct in their future career at sea. This great man was usually an admiral, but not always. I believe the First Lord himself has been known to honour such an occasion, but as far as I can remember in my time it was always an admiral - retired, for choice.
Now it happened that for the prize-giving on the last day of my last term my people came down to the Britannia in company with a large number of parents of other boys. It also happened that a French warship was in port at the time, and according to custom on such an occasion the French officers were invited to attend the ceremony. Four or five of them accepted, and were given seats of honour on the platform behind the speakers. The ship was crowded, and everybody was full of excitement and anticipation concerning the results of the examinations, the names of the new cadet captains, and the speech of the Great Man.
Events took their normal course. Hearty cheers and much hand-clapping greeted the names of the successful ones ; more cheers followed the captain's speech, in which he eulogised the remarkable qualities of the Great Man, and dwelt on his gracious kindness in coming down to them on that important day, and the cheers were deafening when at last the Great Man rose to give his address.[The Times indicates that the Commander-in-Chief of Devonport, Admiral The Hon. Sir Edmund Robert Fremantle spoke at Hartford's passing-out.]
I can remember parts of that address to this day. It was a wonderful speech, full of good advice and replete with examples which great men of the past had set, and which the cadets would do well to follow. Instance followed instance of heroism and mighty deeds at sea. Starting with remote history, the speaker worked up to the Elizabethan age, then, thoroughly warmed up, and having utterly forgotten the existence of the French officers behind him, he came down to more modern times.
The climax came with the Great Man's peroration, a fervid utterance. Slamming his right fist into the palm of his left hand, to drive his words home, he besought the cadets never, never to forget those two great victories, St. Vincent and Trafalgar, by which the French were driven from any pretence they ever made to the command of the sea.
Then the Great Man sat down.
We, the cadets, looked at him; we looked at the French officers, squirming in their chairs behind him; after which we looked at one another - and were silent.
The speech was a melancholy frost.
I returned to my home the next day, and that was the end of my Britannia days.
- "The Britannia." The Times (London, England), Thursday, Apr 13, 1899; pg. 10; Issue 35802.