After a few weeks’ leave, I was appointed to the Hercules as a sub-lieutenant. She was the latest ironclad commanded by Lord Gilford (afterwards the Earl of Clanwilliam), and the Commander was Lord Walter Kerr. Whilst on leave I was riding on the Portsdown Hills, my horse fell on me and broke my leg. I was laid up for some time and saw many of the gunroom officers who belonged to the Hercules. They evidently did not like the ship and advised me to get out of the appointment. After my experiences of serving with two Captains who, though strict, were very just, I concluded that the two qualities were generally found together; so I went, on crutches, to see Lord Gilford, and asked him to keep my appointment open, which he very kindly did. When I joined there were several sub-lieutenants and senior midshipmen who became great friends of mine – in fact, they were some of the best friends in my life: Jack Pipon, Sally Sawle, Smut Henderson, and, later in the commission, Hugh Gough. Jack Pipon died as a Captain, Smut Henderson was promoted to Admiral, but never served as such, and died young. Hugh Gough retired early and lived to nearly eighty. Sawle (the present Sir Charles Graves-Sawle, Bart.) was promoted to Admiral, but not employed.
On joining, I was most agreeably surprised at the splendid tone of the ship; the Captain and officers were all that one could wish for. The gunroom was on the main deck, with two big ports, plenty of room and most comfortable. The mess was good, and I used to chaff the other gunroom officers and tell them that they were living like gentlemen in comparison with the life I had in the Liffey.
An amusing incident happened one afternoon. The ship lay alongside the breakwater at Gibraltar. I was told off to keep the afternoon watch, as a lieutenant had gone sick. When Lord Clanwilliam came on deck, he looked me up and down and said to the Commander, “What is this officer doing here?” Being told, he replied, “See that he is not left in charge of the middle watch.” Inwardly, I said, “Thank God!” as, considering the number of watches I had already kept, I was not keen to keep any more. Lord Clanwilliam befriended me in many ways and lived long enough for me to be able to tell him this episode; we always laughed over it together. The Hercules belonged to the Channel Squadron; at that time there were only five ironclads and one despatch vessel in the squadron, with two Admirals –which shows how much the Navy had been reduced.
I was very happy in this ship, but nothing very startling happened. After I had been there only a few months I was appointed to the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert, commanded by Prince Leiningen. This was a great stroke of luck, and my Father was told I owed it to my good examination on passing for lieutenant. H.S.H. Prince Edward of Saxe Weimar brought my name before Her Majesty. The sub-lieutenants at that time were generally running four or five years before being promoted; I was promoted at two and half years and passed over more than two hundred sub-lieutenants senior to me.
The work on board the Victoria and Albert was pleasant enough. We generally lay at Cowes while Queen Victoria was at Osborne. We had one interesting trip, being sent to Antwerp to bring over the Crown Prince and Princess of Germany, with their family. It was then I made the acquaintance of the ex-Kaiser, he was a boy of about twelve years and full of life.
Whilst we were at Antwerp waiting for the German Royal Family, I went with a fellow-officer, named Lillingston, to Spa for four days. He was very well off and gave two picnics, driving the guests to their destination in a coach-and-four. We played roulette a good deal and were fortunate enough to win sufficient to pay the hotel bill and return with £20 more apiece than we started with.
Whilst we were at Spa, we bought some explosive cigars, and, knowing that our Staff Commander was fond of cigars and fancied he knew all about them, I offered him one, which he took. It went off, at a most inopportune moment, just as he was saying to one of the German entourage that we were always having a little playful badinage. It was a very foolish thing to do and there was a deuce of a row, but the Commander Hugh Campbell, smoothed it down, took the Staff Commander, Tim Sullivan, for a walk and the incident was over. Luckily for me, I think Prince Leiningen rather enjoyed the episode, though he did not tell me so.
I was promoted to lieutenant in August, 1871. At that time lieutenants just promoted were generally three or four years on half pay before getting a ship, and the half pay was 4s. a day at the average age of 22. Luckily, Lord Clanwilliam, who was just about to turn over the command of the Hercules to Captain William Dowell, recommended me to fill a vacancy there was for lieutenant, and I was duly appointed after having been only four months on half pay. The Commander was Harry Rawson. Nothing very interesting happened from a service point of view. The Fleet cruised; about a good deal round the coast of Great Britain, Gibraltar, Lisbon, Vigo, Arosa Bay, Madeira, etc. When at anchor at the latter place, the Northumberland anchored ahead, drifted down on top of us on Christmas morning at about 3.30 a.m. Our ram made a large hole under the water-line, and the squadron had to go to Gibraltar immediately to dock the Northumberland. The officer of the middle watch, after relieving the deck at midnight, nearly always went below again to sleep; he did so on this occasion, but waking up about 3.30 a.m., came on deck just as the forecastle sentry, hailed that a ship was drifting down on top of us. He immediately ordered the cooks of the messes, who were on deck preparing their Christmas dinners, to veer-cable, and the Captain commended him for his prompt action.
Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby was in command of the squadron called the Channel Fleet: this consisted of only five, and often four, battleships with one despatch vessel. The Admiral was rather a martinet; he had a row with me about station keeping which was very disagreeable, but my Captain backed me up, so the Admiral gave way, and was always very good to me afterwards.
Sir Geoffrey Hornby took the Channel Fleet to Trondhjem, in order to be present and show the Flag on the great occasion of the King of Sweden’s Coronation as King of Norway when the Kingdoms were amalgamated. It was a magnificent ceremony and took place in the old Cathedral. I was not present, for I and two of my pals went off on a fishing expedition. As the country folk were all in the town to see the ceremony, we could fish where we liked and had very good sport. The Admiral heard of it and went off the next day, and was warned off for poaching!
We frequently went to Lisbon and used to have some quite good snipe-shooting, going up the river and remaining away for a couple of days.
The opera at Lisbon was always very good and cheap. We used to play roulette – on the quiet, as the Admiral had put the roulette rooms out of bounds. One night it was blowing so hard that we couldn’t go off to the ship, so we went back to the roulette rooms, and as the croupiers had to close at 1 a.m., three of us took on the bank and won £5 from the croupiers. They gave us supper, and at 3 a.m. we went to sleep on the roulette table.
We had a good lot in the Hercules, both officers and men, and every one was very proud of the ship. We used to do a great deal of boat-pulling, and had a first-class officer’s crew, so much so that no other ship would enter against us, and we won three or four prizes in the regattas round the coast.
When the Fleet was at Plymouth, my friend Gough and I went to the Plymouth Races and there met Sally Sawle, who had won some money; he asked us to dine with him at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel and go on to the theatre. When in the theatre there was a row. The Plymouth police were always very officious, and they tried to throw out two lieutenants, who resisted; this created a disturbance, and all those in the pit joined in against the naval officers. The performance was stopped and the police took up eight lieutenants, amongst them Gough and myself; it was a big affair, and even the London papers had leading articles on the fracas. We expected to be tried by court martial, but, luckily for us, the renowned Sir Harry Keppel was the Commander-in-Chief at Plymouth and his Flag-Lieutenant was Charlie Beresford, so when our Captain went to see the Commander-in-Chief to ask him whether we were to be tried by court martial or not, the Admiral said: “Certainly not; I am only too glad to think there is a naval officer left who will hit a bobby!” Shortly before this, the Commander-in-Chief and Charlie Beresford, returning from a dinner in the country, had lifted the turnpike gate off its hinges and taken it into the dockyard.
We had a curious old Scotch doctor, Lowry John Monteith; and a paymaster called Scafe, who was really quite a sensible, man, but he and the doctor hated each other. Eventually, Scafe reported the doctor to the Commander for glaring at him across the dinner-table; they insisted on having this trifling affair brought before the Captain. He saw them on the quarterdeck and, after hearing them, said: “Well gentlemen, if you cannot agree when you sit on opposite sides of the table, you had better sit on the same side, and then you will not see each other.” Truly the judgment of Solomon.
The Japanese officer, Itski, referred to before, was in the gunroom mess and they ragged him a good deal. One day, at tea, he threw a cup of tea at the midshipman who was annoying him, so Itski was put into the wardroom mess. We found him very amusing and agreeable. On another occasion he said he had something wrong inside, so we administered a seidlitz powder in separate parts, and when they began to fizz inside him he thought his last day had come.