Chapter 1

My father’s, Job William Seaburne May, was born in Holland in 1805, and was the son of Admiral May of the Dutch Navy, who was also a Captain in the British Navy. My Grandfather was a distinguished man, he assisted in restoring the Prince of Orange to the throne of Holland. He was a clever engineer and his plans were adopted for improving the canal system in Holland.

My Father’s forebears, as recorded on the pedigree table, show that John May, a Naval Architect, went to Holland in the seventeenth century, and the family remained there until my Father returned and settled in England. Although the family were in Holland for so many generations, all my ancestors married British wives.

My Father settled in Liverpool, and married Ann Jane Freckleton, in 1840. I was the fifth of ten children and was born on July 31st, 1849, at Liscard, Cheshire. One of my godfathers was Prince Henry of the Netherlands, brother of the then reigning King; he was present at my christening, at St. Philip’s Church, Liverpool. My Father retained a good deal of influence at the Dutch Court, both on account of his Father’s and Brother’s services; the latter was an Admiral in the Dutch Navy and personal A.D.C. to Prince Henry.

From the first I was destined for the Navy, and my earliest recollections are of being made to read extracts from Captain Marryat’s novels: Peter Simple, Midshipman Easy, and others. Every night, at dessert, I was asked what I was going to be when I grew up, and my invariable reply was: “A sailor.” At that early age I had no idea what this meant, but my Father was so intent on a sea life for me, and impressed me so much with the thought of it, that I felt I was destined for the Navy. I never had the choice of any other career, and a boy of 11 to 13 years of age rarely knows what he would like to be.

My Father was not well off, and great economy was necessary. When I was 10 years old, my elder brother Seaburne and I went, as day scholars, to the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, where the Headmaster was Dr. Turner. My recollections of this establishment are those of fear. Dr. Turner was a very big, ponderous man, but was, I believe, very learned, and a good linguist. His method of teaching, however, did not impress me; he constantly used the cane and this certainly was not an incentive to make me work. The second master, the Rev. Glynn, was quite a different sort of man, and under him I learnt the principles of mathematics, mensuration, and Euclid, which were always useful in after years.

In 1863, the age for entering the Navy was between 12 and 14 years; the nomination had to be obtained by family interest, and my Father appears to have had some difficulty in obtaining one for me. It was not till April, 1863, when I was nearly 14 years old, that the nomination arrived, When Dr. Turner was informed, he told my Father I would never pass the entrance examination, which was a limited competition, so I was sent, for six weeks, to a crammer, namely, Eastman’s Academy at Southsea, the Headmaster being Dr. Speckernell. This school was very much more to my liking. We had to work hard, but the masters took a great deal of trouble, and I passed the examination at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, in June, 1863, being twenty-second on the list of about fifty entrants.

I joined the Britannia at Portland in June, 1863, and was naturally bewildered with the strangeness of the life. The ship was an old three-decker, fitted up with studies, and special accommodation for sleeping and dressing. It was a rough life, but I felt quite important on joining as a naval cadet in uniform, and having a marine servant to look after my chest and clothes. My pride was soon taken out of me as the new-term cadets were called “Cheeky News,” and the senior terms took every advantage of bullying the new boys and disposing of sundry of their articles, such as soap, etc. The course was five terms and lasted fifteen months. I was placed in a class with the second half of my term. My naval instructor was Mr. Knapp, an excellent instructor, but a very nervous man, who could not bear any noise, not even the jingling of keys. I found my mathematical work, including plane and spherical trigonometry and navigation, quite easy, and I was generally well to the top of the class, but I was not equally good in French, Latin, and drawing. I was very fond of seamanship, and easily acquired the rudiments, which I have never forgotten.

H.M.S. Britannia
H.M.S. Britannia

About September, 1863, the Britannia was shifted from Portland to Dartmouth, which, from the cadets’ point of view, was a very much pleasanter place. In those days there was only a small breakwater at Portland, consequently we very often had bad weather and rough seas, which frequently prevented us from landing. As I was one of the few cadets who, owing to the distance of their homes, were left behind for the Easter holidays, I went round to Dartmouth in the Britannia. It was on the way there that I kept my first portion of a night watch.

In the last term I was made a cadet captain, one of the twelve who were supposed to keep order amongst the other cadets; always a difficult and tiring job. I remember one instance: I was away in a boat’s crew, and we splashed another boat’s crew in the harbour; the Commander saw us, and as I was the only cadet captain present, I was disrated. I suppose the authorities saw the absurdity of the punishment, as I was rated again a few days later. I remember the Lords of the Admiralty coming down to inspect the Britannia; I was one of the cadets selected to go with them up the Dart in a steamer. The Duke of Somerset was the First Lord, and they were all in plain clothes. It struck me that tall hats seemed very much out of place on board the Dart steamer.

In September, 1864, my term had to pass out of the Britannia. I was placed fourth on the list, thus gaining a great many places in comparison with the position I took passing in. In those days, we had to serve at sea for five and a half years as a naval cadet and midshipman before passing for lieutenant. This time was reduced by one year for those cadets who took a first-class certificate, and by six months for a second-class certificate. I obtained a first-class, so only had to serve four and a half years; my date for passing for sub-Lieutentant was March, 1869. This was of great benefit to me, as I was a few months older than many of the other cadets not having entered till I was nearly 14. An intermediate examination had to be passed on completion of three and half years at sea.

After a few weeks’ leave, the cadets joined the receiving ship at Portsmouth: at that time the old Victory. There were a very large number of sub-lieutenants and midshipmen in the mess, and I was much impressed by the general disposition of the seniors; the prevailing idea seemed to be, to go ashore and have a row with someone or somebody. Almost as soon as I joined, the sub-lieutenants (or “mates”, as they were called in those days), with a certain number of the lieutenants, were recruiting all the big fellows to have a row at the Blue Bell, a music-hall in Portsmouth. I was too small for this class of work, but they evidently had a fine row, and the senior lieutenant was knocked down the main staircase, and still had a black eye when he joined my next ship, the Victoria, as first lieutenant, a few days later. I was appointed in October, 1864, with a good many of my Britannia lot, to the Victoria, the new flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Smart; a three-decker, with auxiliary steam-power, commanded by Captain James Graham Goodenough. The Victoria was the last three-decker to be commissioned as a sea-going ship. I was stationed off to my different duties, and one of these was to be aloft on the mainmast, during all exercises with sails and spars, for the three years I was in the ship.

H.M.S Victory
H.M.S Victory

We left in October for Gibraltar and Malta and encountered a very heavy gale in the Bay of Biscay: my first experience of a storm and not a pleasant one. The gunroom was on the lower deck and, of course, all the ports had to be closed; about 300 men were messing on this deck outside the gunroom, so that the state of the atmosphere can be imagined. The ship was lurching and rolling very heavily up to a maximum of 400 roll each way, and nearly all the youngsters were seasick. I was lying down on the gunroom lockers feeling more dead than alive, when the order came for everyone to go on deck and reef topsails. I was not at all inclined to move, but the senior sub-lieutenant, whose duty it was to see that we went up to our stations, took a hunting-crop and used it on us till we got up. I made a rush and went to my station in the maintop, where curiously enough I got over my seasickness, as I had so much to do, what with holding on, and looking after the men, that I had no time to think of being sick. There was a great deal of bullying in the gunroom, though I do not think it was ever done with real bad feeling. The youngsters were generally marked with a broad arrow on their noses to show that they were Government property.

Captain Goodenough had very advanced ideas on the question of naval education; the midshipmen not on duty, had to do school both forenoon and afternoon. I was very sorry when he left; although very strict, he was just. Eventually he went out as Commodore in Australia, and on landing at one of the islands, was shot by a native with a poisoned arrow, and never recovered.

After I had been in the ship three months, and was only 15 years old, the Commander, Codrington, selected me to command the first cutter, a boat which is pulled by twelve men, with a coxswain. This billet is supposed to be for a senior midshipman, so I felt very proud of myself and learnt a great deal of boatwork. I fear my studies suffered, as I was so often away when school was going on; however, one cannot do everything, and I hope I learnt to be a good practical boatman.

After eighteen months in commission, the Admiral, Sir Robert Smart, was relieved by Lord Clarence Paget. His Flag-Captain, Alan Gardner, was quite a different class of officer to his predecessor, being small with a nervous manner and a stutter. He had a very difficult position to fill in replacing Captain Goodenough.

I remember, one day when he was inspecting the gunroom, he wished to try one of the new chairs which had recently been bought for the officers. The senior sub-lieutenant, Parker, thinking that he wished to look under the table to see if there were any crumbs, drew back the chair, and consequently the little man sat down on the deck. He was so surprised, stuttered so much, that he could not speak. Imagine the feelings of Parker and all the officials who were attending the inspection! I made many friends amongst the midshipmen. One of the first was Daubeney – he died of Malta fever, which was very prevalent at that time. I should think, quite half of the gunroom went to hospital, with some complaint or another, and there contracted fever; it was the same with the men. Many years afterwards it was found that the germ was in goat’s milk. In hospital the men were given plenty of this milk, which must have been the cause of all the trouble.

H.M.S. Victoria
H.M.S. Victoria

In the Mediterranean, at that time, there were different types of ships, three-deckers, two-deckers, and frigates of the old style; there were also three or four old three-deckers, which had been cut down and covered with armoured plates, and one ship, made of iron, which had been specially constructed for armoured plates. There was a great deal of rivalry between these wooden ships and the ironclads (or tin-pots, as we called them); so much so, that at times, the men in the wooden ships were not allowed ashore at the same time as the men of the armoured ships, as they used to fight. It is curious that this bad feeling really should exist in the same fleet, but it all came through rivalry, chiefly in sail-drill and boat-pulling.

The three years I passed in the Victoria were not very eventful, there was no excitement of war or rumours of war, and, except for a summer cruise each year, we remained at Malta. The summer cruises were very interesting; we visited the principal ports in the Mediterranean, and I have retained many pleasant recollections of these places. Our amusements were many: hand-fives, boatwork, rowing races, football, and riding. Some of the people were very kind to us at Malta, and I saw many places of interest and had a very happy commission. My health was good, which was lucky, as so many officers were laid up, especially with Malta fever. Before I left England some of my relations said I was too delicate for a sea life, but when I returned home and was nearly 18 years old, I weighed 12 st. 10 lb. and was about 6 ft. in height.

At the end of three years, orders came suddenly for us to return to England. The Admiral and his staff turned over to the Caledonia, a converted three-decker with armour plates, and the Commander, Codrington, brought us home. We then took part in a grand review at Spithead for the Shah of Persia. There were two long lines, one of battleships and frigates, and the other of armour-plated ships. Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, inspected us, and was to have come on board but the weather was too rough. After the review, we paid off in September and then had six weeks’ leave.