I was appointed to the Liffey, a frigate, for which I had applied, as I wished to go on perfecting my seamanship. A friend of mine, Reggie Prothero, was also appointed to the same ship, and we had to join her at Castleton, Berehaven. We had a very tiresome journey; there was no railway beyond Cork, so we had to drive with our chests on an Irish outside car for about 30 miles. The Liffey was commanded by Captain John Ormsby Johnson, a first-rate sailor, but very lugubrious and pessimistic, and no doubt his pessimism affected the ship. The Commander, Carter, was a small, round little man, lazy, good-tempered and the reverse of smart. The first lieutenant was very short-sighted and deeply pock-marked; he may have been a good officer, but he used to drink very hard, starting early in the morning when the barber was shaving him. The remainder of the lieutenants were keen officers and smart, but their keenness was damped by the Captain. The Chaplain and Naval Instructor was a noted character, Croker by name.
The gunroom was the same as in most frigates; the table took up all the room, so that one had to squeeze between it and the locker seats, or climb across the table, to get to the farther side. The gunroom was only lighted by two scuttles, which were generally closed at sea. We were always full up with officers and our mess was the worst imaginable. When I joined, there were only two sub-lieutenants and one senior midshipman, who was a regular character; he had been turned out of the service for some boyish freak at Bermuda and reinstated at the age of 20, and was still a midshipman and junior to me; his name was Marcus McCauseland. He had long “Dundreary” black whiskers, and really looked thirty. On the whole, one was reminded of the gunroom days of Marryat’s novels, and I still wonder the Captain and Commander did not take more interest in the welfare of the gunroom officers.
In those days every officer in the gunroom was allowed his tot (half a gill) of rum, but those midshipmen who were under 18 were, not allowed to have their share, and the few seniors in the mess were permitted to take up the youngsters’ rum; consequently I could buy three bottles of rum a week for 10d. a bottle. Luckily for me, I did not care about it and used to give mine away, but several of the gunroom officers were ruined by drink.
I think my experience in the Victoria was appreciated by the Commander, and he was always putting me on special jobs. I was again stationed in a boat, and also aloft for general exercises. The Liffey was employed on special service for the first twenty months after commissioning, and during the earlier months we were told off to prevent arms being landed in Ireland for the use of the Fenians. On this duty we were generally at sea, beating about under sail off Cape Clear and the Fastnets, and had to board all suspicious craft, and search for arms. I am afraid our efforts were quite unsuccessful and really futile, as it was impossible, without a minute search, to ascertain whether a ship carried fire-arms or not. We used to remain off Cape Clear, sometimes for three weeks in the dead of winter, and often had bad weather. Occasionally we went into Queenstown to coal, and then we had some enjoyment at Cork. When at Berehaven I was sent ashore every day with my boat to have her repaired and painted. I made friends with a priest, and used to have my lunch with him. After the boat was finished, I had the sails scrubbed and left them to dry; on returning I found all the brass cringles had been cut off the sails, and when I went on board on a Saturday and reported this to the Commander, he turned round, snarled at me, and stopped my leave. The next morning the priest came on board with some lads to see the Commander, and told him that these boys had confessed to having cut out the cringles, and that he had brought them back. Consequently my leave was restored. I remember remarking: “At least there is some good in confession!”
The crew had the idea that the Fenians might board and attack the ship, and an incident, which promised to be exciting, happened in Queenstown harbour, where there was always a very strong tide running; the Flagship broke away from her moorings and drifted across our bows. It was at night and there was a cry: “Here are the Fenians!” The men turned out, rushed for their rifles and went on deck, only to find it was a false alarm.
Our next interesting service was to visit Russia, in order to exchange gunpowders with them. We went to Kronstadt, the port of St. Petersburg. Our Ambassador there, Sir Andrew Buchanan, knew my Father, and was very kind to all the midshipmen, sending one of the Attaché to show us round the city. My friends, Prothero, McCauseland, and I mustered all the money we could and went to St. Petersburg for five days; we very much enjoyed our visit and returned to the ship with reluctance, having only one kopec (about a halfpenny) left between us.
Another service was to take supernumeraries for the Pacific Station; we landed them at Colon and then crossed by rail to Panama. The ship was crammed full, and we were thirty-two in the gunroom, designed to hold twelve; consequently every one was made more uncomfortable than usual. Luckily the weather was very warm and we could sleep on deck a great deal. It was the wet season at Colon and Panama, and I never felt anything like the heat of the moisture-laden air; fevers of all sorts were very prevalent, but fortunately we all escaped. It was interesting to see the railway from Colon to Panama, the construction of which had been a great undertaking. West Indian niggers were employed to make it, and they say that one life was lost for every sleeper laid down. Panama was also interesting; but I was glad to get away from Colon, which was a poisonous place, where every other shop sold liquor. We went to Port Royal, Jamaica, and found it hot, but nothing in comparison to Panama; after that we went to Bermuda and then home. We did various short trips; once to Lisbon, when it took us three weeks to beat home against half a gale of wind.
My time to pass for sub-lieutenant was up when we were at sea, consequently I had to pass provisionally in seamanship, gunnery, and navigation. To my astonishment I was given a first-class certificate in each subject. The Captain, after examining me in seamanship for three hours in the morning, made me Officer of the Watch, and I had to put the ship about, and do other practical manoeuvres. On arriving at Plymouth I had to pass again in seamanship.
Under the regulations then in force, the examination was held periodically on board the Flagship in the Home Ports. The Flag-Captain, Preedy, who was on my examination board, had never been known to give a first-class certificate. The first question he asked me was: “Do you object to the other midshipmen hearing you examined?” I knew this was coming, and so said: “No, Sir,” although I hated it. The result surprised me very much, as the board gave me a first-class and Captain Preedy said he would be glad to have me in any ship he might command; naturally I was delighted. Later on I went to the Excellent at Portsmouth for the gunnery examination. I had only five weeks to do both gunnery and navigation, and knowing that a first-class in school subjects was not at all likely, I decided to make sure of a first-class in gunnery, and remained a month in the gunnery school; this left me only eight days at the Portsmouth College, but every evening I worked up the subjects for the study examination with a “Clever Man,” as we used to call him, who lived just outside the dockyard, and I went to him in all my spare time. I managed my first-class in gunnery, and was the only one who got it out of a class of fifteen. We had a most unfair and unjust examination: at least four others in the class should have got firsts. I then joined the college and at the end of a week I was examined. I missed my first by a few marks, but did better than I expected. No doubt my failure to obtain a first was due to my being always employed on boatwork, and rarely being present with the Naval Instructor during school hours. I was given my passing certificates on a Saturday at noon, and by the same evening I had rejoined the Liffey at Plymouth. In those days we were only lent from our ships to the Excellent to go through the courses and to be examined.
Meanwhile the Liffey had been ordered to form one of six ships, four frigates and two corvettes, as a flying squadron under Rear-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby. The departure of this squadron was delayed owing to one of the ships, the Cadmus, having gone ashore, and so my prompt arrival on Saturday evening to join the Liffey at Plymouth, enabled me to be in time to start the next day (Sunday) for an eighteen months’ voyage round the world. I have always been glad I was in time, as in addition to seeing many places of great interest, it was also a very good experience from a sailor’s point of view. The squadron consisted of the Liverpool flagship, Liffey, Endymion, Phoebe, and two corvettes, Scylla and Barossa, the latter two being changedfor other corvettes on the China and Pacific Stations. The cruise was as follows: Madeira, Bahia, Buenos Aires, Monte Video, Cape of Good Hope, Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington, Christchurch, Littleton, Japan, Vancouver, Honolulu, Valparaiso, round the Horn, Bahia, and home.
We did practically the whole voyage under sail, and therefore took a long time going from one place to another; the longest time we were at sea was fifty-six days, and that was going from New Zealand, through the Islands, up to Japan. Fresh provisions and water were both scarce, and amongst ourselves we were known as the “Hungry Six.”
On the way to Madeira, the Admiral inspected us at sea, and evidently found us wanting, and no wonder, as we were not in good order. The first lieutenant was sent for by the Admiral because the midshipmen were so backward in seamanship, therefore he sent for the midshipmen and said, in his usual staccato voice, “Mark my words, you will all be sent home from Bahia,” which was the next port but one we were to call at. As a matter of feet, he was the only one who went home from Bahia, for, on leaving Madeira, the Captain found him, as Officer of the Watch, the worse for liquor, and he was dismissed the ship. The wonderful thing was that the Captain had never found him out before; he was a curious character, used to drink a tremendous lot, but he had a wonderful memory for figures, and could tell you the numbers engaged, killed and wounded in all the leading battles. On account of his eyesight, he had been to Germany several times, and in 1869 used to tell us that in case of war the Germans would walk over the French, and he would quote the details and numbers of the German Army and the names of their generals.
At this time the midshipmen were examined every year by papers sent from the Admiralty, and Sir Geoffrey Hornby had this carried out at sea. Our Naval Instructor, Croker, allowed the midshipmen to do any amount of cribbing, and consequently the Liffey’s midshipmen came out extremely well. However, at the next examination, the Admiral “hove to” at sea and ordered the ships to change Naval Instructors. Croker, our Naval Instructor, was frightened out of his life at the idea of going away in a boat at sea, and so persuaded the doctor to put him on the sick list. This was duly reported to the Admiral whose reply was: “If it is a cot case, hoist him out and send him to the flagship.” Eventually, Croker, after much hesitation, got up and went on board the Liverpool to conduct the examination. Needless to relate, at this examination the midshipmen of the Liffey failed to retain their usual high standard! Admiral inspected the ship again before arriving at Monte Video, and I am afraid the result did not show much improvement on the first time. Anyway, it was too much for the Commander, and when we arrived at Monte Video, he asked to be relieved and went home. Before leaving the ship, we dined him in the gunroom with two other lieutenants, and they all became very merry and confidential. At the Cape of Good Hope, Captain Johnson was invalided and, on the whole, we were not sorry to lose him; still, he was an excellent seaman and insisted on having all drills done properly. In ordinary drills we were not good in competition with other ships; but when it came to doing any work such as reefing topsails, etc., if it was blowing hard, we were nearly always first, thereby gaining the only praise we ever had from the Admiral.
Sir Geoffrey Hornby was very strict, and I think rather down on our Captain, who was an older man. One instance I thought hard: we were leaving Monte Video early in the morning, 6.0 a.m., for the Cape – a twenty days’ cruise at least; unfortunately the Captain’s steward had not arrived on board, but he was seen coming off in a boat; the Captain asked permission to pick him up, but the request was refused, and the Captain had to go to sea without his steward and provisions.
Captain Robert Gibson relieved Captain Johnson. He came from the Barossa. Bosanquet was then made Acting Commander and remained so until Commander Cleveland was sent out from England. The squadron always cruised and kept station under sail; consequently, after a few months, these sails were worn very thin; and if they shook, they often split – in feet, even our mainsails (such as the topsails) split when it was blowing hard. I remember at one time we had three topsails under repair and seventy men working on them; and on several occasions we had only one out of four topsails fit for use. In those days every officer and seaman could do ordinary seam work. On arriving at the Cape, Simon’s Bay, we found the Rattlesnake; Commodore Dowell’s pennant was hoisted in her. On leaving we had a sailing race with her, and she proved to be fester than any of our ships. From the Cape we went to Australia. To obtain the prevailing westerly winds we had to go a good deal to the south to the “roaring forties,” where we found a fresh gale of wind from the west. There was a magnificent following sea, and at times it would seem that one of the huge waves must break over the ship; but, as a matter of fact, this never happens unless a ship is going very slow. It was interesting to see all the bird life, the albatross, etc. We also amused ourselves by catching sharks, many of which followed the ships.
At Melbourne we were very kindly received by the people, and they feted us in many ways. I had an uncle there who had been out on an Australian sheep-farm for a long time. I stayed with him several days and he showed me the country. We also had the chance of visiting a gold-mine.
The next place we visited was Sydney, whose harbour is renowned for its surroundings, which are magnificent; here we enjoyed a great deal of hospitality, balls, picnics, etc. We then visited three ports in New Zealand – Littleton, Christchurch and Auckland; here again the people did all they could to make our visit pleasant. On leaving New Zealand we proceeded through the group of Islands to Yokohama, Japan, arriving there April 6th, 1870. In those days the Japanese had an intense dislike for all foreigners, and even in Yokohama one had to be careful not to offend any of the Japanese. When we visited Tokyo, the capital (then called Yeddo), we had to have an escort of cavalry, as the natives were unreliable.
Two Japanese naval cadets were appointed to two ships in the squadron; and with these two junior officers, began, in 1870, the Japanese modern Navy. After three months, one of them committed harikari, as he was so depressed; and the other, Itski by name, had just learned enough English to say “Damn fool.” Itski was with me afterwards in the Hercules, and I shall therefore have something to say of him again.
From Japan we went to British Columbia, and then on to Honolulu and Valparaiso, and at each of these places a great deal of civility was shown to us. At Honolulu they gave a dance and, as we were all strangers, the inhabitants as well as ourselves had our names written on our backs. From Valparaiso we went round the Horn in a real gale of wind; it was blowing very hard with a tremendous sea running, Unfortunately, we had to bury one of our men at sea off the Horn: a bandsman, and one of the best clarinet players I have ever heard, but his fault was drink. After rounding the Horn, we went to Bahia and then home to Plymouth, but before arriving there we heard, by signal from a merchant vessel, that war had been started between France and Germany. On the whole, the cruise was very successful. Sir Geoffrey Hornby was very keen to save coal, consequently we almost always sailed, which was really very good practice for every one. With the same object he allowed us only two gallons of water a day for everything (drinking, cooking, and washing). Our Captain was very strict about this order and had all the taps of the men’s drinking tanks locked; naturally we were very short of water and often could not have a drink when we wanted it. I considered then, and do still, that in order to save the small amount of coal used by distilling, it was a very unnecessary hardship, especially in hot weather.
The messing in the gunroom as a rule was none too good, and I think that ours was exceptionally bad. We were generally on ship’s food, namely, salt beef, bacon, and biscuits, with perhaps a fresh joint twice a week. When this joint was put on the table there was a regular scramble for it, and after the first helping, we used to bag it in turn to try and get a second helping. I remember one midshipman thought it was his turn to have the mutton-bone as second helping, but another officer thought it was his. The midshipman got hold of it and let this officer have it over the head; the result was a general fight, and eventually the whole thing came before the Captain. We were always so hungry that after the mutton-bone had been scraped clean, we broke it in two to get the marrow out. We reached Plymouth in December, 1870, and I was glad to finish up a commission where the life in the Liffey gunroom was somewhat like that of Marryat days.