Chapter Four.

Flogging, knots and coal shovels – training in Portsmouth.


The reality of Jack's arrival in the Royal Navy was far from romantic. He stepped off the the train in Plymouth ready for his first day before the mast on October 18 1913. 

Plymouth was the headquarters of the Western Fleet, one of the largest naval bases in the world had ever seen and a sinew of imperial power. It was nicknamed “Guz” by seamen because it was a supply station for His Majesty's Ships.

In Plymouth, Jack took in his first glimpse of battleships that, in the days before television, must have made him catch his breath. Brand new Dreadnoughts, the giants of the battle fleet, clustered into Devonport Dockyard, some lashed into threes and fours; an expanse of rigging and grey steel.

Everywhere teemed groups of shipwrights, fitters and rigging gangs as they made ready the biggest navy the world had ever seen.

Far from the hustle and bustle of the fleet, lay Jack's first ship HMS Impregnable – a rotting and barnacled hulk creaking at anchor in the Devonport Stream.

HMS Impregnable was a 121-gun wooden warship, launched in 1860, which was once the pride of the Victorian navy. It has started life as HMS Howe, was renamed HMS Bulwark in 1886 and finally HMS Impregnable in 1896 and turned into a training ship. Aboard, more than a 1000 boy seamen were trained at a time.

Jack spent four days aboard HMS Impregnable, drilling, treading the deck for the first time, being fitted with a uniform and learning how to salute.He would have been bathed, issued with a combined prayer and hymn book, and what was know as a “ditty box” in which he could lock away his letters and possessions. From there he would have been vaccinated and placed with the other new recruits. 

A picture of the young Jack is painted by his service record. He stood five foot three inches tall, with brown hair and eyes. The Navy records say he was 33 and half inches across the chest and had a “fresh” complexion. There is no doubt his accent would have been as Worcestershire as the sauce.

The passing of the medical examination, the days when many young Englishmen were far from healthy, was crucial. The Royal Navy, it was once written, rejected nine out of ten boy recruits. They also had to prove themselves in reading, writing and arithmetic. The Navy took on more than 4,000 boy recruits every year.

Jack was then assigned to the training ship, HMS Powerful, where he would be moulded into an able seaman. Boys were trained for eight months before being assigned to a ship on their 17th birthday. In Jack's case – because of the forged papers – it would be his 16th birthday.

Aboard HMS Powerful, Jack was thrown together with a new breed of boy sailors from all over the country and all walks of life. They were known as “novices” and were put under the charge of an often kindly petty officer, who acted like a father-figure. These boys were the product of an improving education system and considered to be the more capable sons of the working class. They were needed to man the Navy's rapidly growing fleet.(The Windsor Magazine 1896)

They called these trainees “blue jackets” and they were blooded in a course of sea training, which began with learning how to swim. All were thrown into a wooden bath tub to complete the statutory swimming strokes The bath measured three foot six inches at the shallow end and seven foot at the deep end. To pass you had to swim at least 40 yards with a “duck suit” or light clothing on.A young seaman also had to learn to ply and oar with ease.

Every young seaman had to learn to use a needle and pack their clothes. They also had to spend two hours a day learning in the classroom.

Life for Jack now began at 6 AM sharp. A cold bath followed by kippers for breakfast. Then, it was prayers and on to training classes. Boy ratings were taught how to rig, tie knots, climb masts, lay guns and shovel coal. The sweaty hours in the stoke hold were as important to the Navy as a good reef knot. Every rating had to spend at least six months shoveling mountains of coal into raging furnaces to keep the fleet moving. The youngsters also learned how to use a compass, semaphore and Morse Code.

Discipline was tough. The raw recruits learned under the beady eye of adult training officers. Often, they would strut through the ranks brandishing a rope that was used for the punishment of boys who stepped out of line.

The Brig had been abolished for boy seaman, but public corporal punishment wasn't. For a petty crime like stealing a packet of cigarettes, a boy could be flogged in the gymnasium before all hands. He would be strapped across a vaulting horse,his wrists and ankles bound by canvas, while a fellow rating was forced to call out the strokes. It was usually a dozen with the cane.

The lower decks were no place for the meek. Jack must have fought for his place in the pecking order. Bullying was rife and often the training officers turned a blind eye. Boy seamen who had been promoted to petty officers were often the worst and ran bully boy networks.

At the end of the day, there was a 5 PM kit inspection followed by a 6 PM dismiss. In the evenings, there were compensations for the rigors of life below decks. There were games and magic lantern shows.

Jack survived and flourished as a sixpence-a-week boy seaman. Like his brother, he had signed on for 12 years. This service would only begin on Jack's bogus 18th birthday on November 28 1916 – a date he would never see.

On June 7, 1914, Jack was promoted to Boy First Class, which meant he was considered officer material. Two-and-a-half weeks later he finished his training and signed on to his first ship, HMS Edgar in Portsmouth. Built in 1890 at Devonport, the Edgar was a first class cruiser. It was the lead ship of the Edgar Class cruisers, one of the oldest warships in the fleet and often used to give boy seamen the chance to find their sea legs. The Edgar was armed with two nine-inch and 10 six-inch guns and was to see service at Gallipoli until it was damaged by an Austro-Hungarian U-Boat in April 1918. It was scrapped at Morecambe, Lancashire, in 1923.

One of Jack's first actions aboard HMS Edgar was to take part in the Spithead Review of July 1914 – the biggest ever gathering of British sea power. A show of strength just two weeks before war was declared on Germany. A triumph for the Royal Navy with a flotilla that took hours to pass the watching King. The Edgar was there tucked in behind its flagship, Crescent and and fellow Edgar class cruisers Royal Arthur and Endyimon.

What a story for the young Jack to tell as he returned home for two weeks to Bewdley at the end of the glorious summer of 1914 – to the tears and pride of his family. On his back he had a uniform that commanded respect, in his pocket he had money, on his shoulder was his kit bag packed with memories of an amazing year.

We can only imagine the allure of the uniform and success; the sweet scent of the hedgerows and mown meadows of Bewdley, Worcestershire.  

A telegram cut this blissful summer sojourn short. A call from the Royal Navy for all ratings to return to their ships, as war was imminent. Jack headed off from Bewdley station as one of the first serving men to be mobilized in World War One. He was 15 years old

Everyone was patriotic and optimistic, after all it would all be over by Christmas. The Bishop family would see Jack just one more time in his short life.


written by Chris Bishop