A Middy’s Recollections 1853-1860 – Victor Alexander Montagu

Born in April 1841, I was about six months more than twelve years old when I joined the Royal Navy. My father was the seventh Earl of Sandwich; my mother, a daughter of the Marquis of Anglesea, who commanded cavalry at Waterloo, and lost his leg by one of the last shots fired on that eventful day. It is said that when Lord Anglesea’s thigh was struck he happened to be riding by the side of the Duke of Wellington, and exclaimed, suddenly, “O the Devil! my leg is hit!” The Duke turned round, looked at him, and said, “The deuce it is!” His leg was shortly afterwards amputated. As all the surgeon’s knives had become blunt from the long day’s work, it took twenty minutes to perform the operation. I was the second of four sons, and was educated by a private tutor. For some time before I was sent to sea, my father had often expressed a wish that, hailing from a naval family, one of his sons should select the Sea as his profession. Somehow or another, it devolved upon me to be the naval representative; and, though my father did not enforce this idea, I took it into my head that I should like it. My poor mother had misgivings. She loathed the sea, and could not bring herself to believe that any one else could endure its hardships. She was second to none, however, in her admiration of the Service. No doubt I thought it a fine thing to don a naval uniform and wear a sword at my side at twelve and a half. A position of importance was assured. Of sea-life I knew but little. I had on several occasions, when staying at the Castle at Cowes (enjoying the hospitality of my grandfather, Lord Anglesea), sailed in his famous old cutter, the Pearl (130 tons); but beyond learning, when beating about the Solent, what sea-sickness was, my experience was naught. However, on the 15th of December 1853, I was gazetted a naval cadet in the Queen’s Navy.

It was deemed advisable to send me to a school where boys were prepared for examination before joining the Navy. When it is remembered that one’s qualification consisted only in being able to master simple dictation from some English work, and arithmetic as far as the Rule of Three, this will seem incompatible with modern ideas. So it was, however; and I found myself, some time in October 1853, at the school of Mr. Eastman, a retired naval instructor who kept a house of about thirty boys in St. George’s Square, Portsea. This mansion I visited not long ago, and found it a tavern of the first quality. If my memory serves me rightly, we did not indulge in much study at that school. We used to walk out to Southsea Common in twos and twos to play games, and, if opportunity offered, to have rows with what we called “the cads,” the youth of the town: a pastime which the usher encouraged. It was a very rough school. The food was execrable; many of us were cooped up in the same room; and I have a vivid remembrance of the foot-pan which we were allowed to use only once a week.

On birthdays, or other select occasions, the chosen few were regaled with very large junks of bread sparsely besmeared with butter, and tea in the parlour, about 4.30 P.M.; our host and hostess being at that time well into their second glass of toddy, and drowsy though attempting to amuse us with old sea stories. Sometimes we were taken to the Dockyard. I well remember being much interested in watching a Russian frigate then in dock refitting, and wondering to myself why Russians looked so different from men of my own race, and why their ships carried such a curious scent. This reminds me that often in after years, when returning to my ship on a dark night and not being exactly sure of her position, I have been guided by the peculiar smell which you notice in passing under the stern of a foreign manof-war. The perfume of each navy is distinct; and the position of a ship, which I recollected from the daytime, was often the means of putting me on my right course during a night’s pull. I do not remember anything particularly worth recording during my six-weeks’ stay at that school. Only, on one occasion, about midnight, we were all aroused by the noise caused by the smashing of glass.

Running out in our night-shirts into the street, we discovered that all the front plate-glass windows were broken. The master, in his fury, thought that open mutiny had broken out in school, and vowed vengeance on every bone in our bodies. It turned out that Mr. Eastman had been cramming some mates for their examination towards Lieutenancies, and that, as they had all signally failed, they had expressed their displeasure by breaking the windows. No clue was obtained at the time; but I happened to hear all about the affair when I joined my first ship. Three of the culprits were serving in that vessel, and told me the story. Shortly after this, the time arrived when I was to present myself at the Royal Naval College to pass my examination. The nervous and sleepless nights! Though I felt perfectly capable of passing through the ordeal, the name of the Royal College overawed me. The thought of naval dons sitting in conclave over my work, with the possibility of their finding it defective, was as an evil dream. When the day arrived, two short hours sufficed to get me through.

My arithmetic was faultless; and, though I spelt judgment without a d, my papers were said to be very good. In short, I had passed thus far with éclat. Having qualified in mind, I found that the next performance was to qualify in body. Forthwith I was taken on board that glorious and venerable ship, the Victory, to be medically inspected. It was my first visit to this renowned ship; and how well I remember the thoughts that ran through my mind as I approached her! There was the hull exactly as it had been on the day of Trafalgar! I could not help picturing to myself those noble sides being pierced through and through with shot while the vessel was leading the line gallantly into action past the broadsides of the enemy. Once on board, I was accosted by a rough Irish assistant-surgeon, who, without a word of warning or of good-morning, ejaculated, “What is your name? How old are you?” On my having meekly answered these questions to his apparent satisfaction, he said, in the gruffest of tones, “Strip, sir.” Having decency, I quietly asked, in the humblest of tones, “Do you wish me, sir, to pull off my trousers as well?” “Yes, sir,—everything,” was the answer. This was a trial. I was miserable about my braces’ buttons, afraid he would see that two were lacking (one in front and one behind); which might tell against my claim to respectability. How curious is it to find oneself remembering such details through life! Having denuded myself of everything,—which was very trying, particularly in a draughty cabin in December—I was put through various exercises; and, after being minutely examined as to wind, sight, hearing, and other gifts, I was told to dress and take away with me a formal certificate of health.

I hated that man, and was glad to get back to school in order to prepare to leave for home on the following day. THE AUTHOR AS A NAVAL CADET, 1853. Swan Electric Engraving C o Within a week from this time, I received my first official document. It ran:— You are hereby directed to repair on board H.M. ship Princess Royal, now laying at Spithead, and report yourself on December the 15th. Should the Princess Royal not be laying at Spithead on the date mentioned, you will inquire at the Admiral’s office at the Dockyard, and you will be informed where H.M. ship may be. This notice gave me a clear fortnight more at home.

I had to get my outfit ready, and to pack up my sea-chest. My father had the sea-chest made by the house-carpenter, instead of relying on the outfitter who invariably supplied the necessary article according to regulation size. No doubt my father conceived the idea with the best possible intentions as to economy; but the chest was always an eyesore, and eventually it was cut down to proper dimensions by order of a very particular commanding officer, who could not stand seeing one chest an inch higher than the rest in the long row on the cockpit deck. War with Russia was at this time expected. Writing so many years later, I can only attempt to describe, from memory, all I then thought, and the pride I felt that I should possibly see active service soon. There was an innate dread of leave-taking—of parting from home for the first time—more especially of separating myself from my mother, a lady beloved by all her children. That was a thought scarce bearable. Many who read those lines will realise too well how sad such moments are: perhaps the saddest that fall to one’s lot. Yet, painful as they are, they have their consolation: as showing the love between mother and son. The more this sentiment is impressed on the youthful mind, the greater the gain in after life; for when the mother is not present, there comes the echo of sweet counsel ringing in the heart, inspiring the wish to act as she would desire—she, the help and guidance in all trouble

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