Charles Rathbone Low.

The autobiography of a man-o'-war's bell, a tale of the sea online

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I stepped forward, eagerly seized a paper, when, oh, horror! there appeared
Ijelore my eyes, us I bn&tily opened the slip, the single word Death.' "





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\All rights reserved."]


Printed by Simmons & Botten,
Shoe Lane, E.C.


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THE autobiography of most bells, of those, indeed,
with which the generality of the kind folk, who will
favour me by perusing the following pages, are
familiar, would deal with subjects far dissimilar from
those of which I am about to treat. In this category
of bells, I do not allude to such humble productions
of human ingenuity as the household implements
which lie in rows in the basement floors of all
modern houses ; though, doubtless, were the tongues
of many such to give utterance to their feelings, they
could tell some unpleasant truths of the opinions of
" their betters," freely ventilated by the servant-kind,
who "live and move and have their being" in the
kitchen, and the regions that "thereunto adjacent
lie." Dear me ! what tales of cross-grained mis-
tresses and dyspeptic masters, could not these bells,


2 The Autobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell.

well-nigh dinned to death by continuous and violent
tintinnabulations, unfold to mortal ears. No, I pass
by the domestic bell as unworthy my muse ; I tune
my lyre to a more pretentious lay than the retailing
of the adventures of such very small fry. Neither
am I about to sing of the experiences of the solemn
and highly respectable class that are to be heard, but
not seen, in contradistinction to the golden rule laid
down for the guidance of all little boys and girls, and
of which we have a lively remembrance from, our
earliest infancy, high up in the ivy-gro\vii church
tower. These bells speak of time and eternity, of
births, marriages, and of deaths; and their voices
recall to mind the saddest and most solemn, as well
as the happiest moments of our life. But upon this
theme I will not dwell. It is of the bell of a man-of-
war, the great bell of a majestic ship of the. line, that
I now propose to write; and, after just premising the
circumstances under which I heard the narrative I
am about to relate, I will stand on one side, and
allow the time-honoured tongue (I cannot degrade it
by applying to it the homely title of clapper) to wag
in its cavernous old jaws and speak for itself, as it
has so often and so effectually done midst the battle
and the breeze in days long, long gone by.

One hot summer day it was just such another

The Autobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell. 3

grilling afternoon as Charles Dickens describes with
marvellous graphic power in ' ' Little Dorrit " I was
strolling about the museum of the Royal United
Service Institution, and inspecting the interesting
and curious collection of odds and ends in the naval
department of the museum. I say inspecting,
advisedly, for had it been the winter-time of year,
or had the thermometer marked a range some
twenty degrees lower, one would have been inclined
to wonder at and admire the models, and particu-
larly the Nelson and Franklin relics, but with the
mercury at eighty and something or another degrees
I forget the odd number, it was too hot to count
how could any mortal be expected to do aught that
militated against the adoption of the nil admirari
principle of viewing things. No, the one thing a
man could do with success, under conditions that
would have melted the stoutest frame, was to, in
short, take a nap ; so I thought at the time, and as
there was no one in that portion of the museum, and
I felt overcome with sleep, I thought I would just
indulge in forty winks ! Vast heaving ! paul,* there.
When I said just now, there was no one, I should
have excepted the worthy porter, an old petty officer

* The " pauls " are stops in the capstan, which prevent it
from going back when heaving round.

4 The Autobiography of a Man-o]- War's Bell.

of the navy, for whom I entertained a regard, having
had many a chat with him about matters and models,
nautical ; but still he was of no account on this occa-
sion, as I know from testimony, auricular as well as
optical, that he was sleeping the sleep of the weary,
for he was snoring in the most uncompromising
manner. By the by, I hope this revelation, given in
strict confidence, may not fall under the observation
of any of the authorities at the Royal United Service
Institution, so that it may in any way prejudice the
interests of the old petty officer in question.

Feeling overcome with the heat, I looked about
for a seat, and, at length, " brought myself to an
anchor " near a great bell, an inscription over which
informed me that it was the bell of the French line-
of-battle ship, "Ville de Paris," the flag-ship of
Admiral Count de Grasse, in his memorable action
with Lord Rodney, on the I2th of April, in the year
1782. I gazed long and curiously at this interesting
relic of that famous fight, and of the brave men who
immortalized themselves on that day, so long, indeed,
that I found myself musing over the stirring events
that were enacted beneath its shadow on the high
forecastle, and the tales it could tell were its iron
tongue gifted with language. From first musing, 1
found myself nodding bad examples, we know, are

The Autobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell. 5

contagious ; and just then I was startled by a loud
snort from my friend the porter, followed by a
renewal of the gentle snoring, indicative of profound
repose, so nothing loth, I resigned myself to the
blandishments of the " sleepy god/' and fell into a
deep slumber.

"What, you would like to hear something of my
early life/' said a deep muffled voice at my side.
Now, though this question proceeded from the bell
that I had been so attentively regarding, the pheno-
menon of an inanimate object, like a ship's bell,
entering into conversation, did not strike me as in
the least singular ; indeed, in our dreams, though we
deal almost exclusively with phenomena, and discard
common sense views of everything, nothing strikes us
as extraordinary.

" Yes/' I replied ; " I should like nothing better
than to hear the story of your life."

" Listen, then," said the bell ; and straightway,
without more ado, it unfolded in deep sepulchral
tones, the following veracious narrative, being the
Autobiography of a Man-of- War's Bell :

I was cast in the year 1757 at a foundry in the
south of England, and I remember debating with a
lot of my brothers and sisters who first saw the

6 The Autobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell.

light, as you would say, at the same time as myself,
as to what might be the fate of each of us. I wonder
how many of them are in the land of the living now.
Though most of the number were destined for peace-
ful purposes, and not to ring forth war's alarms, and
calls to "fire quarters," yet, I doubt not, many came
to grief, and gave evidence of a flaw, or " cracked their
cheeks/' diseases to which we are, from our composi-
tion, peculiarly susceptible, long years ere this.
However that may be, I must not be indulging in
sentiment, as if you have only patience to listen, I
have a great deal to tell you.

I was taken down with a wagon-load of others
to Portsmouth, and speedily found myself on board
one of the frigates of His late Majesty King George
the Second. The " Melpomene " was fitting out for
service in the year 1757, and I was proud enough, I
assure you, to be selected for duty on board such a
handsome ship, one of the crack frigates of the ser-
vice. I saw some queer sights during the time she
was being fitted out. Those were the days of press-
gangs, and in seaport towns it was a dangerous
thing for a man who could not give a satisfactory-
account of himself, to be seen wandering about.
Often such fellows were brought on board, quite
insensible with drink, the man-o'-war perhaps sailed

The A tetobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell. 7

the following morning, and the deluded wretches did
not regain their consciousness until the ship was far
out on the blue waters, and all chance of return to
their friends was at an end. Several such instances
came under my personal cognizance, and on
numerous occasions daring the many years after
this, my first induction to a seafaring life, I have
been shipmates with gentlemen of good birth, who
were thus entrapped into the navy ; such cases
occurred during the commission of the " Melpomene,"
and the romantic history attachiner to these men, of

v O x

which I propose now to speak, will, I trust, interest
the readers of my autobiography, as much as they
interested me during its development.

In 1757, there was a great want of foremast
hands for the navy, and, in consequence, the press-
gangs were particularly busy at their detestable trade,
now happily abolished. No less than seventy-eight
of the hands out of the frigate's crew of four hundred
and seventy men, all told, had been impressed into
the navy at different seaports, and sent down to
Portsmouth to be drafted on board the ships of war
in which there might be a paucity of seamen. Strong
guards were required to escort pressed men, in con-
sequence of the indignation the system excited in
the minds of the populace, who frequently turned

8 The Autobiography of a Matt-o'- War's Bell,

out in mobs, and released the 'unhappy fellows who
had been seized or cajoled into " fighting the French,"
which was the seductive phraseology used by the
" crimps/' in seeking to induce landsmen to join His
Majesty's fleet, though a portion of the navy was
serving in distant climes, where the French and
prize-money were not to be found. There was
another method also of recruiting for the service
besides pressing, and that was by the time-honoured
mode of cajolery, which, indeed, is out of date now-
a-days. Soldiers and sailors had to be procured, and
they were procured in the same way as the Jew is said
to have directed his son to get money "honestly,
Moses, if you can, but get it." The manner of
recruiting, therefore, not being closely scrutinized,
the results only being looked to, a school of harpies,
or land-sharks, sprang into existence, who lived by
inveigling " likely," but unwary, men into the hands
of the recruiting parties, getting a portion of the
bounty for each fresh hand they shipped.

No sooner had I joined the " Melpomene '' than
I commenced to adopt the habit I have since prac-
tised all my life, and which is now in me a second
nature namely, that of studying the faces of those
with whom I may be thrown into contact, and form-
ing therefrom my own opinion of their characteristics.

The Autobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell. 9

I then watch with interest the gradual development
of character, as shown by acts, which are the great,
and, indeed, the only touchstone of what is in a man,
and what a man is. From long observation I have
become such an adept in the art, which like every
other is perfected by practice, that I find I am now
rarely at fault in the estimate I first form of those
falling under the scope of my personal observation.
I was scarcely settled in my place at the back of the
top-gallant forecastle, a fine position for observing all
that went on around, than I began to take notice of
the men and boys whose duty it was to strike the
hours upon me. This was done by means of a short
line or lanyard that was fastened to the knob at the
end of my tongue, and was the work of one of the
quartermasters, a friend of mine, who took the
greatest interest in keeping me clean and bright as a
new pin. The lanyard was a perfect work of art,
manufactured of the finest cords, which the quarter-
master had bought with his own private money, and
worked up at some expenditure of time and trouble,
and then studded at intervals with fancy knots, that
only an experienced seaman could have wrought.
While making this elaborate ornament, and, after it
was finished, when cleaning me every morning with
bits of rag dipped into a small saucer filled with lamp

io The Autobiography of a Man-o '-War's Bell.

oil, cunningly concocted with other ingredients, he
would talk to me just as if I was one of his own
species and could answer him. However, he used to
say I amply repaid him for all the time and trouble
expended on my adornment, for he was never tired of
reiterating that I was the sweetest-sounding bell he
had ever been shipmates with. To be candid, I think
he was not very wide of the mark, for fi though I say
it as shouldn't," I was never tired of hearing the
mellifluous sounds ring out, as my tongue sounded
loud and clear the hours and the half hours, or " the
bells," as they call them on board ship. During the
years I was on board the " Melpomene," they echoed
through the frigate, day and night without once
ceasing, except when in action.

Aha! I think I hear some one of my readers
exclaim, "Though your voice was strong and melli-
fluous, you had your weak points, and we have not
been long in finding out that personal vanity is one
of them."

To the sharp individual who has probed my
"weak point," as he calls my self-complacency, I can
only reply that " it is a fault I have in common with
a large majority of mankind, who love to hear them-
selves talk on all occasions and in all places ; and I
suppose, my kind censor, I contracted the bad habit

The Autobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell. i r

from having been thrown all my life among your
fellow-creatures." As Lord Palmerston once said to
Mr. Cobdcn, when they had a sharp and acrimonious
encounter across the table of the House of Commons,
" I always like to give as good as I get."

The " Melpomene " was a crack 48-gun frigate ;
this was her first commission, and the captain was
considered exceedingly fortunate in having been
appointed to command the latest accession to the
navy a ship in all respects as handsome as any in
the service. He was given almost carte llanche in
his requirements while fitting her out for his
pennant, and having good interest witli my Lords
Parliamentary interest which was everything in
those daySj and by the same "token" (as the Irish
say) is not a bad thing in the present year of grace
he found the dockyard and harbour authorities very
amenable, and had no difficulty in securing all the
stores he required for a long commission. Captain
the Honourable Jasper Gaisford, was a fine, sailor-like
officer, and worthy the confidence reposed in him,
and the high responsibility of commanding in a time
of war one of the representative ships, as it were,
of the service, a heavily armed frigate, specially
designed and manned beyond her proper com-
plement, by more than a hundred hands, with the

1 2 The A utobiog raphy of a Man-o '- War 's Bell.

avowed object of engaging frigates of the enemy
in single combat.

The times in which our tale is laid were stirring
times. In the month of May of the previous year,
war had been declared against France, and on the
14th March, 1757, was consummated one of the
most disgraceful acts in the history of this country.
On that day Admiral Byng was shot on the quarter-
deck of the flagship of the Admiral Commanding-
in-chief at Portsmouth. The brave but unfortunate
officer met his doom with the calm courage of a
sailor. Having taken leave of his friends, he came
up on deck at noon under a guard of marines, and
handing to a friend a paper exculpating himself from
all blame in regard of the disgraceful charges laid to
his door, sat down on an armchair, bandaged his
own eyes, and giving the signal to the firing party,
dropped dead pierced by five bullets, the whole
transaction having occupied only three minutes.
Thus was committed a foul judicial murder, for
though Byng showed want of enterprise, if not
pusillanimity, in not renewing the indecisive en-
gagement off Minorca, yet it was owing to the
neglect of the ministry of the day in sending to the
Mediterranean a fleet notoriously ill-fitted for service
and undermanned, and this notwithstanding the pro-


or WAH s IIKI.I..

The Autobiography of a Man-o '- War's Bell. 13

test of the Admiral himself, that success was rendered
impossible. After some changes in the ministry,
the elder Pitt, better known as Earl of Chatham, re-
turned to office, nominally under the premiership of
the Duke of Newcastle, but in reality he wielded all
power. William Pitt found the country disgraced
and dispirited, and by his splendid talents and won-
derful energy raised it to the highest pinnacle of glory
it has perhaps ever attained. It was at this juncture
of affairs that Captain Gaisford commissioned the
" Melpomene." The dockyards and arsenals of the
kingdom resounded with the clang of preparation,
and the Parliament voted money without stint to
carry on the war against the ancient foe. The
captain strove his utmost to fit his ship out before
other commanding officers who had got the start of
him, and he succeeded ; for one morning when the
flagship " made daybreak " with one of her guns, the
" blue Peter " was seen fluttering at our fore-royal
mast-head, and before noon the gallant ship was
under way down the Channel with her complement of
hands filled up, and every man and boy on board
anxious to have a brush with any Frenchman that
might heave in sight, short of a first-rate.

Of course much had to be done after getting
out into blue water, in the way of drilling at the

14 The Autobiography of a Man-o 1 - War's Bell.

guns those of the crew who had never served in the
navy. As far as handiness aloft went, the men who
had been bred in the merchant service required little
teaching beyond learning those habits of smartness
and cleanliness that mark at once the old man-o'-
war's man ; but in handling the great guns and the
small arms (under which are enumerated cutlass,
pike, and musket), the merchantmen were as much
novices as the greenhorns who began to feel, for the
first time, the direful effects of sea-sickness. How-
ever, healthy Englishmen quickly get over this tem-
porary ailment, and my shipmates soon got all right.
They formed as fine a body of men as ever I saw
together; and I remember the first morning they
mustered at divisions, toeing a line on the quarter-
deck in double rows on the starboard and port
sides, being struck with the gallant appearance they
presented, all dressed in their spick-and-span new
slops served out to them by the purser, who took
care to cut their wages for the same to a pretty tune,
for pursers in those days were not very particular as
to pounds, shillings, and pence that is, where Jack's
balance was concerned, for I never heard complaints
of punctuality and accuracy in paying No. i. This
was the first occasion on which I had an opportunity
of observing the captain, who appeared to great ad-

The Autobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell. 15

vantage, as he marched down the lines of noble
fellows, all bound to obey his every word and look.

Captain Gaisford was not what is called a fine
man, but he was just of the stature and bulk that
make the smartest seamen. Somewhat below the
middle height, he was well knit and muscular, and
looked every inch a sailor. There was an air of com-
mand about him that at once stamped him as one ac-
customed to be obeyed, and the self-confidence with
which he gave his orders and carried on the duties of
the ship, on such occasions as "general quarters,"
for the captain of a vessel .of war always leaves the
details of the management of the discipline and
working of the ship to the first lieutenant this self-
confidence was inspiring to the officers and men, as
nothing tends so much to a lax state of discipline and
general inefficiency among the hands before the mast
as the knowledge from personal observation, of the
fact that "the skipper doesn't know what he is
about." Captain Gaisford knew well what he was
about, and all " malingerers " soon discovered that they
had come to the wrong ship for shams, when the
captain came down into the "sick bay" with the
doctor, and closely questioned them, while his dark,
piercing eyes looked through and through them,
bringing the blush of shame to the cheeks of the

1 6 The Autobiography of a Man-o'-War's Bell.

detected " sham Abraham men. The first-lieutenant
was a first-rate seaman, and one of the " old school/'
for even in those days it was becoming antiquated ;
I refer to the school that habitually swore at men,
and indulged in a quid of tobacco. This manner of
naval officer is popularly known as the " Benbow "
school, but it would ill become us were we to sneer
at a class that has produced redoubtable warriors like
Cloudesley Shovel, and scores of others. Now-a-
days one never meets with an officer who has made
his way to the quarter-deck " through the hawse-
pipes," and yet in holding up to admiration our
present practice of excluding forecastle men, we
ought not to forget that the proudest triumphs of
our navy were gained in the days when such strict
rules of exclusiveness were not enforced. Nelson,
no mean authority in naval matters, as I suppose
even the staunchest upholder of competition for
naval cadetships will allow, had a saying " more
honour abaft, more seamanship forward/' The other
officers scarcely call for any comment here, as they do
not form prominentmembers of our dramatis per sonce.
While the captain, accompanied by the first
lieutenant, is inspecting the ranks of

" The twice two hundred iron men
Who all his will obey, 1 '

The Autobiography of a Man-o'- War's Bell. 17

we will take advantage of our privilege and jot down
notes of any that may attract our attention. There
is nothing in the appearance of the seamen proper
those I mean that have been in the navy, or merchant
service to call for especial notice ; there is the usual
liberal allowance of broad shoulders and muscular
limbs, with bronzed cheeks and full whiskers, be-
tokening the hardy tar who has fought his country's
battles, or weathered the breeze in all climes, from
the frozen north and the Baltic in midwinter to the
tropics and the coast of India, where some of them
have met the traditional foe of Britain in the struggle
for the mastery of that fair empire, at that time in
progress under the auspices of 'Clive on shore, and
Watson at sea; indeed, this year, 1757, was
signalized by the most memorable event in Indian
history, the victory of Plassey, gained over the
"subadar" of Bengal, by the soldiers and sailors
under those two great commanders.

But when we come to the ranks of the lands-
men, those who have been recruited by the press-
gang, or voluntered for service, there are two or thre<'
faces that immediately arrest one's attention, as in
fact they attracted the notice of the captain, who
stayed his step in each instance, and asked his first
lieutenant some questions as to the name and prc-

1 8 The Autobiography of a Man-o' -War's Bell.

vious occupation of the persons alluded to. As three
of these individuals will play important parts in the
incidents that passed under my observation, I will
not apologize for describing them to my readers, as
they appeared to me on this my initiation into naval

After passing, without a remark, some half a
dozen raw young men, who looked as if they had
taken to the sea simply because they did not know
what in the world else to do with themselves,
Captain Gaisford suddenly brought up opposite an
aristocratic and very handsome, though dissipated-
looking man, the last person you would ever have
expected to find voluntarily partaking of the exceed-
ing hard fare of "weevily" biscuits and "salt horse,"
and performing the uncongenial work of a seaman
onboard one of His Majesty's ships. So, evidently,
thought the captain, who, himself of aristocratic con-
nections, knew a born and bred gentleman when he
Saw him, notwithstanding the attempt made by this
man to disguise himself in order to baffle the curiosity
that inspired his superior, and which appeared to be
anything but agreeable to him.

" What is your name ? " asked Captain Gaisford.

" John Mullins, sir," was the reply, accompanied
by a graceful bow, which so greatly amused some

The Autobiography of a Man-o '- WL 11 's Bell. 19

weather-beaten, genuine sons of Neptune on the
opposite side of the deck, that they could not control

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Online LibraryCharles Rathbone LowThe autobiography of a man-o'-war's bell, a tale of the sea → online text (page 1 of 21)