Category Archives: Navy

So Long, farewell

So Long, as she is now, photographed by Christopher Sainsbury

Journalist Paul Sullivan has been making enquiries about a sailing cutter that was moored on the marshes at Lymington and which recently disappeared, pretty well without warning, as far as most people were concerned. Here’s his story:

For half a century, an old clinker-hulled boat moored out in the salt marshes near Lymington in Hampshire was a familiar and cherished sight for locals, and a fascinating discovery for visitors. But then, suddenly, she vanished. This is the story behind the mystery of a missing landmark.

She sat in the middle of the narrow channel known as Oxey Lake, on the seaward side of the sluice gates at the ancient salterns just outside Lymington, tucked in behind the Isle of Wight, away from the shipping lanes, the broiling waters around the Needles Channel, and sheltered from southwesterlies.

She was a century-old sailing cutter, supposedly built at the Mediterranean Fleet’s yards in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Royal Navy blueprint first drawn in Nelson’s time.

At 32ft in length, she was originally a two-masted lug-rigged harbour supply boat, but from the 1970s converted to a ketch, but now moored fore and aft in Oxey Lake, owned by a reed-cutter called Norman, who lived on board.

She’d settled into this sedentary life, offering cramped but cheap single-man’s accommodation in return for his enthusiastic if less-than-Naval guardianship. Tarpaulins across the boom kept the rain out of her cockpit and her white hull got an occasional touch-up, but most importantly Norman’s occupancy was life-preserving – the night-time heat of a Calor stove and sooty oil lamps was just enough to keep the damp at bay.

In her silent moored solitude, under huge skies, she became a landmark, a sight to be discovered by the summer people, on foot, in plastic kayaks, along the rail of the Wight ferries or from the sparkling decks of company yachts. Passing runners, dogwalkers and birdwatchers fixed on the flight pools might barely gave her a glance, but at a still dawn or twilight, you could pause to study her silhouette and her perfect reflection on the water.

Before that? She’d had a hard working life, it’s said: lashed to the deck of warships, sent off to haul back supplies from bays and shallow harbours. She had no home: at each harbour boats like her were usually exchanged for another similar vessel that would ferry out the supplies and be hauled up to take her place.

So she passed from warship to warship, with no captain’s log to record the passing. Someone might know more, of course, but Norman, if he knew, usually said nothing, though sometimes among friends and fellow drinkers at the Thomas Tripp pub he would paint heartbreaking scenes of her chopping through fractious seas littered with the great allied fleets off Suvla Bay, taking the boys in to Gallipoli.

There were other stories too but, really, who knew? Whatever the truth, by the late 1950s, she found herself in a civilian yard in Southampton, on a fleet disposal list, a curiosity tucked in behind the surplus torpedo boats and dented landing craft.

Norman bought her, worked a re-fit of sorts, added a proper cabin, laid new deck, repaired repairs and, with help, re-rigged her as a ketch, then took her to Lymington, and then Oxey Lake, and lived on her.

But then, just in the last year or so, he left. Although the reed-cutting finished by the end of the 90s, Norman was allowed to stay on the mooring into his retirement, hauling back and forth between bank and boat in a little tender for shopping and trips to see family, and to go to the Thomas Tripp for sometimes risky Saturdays at the bar from which he’d return on his bike after midnight, slow and tottering along the bank in the darkness, quietly cursing and searching for invisible ropes.

Those who knew kept an eye on the boat and on him, but he was strong and strong-minded, and determined to stay. For his family it meant years of concern until a mild stroke a few years ago swept away his objections to leaving. In the end, a compromise was reached: Norman moved onto a fibreglass cabin cruiser with curtains at the old Dyer Brothers yard in Southampton.

The yard offered good access and other boats, electricity, heating, and the unexpected pleasure of soft carpet under bare feet. At night there were far fewer visible stars, but there was hot water and headroom.

Meanwhile, the cutter waited, out in the salterns, her hull settling in the mud. The violence of her past – the groundings, the gales, the collisions, the boots and bullets, the bangs and scrapes – many were hard and damaging, but they were working injuries, things to be itemised, repaired, replaced and attended to. But now with no work and no plan, the damp went cold to her core, unchecked. Light fingers of dark rot caressed her keel, searching for a hold.

The talk in the Tripp was of something crueler. Gribble worm eats at the frame of a wooden boat, they said, weakening the joints, slowly letting the mud suck the keel down, locking it in a greasy embrace strong enough to let a rope and a hard tow rip her in two. Could be she’ll stay there, they said – who’d want the risky job of moving her and be left with nothing but responsibility for the clear-up and the bill.

Still, they said, you’d think he’d have cared more, not just left her. Just bar talk, perhaps, but each drinker felt the irony of her coming fate, in the sucking, stinking blue-grey mud.

And then she disappeared.

The news seeps back in to the town, from a morning jogger, from a couple just back from walking their retrievers – that old boat is gone, with just the tender left on the bank. It’s weird, they said, like seeing a well-known painting with the subject rubbed out, like someone had taken away Tesco’s or the war memorial overnight, so familiar it takes a while to work out it’s missing.

Bit by bit, by word of mouth, by phone, by text, email, people asked about her, realising they don’t even know if she had a name. (Norman had privately christened her So Long, though 2850 Alx is what the Navy stencil-cut into her stern.) She is missed, loved. People want to know where she is, where he is, what happened. Over a week, the story unfolds.

-oOo-

At early light, Norman was back, finally. With a friend, and with the cabin cruiser pushing against a bitch of a tide for most of the trip they’d nosed in to the mouth of her channel, come along her port side. Working quickly and efficiently, quicker than he’d thought, they’d tied a line to her bow, cut the mooring ropes. Norman stayed on her, the friend on the cabin cruiser eased her around and pulled just ahead. Gently throttling forward, the towline rising, tightening, feeling into the load. There was a moment – and then she moved easily, eagerly, the unlikely pairing cutting smoothly out into a calm, biddable sea, a light wind, clear and bright.

Those few who saw, working out early along the Solent, peered through cabin glass, slowing their engines, turning to stare at her fine white hull, rocking masts, quickly understanding the cabin cruiser’s rude proximity, the nature of this voyage.

At a pre-arranged point, another cabin cruiser with big twin engines, a neighbour from Dyers, took over the tow, taking the speed up to 6 knots. And Norman stayed on her, for nearly eight hours, as this strangely unmatched little flotilla of three slowly disappeared east.

Now she’s back in Southampton, out of the water, properly laid up for winter for the first time in decades, unrigged, de-masted, shored up securely in the busy little Drivers Wharf yard on the Itchen, just down from Dyers, where there are workshops filled with noise and skills and tools and knowledge.

Craftsmen’s eyes have looked her over; their hands have rubbed along her sides, studied her shape, assessed and itemised her needs. Norman couldn’t leave her; he is still strong, focused, and making plans. Next year he’ll be 80, though she’ll be well over 100. She waits, warming gently in the sun.

Copyright © Paul Sullivan, 2017. All rights reserved. Photos © Christopher Sainsbury, 2017

Thanks Paul and Christopher! Here are some more of Christopher’s photographs:

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Henry Marshall Sales, ex RN – can anyone add to the story please?

My musical chum Kathy Sales likes to research her family. If anyone can fill in some of the gaps in the story of her granddad, including the ranks shown in the photographs (neither Kathy or I understand them), please drop me a line at gmatkin@gmail.com and I’ll pass it along.

My grandfather, Henry Marshall Sales, was not from a sailing family at all: his father John Sales was born into a farm labouring family in Horsmonden, Kent, England and as a young man became a steam locomotive cleaner, fireman and then engine driver working out of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company in Camberwell.

Granddad was born in Camberwell in 1891. A member of the first generation of his family to be educated, he did well at school. By the 1911 census Granddad was working as a clerk in an omnibus company, and after war service he worked in the finance department of London Transport, remaining there for the rest of this working life. It is the later part of his war service that is of interest here.

Prior to World War One, Granddad was in the territorial army, but unfortunately, the records for Granddad’s service in the army do not exist – they were probably destroyed in the Blitz in 1941. However, his later Royal Navy service record is available, as are a number of photos that have passed down to me, plus a later news cutting.

Granddad’s Royal Navy service began on 1st May 1917 age 25, after the Battle of Jutland. We don’t what made him switch to being a sailor. He was assigned to HMS Vivid I, Wikipedia reports was a section within the Navy barracks at Devonport, and was renamed HMS Drake in 1934. It is here that he received training in seamanship, signalling and telegraphy. I have his hat band for Vivid.

From Vivid I, Granddad was assigned to HMS Barham on 3rd August 1917. She had seen active service at Jutland on 31st May 1916, with 26 men killed and 37 wounded. There is information HMS Barham here here  and here, and Youtube has a video of her sinking.

I believe that all of the photographs taken on board ship that accompany this article were taken on HMS Barham, including the one of the starboard watch, in which the sailors look as if they are taking a break from a bit of amateur thespianism.

I fancy that amateur dramatics were used partly for entertainment, and partly to help with the teamwork spirit and bring everyone together. All of the photographs look far removed from a theatre of war, except for the evidence of a gun or two on the ship, with the sailors in relaxed attitudes.

Following Jutland, HMS Barham does not seem to have seen further enemy action during World War One.

She had been repaired and had a major refit before Granddad joined her. Wikipedia states that her repairs were complete by 5th July 1916, and various guns and control equipment were fitted by the end of July 1917. I have an idea that she was used for training at sea, to give sailors some real experience, even though it was still wartime, although there are no mentions of this online.

She was also in a battle-ready position if required. Granddad was still pretty green for a seaman after just one year’s service, so training at sea would have been beneficial.

Granddad’s time on board HMS Barham ended on 21st December 1917, and the next day he was back at Devonport, in the Vivid I section, to continue his land-based training. This continued until 29th April 1918, after which he was assigned to HMS Blake (Walker) – I have his hat band for Walker. Looking up this ship is a little confusing. There was an HMS Walker (D27), a W-class destroyer, which saw service in the final months of World War One , but there was also HMS Blake (1889), named in honour of Admiral Robert Blake, which was converted into a destroyer ship in 1907 and served throughout the War as a depot ship to the 11th Destroyer Flotilla of the Grand Fleet.

HMS Blake had been sent with “Captain T. P. Walker and a crew, to relieve the crew on HMS Royal Arthur” in Australia, so this may be the ship.

Granddad earned the rank of Able Seaman on 12th October 1918, and was sent ashore on demob on 6th March 1919, age 27. Throughout his service, his character is listed as “VG”, and his ability as “Sat” (satisfactory).

In one of the photographs, Granddad’s hat band shows the name London, though this ship name is not listed in his service record. There have been many ships named London over the centuries, and one such was built in 1899, a Formidable-class battleship. Her service in World War One included participation in the Dardanelles Campaign in March 1915, after which she remained in the Mediterranean supporting the Italian Navy until October 1916.

After her return to the United Kingdom, she was inactive until converted into a minelayer in early 1918. According to Wikipedia, her main armament had to be removed to accommodate the minelaying equipment. She then served until the end of the War with the Grand Fleet’s 1st Minelaying Squadron.

It seems strange that this ship does not appear in Granddad’s service record.

When clearing some items out of my mother’s loft many years ago, we came across a walnut veneered writing slope which contained various items, including two Navy hat bands (Vivid and Walker), a fragment of black (or navy) fabric together with a piece of chain (possibly nickel), a small piece of flattened brass tube, a small cut square of metal, and a newspaper cutting of the torpedoing of HMS Barham on 25th November 1941, all shown here.

I have tried to surmise where the little oddments of fabric, chain, metal and tube might be from and what they are. Perhaps they were mementos? I suspect that the chain is a piece of watch chain, but I am uncertain as to what the flattened tube was. The fabric is perhaps a piece of uniform, and the small metal square is perhaps a piece of the ship.

But my greatest treasures of all are, of course, the memories I hold of my Granddad, although they are of him as an old man, and not as he is shown in the pictures we have of him as a hopeful young man in love with my grandmother.

Captions:

  • P1 Henry Marshall Sales studio portrait in uniform before embarking on HMS Barham.
  • P2 The crew ratings on HMS Barham. Henry Marshall Sales leaning against the gun front left, indicated by pencilled cross. This is a postcard photograph, written on the back to my grandmother when my grandparents were courting on 11 September 1917.
  • P3 The crew ratings on HMS Barham. Henry Marshall Sales indicated by cross back right. Undated.
  • P4 The crew ratings and on the left two petty officers on HMS Barham. Henry Marshall Sales centre second row marked by cross. Undated.
  • P5 The Starboard Watch on HMS Barham.
  • P6 Officers and mascot on HMS Barham. No names are known. However, some of the ranks are: ?, Captain, Rear Admiral, ?, and Lieutenant.
  • P7 Boy (cabin boy?) and RNR Lieutenant (names unknown) on HMS Barham.
  • P8 Henry Marshall Sales studio portrait for HMS London (no service record for this ship).
  • P9 Items kept by Henry Marshall Sales that probably came from HMS Barham after she was torpedoed. Top, possibly watch chain; left, piece of flattened brass tube; centre, cut metal square, possibly a piece of the ship; bottom, fragment of fabric, possibly of a sailor’s uniform.
  • P10 Royal Navy hat bands for HMS Vivid and HMS Walker.
  • P11 Newspaper cutting reporting the destruction of HMS Barham on 25th November 1941.