PRINCE OF WALES SEA TRAINING SCHOOL
A fascinating account of Dennis
(Alan) Taylor's time at Ingham. This chapter, from his autobiography, has
reproduced with his kind permission. Please do not copy it without seeking
At the age of 15 I was I suppose, judged by todayís
precocious generation, ignorant of the most basic facts of life. We never
received sex education at school and my parents were remarkably reticent
about the activities of the birds and the bees. I believe I was expected
to educate myself which I did in a very bungling fashion.
Before I left home my father did, however, give me one line of his
perceived wisdom. "Don't drink whisky, always wear your hat and beware of
the black pox."
The bit about whisky was very sound and I stuck to this particular piece
of advice for at least the next eight months. The hat had to do with the
strange notion that tropical sunlight was harmful to the white race and
even on my first ship the captain would fine any member of the crew who he
found on deck without head gear. In my father's day men wore spine pads
and huge pith helmets and it was only during and after the war that we
discarded the headgear and started to work bare chested in the sun.
As with many things in medical science this foible came the full circle
and, by the nineties, we are again told to cover up and avoid solar
I found the reference to black pox very cryptic and it was only later that
I encountered the popular misconception that the virulence and severity of
venereal disease varied in direct proportion to the darkness of the donors
skin. Some of my future shipmates who contracted the pox from blonde
ladies in the back streets of Hull would certainly not agree.
I had been sent a list of kit which I was to take to the sea school and so
my gear included stout shoes, thick socks, underwear including 'Long
Johns' and a clasp knife complete with a short marlinespike.
There was an old sailor's superstition that a baby's caul was a good luck
charm and a sure protection against drowning. My mother wasn't supposed to
be superstitious but, just in case, she found me one and I kept the dried
sac in my bible for many years. I am not superstitious but I did survive
several hours in the water about ten months later and I never became one
of the 45,000 Merchant Seamen who lost their lives in the war.
It so happened that the son of a Wath butcher called Cresswell had also
secured a place at the school and so we travelled down together. We
started our journey from Mexborough railway station and all the trains
were packed solid with service men. We changed stations at Doncaster,
Peterborough and Norwich and when we finally arrived at the small town of
Stalham in Norfolk we were met by Commander Gilbert Heathcote RN (Retired)
who was the commanding officer of the Prince of Wales Sea Training Hostel
The commander was a short middle aged man with bushy black eyebrows and
the testy manner of a quarterdeck martinet. He drove a small Morris car
and he was slightly crippled and walked with the assistance of a heavy
malacca cane. After retiring from the Navy he had served as a district
commissioner in West and East Africa.
The commanderís lady acted as matron and she was, by contrast, a quiet
demure women who supervised the staff table with quiet efficiency and she
always had time to listen to the problems of adolescent boys.
Recently evacuated from the Commercial Road in the East end of London the
sea school was managed and financed by the British Sailors Society.
The society also managed a nautical college which had remained, despite
the bombing, near the London docks. The new site for the boy's school was
Ingham Old Hall which was located in large grounds in the village of
Ingham, Norfolk. The original hall had been built in the 1350s but it had
been extended in Elizabethan times and improved over the intervening
It was a large brick built manor house whose ivy covered walls had a
mosaic effect created by flint stones and pebbles which are characteristic
of so many old Norfolk churches.
There were two main floors but all the space under the eaves had been
utilised as attic accommodation. There were many sets of chimneys which
towered above the gable ends and these must have been hell for the chimney
sweep's boys in a bygone age. One of these chimneys served the large oak
panelled library which we cadets were allowed to use. The library had a
huge medieval fireplace and two of us could sit inside the chimney breast
on either side of an open log fire. The library also had a concealed door
which gave access to the upper levels via a tight spiral staircase.
The hall had extensive grounds and down one side there was a courtyard and
out-buildings and to the rear there was a large vegetable garden. A
beautiful ornamental garden occupied the third side of the building and a
winding gravel drive terminated at the front entrance hall. From the front
of the house a well trimmed lawn merged into lightly wooded parkland which
extended for half a mile to the graveyard of Ingham church.
About two hundred yards from the main building and concealed by tall trees
there were two large timber buildings. One had been built as a racquet
court but now, on the old spectator's gallery, there was a well equipped
replica of a ship's wheelhouse. It was here that we practised steering,
compass work and bridge commands.
The other building contained a shooting gallery and it had been
commandeered by the local Home Guard for training and in early '41 they
were on red alert for the expected German invasion.
The staff of the school consisted of Commander Heathcote and his wife. The
seamanship instructors were Mr Painter, Mr Belsey and Mr (Johny) Elgar.
The first two were ex-Royal Navy CPOs and the other was an ex-Merchant
Navy officer. There was an ex-army PT instructor, a victualling officer, a
house-keeper and two female cooks.
Once every week we were visited by an old man called Whistler who was a
great comedian and a very ruthless barber. Whistler was well known as a
poacher and he reputedly, in some past age, had been the best shot with a
rifle in the British army.
The new intake to the school were ten in number and we were all met by the
Commander and ferried the three miles to school in his small car. Most of
us arrived in the evening and we brought the total number of cadets up to
We were allocated a locker in a changing room, issued with sheets and
blankets, given a light supper and then shown to a two tier bunk in one of
the four dormitories. Early next morning, after PT and breakfast, the new
intake were issued with gear and this included a number one 'Fore and Aft'
uniform with cap and ribbon. There were two pair of strong white ducks,
blue cotton jumpers for everyday wear, a woollen jersey with the school
name emblazoned on the chest, sea boots and long thick stockings and a
stiff black oilskin and 'Sou'wester'.
On this first full day we were instructed in the art of making beds - few
of us had done it before - and the correct way to wear the uniform.
The cap was worn well forward with the bow of the ribbon over the ear and
the 'A' in Wales in line with the nose. Needless to say, once away from
the school we would wear the cap on the back of the head like old hands
and some boys even obtained a spare hat band and picked out all the
letters except 'Prince of Wales' which at that time was the name of
Britain's newest battleship.
We were taught how to tie a bow in the cap band; how to press the bell
bottoms with seven, inside out, lateral creases; and how to polish shoes
so that even the insteps shone.
We were obliged to learn a new vocabulary and we would be jeered by the
old hands - those with about four weeks service - if ever we used the
wrong expression. Floors became decks, ceilings were deck heads, walls
were bulk heads and the toilets were simply 'The Heads'.
There was a rigid timetable for meals and instruction and for a short
period each day we were responsible for a specific domestic task and this
task was changed every week. These duties included the outside party which
worked in the grounds, a staff boy who waited on the officers table, cabin
boys who cleaned the officer's cabins and took them early morning tea, and
the general cleaning of dormitories and stairways. There were two full
weeks during the six month course when we were excused lessons and this
was so that we could take our turn in the galley and then for the second
week we would act as ship's messenger.
After PT and before breakfast, the normal domestic chores occupied only a
few minutes and my mother would have been amazed if she could have seen
me, cheerfully, sweeping up leaves, scrubbing tables and polishing floors.
During my week of duty as ship's messenger I had to dress in No.1 uniform
and sit at a desk in the entrance hall where I would answer the door and
telephone and strike the bell every half hour according to ship's time. I
was provided with a bike and was available for errands into Stalham or the
surrounding farms where I was often sent to collect eggs.
I had one minor mishap during this week when I had a head on collision
with an old lady cyclist in Stalham. I think it was my fault but she was
more concerned with my welfare and she took me into her house for a
soothing cup of tea. The last duty of the day for the ship's messenger was
to remove the distributor from the commander's car so as to disable it in
case the German army invaded during the night.
The galley was the most unpopular job with mountains of potatoes to peel
and great stacks of washing up. It was, however, a warm and well fed job
and I can remember very early mornings when we would tuck into thick
slices of well buttered toast and marmalade while the rest of the ship's
company were freezing at drill. Two motherly local ladies acted as cooks
and the good wholesome food which they sent to the mess deck was abundant.
Even so we were young growing lads and always hungry and war-time rations
were just beginning to bite. We could always top up on the unlimited
supply of potatoes and bread and on Saturday afternoons we would ride into
North Walsham for a cheap meal at the WVS service's canteen.
Sunday church was not compulsory but there were very few dissenters. On
Sunday morning we would muster in the courtyard and after the command,
'Roman Catholics fall out', the rest of us would march in staggered
formation to the parish church in Stalham. This formation was a wise
precaution because it prevented bunching and lone enemy aircraft had a
nasty habit of machine gunning columns of marching men.
The cadets were organised into two watches - port and starboard - and a
boy petty officer was appointed for each watch. A senior petty officer -
similar to a head prefect - was also appointed and the two juniors
reported to him. We mustered several times a day and the two junior POs
would report their watch to the senior. He would then step forward to
confront the officer of the day.
"Ship's company all correct Sir!", he would shout "Aye Aye" would come the
seemingly bored reply.
But he wasn't bored and he wasn't sleepy and his eagle eye would check
everything from the angle of a cap, the reef bow on the silk and the shine
on the instep of a shoe.
The senior PO had accepted responsibility for the condition of all the
cadets and if he missed a fault, then the duty officer would give him a
tongue lashing on the spot. Each day the duty PO would be responsible for
mustering all hands for meals, classes or other duties and for this
purpose they were all issued with a bosun's pipe.
POs were chosen for their character and their ability in the seamanship
and signalling classes. Mr Painter, the second in command, had one final
test and for this he would send the prospective PO to the church yard at
the far end of the grounds. The boy would be told to pipe 'All Hands!' and
if Mr Painter, standing on the steps of the hall, could hear him clearly
then the promotion was confirmed.
In the absence of officers POs were expected to maintain discipline and in
the case of infringements they had the power to inflict minor punishments.
Such punishments included a hour standing to attention in the courtyard,
the scrubbing of the mess deck tables or, in more serious cases, a report
to the duty officer.
In addition to the stick there was also the carrot because POs were
responsible for the allocation of school bicycles - about twenty in number
- and these could be used on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. These were the
only times we were allowed to leave the grounds unsupervised.
Classes occupied nearly eight hours a day but we had free time in the
evening and one afternoon each week was devoted to 'Make and Mend' -a navy
tradition- when we were expected to darn socks, sew on buttons and fix
patches. If we had no repair work then we could spend the time making
fancy knots, such as 'Turks Heads', or plaiting complicated sennits.
We washed our own clothes and we were given dire warnings about the
scourge of 'Dhobi Itch' and told to rinse in plenty of clean water. We
changed our ducks twice a week and the hard scrubbing soon changed the
coarse, yellowish canvass into a pliable brilliant white. The shade of the
white ducks or the fading of the blue navy collar would distinguish the
new boys from the old hands.
One of our first classes was on sail-making where, with palm and needle
and sailcloth, we made our own kit bags ready for use at sea. Mine was
still in use 10 years later and we were taught how to pack them with the
sea-boots stuffed solid with socks and small items placed in the bottom
centre and everything else packed around to make a compact mass.
We knew about the 'Thief Knot' which would warn us if the bag had been
tampered with. We had instruction on ropes, knots, splices, blocks and
tackles and ship's rigging. We were taught to box the compass by quarter
points and learned all about the bridge equipment and steering commands.
We practised morse and semaphore and learned all the flags and procedures
of the International Code of Signals. Proficiency in signalling was
rewarded with an arm badge of crossed flags.
The school had several boats on the broads and these were guarded by an
ancient ex-mariner who had served in the 19th century and still wore his
old uniform straw hat, which bore on its ribbon the name of a long
redundant battleship. Ben, for that was his name, lived on the bank of the
broad in a shanty which had a roof made out of an upturned longboat.
We practised sailing and rowing with these boats and we were taught about
boat construction, davits, the launching of boats and lifeboat drill.
We received instruction about the log line and deep sea soundings and, on
one of the small broad side docks, we were made to practice heaving the
lead. The leadsman would stand on a platform overhanging the water and get
a good swing on the ten pound weight before letting go. With each forward
swing he would brace himself against an apron which was secured at hip
height in front of him. Occasionally the instructor, feeling playful,
would secure the apron with a slippery hitch and then, as the leadsman
transferred his weight forward, the hitch would part. When the soaked
trainee was hauled out of the dock he would have learned the sailor's most
important rule of self preservation.
'One hand for the company but one hand for yourself'. If your life depends
on a knot, lashing or shackle then tie it or check it yourself. The six
months that I spent at Ingham Hall were among the happiest of my life but
in May 1941, about halfway through my training we had a disaster and a
It had been a warm uneventful day but just after dusk we had seen flares
and heard the sound of distant gunfire and the drone of a solitary plane.
It was near mid-night and we were all sleeping soundly in the four
dormitories when someone, I know not who, raised the alarm. We awoke to
running feet and screams of fire but there were no visible flames and not
a whiff of smoke.
I dressed quickly before joining the muster in the courtyard but some boys
turned up in pyjamas and these were not very practical for the job in
The commander seemed to be the only officer present at the muster and-
dressed in slippers, pyjamas and a long trailing dressing gown- he hobbled
around waving his cane exhorting us not to panic. We were all excited but
none were scared and after counting heads the commander called for
volunteers to salvage bedding and the civilian clothes which were stored
in a box room.
There were still no other officers present and they may have been on home
guard duty or more likely in the darkened tap room of the 'Swan' public
house, next to the church in Ingham.
About half of us were detailed off as fire fighters and the seat of the
fire was Mr Painter's cabin in the officers attic accommodation. The
second in command's cabin was off a landing two flights up and the
shortest way to it was via the spiral stairway in the library.
There was a side door to the library and about twenty yards from this door
there was an old well which was occasionally used by the gardener. From
the well we formed a bucket chain, through the library and up the spiral
staircase to the attic landing.
I was one of about five boys on the landing and by this time Mr Painter's
room was well alight and impossible to enter. The buckets of water were
coming fast but all we could do was toss them through the open door and
hope for the best.
Surprisingly there was very little smoke and this was because the fire had
broken through into the roof space and the draught coming up the stairs
was carrying the smoke and flames away from us. We were inexperienced 15
and 16 year olds but in the circumstances I think we did a good job.
Water spillage on the landing had seeped through to the electric wiring
and the only time I became scared was when I started to get shocks every
time I picked up an iron bucket. Eventually someone switched off the power
and we continued to fight the fire by the reflected light of the flames.
Mr Painter was the local home guard commander and we could hear the snap,
crackle and pop as the small arms ammunition which he kept in his room
exploded. A few days earlier the home guard had been practising with live
grenades and we were thankful that he hadn't stored a box of these under
his bed. The time that we spent on the landing was probably only ten
minutes but at the time it seemed much longer.
There was no sign of fire or damage above our heads but suddenly the whole
of the ceiling collapsed and showered us with sparks, plaster and burning
lathes. I escaped most of the falling debris but three of the boys acted
as though they were being attacked by a swarm of bees as they brushed
sparks from their backs and out of their hair. One cadet who was only
wearing his pyjama jacket had more serious burns and was later sent off to
As the ceiling collapsed I, and another boy, retreated backwards into the
room directly opposite Mr Painters. The visibility was now reduced by
darkness, dust and smoke and standing in the doorway of this room we could
not see the bed or any of the cabin furniture. We were in this refuge for
only a few seconds and then we heard a voice of authority ordering us to
abandon the landing.
There were now more officers on the scene and as we mustered on the lawn
we could see flames leaping from the roof and attic windows. Within ten
minutes the fire brigade arrived and we were ordered to take the salvaged
bedding and kip down in the racquet court.
Next morning, shortly after dawn, a friend and I rose early and made our
way over to the gutted building. The fire engine had left and all was
quiet and the officers were having an early breakfast on the mess deck
which was to the rear of the hall and undamaged. We entered the shell of
the building and standing in what had been the quarter deck and the
commanders office we could look up and see a clear blue sky. The second
floor, including the commander's living quarters, had been destroyed and
so had the officers cabins on the floor above.
The solid oak roof beams were blackened but intact but the intermediate
floors had gone. The remnants of these floors stuck out like little
shelves and on them we could see the occasional wisp of smoke and the
damaged remains of personal possessions.
There were shoes and chamber pots, scorched uniforms, a long brass
telescope, a sextant and a ceremonial naval sword.We were joined by the
civilian catering officer and as we stood talking a globule of molten lead
fell from above and it solidified as it struck my companions ear. He
peeled off the silvery splash and we were all surprised that there was no
burn or pain.
The officer then gave us the bad news. Mr Belsey's carbonised corpse had
been found during the small hours in the tangle of collapsed debris.
We were horrified because we realised that for a few seconds on the
previous night we had sheltered in Mr Belsey's cabin and in all
probability he had been lying unconscious in his bed.
The cause of the fire remained a mystery and none of the cadets were
called to the inquest and none of us attended the burial service of the
officer. There was speculation about a stray German flare but this was
very unlikely and a more plausible explanation could be found in the pipe
smoking habits of the officers or in the coal burning open grates of their
There was a lot of work to be done on the day following the fire and we
were employed in transferring bunks and converting the racquet court into
one large dormitory. The commander and his officers had to be found new
quarters and then we were lined up in the drive to form a guard of honour
as Mr Belsey's casket was driven away.
Mr. Belsey, as I remember him, was tall and thin and he walked with a
slight stoop. He and Mr. Painter were good friends but whereas the Chief
was taciturn and hid his feelings Mr Belsey was an amiable man who had a
fund of witty nautical sayings with which he amused the boys during class.
ĎA sailor without a knife is like a ship without a rudder) Useless! he
would say and he would repeat it every time he caught a boy without a
knife on his belt.
Off duty the two friends could be seen pacing the lawn and spinning yarns
with their pipes a smoking like the funnels of an old coal burning
For a few days before the fire they had both been morose and glum because
the tide of war was on the ebb. The unsinkable pride of the British Navy
had been sunk, Empire forces were withdrawing in Greece, Crete and North
Africa and, a few miles across the North Sea, the enemy may still be
preparing to invade the beaches of East Anglia. About half of the hall had
escaped damage but the authorities were very concerned to save a very rare
fireplace and a unique fresco in one of the less damaged rooms.
The canteen stock of cigarettes and chocolate was water damaged but the
commander ordered its salvage for insurance purposes. Some of us sampled
the tainted goods and I myself bit into a Mars bar but spat it out in
disgust. The old commander was under a great strain and the sight of
discarded wrappers from his precious canteen stock was the straw that
broke the camel's back.
He acted as though the petty pilfering of useless stock was grand larceny
and with a scream of rage he ordered the P.O. to pipe 'All Hands!'. We
mustered on the lawn and one could sense the gathering storm as he stood
before us, face red, teeth clenched and the knuckles of his hand gleaming
white as he gripped his thick stick. Finally he exploded in a paroxysm of
rage and his diatribe was vitriolic and long. He said that none of us
would ever drown at sea because we were all born to hang. He was ready to
do the job right there and then and he suggested a stout hawser strung
between two nearby trees where he could hang us all by the neck like a
string of offending crows.
Metaphorically the poor old commander had lost his ship and that was the
reason for his bad tempered outburst. The tension eased and he calmed down
and our misdemeanour was never again mentioned.
For several weeks after the fire we continued to use the racquet court as
a dormitory and within the first few nights we started to suffer from a
plague of rats. The rats may have been attracted by the pilfered canteen
stock but on several nights we awoke to the screams of a boy as a rat
invaded his bed space.
Several boys were bitten as they slept and the bite was usually on the
lobe of the ear. The amount of blood which soaked their pillows was out of
all proportion to the minute wounds inflicted. Eventually the local
rat-catcher - a very knowledgeable person - was brought in and he used his
ferrets to drive the rats out of their nests under the floor boards.
Johny Elgar, ex-merchant navy officer, was a strange quiet man. He was
short and thin and in his large uniform cap he looked very much like the
photographs I had seen of Dr Goebells who was one of the top Nazi leaders.
He was a strict disciplinarian and a good teacher of seamanship and he
probably knew more about navigation than any of the other officers.
There was no doubt that he was kinky but he could be kind and caring and
one of his duties was to supervise the sick bay. As a new boy, before the
fire, he had me under his care when I had a bout of flu but he treated me
very well and I had nothing to complain of.
I later worked for just one week as his cabin boy and this was considered
a plum job and the hardest work that I had to do was to take his early
morning tea, clean his shoes and empty his chamber pot.
One Thursday morning about two weeks after the fire we were gathered round
the notice board to read the work roster for the following week. Eight
boys, including all three petty officers, were leaving for sea duty and I
was on the list as cabin boy to Johny Elgar.
Later in the day we were drilling and rehearsing for a parade which was
part of the War Weapons Week in North Walsham. As it happened we never did
take part in the parade because there was a dispute between our commander
and the old retired general who was parade marshal. The commander claimed
that we wore the uniform and represented the senior service and should,
therefore, lead the parade.
The general said we were only cadets - and Merchant Navy at that - and
should, therefore, follow the Army and Airforce. The commander stuck to
his guns and withdrew us from the show.
During the rehearsal I personally messed up some complicated manoeuvre and
threw the whole ship's company into confusion. The drill instructor, an
ex-army sergeant, chastised me in his usual gentle tone and I thought that
that was the end of the matter.
Later in the evening I was instructed to report to Mr Elgar in a room next
to the sick bay. I entered the room, wondering what I had done wrong, and
I stood rigidly to attention trying to look as innocent as possible.
Johny Elgar's heels always clicked as he walked and now he clicked across
the room and stood before me.
"Have you seen your job on the duty roster for next week?" he said.
"Yes sir! I'm down as your cabin boy." I replied.
"No you are not," he said "I've changed it and put you with the outside
party. Do you know why?"
"No sir." I said, slightly disappointed at losing such a cushy number.
"Its more convenient," he snarled, "Because I've recommended you for
promotion to petty officer."
With these words he brought his right hand from behind his back in a full
blooded swing to the side of my head.
The force of his open palm knocked me off balance but, in spite of my
ringing ears and the multi-coloured stars, I quickly regained a rigid
stance. "And boys," he continued very slowly, "Who I recommend for promotion do
not make fools of themselves on the parade ground. Get out!"
This was my initiation as a petty officer and couple of days later I was
taken off the outside party and presented with a bosun's pipe and a red
badge of crossed anchors. Because all three previous POs left on the same
sea draft I jumped a rank and became senior PO or head boy of the school.
On promotion to petty officer some boys, including myself, were inclined
to get cocky and demonstrate their new found authority by handing out
unnecessary punishments or by withholding well deserved privileges. The
officers were quick to spot arrogance in a new PO and would bring the
offender down to earth with a bump.
We ate our meals off bare wooden tables on the mess deck with about 12
boys to each table, sitting on backless wooden benches. The PO sat at the
head of the table and after each meal everyone had to sit to attention
until he dismissed them. One cadet would collect a bucket, soap and brush
and give the table a good scrub. The boys took turns but it was within the
POs prerogative to give this task to any boy as a punishment.
One day after the evening meal all the boys were sitting to attention,
impatient and eager to enjoy their free-time, and I was lolling on the
back legs of my chair making them sweat it out. At this point Mr Painter,
who was duty officer, stalked onto the mess deck like a lumbering
His hands were behind his back and his fingers were flicking the tail of
his uniform jacket. His head was bowed and, as he puffed on his short
stubby pipe, his eyes cast about like a probing radar. He walked behind me
and as he passed his foot lashed out and kicked out the legs of my
teetering chair. I hit the deck and my long suffering table companions
found it hard to suppress their laughter. Mr Painter inspected my spotless
table and found it dirty and he ordered me to stay and supervise the
scrubbing until it could pass his rigorous examination. The exercise had
to be repeated several times and it consumed most of my free-time for that
I think that this small punishment and the assault on my dignity taught me
a worthwhile lesson. I did reasonably well in my capacity as senior petty
officer and after leaving the Commander gave me a good report but he did
say that as a PO my 'Quiet reserved manner proved rather a handicap'.
I managed to avoid trouble except for one occasion when I managed to get
the entire ship's company lost in the wilds of Norfolk. A new PT
instructor had just been engaged and one morning he ordered me to take the
boys for a one hour cross-country run. Rural Norfolk is crisscrossed by
many narrow lanes and footpaths and I set out into unfamiliar territory.
After about 45 minutes I realised that we were lost and, because of the
expected German invasion, every sign post and village name had been
removed. It was very early morning and people were very thin on the ground
and the few we did meet were suspicious and deliberately unhelpful.
They had been warned not give information to the enemy and it was well
known that the Nazis dressed their infiltrators in all kinds of weird
disguises. The local's attitude bordered on paranoia and for all they knew
we could be an invading detachment of Hitler Youth disguised as British
school boys. Eventually, thirty minutes late for breakfast, we entered
familiar territory and we were met by a fuming ex-sergeant Taylor who was
our new instructor.
I suppose I had caused him a lot of embarrassment by losing his class and
he vented his anger on me in front of the assembled school.
We spent a fair proportion of our time on sport and physical fitness and
the sports included football, cricket, cross-country running, swimming and
In boxing we had an inter-watch competition and I was selected, with
others, to fight for the starboard watch. The officers were keen trainers
and their main purpose seemed to be to instil a spirit of fierce
aggression in the combatants.
This was difficult in my case because my opponent, a lad called Turtle,
was also one of my best friends. Boxing is one of the most physically
exhausting sports and after my match of three rounds I felt bruised and
battered and my arms hung numbly by my side. I won my match but I felt a
little ashamed when I looked at Turtle whose white vest was saturated in
blood from his busted nose. My good friend and opponent had only minor
injuries and he received a terrific boost to his ego when he was awarded
the prize as best loser.
I loved playing cricket at the school and one game produced my greatest
triumph and then, on another occasion, a great embarrassment. The triumph
came when for the first and only time in my life I bowled a hat trick and
my pleasure was only slightly diminished when I knocked out the wicket
keepers front teeth in the process.
The cause of the embarrassment started on a hot Saturday afternoon when we
played a local grammar school in Stalham. We lost the match but between
the innings we all sat down in the shade of a large tree enjoying a cup of
tea and a bun.
A group of town girls sat down to join us and we all flirted outrageously
and one of the girls and I even promised to exchange letters. As we
chatted in a group this same girl looked across and softly complimented me
on my 'Bonny blue eyes'. Of course everyone roared with laughter and I
felt very sheepish but worse was yet to come.
A few days later we were all assembled for early morning muster. The two
watch petty officers had reported to me and we were all standing at ease
waiting for the duty officer.
"Ship's company Shun!" I shouted as Mr Painter with his usual slouch hove
into view round the corner of the building. I ran forward to meet the
officer. "Ships company all correct Sir." I reported smartly. I doubled
back to my position facing the two watches and after a brief inspection he
had me stand the boys easy. He then brought forth the morning's packet of
mail and as he read each name a boy would step forward to receive his
He reached the last letter and looked at it quizzically and the smirk on
his face could almost have passed for a smile. "This letter has no name on
it." he said in a very loud voice. "So who is the sailor with the bonny
blue eyes?" "Taylor Sir!" roared the assembled school and they all rolled
about with uncontrollable guffaws which even Mr Painter's presence could
My face turned the colour of a port navigation light and I prayed for an
instant earthquake so that the ground would open and swallow me up. The
letter, as it turned out, was of no great consequence and my mortification
soon passed and anyway, as we used to say, 'Worse things happen at sea'.
At the end of August 1941 my training was complete and it was time for me
to leave for sea service. The evening before I left my friend and I
wandered into the galley to say goodbye to the cook. She was a motherly
Norfolk lady who had always been very kind to us and she shed a little
tear as we said goodbye.
It so happened that Mr Painter and one of his cronies were sitting at the
galley table where they had been gossiping with the cook as she provided
them with a little light supper.
We were obliged to include the two instructors in our farewell and Mr
Painter shook my hand with a firm grip. "Now piss off," he said with a wry
smile, "before you break my bleeding heart."
Of course Mr Painter had retired from the Navy and was unfit for active
service and in the past year he had suffered some bitter blows.
In May he had lost his best friend in the disastrous fire at the hall and
in the same month HMS Hood had been lost with all hands and many of his
old shipmates were among the dead.
He had seen many drafts from the school pass out and go to sea and eight
of his boys had already been killed and the war at sea had yet to reach
After the fire the input of students was cut right back but in my last few
weeks I remember that there were two. One was a quiet boy of 15 called
Titchener and he was given a place at my table. We were all rookies but we
looked after the new boy and tried to guide him through the minefield of
seagoing etiquette and custom. Titchener had a passion for vinegar and he
would sprinkle it on everything including the occasional currant bun.
Inevitably he acquired the nickname of 'Vinegar Boy'.
Except for two, who I met briefly during the war, I lost touch with all my
friends from the sea school and for more than fifty years I didn't even
realise that there was a war memorial.
In 1994 I received a photograph of this memorial and going through the
list of 85 old boys who gave their lives at sea I noticed the name :
TITCHENER Albert C. LOWESTOFT