Ancestry UK

John Cecil Austin at Portishead Nautical School 1927-1929.

In 1927, having spent the previous 10 years at the Steyning Union children's home at Shoreham in Sussex, fourteen-year-old John Cecil Austin was sent to the National Nautical School at Portishead, near Bristol. John died in 2005 but his memories of his time at Portishead (and a little time afterwards), kindly contributed by his daughter Pat Mathewson, provide a revealing insight into life in the establishment.

The Nautical School was built to replace the old wooden training ship Formidable, an ex-naval battleship. The building was designed to look like the Dartmouth Naval College. H.M.S. Formidable was the tally we wore on our hat ribbons.

The boys in the School were divided into four divisions as they would have been on a ship in the Royal Navy: fo'c'sle (No. 1 division)' foretop, (No. 2 division), maintop (No. 3 division), and quarterdeck (No. 4 division). I was put in the first. There were about 40 of us in each division and the eldest and best behaved would be promoted to leading Seaman, Petty Officer and Chief Petty Officer (C.P.O.) and he was allowed to punish any lad who stepped out of line. For instance, every boy would take a shower before turning in under the Supervising Officer or Divisional Officer (usually these were ex-warrant officers from the Royal Navy and extremely strict). They would see us all turned in and hand over to the senior boy. He would then wait for his chance to use his rank in whatever way suited him. It would start with a couple of the boys having a giggle. The Petty Officer would then shout at the top of his voice, "All out to foot of beds." We would all pile out as directed. The next bit would be, "All windows horizontal". (Windows were the type which swung open on the pull of a rope and at the position called for would give maximum draught). The last order would be, "Boxes above heads," and this was the worst bit of all as each of us had a Kit Box (Ditty?) at the foot of the bed and this meant lifting the box and holding it above the head for as long as the Petty Officer wished, usually 3 to 4 minutes — but to me it seemed more like an hour. I should add that the Senior Officer would turn a blind eye if the Petty Officer decided to give anyone a hiding. The C.P.O. in Division 1 was Bunter Jones. At 17 years of age he was nearly 6ft tall and big with it.

National Nautical School, Portishead — built to resemble the Naval College at Dartmouth.

Smoking was strictly forbidden, although most of the older boys indulged. There were plenty of places where you could have a 'drag' as it was called, the main one being the 'Dunnock' (lavatory). The punishment for being caught was to be taken to the paint locker which was approximately 6ft x 5ft, by an officer who would have a large bowl of fags of mixed types. He would light a paraffin stove, close the door, light a cigarette himself and then tell the victim to start on the fags in the bowl and to keep on smoking until he was told to stop. With the smell of the paint (mostly lead and very strong smelling) and the stove and the smoke it was usually only a matter of time before the lad would begin to feel ill, but he was not permitted to stop until he was really sick. The Officer would then take him to the sick bay where he would be given a large spoonful of Castor Oil. As you can imagine, very few boys went down twice. For my part, the only time I ever smoked was when old Charlie Robinson, who was the oldest officer in the school and had been on sailing ships, gave me an old pipe to throw away. There was some tobacco left in the thing and I was daft enough to try to smoke it. I was as sick as a dog within a very short time. Still feeling pretty bad I was spotted by an officer who asked what the matter was. I told him I did not feel well and he sent me to the Matron who put me to bed, where I stayed for two days and enjoyed every minute of it! The Matron, Mrs. Bradley, was married to one of the Senior Officers and was very motherly. They had no children of their own and she enjoyed fussing over the boys when she got the chance.

We used to be allowed a little pocket money drawn from the school bank (which was run by the Chaplain) every Saturday when we were permitted to go into Portishead. Most times we would only get as far as the Tuck Shop at the bottom of Chimney Pot Hill, just outside the school area. By the time we had cleared the shop there was not much money left to go to town with.

The ages of the boys ranged from 14 to 18, although there were only a few who stayed to 18 and some of those were lads who had left the school and returned when something had gone amiss at the job they had been given. Most boys went into a seafaring job. As I said, the place was run as near as possible as a ship, the head being a retired R.N.R. Captain. We had a Chief Officer, Master at Arms, Chaplain and an Engineer Officer who looked after the power and engines to drive the generators. We also had school teachers.

The main mast of the old H.M.S. Formidable was erected quite intact just in front of the terrace. It was over 100 feet high and I once climbed right to the very top to reeve the flag halyards. The last 15 feet or so had to be shinned up as there were no stays. Practically everyone in the school watched and there was a loud cheer as I pulled down the return end of the halyard. I was the first boy to get to the top for 5 years and I was told that bets were placed by the Officers as to my success or failure. My reward was to be taken to see a soccer match. I saw Bristol City and it was my first visit to a professional football match. We had a slap up meal afterwards and it was my first taste of steak and chips. Strangely, it was the Master at Arms, Tubby Gaze who took me on the outing.

We had some fine boats and would have long rowing sessions in the Bristol Channel. In those days there was pretty heavy traffic of shipping to and from Bristol, Portishead and Avonmouth. A complete log of all these ships was kept by one of the boys doing Quartermaster duty. This job was carried out by boys who had been at the school for a year at least. They would also have to ring the ship's bell (also from the old Formidable) and escort any visitors to the Chief Officer. A telescope was placed on the Bridge to identify the ship's name etc.

There were some pretty rough boys at the school and it was usually, like most schools, the youngsters who fell victim to the bullies.

All meals were served on tables of about 17 boys, the odd one being the C.P.O. or the Senior of the table. He would be at the head and would say Grace when commanded by the Officer in Charge. It would go like this: "Say Grace". "For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful." The rest of us saying "Amen" at the end before making a lightning grab at the two piles of bread on the table. New boys would often end up with nothing unless the boy in charge had a sense of fairness.

We had a fine gymnasium, a brass band and a good choir. We also had excellent boxing and football teams. We played against other local schools.

The food was far better than in the orphanage and I remember tasting butter for the first time — this was a Sunday treat. We also had cake.

One of the best officers was a man named Britton, who was a teacher. He would take us for long walks along the "Mariner's Path" which went for miles along the Channel. I learned a lot about nature from him — names of flowers, birds, etc. He was the one who arranged nearly all the entertainment, such as sing-songs and dancing. Officers' wives and children came to the dances and some women. He also would take us to a place known as Primrose Valley which was as beautiful as the name implied. I learned long after I left that he eventually became the head and was allowed to retire into one of the Officer's married quarters. When I visited the school many years later he was still living there but was away on holiday and it was very disappointing not to be able to see him.

The Night Watch Officer was Tommy Cotten. He was an ex-Naval Warrant Officer and one of the real old sea dogs. He was very much afraid of the Captain's old sheep dog, "Rags". Some of the boys would deliberately stay awake some nights to wait for old Tommy to go through the dormitory and call out "Get him Rags", whereupon the old chap would increase his pace almost to a trot. I never saw him stop to query who had called out or to see if the dog was actually there. Apparently his fear of the dog prevented him from doing so.

Then there was Tubby Gaze, a man of over 6ft and weighing about 17 to 18 stone. A remarkable thing about Tubby was that he could stand on his hands, looking much like an inverted barrel. His job was mainly looking after the stores and dishing out punishment. He would often take a couple of the boys for an outing to Bristol. He also helped the chaplain with the training of the choir. I was in charge of a chapel cleaning party at one time and had to get all the necessary gear from him. He was obviously suffering from stomach pains when I went to the store. Tubby said that it would probably be the last time I would draw stores from him and it was. He died two days later from peritonitis. He was given a full Naval funeral and the school was noticeably very quiet for a couple of days. He was greatly missed.

Another impressive happening was when the late Duke of Windsor (then the Prince of Wales) opened a new dock at Avonmouth in May 1928. We had to go and act as a Guard of Honour. The opening ceremony was carried out from the bridge of one of Fyffe's Banana Ships, the 'Bayano'. The Prince brought the ship in, breaking a ribbon stretched across the dock. He then inspected us boys who were lined up along the quay, having the odd word here and there but, unfortunately, not with me. We were then taken aboard the ship and given a smashing meal.

The British Film Institute have a piece of film of this event and so I went to have a look. It's only two minutes' long and, unfortunately, did not show a close up of the cadets. However, I was then able to find an article from a Bristol newspaper with photographs.

The Prince of Wales inspects Portishead boys at Avonmouth, 1928.

The official method of punishment was only dished out for things like running away (bunking) stealing or kicking an officer. The offender would just be put on Captain's report. The officer would report the boy's offence. The Captain would then prescribe the number of lashes the lad was to be given on the backside. There was a special room set aside for cuts, as we used to call them. This adequately described the state of the lad's back side after punishment. The 'victim' would be given a pair of white duck shorts to put on. He would then be tied to a sort of box horse. The Chief Office would then read out the punishment. The Chaplain would then take over and call "Commence Punishment." The Officer delivering the strokes would walk back about 8 to 9 paces and shout "Number One", walk up to the boy, lay on the cane and walk back again. This continued until the full amount of lashes had been given or until the Chaplain called "End" or "Finish Punishment", as he sometimes did if he thought the boy had had enough. Punishment of this kind was only given for stealing or insolence to an officer or doing a bunk (running away.) The maximum number of lashes given were 15. I was never punished in this way. Much interest was taken and we would lean over the terrace railings and listen for the expected yells.

At holiday times those of us who had homes or somewhere to go were allowed to leave the school. On the one occasion I went back to the orphanage at Christmas, 1928, I was allowed to stay in the Lodge where there were two other boys visiting and two girls. We got up to some fine old larks and enjoyed a freedom which none of us had ever previously known existed. We were able to come and go as we pleased and the food the Lodge keeper's wife cooked for us was delicious.

In May 1929, when I was nearly 16 years old, I was told to report to the Captain who said that I had been found a berth on a yacht, the Philomel, docked at Exmouth, as a steward boy and that I was to collect my train ticket from him the following morning. Although I had been expecting to leave at some time thereabouts, the suddenness of the order shocked me a bit and I was quite disappointed at not being given a job on a deep sea vessel as most of the boys did but I was given no say in the matter. The Royal Navy wouldn't take me as I was only 4ft 10ins at that time.

Anyway, I went round and said as many goodbyes as I could and after collecting my rail ticket and travelling instructions I left feeling very forlorn. It was only the second time that I had had to travel any distance on my own. When I got to St. David's Station, Exeter, I had to take another train to Central Station which was in Queen Street and near the city centre. In my anxiety to do the right thing I asked for a ticket for "Princess Street", much to the amusement of some of the people nearby. I must have looked a bit odd as I was dressed in a tweed suit which was a bit too big for me and I was carrying a kit bag which was nearly as big as me! (We all had to make our own kit bags before leaving the school — it was our last lesson in sail making.)

As I got off the train at Exmouth a bloke in his late twenties, who was dressed in yachtsman's uniform, met me. He had the letters R.F.Y.C. (Royal Fowey Yacht Club) and the name 'Philomel' underneath on his jersey. All yacht's crews wore jerseys with the yacht club and name of the vessel across the chest. He took me down to the docks where the 'Philomel' was berthed. She looked very small and I felt quite disappointed about it. She was in fact 32 tons, 60 feet long and ketch rigged. Mr. Jones, the man who met me, was the Mate. There was one other crew man and I was to be the third.

The 'Philomel' was owned by two elderly gentlemen, both in their late sixties. Herriott was an alcoholic and Griffiths was a cantankerous old bugger who gave me a hell of a bad time. Herriott was not too bad as long as he was boozed up. The yacht was in the final stages of fitting out for the summer and we were to start our season a week later. Jones was a shifty so and so and we had several scraps, or I should say, I had several hidings from him until I found that I could do better with my feet than with my hands. In a fo'c'sle 10ft x 6ft there was not a lot of room and it was as hard for him to avoid my kicks as it was for me to dodge his fists. He was nearly 6ft tall and I was only 4ft 10ins at that time. He used to bring women aboard and treat them to the owner's port and gin etc. This often resulted in the two old men accusing each other of sly boozing and it also put Jones in my power because every time he got nasty with me I threatened to report him for stealing the drink. He then asked me to join him the next time he had a couple of young girls aboard, but I declined, firstly because I was afraid of trying to drink spirits and secondly I was much too shy to meet the girls. I did not want to make a fool of myself.

The cooking was all done with a Primus oven and since I did most of it, it was my pigeon to light and look after the wretched thing. There were two Primus stoves which fitted side by side into the oven which had a water jacket around it. I do not know which I hated most, Jones or the Primuses!

The other crew member was not so bad but he was afraid of Jones and kept out of the way. In fact, he left when we got to Dartmouth. No-one else was signed on to replace him.

The accommodation on the 'Philomel' was quite good except for our pokey little fo'c'sle and when the bosses were away I had a fairly easy time. Jones used to spend as much time as he could in the pubs.

From the very first trip I was sea-sick and I did not always have to be at sea; once I was sick for a week in Torquay Harbour! Admittedly there was a South West Gale blowing most of the time but I think the 'Philomel' was exceptionally narrow in the beam and once I got away from her I was never quite as sick again.

Old Captain Griffiths once dismasted her under the bowsprit of a large schooner on the River Dart. I remember running to help him to put the wheel hard over and he told me to "Bugger off". There were dozens of yachts in the Dart at the time and if he had not hit the schooner he would probably have hit some other vessel.

When we were in harbour the day would start with me having to turn out and make tea for everyone — usually at 7.0.p.m. but by the time I got one of the Primus Stoves to light it would usually be 7.30.a.m. and that would be the first reason for me t be bawled at. If early tea was late, so was breakfast, which of course led to another bawling. At first I used to take it lying down but eventually, like the proverbial worm, I turned and I did a bit of shouting myself — whereupon Mr. Jones would clout me around the head. After a few weeks of this nonsense they all gave up and left me to get on as best I could and even the Primus behaved better — or so it seemed.

On Sunday Jones would do the cooking and I have to admit he was pretty good. (Of course, HE never had any trouble with the Primus!) He used to make very nice apple puddings. They were another first for me and so was the Devonshire clotted cream we had with it.

I always did the washing up of course. The cutlery was all solid Victorian silver. You can imagine my alarm when one afternoon I dropped a silver tea spoon into a dock at Exmouth. It happened when I was throwing a bowl of washing up water over the side. Luckily I saw where it went in and quickly stripped to my pants, dived over the side and to my intense relief, recovered it. Old man Herriott opened the saloon door as I made my way back to the fo'c'sle. He said, "I shouldn't go swimming in the dock if I were you John. Everyone craps in it." I did not have the nerve to tell him why I had been in the water.

The 'Philomel' belonged to the Royal Fowey Yacht Club so we spent most of our time at Fowey. It was while we were there in the Summer of 1929 that Marconi was there with his big steam yacht, so was Lady Astor and Sir Gerald du Maurier, at that time a very prominent actor. His daughter Daphne, the novelist, was a young woman then and they all used to come aboard as guests sometimes. I think du Maurier's boat was a converted Brixham Fishing smack called "The Gypsy", as far as I can remember.

On one particular night there was a fresh South Westerly wind. At about 8.0.p.m. the two old men decided that they wanted to go ashore. We only had a 6ft. Dinghy for getting to and from the shore. We dropped them off at the Club Pier, moored the dinghy and were told to be at the Club at 10.30.p.m. to get back to the yacht.

During the next two hours the wind got up and by the time we reported to the Club there was a real South Westerly Gale blowing. Jones suggested to the bosses that we all stay ashore for the night but they were both pissed as coots and beyond listening to any sensible advice. From then on the whole thing turned into a nightmare; as soon as we cleared the Pier we were carried along by the wind and waves, pitching tossing about like a cork and bashing into all kinds of boats. It was as black as pitch and pouring with rain. How we got to the Philomel I shall never know. She had dragged her anchor about 300 yards and was in danger of fouling another yacht. We eventually got the two old men aboard and then set about putting out extra anchor, another very tricky task which left Jones and me soaked to the skin and just about all in. We had to take turns keeping anchor watch until daylight. We had not been very long back aboard when a distress rocket was seen. The Fowey lifeboat went out in what must have been one of the worst gales for years. Sadly, they could do nothing for the yacht which was in trouble. She was "The Islander" with seven people on board. I believe one of the crew actually jumped on to the rocks with a rope but was washed back into the sea. The "Islander" broke up in a very short time and all seven people lost their lives. I think two of them were women. We saw a couple of bodies brought in three days after the wrecking. It was a very sad sight.

In 1929 the country was in one of its depressions and sea jobs were hard to get. In a most every river we travelled in we would see up to 30 ships laid up. I believe that things were so bad that Ships Officers were taking jobs as Able Seamen.

At the end of the Summer we put into Exmouth for the winter and moved into a bungalow which I think the old men rented. This was the first time in my life that I lived in an ordinary house — apart from when I was a baby which, of course, I don't remember.

During the winter the yacht was de-masted and stripped of all sails and deck fittings, all crockery and cutlery etc. Paint and varnish surfaces were then prepared for re-painting in the spring.

It was during the fitting out in May 1930 that the break with the 'Philomel' came. Breakfast was about an hour late one morning and old man Griffiths threatened to sack me for the thousandth time. I went to the Fo'c'sle, packed up what little gear I had and asked for my cards. He seemed quite shocked and told me to get on with my work. I said, "Give me my cards. I'm going". He then said he was responsible for me and started pleading with me not to leave. By then I was so fed up with the whole set up I just made my way on deck, picked up my kit bag and left with Griffiths screaming abuse at me.

I wrote to the Nautical School and Mr. Bradley — Assistant Superintendent and his wife came to see me and talk to Griffiths and Herriott. They tried to persuade me to try longer but it was no use. Eighteenth months later whilst unloading in Exmouth docks I saw Herriott and Griffiths and one of them gave me half a crown.

When I left I had about thirty bob (£1.50) in cash and twelve quid in the Post office, so I set about looking for cheap lodgings and eventually found a room at No. 2 Manchester Street, Exmouth. It was a small room right up in the attic. The first thing I noticed was that a bowl and a couple of buckets were placed under appropriate holes in the roof. Mrs. Pike, the old lady, was following my gaze and said that the man was coming to repair the roof in a few days and that I could have the room and breakfast for fifteen bob (75p) a week. I took it and, apart from the roof leaking and the noise of the water dripping into the receptacle, I was quite happy there and old Mrs. Pike really looked after me, even to the extent of trying to cure my constipation by giving me senna pods.

The result of this treatment was rather dramatic as I had had no experience of them before and only just made it to the lavatory in time! I flew down the stairs 3 at a time, dived through the kitchen and into the yard where the lavatory was occupied. There I was, hanging on like grim death and letting the occupant know what was liable to happen if he didn't soon let me in As I said, I just made it! When I returned to the kitchen old Mrs. Pike was laughing her head off. This in itself was something to behold. She was a very large woman — about 17 stone. She only had 2 teeth left, one up and one down, which made her look very funny. Her whole frame shook like a large jelly. She was a good old dear and when I was working at Exmouth a couple of years ago I found that her family still owned the house. (I wonder how often she tried her senna pod treatment on new lodgers just to have a laugh).

For a time I worked on Exmouth Pier on the side-shows and the Ghost Train. During my time on the Pier it was not unusual for some of us to have a swim during our time off duty. Mr. Richardson had a daughter who would some times join us. She was quite a strong swimmer. Without my knowing it, Mr. Richardson had entered my name along with Joan, his daughter, for the annual Star Cross to Exmouth swimming race. It was only a few days before the event that he told me that he had done so. In spite of my protesting that I could not stay the course he insisted that I make the attempt anyhow. There were about 50-60 people gathered at the start with boats allotted to fish anybody out when required. It was not long into the race that young Joan Richardson, aged 13 years, showed her obvious talent as a strong swimmer and pulled away into the lead which she retained all the way across winning by several hundred yards. I gave up less than half way.

From there, at the end of the summer season I took a job on the schooner, the 'Crown of Denmark'. By then I was 17 years old.

© Pat Mathewson