Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 2. Runaway, 1910

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Ryde, Isle of Wight, and the view across the Solent to Portsmouth, undated

Ryde, Isle of Wight, and the view across the Solent to Portsmouth, undated

Bertie Sivell ran away to sea in May 1910, aged fifteen.

(Yes, yes, a cliché, they say – just as Shakespeare is full of hackneyed phrases.) Bertie Sivell, fresh out of grammar school, ran away to sea three weeks after his fifteenth birthday, amid the national uproar after a more famous Bertie, the sailor king Edward VII, died unexpectedly in his bed in Buckingham Palace, aged 68.

Up and down the British Isles church bells tolled, flags flew half-mast and black armbands were worn in an outpouring of loyalist fervour that sounds quaintly old fashioned, until you remember the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 and the tide of flowers in the Mall.

In 1910, half a million people filed past the king’s body lying in state in Westminster Hall, London, for three days as the crowned heads of Europe steamed towards the British Isles. On the afternoon of the funeral, eight kings and an emperor, close relatives all, followed the coffin to the royal vault in Windsor – behind his late majesty’s favourite fox terrier, Caesar, and his best horse, to the reported annoyance of his imperial nephew, the Kaiser.

In Ryde, just along the coast from the royal naval college at Osborne House, the tradesmen outdid themselves. There were black shutters and black bordered portraits of the king in every shop window, and S. Fowler & Co. (linen drapers) of Union Street eclipsed everyone by shrouding their whole establishment in black and white. On the day of the funeral, a procession of civic big-wigs wound solemnly through the streets on foot, wearing their chains of office and bearing before them the town mace wrapped in black crape. Every shop was shut, public buildings were closed, restaurants and inns stopped serving, and even the ferries to the mainland ran a respectful Sunday service, although it was a Saturday. The steep thoroughfares were packed.

Over the heads of the crowd that thronged the High Street outside the windows of G. Sivell, ironmonger, the grey sprawl of Portsmouth was visible across the restless Solent. Only the previous summer some hundred and fifty of the navy’s biggest, newest dreadnoughts and submarines had crammed the straits at Spithead – decked with a thousand lights for the visiting czar and czarina of Russia. And it was only eight years since Ryde had enjoyed a grandstand view of the coronation fleet review for Edward himself.

Small wonder that Bertie Sivell and a school chum kicked up their heels and ran off to join the Royal Navy. School was out. They were fifteen and all grown up.

But the navy would not have them. The day before the king died the Osborne college cadets, gentlemen’s sons to a man, had chugged across to the island on the school’s steam pinnace for the start of the new term, caps straight and brass buttons gleaming, but Bertie and his friend were of humbler stock. The navy “kicked them out,” he told his girl, years later, and they were sent home without getting their feet wet, back to the futures mapped out for them by their families. Bertie, the bright only child of a carriage builder, was to be apprenticed to the coach works of Cotton, Palmer & Sivell, of Albert Place, Ryde.

Or so his father thought.

A sailor’s life – 3. Cotton, Palmer & Sivell, Ryde 1910

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  1. […] fo’c'sle of a sailing ship. Monkbarns came later. In September 1910, five months after the naval recruitment office “kicked him out“, as he put it, he took the ferry to Southampton and signed on with the Royal Mail Steam […]


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