Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 42 - 1869 - A Stormy Volunteer Review

[... back to menu for this book]




New Law Courts - Volunteer Review - Storm at Dover - Wreck of H.M.S. Ferret - Captain H. M. Carré - After many years - Whisky.

OF 1869 I shall say but little, for I travelled to India in May and thereafter knew London no more for five years. I remember going to see the competitive drawings for the new Law Courts, which were exhibited in a temporary wooden building somewhere on the then vacant site. The successful design was not the one I should have personally selected, but as then presented it was better than the buildings actually erected would lead one to suppose. Alterations were forced on Mr. Street, and the effect ultimately produced was far from universally admired. Law Courts suggest controversy, and these buildings revelled in it, even as the phoenix in her funeral flames, from initiation to completion and a good deal later. The British workman commenced the edifice and then struck for wages far in excess of those on which the tender had been based. Belgian and other foreign masons and craftsmen were brought over by the contractors-resourcefulness which only caused them to be denounced for taking bread and butter out of Englishmen's mouths. The Courts, when finished, were somewhat better than those they supplanted at Westminster Hall, although not to an extent commensurate with the riper knowledge at command. They were long, too, in getting finished, for in 1880 I went to Westminster to attend the hearing of the famous case which decided that the telephone was a telegraph, thereby placing telephone development at the mercy of the Post Office and causing the United Kingdom to lag behind most other countries in adopting the new facility.
    [-325-] In those days the Volunteers had an annual review, usually supplemented by a sham fight, on Easter Monday. it was generally held somewhere on the coast, Brighton being an especially favoured place, and was a very popular institution indeed with the Force, so many thousands attending as to tax severely the resources of the railway conveying them. I was familiar with the arrangements made by the Brighton Railway, founded on years of experience, and bad often watched the special trains running at fifteen minutes' intervals, down in the morning, up in the evening.
    In 1869, however, the review was held at Dover and the operations were to include giving battle to a force supposed to have been landed from, and supported by, an enemy fleet. Unhappily the Volunteers' weather luck, ordinarily good, failed on this occasion, wind and storm, snow and hail, being the order of the day, occasioning "disappointment on land and disaster on sea." An imposing naval force assembled, which was joined on the Saturday, March 27th, by two companion wooden training brigs from Portland, Ferret and Marten. These, obeying the Admiral's order, moored to buoys to the east of the Admiralty Pier. Ferret, which had been built at Plymouth in 1840, was of 358 tons, and carried eight guns with a crew of twenty-five plus eighty-six boys in training. She was commanded by Captain Hilary M. Carré, an officer of ripe experience in both sailers and steamers. Early on Easter Monday morning the wind went round to E.N.E. and blew with great fury. Breeze, one of the Calais mail-boats, came in at 3.30 am. with one paddle-box stove in amongst other damage, and moored to westward of the pier. At 4.20 Ferret broke loose from her buoy, and, in spite of prompt letting go of the anchors, drifted on to the pier, where she beat heavily and commenced to break up. The officers, tars and lads behaved bravely, and, aided by the crew of the Breeze, were eventually all rescued, some mounting the rigging and dropping from the yards as the ship heeled over the pier, the captain being the last to leave. Later, when a tug managed to make fast, the officers returned on board, but Ferret could not be shifted and had to be left to her fate. By 10 a.m. the hull [-326-] had been beaten to matchwood, the masts tumbled out and the guns sunk. Still the storm raged and it was proposed to abandon the review, but other counsels prevailed and it was carried through. Marten held to her buoy, but came in collision with the paddle frigate Medusa, moored close at hand, losing her bowsprit and other gear. Of course the captain of the Ferret was court-martialled, the plan of burking inquiry into Royal Navy disasters, which became fashionable during the Great War, not having then been dreamt of; but, as it was proved that the swivel of the Admiralty buoy had parted and the anchors failed to hold, Captain Carré was not only acquitted but complimented, it being considered that he had acted with great promptitude and had done the best possible under the very trying circumstances.
    This stirring incident impressed me very much, and I never forgot the tragedy of H.M.S. Ferret. Twenty-nine years afterwards I was in Guernsey constructing the telephone system for the States there, when one of the Committee in charge of the undertaking and who was also H.M. s Receiver-General for the island, invited me to take a drive with him to inspect some supposed obstacles. Knowing he was an old naval officer, we talked of ships. He told me interesting anecdotes of his experiences in the Chinese War, in Saghalien and elsewhere. Presently the curious case of the Highland Railway Company's steamer Ferret, which had been seized by pirates and taken all the way from Inverness to Australia, was mentioned, and, after discussing it, I asked him if he remembered another Ferret-H.M.'s training brig that had been lost in 1869 at the Dover Volunteer Review? "I ought to," he replied, smiling, "for I was her commander." And so it proved. It was Captain Carré, now retired, but active still in the service of his native island. We became firm friends, and so continued until September 1920, when it was my sad privilege to be one of the mourners at his funeral. A noteworthy man indeed; of whom, when the question was one of right or justice, it might truthfully be said, as of John Knox, "He feared not the face of man."
    [-327-] Another prominent incident of 1869 was the amusing and long-drawn-out case of Madame Rachael, the Jewish lady expert in good looks, who made other women, "beautiful for ever" while quickly and drastically decreasing the attractiveness of their banking accounts.
    This and the previous year were also marked by several Trade Union outrages at Sheffield and elsewhere, which may be mentioned because the familiar word then used to designate such evil deeds- "rattening" - has quite disappeared in favour of the French sabotage.
Before taking leave of the London of the 1860s I may perhaps allude to a glaring want of consonance in one particular between the then and the now. Whisky was as yet unrecognised as an every-day beverage. Gin and rum were the spirituous consolations of the vulgar; brandy that of the mighty. "Pegs" in India owed their vitality to cognac - Martell and Hennessy. No doubt "Scotch" and "Irish" were procurable at most bars and taverns, but only as a sort of speciality. The triumph of Scotia's most potent contribution to modern civilisation was yet to be. There was no expression in posters on every hoarding or full-pages in every journal of Scotland's virile blends. Cockneys were not reminded by flash signs at every street turning of Caledonia's prize boon to humanity. How flattering it must be to the Scotsman of 1924 to wander about London after night-fall and note the electric (and magnetic) writings on the wall-and tantalising, too, should he not possess a sufficiency of currency to sample them withal.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924