Memoirs of Lord Charles Beresford – Ninepin Jack


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Lord Charles Beresford (1846-1919) was a British Admiral and Member of Parliament, he was a hero in battle and a champion of the Navy in Parliament.  Below is another installment in our series of his memoirs – taken from ‘The Memoirs of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford’ written by himself and published in 1914.

This excerpt covers his time onboard HMS Marlborough (The Ship of Happiest Memory) as a naval cadet from the age of 14.

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Memoirs of Lord Charles Beresford – Ninepin Jack

“When our admiral” (Sir William Martin) “was captain of the Prince Regent, which was considered the smartest ship in the Navy, he brought all her times of all her drills to the grand old Marlborough along with him; and you know, my lord, that he allowed us six months to get our good old ship in trim before we drilled along with the Fleet; but we started to drill along with the Fleet after three months, and were able to beat them all.”

“Now, my lord,” continues Mr. Lewis, “I come to one of the smartest bits of our drill. When we were sailing in the Bay of Naples under all possible sail, our captain wanted to let the world see what a smart ship he had and what a smart lot of men was under him. From the order ‘Shift topsails and courses make all possible sail again’ ” – which really means that the masts were stripped of sails and again all sails were hoisted –  “Admiral’s time 13 minutes, our time 9 minutes 30 seconds. All went without a hitch, within 400 yards of our anchorage.”

Mr. Lewis proceeds to recount a very daring act of his own. “We were sending down upper yards and topgallant mast one evening, and it was my duty to make fast the lizard. But I could only make fast one hitch, so I slid down the mast rope and it turned me right over, but I managed to catch the lizard and hold on to it, and so saved the mast from falling on the hundred men that were in the gangway. No doubt if it had fallen on them it would have killed a good many …”

What happened was that Lewis, in the tearing speed of the evolution, not having time properly to secure the head of the mast as it was coming down, held the fastening in place while clinging to the mast rope and so came hurtling down with the mast. He adds that he “felt very proud” – and well he might – when the captain “told the admiral on Sunday that I was the smartest man aloft that he had ever seen during his time in the Service.” He had an even narrower escape. “I was at the yard-arm when we had just crossed” (hoisted into place). “I was pulling down the royal sheet and someone had let it go on deck, and I fell backwards off the yard head-foremost. I had my arm through the strop of the jewel block, and it held me, and dropped me in the topmast rigging, and some of my topmates caught me.” Mr. Lewis himself was one of the smartest and quickest men aloft I have ever seen during the whole of my career. The men of other ships used to watch him going aloft. “My best time,” he writes; and I can confirm his statement; “from ‘way aloft’ to the topgallant yard-arm was 13 seconds, which was never beaten.” It was equalled, however, by Ninepin Jones on the foretopgallant yard.

The topgallant and royal yard men started from the maintop, inside of the topmast rigging, at the order “‘way aloft.” The height to be run from the top, inside of the topmast rigging, to the topgallant yard-arm was 64 feet. From the deck to the maintop was 67 feet. At one time, the upper-yard men used to start from the deck at the word “away aloft”; but the strain of going aloft so high and at so great a speed injured their hearts and lungs, so that they ascended first to the top, and there awaited the order “away aloft”.

The orders were therefore altered. They were: first, “midshipmen aloft,” when the midshipmen went aloft to the tops; second, “upper-yard men aloft,” when the upperyard men went aloft to the tops, and one midshipman went from the top to the masthead.

At the evening or morning evolution of sending down or up topgallant masts and topgallant and royal yards, only the upper-yard men received the order, “upper-yard men in the tops.” The next order was “away aloft,” the upperyard men going to the masthead.

At general drill, requiring lower- and topsail-yard men aloft, as well as upper-yard men, the orders were: first, “midshipmen aloft”; then “upper-yard men in the tops”; then, “away aloft,” when the lower- and topsail-yard men went aloft to the topsail and lower yards, and the upper-yard men went aloft to the masthead.

These arrangements applied of course only to drill. In the event of a squall or an emergency, the men went straight from deck to the topgallant and royal yards.

Mr. Lewis’s performance was a marvel. Writing to me fifty years afterwards, he says:; “I think, my lord, it would take me a little longer than 13 seconds now to get to the maintopgallant yard-arm and run in again without holding on to anything, which I have done many hundreds of times.”

The men would constantly run thus along the yards – upon which the jackstay is secured, to which again the sail is bent, so that the footing is uneven – while the ship was rolling. Sometimes they would fall, catching the yard, and so save themselves.

The- foretopgallant-yard man, Jones, was as smart as Lewis, though he never beat Lewis’s record time. These two men were always six to ten ratlines ahead of the other yard men, smart men as these were. One day Jones lost a toe aloft. It was cut clean off by the fid of the foretopgallant mast. But Jones continued his work as though nothing had happened, until the drill was ended, when he hopped down to the sick bay. He was as quick as ever after the accident; and the sailors called him Ninepin Jack. 

Excerpt from The Memoirs of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford written by himself and published in 1914.


Further Reading and External Links

Lord Charles Beresford on Wikipedia

Lord Charles Beresford on The Dreadnought Project