Cochrane the Dauntless – David Cordingly

Lord Thomas Cochrane was the real life basis of two of the most swashbuckling characters in fiction, both C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower (12 book series) and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey (20 book series) take a lot from the actual exploits of this now largely forgotten British naval hero. Amazingly they probably had to tone it down in the fictional versions for some of the actual exploits of Cochrane are so unbelievable that they are beyond what even a fictional hero would attempt. Examples such as the attack of the HMS Speedy against a much larger Spanish vessel where Cochrane reasoned that if he sailed right up alongside the Spanish vessel its guns would fire harmlessly over the top of his own ship whilst he could issue broadside after broadside into its lower decks. As the Spanish sailors abandoned their guns and tried to board the Speedy he sailed away a few yards, then as they went back to their guns he came alongside and started firing again. Eventually the Spanish ship surrendered and was sailed away to a British held port by a portion of the crew of the Speedy. Lord Cochrane was a consummate sailor and during his time on board had learnt a lot of the skills of his men, this ability to muck in if needed alongside leading from the front with boarding parties earned him considerable respect from his crew a lot of whom followed him from ship to ship as he progressed from the tiny Speedy to much larger frigates.

In spite of his seamanship and skill as a coastal raider, both for taking enemy ships and destroying fortifications Cochrane himself never made it higher than Captain in the British navy and this was largely due to his inability to stay silent when faced with any real or perceived affront to his position. He continually annoyed his superior officers, even pressing for the Admiral he was ultimately responsible to during one battle to be court martialed, and also during his years in parliament as MP for Westminster annoyed most of the other parliamentarians with his continual pressing of causes that he had already lost and outspoken speeches condemning his naval commanders. His autobiography, written in his eighties, reopened a lot of the wounds he had dealt in his twenties and thirties and left him even fewer friends amongst the great and the good. Cochrane however always believed he was right and everyone else was wrong.

David Cordingley has produced a splendid book about this complex character using not only Cochrane’s, somewhat biased, autobiography but offsetting this with admiralty reports, letters, ships logs and other evidence such as the diary and correspondence of Captain Marryat who served as a junior officer under Cochrane before becoming famous as a novelist. The book is comprehensive with numerous maps, pictures, cutaway drawings of two of Cochrane’s ships, bibliography, index and most importantly a glossary of naval terms for those of us less familiar with them. At 362 pages, excluding all the extra items detailed previously, Cordingly gave himself space to explore his subject and it is a fascinating read. From rising naval star to disgraced prisoner (after being implicated in a stock market fraud that he probably wasn’t actually involved in but which his superiors used as a convenient way of getting rid of a noisy thorn in their side), to signing up to be admiral of the separatist navy under the Chilean independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins and helping force the Spanish out of South America Cochrane led an exciting life and the book reflects that. Cordingly isn’t shy about documenting Cochrane’s faults as well, worst of which was his impetuous nature which got him into more problems than was necessary.

Amazingly after his success as a South American mercenary captain helping to gain independence for not only Chile but Peru and Brazil as well he arrived back in Britain where his various sins were forgiven and he was promoted to Rear Admiral and eventually died, aged eighty four, as a full Admiral. I heartily recommend this biography of a supreme sailor and complex character who is sadly barely known today despite his influence on writers as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle and Bernard Cornwell. His adventures are as exciting as any fictional character and Cordingly’s descriptions are very well written.

A Tall Ship – ‘Bartimeus’

Originally published in September 1915 by a by then well known author of naval stories I was expecting tales of daring do on the high seas so was quite surprised that with the exception of the first and last stories in this collection the actual war didn’t really impinge on the stories being told. It all starts excitingly enough with the short story ‘Crab-pots’ which begins with the torpedoing of a ship and the unusual revenge that one of the sailors manages to take some time later. This sailor will become part of a recurring group through most of the other nine stories in this collection but this isn’t clear at the start as he gains the nickname Torps by story number two ‘The Drum’ which is also one of the odder tales as it has two parts with no link between them. This story starts with a couple of Cornish fishermen repairing a boat by hammering out an old boiler to make a plate to cover worn out timbers and then jumps to Torps and Margaret (who had nursed him after the sinking of his ship) on a hillside looking out to sea and not really getting anywhere as to a relationship that he clearly wants but she is not sure about.

I don’t want to work my way through all the tales but there is one which just consists of recounting the morning work of a naval captain, doing his paperwork and dealing with requests from the sailors under his command. Another has the ships officers arranging a children’s party on board which has one of the funniest lines in the entire book which takes place between two of the children on the harbour side waiting to be picked up on a small boat in what looked like choppy conditions

“My daddy’s a Captain” continued Cornelius James “and I’m never sick – Are you?”
She nodded her fair head. “Yeth” she lisped sadly.
“P’raps your daddy isn’t a Captain” conceded Cornelius James magnificently.
The maiden shook her head. “My daddy’s an Admiral” was the slightly disconcerting reply.

All in all though the book was remarkably dull and it’s no surprise to see that it and the other works by Bartimeus are long out of print. He was definitely popular in his time though but it’s hard to see why, this is the second book by him in the first 110 Penguin books a feat only matched by Agatha Christie and Andre Maurois (excluding two part books) but none of his other works have ever appeared in Penguin unlike the two other authors so it is clear he was waning in popularity even in the mid 1930’s.

As can be seen from the rear flap of the dust wrapper there are quite a lot of clues as to who the pseudonymous Bartimeus actually was. A little digging finds that the author was born Lewis Anselm da Costa Ricci in 1886; although he anglicised his name to Ritchie by deed pole in 1941. Joining the Royal Navy in 1901 he trained to become a naval officer, however while still young, he contracted Malta Fever (brucellosis); this cost him the sight of one eye and damaged the other. Unable now to pursue a career at sea, he remained in the Navy, initially in the accounting branch, but began writing stories about naval life. He finally left the Navy at the start of the Second World War retiring as captain of the Royal Yacht and became press secretary to King George VI from 1944 to 1947. He took his pen-name from the Bible, ironically hinting at his reason for leaving the career he loved by naming himself after Bartimeus, the blind beggar of Mark 10, 46-52.

The Royal Tour – Harry Price

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The facsimile of the diary kept by Petty Officer Harry Price on board the H.M.S. Ophir during the Royal Tour of 1901 was printed in 1980 by Webb & Bower of Exeter. Harry had died back in 1965 and it was his son Jack Price who showed it to the publisher and which led to the facsimile printing.  Sadly it’s no longer in print but it is readily available on the secondary market for just three or four pounds, which considering how attractive the book is has to be one of the great book buying bargains.

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Harry was a talented artist and had attended Birmingham School of Art before joining the Royal Navy where he rapidly progressed to Petty Officer before joining H.M.S. Ophir just in time for the nine month long world voyage of Prince George and Princess Mary. George held both titles of Duke of Cornwall and Duke of York hence the slightly odd description given and he would later become King George V on the death of his father in 1910.

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The tour was started just two months after the death of Queen Victoria and was probably seen as an opportunity to introduce the younger Royals to the Empire after the end of her sixty three year reign. The diary is in Harry’s handwriting just as he originally wrote it as the voyage was progressing and provides a fascinating view of the trip and the various onshore excursions he managed.

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According to the list at the front of the diary, the route was as follows: Portsmouth, Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said,Suez Canal, Aden, Colombo, Singapore, Albany, Melbourne, Sydney, Hawksbury River, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, Lyttleton, Hobart, Adelaide, Albany, Freemantle, Mauritius, Durban, Simonstown, St Vincent, Quebec, Halifax, St. Johns and then back to Portsmouth.

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I am including pages in sequence as the trip progresses so we have already reached New Zealand where he comments on the weather on the right hand page above. The style is quite chatty and it is clear throughout the book that he is intending this to be a souvenir that he can show to other people rather than a private diary. To this end he records his personal experiences but as though telling the reader about them.

The sketch below was taken up the river, some fifteen miles above Christchurch where as you can see the scenery was most bewitching, but a hard frost setting in as the sun went down made matters a little bit disagreeable, to us, who only a short time ago, were under a scorching tropical sun.

The date at this point was the 27th June so midwinter in New Zealand.

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Returning to Australia Harry produced the very attractive full page picture of the various arms of the Australian states inspired by examples displayed along the banks of the Adelaide River, this time he didn’t get ashore but they did have ‘a visitors day’ where local townspeople could tour the ship and this proved so popular that they were almost overwhelmed by the numbers.

It is quite enough; when I say that quite a number of ladies fainted, and the bluejackets and marines had their handsfull

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I remember this book coming out and the original volume by Harry Price being shown on various TV programmes, the reproduction is extremely good but it can’t have been a particularly sound financial proposition for the publisher as it must have been expensive to print and it soon slipped from the list of titles they had available even though it clearly sold well judging by the number of copies available on abebooks. I bought my copy a few years later second-hand for £4, I know I wanted one at the time but I suspect it was beyond my teenage finances.

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The crossing from Australia to Mauritius was surprisingly good for the Southern Indian Ocean but they hit bad weather crossing from there to South Africa as can be seen in Harry’s picture of their escort ship the St. George. It seems odd that South Africa was on the itinerary at all as the Boer War was in full progress with guerilla activity led by Louis Botha and Jan Christiaan Smuts in both the Eastern and Western Transvaal’s and Cape Colony respectively against the British occupation although by now the fighting really was going against the Boer forces. H.M.S. Ophir was protected by several British warships whilst in South African waters and the Royal couple had a significantly stronger armed guard with them whilst ashore whereas before the soldiers with them were largely ceremonial.

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Harry Price even included an image of one of the POW ships moored off the coast, in total they spent less than two weeks in South Africa and three days of that was moving from Durban to Simonstown which was then (as now for the South African Navy) the main naval dockyard. They then set off for Canada via the Caribbean.

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The strength of the Royal Navy at the time that the book was written can be judged by the fact that even leaving the small Caribbean island of St. Vincent there were four other naval ships available to escort the Ophir as it left the territory two of which are described as over 12,000 tonnes and in excess of 500 feet in length. There then followed a journey of ten days solid cruising up the eastern seaboard of the United States to Canada during which the American President William McKinley was assassinated and it is specifically mentioned that all the Royal Naval ships waiting for them in Quebec were also flying the American stars and stripes at half mast in respect.

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For the visit to Canada the Duke and Duchess disembarked and travelled for over a month via railway all over Canada. The Ophir waited for their return in Halifax, Nova Scotia and during that period was fully repainted and all needed repairs done. Discipline was clearly somewhat more relaxed than when the royal couple were aboard and this provided a break for the crew apart from their duties refurbishing the ship in dry dock.

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The final page I have included features a set of stamps issued in Canada to mark the royal visit and describes preparations to leave Canada and sail back for home. The book is a fascinating and beautiful historical document with almost every page decorated by Harry’s watercolours and one I like to pull off the shelves quite often, not just to read but sometimes just to enjoy the pictures.