Albert Edward Gee - Autobiography Part 3
Commander C.B.Fry was very much in the news at that time for he was dubbed the "World all round athlete". He played cricket for England, had played Rugby and Football, he held the World Long Jump and was a scholar. In due course the results came out and my mother had a long buff envelope. When she opened it and read that I had been successful in obtaining a place at the Training Ship Mercury she was not very pleased, especially as she had to pay out for underclothes, boots 2 pairs, uniforms, towels and everything necessary, even down to nail clippers; but, she agreed that if that was what I wanted, I could go.
Cecil Wilkinson also obtained a place on the "Mercury" and as there were only two places for the whole of the County our Headmaster was rather elated and put a notice in the local newspaper of our success. Cecil was working at a chemists and I got a job to help pay for the outfit.
We left to join the "Mercury" on the 6th September 1916. Cecil was not very happy on the day and if I had known what was in store for me I might not have been so cheerful myself.
We were met a Netley Station by a boy in blue sailors uniform who had been given a haircut like a convict (short all over). He took us on the 2 or 3 mile walk to the "Mercury" which turned out to be a lot of buildings. A large house of brick with a very large veranda, off the veranda were stores, sewing rooms and laundry etc. There was also a quite large brick built church, very well equipped with oak pews, a pipe organ choir stalls Alter Screen pulpit lectern and lots of banners. There was a resident chaplain- very high church - trumpets, incense, the lot, especially on special church days. There was another large place referred to as the "Building". Again it was brick built, had a stage (quite big) fixed seats for about 400 a balcony and on the outside wall a crucifix to which we were supposed to turn our heads and bow on each occasion that we passed. We had frequent visiting celebrities such as M.P.'s noted sportsmen etc., and Dame Clara Butt often came and sang the song that she was most famous for "Land of hope and Glory"; we were often in trouble if it was observed that we were not showing proper appreciation of her efforts.
A power house supplied electricity and steam for the laundry etc. The other buildings were of wood and comprised a Dining hall, Instructors mess, galley, a so-called Gymnasium which was a large hut with fixed wooden frames all round with a raised part at one end and one side (Concrete). Another large hut was used as a seamanship training room; it was rather well equipped. The recreation field was on the top of a hill, with a pavilion at one end. The pavilion was equipped with wall bars and vaulting horses etc. and was used by the Physical Training Instructor as a Gymnasium.
In the winter it was murder on the field, there was a shed in which was kept two 7 pounder field guns and limbers and when the wind blew cold we used to shelter in the lee of the shed, but were usually chased away before very long. On the Recreation field there was also a loader practise affair. It was a replica of a 6" gun breech and we used to practise loading with practise shells; a shell weighed 100 lbs. The field guns we used to drill with - doing the same evolutionís as the field guns do at Olympia except that we did not cross the chasm. There was also a mast with cross trees and rigging each side. We used to get chased up one side and down the other until a boy fell down and compound fractured his arm, then it was discontinued. If we needed to go to the lavatory while on the field there was a boy in a sort of sentry hut who gave out what were called "tickets" a piece of wood with a number on it 1 to 8, possession of a ticket entitled a boy to run down to a dip which was screened by trees and use the lavatory which was numbered on his ticket. The lavatories consisted of four dinghies which had been cut in half athwart ships and stood upright on the sawn part, a piece of wood was nailed as the seat and under the seat was a bucket. The buckets were emptied each morning by two boatmen who were employed in the boat shed to repair boats or to do other jobs; father and son Bevis.
Adjacent to the boathouse, was a boiler house that was supposed to supply hot water to the bathroom. The boiler did not always function satisfactorily and the water through the sprays was often too hot or too cold, very rarely the right temperature. A boy used to land early in the morning and attend to the boiler. The remaining buildings were School classrooms (3) and a band room. There were also stables and a pigsty. The buildings were all scattered over quite a large piece of land, with roads and paths separated by hedges and lawns. A small stream ran through the estate, with a rustic bridge, part of which had been built up into a cage for a Raven which used to scream whenever passed. The whole establishment was completed by a pier from which we embarked at night time to go to the PRESIDENT . The President was a copper bottomed wooden ship of three decks; Orlop ,Gun and upper. The upper deck had been roofed in and from a distance looked like a Noah's Ark. The Orlop deck, that is the lower one, had been rigged up with wires about 7 ft apart and on the wires we hung our hammocks. The hammocks were just a canvas sheet, perhaps 6 ft by 4 ft with holes at each end through which we secured the piece of rope by nettles and a ring. We had no mattress, one blanket in the summer and two in the winter.
At the end of the pier was a hut with shelves and before we embarked in the cutter at night we had to remove our boots and socks and leave them in the hut, retrieving them when we landed in the morning.
Cecil and I arrived at last and were taken to the Veranda at one end of which was a pigeon hole, a hatch opened and through the hole I could see the face and neck of a rather grim looking gray headed person who asked our escort if all was well, then told him that he could go. Down went the hatch and Cecil asked our escort who it was. The escort boy seemed a bit frightened but whispered that it was Mrs. Fry. After a while she came out to us and we had a shock, she was very tall and big built, had short Grey hair, was wearing a blue and white check blouse (faded)) a brown skirt that looked as though it was made from a blanket, an apron of some course material, a belt round her waist from which was suspended by hooks a note book, pencil, spectacles, keys, a piece of thin rope done up like a hangmanís knot.
Her voice was very deep and her manner very brusque as she asked which of us was Gee and which was Wilkinson. She then took us into the sewing room and told us to undress. Each of us , in turn, were taken to the Laundry where the engineer from the powerhouse ran clippers all over our heads then made us have a bath in a slipper bath filled with hot water with strong disinfectant in it. When dry, still naked, back to the sewing room, where we dressed in the underclothes that we had brought with us, these had now got numbers sewn on them in place of the name tab that my mother had laboriously sewn on. A Naval type flannel with blue band round the neck line. There were two sewing ladies who altered our blue serge uniforms to make them fit, allowing quite a bit so that they could be altered as we grew. We were each given a piece of black Alpaca material that we folded and used as a Naval man uses his black silk. We were each given a white Lanyard to which was attached a piece of brass stamped with our number, and a small key that fitted the door of a small locker.
There was about two hundred of these lockers at one end of the sewing room and we were told to put our personal possessions that we did not need into our lockers, that we should be able to visit on getting permission from Mrs. Fry. The only thing I remember putting in mine was a large tube of tooth paste and a nail brush - I was told that these things were supplied. I never saw either item again and never visited my locker.
The number on the brass tally was 1537 and from then on I almost forgot my name for I was always refereed to as 537. The last three figures on Cecil's tally was 536. We were then given a lecture by Mrs. Fry and sent to the dining hall for tea.
There were about 150 boys in the school and they were split up into Port Watch and Starboard Band each part was again split into eight sections. I was part of the eight section of the Port Watch and Cecil was in the Starboard Band. In the dining room each section had a table and two forms so that there were roughly ten to a table. At the end of the dining room was the Galley, from which one boy , called the cook, and had the job for a week, used to draw the food for the whole table and he also had to share it out. The food was awful, sometimes really bad. We had porridge every day for breakfast, and often mice dirtís could be seen in it if it was not too well cooked; if it was well cooked it looked Grey and I always thought the greyness was because the dirtís had dissolved.
The Bandmaster was in charge of the dining hall and he used to come round and ask why we had not eaten our "Porge" that was how he pronounced it. He was a Scot; he used to say "The boys in the trenches would be glad to eat it" but, remembering the song of that time about Bully Beef and Plum and Apple Jam, we were not very impressed. We also had two slices each of bread and an inch and a half by half inch piece of margarine. The presiding genius in the Galley was an old lady named Mrs. Prichard and she was helped by two boys during the forenoon, and again perhaps for two hours during the evening. It was a sought after job for there were "perks" and during the summer the galley boys were entitled to a swim during the afternoon.
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