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My Many Yesterdays - Number One

The first notable event in my young life was about the year 1853 riding in an old-fashioned stage coach from some town in Hampshire towards Yeovil in Somersetshire.

In the outside seat at the rear was a gentleman with a trumpet who, when nearing a stage, made good use of it, advertising the fact that the coach was coming and all folks must get out of our way. The next scene was of passengers bustling, ostlers taking the travelled horses out and harnessing up fresh ones. At this period practically all travel was per the medium of the coach and I believe the L. S. W. R. was being constructed.

In 1858 while living at Yeovil Donati’s comet appeared and was a magnificent and awe-inspiring object. It seemed to me to reach from a few degrees above the horizon to more than halfway overhead. I have seen Halley’s and others but Donati’s appeared more magnificent than any. The star “Arcturus” seen through the comet’s tail was a most interesting sight, showing how almost inconceivably tenuous the tail was, as the start was bright though covered by a few million miles of tail. Should anyone be interested, this comet is due again in 3808.

There was a chemist’s shop in the high street. The front window was nearly full of pickle bottles containing tape worms and other unsightly reptiles which I used to gaze at with a considerable amount of awe. About the year 1860 the owner figured in a police case and was punished for obtaining money for using magical incantations over somebody’s cow which he persuaded the owner had been bewitched.

I well remember my father one Sunday morning taking my brother and I for a walk into the country for 21/2 miles where we entered a conventicle erected by a certain body of the people who dissented from the doctrines of the established church, and for that reason were prohibited from worshipping within 21/2 miles of the above church. This was a conventicle which would hold perhaps 50 persons. Apparently the building was constructed to serve the towns of Yeovil and Sherbourne, the combined population at that time being approximately 14,000.


In 1862 my family left Yeovil and took up residence in Cowes in the Isle of Wight, then the greatest yachting centre of the world and close to the marine home of the greatest ruler in the world. Here we had great opportunities of seeing famous people amongst whom were, Earl Cardigan, leader of the celebrated Balaklava charge, Mr. G. R. Stephenson, nephew of the great George Stephenson who succeeded to his uncle’s large ironmasters business on the Tyne. He had an enormous income and owned several yachts, one a large steamship, the Northumbria of, I should guess 700 or 800 tons, a schooner yacht the “Tyne” of about 150 tons and a smaller one the cutter the St Lawrence. Some of the owners of large yachts were nominated a few times for membership of “The Royal Yacht Squadron” but if in trade were blackballed by this most exclusive club. I believe that finally most were accepted. All the seamen on Mr Stephenson’s yacht were musical and organised into a good military band with a professional teacher and conductor. This band used to give open air concerts on the W. Cowes Esplanade band stand. Both the Esplanade and the band stand were gifts of Mr Stephenson.


One Sunday morning my father took my brother and I to the churchyard of Whippingham Church were the Queen went to worship. Some German notabilities were staying at Osborne at that time, and just before the service ended a side door opened and a blackcoated procession filed out. First the old German Emporer (he was not Emporer of Germany then) his wife, Prince Frederick Charles and his wife (our Princess Royal) and two or three smaller princelings, one of whom must have been the present ex-Kaiser. Last of all came our Queen. As a boy I felt rather sold. They all looked so very human and ordinary. In church the Queen’s pew was so placed that she could see the minister, but the congregation (a good many of whom attended to see the Queen) could see very little of her. Besides, she and her friends always left just before the closing of the service.

About 1866 Garibaldi paid a visit to W. Cowes to be the guest of Sir Chas. Seely M. P., who lived at Freshwater. Several hundreds of workpeople were let off to see him and there was great excitement. He must have been tired out with bowing and shaking hands. On the wharf his horses were taken out, the working men seized the shafts and hauled the carriage and party for about a mile to just past our house where I can still see him with his red blouse, loose necktie and beard, standing up and bowing to the cheering crowd.


On Christmas Eve 1866 a notable event happened. Three or four families including our own were having Christmas festivities at the fine home of Mr. John White, a well-known ship builder of that time. A private American yacht race was on just then from the United States of America to Cowes in which the yachting world was keenly interested. While we were all having a good time about 7:30, in came Mr. White with three American gentlemen: “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you Mr. James Gordon Bennett, Mr. Jerome and Mr. Fiske,” he said. “They have just arrived from New York in the winning yacht Henrietta.”

Great sports they must have been. Mr. Bennett was proprietor of the “New York Herald” newspaper. In 1870 Mr. Bennett financed Stanley to hunt up Livingstone in South Africe – a most graceful act to Britain. He also supplied the funds for Stanley’s journey across Africa via the Congo i1874-78.

To return – In the morning the three competing yachts were safely anchored in Cowes roads. The American gentlemen told us that Fleetwing, being the fastest boat, should have won, but we afterwards learnt, six men of her crew were swept overboard in a storm,a nd heaving to immediately for a few hours she lost the race. The men were never recovered.

After the introduction the grown ups retired from the party and enjoyed a wonderful and most interesting conversation together, presumably as clever folk do now, setting the worlds affairs in order. It has never been right since.


Another event was the testing of Captain Cowper Coles’s invention of revolving gun turrets. We were invoted to see the fun by Mr. John White who had chartered a steamship and made up a party. The ironclad to be tested was, if my memory is correct, the Royal Sovereign and was moored broadside on to another ironclad. The two boats were say half a mile or so apart, and the Royal Sovereign was blazed away at by the other, the guns being trained on the turrets (no blank cartridges) as we could see the destruction caused. At that time Great Britain was probably the only power which could afford such destructive experiments on her own ships.

The Solent was alive with yachts and steamers watching the event and one of the yacjht owners complained in the local newspaper that her sails were pierced by the firing. Very coarse nuggety gunpowder was used and it seemed that some of the nuggets were not burnt. An ironclad The Captain was designed with a very low freeboard. She turned bottom up in a gale off Cape Finisterre in 1870 when nearly all on board including Captain Coles were drowned.

Another nautical event was the arrival at Cowes of a raft the Nonpareil which had crossed the Atlantic from the United States of America. This raft was made of 3 india rubber tubes pointed at both ends each tube about 20 inches in diameter and 16 feet long. There was an open framework of timber on top and in the centre there was a small tent about 6 feet by 4 feet for the crew which consisted of two men and a dog. The raft was schooner rigged. It was a remarkable and very risky voyage and must have been uncomfortable.

The sea came right up to our premise at the back at Cowes and yachts often used to moor a few chains away. One day I saw a yacht’s boat (gig is the proper term) arrive at a yacht, a chair was lowered to the boat and an elderly gentleman was hoisted on board. On asking my father what this meant he informed me that the gentleman who owned the yacht was named Kavanagh and was a very remarkable man as he was born without arms or legs and could write, shoot and yacht and do other things and, moreover, was a member of the British Parliament and was a very outstanding instance of what perserverance will do in overcoming almost insuperable obstacles. I think a good account of this very remarkable gentleman would be found in any good biographical dictionary.

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