Reply To: Coaling Warships with Naval Labour 1870-1914

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Alastair Wilson

    By Alastair Wilson
    I, too, fond Steven Gray’s article extremely interesting, and I thought that members might be amused by the following ‘dit’ (naval slang for old sailor’s story). It was told to me on board the historic warship Warrior about 20 years ago, by an old sailor whose name I regret I cannot now remember (he was an enthusiast for steamboats, and lived in Fareham in ‘Steamboat Cottage’ – does anyone remember who I mean?). In 1928, he had been a Boy Seaman in the battleship Benbow, then in her last commission in the Atlantic Fleet, and he told me that it was the practice, after coaling ship, to leave one bunker empty, and to flood it partially with sea-water to act as a bath for the Boys. They were sent down, a mess at a time, to sluice the worst of the coal dust off themselves. As each mess emerged, the Boy’s Petty Officer, overseeing the ablutions, would cup his hands and dip them into the water. If he could see the bottom of his palms, that was all right, and the next mess was sent in: if he couldn’t, then the water was changed.
    I would also recommend to members, the coaling songs to be found in Cyril Tawney’s ‘Grey Funnel Lines’ (Routledge and Keegan Paul, London, 1987), pp 19-21.