On 16th January 1956 at the age of fourteen and a half, my mother put me aboard a train to Liverpool - my instructions were to find the Liverpool Sailors Home in Canning Place where I was to meet up with several other lads who were destined for the
training ship ‘Indefatigable’ in Anglesey. The Sailors Home was a fascinating place, full of ‘characters’, I was to stay there many times over the next few years. It was, in Victorian times, a woman’s prison and it hadn’t
changed much either - the rooms were small single cabins on five or six floors with a kind of continuous veranda on the inside, with toilets at one end and iron stairs at the other end, with an extremely noisy cage-like lift running up between the stairs.
Over the veranda was a sheer drop to the ground floor except for some wire netting stretched across the first floor to catch anyone or anything unfortunate enough to fall over the veranda. I found some other ‘Inde’ lads, we were allotted rooms
and the next day we were rounded up and paraded in front of a man in Naval Officer’s uniform from the training ship, he directed us in no uncertain terms that we should “keep quiet and do exactly as we were told”.
We boarded a train
later that day en route to the Indefatigable, over the Menai Straits to Anglesey, arriving about seven thirty on that dark, cold, January night in 1956. We filed into the long hallway of this large mansion, were told to place our bags on the deck and proceed
to the mess-hall, this we did and then stood to attention by some long tables with painted linoleum forming the top. Placed on this were two slices of bread, and a small pat of butter placed at intervals alongside a plastic mug of very weak orange juice. The
Captain (George Washington Irvin) arrived shortly afterwards - a huge bull of a man in full uniform (he was an ex merchant navy master); he stood at ease, placed his hands behind his back, glared at us, then proceeded to expound the value of the Indefatigable.
“ The values that honest men know to be true, integrity, discipline, the determination to do one’s best, a wish to serve others. These are the values by which the Indefatigable has tried to live and strives to maintain so that true Indefatigable
boys the world over, are able, not only to cope with life and all it’s complications, but are ambassadors, trying to show others by example the way we should all live our lives”.
He abruptly turned on his heel and departed leaving us to our
supper. While we were coming to terms with our food - there were no plates, and the one piece of butter that we were allowed was very small. In fact, I discovered later, it was one slice from a half-pound block which was divided into thirty two pieces. We
were left in charge of the Chief Petty officer boy - in effect the head boy, Andy Anderson, who turned out to be very tough, but fair and popular C.P.O, we were allowed some leisure time and allotted our bunks in one of the large rooms of the mansion and put
under the care of the Leading Hand in the dormitory.
I awoke next morning to the sound of ‘Reveille’ played by the duty bugler at 0630, I joined the rush to the ablution block and returned to make up my bunk neatly with the blankets folded
on top, before the next bugle call ordered us to fall in. We were then sent off on various cleaning jobs - it had just turned 7 o’clock and was still dark. My first job, along with four other boys was to get down on my hands and knees and rub in polish
on the wooden deck of the large recreation room, the polish was of similar consistency to soft butter and it was applied to the deck by the leading hand in charge. He scooped a handful out of a large tin and splattered it in front of us as we worked backwards
spreading the polish with dirty rags as we went.
When the boy in charge was satisfied with our work, we were given cleaner rags and told to start again, this time, bringing the floor to a lovely shine. By then it was becoming daylight and although I
was beginning to get pangs of homesickness, I could appreciate the beautiful scenery which struck my gaze when I finally arose from the deck and peered from the window. Below me were the Indefatigable’s playing fields running down to the wide Menai Straits,
across the Straits were the forest areas on the slopes of the Snowdonian mountain range and, in the distance, Mount Snowdon itself, topped with snow, completing the vista I shall never forget.
Similar work was being carried out throughout the school,
all under the command of senior boys - if there was any slacking or backchat, any slight infringement at all, the culprit was given a crack or a poke with a broom handle - or worse still - put on ‘jankers’. One of these regular punishments was
to peel one hundredweight of potatoes - with, or without, assistance - during leisure time in the evening. This was always done outside in the cobbled yard in all weathers. A sack of spuds was tipped into a wheelbarrow, peeled, and thrown into large pots containing
water, now this tended to splash a bit, hence the alfresco method, we had to clean up the yard afterwards and without complaint, otherwise we would be ‘volunteered’ to repeat the task the next day. Well, someone had to do it!
120 boys, and each boy belonged to one of four ‘divisions’ named Hood, Rodney, Raleigh and Drake, identified by their respective colours of yellow, green, blue and red. Each division included three ‘Leading Hands’ and in overall charge
of his division was the Petty Officer boy. Andy Andrews, our popular Chief Petty Officer boy was in charge of all us lads but was of course answerable to any of the ships Officers. These consisted of two seamanship and one signal’s officer plus two schoolteachers,
our Captain, and the Chief Officer, Mr Derrik. Mr Derrik was a man of about fifteen stone, he was ex-Royal Navy about sixty years old, and he ran a very tight ship with the aid of his senior ranking boys. There was no way any lad could ‘pull the wool
over his eyes’. If anyone tried this inane act while being interviewed by him he would receive a painful jab under the rib-cage, delivered by two very stiff fingers.
This had the effect of knocking the guilty one backwards about six feet when
he was supposed to be standing to attention. I learned quickly not to get involved with any tête-à-tête with him. He delivered our mail after dinner by standing in the centre of the mess-hall and flicking them at us like cigarette cards
at the general direction of the intended recipient, which I always found amusing.
On this first day us new boys were kitted out with our naval uniforms and the rest of our ‘working gear. We wore a cap, heavy blue cotton shirts, short blue corduroy
trousers, leather boots and long socks - similar to white football socks, but with our respective divisional colours decorating the top quarter. I was now Boy J. S. Earl number 98 of Hood Division. All my clothing was stamped with two inch high numbers. I
was given a ball of bright yellow wool and a needle and ordered to embroider all the numbers in a seaman-like fashion, I was advised to keep my boots polished and my white cap blancoed, so as not to let Hood Division down.
The officer in charge of Hood
Division was Mr Firth, (the same officer that met us at Liverpool) he had a rather long nose and was affectionately known as ‘Beaky’, he was a very keen sailing and seamanship instructor - his hobby was photography - I liked him and he quickly
gained my respect. More of him later.
I was afflicted with home-sickness, I missed my old routine, my freedom, my dog, home cooking, especially Sunday dinners, my friends, even my old bike.
Alongside the mansion, was a rock known as ‘Nozzers’
rock. It was huge, being about thirty feet high and about forty feet wide, the new boys, the ‘Nozzers’ as they were called, sometimes climbed atop this rock to contemplate their predicament and get a bit of peace. I clambered up there several times
in the first few weeks, but as I became more familiar with the life and made friends, I settled down and began to enjoy the challenges that were thrust upon me.
One of these challenges was a lad called Beagley he didn’t like me, and one day after
a slight mishap with a bucket of water, we started swapping punches. However, before long we were caught red-handed by the sports officer - a Mr Adams, he said “Earl, Beagley, finish this tonight, in the gym” (he was a man of few words).
This apparently was the custom when anyone was caught fighting, so the contest was arranged between myself and this ‘tough nut’ from Liverpool, in the gym, a converted stone barn, it was sparse, cold and had a bare wooden floor where a boxing ring
was permanently set up.
The specific rule for a ‘grudge fight’ (for that’s what it was), was that there were no rounds, the fight had to continue until one was knocked out or gave in. My second and good friend Jimmy Hughes, from Leeds,
came armed with a white towel, a sponge, and a very worn pair of boxing gloves. Mr Adams was the referee, he started the match by saying “get stuck in”. So we did, before long we had both sustained nosebleeds, the inside walls of the gym were coated
with whitewash, and as our blood was being freely splattered everywhere, what missed the avid audience was sprayed all over the nice white walls, but egged on by my supporters I refused to give in. Neither would Beagley. Eventually, after what seemed a very
long time, severely battered, bruised and bleeding, we could fight no more, we had both exhausted ourselves to a halt, so the bout was declared a draw, but it had been good entertainment for the lads and it was talked about for a long time. I became Beagleys respected
friend and found my esteem or ‘street cred’ as it is now called, had risen considerably. (Later, Beagley earned the rank of Petty Officer boy of Drake Division, Jimmy Hughes, Petty Officer of Raleigh, and I became Petty Officer of Hood Division).
A few of us lads were entered for the National Schoolboy Boxing Championships and I managed to do quite well, although in one bout with a ‘Conway’ boy (from the Officer’s training ship) one of my front teeth was broken off, I was able to
have it crowned but it gave me trouble for years after. When it came to the Welsh finals, I managed to lose on points in a hotly disputed decision to a chap named Walsh, he, however, beat the English champion easily in his next fight and he consequently won
the Great Britain Schoolboy Championship. So close, never mind!
Joe Earl in uniform
Another injury I received, was when I received a severe kicking while playing rugby. It was extremely painful and turned out to be quite serious with complications. This involved taking a urine sample to the hospital
in Bangor (on one of these journeys I stopped on the suspension bridge to watch the old H.M.S. Conway which was ablaze below me. It had gone aground years earlier while being towed through the Straits, and then abandoned, apparently it had caught fire while
being dismantled). Eventually, I ended up in the Royal southern Hospital in Liverpool for two weeks, mainly for observation for something called ‘albinuria’ a kidney complaint. I actually put on weight in hospital, possibly due to the admirable
administrations of Nurse Margaret Fenton. She was a chocolate box beauty and took care of all my needs (mainly in the sluice room in the small hours) I fell madly in love with her. It couldn’t last of course - she was too old for me. Margaret was seventeen
- I was by then fifteen!
On Saturday mornings we did our washing, or ‘dhobi-ing’ as it was known (from the Hindi dhobi - washerman). This chore was carried out in the courtyard, using buckets, hard soap and a scrubbing brush, all under the
watchful eyes of the senior hands, our washed clothes had to pass the scrutiny of these lads otherwise we would suffer miserably for what would seem to be Neolithic incompetence.
Early on Saturday afternoons, the lucky ones not on duty or jankers would
don their uniforms, fall in for a brief inspection by the divisional officer, we marched off and dismissed, whereupon we ran hell for leather to the railway station to catch the local train to Bangor. (The station was in the village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch,
this name was devised by a nineteenth century local cobbler and it must be one of tourism’s most successful publicity stunts. Almost everyone has heard of the place even if few could pronounce its name - which means ‘St Mary’s Church in the
hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St Tysilio near the red cave’).
Anyway, off we went with our five shillings (25 pence) pocket money which was the maximum that was officially allowed, and we reached the cinema
in Bangor in time for the matinee. Afterwards, my friends and I crossed the road to the College Cafe (near the University) where we each tucked into a large place of egg and chips with bread and butter, and then hopefully chatted up the local or college girls
to the tune of Rock Around The Clock by Bill Hayley on the juke box. So this was the highlight of the week, we never got far with the girls though, mainly because we had to abort our amorous intentions to return to the Indefatigable on time.
was church parade. The duty bugle-boy would sound divisions which was the signal to line up on the parade ground. Dressed in our best uniforms, standing in three ranks in our respective divisions, and the band with their instruments gleaming and the white
caps, belts and gaiters newly blancoed, we would be inspected by the Chief Officer and the Captain. The lads that were not attending church, the sick, and those of some obscure religion, and as the village barber always attended on Sunday mornings, those that
were detailed off for a haircut, were dismissed. The rest of us marched off in a column of threes headed by our drum and bugle band up the drive to the gate. We took the long way round to the church along the A4080 with every boy marching proudly to the tunes
We duly arrived at the Church of St Mary (by the rapid whirlpool and white hazel) and duly filed in to take our pews behind the local parishioners. I must have learned something as I was at some stage confirmed by the vicar who was also the
school’s padre. It was always interesting to watch the collection plate being passed back along the pews from the locals - God only knows how much was left in it by the time the vicar retrieved it!
Sunday afternoons was for sports which included
sailing and rowing. One cold winter’s day, a bunch of us discarded our boots and socks and left them on the groin as that was the rule. We then manned one of our heavy cutters and rowed off up the treacherous Menai Straits, however having the wisdom
of youth and the energy of old age, we were mistaken in the strength of the tide and were unable to row back. It was now sunset, we were in danger of being swept out into the Irish Sea, in by now, gale force conditions, with no means of assistance apart from
our oars. (A salutary lesson this, for the future). With freezing feet and blistered hands, and some fortitude, we managed to manoeuvre the boat to the Anglesey side and secure it to a tree. We walked painfully back along the rocky shore in the dark to collect
our footwear and report to the Chief Officer. We received little sympathy, (sympathy was just a word, found in the dictionary somewhere between shite and syphilis!). He gave us a few hours rest and ordered us to return and fetch the boat when the tide turned.
This we did, finally falling into our bunks at three o’clock in the morning. We didn’t get much sleep the next night either, one of the boys was making a noise in the dormitory but wouldn’t own up to it. Because of that, the whole ship’s
company was made to stand to attention in our pyjamas on the parade ground for an hour. The boy that made the noise was later reminded of his responsibilities and never repeated the occurrence.
There were various excursions that we embarked on. We walked
up Mount Snowdon each year, attended fetes at Rhyl, Llandudno and Menai Bridge with our band. On Remembrance Day 1956, our buglers, including myself, played the Last Post at the Cenotaph in Holyhead. And one day we lined the route at Llanfair P.G. when Prince
Philip whizzed through on his way to R.A.F. Valley.
Wilfred Pickles came to the Indefatigable. His radio show was called ‘Have a Go Joe’ and it was transmitted live from the school. It was a very popular programme at the time and he was
aided by his wife Mabel and Violet Carson who was later to become famous on Coronation Street. The format was to interview interesting local people and then ask them questions for prize money. His well known catch phrase was “give him the money Mabel”.
All the boys were stacked at the rear of the large mess hall and when it came to our turn, we gave a rendition of the school song, with Violet Carson playing the piano.
We are some of the Inde boys,
Sailors of Britain are we,
When you hear
the bos’un shout
Hands on deck and all about,
Sailors of Britain are we.
Fortunately, I can’t remember the rest of it.
After receiving my Leading Hand’s stripe I was presented with a gold star to sew on the sleeve
of my uniform.. This was issued for completing six months with good conduct, although my step-father, Bob Arnott, alluded to it as “six months of undetected crime” he was probably right.
Some of the boys were given special jobs on a monthly
basis, among them being the Stores Boy in charge of cleaning materials, brooms, soap etc. There was a Boiler Room Boy, Officers Steward, Cook’s Assistant, Gardener’s Boy and a Messenger Boy. I enjoyed being the messenger boy and held the post three
or four times. My duties consisted of cleaning the large brass bell before breakfast, and during the day I would strike it at the appropriate times. It was situated at the end of the Main Hall just outside the Captain’s office. I would remain there until
sent on an errand, these were quite frequent and I would walk up to the village two or three times a day.
I would post the mail and go shopping for the Captain’s wife, this gave me a certain amount of freedom and I was able to engage in a bit
of illicit trading. Smoking was forbidden of course, so I was able to buy ten Woodbine cigarettes for one shilling and fourpence and sell them to the lads at sixpence (two and a half pence) each.
The Captain’s wife was always kind to me and I
would tarry as long as I dare, eating her home made cakes and teasing the Captain’s African grey parrot. Her house was down a lane from the school, and overlooked the groin where the boats were moored. In the summer it was ‘all hands to swimming’,
we had no swimming trunks so we divested ourselves, leaving our gear on the mole and dived in starkers. It was fascinating to see the upstairs curtains twitching, indicating that Mrs George Washington Irvin was taking an interest in our leisure activities!
Leave was granted at Christmas, Easter and in the Summer. On arriving home for Christmas 1956, I was greeted with the news that my old and faithful mongrel Jacky had gone. He was terror stricken by fireworks and he had been inadvertently let out on the
evening of 5th November. He hadn’t been seen since. I was devastated.
I became the Petty Officer of Hood Division, and worked well with the divisional officer Mr John Firth. On my return to the school, after the Easter 1957 holidays, Mr Firth
was absent, rumours abounded until the following extract was spotted in the Daily Mirror on 25th July.
THE DAY A MAJOR BOUNCED INTO TOWN were the headlines. A Court heard yesterday about the day the Major bounced into town. The ‘Major’
- Donald Scott, 32 - took a heap of smart new luggage with him to a quiet seaside resort in the Isle of Man. It weighed five hundredweight and included; cabin trunks, leather suitcases, photographic and electronic equipment. The ‘Major’ said he
was going to set up a photographic business. But did absolutely NOTHING. Neighbours got suspicious and mentioned it to the police. And THAT was only a few hours before police at Manchester circulated the picture and description of a man they wanted to interview
in connection with DUD CHEQUES.
The wanted man was handsome Donald Scott, alias Major John Worth.
At Manchester Crown court yesterday, Scott of no fixed address, was gaoled for five years for stealing and forging
cheques and obtaining money by false pretences. Scott, an instructor in seamanship, appeared for sentence.
He told the Recorder, Sir Basil Nield, that he was being blackmailed at a nautical school in Wales and had yielded to the demands of
At an earlier hearing Mr J.S. Oakes, prosecuting, said Scott, under the name Kenneth Wilson, got a job as a bookmaker with a London firm. After stealing two cheques he asked for time off and a letter of recommendation. He used
the letter to obtain his employer’s signature. Scott wrote out a cheque for £578, took it to a London bank in the name of Wilson and drew a cheque on the account. Then he left for the North of England and again changed his name. As ‘Major’
John Worth he bought cars and other things with dud cheques.
Scott, who was dismissed from the Royal Navy in 1948 was commissioned in the Royal Army Service Corps a year later. He was dismissed from the Army in 1950.
1952 he was fined for unlawfully wearing an Army uniform.
If he was being blackmailed, I had no idea who it might have been. By this time, being a Petty Officer and one of the Chief Officer’s right hand men, he took me into his confidence
and explained that he had had his doubts about Beaky when he had applied for the Seamanship Instructor’s job. Apparently he had said that he had been working abroad, but his face had a rather pasty colour as if he had been in jail. When questioned about
it, he said that he had just got over malaria. The Chief Officer also told me that it had been a toss-up between myself and my friend Jimmy Hughes on which one of us was to be chosen as Chief Petty Officer Boy. Jimmy had finally been picked because he was
going to sea as a cadet, and therefore more academically advanced.
I reached the age of sixteen and waited impatiently for a summons to the Captain's office to be told I could leave and proceed to sea. It finally came, and on 25th. July 1957 I left
the Indefatigable a very different boy from the one that had joined nineteen months earlier.
That was the start of 43 years at sea and another story.