Are you sitting comfortably?

This morning we have a post from Tom Suddes, a golfing friend of my husband. During Tom’s naval career he was known as “Snaps” as he was the Queen’s official photographer when on board the Royal Yacht Brittania.

Tom is a great dinner party guest as he has some wonderful tales to keep us all entertained. The first time I met him and was seated next to him he was surprised when rather than asking him about the Queen and the Royal family I asked him about his “housewife”.

This is what he told me in his own words together with another story that touched me.

“I joined the Navy to see the world, what did we do? We learned to sew!”

I joined the Royal Navy in 1964 when I was 15 years and 1 month old, wow what an adventure!

I went first to HMS GANGES, a boys training establishment of 2000 boys on the River Stour near Harwich. For the next 12 months our time was divided between learning a trade, studying Maths, English, Mechanics and Naval History, but the best bits were playing sport, sailing and pulling (a naval term for rowing). This was great fun, although the training was very strict with little opportunity not to achieve.

On day two of this great adventure, we were introduced to washing our clothes by hand and began our instruction in sewing, yes sewing! Not what we expected. We were issued with our kit and every item was marked in black or white ink to ensure we didn’t ‘lose’ anything. Amongst the items issued, perhaps most unusual was the ‘housewife’, a small blue rolled-up piece of cotton with pockets containing all our sewing kit, complete with needles, thread and thimble.

So, we joined the Royal Navy and our first task was to chain stitch over our names on the housewife, using red embroidery cotton. At first this tedious task seemed silly and insignificant. We were expecting to handle fire arms, learn to march and throw ourselves into REAL military activities. But sewing?

This delicate work had to pass inspection, with very few first attempts meeting the high standard demanded by the instructor, a World War II veteran Chief Petty Officer who knew every trick in the book (and a few more besides!). As any seamstress will know, the ‘needlework’ demanded patience and great attention to fine detail. On hindsight, it is obvious that it was a cunning test to see who could use their hands, had the patience to tackle something new and different, to achieve the unthinkable – perfectly crafted chain stitch! You might think some would lose interest or give up but everyone was keen to succeed and the pressure was on; with needle in hand we persevered and eventually passed the test.

Some were hampered from the start, I remember one messmate by the name of Van Der Westhuizen. He was one of the smallest in the class and yet his name tallies were so long they were in two rows! At the same time what would ‘J Day’ do once he completed the task in record time? Would he volunteer to help his fellow mess mate? (Team spirit, an essential element to naval ethos and military life was never far away).

52 years later I still have my precious housewife with a number of rusty needles and little cotton, but no buttons left, The housewife is intact and I still have the thimble; the red chain stitching is still there too!!

“My first night away from home”

Picture the scene, some 40 young, 15 year old boys away from home, most for the first time, lying in single beds arranged in perfect line down both sides of the dormitory style mess deck. The floor is highly polished parquet tiles, there is a silver polished dustbin (never used) in the centre of the room, and everything is stowed away ship shape and ‘Bristol fashion’.

We had already received instructions on how to make our beds. White cotton sheets were to be fitted with pristine hospital corners, topped with squared off pillow cases, ‘itchy’ wool blankets that probably came off the Mary Rose, and all covered with an attractive blue and white counterpane sporting a large naval anchor embroidered in the centre (standard RN issue).

Our instructor, now in the twilight of his career, immaculately dressed in full naval uniform and cap is slowly pacing around the mess deck speaking in a loud, strong voice, complete with cockney accent. He is listing clear, concise instruction for tomorrow morning and what he demands of us.

We are lying on our backs, sheets pulled up to our chins, hands and arms by our sides, like sardines in a tin we are lying almost ‘to attention’ in bed. We hang on the instructors every word, keen to miss nothing, there is a great deal of anticipation in the air, we have just joined the Royal Navy.

“…and tomorrow morning you will awake at 0600 to ‘Call the Hands’ where you will go to the wash room to shave, shower and then dress in the Number 8 uniform you have just been issued with this evening. Having dressed, you will muster outside the mess deck on the parade ground ready for my inspection at 0630 before going to breakfast…..” boomed the Chief Petty officer with his imperious tone. But as he continued his dialogue, pacing around the room something caught his beady eye and his stopped in his stride……

”you Boy, what’s your name lad?” Said the instructor in a loud voice.

“Shaw, Sir” replied the startled young man, lying in bed.

“Shaw, eh?, well Shaw where’s your sheets and pillow case?”

Shaw looked shocked and replied in a weak, timid voice “Sheets Sir?”

“Yes, my son, your sheets and pillowcase, don’t you use sheets and pillowcases at home Shaw?” continued the Instructor with his intimidating voice and Cockney accent.

“No Sir” replied Shaw “we don’t have any at home”. At this point I have to highlight that some boys who joined the RN in the mid 1960’s were often from poor homes, orphanages and had joined the Service hoping to find ‘a family.’

Everyone in the mess deck is staring at Shaw and the instructor, thinking he must be in deep trouble, Day 1 and already not following instructions. I am certain the Instructor is bound to give him a clip ‘round the ear, take him outside or have some other form of ‘private conversation’.

I lie in great anticipation, eyes popping out like chapel hat pegs, waiting for the first ‘lesson’ in military training.

“Right Shaw, get out of bed” replied the instructor, but this time his voice was soft, friendly, encouraging and sympathetic.

We all anticipated the worst for Shaw. HMS GANGES had a reputation for being a very disciplined training establishment with the highest standards of behaviour and conduct.

But no; what followed was a brilliant lesson in HR which I remember to this day and which I took with me, and used, throughout my 46 years service.

“Right son” continued the Instructor, in a friendly, almost hushed and fatherly tone, “this is what we do every night when we make our beds, first you take a white sheet and put it on the bottom, like this, then on top you put another sheet. After one week, we take the bottom sheet off and wash it by hand. Don’t you worry about that, I’ll show you how to do that later. Then you put the top sheet on the bottom and the third spare sheet you have, that goes on the top, nice and clean like. OK?”

“Yes Sir” replied Shaw nervously.

“Then we put the pillow in this pillow case, makes it nice and soft on your face.” The Instructor continued to make the bed adding the itchy wool blankets and counterpane, tucking in the corners and edges, just so.

Shaw stands, dressed in his newly issued naval pyjamas, motionless but following the fatherly instructions.

“Now then my son, you just slip into your bed and see what it feels like”.

Shaw obeys and immediately a smile comes to his thin, pale face.

“Now how does that feel like? Nice and soft, better than those rough blankets, eh?” Invited the instructor.

“Yes Sir”

“Well now Shaw, every time you make your bed, you do it just as I showed you, and you and I will get along just fine, do you understand son?”

“Yes Sir”

And in a flash it was back to business.

“Right boys he resounded! Now, about tomorrow morning, when you muster on the parade ground…….” and off he went, back into auto, back into his strong, commanding voice, walking around the mess deck continuing his instructions one after the other.

We couldn’t believe our ears. Not at all what we expected to happen. Here I saw at first hand this experienced, long serving war veteran looking for the first opportunity to give a struggling beginner a helping hand. Clear instructions, followed by a simple demonstration and guidance for the future, superb.

I don’t know what happened to Shaw, whether he stayed in the Service or left for pastures greener. But, on reflection those first months of training were littered with other examples of good leadership, training and care. How lucky I was. Here is a picture of a typical messdeck at HMS GANGES in 1964.


5 thoughts on “Are you sitting comfortably?

  1. Brilliant post Nicola. I used to sail as bosun’s mate with a bosun who was still proud of having been a button boy on HMS Ganges (the one that climbed to the very top of the mast and stood on the “button” gripping the lightening conductor between his knees to stay upright.

  2. I too was a boy seaman, joining up in September 1947 at St Vincent in Gosport, just over the bay from Portsmouth. When H.M.S.Brittania was launched I was told to volunteer for it as I stood a good chance, but the thought of polishing brasswork and scrubbing decks was a bit too much. Pity though, she made some wonderful trips.

  3. Loved this story.I was in the Australian womens Airforce in the 70’s.I loved every minute of it. I worked in RTU.(Recruit Training Unit)..I made so many friends .Gained self confidence and a sense of belonging .Its a good start for any young person I recommend it..

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