CHAPTER IX

THE VISIT OF H.M.S. DUBLIN

AT Tristan da Cunha time seems to be reckoned by the visits of ships rather than by dates, so people would say to us " such and such happened after the first man-of-war (i.e. the Yarmouth) or that happened after the second man-of-war (the Dartmouth), and we ourselves reckoned from the Quest and from the visit of H.M.S. Dublin. It is very likely now they are counting from the visit of the Ramon de Larrinaga and our departure from the island. There is also a strong idea among the people that visits from ships are most likely at Easter and Christmas, and as it was a good many months since there had been a mail, at the end of March 1923 we were all eagerly scanning the horizon day by day anxiously looking over the endless expanse of empty waters for the thin trail of smoke in the distance which betokens a ship coming to the island. Rather curiously I always seemed to feel that a ship was near before one was sighted, and I warned my husband "not to go far from the Settlement as I was sure that a ship was close at hand which would bring us our much-needed stores and our mails." I also spoke to Mrs. Repetto and some other of the women, describing what a bishop was like as none of them had ever seen one. I told them what he would do when he arrived, and that he would come on the next boat. I said to my husband: "It is a good thing that you have been holding confirmation classes and begun to build the church as I am sure the Bishop is coming." He was a bit sceptical of my prophecies at first, but he said: "I remember you foretold a ship before," and he kept near the Settlement in his walks.


H.M.S."DUBLIN" PREPARING TO LAND STORES


ANOTHER TRISTAN COTTAGE

The morning of March 26, 1923, was clear and fine, though we had just had some bad days. The sea, too, was calm. My husband was taking school alone; I often took the infants for the first lessons and then returned to the Parsonage to prepare our dinner, and had my special class for girls in the afternoon. We always let the school children out for a short recess in the middle of morning school, generally about fifteen minutes, and to-day I heard the bell ring for second school and they all marched in as usual. But hardly had they got in their places when there was a loud shout of "Sail Ho!" and out they rushed.

My husband never would use a cane in school as he always seemed able to maintain good order without, but this time he said: "All my scholars jumped up, threw down their books on the tables and were out of the door and down the steps pell-mell, shouting as they ran, before I realized what was the matter. There was nothing to do but follow them, so out I ran after the rest, and from the Parsonage garden I could see a thick trail of smoke coming from the eastward."

The people were all gathered outside our house as usual, and several said: "It is a big ship; it must be a mail steamer, as it is coming from the eastward. Perhaps it is a man-of-war." After a time the approaching vessel was seen to be a man-of-war for certain, and preparations to receive her began apace. The vessel proved to be the light-cruiser H.M.S. Dublin.[1]

I had cooked our dinner, but we were too excited to eat much, and the islanders were too busy to stop for a meal. Boys were sent out riding post-haste on donkeys to the Patches to fetch home the men out that way, and more boys were despatched to blow whistles to call down the men cutting green wood up at the Ponds. Two women took their sons' best clothes and milk tea (i.e. milk and water) down to Big Beach, where they changed all their clothes and just rushed into the boats at the last minute. Four big boats put out to meet the warship. My husband was in Tom Rogers's boat, with our mail bag slung across his shoulders, for which we had scribbled a hasty postcript to our home letters, as the mail is always the first consideration when you see a ship at Tristan, because you never know how long or short her visit may be, on account of the weather being so uncertain. My husband's boat was the last to reach the ship, but the Commander of the Dublin would not allow anyone up before he arrived. The Captain then allowed two or three of the older men up, and said that "he would have no trading until all the stores and mails were landed, and the island boats must assist as his boats could not go through the surf on to a stony beach." When my husband got on board he learnt that Bishop Holbech, the Bishop of St. Helena, had come, and he was introduced to him, as, though he is our Bishop, his diocese consisting of the islands of Tristan, Ascension, and St. Helena, we had not met him before. Mr. Lawrence Green, Jnr., of the Cape Argus, and Mr. Sara, of the South African Film Company, also were amongst the visitors, and Mr. Andrew Kemm, who had married a Tristan girl, and Mr. Hagan, a former resident, both of whom now reside in Cape Town and hold good positions there, and who had obtained a passage in order to visit their relations.

Captain Shipway, the Commander of the Dublin, invited my husband to his cabin, and there handed him the copies of The Prince of Wales' Tour in the East, specially sent out by H.M. the Queen, one copy for my husband and the other for the island, and also some special Government letters from the Colonial Office and the Governor-General of South Africa. After a while my husband, the Bishop, and Messrs. Green, Sara, Kemm, and Hagan came ashore, also the Doctor and Chaplain of the Dublin. Our visitors all spent the night on shore, the Bishop and the Rev. Mr. Kent, the Chaplain, staying with us at the Parsonage.

The islanders, assisted by a number of sailors from the warship, set to work very energetically to land the stores. I think there were about twenty-five tons in all, including a great variety of useful things, and the mails for the island. They found they could land goods at about the rate of four tons in an hour. Everything had to be transferred from the ship's boats to island boats in the sea. The ship's boats came in as far as the surf-line and then they transferred into island boats, which did the actual landing work, being used to the landing and more easily handled. All the goods were landed on Little Beach. At first the Tristanites were very eager, and the women and children joined very actively in the work of hauling up the boats and unloading stores, but later on they seemed to get tired.


THE MAIL BEING BROUGHT ASHORE FROM H.M.S."DUBLIN"


THE LANDING OF THE STORES FROM H.M.S. "DUBLIN" AT BIG BEACH

Landing operations, however, had to be continued all night, as there were indications of a change in the weather, and the warship put on her searchlights and landed more sailors to help on the beach. The whole cliff road and beach were lit up brightly by the glare of the big searchlights. It was a busy scene, with bullock teams and parties of men and boys going up and down all night.

I was down on the beach early in the afternoon watching my husband and the Bishop come ashore, and after a little conversation I returned to the Settlement in company with our visitors. Many snapshots were taken of us all, and Baby Edward and I figured in a lot of them.

I went round the houses with the two doctors, Surgeon-Commander Rickard and the Doctor of the Dublin, to visit any sick. The Surgeon-Commander had been sent by the Union Government to furnish a report on the conditions of life of the people, which would be of use in determining their future, and he remarked to me, "The people here are of good physique and quite average intelligence," and he only considered one case of sickness to need serious treatment. He also said: "It is no wonder the people suffer a lot from indigestion, as the food is so poor." He noticed what good teeth they had. Dental caries is almost unknown. My husband had a set of dental instruments given to him at Cape Town, but, as he said, "Luckily I had no applicants for extractions; it would probably have been painful for both parties." We also had some toothache mixture among our medical stores, stuff redolent strongly of cloves, and when this was discovered by accident some of the people asked for doses, but my husband found out they were using it not for toothache, but for scent at dance parties, and he would give no more, but recommended hot poultices to the face.

We were fearfully busy during the visit of the Dublin, and I wonder now how we managed to get through at all, as we had to attend to the Bishop and church services, to the ship's officers, our own housework and Baby Edward, the landing of all our stores and mails, and to supervise their removal from the beach or many would have been lost, for questions of "meum and tuum" on such occasions are apt to lead to confusion.

That afternoon the wind changed and the sea got very choppy, and there was a recall gun fired for all on shore to come aboard at once, so there was a hurried and rather exciting departure from Big Beach Corner, and the Bishop and our other visitors were well tossed up and splashed until they got safely alongside. They had also to face a rather difficult climb up a rope-ladder over the high side of the cruiser, quite a piece of gymnastics at any time, let alone in a high wind. But the Dublin did not sail after all until the next day, when the weather had again begun to moderate, and so we were able to send answers to a few of our most important letters.

While he was on shore the Bishop had several long conversations with my husband on the subject of his work. He went to view the foundations of the new Church of St. Mary's, and made some suggestions as to architectural arrangements, and told my husband that he would have to hold his own service of dedication, as the building was not sufficiently advanced to be consecrated. The Bishop held a Confirmation Service at 8.30 on the first night and an early Celebration of the Holy Communion the second day at seven o'clock, and there was a second Confirmation at 9.30.

There were about sixty persons at Holy Communion, and in all seventy-three were confirmed. My husband assisted the Bishop at all the services.

For the late evening service the Bishop brought some ship's candles and Confirmation veils, and he chose four hymns. I placed the benches for altar rails, and as soon as John Glass rang the bell the room was crowded. We hung two lanterns to the ceiling to get better light, and I had a candle on the harmonium, which I had great difficulty in balancing as people kept knocking against me—we were all so crowded. Everyone stood up for my husband, but they had to be told to "stand up" when the Bishop came out of the tiny vestry. I think they were frightened, or thought that, as he was a strange person in a strange service, they would make mistakes. The Bishop himself told everyone what to do. They sang the hymns very well. We said the Litany as a preparation to the Confirmation Service. The Bishop spoke very nicely to them, but I do not think some of them understood; they take so long getting used to one's voice.

I had to put the veils on the women's heads, six being confirmed in a row. They needed a little steering, for the room was so small and crowded. The Bishop complimented me afterwards on how well the arrangements all went off at the service.


THE BISHOP OF ST. HELENA AND CAPTAIN SHIPWAY ASHORE


MR. AND MRS. ROGERS DISTRIBUTING THE MAIL ON THE "DUBLIN'S" DEPARTURE

The stores had by now been mostly brought up and placed in the houses of Charles Green, Little Sam Swain, or Bill Rogers to wait distribution, and the rest of Tuesday morning was spent over this. A sack was brought forward, a man cut the string, and I, or my husband, called the names. My husband sent a letter by the Dublin to thank H.M. Queen Mary for her kind thought for far-off Tristan and its people, and others to the Bishop and the Captain to mark his gratitude for what they had done for the islanders. And to Mr. Gane he wrote, summing up the situation in these hurried sentences, which are eloquent proof of the strain and excitement of the occasion: " Visit of Dublin most happy. Relief stores have saved situation. People immensely grateful. Convey through Press our thanks to generous donors of stores. Please thank Admiralty from islanders and myself. H.M. Queen kindly sent to us and island a copy of Prince's Travel Book with inscription. Personal kindly touch gave rare pleasure. Dublin captain and officers and crew most kind to us—much appreciated here. Bishop of St. Helena here. Held confirmations—historical event. A full mail, such a blessing!"

We did not soon forget the Bishop's stay at our house. His lordship slept in our only bedroom and the Rev. Mr. Kent in the parlour. We ourselves slept in the kitchen, on a bed composed of a substratum of tin boxes, and baby woke up and howled once or twice during the night, for it was far from comfortable. We were, of course, only too glad to have the visit. We gave the Bishop porridge, mutton, potatoes and tea, and begged some bread and jam, but I do not think there was any butter. I am afraid he did not care for a Tristan menu, but preferred the Dublin's cook to the islanders'.

The visit of the Dublin really saved the situation at Tristan for the time being, for stores had run terribly short, both in food and clothes, and we were very near semi-starvation when the warship arrived.

We were all vastly pleased to read that H.M. the Queen had personally sent £5 to buy flour for Tristan when Mr. Gane's appeal appeared in The Times. The visit also made possible the completion of the church, for amongst the stores sent were liberal supplies of timber, roofing, window glass, ironmongery, and tools.

On Easter Sunday, the first Sunday after the Dublin had left, we had a special Thanksgiving Service "for the Bishop's visit and its spiritual opportunities, and for the relief so needed after the failure of the potato harvest."

The church was decorated with such flowers as we could get, and Holy Communion was the chief service of the day.

After the departure of H.M.S. Dublin there was quite an epidemic of very bad colds all through the island, and many of the people were very unwell for some days, but it did not amount to influenza. It is, however, very curious that this is always the case when a ship from outside stays at the island.

A large number of gifts came for us and the people by the Dublin, and it took us quite a long time writing to thank each donor personally. Fortunately, the means to despatch our letters soon came, for a small whaling steamer, the Herkules, bound from South Georgia to Durban, appeared on May 19th, the anniversary of the Quest's visit, and my husband and a boat's crew of men and big lads put a boat out and boarded it with the mails. It so happened that most of the men and the larger boats had gone across a few days before to Inaccessible Island, but a "scratch" crew was soon got together, and they had the boat shoved down the steep path to Little Beach and launched in a very few minutes. The "scratch" crew was a wonderful combination, being made up of my husband, three "old crocks," and some Boy Scouts, but they did very well in their trading with the ship, and were given a nice present for me by the kindly Norwegian captain, consisting of sugar, pickles, scented soap, biscuits for Baby Edward, and cigarettes for my husband. The islanders traded with sheep and a calf, and got various stores in exchange, including some paint for their boats. The whaler also took on board a supply of fresh water, for Tristan water is very good. The captain of the Herkules came ashore with his chief mate, and looked round the Settlement, visiting the Church Room and the Parsonage. He seemed pleased to see how we all lived. After we left the island, by a curious coincidence my husband met Mr. Laasen, manager of the Union Whaling and Fishing Company at Durban, to which firm the whaler belonged, and endeavoured to interest him in an effort to try and develop an industry in whaling and cray-fishing at Tristan. This particular firm have, I believe, done a lot to develop the whaling industry from Durban; but they seemed doubtful if much could be done to help Tristan, there are so many difficulties in the way.



  1. The visit of the Dublin took place as the answer to an appeal to Mr. Amery, then First Lord of the Admiralty, made by Mr. Gane, who had collected a large quantitiy of stores for the island but could find no means of shipment. See Tristan da Cunha Fund Report, 1921-25.

Chapter 10