Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The channel fleet in the Clyde

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume V  (1861) 
The channel fleet in the Clyde

Contributor unknown.


No event, that I recollect, ever occasioned so much excitement in this locality as the late arrival of a division of the channel fleet in the Clyde. As a proof of this, I may mention it is estimated that thirty thousand persons visited the fleet on Saturday week, and as many on the Monday following, when the squadron had been reinforced by another detachment of four ninety-gun ships, which arrived on Sunday. I left the Broomielaw on Saturday morning, 31st August, and on the way down by steamer, we passed a singular-looking machine full of passengers, which had stopped at Bowling to take in an additional cargo, and we had subsequently to wait for this at Greenock, as it was first on the list for seeing the show. As soon as she arrived at the quay, I and many others went on board. We naturally expected she would have put off for the fleet immediately—but no; the Glasgow railway train had not yet arrived, and we must wait for another reinforcement of passengers from it. The morning had been showery, but the rain had now ceased. It was a still grey day, such as we often see about the “fall of the year.” I had plenty of time to look about me, and, although I had seen it more than a hundred times before, I never saw the scenery more exquisitely beautiful. Except when occasioned by the splash of a steamer, there was not a ripple on the waters, which had all the appearance of an immense lake; surrounded on one side by the mountains of Argyleshire (“Argyle’s Bowling Green”) and, more immediately opposite Greenock, by the hills above Helensburgh. There were few yachts in sight, but, besides a large man-of-war, a receiving ship, the bay was studded with craft of various kinds and sizes, chiefly merchantmen and a few steamers. We had not at this time a complete view of the channel fleet, which rode majestically off the “tail of the Bank;” not in any formal order, but here and there, as it were, promiscuously, with a moderate distance betwixt each vessel. Their names, and the order in which they lay, were the Revenge, 91 guns, Rear-Admiral Smart, which ship lay nearest to the “tail of the Bank;” Centurion, 80 guns, Captain H. D. Rogers, C.B.; Conqueror, 101 guns, Capt. E. S. Sotheby, C.B.; and Donegal, 101 guns, Capt. Sherard Osborne.

It was known beforehand that the Donegal, Capt. S. Osborne, was to be our destination. On rounding the “Tail of the Bank” we had a full view of the noble squadron. The ships were all so symmetrically proportioned that at first sight they appeared smaller than I had expected. It was only as we neared them, and compared them with other vessels that their immense size was distinguished. We were all packed close in our old “ark,” like herrings in a barrel, and I have no doubt afforded much amusement to the jolly young tars who crowded the sides of the Donegal, or had climbed up the rigging, to see the visitors. It was a work of time to get such a multitude as we numbered on board the Donegal, and it was beautiful to see the care and attention with which the sailors appointed for the purpose assisted all of us, particularly the females of our party, in springing from the boat to make our way up the steep acclivity of the paddle-box. As one of the “old school,” I have always been an enemy to the modern innovation of Turkish drawers in female attire—but when I saw young ladies of eighteen skipping up the sides of the ship with the agility and nonchalance of middies, I could see that, after all, there might be some use in this unfeminine habiliment.

On getting on deck I was struck with the beautiful order in which everything seemed to be arranged. The deck itself—240 feet long, and 55 feet broad—was like the flooring of a magnificent ball-room. There were few officers on deck, but there were a few of the juniors. Amongst them I could remark more than one type of that fine, oval, nut-brown, English countenance which Vandyke has immortalised on canvas. The men were chiefly fine young fellows, from eighteen to twenty-five apparently. I could perceive very few veterans amongst them.

The crowd of my fellow passengers soon broke up into small groups, admiring what they saw, and getting information from the sailors—who were most communicative—about the “ferlies.” On putting a question or two to one of the crew—a fine young man of eighteen or twenty—about the working of the Armstrong guns, of which there were three on board, he not only replied very distinctly, but attached himself to me, and took me through the different parts of the ship, all of which he explained as well as “Tom Brown,” or any other Oxonian professor of “muscular Christianity” could have done for the life of him. And yet I have reason to think that this fine young fellow was only a common sailor! On going through the lower deck we found part of the crew at dinner. I did not linger here, as I might have been deemed intrusive; but I could see there was a pleasant look of wholesome plenty all around. The day was rather warm, but these dining compartments were well ventilated. Apicius himself could not have desired a more salubrious room for his condiments.

I soon afterwards left my young friend, greatly delighted with all I had seen—a feeling which I may venture to say was shared by all the visitants of the fleet.

The local papers of this day (6th September) state that “yesterday afternoon six of the war ships sailed from the Tail of the Bank, and proceeded to sea.” It is added, “The spectacle of so many large ships, and all so near each other, spreading their ample wings to invite the breeze, and passing onwards so majestically under a press of canvas, was highly impressive, as well as the skill and dexterity evinced by those employed in handling the vessels when staying.”