- Capper, Lieutenant Commander
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
It has been the custom for the residents on Spectacle Island to treat Sunday as an idle day the only person properly dressed being the sentry on duty, while card-playing and similar recreations filled their time. Also we learned that at the nearest township (Balmain) the Marines from Spectacle Island had become a by-word. My wife and I conferred on the matter and decided that without issuing any orders it would be well for me to give a strong lead to bring affairs into line with what was right, as well as usual, in the Service. To this end a large receiving store was cleared up on Saturday afternoons, arranged with seats and books, and our family harmonium taken there. Getting into touch with all the clergy and ministers of the surrounding townships, it was arranged for a roster of these to come over in turn and conduct a service. Notice having been given of this, the bell was rung at the proper time and every soul on the island attended. This custom was observed throughout the five years of our stay, and at the request of the men themselves was extended to the evenings also, when they brought their friends with them, and we sometimes had a congregation of two hundred.
Arising also from this, and because the men expressed a wish to that effect, fortnightly entertainments, amateur theatricals and so forth were arranged in the same building. A hinged stage was built and scenes and drop provided, which made social matters most interesting for all of us, while the numbers of friends attending from the shore was evidence of the quality of these entertainments. The most useful end they served, however, was the good feeling engendered in our small community.
To keep to social matters. As the harbour is infested with sharks, a bathing-place was arranged by securing together several tarpaulins and stretching them from the outer corner of the main wharf to the shore, thus enclosing a triangular space we hoped was secure from these intruders. This had been generally availed of for some weeks, when one day at a time when four or five of the men were bathing, a shark rose and turned on its back to attack the Sergeant of Marines.
It being thus clear that the improvised arrangement was unsafe, I made an application to the Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales Government – to whom the island belongs – for the erection of a proper swimming-bath. As also there was on both sides of the island a considerable stretch of shallow water, I included a requisition for the reclamation of this, and the addition of several new buildings for storage of ammunition and stores.
The Engineer-in-Chief came to inspect the site, and I ventured to suggest to him that if a mason could be assigned to my staff, it would be possible to arrange for the loan of lighters and men, the expense charged to the Imperial Government, when, utilizing the stone and soil then being raised at the Balmain Coal Mine only about a mile away, and which was being dumped below the rocks, the extension could be carried out.
All this was agreed to, and finally executed, and about an acre and a half of additional land recovered, faced with walls. Then there was a bathing-place also built, and to the dressing-huts put up close to it the residents on the island (by means of funds obtained by the presentation of plays in several of the surrounding townships) raised an excellent little recreation-room, nicely furnished with papers, books, piano, etc., which was a great boon both for themselves as well as the men of the fleet, who when working at the stores, carrying out torpedo practice, etc., used the island.
Several new buildings were also put up, and the total amount expended by the Colonial Government during my tenure of the post was close upon £20,000. With regard to these operations the naval authorities had nothing to do; and upon each succeeding visit of the Admiral, he used jocosely to remark, ‘Well, Capper, how much new work have you got to show me?‘
Early in my tenure of this important appointment, notification was received from home that cordite charges for all ships’ guns on the station were being dispatched per a sailing vessel on passage via Cape of Good Hope; and in the same vessel was a complete re-armament of small arms, .303-in. rifles, spare parts and ammunition to be issued in exchange for the .45-in. Martini-Henry rifles then in use in the fleet.
This was a large order, as my office staff consisted, besides myself, of one clerk and a pensioned NCO, RM. The Admiral caused an additional marine writer to be lent, while a second most capable civilian clerk was entered from the city.
After looking into the matter of accommodation for these new supplies, I rang the Admiral up on the telephone and made suggestions to the effect that he should empower me to dispose of as many black powder charges, Martini-Henry rifles, and ammunition as possible to the then seven colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and the Administrators of the South Sea Islands, so that on arrival of the ship with the new armament stores our magazines would be nearly empty for their reception. Also, that as large a quantity as possible of the ammunition on board the ships should be disposed of by practice firing during the three or four months at our disposal.
The Commander-in-Chief though the scheme a good one, and agreed.
Among the many friends we had made in the colony was William Hawtrey (elder brother of Charles of ‘The Private Secretary’ fame). On the evening of the 2nd January 1896, and while a merry party of ships’ officers and our civilian friends were enjoying themselves in the new recreationroom, I was summoned to the telephone and found Hawtrey at the other end. Said he, ‘Capper, have you heard of the German Emperor’s telegram to the Boers?‘ We had not heard of it, so he gave the details. We joined in a laugh at the Kaiser’s ‘cheek’ and I went back to our guests.
When, however, a couple of hours later, there was time to think out the implications, it occurred to me that there was considerable danger of an Anglo-German war, and I had deliberately depleted the ammunition reserves of the fleet, with supplies only obtainable at the other side of the world. At the moment no vessel had her full allowance of cartridges and shell and the depot was practically empty while no notification of our supply ship having passed the Cape of Good Hope had been received.
We had no steamboat, nor was the senior naval officer at Garden Island get-at-able, and I paced the island that night in agony of mind because of what then appeared stupid advice to the Admiral. Early in the morning a steamboat was chartered, and the Captain in charge located on the North Shore, some miles inland at a friend’s bungalow. Hearing my story, he consoled me with the view that in case of belligerency between Britain and Germany he would suggest to the Admiral to try me by court-martial as the Ordnance Officer who had caused the loss of the fleet – there were then four German warships in Eastern waters.
When I put my plan before him he at once agreed. It was the day on which the P & O or Orient liner sailed from London. As in Australia we were nine hours ahead of London time, I suggested a wire to Whitehall requesting that in that vessel should be at once embarked supplies of black-powder cartridges and .45-in. ammunition for replacements of our stocks.
This was done, and the next day came a cable to say supplies were en route as requested, the vessel having been delayed some hours for the purpose. There were several uneasy weeks before these arrived, and as a fact the supply ship with the new stores came in less than a fortnight after the steamer had discharged her supplementary cargo But the earliest of my grey hairs appeared during this period!
(Later, in 1904, at Sheerness, where Admiral Pearson was the Commander-in- Chief at the Nore, and I again serving under him as Lieutenant of the Yard, we had many a laugh over this time of tension, and my chief admitted that he, too, shared with me considerable anxiety as to our ammunitionless condition.)
When we had collected all the powder charges from the fleet a ship was chartered to convey these, together with the stock sent out as above related through the Suez Canal to us, to England. We had in addition some thousands of stands of .45-inch Martini- Henry rifles, bayonets, and spare parts. As the value of these either broken up on the spot or sent back to England would be less than the freightage charge, it was decided to take the whole lot to sea and throw them overboard. Many were quite new, but it was impossible to sell them to a potential enemy and the various Colonial Governments wanted the new rifle: so this (apparently costly) method was the cheapest in the end and was carried out.