Thursday, March 12, 2020

Sailing into Portchester Castle

I am currently transcribing some of the sailing logs and articles that Percy wrote; some for publication and others for his own records.  I have just found a reference to Portchester Castle that featured in the story The Prisoner of War -  A tale of Portchester Castle During the Napoleonic Wars, posted on this site in October last year.  Interesting to note that he visited the castle in the spring of 1905, sailing up to the watergate in his vessel Clytie I.

"Right ahead rose the massive square tower of Portchester Castle, and practically at high water we ran ashore at a hard near a little quay by the watergate of the castle.  Here we spent a couple of hours in wandering round the interesting old ruin, for interesting it certainly is, though possessing practically no history of romantic character".

Maybe his visit prompted him to give the castle some of the 'romantic character' that he thought it lacked.

Friday, October 25, 2019

In the near future...

Thanks for dropping-in on the Westerman Yarns blog site.  My departure in doing 'other things' over the last couple of years was very much due to my over commitment to other projects and organisations, but I am now back at my Westerman Yarns desk and dusting off my book collections that have been neglected of late.   I'm embarrassed to realise that my last blog post was 18 months ago.  However, I am, I hope, now in a position to get cracking with posting some new stuff.... and some old stuff that once appeared in the newsletters.

I've started the ball rolling by posting a very early Percy Westerman story The Prisoner of War - A Tale of Portchester Castle During the Napoleonic Wars which I hope you will enjoy.  If you want me to post anything on the site, please feel free to send me a message.

The Prisoner of War - A tale of Portchester Castle During the Napoleonic Wars

This very rare Westerman story was written for a paper titled Pink’s Pictorial, published by William Pink, a Portsmouth grocery business, for their Christmas 1908 edition.  The story is preceded by a very flattering article about Percy and was clearly included to promote the release of his first book A Lad of Grit.  The Prisoner of War is written to appeal to the more mature reader and is interlaced with flashes of humour.  The story relies heavily on Percy’s local and historical knowledge and real locations.  Today the locations referred to in the story are still easy for the literary tourist to access.  Portchester Castle is open to the public; managed by English Heritage and the Old Portsmouth area still retains the early fortifications and is a thriving cultural centre of artists studios, cafes and bars. With some imagination it is not difficult to envisage how it might have looked to the heroes of our story.

Pink's Pictorial: There are two copies of this particular edition that we know of. One is held in the Westerman Yarns Collection and the other can found in the Portsmouth City Records Office.  Both copies are in a fragile condition.  The paper used has become fried with age and speaking only of our copy (now conserved in Melonex pockets), it has the consistency of a pack of very dry crisps - the paper will crumble if handled.

Portchester Castle is just a few minutes drive from my home and is a wonderful place for a walk at all times of the year.  It's imposing walls are a breathtaking feature of the seascape at the head of Portsmouth Harbour.  The picture above is taken at a high tide.

The Prisoner of War
A Tale of Portchester Castle During the Napoleonic Wars
by Percy F Westerman

You ask me, my friends to tell you of the circumstances under which I, Jean Francois Sainte-Marie du Petite Thouars, ex lieutenant de vaisseau, became an Englishman – a citizen of La Perfide Albion? It is a long explanation, but, in brief, I can reply, “C’est l’amour.”

I hasten to explain.  When in the year 1805, Milord Nelson had gone on a fruitless voyage to the West Indies in pursuit of Villeneauve, the waters of La Manche, or, as I must now term it, the English Channel, were thought to be clear of the presence of the dreaded British men-of-war.  Then it was that the 44-gun frigate “Curieux” sailed from L’Orient, intent upon capturing such misguided English merchantmen as dared to close over the shores of La Bella France, and on the “Curieux” sailed I. Lieutenant Jean du Petite Thouars.

On the second night after weathering Ushant we sighted a strange sail, and in close pursuit we held her until late in the middle watch.  At length we fired a gun as a signal for her to heave-to, and, with a creaking of tackle, her mainyard was swung aback, and we immediately forged close alongside.

Then to our utter surprise and consternation a voice hailed us in execrable attempt to speak the French tongue: “Rendezvous, Johnny Crapaud; nous sommes dam big frigat de quatrevingt cannons.”

Here was a terrible position – over our vessel but 44 guns opposed to an English 80 gun.  In the confusion that followed we attempted to sheer off, but with a flash and a roar that shook the very heavens, the Englishman let fly a broadside that brought our foremast down with a run, and littered the decks with broken spars and tangled cordage.  Then, almost before we were aware of it, the accursed frigate was rubbing alongside, and three score half-naked fire-eaters were slashing and hewing on our decks.

For my part, I was opposed to a great brute of a man, armed with a heavy capstan bar.  By the feeble light of the fighting-lanterns I could see his huge body stripped to the waist, his powerful arms with muscles like iron rods, and a head around which was bound a scarf of red silk that served to intensify the look of ferocious hatred on his face.

It is an honourable deed to be able to shed one’s blood in the defence of one’s country; but my faith, when it comes to having one’s brains knocked out by a savage Englishman it is time to cry “Halt”.

Can you blame me, then, my friends when I incontinently turned and ran down the main-hatch?  But, alas! it was the same everywhere; the enemy had poured in through the main-deck gun-ports, and, before we could realise the fact, we were battered down our own hold – prisoners of war.

What, then, do you think these accursed English afterwards told us?  (Excuse me, my friends, if in the excitement of my narrative I for a moment forgot that I myself am now an Englishman.)  They informed us that the vessel which had captured us was but a 28-gun frigate, and that our crew out-numbered theirs by at least a hundred men.

Oh! The bitter tears of mortification that we shed at this astounding information of the heartless perfidy of our foes; but lamentations were useless, and four days later the “Curieux” was towed into Portsmouth Harbour, where, under a strong guard, we were sent to the gloomy castle of Portchester.  Fortunately, we were spared the horrors of the prison-hulks, tales of which had spread throughout the length and breadth of La Belle France; but even now I cannot repress a shudder at the reminiscences of that terrible castle, though, par Dieu, even that gruesome place brought me some good fortune, as I will hasten to explain.

Two stories of the massive castle keep were devoted to the use of captive officers.  There were majors, captains and lieutenants of all branches of the army; artillery, hussars, chasseurs, and infantry of the line; but the greater part of the prisoners were naval officers, whom, you must know, were of superior stock to those of the army, the latter having risen almost to a man from the ranks of the Republican forces that had fought at Valmy and Fleurus. In consequence, there was little love lost between the representatives of the two arms of the service, and, instead of being staunch companions in misfortune, petty jealousy led to frequent quarrels and strife.

Slowly the long months of captivity passed, winter giving way to spring, which in turn was followed by summer.  During this time I applied myself diligently to study of the English language, and by degrees became quite proficient in its various idiosyncrasies.

Although treated in a different manner to the common soldiers and seamen we were treated to the indignity of being inspected every Thursday afternoon by crowds of curious visitors.  I say inspected advisedly, for although some came to buy the small nick-nacks our men cleverly made from bones and straw, or to haggle over the price of a few yards of lace, the majority simply regarded us an exhibition for their idle curiosity.

But one afternoon towards the end of June came a small party of visitors, escorted by a Major Parsons, of Denbigh Militia, who was in charge of our guards.

The major was a short, apoplectic-looking man, who apparently suffered from gout and an excess of ort wine, judging by his complexion and his irascible temper.

On this occasion his daughter formed one of the party.  How shall I describe Violet Parsons? C’est impossible.  Imagine a dainty, petite maiden, with clear-cut features, sweet blue eyes full of compassionate regard, and a wealth of golden hair – not straw-coloured, but approaching the rich tints beloved by Titian.  To this day I marvel how the major could have been the father of such a sweet little lady.

For one brief moment she lingered behind the rest of the party  “Poor man, I am so sorry for you,” she whispered; then, as if abashed by her boldness, she was gone.

It was but a glimpse of an angel of pity, yet it left an ineffaceable impression on my mind.

Slowly the week passed, and I lived only in the hope of seeing her again the following Thursday; but, alas, my expectations were doomed to failure.

When next she came she was accompanied by an elderly female, and for an all-too-brief five minutes we conversed, during which time I learned that she lived in the adjoining village and that she had taken a great interest in my unhappy condition.

From that time her visits became regular, and I knew that a French officer can make other conquests than those of arms.  My actions, however, were not to be kept concealed from my companions in captivity, and many a harmless jest at my expense was passed by my brother officers, which, in the happiness of my love, I could well afford to treat lightly; till one day an ill-conditioned bully, one Du Barry, a captain of chasseurs, passed a course remark concerning my idol, which no true gentleman could possibly ignore.  What he said I need not repeat, but my reply was a violet blow what wrought havoc on even his brutal features.  As a result, his seconds waited upon me that evening.

You have doubtless heard, my friends of the manner in which a duel was fought amongst us in these affairs of honour?  No?  Then I will tell you.  In the north-east corner of the room in which we were confined is a little cage-like hole in the outer wall of the keep.  If you chance to visit the castle you may still see it.  Imagine a hole 7ft. in length, and not high enough for a man to stand upright.  Into this den, in the dead of night, the two principals enter, both stripped (to avoid subsequent detection) like veritable “Sans culottes,” and armed with formidable daggers fashioned from the ribs of an ox.

It is soon over.  The survivor emerges, often covered with blood; the body of the vanquished is reclothed and cast through a narrow window into the courtyard of the castle, 80ft below.  Next morning the British military authorities announce that yet another prisoner has embraced suicide as the only way of escape.

This was the manner in which we fought, but, needless to say, it was not the body of Jean du Petit-Thouars that was unceremoniously buried without the castle walls.

At our next meeting I told my love of this little incident and never shall I forget the horrified look that overspread her features, and by her unguarded reply I know my affection was reciprocated.

“To think you killed a fellow-man on my account!” she exclaimed.  “Promise me that you will not quarrel with any of them again; for, if anything befell you, I know not what I should do.”

In truth the affair with Du Barry had established my reputation amongst my comrades, and I had little to fear in that respect; but my one desire was to break out of this gloomy prison and flee with Violet as my wife.  Though not romantic, my sweetheart consented to the project with fervour.

“Once you are free,” she said, “we can make our way to the Isle of Wight, where I have relations, and there we can be married.  By posing as an émigré – and there are thousands of Frenchmen loyal to the successor of Louis XVI who have taken refuge in this country – you will be free from molestation.”

We thereupon formed a plan, which we put into instant execution.  Every Thursday for nine long weeks my fiancée brought, with the greatest secrecy, a piece of rope ten or eleven feet in length, which, with a sailor’s dexterity, I spliced into one long length, working the silent hours of the night and hiding my handiwork by day.

At length the time for my attempt arrived.  It was Christmas Eve, a black night, with a keen east wind, while ever and anon the snow fell heavily.  Directly my companions had turned in I vigorously attacked the iron bars of one of the windows with a well-oiled file.  Half an hour’s work and the task was completed.  Hastily knotting one end of the rope to a broken bar, I cautiously looked out through the aperture before dropping the cord to the ground.

Outside was all quiet; the last roisterers keeping Christmas Eve in the village had fallen asleep, while not a light glimmered through the darkness.  Just as I was about to lower the rope I heard the voice of the sentries.  “Number Four: all’s well!” shouted a hoarse voice almost beneath my window, and the cry was taken up by Number Five, some fifty yards away.  Leaning well out, I could detect immediately beneath me the glint of the man’s bayonet, and the dim outlines of the top of his shako and his heavy knapsack.

“Mon Dieu! It is hopeless,” I muttered; but, to my great satisfaction, I heard the sentry’s footsteps as he made off, doubtless to join his comrade in some shelter from the keen wind until the sergeant made the rounds.

“Courage, mon ami,” I whispered to myself; then, dropping the free end of the rope, I swung over the edge of the abyss, and the descent began.  Spinning round and round, like a joint of a roasting jack, at one time grazing my face against the rough stone wall, at another gazing into the black obscurity of the night, my progress was painfully slow.  In spite of the muscular effort, which caused the sweat to pour down my face in rivulets, my hands were rapidly becoming numbed with the piercing cold, till the distance between each hand-grip became shorter and shorter, and I felt my strength ebbing away.  A torrent of thoughts flashed through my mind in those awful moments, till, my arms refusing to perform their task, the rope slipped through my hands, and, hardly suppressing an involuntary cry, I fell –

I struck the soft earth with a dull thud, and helplessly rolled several feet.  Then, realising that I was still alive, I staggered to my feet, conscious of a sickly pain in the neck and burning wounds in my lacerated palms.  Wading through the tidal moat, I reached the friendly shelter of an avenue of trees, and followed the pathway towards the shore where Violet had promised to await me.

True to her tryst, my sweetheart was there, and even in the darkness saw that she was attired in the garb of a sailor her figure trembling with suppressed emotion.

“Put these on,” she whispered, thrusting a bundle into my arms, and a few seconds found me clad in the uniform of a British captain of Marines, a heavy sea cloak completing my disguise.

Without another word she turned and made her way down a slippery hard, I following closely at her heels.  It was now nearly three-quarter ebb, and the tide was rushing furiously down the narrow channel.  With the utmost caution we launched a small boat, and with muffled oars I rowed silently down the stream, the dark, grim outlines of my former prison seeming to slip past as the swift current bore us southward towards happiness and freedom.

Oh! The memories of that Christmas morning, as, in the piercing cold and blinding flakes that tended, if possible, to increase the darkness – for it was now snowing heavily - found myself afloat in a frail cockle-shell with one who had staked her all in the welfare of a Frenchman and an enemy, and even as I pulled laboriously at the heavy oars, I indulged in pleasant reveries of the future.

My dreams were rudely shattered by an almost imperceptible shock, the boat running hard and fast on a hidden mud-bank.  Try as I could, the little craft remained immovable.  Violet gave a little cry of dismay.

“It’s Basket Point!”  she exclaimed.  “We are doomed to stay here till the tide floats us, and long before that we shall be seen by the guards at the castle.”

“Never, if I can help it,” I replied; “I’ll jump overboard and haul her off.”

“No, you must not,” she answered imperatively.  “Look!” And, suiting the action to the words, she pushed one of the oars into the filthy slime.  Six feet it sank without the slightest effort, and I realised the fruitlessness of the attempt.

Nothing could be done, so we sat huddled together for mutual warmth, awaiting in blank despair the daylight that was to reveal our presence to my captors, till, to our intense delight, we found that the tide had changed and the waves were already lapping the boat’s stern.

Filled with renewed hope, we waited till the boat floated, and then resumed our perilous journey.  An hour’s hard rowing brought us abreast of the first of the line of yellow-painted prison hulks, and we could distinctly hear the measure tread of the vigilant sentries.

“Hark! A boat is coming this way,” whispered my love.  “What if they hail us?”

“I will reply to them,” I answered stoutly.  “My English is perfect.”

“Your English is perfect only when your mouth is shut firmly, Jean,” retorted Violet, with a suppressed laugh.  “Quick!  Tie this round your face, and pretend you have been wounded in the mouth, and that you cannot speak a word,” and, whipping a black silk scarf from round her neck, she dexterously bound it about my head.

My heart was literally in my mouth, in spite of my confidence in a woman’s wit; but, fortunately, we were not observed, though the strange boat passed within a few oars’ lengths of us, and without further incident we passed the last of the hulks and gained the more frequented part of the harbour, where the presence of a boat was not likely to excite suspicion.

The snow had long left off, and a grey light was dawning in the east.  All at once the sound of a peal of bells floated over the water.

“St Thomas’s bells!”  exclaimed Violet; “’Peace, goodwill towards men.’  It is a happy omen, Jean,” to which I returned a fervent “Amen.”

Faint with hunger and exposure, we at length ran our boat ashore at Point, the watermen, seeing we were without baggage, giving us but scant head, for maimed and wounded officers were common objects in those days; and Violet, in her role of ship’s boy, led me to an inn, where she ordered breakfast for her “master, who had just been wounded in action.”

It was a dingy room, smelling vilely of rum and tobacco smoke, and, while the slatternly maid was busy preparing the meal, I, for the sake of appearances, took up a “Gazette” that lay on the table.

Suddenly my indifference was turned to intense excitement, for in the list of names of officers to be exchanged appeared, “Lieutenant George Herbert Willoughby, His Britannic Majesty’s Ship ‘Blazer,’ in exchange with Lieut. Jean Francoise Ste. M. Du Petit-Thouars.”

Patriotism and love fought but for an instant in my heart; then, directly the servant had retired, I showed Violet the fateful message.  A deathlike pallor overspread her sweet features as she whispered:

“Then what we have done is of no purpose.  You are now free to return to the France you love so well.  Forget the unhappy English girl –“

But she could say no more, for, folding her in my arms, our lips met for the first time.

“The English officer can find another French Lieutenant,” I exclaimed.  “Jean Francois du Petit-Thouars has found another country, and, what is more, a devoted woman’s love.”

Pinks Pictorial
Christmas Edition


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Why has it all gone quiet at The Westerman Yarns?

Well, it has been quite a while since this blog has been updated.  To use the words of Daniel Handler, we have had 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'.  However, I am now back at the desk and ready to receive correspondence, borders and anything else you want to throw at me.

I have decided not to have any more Westerman Seminar events for the foreseeable future; that's not to say 'never', but I need a bit of a rest for research without deadlines and, in addition, I believe that the seminar was beginning to lose some its sparkle.  I hope to stage some Ripping Yarns, one-off literature events later, so keep watching this site.  If you are already on the Westerman Yarns mailing list you will hear from me directly when anything interesting or exciting is planned.

The Westerman Yarns Newsletter will rise again, but as an occasional publication in a new format, covering much more than single author focus and with a much wider, expanded area of interest.  If you have a particular interest in historical children's literature and want to see your name in lights- or at least, in print, please send me anything for consideration.  In return you will get a complimentary copy of the publication and an option to buy further copies at cost.

What am I doing at the moment I hear you ask?  Well apart from working on a commemoration project to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of John Keats, I have temporarily moved my allegiances to work on Dr William Gordon-Stables and Sarah Doudney, 
There will, this year, be an updated and amended version of the Percy F. Westerman biography - another work in progress,  along with publication of some of Percy F. Westerman's sailing logs with photographs taken by PFW.  If you have any information that you feel could be of value, please contact me.

I am giving a couple of talks this year.  The first is at The Elms in Bedhampton on Tuesday 17 April at 7pm and entitled One of the Boys and Something for the Girls. This will be an  illustrated potted history of The Boy's Own Paper and The Girl's Own Paper.  Tickets for this evening are £3.50 each available from 023 9237 5594.

The second is an updated version of the Percy F. Westerman story for the Portsdown U3A at The Link in Havant Road, Portsmouth.on Wednesday 18 July at 2pm.  Please contact Portsdown U3A for information.

Good book hunting everyone.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Haunted Harbour and other Ripping Yarns

On Saturday 27 August at 6.30pm I will be in Gosport at the Diving Museum to give a talk about Percy F. Westerman and a rare showing of the silent film Haunted Harbour. The film was made by the Walsall Sea Scouts during a ten day camping trip to Anglesey on August Bank Holiday 1935.  I will tell the story of the film that is tantalisingly advertised on the dust wrapper of the first edition of the book Haunted Harbour in 1937 and its loss and remarkable rediscovery in 2011.

The film is a wonderful glimpse into a creative and resourceful Sea Scout groups interpretation of a great Westerman adventure; the only one to make to the "big" screen.

Tickets including refreshments are £6.00 each.

The Diving Museum
No.2 Battery
Stokes Bay Road
PO12 2QU

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Percy F. Westerman at Fareham

Percy F. Westerman will be sailing in to Westbury Manor Museum on Saturday 19 March at 10.00am.
Discover why Fareham was so important to Percy Westerman.

Admission is free.