Category Archives: HMS Warrior

Real Men Get The Needle


I have just come back from a busy summer working at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth on HMS Warrior “The First Iron-clad”. I had been brought in to create a suite of stories and train the staff in the art and craft of storytelling. As part of the application I wrote a bit about emotional engagement in historical interpretation:

A needle in a museum display case is often only noted for it’s surprising size and bluntness, but for large parts of history they were an essential part of an everyday toolkit carried by half the population. They were items of value, in the middle ages an entire play, “Gammer Gurton’s Needle” was constructed around the loss of one, yet they remain unexciting to the modern observer (like you, you’re not excited yet are you?) unless we can put the needle in the hands of a person with a life and a story that illustrates the importance of the needle to them. Even this may not work if we simply give the needle to a tailor and have them make a nice frock coat for Mr. Corbett to wear to the fair.

What if Mr. Tailor has a big order in but has been taken ill, leaving his poor arthritic mother to hand sew thirty naval gunner’s shirts by the end of the month?
Even then, it may be hard to grasp the real, personal hardship of the job unless we take some time illustrate old Mrs. Tailor’s struggle: What does the cloth feel like? Does the repetitive pushing of the needle through the layered seams make her shoulders cramp? Is it hard to see by the single candle which is all she can afford to use?”

Although factually inaccurate on a couple of points (as you shall see), this set me off on a train of thought: Vikings were famously well turned out, snappy dressers with a penchant for bling. They were also away from home for quite long periods of time, engaged in heavy manual labour and the occasional tussle. How did they maintain their sartorial elegance? Who sewed up the sword cuts in their expensive silk tunics? What about other travelling men? Explorers, traders, army and navy, lumberjacks? How is it that these men didn’t come home in rags and tatters?

The answer is simple: they sat down, they took out their needles and they sewed.

On HMS Warrior in the eighteen sixties this was directly illustrated by three things. Firstly, the records show that on joining the navy each sailor was given appropriate lengths of cloth and expected to make up the two pairs of trousers, shirts, collars and so forth that comprised their uniform themselves (so much for Mr. tailor’s big order!); secondly, amongst the personal items each crew member kept in their ‘ditty box’ was their sewing kit (so significantly more than half the population were carrying needles around); and finally there is a quote from a certain Mr. Dickens, an author of some repute, who visited the great vessel in 1863 which paints a picture of quiet domesticity: “some were working hearth rugs by a quilting process or embroidering pictures… We are all familiar with the British Seaman as a daring man, and a light-hearted cheery man but here we see him as a homely man, mending his clothes or shoes”. Those plying their needles in the quote above include Royal Marine Artillery Gunners who were crewing the biggest, most powerful guns yet made. It seems the rougher and tougher the job the more likely it was that a man would have to engage with the delicate art of needlecraft. If history is anything to go by, real men sew!

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Waking The Dead


I am wrenched from an uneasy sleep by the sound of screaming. A piercing metallic shriek indicating a train is trying to drag its inflexible wheels around an over-optimistically tight curve. It is 7.26 and the heat is already rising in the city below, invading my cheap hotel room on the eleventh floor. The window opens but not enough to make the air move, only let in the inexorable heat. While walking the streets the night before in search of food, dripping sweat in the endless swelter, I was aware of the difference of this place to other cities, even other ports I am more familiar with. I lived in Southampton for a while which seems barely aware it is a port at all. Here, all roads lead to the docks as if there is no other place you might want to go. I’ve spent time in Cardiff, a different country but mostly the same language. Here, every group of people passing by speaks another tongue I do not recognise.

In the mall, filled with chain stores and franchises that are recognisable across half the globe I heard some men greet each other in German. I smiled as I was suddenly reminded of Hamburg where I played many gigs and once recorded an album. The squealing trains also remind me of Germany, but this time of the Old East where the screech of trams often echoed through the cobbled streets regardless of the hour. The clear blue sky, merciless sun and long, hot evenings are more in keeping with southern Italy though. This is not weather for a ginger from Devon. I’m a long way from home and I feel it.

As the grinding wheels and the railway tracks sing their tortured song once more I pull back the single sheet under which I had attempted to slumber, cross to the window and push it shut. I stop and look out on this unfamiliar city that will be my home for the next four days and much of the next two months. Assorted clock and church towers rise up out of the purposeful victorian-colonial brick architecture, amongst assured modern skyscrapers fashioned from white curves and blue tinted glass. As they take turns to chime the half hour my eye is caught by movement. On the water, about a mile away, the Isle of Wight ferry is chugging off towards Ryde.

Yes, I’m in Portsmouth. I’m now officially “Consultant Storyteller to the National Museum of the Royal Navy”, employed to research and create a suite of stories for HMS Warrior, do some performances then train the staff in the telling of them.

 

HMS Warrior was “the first Ironclad”. In 1861, with her metal hull, a steam powered propellor and fearsome complement of massive cannons, she was the most powerful, cutting edge, modern, heavily armoured vessel on the sea. This is serious history! My job this week is to read everything written about the Warrior and read everything ever written by anyone who served on or was involved in building her, and read everything written about anyone who ever served on or was involved in building her… In four days.


The sun beats down on this strange city. Soon I must make my way through the parched grass of Victoria Park and follow the roads to the only place they go, down to the dockyards where the long dead crew of a once great vessel are waiting for me to find them and bring them back to life. I momentarily see my reflection in the hotel window. I’m smiling: It’s time to go to work.

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