The book that I am currently writing deals with the life and times of my grandfather, Charlie Payne, covering both his civilian life, and his military service during The Great War (1914-1919). In early March 1907 Charlie travelled to Italy to take up a position as a stenographer (shorthand clerk) with the American Express Company’s office in Genoa. Towards the end of the month, he was already struggling with aspects of life in Italy, as he recorded in his diary, but little did he know then that the Royal Navy would soon come to his rescue:
Tuesday 26th March: …My tobacco is nearly all gone and I cannot smoke the native stuff. I must make inquiries and see if it will pay me to have some sent out from England. Cigarettes here are dear and not very good and the cigars are absolutely rotten. The sooner I learn how to smuggle the better.
Saturday 6th April:….My tobacco gave out today, so I had a “lash out” and treated myself to a 2oz. tin of “Wills Capstan Navy Cut Tobacco”, it costs here almost double the ordinary price, but never mind – it’s good, so here goes for a pipe and d–n the expense….
That tobacco did not last long, but in early May, the arrival in Genoa harbour of a Royal Navy ship put him in much better spirits, and delivered an unexpected windfall for Charlie and his colleagues:
Sunday 5th May: I have not written my diary up for the last two days because I have had very little to report, but have had a very busy and interesting time to-day. Hearing that the English cruiser Venerable was in the port, it being a fine morning, after breakfast we hired a boat and rowed out to it and went on board. We made friends with two of the young officers who showed us into every nook and cranny of the boat. It is the first battleship I have been over, so I was in my glory, but I have never done so much climbing and jumping about before. Then they loaded us up with English tobacco and some cigarettes and finally came ashore with us and we showed them the sights of Genoa. It did seem funny to see English Jack Tars and Marines strolling about the streets. They had to be on board again by 11 p.m., so we went to the boats and saw them off. However, we are going to meet them again Tuesday evening. Their names were Hidman and Craven, the first from Woolwich and the latter from Liverpool. Hurrah! I now have enough English tobacco to last me a fortnight with care. I would like an English cruiser to come in every week. Home about 12-30 and thoroughly tired. I forgot to mention the reason why the cruiser called here is to meet the Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet – Prince Louis of Battenberg, who will arrive on Wednesday when of course she will be off again.
At this point in history, Britain did indeed ‘rule the waves’ and maintained a substantial and strategic naval presence around the world to protect its Empire. The Mediterranean Fleet helped secure Britain’s access to the Suez Canal which provided the shortest routes from Britain to some of its principal colonial possessions, including India, Australia and New Zealand. Charlie had correctly identified the name of the Admiral of the Fleet in 1907.
Prince Louis of Battenberg (the maternal grandfather of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) was born in Austria and had become a naturalised British subject after joining the Royal Navy in 1868. In 1912 he was appointed First Sea Lord but, after the declaration of War in August 1914 he became one of the first ‘war casualties’ when he was forced to resign on 29 October 1914, as a result of a surge of British anti-German sentiment. As a consequence, Britain lost one of the most effective officers in the Royal Navy at a critical moment. Prince Louis later relinquished his German titles in 1917 and took the surname Mountbatten.
Meanwhile, in Genoa in 1907, further bounty was forthcoming from HMS Venerable for Charlie and his friends when, as his diary records:
Tuesday 7th May: …Met the middies [midshipmen] again and took them to the Music Hall and escorted them back to their ship at 11 p.m. They loaded us up with [more] English cigarettes and tobacco.
If anyone reading this blog post has any information on the young HMS Venerable ‘middies’, Hidman and Craven, I would love to hear about them, and I feel sure that the Royal Navy would not wish to press any charges of tobacco smuggling!