Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “British Navy”

“My dear sister…” November 1865

A letter home from a young sailor, an Irish boy on a British ship, in 1865:

Addressed to “My dear sister..,” this letter was probably written to Belinda Needham, Tom’s older sister, the one of his five sisters to which he seems closest. A transcript follows the images.

TN 1865 letter p1
TN 1865 letter p2

Nov 6th 1865
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well. How is it that you won’t write to me? How is Willy and Ben, are they quite well? How is George getting on? When did you hear from him? How is Aunt and Uncle John getting on? Is Johnny with Uncle always? I suppose he is a great carpenter now. Did Georgy knock off going to school yet? I suppose he is a great scholar now. Is Ben always with the Parson? How is dear Willy getting on? Does he go to school now? If he do, stick him to it, because he shall want his scholarship. I goes to school for a few hours on board and I am very glad to go. My dear sister if the Lord spares me and you, I hope I shall see you in two or three years time.

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus(2). Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. You shall have my likeness. I cannot get it this time my dear sister. I was in a good deal of ships since I left England. I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there.

I am quite well and happy thank God. What about this great breaking out in Ireland, is it doing any injury to ye in Kerry? I hope the next letter that you will write to me, that you will let me know all about it. How are the Dromore meetings getting on? Is Parson Jullings always in our old house? How is Mary and William getting on. Are they quite well and Richey. Is the midge in Kenmare always? When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way that I will be near you my dear sister. I have got no more to say at present. I hope you won’t be fretting about me, because I am quite happy and have very good times.

Your affectionate brother,
Thomas Needham

The letter provides a glimpse into Tom’s family, his home tracts in southern Ireland, and historical events in the wider world. It tells us something of what occupied Tom’s mind in the years he was at sea as a teenager.

Tom had joined the British Navy when he was 13, in 1864. His mother had died 6 years previously when Tom was only 7, and his father passed away in 1862, leaving the family without any parents. However, Tom’s oldest sister Mary, the first born of the family (and my great great grandmother), was 19 when their father passed, and there were four other older sisters to provide some maternal care for the family, particularly to the three youngest, who were all boys. Tom, Ben and William, were respectively 11, 9 and 6 when their father died, leaving them all orphans.

It was Tom’s fascination with the sea and his wanderlust for places beyond the green hills of home that led him to sign on to a British ship in 1864. The hard reality of life at sea was, however, a shock to his young mind. He had grown up in a loving and God-fearing home, surrounded by a close and caring family. He was thrust out into the wide world amongst hardened, cynical ruffians, subject to the demanding discipline of the British navy, the most powerful fighting force in the world.

When he wrote this letter, the first of his of which I have been given a copy (by Scott Anderson, Tom’s great great grandson), he had been at sea for possibly a year and a half. The green hills of county Kerry were a distant and cherished memory. His longing for home and family is implied in the opening lines. A life dominated by ships and the sea is evident as he relates something of his experiences since he left Ireland. He writes of his impressions of the new world that he was experiencing, and wonders about the political unrest in Ireland, news of which had reached him even half a world away, and which troubled his 14 year old mind.

I found myself reflecting on this letter, and researching the times in which Tom lived to try to get a grip on his early life, and the result was a long article which I have decided to divide into three blogs which will follow this one.

Tom goes to sea

I was very excited toward the end of last year to receive a comment on my blog from Scott Anderson, a descendant of Thomas Needham:

I am the great, great, great grandson of Thomas Needham, my grandfather was Thomas Needham Sitler, my uncle John Needham Sitler, who is a Presbyterian minister. I have my copy of ”From Cannibal Land to Glory Land”. I think most of our clan lives in South Carolina, that’s where the book comes from. I’m going to try and go to Kenmare at some point. We are a small family now, I would like to know how many cousins we have…

My Uncle has the Needham Family bible, which we had repaired about 8 years ago, it has the family tree in it and is quite fascinating. Funny how the Apple does not fall far from the tree. My Uncle is a minister, my grandfather was a sailor as is my son, both in the US Navy. Like you we also are wanderers, some of us moved back to Europe, my mother lives in Mexico.

Needham bible 2

Family marriages 

 

Needham bible 1

Family Bible

A few months later he wrote:

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I have the Sitler Bible which is the Bible of the family Beatrice Needham my great grandmother married into, I have taken some photos of it (see above). Better still my uncle has given me the original handwritten notes and diary of Thomas Needham when he was a cabin boy, during the voyage. I will need to take them over to the university to have them photostatted since they are in poor condition.

TN rolled notes

Tom’s letters

Thomas Needham was the younger brother of my grandmother’s grandmother, Mary Needham (who became a Hickson after her marriage). Mary and William Hickson, from County Kerry, Ireland, migrated in 1865 to the USA and then later in 1877 to Australia. There were at least 10 children in the Needham family, who lived on the shores of Kenmare Bay on one of modern day Ireland’s most loved tourist routes, the so called “Ring of Kerry.” Mary was the eldest, and Thomas the third youngest, so there was a big gap between them, Mary old enough to be his mother. Indeed, as their mother died when Thomas was quite young, his older sisters took on much of the responsibility for raising Thomas and his brothers.

TN book 0 cover

Book published around 1900

As a boy Thomas was obsessed with the sea and ships. He dreamed of what lay beyond the waters of Kenmare Bay, and longed to see the world. At the age of 13, in around 1864, he signed on to a ship in the British Navy. Many years later, using his letters and journal as a reminder of the journey he had travelled, he wrote a book about his adventures at sea, called From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land (written around 1900). It can be read online here. He begins his story:

An unconquerable passion for the sea shaped the whole course of my early life. No wonder it was so. I was born by the ocean; on the shores of Kenmare Bay in the South of Ireland, not far from the beautiful lakes of Killarney, with their echoes, their legends and their weird fascinations. The sea was to me as toys and amusements. But more than that it was the boundary and limit of my world. I knew that beyond that vast expanse of water, were great cities and strange sights. I longed to see these things for myself. (p.6)

Finally on board, a 13 year old recruit to the harshness of the British Navy, Tom realised that reality did not quite match his dreams. He wrote:

Here I was in a new world. Not the free world by any means that I had imagined lay beyond the shores of Kenmare Bay. I was under discipline and restraint. Wickedness and hard heartedness such as I had never even dreamed of in my loving Irish home now became my meat and drink. A green boy and a battleship brought together! (p.9)

Using Tom’s book, and the letters that Scott has so kindly shared with me, it has been possible to gain som glimpses into Tom’s early life, the people and events that shaped his life. They give a fascinating glimpse into the life of a teenage sailor in the British Navy in the 1860s. In the coming weeks I will try to write an account of that time using these two sources, the book and the letters.

Tom's ship

Tom was later transferred to a merchant vessel

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