History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Captain B.C. Combe
Basil Charles Combe (1871 - 1926) served for many years on British cableships, eventually commanding CS's Dacia and Restorer. He retired in 1923.
During the early part of his career (which began in 1886) he sent letters home which were transcribed into a journal. He joined the Earl of Aberdeen as an apprentice in 1886, and by the conclusion of his fourth voyage on this ship he had attained the rank of Second Mate.
While Basil Combe was apprentice on the Earl of Aberdeen in 1886, Francis Leith was Second Mate. Leith's great grandson, Duncan Brown, has kindly sent a photograph of Frank Leith and copies of his discharge certificate, which are shown below.
This extract from Basil Combe's journal is published here by kind permission of Roger Barclay, Combe's grandson, who also transcribed the text from the handwritten original.
Roger adds this introductory note:
The Earl of Aberdeen was a four-masted iron barque launched in July of 1886. She was built by C. Connel & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, for D. Brown & Sons of London to ply the lucrative trade routes to India. Her dimensions were 291' 2" x 42' 6" x 24' 0", with a tonnage of 2,145 GRT and 2,084 NRT. She was wrecked in 1892.
The Times of 17 May 1892 reported that:
See the main page on the Earl of Aberdeen for further details.
The following account is taken verbatim from a journal of transcribed extracts from letters written home to his parents in England in 1886 by Basil C. Combe. The letters recounted his first voyages to sea as an apprentice aboard the sailing ship Earl of Aberdeen during the ship's first four voyages to India under command of Captains Atkinson and Baker
Basil Combe was 15 years of age at the time of this account having just completed his cadet training aboard HMS Worcester.
Basil C. Combe's Earl of Aberdeen Journal - 1886/90
EARL OF ABERDEEN
--- First Voyage ---
August 1886 Joined as an Apprentice in Cardiff.
Sept. 4th. Sailed from Penarth with coals for Colombo (Ceylon) when on the Equator the coals commenced to smoulder. Working three days and nights at coal throwing it overboard. Threw 150 tons overboard. The temp. of the coal went up to 140 F. Ran for Bahia (Brazil). Smothered the fire. Sighted the Cape and ran up the Coast.
October "This has been a very adventurous voyage. First of all after we had been at sea 36 days we got to the "Line" when the Captain gave a general holiday to Christen the "green" hands. In the afternoon we all got mustered aft and Neptune and his wife came up and asked the Captain the name of the ship and if he had any new Children? Then they walked round with the Doctor, the Barber and Policeman. The first they took was me. Oh! Dear!! I was led to a chair, then the Doctor took out some pills made of tar and tallow, then looked at his watch, felt my pulse and asked my age, but I did not speak or he would have put the pills down my throat. He then said that I was to be shaved and Christened. The Barber came up
and lathered me all over
with Stockholm tar and shaved me, after which I was ducked in a sail
full of water, and played on by the hose, this was the best part. Last
Friday our coals heated up to 82 degrees and on Saturday to 91 and 100
in the fore hatch so the Captain got frightened and we were working
all Saturday and nearly all Sunday until we had thrown out 150 tons
overboard, then we put on all the hatches to try to smother the fire.
When we were working the coals we came across another leak beside the
one we had when we left Penarth, this made the Captain anxious and we
were badly off, so he ordered two boats out and had biscuits and fresh
water and lots of provisions put in them. We then altered our course
to N by W1/2 W. and ran straight for shore. We were then 200 miles off.
On Tuesday we were all asked whether we would continue this course or
go on to Colombo which was 3000 miles, so all the men said they would
run for Bahia, we were then 120 miles from Bahia.
a bite when we were fishing for them, but the Molly hawk took the bait and hook and swam away with it. The same afternoon I caught him again and found my hook inside him, he had given me a foot to keep.
(End of first letter)
Off Colombo The first
thing we sighted was a Catamaran, quite out of sight of land with 5
men in it with only a cloth around their waists.
Dec. 20th. 1886 Arrived
in Colombo, passage 107 days from Penarth, Pilot came aboard (drunk)
and moored the ship on top of another ship's anchor. Ship bumped all
night and down to the water's edge in the morning. Divers went down
and put a wooden plug with an India rubber plate over the hole.
Dec. 20th. "Arrived
safely at last and very pleased to get your letters. Just fancy you
at home with fires and we have only shirts and trousers. I wish you
all a merry Christmas. You can think of me on Christmas day. We go to
Diamond Island from here.
at night (Apprentices) Kaberry and Calvert were sent up aloft to make the Mizen Royal fast and after that Kaberry went alone to make up the Jigger Topmast Staysail sheet which he did and was coming down when it was supposed he slipped and fell overboard as the 3rd. Mate heard a splash and called out twice, but as he had no answer nothing was known until 12 o'clock when it was found that Kaberry was missing. We then put the ship about and hove to close to the spot till daybreak and sent out boats, but it was no good we never saw him again.
Dec. 27th. " In consequence of Mr. Raven writing to Judge Clarence. A gentleman came to see me who was a friend of his, and who owns a Steam Yacht, "The Ceylon" belonging to the Board of Trade. He asked me to go on board whenever I liked. Last Thursday he, Mr. Henning, took me for a sail and afterwards to see all over Judge Clarence's house and grounds and after a real good dinner we went aboard the "Ceylon" again and I had such a sleep, it was comfortable in such a nice bunk, I slept till half past seven - I then had breakfast and came back to the "Aberdeen" at ten - The "Ceylon" has to visit all the Light-ships. Mr. Henning has asked me to breakfast again next Sunday, and will let me get back for church.
Jan. 1st. 1887 Last night we sat up to see the old year out and had a grand Cake at twelve o'clock. To night just as the Mate was going on the poop he saw our boat going ashore with the Boatswain, Sail Maker and Steward without leave - He made them come back, but there was a great row.
Jan. 7th. Yesterday I went and had dinner with Mr. Clarence who was very kind and nice and I also went to say goodbye to Mr. Henning and now we are off this afternoon. Everything is repaired and the surveyors have been off to see the hole and say it is perfectly safe, so off to Diamond Island. I am very happy and wonderfully healthy. I hope all at home are as well. This will be my last letter from Colombo.
Jan. 17th. Sailed from Colombo for Bassain (orders) in Ballast. During passage A[pprentice] Day [Jocelyn Henry Day; see note under Feb 5th below], apprentice, died of Typhoid Fever and was buried at sea.
Feb 5th. "We have been three weeks now since we left Colombo, there is a tremendous current and as we had been some days without seeing the sun or stars we found ourselves 222 miles out when the sun appeared. Our latitude 6 degrees 1 minute N. Another misfortune has happened and that is, A. Day, who was so ill in Bassain is ill again and has been now for a week. He has been put in one of the spare cabins in the saloon. The Captain thinks that some one ought to sit up with him, so he asked one in each watch
to take turns, so I said I would for one and my time tonight is 8 to 12 and 4 to 8 and so on. He is rather delirious and I think it is Typhoid Fever - 4 a.m. I have had my sleep and now I am on watch again until 8. The only way I can keep awake is by writing letters and drawing. My Sunday afternoon amusement is to read all my home letters and now I will have a chance to answer some of them. The Captain is very kind indeed and gives me cornflower to drink when I come on duty and tells me what to do for poor Day. Mrs Atkinson comes in now and then in the day watches and puts scent on his forehead and talks to him. I wish Edith (Basil's sister) were here, she would know what to do and he would soon get well. Poor Day is wandering terribly he has been wanting to go the "Angel Hotel" he says his parents are waiting for him. Holland and I volunteered to watch him. It is now 3 a.m. and my candle is going out. Oh! This is when it went out and I have had to get another from the pantry. I am glad to hear that Eric has got his stars. I am sorry to say that I have lost my crown as my cap went overboard one night, but I will not tell you how until I get home. I am sorry to say poor Day died yesterday (Feb.14th.) at 5 p.m. and was buried in the sea the same night at 12 o'clock. We have just sighted Diamond Island.
(end of third letter)
Feb. 27th. Arrived at Diamond Island and got orders to proceed to Akyab.
March 1887 Arrived off Bassain (Burmah) , passage 60 days from Colombo
Mar. 25th. Arrived at Akyab, (Burmah) discharged ballast and loaded rice for Liverpool.
Apr. 5th. "We have been in Akyab about a week now and I have found another friend, he is Mr. Hopkins the Clergyman, he came on board and had a nice chat and asked the Captain to let us come to church the next Sunday - so we went and then back to breakfast with him and to the Church again in the evening and in the afternoon he took us a long walk and while we were amongst a lot of trees I was startled by a barking like dogs, I looked up and saw some Jackals, looking very fierce, but Mr. Hopkins said they would not hurt us if we did not touch them - a little further on I went up to a bush in the middle of the road and stopped upon hearing a loud hissing which Mr. Hopkins said were snakes which were very dangerous, so we quickly passed on and on coming to the wharf we were stopped by a call "Who goes there"? however Mr. Hopkins "Friends" and we were allowed to go by. We got back on board by ten o'clock. Mr. Hopkins has asked for us to go next Saturday and help to decorate the Church for Easter Sunday but I do not know if we will go yet.
(end of fourth letter)
April 27th. Left Akyab for Liverpool
August 24th. Arrived in Liverpool, passage 120 days from Akyab. Left the ship and went home for three weeks.
Sept. 13th. Joined the ship again.
Earl of Aberdeen
--- Second Voyage ---
Sept 16th. 1887 Sailed
for Liverpool with Salt for Calcutta. Captain Baker in Command.
Dec. 15th. Arrived at Calcutta, passage 87 days from Liverpool. Spent a miserable Christmas aboard the Ship.
Dec. 25th. "I have to spend my Christmas Day on board as I went ashore yesterday and we are only allowed on shore half at a time, but we had a jolly game of cricket yesterday at the Mariners' Club, about 30 apprentices up. The Club always invites apprentices of all the Ships to play on Saturdays. We played from 10:30 to dusk and I was tired when we came back - I made 7 runs the first inning and 2 next. I have bought two little birds, very pretty in deed, the Captain does not mind birds, but he does not want monkeys, so I must give them up. We have just had our Christmas dinner. Soup, two Ducks, two plum Duffs and some fruit. A splendid dinner, was it not but not like home. I went to the Theatre last Tuesday evening and to the Circus on Thursday, they were both very good. I wanted to see how the Coolies could act. The river looks so pretty as all the Ships are flying all their flags. There was a collision last Friday at Diamond Harbour. The "County of Dumfries" was being towed down and her hawser broke and she went at full speed into two vessels at anchor.
So they had to come back to Calcutta and discharge all the cargo and go into dry dock.
Jan. 10th. 1888 Calcutta is a very lively place. The band plays on the quay every evening and lots of people turn out to hear it. There were some sports given at the Sailor's Home for the Ships crews. I did not go in for anything as I was not in training, but Calvert did and won first prize 11 rupees. After the sports there was a grand dinner for every one of us and the ladies of Calcutta waited on us, it was very nice. Then in the evening there was a concert and a lot of sailors were asked to sing. I have got a painting of our ship done by a Chinese, he had not finished it yet, but I think it is coming along very nicely.
Jan. 16th. Yesterday I went up to the Hospital to see Mr. Robertson and our Carpenter who are both ill there. I have promised to go every other day. The place is kept very nice and clean and the attendance is very good. The building is very big, it will hold 500, so you can imagine the size.
Jan. 28th. Do you remember my telling you of the Chaplain at Akyab? Well we met him on shore the other day and he gave us a good dinner and them took us to the Circus, he is in Calcutta now on sick leave and he has asked us to come up to his house whenever we have leave off. We had a very swell dance on board last Monday. The Captain had nearly
all the Captains in port and their wives, we had a band and everything tip top, Chinese lanterns, and they kept it up till two in the morning. Yesterday we had a fearful gale. After I had "turned in" some time it came on. We were all called up by the Customs House officer as out cables were slipping and the stanchions were quickly bent double and all the awnings blown down - we have had such a business putting all straight again today - Mr. Hopkins asked some of us to go to a picnic with him tomorrow and the rest on Wednesday - I am going on Wednesday. He is so kind to us.
(end of fifth letter)
Feb. 16th. Sailed from Calcutta with Jute and Linseed for New York.
May 29th. Arrived at New York, passage 103 days from Calcutta, Chief Mate had a dance on board out of the money he received for the Ships cargo he sold (stolen property). G. Holland (apprentice) and C. Lloyd (apprentice) ran away from the Ship and went to Canada. Took a passenger on board for England.
May 29th. "We have made the smartest passage from Calcutta to New York as yet. A "four master" left Calcutta six months before us and only came in of the 5th. of this month so we are awfully proud of ourselves. We nearly ran ashore at the mouth of the river, there had been a thick fog for three days and even the pilots did not know where they were.
We were steering N. by W. as the Pilot told us to make for the Scotland Light, when we came to 5 fathoms of water, so turned and tacked about for the fog to clear, hearing fog horns all the time on all sides, but could see nothing. When we thought we were about three miles off we really were only one and we suddenly came upon a buoy, so we began to take in sail and were nearly on the top of it, but we put the wheel hard down and let go both anchors and found ourselves in 4 ½ fathoms of water. About 4 o'clock the fog cleared and we were towed up to Brooklyn and are now lying the other side of the river not in New York.
June 8th. An Engineer who has the superintendence of making all the canals and new bridges here has asked Vincent and me to dinner on Saturday. He lives in a nice house and 3 servants all by himself. As a rule the New York people are very stuck up and free and easy too in one way. A fellow of 18 came on board with his umbrella and school books and went up aloft and began to look about, when Purcell (one of our apprentices who is only 15) went after him to pay his footing, but as he refused we lashed him up there and left him and Purcell took his umbrella and strung it on another mast. After a time he managed to get out his knife and
cut the rope, then he went ashore and soon came back for his umbrella and took out a pistol, so Purcell went and got his umbrella and gave it to him and then knocked him down and ran away.
June 23rd. Sailed from New York in ballast for Cardiff. Encountered a gale of wind all the way across.
July 9th. Arrived at
Cardiff, passage 16 days from New York. Chief Mate put in jail for stealing
and selling the ships cargo.
Earl of Aberdeen
--- Third Voyage ---
Aug. 2nd. 1888 Joined the Ship again.
Aug. 4th. Sailed from Cardiff with coal for Colombo. Missed the ship on the day of sailing. Out in an open boat a day and a night. Found the ship outside Lundy Island. Crew refused to work whilst running down South. Two men put in irons.
Nov. 1st. "At sea 300 miles off Colombo. We are not making such a quick passage this time. Before we left Cardiff Vincent and I got into trouble. We were told to be on board by 10 o'clock on the night of the 3rd. of August and when we came on at 9 p.m. the Mate said we should not sail until the morning so we went off again and when we returned the ship had sailed, so we got we got a boat for (pounds) 2 to take us after her and we did not overtake her till we got to Lundy Island. The Captain was very angry, but I am glad to say I have quite got into his good books since that and he is awfully nice to me and has promised I am to be Captain of his gig when we get to Colombo. This means extra rating as well as promotion. I have been working hard in my spare time and am awfully glad I got those Navigation books in Cardiff. Tell Eric that new fellow we met at the Paddington Station is not such a bad fellow, he makes a
Capitol "fag" to me and does all my odd jobs just as I had to do for Day my first voyage. We have not seen a vessel now for forty days.
2nd. Arrived at Colombo,
passage 90 days from Cardiff.
3rd. "Arrived at last and had an invitation directly from my old friend on the "Ceylon", so I must go and look him up.
12th. Have had a few evenings on the "Ceylon" but have not had a day's leave since I have been here. The Captain has been very kind to me taking me about with him, so as I want to keep in with him I shall not ask for a day. I spent Sunday with him and we went to Church together in the morning, then he took me a drive all around the place in the afternoon.
(end of seventh letter)
18th. Sailed from Colombo in Ballast for Calcutta. Two days fishing for Turtle in the boats.
Dec. 16th. Arrived in Calcutta, passage 28 days from Colombo. Left two A.B.s sick in the Hospital with Cholera.
Jan. 7th. 1889 Sailed from Calcutta with Jute for Falmouth, for orders.
Fell from the Royal
Yard and caught by the 2nd. Mate.
Feb. 20th. Spoken east of Algoa Bay, March 6th. passed St. Helena, March 13th. Passed Ascension Island
April 24th. 1889 Arrived at Dundee passage 107 days from Calcutta.
26th. Home for 7 weeks.
Earl of Aberdeen
--- 4th Voyage ---
June 1889 Sailed from
Dundee through the Pentland Firth and round to Cardiff.
July 3rd. Sailed from Cardiff with coal for Colombo. Promoted to Third Mate on expiration of my Indentures.
Sept. 9th. "At sea Lat. 28 S. Lon. 71 E. I will write this letter in pieces through the week and post it on our arrival. We have not had a hot day since we crossed the Equator and we expect to be a fortnight more at least, at sea. I have often talked about bad weather, but I have never encountered such a gale before as we had this time around the Cape. We generally go a long way south of the Cape going out so as to get into the Westerly Winds: Well this time we went to about 43 South and we got more than we wanted. The seas were tremendous, they kept coming on deck one after the other. About half past one, one night a fearful one washed the whole of the deck: from midships right forward was all under water for two minutes. I thought she would bury herself right under and the seas kept rushing in on both sides. The Mate says she had about 70 tons of water on her deck. Had the wind fallen light or anything carried away
we should have gone to
the bottom for certain, but thank God we had no such ill luck. For two
days we could not see the horizon, the sea was so high, we could not
get anything hot from forward as we were not allowed on deck, but all
hands had to keep a sharp lookout in the safest place for icebergs.
It was awfully cold and with the hailstones and the seas you could not
keep dry at all.
pass when I come home. They are making the exams stiffer and if you fail in Seamanship you have to go to sea again 6 months. We caught a shark when we were on the other side of the Cape and had a great joke with him, or rather he with us - as soon as we got him on board he gave a fearful shake and unhooked himself so we all cleared off the deck as soon as we could and up the rigging: he flopped himself all about the deck & bit a rope clean in half with one bite; then he rolled off the poop on to the quarter deck which is about 10 feet and there he laid; so we all jumped down and thinking he was dead went to cut him open, when, all of a sudden up he got and soon cleared the deck again. One man could not get away in time and the shark got him in a corner, but the man jumped on him and after a great deal of kicking and struggling managed to cut off his tail: that made him fiercer, but as he was not then so strong we all went for him with knives and handspikes. He opened his mouth once for a bite when we thrust a handspike down as far as we could and that was about 8 feet until the end came out where we had cut his tail off and then we carried him all around the deck: We found a tin
of Baking Powder in him which the cook had dropped overboard the day before and the Captain gave us the tin, so we have been making a lot of pudding lately. There was no more inside him that day but our handspike.
(end of eighth letter)
25th. Arrived at Colombo, passage 100 days from Cardiff.
Oct. 12th. Sailed from Colombo in Ballast for Calcutta. Caught in the tail end of a cyclone, lost topgallant sails, Royals and several staysails.
29th. Arrived in Calcutta, passage 17 days. Whilst in Calcutta lost 2 A.B.s fell and killed with the topgallant yard.
Nov. 4th. " Wednesday last we were getting our topgallant and royal yards ready to send down (as we always do in Calcutta in the S.W. Monsoons) when the men thinking they would be extra smart took the parral of the yard off the mast and the consequence was the sudden drop made such a crash that three men fell off the yard and one came quite down with a crash on the deck and was smashed to pieces, three of his ribs going half an inch into the deck. The others saved themselves as they were falling but one has strained his arm and leg so severely as to be taken to hospital. The dead man was buried next day and we have put up a tombstone for him. But I must not let this all a sad letter, but will now tell you something more lively. Yesterday I had
a very pleasant Sunday.
Vincent knows the Chief Secretary of the P & O Company here and
he took me up with him and we had a splendid day. His name is Trelawney
and he is trying to get his son into the Indian Marine and I got him
some information about it, at which he was very pleased.
Nov. 30th. I have some excellent news for you this mail. The Captain told me he had been watching me all this voyage and he has promoted me to 3rd. Officer of the good Ship "Earl of Aberdeen" so I shall live in the cabin coming home and be quite "the gentleman" no more dirty work thank goodness. Our Chief Officer is going home to take Command of the "Earl of Shaftesbury" so all go up one. We shall soon be off now so will miss our Xmas, but shall have to make the best of it at sea. Now I am 3rd. Officer it will be different, I live in the cabin and have a berth all to myself.
(end of ninth letter)
Dec. 9th. 1889 Sailed from Calcutta with Jute for Dundee.
March 28th. 1890 Arrived at Dundee, passage 109 days from Calcutta.
Apr 4th. Left the Ship "Earl of Aberdeen".
Passed for 2nd. Mate in London.
Text copyright © 2006 Roger Barclay
Earl of Aberdeen images copyright © 2006 John Goulborn
Last revised: 9 September 2008
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Last revised: 12 November, 2015