Read CHAPTER I - EARLY DAYS of From Lower Deck to Pulpit , free online book, by Henry Cowling, on

Kingsand, though but a village in size, has a history of its own. Situated about five miles from Plymouth, on the Cornish coast, and being a fishing port, the inhabitants are on intimate terms with the sea. In the summer months one may observe many an indication of this relationship or intimacy’. Youngsters run about the beach and the village barefooted, most of them wearing the orthodox blue jersey, whilst young women, and even older ones, love to sit on the rocks near the sea and work away with their sewing or knitting, and, I must not forget to add, with their tongues also. Strange and startling are the stories one may hear which have been handed down from one generation to another concerning the smuggling days of long, long ago and yet not so long ago, for even at this time of day my mother often narrates hair breadth escapes of smugglers which happened in her girlhood. In this village I was born on the 9th of April 1874. In visiting Kingsand from time to time, I have often stood and gazed at the old house in which I was born not that any recollections in connection with it survive in my memory, for when I was only five weeks old, my father, who was in the navy, received an appointment as a gunnery instructor in the Royal Naval Reserve battery in the far north.

Sometimes my mother indulges in a retrospect, and I love to hear her tell of that May morning when, she bade ‘farewell’ to her loved ones and dear old Kingsand, and how, wrapping me in a large shawl, she proceeded to Cremyll, a distance of three miles, from whence we were transported across the harbour to Plymouth in the ferry boat. Then came the long and tedious journey to Maryport. Sweet mother! how pathetic to me it all now seems.

We resided at Maryport two years, during which time my eldest sister was born. Often would my mother carry me into the battery, and at the sight of the large guns, and the queer looking helmets hanging on the walls, my little smile would be converted into vehement crying. How little I dreamed then of my familiarity with them in after years! But I must not anticipate.

After completing our stay here, my parents returned to Kingsand, but only for a brief period. It was at, this period that I met with my first accident. Crawling away from the front door I made all possible speed to a large tank of water close by. In looking upon it from an elevated bank of ground, I overbalanced myself and fell headlong into it. When rescued, my nose was bleeding profusely. It was a lesson to me, for during the few subsequent weeks we remained in Kingsand I remembered my ‘dive,’ and gave the tank a wide margin.

We soon removed to Millbrook, a large village situated a mile and a half from Kingsand. In those days the quay at Millbrook was picturesque with groups of watermen who gained an honest livelihood by ferrying passengers to Devonport and back. But former things have passed away; and now two sets of steamers, well adapted for shallow water (for the landing-piers at Millbrook are governed by the ebb, and flood tide), have almost entirely dispensed with passenger-boats, and the trip from Millbrook to Devonport, or vice versa, costs the modest sum of one penny. People on the town side of the harbour take advantage of this, for on public holidays thousands of towns-people may be seen wending their way through the main streets of Millbrook, bound for the famous Whitsands, there to spend the day on the seashore.

Never let anyone despise Millbrook, for, socially speaking, it may be regarded as an adjunct of Devonport. There is an interchange of passengers every day, and several hundred yardmen, who work in His Majesty’s naval dockyard, together with many naval men, leave Millbrook every morning. Added to these, there are housewives, and their name is legion, who cross the harbour on Saturdays for the purpose of shopping, for they are cute enough to realise that their steamer fare can be cleared on two pounds of sugar-that is to say, the same article would cost a penny extra at home. In addition, then, to the profits gained on other articles which they purchase for their baskets are of no mean size the pleasant cruise across the harbour costs practically nothing. As a result of this steamer traffic, trade has dwindled considerably in Millbrook.

I speak of Millbrook as an adjunct of Devonport. Perhaps some will object to this, as both places are located in separate counties, the former in Cornwall, the latter in Devon; others, who may be somewhat narrow in thought, may think this view of mine reduces Devonport in the scale of townships. However, as the ties between the two places are so strong that even water cannot separate them, I hope to be forgiven if my estimation of the village as an adjunct be incorrect.

The village itself is a pleasant place and lovely to behold. Like a nest built in the heart of a thick tree, so Millbrook lies within the heart of a beautiful valley. It is bounded by the Maker Heights on the right, and the high cliffs on the left and in the bend. Hard by are Mount Edgcumbe Park, and the Hamoaze in full view. Enough: I will say no more as to the description of it, lest my readers may think me vain. But I cannot refrain from asking in this connection: Who would not be proud of being a Millbrooker?

My conscious experience of life began in Millbrook. Well do I remember the morning when with a company of other little boys I was marched away from the girls’ school where I had hitherto been as a young scholar, to the boys’. Then followed the long and tedious years of school-life. Did I like my school-days at Millbrook? To this question I must give an emphatic No. One day my companion and I showed this dislike in a very practical manner. It was the custom to take our books to school in the morning, and to bring them away at the expiration of the day’s teaching. On the day in question we departed from this rule by bringing away our books at noon, our object being to spend the afternoon in taking a walk on the country road. When the bell rang at 2 p.m. for the purpose of resuming work, we made off in an opposite direction to the school. We considered it would not be wise to carry our slates and books in our hand, and therefore by way of protection, we stuffed them under our waistcoats. This gave us the appearance of an abnormal size, and a curious shape, at least I thought so; for everyone we met looked upon us with an air of suspicion. I have often wondered since, whether or not this suspicion grew out of experience in the life of many whom we passed that day-whether or not they really knew what we were doing. Certainly we did not know what we were doing, for we entered the village at 3.30 p.m. (school-time was over at 4 p.m.) half an hour too soon. “How is it you are out of school so early?” asked our respective mothers. What a dilemma we were in! Suffice it to say, that my mother said “she was not sure but what she should report this matter to my father.” Did she? No; ere my father returned at even, I resorted to a happy way I had of rendering house-hold assistance, such as putting coal on the fire, etc., which I knew would go a long way to dull the memory of my afternoon’s walk in my mother’s mind. In the evening when father came home he asked the question as was his wont: “How has Henry been to-day?” “As good as gold,” replied mother.

What about my companion? How fared it with him? He is able to inform you best on that point, for he learned by experience on that occasion the awful sting of a leather strap. Never since in his lifetime has he been half an hour before time. Who can tell the injury a leather strap may do!

From my very earliest days the desire to become a preacher was ever present with me, which desire became intensified as the years sped by. As a strong manifestation of this fact, I was often found in the garden addressing the cabbages, which in my youthful fancy represented the congregation, and on Sunday evenings when my parents were at chapel, a habit of mine was to rear a chair upside down against the wall, get within the bars of my chair-pulpit, and address my two sisters.

Strange to say, running parallel to this habit of preaching was a fond love for the water, and it may be said in a literal sense that I was as fond of it as a duck. I am told that when an infant under the care of any person other than my mother, nothing in the world would quiet me except a bowl of water and a sponge to play with. Naturally this liking developed, as you will see. Separated by a thick wall from the Millbrook lake is a large mill-pond, which, when emptied of water, is very muddy. How we, as schoolboys, delighted to roll in this mud (for what is dirty to a school-boy?) and then jump over the other side of the wall and swim in the wake of the paddle-wheel steamer! On one occasion, the Vicar, who from the vicarage could watch our habits, observed that during the day I had bathed nine times, which thing, he gave my parents to understand, was very weakening. “Twice a day,” said he, “is often enough.” I think so too, now, but did not then.

On Saturdays a party of us boys would wend our way to the Whitsands for the purpose of bathing in the open sea. This we regarded as something totally different from that of our daily bathings in the lake; and in point of fact it was, for the water was purer and fresher, and soft golden sands took the place of mud strewed with broken pieces of glass and other refuse. Oh! how we loved to rush headlong through the giant waves which came bounding in from seaward. How much better was this than learning a proposition of Euclid! The boy who swam furthest out to sea was looked upon as the hero of the hour, indeed through the whole week, until Saturday came again, when some other boy would endeavour to swim beyond the limit of the previous week. In this way we instituted a competition between ourselves in the art of swimming.

One Saturday the scene changed, for after the delight of bathing came misery; after joy came pain. It is ever so. The shadow is always with the light. After dressing ourselves, we made a hasty retreat over the rocks, as it had now begun to rain, when lo! my foot was caught in a crevice. I wriggled it to and fro, with the hope of extricating it, but in vain. The other boys were now a long distance In front, and there with my foot jammed between the rocks was I, like a rabbit caught in the gin, shouting “Mother! Mother!” though she were four miles away. If ever I needed a trumpet voice, it was then. At length by the help of a friend who came to relieve me, I was set at liberty. For many years after this incident, my ankle-bone remained swollen a memento of that Saturday afternoon.

But I must pass on. I was now nine years of age and organist in the Wesleyan Sunday School, having for the past two years studied music under my father. Added to this, I formed part of the Wesleyan church choir. Sunday therefore to me was a very busy day, made exceptionally so, as apart from church and school work, the intervals were filled up with music and singing at home, in which all the family joined. Our house was indeed a house of song.

It was now determined by my parents that I be sent to a Devonport school, as I had passed out of the seven standards in the school at home. Accordingly a contract was entered into between the schoolmaster and my father, forms were duly filled in, and I was to begin my schooling on the following Monday. This I looked forward to with the utmost pleasure: one reason being, and not the least, that it meant two trips in the steamer every day; but judge of my grief when on the Sunday it became apparent that I had the measles. So the next morning, Instead of going off in the steamer to school, I was kept in bed, and for seven weeks was confined at home.

When well enough to go out again, I, with two other boys, decided to join the Navy (I was now twelve years old). We sauntered along the road until we reached the pier, and there, right before us, stood the leviathan training ship H.M.S. ‘Impregnable.’ My little heart quailed within me at the very sight of her, a great fear overshadowed me, and I lost no time in returning to Millbrook. On my return journey I was half sorrowful and yet half glad that I did not go on board a strange feeling. The two other boys, who were many years my senior, did not pass the medical examination, and consequently were rejected for the service.

Steps were taken again with a view to my schooling at Devonport; this time I went, and these school-days I recall with pleasure, though they were fraught with a powerful temptation, which I shall presently describe. I have a vivid recollection of the first day. Steaming up the lake at very low water, and being somewhat foggy, our boat stuck on the mud. Worst of all, it was ebb tide, and here we had to wait for the return of the in flowing tide. We schoolboys gathered together in the engine-room and did our home-lessons. In a few hours we floated and very soon reached the landing place, and we arrived at home about midnight. That was the first and last time I ever did my lessons afloat, or rather on the mud.

The object my parents had in sending me across the harbour to school was that I might receive an efficient training to enable me to pass the Dock-yard Civil Service examination which, by the way, is locally considered the highest distinction a boy can attain, providing he be qualified to pass the examiner. No romance is connected with these days, save that on one occasion my companion asked me to accompany him to Devonport Park to watch a football match instead of attending school in the afternoon. Remembering the leather strap to which I have already referred, and thinking that with this new schoolmaster I might have a second taste of what my poor friend received on that memorable day, though not with a strap, yet with something just as sweet, I considered it wise not to visit the park.

But this boy used much persuasion, and in a short time we stood in the park watching the game, which proved not so interesting as he had anticipated. “Shall we go to school?” he asked. “We shall have time to get there before it opens.” “No,” I replied; “you have persuaded me to come here, and now I shall stay.” We both did. I never played truant again after this day. Did the schoolmaster become acquainted with this breach of discipline? No; or I am afraid he would not have given me such a testimonial as I now hold in my possession.

At this juncture I became a member of the drum and fife band, under the supervision of the Millbrook Band of Hope Committee. Never shall I forget our bandmaster. He was a strict disciplinarian. No looseness was allowed in our playing; thoroughness was stamped on every tune we played. On practice nights he took each of the boys aside, and one by one each had to play the music as set every note must be clear and distinct. Occasionally our band would march through the village, the drum major with his staff leading.

Those days of memory, so near and yet so far!

Then came the Sunday when he was lowered in the dark, cold grave, and we solemnly played whilst encircled around it

“Goodnight, beloved, not farewell!”

He went home to Music-Land, where they praise Him day and night.

One day we shall all meet again, and together with him we will tune our song to harps of gold.