A Visitors Book - the story of a chance find

 

 

 Mike and Jo Smith recently bought the book, together with some other items, at an auction in Diss, Norfolk.

 

 Jo spotted the signature from HMS HOOD and kindly asked

  Peter Down, the Hon. Sec. of the Ton Class Association, to view the book.

 

 Having read the contents Peter's reaction was "Off on a Quest ……."

What follows are the fruits of his labour.

 

 

 West African Regiment Visitors Book Among the latest acquisitions at Marshland Maritime Museum, owned and run by Mike and Jo Smith, is the Visitors Book of the Officers’ Mess of the West African Regiment in Freetown, Sierra Leone for the years 1923 – 1928. Clearly there will be Visitors Books covering other periods but these have not yet come to light. Visitors Book pictured with Mike and Jo’s granddaughter Lizzie The book provides a fascinating window into aspects of British Colonial History, as it records the visits of people from many different backgrounds, military and civilian.
Not surprisingly for that era, the visitors are all European, predominately British, including officers from other regiments stationed in West Africa or passing through en route to postings in other parts of the British Empire. There are also bankers, senior managers of trading companies with West African operations, “socially significant” British people passing through, civil engineers, senior officials of the railway company, and staff of the Cable Station and the cable laying ship TRANSMITTER, maintaining and extending that vital communications link to the empire and dominions in India and beyond, and across the Atlantic to British interests in South America
On particularly auspicious occasions, such as the birthday of George V, the King Emperor, the Governor himself was entertained in the Mess.
What particularly caught Jo’s eye in the saleroom was the entry for 9 December 1923 when Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Field and a high powered group of Wardroom Officers from HMS HOOD, including Major Hickman of the Royal Marines Light Infantry (C.O. of the RM Detachment ?) and Paymaster Commander Jersey ( Admiral’s Secretary ?) visited the Mess.
The Visitors Book is a goldmine for some historical research into who the visitors were and some speculation as to why they came ? Starting point for research was the West African Regiment; a military formation, currently not widely known. It was raised in 1896 from “native levies” to protect the important harbour and trading centre of Freetown. This part of West Africa was known as the “White Man’s Grave” and British troops rapidly succumbed to fever. Attempts to replace them by contingents from the West Indies Regiment from the Caribbean were not successful, hence the local solution of raising an infantry force from the indigenous peoples. The West African Regiment raised twelve companies of infantry, comprising 1500 Africans in the ranks with 60 Officers and 25 Senior NCOs seconded from British regiments. The West African Regiment should not be confused with the comparable West African Field Force, a paramilitary unit also of native troops and white officers, whose costs were borne by the Foreign and Colonial Office. World War 1 extended into West (and East) Africa and both the WAR and WAFF were engaged in actions in the neighbouring German colonies of Togoland and Cameroon. There was even an amphibious operation at Yabassi in 1914 supported by the Royal Navy using locally impressed vessels - somewhat reminiscent of the early days in Borneo in 1962-63, though on a grander scale and with more “lessons to be learned”.
The West African Regiment, whose Colonel in Chief was the then Prince of Wales, was disbanded in 1928 among the cost cutting measures that followed the Great War. Officers of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines visited the WAR Officers Mess; there appears to have been a guardship stationed at Freetown and other units would have called at the port on passage. RN Ships listed in the Visitors Book include:
• 9 Dec 1923 HMS Hood during her world cruise with the Special Service Squadron (see below) An officer from HMS Danae, one of Hood’s escorting cruisers, was also present
• 24 Jan 1925 Cruiser HMS Dublin saying Goodbye after four years as Guardship ?
• 31 Jan 1925 HMS Endeavour – Survey Ship spending two or more years on station
• 22 Oct 1925 HMS Delphinium – Arabis-class Minesweeping Sloop, possibly local squadron, as he appears several times
• Jan 1926 HMS Dwarf – another sloop, possibly an addition to the local squadron
• Nov 1926 Cable Ship Transmitter – in the area for some time, presumably for maintenance and extension of cable services.
• Dec 1926 Cruiser HMS Birmingham relieving HMS Lowestoft as Guardship
• March 1926 Sloop HMS Daffodil – Minesweeping sloop relieving a ship of the local squadron ? Several subsequent visits.
• Dec 1926 HMS Birmingham – saying Goodbye on leaving station ?
• Dec 1927 HM Battleships Ramilles and Barham - detached from Mediterranean Fleet to show the flag in West Africa December 1927- February 1928, possibly tying in with disbandment of the regiment and hence a show of strength, hoping to reassure British residents ?
Histories of all the ships mentioned in the Visitor’s Book have been compiled. These are assisting better to understand the times and events in this period of transition before the profound effects of World War Two and subsequent independence of the countries of West Africa.
There are undoubtedly more nuggets to be found among this innocent list of signatures.

Cruise of the Special Service Squadron 1923-24

 

In 1923–24, HMS HOOD and the Special Service Squadron sailed around the world on The Empire Cruise, making many ports of call in the countries which had fought together during the First World War. The Squadron departed Devonport on 27 November 1923 and headed for Sierra Leone.[1] The fleet would separate at various points of the cruise with the battlecruisers passing through the Panama Canal, while some cruisers carried around Cape Horn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fleet sailed from HMNB Devonport on 27 November 1923, and headed for Freetown, Sierra Leone. Whereupon the fleet was greeted by the Governor of Sierra Leone. Food and provisions were taken aboard after the journey of 2805 miles.

 

The Commander of HMS HOOD visited the Officers Mess of the West African Regiment on 9th December 1923.

The ships then sailed to Cape Town and arrived 22 December, adding a further 3,252 miles to the cruise distance. Some of the sailors and marines performed in a ceremonial march, to great fanfare.

The fleet sailed for a short visit to Mossell Bay, East London and Durban, where the fleet left South Africa on 6 January 1924 for Zanzibar.

 A new item of memorabilia has been acquired recording this event                             to view

Acknowledgements

 

West African Regiment - International Encyclopaedia of the First World War and Professor George Njung of the University of Michigan

 

Ships Histories - Wikipedia and www.Leander-project.homecall.co.uk/Sloops

 

Author & Compiler of the above item - Peter Down JP FBCS & Hon. Sec. of the Ton Class Association

 A note from Peter Down - I was a little concerned that by highlighting one exhibit we might be “undervaluing” some of the others. It is probable that many of the other exhibits would have similarly interesting tales to tell, IF we had the time and trigger to carry out more research.

 

However I accept that there is an additional dimension in the story of the Visitor’s Book and that is the element of Chance or Good Luck . If Jo had not spotted the HOOD signatures, they might not have bid for the book and a lot of history would have remained in the twilight.

 

“Histories of the other ships mentioned are available on request”.

 

 If anyone has an interesting tale to tell about an item they have seen on this website or during a visit to the museum please get in contact.