Joseph Charles Eager
Evening Post, 1929
Joseph Charles Eager's own story
I was born at sea on 28 December 1838. My father, James Eager, was owner and master of the brig Tigress, of Plymouth, and my mother generally went to sea with him. I was born when the vessel was entering the English Channel on a voyage from Sierra Leone to London.
My mother died in 1840 [It was probably 1850, to fit with the other dates, and as shown at the bottom of this page, Joseph was actually born in 1846 - Ed], and my father was lost with his vessel in 1851. After my mother’s death, I was brought up by an uncle and aunt living in Tavistock. My uncle was a retired naval lieutenant, and one day, when ten years of age, I was sent out with a shilling to buy something which cost nine pence, and was told to bring back the change of three pence. So went my errand, brought back the change and put the three pence on the kitchen table, and then, as nobody was there, went out to play. When I came home the change had gone and my uncle, thinking that I had spent it, gave me a brutal thrashing.
I had an elder brother, James, who was educated at Greenwich School and after joined the Navy. Several years afterwards, when I was in Plymouth, I met a man in a Navy uniform who asked me whether I was Joe Eager. I said yes, and he told me that he was my brother, and said my uncle and aunt had tried to find me, and he suggested I returned to Tavistock.
'No', I said, 'my uncle beat me cruelly for three pence of change which I did not steal and I have done with him'. 'Three pence', said my brother. 'Why, I took that to buy a Jew’s harp.' We never met again.
So that night I ran away and came across a gypsy camp, and the gypsies took me in and were very kind to me. There was a German woman there who went about the country playing a barrel organ and she wanted a boy to join her, play the tambourine and collect the coppers while she played. So I was handed over to her, and she was just like a mother to me.
We wandered south for five months, and when we arrived at Shoreham the German woman was engaged to play one evening at an inn for the sum of 2s 6d and what she could collect. As I was going round with the tambourine, one of the guests seemed to take a fancy to me, and asked if I would like to go to sea. I said I wanted to go, and so, after speaking to the German woman, it was arranged that I should join the ship Blue Eyed Maid of Jersey, Captain John Kent, then discharging a cargo of oysters from Gorey, in Jersey.
The German woman gave the captain £4 to buy me a sea outfit. My wage was 5 shillings a week and I stayed with captain Kent and his wife for six years. They were very good to me, and after a while I had a share in the venture and sometimes earned as much as £4 a week.
The oyster trade off Gorey was then flourishing. There were about 40 Jersey smacks (fishing boats) employed in the trade, each carrying four or six hands, with tonnage varying from 10 to 30 tons. The Blue Eyed Maid was 30 tons, and sometimes we ventured across the channel to sell our cargo. Generally, when we had dredged sufficient oysters, we made for the shore and dumped the oysters in parks where they were picked over by land girls, who were paid 16 shillings a week.
There was only one baker, named Jacob, in Gorey, and one butcher, named Godfrey, and when the English smacks came over, which they did sometimes for a month at a time, it was no unusual thing to find three or four hundred vessels off Gorey in the oyster trade. This was during the years 1848 to 1854. Then Gorey was very busy, and sometimes it was difficult to get sufficient food. The oysters were taken to different ports in England and France.
After I had been oyster fishing for six years, I heard that a new vessel had been built at Bel Royal, called the Coeur de Lion, and wanted runners to take the vessel to Liverpool, where I was offered the job as cook at £2 5s a month on the vessel. She was to take a general cargo to New Holland (now Sydney) and the last lot of convicts to Botany Bay.
The convicts numbered 14, all men, and each convict had an iron band round the waist, joined to ankle straps by chains. These irons were never taken off, but the captain of Coeur de Lion was a humane man and a gentleman, and after having ascertained from the convict superintendent that there were no murderers among the convicts, he went forward and told them that if they would give him his word of honour that they would not interfere with the ship or crew, he would have their irons taken off and give them the freedom of the vessel.
All gladly accepted the captain’s terms, except one man named Kelly. The kind-hearted captain set him free for a couple of hours one day and he repaid the kindness by trying to murder the superintendent. So the irons were put on again until the arrival of the vessel at Botany Bay.
On arrival the other convicts were set free, given food and clothing, and tools and sent up country. Later on Kelly was set free, and he became a bush ranger and for a time led a somewhat exciting life. Then he was captured and not long afterwards executed. [Note Ned Kelly arrived in Australia in 1842 before Eager's time at sea.]
The Coeur de Lion was a vessel of 600 tons and carried a crew of 16 men. She only took 89 days for the voyage from Liverpool to Australia, a record in those days. When she returned to Liverpool the vessel was docked, so I joined an American vessel called the Sir Robert Hudson bound for San Francisco. I have been a teetotaller all my life, and on arrival at San Francisco I went ashore to have a look round. After a while I went into a coffee shop to have a cup of coffee, and enjoyed it so much that I had another, and remembered nothing more until I was being kicked into consciousness on board a vessel far out at sea.
I soon found out that I was on a slaver and that the vessel had no name. she was commanded by a Cornishman named Peter, and had a brutal Portuguese as mate. The vessel made for the west coast of Africa, where some 340 slaves, men woman and children, were taken on board and herded together in the hull of the vessel. I was not allowed to go ashore, and was warned that any sign of sympathy towards the slaves would be very dangerous to my health.
These 340 slaves had been engaged by a local king for some imaginary employment, only to find that the proposed temporary employment offered at good wages meant for life without any.
I made three trips on board this vessel, carrying slaves to Savannah, Carolina and New Orleans. Many slaves died on the voyage and all were brutally treated. As the vessel neared the destination the slaves were brought up two by two and prepared for market by being scrubbed down with a deck brush.
One of the slaves carried on the first voyage was the discarded wife of the king. She was a very handsome woman, a half caste, about 28 years of age, and she fought tooth and nail for her freedom when she was brought on board. But the odds were against her and she was brutally treated.
One of the deck hands of the slaver told me that three voyages before I was brought on board they had been chased by a British sloop of war, and as it was a serious matter to be in the slave trade, the 300 slaves were brought on deck and dumped overboard.
When the vessel arrived at New Orleans I heard that a Russian vessel was to sail the next morning, so during the night I slipped overboard and swam to the Russian vessel and hid myself on board. The vessel was anchored about 80 yards from our ship and was bound for Archangel.
When the vessel had got to sea I presented myself to the captain, who spoke English, and told him my story and he allowed me to sign on as a Russian on board his vessel.
Back to Jersey
After discharging a cargo at Archangel, the Russian vessel sailed for St Petersburg and I then went to the British Consul who sent me on to Hull and eventually to Jersey.
I then got a job on board the cutter George, of Jersey (Captain Kent), and we sailed to Brittany to get a cargo of apples for Liverpool.
After a passage of five days we arrived at Liverpool, and the girl came down to the ship to buy apples. I noticed a young girl, about 14 years of age, very dirty and verminous, and I ordered her off the ship. She went on quay and began crying, and the captain passing by asked what the matter was. She said she had been ordered off the ship by me, that she had no mother or father and nowhere to go, and that she was trying to earn a little money by selling apples.
The captain asked me why I had ordered her of the ship and I explained that she was so filthy and verminous. The captain was a very kind-hearted man, and he said to me: 'Joe, don’t you think that if I gave you half a pound of tobacco you could get some hot water and wash that girls head?' I did not like the job, but I did it, and having given her some hot water, she went into the hold and thoroughly washed herself. The captain then got some clothes from a friend ashore and these we gave to her with a new clean basket, and he burned the old rags which she had previously worn. She then went into the city with her apples and did good business, and while we were in Liverpool we looked after her.
A few years afterwards when I was walking in one of the streets of Glasgow a smartly dressed young woman came up to me and asked whether I did not know her. I said 'no' and did not want to. But she said 'do you remember the apple girl at Liverpool?' it then dawned on me that she was my old friend, and said that after we had left, she got a job and had married and was very happy. She took me to her home and introduced me to her husband, and when I left she gave me a gold ring which later on I gave to my wife.
After leaving Liverpool the George made for port Dinorwic near Caernarfon, for a cargo of slate for Jersey, and after loading and sailing we were caught in a storm and had to take shelter in Holyhead.
We were kept there over a month by the contrary winds and had very little money and very little food, for the captain could get no advance on freight or cargo. When we did get away the George began to leak badly and we only managed to get into the old harbour in Jersey just in time. On examination the vessel was found to be in a very bad state and was condemned as unfit for sea.
I was then about 22 years of age and was out of a job, but I came across my wife, a Jersey woman, and as she had a little money we married and I stayed ashore for a while. I was called up by the military and joined the East regiment and rose to the rank of corporal.
I then thought I would join the Navy and went to see Commander Cecil Burney of the Royal Navy who was then in charge of HMS Jersey, a stone built ship on Gorey hill, used for preparing boys for the Navy (the ship was fully rigged). [The naval training school never bore the name HMS Jersey. Unlike most Navy shore establishments, it was never given the 'HMS' epithet - editor] who told me that I was too old, but said that I could attend the navigation classes on board the ship. I did so well that he suggested my going to Captain John Le Dain’s classes at Plymouth, and get my mate’s ticket. I told him it was impossible on account of the expense. He generously gave me £5 and I went and passed the examination and I got my certification as 2nd mate.
After getting my certificate, Captain Le Dain obtained a berth on board the brig Ocean, of Jersey (Captain Brache) and owned by Mr Ottley of Commercial Buildings. She carried about 600 tons and was chartered by the Government to take munitions to Gibraltar, Malta, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and return to Plymouth with obsolete Government stores.
I was on this vessel for 14 months when, on a voyage from Cadiz to London with fruit, and when the vessel was in the Bay of Biscay, a block fell and hit me on the shoulder, rendering me insensible, and I had to be taken into Bayonne, and put in hospital, were I remained for over a month.
When I recovered I returned home and then got a job on the Rose, of Harwich, carrying about 300 tons of coal and general cargo for Iceland. When off Iceland, a thick fog came on and the Rose ran on the rocks. We were sent home by the British Consul.
In 1873 I obtained command of the schooner Commodore, of Jersey, 150 tons, belonging to Buesnel and Le Quesne, of St Malo, and the vessel was dismasted in a storm between the Kentish Knock and the Gallopers and taken into Ramsgate. I lost my job and this was my only command.
I joined many ships after that, going to India, China, Japan, Africa, and other parts of the world, and when able seaman on the German passenger steamer Chemintz of Bremen, going to Australia, a little child fell overboard and, seeing her floating astern of the vessel being held up by her clothes, I jumped overboard and held her until a boat was lowered from the steamer and we were saved. The child and her mother were going out to Melbourne to join the father who had been successful in gold digging.
The passengers on board made a collection for me, and I was presented with £15 and later on when we arrived in Australia, I was given a silver medal and more money.
During 1879 I was wrecked three times. I was AB on the Harvest Man, formerly of Jersey, when in a dead calm she was run down by the French steamer St Lorance, of Le Havre, off the Lizard, and only myself and another Jerseyman named Philip Langlois were saved. I managed to save my life by jumping overboard just before the collision.
I got hold of a lifebuoy, and when in the water I saw a head come up, and seized it, and made Langlois get hold of the lifebuoy. After being about an hour in the water we were picked up by the Peggy of Padstow, and taken to Plymouth.
After the Board of Trade inquiry had been held, I joined an American brigantine, the Tregarth, of New York, bound with a cargo of ore for Neath in the Bristol Channel, and when about to enter the Channel, a very heavy fog came on and we struck Trevose Head, near the entrance of Patstow, and were taken off from the vessel by a boat from the shore.
We had no sooner landed than the Tregarth slid off the rocks and foundered. When at Newport I heard that the Grace, of Jersey, bound for Jersey with rails for the eastern railway, wanted a hand. She was a smack of about 50 tons and was very old (about 80 years old) and very badly found. The AB had deserted her the night before.
When off Ilfracombe I happened to go down below, and to my astonishment found the cabin half full with water. We managed to get into Ilfracombe Harbour and, after having had the vessel overhauled and caulked, renewed our voyage, but when we got between Hartland Point and Lundy Island, the cabin began to take in water and the vessel began to tremble. So we got out the boat and had just got away when the Grace went to the bottom.
Three wrecks in nine months were enough, so I decided to try to get a job ashore. I got a job with Mr Tostevin, who was building the new markets, and worked there until 1881, when Richard Henwood, Francis Quenault and myself were given the job of pulling down the old pork market. Later that year Fred Barton, George Diamond and I fitted all the rails round the new market under Mr Dyson, who had the contracts for the ironwork.
Mr Blakeney, the postmaster, then gave me a job under Mr Campbell, late RE, who was employed by the post office. In 1902, after 20 years service, I was discharged with no pension.
From 1902 until 1908 I did odd jobs at the piers and worked with the National Telephone Company for five years, until it was taken over by the Post Office. I managed to get odd jobs after that until the war.
When war broke out I knew that if I stayed in Jersey I would have no chance to do my bit, so I went over to Southampton, and went to the government office and asked what was the age limit for an artificer who was accustomed to engineering work.
I was told 60 years, and having told the recruiting officer that I was 59, I was allowed to join as a civilian and sent over to Le Havre in a hospital ship. On arrival I was employed in discharging ammunition, but a sergeant of the Engineers, hearing that I had been employed at telegraph work, engaged me as a civil helper and took me to St Valery-sur-Somme, where Colonel Hodgkins engaged me as assistant to the Engineers.
I was handed over to a Corporal who doubted my capability of climbing a pole, so he ordered me to climb a 30ft pole, which I did, and when I got to the top, enquired what was next to be done, he told me to come down again. When we got to the mess the Corporal told the other boys that none of them could climb the pole like me. We stayed at St Valery for a fortnight, and then were ordered on to Albert, when we erected cages for Germans prisoners.
When we were ordered to Ypres to demolish a pole, a bomb fell at my feet with a time fuse. I had my clippers in my hand, so I simply cut off the fuse and went on to the next pole. A man killed alongside me was named Du Fresne, of Jersey.
I had not got far when I was called before Colonel Hodkins, who asked me if I realised what I had done, and he then told me that if I had not cut that fuse they might all have been blown to pieces.
On 31 October 1914 we were two miles away when the battle of Ypres began. The Germans succeeded in cutting a salient through, and if they had fired up there success they might have got though to Calais. We were terribly short of shells.
We returned to Albert and remained there for five days, when we were ordered to a place called Cheville to make a tunnel, which took us a week, when we were sent to Verdun to assist the French. But we only stayed there about three days when we were ordered back to Albert. We wanted a drum of field wire, so Sgt Tapper and I went to Contil Maison to get it. On arrival we saw that the Northumberland Fusiliers were there, and I had a son who was a sergeant in this regiment. He saw me came up and asked me what I was doing there. I told him 'You don’t expect to win the war all by yourself, do you?'
Sergeant Tapper said 'is this your father?'
'Yes', replied my son, 'What do you think of him?'
Sergeant Tapper said that I was the smartest man for 60 that he had ever met.
'60?' said my son, '77'.
The sergeant looked grave and said he must report it or else he would get into trouble. So when we returned he reported it to Colonel Hodkins, and latter on I was called before Marshal French. General Petain was with him. Marshal French said that I could not remain in the lines as, if anything happened to me at my age, there would be a terrible time in parliament. He would send me to Leeds to make munitions.
General Petain gave me a medal, as he said France must do something for a man who volunteered at 77, so I came back to England and worked at munitions near Leeds, until one day I was told I must go to London and would be met at the station. I put on my best clothes, and on arrival at London was put into a motor and driven to Buckingham Palace, where I was taken before the King, who presented me with a Civilian Meritorious Medal.
The King asked me whether I was the type of man who came from Jersey, and he then turned to her Majesty the Queen, who was present, and said 'we must visit these islands'.
I remained at these works until an age limit was ordered and I retuned to Jersey.
When the ss Ena, of Stockton, from Granville, ran on the rocks off the Minquiers, and Mr Le Sueur, coal merchant, bought the wreck and engaged Mr Harper, an engineer, to salve her if possible. I was engaged by Mr Harper to assist, and we managed to get the Ena afloat by pumping air into the main hold. Mr Harper, Captain Noel, Connors, myself, and a fisherman from La Rocque, went aboard the tug Wellington taking the Ena in tow.
We had not proceeded far before the Ena began to blow water into the air and I then knew that she was going to founder, and with all haste made for the small boat towing behind.
Mr Harper and Captain Noel were on the bridge and went down with the vessel, but Mr Harper came to the surface holding Captain Noel, and held him afloat until we came to their assistance. The captain was in a very exhausted state. He could not swim and the end of his tongue had gone into his gullet.
The war was over and on 19 July 1919, sports were held at Westmount and there was a veterans' race for those over 45. I was then 81 years of age, but I entered among the 30 competitors and came in fourth, winning a butter dish, which I am very proud of.
My life has been full of incidents and I get great pleasure in living in the past. I have had many kindnesses shown me.