V.C. Magazine, May 21, 1903



Told by Mr. Frank T. Bullen.


Here is a man who for more than twenty years has known the sea and the men who go down to it in ships. He made his first voyage when he was thirteen, and was wrecked on that voyage. He has served as A. B. and as mate. He knows the merchant vessel from end to end, the merchant sailor through and through.

“It is a man’s life,” he said, in answer to a question. “But it is not the life I should choose for a son of mine. Often it takes all the finer edge off a man’s character. You have fifteen men cooped up in a room the size of this”—we were in Mr. Bullen’s den—“many of them the scum of the earth, and you are with them always. You can’t get away from them. I know no greater hardship than that. But the life does one thing for a man—it gives him presence of mind. He does the most magnificent actions on the spur of the moment without a second thought. It is a very curious thing—the whole point of view is shifted. Nothing seems changed. We used to talk on the same trivial subjects and live in much the same sort of way. The man with a strain of weakness in him would knuckle under to the bully just as in the world outside. And then something would happen to call for what would seem to most people an act of extraordinary bravery, and the act would be done. It was all in the day’s work.

“But the finest thing I have ever seen? Directly you asked me that, my mind went at once to one episode. I shall never forget it.

“We were at Port Chalmers, the port of Dunedin in New Zealand. There were five ships there. One of our men, Ballantyne—Billy Ballantyne —was a chum of a man on the Duke of Argyll, a huge fellow, over six feet high. Billy was as short as the other was tall, not an inch over five feet, but very broad and muscular. These two fellows went on shore one afternoon together, and in the evening we saw them coming back along the wharf. Billy was not quite sober, but he knew what he was doing. The other man was perfectly drunk. I could see that Billy was doing all he knew to steer him, and they were tacking from side to side all over the wharf. Well, at last Billy managed to get him to his own ship, and saw him to his bunk. Then he came back to us. He was very depressed. I think the liquor was beginning to work. ‘I’m done up,’ he said. ‘I’ve had an awful time with ——, keeping him out of the way of Old Coffee.’ Coffee was the policeman. Of course, the man would have got forty-eight hours for being drunk. ‘For two pins,’ said Billy, ‘I’d go on shore again and get blind.’ ‘No! Don’t do that, Billy,’ I said; ‘you go and lie down.’ We were still talking—we were out on deck at the time—when we heard shouts above us. We looked up, and there was the drunken man. He had got out of his ship, and was trying to walk the gangway that joined us to the wharf. He was swaying about, and, as we looked, down he went between us and the side of the wharf. Billy was off like a flash. A second before he had seemed dull and half-asleep, but directly the man fell he was at the side in an instant. It seemed to me that he flung himself over the side, but what he really did was to catch hold of the fender and climb down. Try to imagine it! The space between the wharf and the side of the ship was not much more than a yard. It was pitch-black—as black as the mouth of a coal-shaft, and the tide raced through like a mill-stream, and all the side of the wharf was encrusted with long seaweeds. We lowered ropes, and waited. We could hear them cursing and swearing and lashing the water about. And then the noise stopped. About ten minutes afterwards up came Billy’s voice from the darkness: ‘Aren’t any of you going to heave us a rope?’ We were up pretty quick at that. ‘There’s plenty of ropes, Billy,’ we sang out. ‘They’re hanging all over the side.’ He managed to get hold of one, and—how he did I have never been able to make out, for there was nothing to hold on to while he was doing it—he rigged a bowline round his huge chum’s waist, and we hauled him up. When we had got him on board, Billy caught hold of another rope, and came up it hand over hand. The first thing he did when he reached the deck was to go to where his chum was lying—he was full of water, of course—and roll him about and bring him to. When he had done that, he saw him safely to his ship. Then he came back, went to his bunk, and turned in as if nothing had happened. I shall never forget that.

“My heroes,” he added reminiscently, “are all of the commonplace type, whose deeds get no V.C.  I saw this same man, Ballantyne, save another life some time afterwards. There was a boy called Jim Riley on board, the sort of boy who had no business at sea at all. He was subject to epileptic fits. He and Billy were aloft on the yards, a hundred and twenty feet from the deck, when Riley was taken with one of these fits. He simply collapsed off the yard like a sack. Billy got a grip of a rope with one hand, caught Riley with the other as he was falling, and slowly hauled him up beside him. He was a heavy boy, too.

“I saw Billy last about three years ago, when I was in Aberdeen. He lost an arm, and had to get a job as a porter at Aberdeen Station. Billy’s chum on our ship is a skipper now. Unfortunately, courage by itself will not lift a man. But Billy was splendid—the very best type of man in his own rough-and-tumble world. No thought of self whatever. Always ready to do a good turn for a friend at any risk and inconvenience to himself.”

“I suppose, really, the merchant service is full of men like that?”

“There are a great many of them. But, on some ships, if a man does anything on his own initiative, he gets reprimanded by those above him. ‘Why did you do that?’ ‘I thought it would be a good thing.’ ‘What business have you to think? I am paid to do the thinking here.’ That sort of thing is deadly. It destroys a man’s character. That type of mate is usually the man who is conscious of having very little dignity, and who wishes to conceal the fact.

“A merchant service training, I find, gives one presence of mind, but it does not cure one of the nervousness caused by delay and anticipation. When I lecture, for example, I am never nervous on the platform. But if I have to wait for a quarter of an hour beforehand, with nobody to speak to, I get quite unstrung. Now, on a ship that feeling is at its worst. Take the case of a second mate, new to his post, and very anxious to do nothing wrong. He sees a black cloud coming up. Well, it may mean either rain or wind. If he furls sail, and only rain comes, the captain is sarcastic, and asks him if he is afraid of every cloud he sees. If he carries on, and the cloud brings wind, and the wind does damage which might have been prevented, the captain accuses him of having been asleep. But, mind you, directly the wind does come, he is himself again at once, and ready to do just as much as it is possible for a man to do, and to do it just as well as it can be done. It is the waiting that is the worst.”

P. G. Wodehouse.





The second ‘Bravest Deed I Ever Saw’ is told to P.G. by Frank T. Bullen, British author and novelist who took to the sea at the age of 12 and is noted for his many books, including The Cruise of the Cachelot, Idylls of the Sea, The Log of a Sea-Waif, and The Call of the Deep. Bullen’s tale is of seaman Billy Ballantyne, who saved the life of a drunken sailor who had fallen into the sea.


John Dawson