The parents and grandparents of Heaton History Group member, Valerie Moffit, were residents of Heaton and Byker from the early 1890s through to around 1930: the Browns, on her mother’s side, lived in Chillingham Road and later Ebor Street; her father’s family, the Smeatons, were in Corbridge Street, just the other side of Shields Road. In 1900, her grandfather Jack Smeaton (1875-1955) was not yet married and shared number 121 with his parents Thomas and Catherine, his two brothers, and four of his five sisters. Another sister, Ellen, had left home some years earlier – on the 1891 census she is living with a family in Bishop Wearmouth as a domestic servant, aged twelve.
The Smeaton home no longer exists – Corbridge Street was a victim of slum clearance in the 1960s. The last time Valerie walked along there it was devoid of dwellings, reduced to little more than a service lane behind the Shields Road shops and other commercial buildings.
Jack Smeaton was a wheelwright by trade, serving his seven-year apprenticeship at Atkinson and Philipson’s carriage works on Pilgrim Street and working there as a loyal employee until the firm closed in 1920. During his time there he saw the rapid revolution in the transport industry from horse-drawn to mechanised vehicles: on his marriage certificate in 1910 he still described himself as a wheelwright, but by 1914 his declared job title was ‘motor finisher’.
Jack’s working life with Philipson’s was interrupted twice: he volunteered for the Boer War in 1900 and again for the Great War in 1915.
Just before his 25th birthday, Jack was sworn in with the 1st Newcastle Royal Engineer (RE) Volunteers who were to go to South Africa to support the regular REs, rebuilding bridges, roads and railways destroyed by Boer commandos. He was part of a small section of twenty-five volunteer sappers under the command of Lieutenant Pollard.
Jack kept a journal of his experiences in the Boer War. It has been passed down as a treasured family possession and Valerie is lucky enough to be the current keeper.
Here is how Jack recorded the departure of the volunteers from Newcastle:
‘Receive orders and are served out with our kit, to leave on Jan 31st  for Chatham. Before leaving we were entertained to a grand dinner in Officers Mess and afterwards held a grand smoker in Drill Hall. Fell in at 10.30 p.m. to march to station, and we were treated to a very forcible demonstration of the patriotism of Tyneside. At the station we had to literally fight our way through and on the platform we were swayed to and fro by the crowd and it was a great relief when we were safely seated in the carriage. At 11.30 p.m. amid deafening cheers of the people on the platforms we steamed out of the station.’
The Newcastle men were stationed at Chatham from 1 February until 10 March, along with twelve more engineer volunteer sections. They were ‘instructed in different arms of engineering such as bridging, defences, railway construction and demolition.‘
On 9 March the men were photographed.
Next day, Jack and his comrades were transported by train to Southampton docks where ‘after piling our kit on board the Tintagel Castle we had breakfast at the Absent-Minded Beggar stall which is kept up by the Daily Mail fund.’
The name of the stall was from a poem that Rudyard Kipling wrote to raise money for British families suffering poverty due to the loss of wages by men who, as reservists, had volunteered for the war.
Sailing South with Shackleton
You might say that Valerie’s grandfather was one of the first men to sail south with Shackleton. But this was not an expedition to the South Pole: the voyage in question was aboard the ocean liner mentioned in the above quote, the Tintagel Castle, bound for South Africa. The ship had been commissioned to transport 1,200 reinforcements to the Cape, and Ernest Shackleton was the newly-appointed Third Officer.
Less than a year later, Shackleton was appointed Third Officer again, this time on board the Discovery on a famous expedition to the Antarctic, led by Robert Falcon Scott. The ship departed London on 31 July 1901. On arrival at the Antarctic coast, Shackleton was chosen to be a member of the party which continued on foot and sledge towards the South Pole. Scott, Shackleton and Edward Wilson arrived at the most southerly latitude hitherto reached by man on 30 December 1902. Just over six years later, Shackleton led his own expedition which got even nearer to the pole. He returned a national hero and famous the world over.
But, for now, Shackleton was an ambitious young officer on the Tintagel Castle, keen to make an impression on any contact who might prove useful in his future career. Despite being a doctor’s son, he had joined the merchant navy as a boy and worked his way up through the ranks.
Jack and Ernest were a similar age and must have read the same boys’ adventure stories during their very different childhoods. Now, they are both aboard the Tintagel Castle as she casts off from Southampton docks and heads for the open sea on 10 March 1900.
It is unlikely that the two men met as individuals. But Jack cannot fail to have been aware of the energetic Third Officer, who set himself the enjoyable task of organising entertainments for the troops, arranging sports and concerts to stave off boredom on the long voyage. He was described by an eye-witness as ‘a vision in white and gold’: broad-shouldered and square-jawed, he cut a dashing figure as he strode around the packed ship.
Shackleton wrote a book about the voyage, in collaboration with the ship’s medical officer, Doctor W McLean, consisting of articles and photographs describing daily life at sea. It is entitled OHMS or How 1200 Soldiers Went to Table Bay and Valerie was able to study the copy held by the National Library of Scotland.
Several pages are devoted to describing ‘How we were Fed’, detailing the quantities required to provision the Tintagel Castle for her 6,000-mile trip with 1200 troops aboard. Meat and other perishable foods such as fish and fruit were stored in four refrigerating chambers, capable of holding 160 tons of stores. The baking of the bread supply fully occupied, night and day, three ship’s bakers and two volunteers from the ranks; some 1200 lbs of flour were used daily.
Jack Smeaton was very impressed with the catering arrangements and in his journal he described his first day at sea:
‘Reveille on board a troopship is at 5.30, so next morning we had to rise and stow hammocks before 6.0 a.m. Breakfast was at 7.30, it consisted of porridge, fish, marmalade, bread and butter and coffee. It being Sunday no work was done. We entered the Bay of Biscay about noon, had dinner at 12.30 p.m., it being made up of three courses, soup, meat & potatoes, and pudding with stewed fruits. As we travelled southwards the weather became very fine and summerlike, quite a contrast to what we had it just a day before. At 4.30 p.m. tea was served with cold meat or fish, pickles, preserves and bread and butter. There was no stint of any article of food and so it continued throughout the voyage. A plan of diet was drawn up so that the menu was changed each day, and at 7 p.m. supper was put on the tables for those who cared for it, which consisted of cabin biscuits and cheese, and the canteen was open for an hour at mid-day and again at 7 p.m. for the sale of beer and mineral waters. Everybody had to retire at 9.30 as lights went out at 10 p.m.’
Two days later Jack records that the members of the section were inoculated by the ship’s doctor and ‘that night and most of the next day was spent in bed in great pain’. The commanding officer at Chatham had advised all the men to be inoculated against enteric fever (typhoid) and so Dr McLean was kept busy.
From Scarlet to Khaki
On March 21st the Tintagel Castle crossed the Equator.
A few days later Jack makes a surprising revelation in his journal:
‘Sunday got orders to parade in red uniforms but most of us had done away with them, having threw them overboard.’
Even though more than 120 years have elapsed, this sentence still has the power to shock. What can possibly have incited the men – normally responsible and obedient – to commit this act of insubordination? On a visit to the Royal Engineers Museum, Valerie mentioned it to the librarian. She was scathing. ‘Oh well, they were volunteers. Regular soldiers would not have done that. It’s a matter of discipline.’
It is true that Jack and his fellow Newcastle sappers were volunteers, not professionals; but they have been ‘sworn in to serve twelve months, or as long as the war should last’. They take their soldiering seriously. Before leaving Tyneside, they practised bayonet exercises; and while at the Royal Engineers barracks in Chatham they were put through musketry drill as well as being instructed in engineering skills. They were also given a short explosives course, learning how to make up and set charges. This is not a jaunt – they know they are going to be involved in deadly warfare: several thousand British troops have already lost their lives in the first few months of the war. So, what is behind the mad moment of indiscipline when the sappers hurl their dress uniforms into the sea? Perhaps there is a clue in what happened a few days earlier, when the vessel crossed the equator:
‘… at 8pm King Neptune came on board with his retinue and fireworks were let off. And the next day (Thurs. 22nd) the whole ceremony was gone through, shaving and baptizing in the big canvas bath all they got hold of.’
For a day, the strict military routine of life on board a troopship is turned on its head. The men are swept up in the boisterous high jinks of the traditional crossing the equator ceremony, while Neptune reigns as lord of misrule. The temperature climbs to 90 degrees in the shade that day. Maybe one of the men stirs up his comrades, saying that their scarlet jackets will make them easy targets for the Boer marksmen.
‘They’ll pick us off like sitting ducks! We need to be in khaki – it’s proper camouflage. Let’s chuck this red stuff into the sea.’
In the heat of the moment, it all makes perfect sense to Jack and his mates.
Valerie said she likes to imagine the men leaning over the side and cheering as the scarlet tunics, bobbing in the wake of the ship, slowly disappear into the wide blue Atlantic.
The sappers’ fears were not unfounded. Some of the older troops on board could have told cautionary tales of the Redcoats who were slaughtered in the First Boer War of 1880 to 1881, when their vivid jackets made them all too visible to enemy snipers. Soon after that campaign, khaki began to be adopted by the British Army. At first, soldiers experimented with mud and tea leaves on white cotton, but in 1884 an effective dye was developed. The change was gradual, and traditionalists disapproved of the innovation – for instance, Queen Victoria describing khaki as a ‘café-au-lait shade quite unsuitable for uniform’. But despite resistance from the Queen and other non-combatants, the benefits were obvious to ordinary soldiers. The Second Boer War of 1899-1902 – Jack Smeaton’s war – was the first all-khaki campaign, and in 1902 it became standard battledress.
Cape Town Sights
Saturday Mar 31st  we sighted Table Mountain and dropped anchor in the Bay at 7 a.m. We lay in the bay until noon on the Sunday when we then went into the harbour and disembarked at 3 p.m.
In the afternoon [of Monday 2nd April] we had a march through Cape Town. A very nice town with electric trams in full working order and lots of hansom cabs, no four wheelers to be seen. There are also a great many rickshaws drawn by Zulus, who adorn themselves with pairs of horns and feathers round their heads. It is marvellous the pace these men travel with their fares along the street. We returned to dock at about 5 p.m., being fairly tired out. It was a bit strange walking through the streets after having been three weeks on board ship.’
No wonder Jack feels strange walking the streets of Cape Town. Just a few weeks earlier he’d been in sooty Newcastle, trudging to the carriage works each morning in the January sleet. Now here he is under a baking African sun, strolling under trees full of exotic blossom. As he breathes in their strange perfume of sweetness and spice, he must wonder what the coming months hold in store.
To be continued…
Researched and written by Valerie Moffit, Heaton History Group.
Jack Smeaton’s journal (unpublished)
OHMS or How 1200 Soldiers Went to Table Bay / by W McLean and E H Shackleton; Simpkin, Marshall etc, 1900.
Wikipedia and other online sources
Can You Help?
If you know any more about anyone mentioned in this article or anyone else with Heaton connections who sailed on the Tintagel Castle or had connections to Shackleton or to polar exploration, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org