Recollections of the mast that had to be climbed

Les being presented to Her Majesty the Queen
Les being presented to Her Majesty the Queen
Phil Spaven, Paul Morgan. Ian Whitewood and Roger Glancefield with Paul Morgan's 1940s Willys JEEP    (180082_01)

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Several weeks ago I asked if there were many ex-HMS Ganges boys living in The News circulation area. Well, several of you sent me letters about the famous (or, to some, infamous) mast. It had to be climbed – no ifs, buts or whatevers – to the half-moon three-quarters of the way up.

The climb up the Jacob’s ladder and shimmy up the pole to the button was, I’m glad to say, left to our own discretion.

Looking up at the manning team and the boys standing to attention, not at ease

Looking up at the manning team and the boys standing to attention, not at ease

Some of you said the first time up was the most frightening experience of your lives, but several agreed that just a few months before they’d been climbing trees, a much more dangerous thing to do without a safety net. And there was more to hold on to.

Derek Morgan tells me he used to sit on the button at weekends just to get out of the way. Of course if he was seen sculling around he would have been given something to do.

James Young tells me he was a boy signalman at the establishment in 1955/56 and climbed the mast at weekends. He would often stand on the button and signal his name in semaphore. He tells me it was quite a popular thing to do.

I remember a photograph in a 1966 book, HMS Ganges-60 Years of Boys’ Training, of a button boy being presented to Her Majesty the Queen when she visited the establishment in 1961. I could not believe it when that same former junior (the word ‘boy’ had been dropped in 1956) dropped me a line.

He is Les Smith from Locks Heath and he told me a few things about the visit. At the time he was Leading Junior Engineering Mechanic Smith, aged 16.

There were three boys picked to be button boys for parents’ day and, a fortnight later, the Queen’s visit. They all drew lots and Les drew the ticket for parents’ day with a boy named Peter Helliwell winning the royal day.

All went well for the parents’ day, but at a rehearsal for the Queen’s visit young Helliwell slid down the rope a little too fast and sprained his ankles when he hit the shackles holding the rope. Les was told he was to be the button boy on the big occasion.

On the great day Her Majesty arrived and after the usual parades and inspections the famous mast manning took place with Les leading the boys up the mast.

There was one difference on this occasion. Whereas the manning team dressing the yardarms usually stood at ease, now they had to stand to attention.

After descending the mast Les ran the length of the parade ground to meet the Queen and receive a silver crown from her – the only person to ever receive a Crown from a Sovereign.

I asked Les if he could remember what the Queen said to him?

He replied: ‘She only asked if I was frightened when up there, to which I replied no of course.’

He also received the silver shilling from the establishment’s commander, Captain J R Gower.

Les went on to serve 24-and-a-half years, retiring in 1984 as a CPO marine Engineering Artificer. Although he joined the navy in 1960 he had already been at Holbrook, a naval school just down the road and a sight more harder than Ganges. So Ganges held no fears for him.

Just to finish, Les also played cornet in the volunteer band at HMS Sultan/Daedalus and has composed a march called Button Boy March, a very lively piece indeed.

Finally I had an e-mail from Marilyn Turner of Hilsea who tells me that she found a book on Ganges at her local charity shop. As her partner, Ray, was an ex-Ganges boy she bought it.

On opening the book there was written ‘To Aunt Doris from Ray 1960s’ and that was very strange as Ray had an Aunt Doris.

Through the internet Ray has met up with many of his former mates and attends reunions at Market Harborough every year.

So, I’ve written about Ganges at some length. Now what about the same type of place across the water, HMS St Vincent in Gosport? There must be plenty of you former boys about. You must have memories you can tell me about.