"The Pyecroft

Kipling and the Royal Navy
the Royal Navy in 1905
warships' boats in 1905
'knots an hour'

(notes edited by Commander Alastair Wilson, R.N.
The following text is taken, with various amendments and
additions, from that written some forty years ago by
Rear-Admiral P.W. Brock, C.B., D.S.O.

[July 22nd 2009]

An introductory note

The Pyecroft stories which appeared between 1902 and 1913, mostly in the first two years, clearly had their beginnings in Kipling’s cruises in H.M.S. Pelorus in 1897 and 1898, when he was the guest of Captain E.H. Bayly, Royal Navy, as he related in A Fleet in Being . He had previously met Captain Bayly in 1891, when they were passengers together from the UK to Capetown (see “Kipling and the Royal Navy”) . Captain Bayly introduced Kipling to Naval society in Simons Town (now usually written Simonstown), and the first of Kipling’s naval stories “Judson and the Empire” resulted. Such continuity as these tales have is supplied by Petty Officer Emanuel Pyecroft.

A list of the tales

The first three Pyecroft stories did not appear in chronological order of the events they describe. For ease of reference, we give the whole list:

Order in sequence of events First published in England
1. “The Bonds of Discipline" Windsor Magazine August 1903
2. “Their Lawful Occasions” Windsor Magazine December 1903
3. “Steam Tactics” Windsor Magazine December 1902
4. “Mrs. Bathurst” Windsor Magazine September 1904
5. “A Tour of Inspection” Windsor Magazine December 1904
6. “The Horse Marines” Pearson’s Magazine October 1910
7. “The Harbour Watch” One-act play, never published; performed at the Royalty Theatre, London, as a curtain-raiser to another play, opening on 22 April 1913.
As the third story, “Steam Tactics” was the first to be printed, when it appeared in the Windsor Magazine, Kipling inserted a letter, purporting to be a letter from the narrator to Pyecroft. When the tales were collected in Traffics and Discoveries in their proper order, this letter was omitted.
(It will be found as an appendix to our notes on “Steam Tactics”. A.W.).

The letter, reproduced as it originally appeared, offers a brief, tantalizing, glimpse of stories now lost for ever, but serves mainly to bring out the emphasis Kipling placed upon general effect and feeling, and his comparative indifference to detailed accuracy. In Something of Myself (page 189) he acknowledges that as a young reporter he was not renowned for verifying his references when reporting facts. The Pyecroft stories show that in fiction he was not unduly concerned with exact chronology and minutiae. Perhaps concealment of Pyecroft’s identity, mentioned in the “letter” might account for some of the liberties taken with his rating: readers will no doubt recall other occasions when Kipling has evidently so mixed his data as to defeat any attempts at identification of characters or institutions before it starts. There are, of course, some unintended errors, but the general effect is so convincing that they are easy to overlook.

Critical responses

Such continuity as these tales have is supplied by Petty Officer Emanuel Pyecroft. Their themes vary from something not far off slapstick farce to the tragedy of “Mrs. Bathurst” and their quality is uneven. Charles Carrington disparages them generally, quietly and in a nice way:

Though their virtuosity is immense, the stories lack vigour and, while they have their admirers, there is not one likely to find its way into a selection of Kipling’s best six or best twelve. Obviously they gave their author great pleasure but this enthusiasm is rarely conveyed to readers who are not already familiar with naval jargon. The best of the series, perhaps, is the set of light verses, "Poseidon’s Law", which accompanies "The Bonds of Discipline".
That a knowledge of “naval jargon” is an aid to appreciation is shown by the following tribute from Captain Peter Bethell, Royal Navy, an officer with an ear and a taste for words. (Captain Bethell was a contemporary of Admiral Brock’s, who had entered the Navy shortly after the last of the Pyecroft tales had been written. He must have written the following appreciation in later life, probably in the late 1950s.) :

In my view they (the Pyecroft stories) are easily the best stories woven round the Navy that have ever been written; and while I am airing my views I may as well add that I make Colonel Drury a good second, C.S. Forester third and Captain Marryat fourth – ‘Taffrail’ and ‘Bartimaeus’ also ran. The remarkable feature of the Pyecroft series has always seemed to me be the absolute verisimilitude of the conversation, whose tiniest details are quite impeccable. Kipling’s consciousness of this is engagingly shown by a remark he puts into the mouth of Pyecroft who says on one occasion, referring to Kipling, ‘I know he’s littery by the way he tries to talk Navy-talk’. It is fairly certain that no other author of the period would have dared to turn round and laugh in our faces like that, and it would be interesting to know how Kipling acquired this singular sureness of touch.

[Colonel Drury was Lieutenant Colonel W.P. Drury, Royal Marines, a fairly prolific writer of novels and short stories in the period 1890-1935. Many featured Private Pagett of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, a (in my view) rather inferior Mulvaney/Pyecroft. C.S. Forester was the creator of the ‘Hornblower’ sea-stories, set in the time of the Napoleonic wars, and just after. He also wrote excellent stories about the 20th century Royal Navy and United States Navy. ‘Taffrail’ was Captain Taprell Dorling Royal Navy, who wrote sea-stories, mostly about the Royal Navy, in the period 1910-1950, while ‘Bartimaeus’ was Captain (Sir) Louis Ricci (anglicized as Lewis Ritchie), who was a near contemporary of ‘Taffrail’, and who, in this editor’s opinion, conveyed the most accurate picture of the Royal Navy at the turn of the 19th century. Most modern readers will know only Forester and Marryat.]
Among “littery” critics, there are harsher views than Carrington’s, as well as Dr. Tompkins’ much kinder comments on aspects of "Their Lawful Occasions" (The Art of Rudyard Kipling, Methuen, London, 1959). Naturally, anyone sharing Dr. Johnson’s opinion that 'A ship is worse than a gaol', which has 'better air, better company and better conveniency of every kind', will not look to the sea and seafarers for romance and entertainment, but we hope and believe that there are some others, with or without a command of jargon, who see merit in Pyecroft and his companions.

However, Martin Fido was not one. He wrote:

Traffics and Discoveries is, perhaps, Kiplings most depressing book. The naval stories about Petty Officer Pyecroft never won wide popular favour. Pyecroft was too much of an eccentric to be a representative sailor, as Mulvaney had been a representative soldier. But the desire to extol the navy hindered Pyecroft’s eccentricity from flowering to the fullest farce. The character remained popular with the family.
This last remark refers to the fact that Elsie was supposed to have helped her father with the scheming of the play The Harbour Watch.

And Angus Wilson was certainly less than enthusiastic. He wrote scathingly, and at length, about the Pyecroft tales (for some quite unknown reason, he refers to “The Bonds of Discipline” as “The Birds of Paradise”):

The cruise in the Channel in 1898 started an association with the Navy and naval officers, suited to his political concerns in the coming years. But his interest, of course, lay back in his friendship with Captain Bayly and his meetings at Simonstown Naval Officers’ Club in South Africa in 1891.

At the time of the Jubilee in 1897, the British Fleet was still the source of pride it had been for two centuries … it was beginning to seem quite inadequate to our expanded concerns. German rivalry was not yet seen as the sole danger. Even Kipling had strong fears of France, his loved nation from 1910 or so, as one can see from the story of the French spy disguised as a Portuguese castaway
[he means stowaway] on a British naval vessel in “The Birds of Paradise” [“The Bonds of Discipline”] The Frenchman’s over-ingenious imagination makes him an easy prey to the crew’s powers of Stalky spoofing once they grasp that he is a spy (an over-ingeniousness, it must sadly be said, matched by the over-ingeniousness of Kipling’s narration which was to grow in the last decades of his life).

… his own advocacy of naval increase
[the “arms race” of the years immediately preceding World War I] had long preceded the national mood. And he had been able to plead the naval cause with professional skill, for his friendship with naval officers and his participation as a guest in naval exercises made him an amateur expert on naval engineering and naval economy, the accuracy of whose fictional accounts of ships and their workings still arouses controversy among professional sailors …”
After some disparaging remarks about “Poseidon’s Law”, he returns to the Pyecroft stories:

Unfortunately, I think, Kipling’s position as an honoured guest on board paradoxically told against his getting the emotional balance of naval life right, as his more distanced position as a hearer of tales and a casual observer served him so well in gauging the mixture of gaiety and despair in the lives of Soldiers Three. He was nearer the scene, but as a well-known writer and a guest of honour on board he saw only the side of life on board that was intended for publication – the duty and the larks that lightened that duty. I am sure that he took his visits seriously, that he listened with close attention – perhaps, he suspected, over-attention, for he gets a crack at himself.

When Pyecroft, the petty officer who is the Mulvaney of the naval stories, say, in “Their Lawful Occasions”, “I know ‘e’s littery, by the way ‘e tries to talk navy-talk”. As the officers’ guest, he was not best placed to absorb the ratings and petty officers who are the core of his naval stories. The result is that the Pyecroft stories have a kind of jocosity, a sort of ‘out on the spree’ quality that sets them far, far below the adventures of Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd , who even at their most comic picaresque have that ambiguous, amoral quality of Shakespeare’s Pistol and his associates, but have also the dark despair that gives their positive performance of duty a depth that goes beyond Sunday School morality.

This makes Pyecroft an empty narrating device, compounded only of comic knowingness, cockney accent and of naval jargon, in the stories of adventures aboard ship, like “Birds of Paradise” and “Their Lawful Occasions”, and, more decidedly still, an intrusive unfunny ‘funny’ voice in the tales of motoring larks on shore, “Steam Tactics” and “The Horse Marines”, the last of the Pyecroft stories, published in 1910. The truth is that Kipling did not know the life of the man he was describing and so he cast him in careful arranged farces, often on shore. A sailor’s peacetime life, at any rate on the lower deck, must have had much of the sadness, the tension and the reduction of humanity which he captures so wonderfully in the Mulvaney stories, which probably reproduce only what he learned.

Kipling was not concerned to plead on behalf of ratings or the petty officers or indeed the officers, but to interest the general public in the Navy itself, to pass on his own enthusiasm for a neglected Service, not to pass on his compassion for neglected men. Reading these naval stories, published in popular magazine, so full of jargon, one wonders how much he can have fulfilled even this socio-political aim, for who but naval men or engineers could stay with such stuff, however larky. As artisitic productions, they are among his worst.

His longing to find a private world to match his own privacy, his longing to find a secret society that would match his own freemasonry, his longing to find a loneliness that would match his own creative isolation, must have seemed miraculously answered when he was allowed to penetrate that rare world of Her Majesty’s ships at sea in peacetime. ‘Life out of which [the Navy’s] spirit is born has always been a life more lonely than any there is’ (A Book of Words), he told the Naval Club in 1908. And he went on to note how only from the trun of the century, with the arrival of Marconi’s wireless, were fleets in touch. I think that naval privacy and isolation defeated the empathy of even Kipling’s extraordinary powers of making himself one with other men. He went on board as an honoured guest, he was even chaired by the crew, but he remained apart. Yet he loved the peace-time Navy enough still to write about it when he was on holiday in Jamaica in “A Naval Mutiny”, as late as 1931. It is another elaborate farce that fails.”
It is not the purpose of the Reader’s Guide to criticize the critics, but merely to report their words: all that this editor will say is that much of Wilson’s criticism is fair, but it is contended that there are other alternative inferences which may just as fairly be drawn.

Service readers

Service readers have regretted Kipling’s surprising lack of understanding of the status of the naval Warrant Officer, since this must have wounded some splendid men. Otherwise, there are few mistakes of which an author need have felt ashamed, although the alteration of “knots an hour” to “knots” throughout the Sussex Edition suggests that Kipling was eventually persuaded that this was one of them. In both the ORG and the Kipling Journal, we have argued that although “knots an hour” was never logical and have agreed that today it offends a seaman’s ear (the same holds good, 40-50 years after Admiral Brock wrote it), when Kipling wrote he was following the example of many others, perhaps a majority, and certainly some were eminent. Since this opinion seems to have been misunderstood in some quarters, we are elaborating it here, with instances, in a separate note.

For the real enthusiast (prepared to face some jargon and broad technicalities in pursuit of background knowledge), as well as for posterity, two further additional notes are provided, making in all: Pyecroft in Plymouth

There is a major point which previous naval critics seem to have overlooked. The present editor (in 2006) has indirectly touched on in it in the notes on “The Bonds of Discipline”. Kipling, or the narrator, whichever you prefer, first makes Pyecroft’s acquaintance in Devonport; and it becomes apparent that the fictional Archimandrite, one of Pyecroft’s former ships, and the Postulant (his present ship when the tale is told in the pub) are Devonport-based ships, and, one might assume, in 95% of cases, Devonport-manned.

In those days (and until 1956) a sailor was allocated to a Port division (Chatham, Portsmouth or Devonport) and remained in that division throughout his career, even if he rose to the giddy heights of being a Warrant Officer: and ships remained home-ported in one division throughout their lifetime. In the broadest terms, Devonport division sailors came from the west side of Great Britain, and it would be unlikely, though not totally impossible, to find a cockney in a Devonport ship – a Glaswegian, a Liverpudlian, a Belfast Irishman, a Bristolian, a Brummie: all these, yes, to say nothing of true west-countrymen: but a cockney would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. One could postulate reasons for it – if, say, a Portsmouth division rating married a west country girl, and they wished to set up home nearer to her family, then he might effect an exchange so that when his ship was in her home port, he would be nearer his own home.

But, the overwhelming probability is that Pyecroft would have been a west-countryman, and he would not have been the thorough-going cockney which his speech suggests he is. There is certainly nothing of the Devonian’s burr in his speech; and we know that Kipling could reproduce that well enough (cf. the verse Donec Gratus Eram, most easily found in Andrew Rutherford’s Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling, OUP, 1986 ).

However, this editor believes that there is an explanation, based on the slightly peculiar circumstances of the Pelorus, in which Kipling made two cruises, which formed the basis for the Pyecroft tales. Pelorus commissioned at Chatham in March 1897: she was a Chatham-manned ship, and a high proportion of her crew would have been Londoners. But, because she was a unit of the Channel Squadron, we find that she is noted in the Navy List for January 1901 as being “attached to Devonport” – she would give seasonal leave from that port, and would go in there for stores, etc., when the Channel Squadron wasn’t out exercising, or visiting Portugal, etc. Chatham had many disadvantages as a base port – being 10 miles up the Medway was one of them; and it was not a port you just popped into if you were in the vicinity. (This was one reason why Chatham Dockyard was the first of the home dockyards to be closed, in 1984.)

Kipling probably thought that it would have been normal to find Londoners on a ship in Devonport: but it was not – and while we can thus produce a plausible reason for Pyecroft being in Devonport while he was in one particular ship, to find him in two successive Devonport-based ships while being a Chatham rating would be unusual. He ought to have been talking broad Devon!


For the benefit of readers for whom English is not their first language, it may be worth mentioning that a ‘malapropism’,
which Pyecroft uses frequently, is the misuse of one word for another, of similar sound. The term derives from a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, who made such mistakes frequently. Probably her best-known one was “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile”


The ORG Editors recorded gratefully the interest and zeal of the late Commander R.D. Merriman, D.S.C., Royal Indian Navy and other members who did earlier work in the field. In addition, Mr. H.C. Willis, of Simon’s Town, was helpful with South African questions, and the knowledge of Commander J.H. Owen, Royal Navy, filled many gaps and corrected errors.

The present Editor in 2006 is more than happy to add his own thanks and acknowledgements to his predecessors (the more so, in that Commander Owen was his predecessor-but-three as the Secretary of the Naval Review!) The main naval Editor of the ORG was Rear-Admiral Patrick Willett Brock, C.B., D.S.O. (1902-88) for whom a short biographical note is appended.

Patrick Brock was Canadian by birth, being born in Kingston, Ontario, on 30 December 1902. He trained for the infant Royal Canadian Navy at the Royal Naval College of Canada, but shortly after joining HMS Emperor of India, as a Midshipman in November 1920 (RCN midshipmen did their early sea training with the Royal Navy), he decided to transfer to the Royal Navy.

Thereafter, he followed a normal career in the Royal Navy, reaching the rank of Commander in 1938 and Captain in 1944. The first three years of the war were spent in the Admiralty, then in 1942, he went as Executive Officer of the cruiser Mauritius, taking part in the landings at Salerno in 1943, and the D-Day landings in 1944.
He was mentioned in despatches during this appointment In 1946 he commanded the destroyer depot ship Woolwich in the Mediterranean, and then in September 1949, took command of the cruiser Kenya in the Far East Fleet When the Korean War started, Kenya took part in the Allied landings at Inchon in September 1950. Brock was mentioned in despatches, and received the D.S.O., and the American Bronze Star Medal.

On return from the Far East, he had another two years at the Admiralty as Director of the Operations Division, a sure indication that promotion to flag rank was likely to follow. It duly did, and he was appointed Flag Officer, Middle East in April 1954, initially with his HQ at Fayid, in the Suez Canal Zone. However, after Britain agreed to remove its forces from the Canal Zone, his HQ moved to Episcopi, in southern Cyprus, in December 1954. The arrival of the British forces triggered the Cyprus Emergency, with the Greeks on the island seeking enosis (union) with Greece, which was strongly resisted by the Turkish minority, Flag Officer Middle East had to set up the organisation for, and operation of, patrols around the island to prevent the smuggling of arms to both sides. This was successfully achieved (the present Editor took part in the operations, carrying out three patrols in 1958-59). Admiral Brock hauled down his flag in March 1956. His final appointment was as Chairman of the Admiralty Material Requirements Committee. He retired in 1958.

He was twice married: his first wife having died in 1974, he remarried in 1976.

In retirement, he took up his other interests of Kipling and naval history. He was a trustee of the National Maritime Museum, 1960-74: he was a Vice-President of the Society for Nautical Research, 1970-1988: he was Chairman of Council, the Kipling Society,1973-76, and he was Chairman of Trustees of the Naval Review 1967-78. He first started to contribute to the latter in 1935, his last being in 1979. He first contributed to our Journal in 1950, with an article entitled “Kipling to Me”, and he last wrote in March 1978. He published one book, in association with the naval historian Basil Greenhill, Steam and Sail in Britain and North America.

A quote from that first article (KJ 95, p. 11) is worthy of repetition here:

Long before that, I personally was deeply indebted to Kipling, for I am sure that it was A Fleet in Being and the Pyecroft stories—often inaccurate in detail but always so vivid and essentially right in spirit (our italics) —which made me, born and brought up 1500 miles from the sea, decide that the Royal Navy was the most enviable life there is.


©Alastair Wilson and P W Brock 2009 All rights reserved