The Harbour Watch

Notes on the text by Alastair Wilson


P.13, line 16    I’ve spent my leaf

At least in the first half of the 20th century, the word ‘leave’, in the meaning of permission to absent oneself from one’s place of duty, especially in one of the British armed services was frequently pronounced ‘leaf’.

P.13, line 24    to walk out with

To ‘walk out with’ someone was a recognised step in courtship, leading (all being well) to an ‘engagement’ and marriage, in due course.

P. 14, line 12    the Acolyte.

A fictitious cruiser about to sail for the Australia station. Kipling managed to equip the fleet with suitably named classes of ships. We first met the Acolyte at the very start of the first Pyecroft story – The Bonds of Discipline, where her name appears in the opening paragraph, as being the name ship of the class of cruiser, on one of which, the Archimandrite, Pyecroft was then serving.

P. 14, line 25    The goat! The irreducible old goat!

A male goat was supposed to be singularly lacking in (human) morals, so the implication must be that Pyecroft considered Agg an unsuitable companion for Jenny.

And ‘irreducible’ sounds as though it is a malapropism – but in fact it is a word in the OED, and means ‘cannot be decreased; in other words, Pyecroft considers Agg’s morals to be non-existent.

P. 15, line 1    Desertion from the Navy.

The Navy was careful to distinguish between ‘desertion’ (absence from one’s place of duty, with no intention of returning thereto), and mere ‘absence without leave’ (you’ve missed the train on returning from normal leave, or couldn’t tear yourself from your girlfriend’s charms). When trying a sailor charged with ‘desertion’, it will be necessary for the prosecuting officer to show that the accused had no intention to return – e.g., he/she had disposed of his/her issued uniform.

P. 15, line 2    He had a red coat, but he called himself Marine.

The Corps of Royal Marines (do NOT forget the ‘Royal’ – they are very touchy about the use of the adjective ‘Royal’) – date back to1664, and have served as the Navy’s soldiers ever since. During WW2 they undertook the role of commandos, and since then, that has been their specialised task.

When Kipling wrote this play, the corps was still split into the Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI), who wore a red uniform tunic (and were known as ‘red marines’), and the Royal Marine Artillery (RMA), who wore a blue tunic and so were known as ‘blue marines’ – they had been formed in 1804. The two corps were amalgamated as the Royal Marines in 1923.

In omitting the indefinite article, Agg is correct – Glass would have referred to himself as ‘Marine Edward Glass’ – ‘Marine‘ being his rank, just as Pyecroft is ‘Petty Officer Emanuel Pyecroft’.

P. 15, lines 3-4    Ain’t it flogging at the gangway?

By the date of the play’s performance, flogging as a punishment in the Royal Navy had, in fact, been abolished for many years – but old memories die hard!

P. 15, line 5    That’s what a soldier man I met

Agg’s referring to Glass as a ‘soldier man’ is an understandable mistake, since Glass would have been wearing a red coat – and soldiers serving in a line regiment also still wore red tunics as their everyday uniform when in barracks.

P. 15, line 10    To settle some people’s hash

To complete someone’s discomfiture.



©Alastair Wilson 2024, all rights reserved