Their Lawful Occasions – part I

(notes edited by Commander Alastair Wilson, R.N.)


This story was first published in two parts in 1903, on October 3rd and 10th in Collier’s Magazine in the U.S.A. and in December 1903 and January 1904 in the Windsor Magazine: it was collected in Traffics and Discoveries, 1904. It was the second of the Pyecroft stories in chronological sequence of events and the third to appear in print.

It appears in: Scribner’s Edition (Vol. XXII, page 117), the Sussex Edition (page 105), and the Burwash Edition (Vol. VII.).

Past and present annotation

The notes of the Old Readers’ Guide were compiled by Rear-Admiral P.W. Brock, and as before (see “Judson and the Empire”), the compiler of these notes has had little cause to make any amendments to his work, other than to amplify what he wrote and to add notes on words and phrases which have passed, as it were, their obscurity date during the intervening fifty years. It may be felt that Admiral Brock (aided and abetted by the present compiler) rather overdoes the naval detail from time to time, going beyond what is strictly necessary to understand the nuances of the tale. However, it is felt that if Admiral Brock and Reggie Harbord thought the detail was useful, then better to provide too much than too little.

This compiler had, independently, and being then unaware of the existence of the ORG, prepared a set of notes on this tale. This NRG is therefore a melding of the two texts, and we have not distinguished between text which appeared in the ORG, and this NRG, unless there is a significant difference of interpretation.

The tale is usually accompanied by the poem, “The Wet Litany”, on which on which Mr. P.W. Inwood wrote the notes we have included, since they add so much to the picture of the fleet of a century ago.

Technical background

This tale owes its inception to Kipling’s two visits to the Channel Squadron in 1897 and 1898, as a guest of Captain Bayly of the 3rd. class cruiser Pelorus (See our notes on A Fleet in Being) and to his trip up and down the Thames Estuary at the invitation of Hamo Thornycroft on board one of their new destroyers while it was undergoing its full-power trials.
Though great and continuous strides were being made in technology, their latest results had not yet reached the sea-going Fleet in sufficient strength to make much material difference to the conditions outlined in our notes on A Fleet in Being. Admittedly, Lord Charles Beresford later wrote in his memoirs that Sir John Fisher, during his command of the Mediterranean Fleet (1899-1902), had made “a 12-knot fleet with breakdowns into a 15-knot fleet with no breakdowns”.

In view of the bitter feud that had developed between the two admirals in 1908-09, this proves that Lord Charles, in his cooler moments, could show an admirably Christian generosity, but it does not alter the fact that at higher speeds the cruisers and torpedo craft at the turn of the 20th century were still approaching the limits set by contemporary design and manufacture. Full power placed a great strain on the moving parts and bearings of their steam-driven main engines.

A destroyer doing trials is splendidly described by Kipling in a letter printed by Carrington on pages 252-3 of his Life. (The complete text and provenance can be found in Vol II of Professor Pinney’s The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, p. 298.) Breakdowns had to be expected, particularly in ships brought hurriedly out of reserve for manoeuvres, as T.B. 267 was in this yarn.

Some critical responses

Another of the former naval members of our Society, the late Commander Reginald D. Merriman, DSC, RIN, considered “Their Lawful Occasions” the best of the Pyecroft series. (Indeed, pace Carrington, he thought it “among the 12 best he ever wrote”. But of course, Commander Merriman was well acquainted with naval jargon.) He went on:

“and this despite certain errors in the use of technical terms, of which there are not a few …. It is for the passages of superb description that I think this story should be valued. The stealthy get-away from Portland under cover of darkness; the impression of coming up on deck as day began to break, after an uncomfortable night in the bowels of 267; the silent onset of fog and the blind helplessness when it closes down. I do not think that even Conrad has written of these things in a more vivid manner.”

An interesting feature of the foregoing is that, as a glance at the text will show, 267’s departure (from Weymouth actually, not Portland) was barely outlined: this illustrates with what economy of phrase Kipling could set a scene for a reader en rapport with him.

“The Wet Litany”

These verses appeared first as a preamble to the story when it was collected in Traffics and Discoveries in 1904.

They can best be described as the thoughts of an observer on the bridge of a late Victorian battleship, keeping station astern of another, as the squadron gropes its way up the Channel in a thick fog, such as can still be encountered. ‘London particulars’ (the choking yellow fogs often encountered in Victorian cities) may have disappeared with the Clean Air Act, but no such considerations apply at sea, where meteorological rules haven’t changed. In the story, he describes the onset of a Channel fog, and that is expressed more poetically in the first verse of the poem. The last line of the first and last verse is a Latin rendition of one of the responses in the Litany, as set out in the Book of Common Prayer: “Good Lord, deliver us.” [My apologies to those who are familiar with the Book of Common Prayer, but I am conscious that there are members of our Society and other readers of this Guide, who will be less so, or of a different Faith. Ed.]

The writing of the story

The verses, with the story, will also have resulted from Kipling’s experience with Captain Bayly during the summer manoeuvres of 1897, when he went to sea in HMS Pelorus. However, there are other clues which indicate that the story, and almost certainly the verse, were written after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.