Joseph Charles Eager
From articles in the Jersey Evening Post 1929
Eager lived alone in one room (1911 census he is at 12 Commercial St) surrounded by the many treasures gathered during his long and interesting life. “ this is the ship I sailed in” ; “ these the vases Lady Otway gave me” ; “this is the photo of my son who was wounded three times during the war and who won the military medal” ; “this is the medal given to me by the General Petain,” and so on. He cooks his own food, mends and washes his clothes, and keeps his castle in excellent order. He smokes a little, but has never tasted intoxicating liquor. He has a pension of £18 a year from the Royal Albert Institution and the parish of St. Helier is very good to him.
But he is getting no younger, and is beginning to feel that he is not so firm on his feet as he used to be. He is very grateful for the many kindnesses done to him in the past and possibly there are many kind women in Jersey who, after reading his wonderful life, maybe inclined to become acquainted with this very interesting old man.
He has no faith in medicine of any description for, as he says, he has just lost an old friend of 94 who recently died from taking medicine. He used to go for walks with this friend but, missing him one day, went to see him and found on the table by his bed several bottles of medicine. Eager warned his friend that if he indulged in such foolishness he would not live three figures; but the warning was not taken, and Eager a few weeks ago had to attend the funeral of his friend.
JOSEPHS’ LIFE STORY
Joseph Charles Eager was born at sea on the 28th December 1838 (actually January 1846). My father (James Eager) was owner and master of the brig “Tigress”, of Plymouth; and my mother generally went to sea with him, and I was born when the vessel was entering the English Channel on a voyage from Sierra Leone to London.
My mother died in 1840, and my father was lost with his vessel in 1851.
After my mother’s death, I was brought up by an uncle and aunt living in Tavistock. My uncle was a retired naval lieutenant, and one day, when ten years of age, I was sent out with a shilling to buy something which cost nine pence, and was told to bring back the change of three pence. So went my errand, brought back the change and put the three pence on the kitchen table, and then, as nobody was there, went out to play. When I came home the change had gone and my uncle, thinking that I had spent it, gave me a brutal thrashing.
I had an elder brother (James T Eager) who was educated at Greenwich School and after joined the Navy, and several years afterwards when I was in Plymouth I met a man in a Navy uniform who asked me whether I was Joe Eager. I said yes, and he told me that he was my brother, and said my uncle and aunt had tried to find me, and he suggested my returned to Tavistock.
No, I said, my uncle beat me cruelly for three pence of change which I did not steal and I have done with him. Three pence, said my brother. Why, I took that to buy a Jew’s harp. We never met again.
So that night I ran away and came across a gypsy camp, and the gypsies took me in and were very kind to me. There was a German woman there who went about the country playing a barrel organ and she wanted a boy to join her, play the tambourine and collect the coppers whilst she played. So I was handed over to her, and she was just like a mother to me. We wandered south for five months, and when we arrived at Shoreham the German woman was engaged to play one evening at an inn for the sum of 2and6 pence and what she could collect. As I was going round with the tambourine one of the guests seemed to take a fancy to me, and asked if I would like to go to sea. I said I wanted to go, and so, after speaking to the German woman, it was arranged that I should join the ship ‘Blue Eyed Maid’ of Jersey, Captain John Kent, then discharged a cargo of oysters from Gorey, in Jersey. The German woman gave the captain 4 pounds to buy me a sea outfit. My wage was 5 shillings a week and I stayed with captain Kent and his wife for six years. They were very good to me, and after a while I had a shire in venture and sometimes and sometimes earned as much as £4 a week.
The oyster trade off Gorey was than in a flourishing condition. There was about 40 Jersey smacks (fishing boat) employed in the trade each carrying four or six hands, with tonnage varying from 10 to 30 tons. The Blue Eyed Maid was 30 tons, and sometimes we ventured across the channel to sell our cargo. Generally when we had dredged sufficient oysters we made for the shore and dumped the oysters in parks where they were picked over by land girls, who were paid 16 shillings a week.
There was only one baker named Jacob, in Gorey, and one butcher, named Godfrey, and when the English smacks came over, which they did sometimes for a month at a time, it was no unusual thing to find three or four hundred vessels off Gorey in the oyster trade. This was during the years 1848 to 1854. Then Gorey was very busy and sometimes it was difficult to get sufficient food. The oysters were taken to different ports in England and France.
After I had been oyster fishing for six years, I heard that a new vessel had been built at Bel Royal, called the “Coeur de Lion”, wanted runners to take the vessel to Liverpool, where I was offered the job as cook at £2 5 shillings a month on the vessel. She was to take a general cargo to New Holland (now Sydney) and the last lot of convicts to Botany Bay.
The convicts numbered 14, all men, and each convict had an iron band round the waist joined to ankle straps by chains. These irons were never taken of, but the captain of Coeur de Lion was a humane man and a gentleman, and after having ascertained from the convict superintendent that there were no murderers among the convicts, lie went forward and told them that if they would give him his word of honour that they would not interferer with the ship or crew, he would have there iron taken off and give them the freedom of the vessel. All gladly accepted the captain’s terms except one man named Kelly. The kind-hearted captain set him free for a couple of hours one day and he repaid the kindness by trying to murder the superintendent. So the iron were put on again until sometime the arrival of the vessel at Botany Bay.
On arrival the other convicts were set free, given food and clothing, and tools and sent up country. Later on Kelly was set free, and he became a bush ranger and for a time led a somewhat exciting life. Then he was captured and not long afterwards executed. (Note Ned Kelly arrived in Australia in 1842 before Eagers time at sea)
The Coeur de Lion was a vessel of 600 ton and carried a crew of 16 men. She only took 89 days for the voyage Liverpool to Australia, a record in those days. When she returned to Liverpool the vessel was docked, so I joined an American vessel called the Sir Robert Hudson bound for San Francisco. I have been a teetotaller (someone that has never drunk alcohol) all my life, and on arrival at San Francisco I went ashore to have a look round. After a while I went into a coffee shop to have a cup of coffee and enjoyed it so much that I had another, and remembered nothing more until I was being kicked into consciousness on board a vessel far out at sea.
I soon found out that I was on a slaver and that the vessel had no name. she was commanded by a Cornishman named Peter, and had a brutal Portuguese as mate, the vessel made for the west coast of Africa, where some 340 slaves men woman and children were taken on board and herded together in the hull of the vessel. I was not allowed to go ashore and was warned that any sign of sympathy towards the slaves would be very dangerous to my health. These 340 slaves had been engaged by a local king for some imaginary employment, only to find that the proposed temporary employment offered at good wages meant for life without any.
I made three trips on board this vessel carrying slaves to Savannah, Caroline and New Orleans. Many slaves died on the voyage and all were brutally treated. As the vessel neared the destination the slaves were brought up two by two and prepared for market by being scrubbed down with a deck brush.
One of the slaves carried on the first voyage was the discarded wife of the king. She was a very handsome woman, a half caste about 28 years of age, and she fought tooth and nail for her freedom when she was brought on board. But the odds where against her and she was brutally treated.
When the vessel arrived at New Orleans heard that a Russian vessel was to sail the next morning, so during the night I slipped overboard and swam to the Russian vessel and hid myself on board. The vessel was anchored about 80 yards from our ship and was bound for Archangel.
When the vessel had got to sea I presented myself to the captain, who spoke English, and told him my story and he allowed me to sign on as a Russian on board his vessel.
One of the deck hands of the slaver told me that three voyages before I was brought on board they had been chased by a British sloop (ship) of war, and as it was a serious matter to be in the slave trade, the three hundred slaves were brought on deck and dumped overboard.
After discharging a cargo at Archangel the Russian vessel sailed for St. Petersburg and I then went to the British Consul (the people in the building will help you if your British) who sent me on to Hull and eventually to Jersey.
I then got a job on board the cutter George of Jersey (Captain Kent), and we sailed to Brittany to get a cargo of apples for Liverpool.
After a passage of five days we arrived at Liverpool and the girl came down to the ship to buy apples. I noticed a young girl, about 14 years of age, very dirty and verminous. And I ordered off the ship. She went on quay and began crying, and the captain passing by asked what the matter was. She said she had been ordered off the ship by me, that she had no mother or father and nowhere to go, and that she was trying to earn a little money by selling apples.
The captain asked me why I had ordered her of the ship and I explained that she was so filthy and verminous. The captain was a very kind-hearted man, and he said to me: “Joe, don’t you think that if I gave you half a pound of tobacco you could get some hot water and wash that girls head?” I did not like the job, but I did it, and having given her some hot water she went into the hold and thoroughly washed herself. The captain then got some clothes from a friend ashore and these we gave to her with a new clean basket and he burned the old rags which she had previously worn. She then went into the city with her apples and did good business, and whilst we where in Liverpool we looked after her.
A few years afterwards when I was walking in one of the streets of Glasgow a smartly dressed young woman came up to me and asked whether I did not know her I said “no” and did not want to. But she said “ do you remember the apple girl at Liverpool?” it then dawned apon me that she was my old friend, and said that after we had left she got a job and had married and was very happy. She took me to her home and introduced me to her husband, and when I left she gave me a gold ring which later on I gave to my wife.
After leaving Liverpool the George made for port Dinorwic near Caernarfon on the Seiont river for a cargo of slate for Jersey and after loading and sailing we were caught in a storm and had to take shelter in Holyhead.
We were kept there over a month by the contrary winds and had very little money and had very little food for the captain could get no advance on freight or cargo. When we did get away the George began to leak badly and we only managed to get into the old harbour in Jersey just in time. On examination the vessel was found to be in a very bad state and was condemned as unfit for sea.
I was then about twenty-two years of age and was out of a job, but I came across my wife a Jersey woman, and as she had a little money we married and I stayed ashore for a while. I was called up by the military and joined the East regiment and rose to the rank of corporal, I then thought I would join the navy and went to see Commander C Burney of the royal navy who was then in charge of H.M.S Jersey, a stone built ship on Gorey hill, used for preparing boys for the navy (the ship was fully rigged), who told me that I was to old but said that I could attend the navigation classes on board the ship. I did so well that he suggested my going to Captain John Le Dain’s classes at Plymouth and get my mate’s ticket. I told him it was impossible on account of the expense. He generously gave me £5 and I went and passed the examination and I got my certification as 2nd mate.
After getting my certificate Captain Le Dain obtained a berth on board the brig “Ocean” of Jersey (Captain Brache and owned by Mr. Ottley of Commercial Buildings. She carried about 600 tons and was charted by the Government to take out munitions to Gibraltar, Malta, Hong Kong and Shanghai and to return to Plymouth with obsolete Government stores. I was on this vessel for 14 months when on a voyage from Cadiz to London with fruit and when the vessel was in the Bay of Biscay a block fell and hit me on the shoulder rendering me insensible and I had to be taken into Bayonne, and put in hospital were I remained for over a month.
When I recovered I returned home and then got a job on the “Rose” of Harwich carrying about 300 tons of coal and general cargo for Iceland. When off Iceland a thick fog came on and the Rose ran on the rocks we were sent home by the British Consul.
In 1873 I obtained command of the schooner “Commodore” of Jersey 150 tons, belonging to Messrs Buesnel and Le Quesne of St Malo and the vessel was dismasted in a storm between the Kentish Knock and the Gallopers and taken into Ramsgate and lost my job this was my only ship under command.
I joined many ships after that, going to India, China, Japan, Africa, and other parts of the world, and when able seaman on the German passenger steamer “chemintz” of Bremen
Going to Australia, a little child fell over board and seeing her floating astern of the vessel being held up by her clothes I jumped overboard and had for her and held her until a boat was lowered from the steamer and we were saved. The childs name was Malcolm and she and her mother were going out to Melbourne to join the father who had been successful in gold digging.
The passengers on board made a collection for me and I was presented with £15 and latter on when we arrived in Australia, I was given a silver medal and more money.
During the year 1879 I was wrecked three times. I was A.B. in the “Harvest man” formally of Jersey, when in a dead calm she was run down by the French steamer St. Lorance of Le Havre off the Lizard, and only myself and another Jersey man named Philip Langlois were saved. I managed to save my life by jumping overboard just before the collision. I got hold of a lifebuoy, and when in the water I saw a head come up and seized it and made Langlois get hold of the lifebuoy. After being about an hour in the water we were picked up by the “Peggy” of Padstow, and taken to Plymouth. After the Board of Trade inquiry had been held I joined an American brigantine the “Tregarth” of New York bound with a cargo of ore for Neath in the Bristol Channel, and when about to enter the Channel a very heavy fog came on and we struck Trevose Head near the entrance of Patstow and were taken off from the vessel by a boat from the shore. We had no sooner landed than the Tregarth slid off the rocks and foundering. When at Newport I heard that the Grace of Jersey bound for Jersey with rails for the eastern railway, wanted a hand. She was a smack of about 50 tons and was very old (about 80 years old) and very badly found. The A.B. had deserted her and the night before we “Grace.”
When off Ilfracombe I happened to go down below, and to my astonishment found the cabin half full with water. So we managed to get into Ilfracombe Harbour and, after having had the vessel overhauled and caulked, renewed our voyage, but when we got between Hartland Point and Lundy Island the cabin began to take in water and the vessel began to tremble. So we got out the boat and had just got away when the Grace went to the bottom.
Three wrecks in nine months were enough, so I decided to try and get a job ashore.
I got a job with Mr. Tostevin, who was building the new markets, and worked there until 1881, when Richard Henwood, Francis Quenaultand myself were given the job of pulling down the old pork Market.
Mr. Blakeney, the postmaster, then gave me a job under Mr. Campbell, late R.E., who was employed by the post office, until 1902. When after 20 years service, I was discharged with no pension.
From 1902 until 1908 I did odd jobs at the piers and worked with the National Telephone Company for five years until it was taken over by the Post Office.
I managed to get odd jobs after that until the war broke war.
I may add that in 1881 Fred Barton, George Diamond and I fitted all the rails round the new market under Mr. Dyson, who had the contracts for the ironwork.
When the war broke out I know that if I stayed in Jersey I would have no chance to do my bit, so I went over to Southampton and went to the government office and asked what was the age limit for an artificer who was accustomed to engineering work.
I was told sixty years, and having told the recruiting officer that I was 59, and was allowed to join as a civilian and sent over to Le Havre in a hospital ship. On arrived I was employed in discharging ammunition, but a sergeant of the Engineers hearing that I had been employed at telegraph work engaged me as a civil helper and took me to St. Valery-sur-Somme, where Colonel Hodgkins engaged me as assistant to the Engineers. I was handed over to a Corporal who doubted my capability of climbing a pole, so he ordered me to climb a 30ft pole, which I did, and when I got to the top enquired what was next to be done, he told me too come down again. When we got to the mess the Corporal told the other boys that none of them could climb the pole like me. We staid at St. Valery for a fortnight.
(sec.3,R.E.), and then were ordered on to Albert, when we erected cages for Germans prisoners, but on 19th, 1914, we were ordered to Ypres to demolish my pole a bomb fell at my feet with a time fuse. I had my clippers in my hand, so a simply cut off the fuse and went on to the next pole. The man killed alongside of me was named Du Fresne, of Jersey. I had not got far when I was called before Colonel Hodkins, who asked me if I realised what I had done, and he then told me that if I had not cut that fuse they might all have been blown to pieces.
On 31st October, 1914, we were two miles away when the battle of Ypres began. The Germans succeeded in cutting a salient though and if they had fired up there success they might have got though to Calais. We were terribly short of shells.
We returned to Albert and remained there for five days, when we were ordered to a place called Cheville to make a tunnel which took us a week, when we were sent to Verdun to assist the French. But we only stayed there about three days when we were ordered back to Albert we wanted a drum of field wire, so Sagt. Tapper and I went to Contil Maison to get it. On arrival there we saw that the Northumberland Fusiliers was there and I had a son a sergeant in this regiment. He saw me came up and asked me what I was doing there. I told him “You don’t expect to win the war all by yourself, do you?”
Sergeant Tapper said “is this your father?”
“Yes”, replied my son,
“What do you think of him?”
Sergeant Tapper said that I was the smartest man for 60 that he had ever met.
“60, said my son, “77”.
The sergeant looked grave and said “he must report it or else he would get into trouble. So when we returned he reported it to Colonel Hodkins and latter on I was called before Marshal French, General Petain was with him.
Marshal French said that I could not remain in the lines as if anything happened to me at my age there would be a terrible time in parliament, but that he would send me to Leeds to make munitions.
General Petain gave me a medal as he said France must do something of a man who volunteered at 77 so I came back to England and worked at munitions near Leeds until one day I was told I must go to London and would be met at the station. I put on my best clothes and on arrival at London was put into a motor and driven to Buckingham Palace, where I was taken before the king, who presented me with a Civilian Meritorious Medal.
The king asked me whether I was the type of man who came from Jersey and he then turned to he Majesty the Queen who was present “we must visit these islands”.
I remained at these works until an age limit was ordered and I retuned to Jersey.
In the year 1900 the SS Ena, of Stockton, from Grainville, ran on the rocks off the Minquies and Mr. Le Sueur coal merchant bought the wreck and he engaged Mr. Harper engineer to salve he if possible.
I was engaged by Mr. Harper to assist and we managed to get the Ena afloat by pumping air into the main hold. Mr. Harper, Captain Noel, Connors, myself and a fisherman from La Rocque went aboard the tug Wellington taking the Ena in tow.
We had no proceeded far before the Ena began to blow water into the air and I then knew that she was going to founder and with all hast made for the small boat towing behind.
Mr. Harper and Captain Noel where on the bridge and went down with the vessel, but Mr. Harper came to the surface holding Captain Noel and held him afloat until we came to their assistance. The captain was in a very exhausted state. He could not swim and the end of his tongue had gone into his gullet.
The war was over and on the 19th July, 1919, sports were held at Westmount and there was a veterans race for those over 45. I was then 81 years of age, but I entered among the 30 competitors and came in 4, winning a butter dish, which I am very proud of.
My life has been full of incidents and as my memory I get great pleasure in living in the past I have had many kindnesses shown me.
Joseph C Eager
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