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News > From the Archives > The First OPs – The 1917 Entry

The First OPs – The 1917 Entry

In September 1917 36 youngsters of varying ages enrolled as the first entry at The Nautical College, Pangbourne. Using the BRNC Dartmouth entry system, this group became known as First Illawarra.


In September 1917 36 youngsters of varying ages enrolled as the first entry at The Nautical College Pangbourne writes ROBIN KNIGHT (56-61). Using the BRNC Dartmouth system of term entries, this group became known as First Illawarra.

C.M. ‘Beetle’ Best experienced a voyage in the Devitt & Moore training ship St. George in 1919-20 while at the NCP. From Pangbourne, he entered the MN and gained his Master’s Certificate in 1931 with the Nelson Line. Subsequently He became Chief Officer of the Silver Line 1933-35 and later Pilot at Madras Harbour, India. In WW2 he was a Lt. Cdr RNR. He died in July 1988. The smallest member of First Illawarra at 4 foot 9 inches, he was given the nickname ‘Beetle’ by the Captain Superintendent in 1917. It stuck to him for the rest of his life.

T.G. Blois – he was the first boy ever enrolled in the Nautical College. After the NCP, he went in to the MN but left after an eye accident when he fell into the hold of a ship and became a stockbroker.

Paul Carden was the first Chief of the College. He went in to the MN with the New Zealand Shipping Company from the NCP before coming ashore in 1923, initially to go into tea-planting in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1929 he was accepted for the Colonial Service and sent for three terms to Cambridge University. In the 1930s he became a partner in a Newcastle-based shipping line. From 1943 he was the first OP Governor of the College. He died in June 1985.

M.J. Castle died aged 59 in February 1963. He had gone into the MN and served with P&O.

P.H. Chatwin went into the NZSC from the NCP. In the 1930s he commanded a yacht for a wealthy individual and later managed the owner’s estate in the south of France. He died on the Gold Coast (later Ghana) in 1949.

Peter Clissold had an eventful life. He joined Union Castle shipping line from the NCP and while at sea produced several booklets on nautical subjects and was an early champion of the OP Society. In WW2 he was a Commander RNR, survived two sinkings and became Harbour Master at Benghazi, Libya. From 1946-47 he was Executive Officer at the NCP before leaving to part-own a prep school and, later, teach at the School of Navigation at Warsash. Here he published Clissold’s Seamanship, a manual which ran to five editions. “A tall, upright and lively man, Peter performed in the chorus of Gilbert & Sullivan operas in retirement and wrote poetry. He died in August 1990 aged 86.

E.R.H. Coombes joined the Union Castle shipping line from the NCP in 1919. From 1923-28 he had a short service commission in the RAF. He then joined Imperial Airways and flew with the company to 1938. He then re-joined the RAF and in January 1939 was instructing young pilots in Air Navigation at an RAF training school at Ystradgynalias in Wales when he was killed in a flying accident.

F.J. Croft went in to the MN from the NCP. In 1957 he was a Captain with Palm Line Ltd. when he died aged 54.

James Cuming died in 1938.

R.J. ‘Dick’ Galpin was a “man of many achievements.” He served an apprenticeship with the Union Castle Line and stayed with it to 1926 by which time he had become one of the first OPs to acquire a Master’s ticket. He then joined the Orient Steam Ship Navigation Co. and remained with it for the remainder of his sea-going days. During WW2 he served in the RNR as a Commodore of Convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic and subsequently on the RN staff in India. Returning to the Orient line in 1946, he commanded some of its largest post-war vessels including Ormond and Otranto. He came ashore in 1953 and was an Elder Brother of Trinity House until his retirement in 1968. For 14 years he was also a governor of the NCP. He died in March 1986 aged 83.

A.U.H. Hacket-Pain went into the Royal Navy from the NCP before switching from Dartmouth to Sandhurst and an Army career, initially with the Queen’s Royal Regiment. Known as ‘Jackie,’ he rose to the rank of Major and undertook a number of dangerous missions in the Mideast in WW2 and later. He died while on holiday in the Gambia in January 1987 and was buried there with full military honours.

P.J. Hamilton-Jones lived in France before WW2. During the war he served in the Intelligence Corps.

G.B. Herbert-Jones joined the NZSC from the NCP and later sailed in the Orient Line. In WW2 he became a Commander RNR. At the time of his death in South Africa in June 1967 he was Freight Manager at Thesen S.S. Company and vice president of the South African Master Mariners Association.

L.A. Hill was another member of Frist Illawarra term to undertake a training voyage on the D&M ship St. George. Subsequently he served his apprenticeship with the New Zealand Shipping Company before joining P&O as a fourth officer. Eventually he rose to become Commodore of P&O. During the 1939-45 war he held the rank of Captain RNR and specialised in minesweeping. In 1943 he won a DSC for his role as Senior Naval Officer in charge of minesweeping at Salerno during the Allied invasion of Italy. Post-war he continued for a time with P&O before leaving the sea to sit as an Assessor in Admiralty at the High Court and the Court of Appeal while also raising funds for the Missions to Seamen.

D.M. Lambert died in May 1992 aged 88. He was described as “a natural leader of men.” Another veteran of a voyage in the D&M training ship St. George, he joined the New Zealand Shipping Company from the NCP, earning a Master’s Certificate. In 1929 he came ashore, married and became a successful fruit farmer in Essex. Recalled to the RNR in 1939, he was awarded a DSC for his tireless efforts when in command of HMS Aristocrat, an ancient paddle steamer, during the London Blitz. Later he commanded a new American-built frigate HMS Viscount and escorted convoys across the North Atlantic. In retirement he was chairman of the parish council in Danbury, president of the local branch of the Royal British Legion and Field Master of the Essex Farmers Hunt.

Johnnie Marr is thought to be the first General Practitioner doctor educated at Pangbourne. He died in February 1961 aged 57.

Charles A. Milward went into the MN and the Union-Castle Line from the NCP before holding a variety of shore-based nautical jobs in England, including for a time being a Navigation Instructor at University College, Southampton. During this period in the 1920s he played a prominent role in the OP Society. He left England in the early 1930s to take a job in Port Sudan, eventually becoming Harbour Master there. He died in July 1963 aged 59.

J.C. Mitchell – nothing is known.

C.C. Napier also sailed in St. George while at the NCP. After Pangbourne he joined the Alfred Holt & Company, staying with the company until he obtained his Master’s ticket. In 1928 he emigrated to the USA. For eight years he was employed by Royal Dutch Shell and for ten years after that worked in companies manufacturing moulded rubber. From 1946-72 he changed direction and owned and operated a 32-acre turkey farm. He retired to use and sell sailing and fishing boats. In 1986 this “gentle and sensitive man” moved with his wife into a retirement village in South Carolina where he constructed a greenhouse and raised vegetables. He died in Bradford, South Carolina in June 1989 aged 85.

Terence de L Neill went in to the MN from the NCP but left in 1925. He then carved out a successful acting career on stages in London and New York, making his professional debut in a play called ‘Mr Wu’ at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, west London. During WW2 he joined the RAFVR and became a member of 296 Squadron RAF. On July 13, 1943 he was killed in action while towing a glider as part of the invasion of Sicily. Aged 41 or 42, he was probably the oldest OP to die in World War 2.

Hugh M. Raymond died in Moruya, New South Wales, Australia in September 1995 aged 91. After the NCP he sailed with the New Zealand Shipping Company but had to leave the sea when it was discovered that he was colour blind. Instead, he joined the Orient Line as a purser. On passing through Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on one occasion, he was offered a job with a local import/export agency. In WW2 he remained in Ceylon, staying there until independence in 1948 when all his assets were frozen. He and his wife moved to Australia where both held down jobs well past retirement age.

G.M.B. Roche spent most of his working life with P&O shipping company. He ended his career with the Penang Pilot Service before retiring to Walmer, Kent where he died in November 1987. 

Aubrey St. Clair-Ford was one of the first three cadets from the NCP to enter the Royal Navy when he went on to Dartmouth in 1918. During WW2 he became “an outstanding destroyer officer celebrated as the first and only captain of HMS Kipling when the ship won all seven of her battle honours” according to a fulsome obituary in the Daily Telegraph. In May 1941 Kipling – despite being attacked by more than 40 enemy aircraft and hit by 83 bombs – managed to rescue Louis Mountbatten when his ship, HMS Kelly, was sunk in a battle off Crete. St. Clair-Ford was subsequently awarded the DSO after he got the badly-damaged Kipling back to Alexandria in Egypt. Several months later Kipling was sunk off Crete in another Mediterranean battle at sea but “Good Old Strawberry” as his loyal sailors called him, survived. Other commands followed. By 1950 St Clair-Ford was commander of the cruiser HMS Belfast during the Korean War during which he won the American Legion of Merit. In 1955 he retired from the RN with the rank of Commodore. Shortly after he became a baronet on the death of a relative and joined Tarmac, becoming a director of one of its subsidiary companies. He died in April 1991 aged 87.

W.J. Scott – went into the MN and was reported to be doing RNR training in 1923. Subsequently, he had a “breakdown in health” and left the sea. He then trained to become a civil engineer.

Gerald T.S. Sichel worked on the London Stock Exchange in the 1920s. In 1927 he was reported to be tobacco-planting in Rhodesia. During the 1930s he is known to have been a Special Branch police officer. At the end of 1940 he transferred to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Temporary Lieutenant on secondment from the Special Branch and served in this capacity at home and abroad throughout the war. He left the Navy in 1948 and was commissioned as a Lt. in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, then part of the Territorial Army. Three years later aged 47, he retired from the Army. After a spell in business in Southampton, he emigrated to Australia in the early 1950s. He died in New South Wales, Australia in 1978 aged 74.

R.C. Simmons was one of the first three NCP cadets to pass into BRNC Dartmouth. By mid-1923 he had left the Royal Navy. He then moved into the City of London and became an insurance broker and a Member of Lloyds. He died in 1959 aged 54.

E. Merton Stebbing sailed in the D&M training ship St. George and then entered the MN with Union Castle Line after the NCP. In the 1930s he inherited an 8,000-acre poultry farm near Bournemouth. A keen yachtsman, he won many important races in the 1930s in his cutter Flying Mist. He was killed in January 1939 when an avalanche overwhelmed his skiing party on the slopes at Davos in Switzerland.

James B. Stewart joined the shipping line Alfred Holt & Company from the NCP. Later he sailed with the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company and Jardine Matheson. Post-war he farmed in Scotland near Berwick-on-Tweed. He died aged 77 in October 1981.

Eric T. Symmons went in to the Royal Navy after the NCP. He died in the 1980s. By then he was known as Eric Thorne-Symmons.

Stuart J. Vernon at first went into the MN from the NCP. In 1924 he became the first of this term to get married. The following year he had left the sea and was working as a printer in St. Albans. By 1939 he had his own printing company in Radlett but had to close it on the outbreak of war. During WW2 he enlisted as an ordinary seaman but rose to become a Lt Commander RNR and be awarded a DSC in April 1945 for his role in landing craft operations in Europe. Previously, he had been Mentioned in Despatches for his part in Operation Avalanche – the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. Post-war he worked in the printing industry in Watford and Radlett. He died in July 1967 when living in Stanmore, Middlesex.

Fred Wells died in Batehaven, New South Wales, Australia in November 1993 aged 90. After the NCP, he sailed for six years with the Nelson Line, acquiring a Frist Mate’s ticket. Following a brief spell in the Metropolitan Police in 1925, he emigrated to Australia in 1926 and worked for many years on farms in Western Australia, in ships sailing out of Australian ports and in the goldfields. During WW2 he served in the Royal Australian Navy. After the war he became Commonwealth Pearling Officer based in Canberra until he retired in 1963.

W.F. West – went into the MN and the NZSC from Pangbourne. He became a Midshipman RNR in 1922 and was still sailing with the NZSC in 1926.

W.C. Wilkinson – joined the NZSC from the NCP and won the company’s Cadets prize in 1923.

C.B. Williams joined the NZSC from Pangbourne. He left the sea and emigrated to New Zealand in 1926 and farmed in NZ for the rest of his life.

R.H. Windham – was apprenticed in the Clan Line. In the mid-1920s he played polo for the West Suffolks before moving to Canada in 1927.

Gordon W. Wood went into the MN from the NCP with P&O – one of 14 OPs employed as officers by P&O in 1931. Shortly after, P&O seconded him to be Chief Officer on Lord Inchcape’s yacht Rover.  He returned to P&O in 1932. Before or after WW2 he was a Suez Canal pilot. His last role was as the well-known Secretary of Lindrick Golf Club near Worksop. He died in May 1964 aged 60.


As this record suggests, the great majority of the first intake at the College went into the Merchant Navy from Pangbourne. By 1930, however, a minority were still at sea. In 1938 Harry Sykes, Hon. Sec. of the OP Society, was complaining that “few of the 1917-19 entry receive The Log and with few exceptions they have lost touch with each other.” Whether or not this had anything to do with the conditions they experienced at the NCP is impossible to know at this distance in time.

What can be said with certainty is that when the first cadets arrived at the Nautical College, they were greeted by “a contrasting ensemble of teachers, lower deck naval instructors and support staff” according to the school’s centenary history. Desks and books were in short supply but expectations were high – and press coverage of the new institution was extensive. Everything revolved around the Captain Superintendent, William Montanaro, and the founder’s hands-on son Philip Devitt.

Two months later, in November 1917, the College was formally opened by the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Herbert Heath. Soon after, the Board of Trade conducted an inspection, later agreeing that time spent at the NCP could count towards a Second Mate’s certificate. Meantime the Admiralty had agreed that pupils could be enrolled as Cadets RNR.

The good news ended at that point. An outbreak of chicken pox in mid-November put the school into quarantine; a yellow flag was hoisted on the newly-installed flagstaff to show the world that the International Code of Signals was being taught at the school. Early the next year (1918), the College froze up in one of the coldest winters on record. “How we survived that second term I shall never know,” wrote on member of First Illawarra. “Coal was in short supply due to the war, but we were an obdurate breed and bore it with commendable fortitude.”

By then a daily routine was in place. A lengthy day was punctuated by bugle calls and began at 6:30am. An hour later all the boys lined up on Devitt House terrace for physical drill controlled by two “ruffianly” ex-Chief Petty Officers, Hall and Molyneux, who also taught seamanship. From 8:00am to 4:00pm everyone marched hither and thither – to classroom, to parade ground, to dining hall. Two hours of sport (rugby, soccer and cricket) followed on the rather basic facilities at White’s Field from 4:00-6:00pm. Then tea and evening study. At 8:30pm the order was given: ‘Stand-by hammocks.’ Prayers were read at 8:55pm. At 9:30pm the duty officer held a final inspection before lights out.

At the river, the first entrants found only a whaling boat and two large lifeboats to progress their nautical training – and all three boats required a complete overhaul to make them safe. Once they river-worthy, a group of the cadets was ordered to row and sail the lifeboats up river to Oxford and beyond that summer. By nightfall on Day One they had got just two miles upstream due to recent flooding. Camping overnight by the river, a massive thunderstorm broke out. Utter chaos ensued, and the bedraggled boys staggered up Pangbourne Hill with their tails between their legs.

At least four contemporary accounts of life at the Nautical College in 1917-20 period survive. One was written for The Log in 1938 by Paul Carden (17-19), the first Chief of the College. The second comes from a letter written by Gerry Hodgson (18-19) in 1967. The third was written for The OP Magazine’s 1978/79 issue by ‘Beetle’ Best. The fourth is attributed to G.T. Coney (18-19).

Carden is rather matter-of-fact. “My recollection of the first term is of innumerable inspections by visitors. We always seemed to be sizing (tallest on the right etc.) for parades. Looking back, we were licked into shape very quickly.” He claimed that the food, despite wartime privations, “was always excellent…(but) the amount of scholastic education we imbibed was not very great.” In particular, he recalled a scripture class when the padre, Mr. Offer, was asked by Hamilton-Jones, a Roman Catholic, if he could leave the room in view of his faith. Offer gave permission, but then asked if there were any more RCs present. The whole class trooped out.

According to Hodgson, a future stalwart of the OP Society who sent his son to the College “it really was rough and ready. We slept in Navy hammocks, kept our kit in sea chests and very largely lived in very cold and draughty wooden buildings.  Some of our teachers were even more rough and ready than the surroundings, and several verged on the downright peculiar.”

However, while discipline was tough and daily life often hard, bullying seems to have been kept under control. “My term (First Macquarie, the second term) contained some of the roughest and toughest characters I ever met,” recalled G.T. Coney. “But there was no bullying and only the occasional application of a rope’s end by a Cadet Captain.”

Each term (37 new cadets arrived in January 1918, 51 in September 1918 forming First Harbinger) had an allocated classroom. On the Devitt lawn a chain tower was erected to teach the boys how to ‘heave a lead.’  Close by, a makeshift arrangement of painted wooden flags was rigged up to pass on the basics of signalling at sea. Competition between terms was intensive; within them, team spirit flourished.

To begin with, there was no home leave during term time. Instead, the school would decamp to the woods en masse on parade-free Sunday afternoons. Carden and Best recalled with some warmth the ingenious tree huts and dug-outs built by the boys in those early days and also the tasty sausages and potatoes roasted in dugouts. Some of the huts were made “with considerable skill including one marvellous hut about 60 feet from the ground” according to Carden. “One almost needed the assistance of a (monkey) tail to get to it.” Not so, remembered Best. Access to this particular hut was “up a hanging rope ladder.” In 1918 an aerial railway was built.

By the summer term 1918, the College had a character and style that was to last for many years. But just as a smoother period seemed to lie ahead the ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic that had swept through continental Europe reached England. In July, the first Speech Day at the NCP was postponed. When it was held in September, the College’s founder, Sir Thomas Devitt, presented the prizes followed by a March Past by the entire school along the gravel path under Devitt House terrace. Captain Montanaro was close to exhaustion, but his immense efforts to create a functioning nautical training establishment had borne fruit.

By then features that at were to prevail into the 1960s were evident. On the rudimentary sports fields a recognisable ‘Pangbourne Spirit’ allowed the young school to take on and defeat older and better equipped schools. The Cadet Captain system was in place, the College farm was producing more and better food, new huts had been erected for teaching purposes and better staff recruited.

Then the influenza virus struck again, this time in earnest. Staff and cadets went down like ninepins. On November 14th Cadet Branford died and the term ended abruptly. Next day, at 10.30am, Captain Montanaro – the lynchpin of the Nautical College’s first year – succumbed. As Lionel Stephens put it in his 1991 history of the school: “His final words in a last letter to Philip Devitt sum up his unique contribution: ‘We have commenced our voyage with a fair wind and all sails are drawing well.’”

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