A Salty Sea Dog’s Tale

I was reading a book about the Thames written in 1859 last night. Since it starts at its source and is only 500 pages long, the authors flow through its entire length at roughly the same speed as the river itself, but they do stop off along the way if there’s a good, solid story to be told. Especially if its sentimental and includes a dog…

Apparently, the Greenwich Pensioners, who had very little to do with their days, adopted their own favourite walks -

“you meet the same wooden leg at a particular corner and at the same hour almost (fair weather or foul) every day in the year, the same old trio chaffing and yarning on the same bench; the same lot with their pipes of an afternoon in the park; their weather-beaten broken-up faces and their broken-up limbs, become your familiars…”

The author goes on at length about snuff canisters and rolls of pigtail and how hard it is to get them to trust you – “you may coax a soldier with a cigar but a sailor scorns it,” but then goes on to talk about how a mate of his managed to befriend a particularly salty character who never talked to anyone except his very scruffy dog.

There’s a long passage about the courtship (which involved much praising of the mutt and the exchanging of snuff) and how touching it was to see the love the old sailor had for the dog and vice versa.

Once the friendship was sealed, the two Victorian chaps – the Greenwich Gentleman and the Old Jack Tar met up on a regular basis. The pensioner told the gentleman why he loved his dog so much. His grandson was a lance corporal in the 50th regiment who had been sent to the Crimea. Before he had gone, the son had asked his grandad to look after his dog for him while he was gone. It was against the Greenwich Hospital rules, but military types stick together and everyone turned a blind eye until the boy’s return.

The old guy steered clear of newspapers and wouldn’t talk to his comrades for fear of bad news from the front. But he was just telling the Greenwich Gentleman about an arrangement he had with a friend who read the paper every day -the pair had developed a signal – if there was bad news, he would tie a black handkerchief to his crutch when he he cried

“There! He’s heaving into sight!”

The author continues “the stick fell to the ground as he pointed him out; he threw back his hat, shaded his eyes from the sun and, grasping our friend’s arm, pointed to where his comrade moved slowly on – the black handkerchief floating behind him like a pennon!”

The old pensioner fell to the ground as he heard his grandson was listed as ‘killed’ in the trenches. He was carried back to the hospital in a coma, “rigid as marble.” As he eventually came to, his first movement was to reach for the dog as he wept.

The Greenwich Gentleman, being a helpful sort, thought “there was no harm in suggesting that there might be an error,” and went up to the Horse Guards to see if he could get any further news. Nothing.

Months went by, and the Greenwich Gentleman had to visit the old man in the ward – he was now too weak to move; but there came a morning when the previous bearer of the black flag came hobbling in again – this time with a “a small snowy window curtain depending from his crutch.”

“Not dead?”

“Badly wounded. Coming home.”

I really, really hope this story’s true – I can’t see any reason for it to be made up – though the florid detail may have been a little embroidered. But hey – we all do that. Let’s enjoy the last line of the story together:

“And he did come home, too, the brave, gallant soldier, with three stripes on his arm; and his grandfather – ay, and his little dog – saw him receive his medal from the hand of his own queen.”

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