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ON CONVICT GUARD

Portsmouth Dockyard 1883

A day on Guard is a day of enforced idleness, of dull lonliness. Army reformers talk of the idle life of the British officer. Why his idlest day is the day he is on duty! But this idleness is conducive to thinking; and the following are some of our thoughts.

Close by we can hear the hammers of the workmen engaged in building up the iron walls which are to take the place of the old wooden walls which won for England so much glory in the days of Blake and Hood and Nelson. With what success will these iron walls take their place? Will they uphold our fame and prestige as the others did; or are these costly monsters doomed to succumb to the small swift torpedo, or to other forms of destructive engine? Is war to come to an end when machinery becomes all destroying? Or is perfection of machinery the end to which all things are tending and will the millenium be then?

Here are the Colossus and the Edinburgh, which have been some years building and are advancing slowly towards completion. They are huge turret-ships, to be thickly armour-plated and when they have been provided with their 43-ton guns they will rank among the most powerful ships of the world.

Near them is an Indian troopship, one of the floating towns which can carry two thousand passengers. A great evidence of the splendid power and possessions of England which enable her and require her to send out annually so many thousands of her sons to preserve the empire which she has so grandly won. On board these ships the British soldier learns to be a sailor too, and takes not unkindly to the trade. We remember a voyage in a distant ocean when with a favouring tade wind every stitch of canvas was set. As sail was being shortened on coming into harbour, it was our duty to superintend a party of our men working on the forecastle. Something went wrong with the gear, and a studding-sail boom came down with a run in the middle of the party. Said one soldier to another, "You were near being done for that time." The answer came, cool, even indifferent, "Oh, it is all in the day's work!" How deserted the trooper seems to us now as she lies in the Repair Basin, with no one on board but a portion of her crew.

Around us are at work the thirteen hundred convicts who necessitate our presence here. Close to the guard-room one lot are repairing the dockyard railway; beyond the Repairing Basin others are digging a large basin, nineteen acres in extent; large as the dockyard is, it has not attained its full dimensions yet. From here the earth is carried off by rail, and at another place in the yard is piled up to be made into bricks by more convicts; we can see the long chimneys of the furnaces. These convicts have a sufficiently easy time of it; working only eight hours a day in summer, and even less in winter, and not troubling themselves much even in their hours of toil. If it were not for the deprivation of beer and tobacco, and perhaps some other small luxuries, it seems to us that they have rather a pleasant life. At all events they do not have to do sentry duty on cold and wet winter nights, which must be a pleasant change for those that have been soldiers.

Now we can watch them marching off to their dinner, and as they pass, try and make vain speculations as to their histories and characters of those that we can notice, and as to the crimes for which they are paying the penalty. Most of them look very ordinary persons after all, and not many seem sorry for themselves. There is only one we particularly notice, a striking figure, as he was once a celebrated character. We have all heard of him as the Claimant, though with regard to his right name there seems to be still a difference of opinion. He can be recognised at once even by those who have only seen a picture of what he was in his prosperous days, though since then he has grown thinner and older looking.

The convicts having all passed we return to our book, which is Justin McCarthy's History of Our Own Times, a work which is most interesting from the nature of its contents, and agreeable from the easy, flowing style of its language. We are delighted by finding a favourable notice of the character and attainments our great favourite, Macaulay. "A great literary man - a man of singularly noble character - generous and charitable - unspoiled by almost unequalled success - most tenderly loved by those who knew him best." This is some of the praise bestowed by the one historian upon the other.

Our reading occupies us till the convicts are trooping off to the prison, and our time of inaction is near its end. A soon as the last have gone the Guard falls in, we give joyful command Fours - Right. Quick - March. and our day's work, our day's idleness is finished.

A Slasher (officer of the 28th)