Kate Loader Turnell remembered clearly the first time she saw George Turnell. It was 1906 and she had been shopping in St Mary Bourne for her mother when she saw her older brother Freddie chatting to a strange young man. As she approached, her brother smiled and said:
‘Here’s my sister, I’m sure she will agree that we can make another place at the table tonight’.
George turned around smiling, and Kate was instantly struck by the colour of his eyes – they were almost cornflower blue. He wasn’t a tall lad, well only a couple of inches taller than her, but he gave the impression of being strong and confident. He explained that he was on leave from the Royal Navy and had heard that his father was living somewhere in the village so had travelled, unsuccessfully, to find him.Twenty year old Freddie had taken such a liking to him that he had invited him to eat that evening and probably stay overnight until he could journey back to his base, which was in Portsmouth. He felt sorry that the lad had had a wasted journey and felt sure that their parents wouldn’t mind.
The Loader family lived in New Barn Farm cottages, just out of the village, and beyond the viaduct, on the Harrow Way. Dad was a carter on the farm, as were his sons, Freddie and 14 year old Bert. Kate, who was 17 years old, helped her mother in the house and garden and did seasonal work on the farm.
Fred was correct in assuming that his parents would be happy to include the wandering matelot into their home and later, after they had enjoyed their evening meal, George was encouraged to recount stories of his experiences in the navy.
He told them he had dreamed of being a sailor since childhood and had enlisted at fifteen years of age, his first opportunity, as a boy cadet. He had spent his first year in training in a place called Portland – an island attached to Weymouth on the Dorset coast.
At first he was on a ship docked in the harbour, called the HMS Boscawen – an elderly three decked sailing ship – where he had been taught the rudiments of seamanship. Following that he had progressed, still in Portland Harbour, to the HMS Minotaur and then finally to HMS Agincourt.
On completing his training he had been allotted his first seagoing draft on the ship the HMS Eclipse. After numerous trials, where they seemed to sail around in circles in and out of Portsmouth harbour, the commission really started. He told of his first scary voyage across the Bay of Biscay where the ship was tossed like a cork in the tumultuous seas and the crew had to hang on to ropes and rails down below and were not allowed above decks for fear of being swept overboard, many of them being violently sick. George described the change of the waters when the ship left the ocean and sailed into the warmer, calmer climes of the Mediterranean. He spoke of lying on the top deck of the ship, with a warm breeze, no land to be seen – just a myriad of stars in a midnight sky.
He told them of his first sight of the Rock of Gibraltar and how, along with some of his crew mates, he had climbed the huge rock and seen the apes up there and been surprised as they swung out over the precipice to retrieve a bun or some such. The crew members had all been warned before going ashore, to hold on to their hats and leave nothing loose for the mischievous apes to grab. This had been his first port of call on foreign soil, to eat foreign food and hear foreign language being spoken – and he had loved every minute. The HMS Eclipse had called at many ports along the Mediterranean; he remembered hearing the clanging of church bells across the water before docking in Malta. The ship travelled through the Suez Canal and beyond – all the way to China.
He talked long into the evening of other voyages and Kate and her brothers were enthralled and even more amazed when he took off his jacket, rolled up his right sleeve to reveal a picture – a tattoo of a Geisha girl. The family had seen people with tattoos before but never in such vibrant colours. The youngsters begged him for more tales, but as he had to leave early the next day to get back to his ship in Portsmouth it was time to sleep, though he promised to visit them again when he had leave.
The next time George came to the village there was no pretence about looking for his father. The Loader family welcomed him and treated him as member of their family, and he was so grateful, having known none before.
His visits were irregular, according to whether he was based on shore or was at sea. Whenever he did come back, he regaled them with more tales of his excursions across the world, occasionally bringing them small gifts that he had bought in foreign ports.
He started writing to Kate and she readily replied. On his following few stays it became apparent that, though the sea was his first love, he was becoming smitten with her – and she with him. Sometimes Kate did not see him for months and gradually their romance had blossomed, mostly by post. When he did come home they walked out regularly and became a familiar sight arm in arm in the village, attending church and visiting friends.
They had written frequently, their letters becoming more affectionate as the months went by, and when George arrived in St Mary Bourne for a short weekend, after a very long absence, Kate was overjoyed to see him. When the family had greeted him and then returned to their daily chores he suggested they went for a walk together, and as they walked George asked her to be his bride. Kate had been so happy to accept his proposal. The following day they had arranged to be married in St Peters Church on his next leave.
Before he went back to his ship after his proposal, George told her he had a surprise for her, he rolled up his left sleeve to reveal- yet another tattoo of a geisha! This time the girl had – not the coal dark almond eyes of Japanese – but round green eyes similar to Kate’s own.
When he had gone back to Portsmouth she discovered a beautiful card on the mantelpiece- once again with a picture of a geisha.
Inside it read “My darling, I may have the geishas on my arms but I will always have you in my heart, George xx”
In the following few weeks Kate had busied herself with preparing to become Mrs Turnell soon, with her family’s blessing. She remembered thinking -here she was at 21 years of age in 1910 – about to become married to her handsome blue-eyed seaman – life had looked so exciting!
There is some mystery about the identity of George Turnell. Although it says on his naval papers, and is repeated on the 1911 census, that he was born in Kew and his father’s name was also George, no trace of the birth of such a person can be found in the usual genealogical sources. There is a George Turnell son of George born in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire at about the right time which could conceivably be him but this is of course speculation. One possible explanation might be that he was illegitimate, or an orphan, which might explain why he had gone to sea at such an early age. (Also speculation!).
The tattoos, however, are absolutely real and form part of his naval record ‘Japanese girl on right arm’ and then a couple of years later ‘Japanese girl on left arm’.
Most of the cottages for New Barn Farm have been rebuilt; this is one which would have been there in the Loaders’ time, but we do not know whether this was the exact one they occupied.