In 1945, aged 15, I stepped into the path of one of the most remarkable women in history. It came about when I joined the Training Ship Mercury. Captain C.B. Fry RNR (known as CB) was supposedly in charge. I arrived to find that his wife gave the orders. She was 83, ten years older than her husband, having been the effective commander for 60 years.
Mrs. Fry (Beatie to her inner circle) was born Beatrice Holme Sumner on 12th July, 1862. She was of royal descent and related to the upper echelons of society. Precociously mature, she rode to hounds in Gloucestershire when barely into her teens and shocked everybody by riding astride.
It was out hunting that Beatie met Charles Hoare, one of the richest men in England. She was 14, he twice her age, married and father of five. Having been made a Ward of Court in the last 18 months of her minority they were both put on trial in 1885 for being in breach of the order and were lucky to be let off.
Their affair devastated the lives of so many that Charles, in expiation, set up a pre-sea school for poor boys of good character, the Training Ship Mercury, funded entirely from his own pocket. The school was based on an ocean-going, three-masted barque, the former Illovo, anchored offshore of a country house on the Solent.
Beatie (by now 23, and a woman of vast intelligence, energy and charisma) took to going on board every day dressed in male attire, bare-footed, so that she could lead the boys in the first exercise of the day, up the rigging and over the tops.
She swam with them in the Solent from Easter to the end of October. As the cycle of training was repeated she became a better sailor than some of the instructors, lacking only their experience of long voyages. She could command a ship under sail and just as willingly take a handful of boys out in a 30-foot cutter and teach them the niceties of tacking and gybing. She was, in fact, setting the pattern for herself and all who passed through the Mercury right up to the time of her death in 1946.
When Charles died in 1908 there was a change of gear. Beatie had married CB ten years earlier, but it was agreed that she would remain at the helm. Despite being a woman operating in what had been regarded as one of the manliest of occupations, she turned the Mercury into the toughest and most successful school of its kind in Britain.
Although her regime was harsh, she implemented no hardships that she had not endured when they were anchored on the Solent, and when her boys went to sea they were prepared for anything. She was still giving the orders when she died in 1946 three months short of her 84th birthday.
In the first three decades of the last century some of the most powerful men in Britain came to her table. Churchill, a friend, would stop by for lunch. It was he, in his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, who ordered the hulk of HMS Gannet to Hamble in 1914 to be made ready to replace the former Illovo.
Today Gannet – fully restored – floats in her own dock at Chatham Historic Dockyard, a memorial to one to one of the most remarkable women in history.