The Sea Urchins

What is a Sea Urchin? The dictionary helps a little. ‘Any echinoderm of the class Echinoidea, such as Echinus esculentus, typically having a globular body enclosed in a rigid spiny test (shell) and occurring in shallow marine waters.’ That interprets into ‘Doing nothing very much, putting on weight and keeping one’s feet on the ground for as long as possible’.

With regret, in our brand of Sea Urchins there was a downward evolution of the species for some years, entitled ‘sea slugs’. They tended to head for the nearest hostelry after the monthly ‘do’ and basically loitered with no intent. The least said about them the better as they have now disappeared from sight. Actually they really did nothing and, naturally, have left no trace of their nebulous lack of activities. If you are interested, a sea slug is ‘a shell-less marine gastropod of the order of Nudibranchia.’ You must surely have been educated by this paragraph!

There can be no better introduction to the Royal Naval Reserve Officers’ Club (Sea Urchins) Liverpool than to reproduce the letter sent to the Private Secretary of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh inviting him to the 61st Anniversary of the foundation of the Club. The President that year was Lieutenant M.D. Wright, TD, RNR.

‘The Club was founded in 1921 to promote contact between the Royal Naval Reserve Officers, and to foster their interests and traditions. Membership is confined to all RNR and RN Officers, Active or Retired, including those who have held temporary commissions in wartime. It also includes a small proportion (10%) of gentlemen who have a keen interest in the aims and objects of the Club and nearly always have a maritime interest.

Last year was the 60th Anniversary of the foundation of the Club and we did ask the Duke of Edinburgh to be our guest speaker. He was, however, unable to accept our invitation because of his other commitments, and we would like to repeat the invitation this year which has been designated the Year of the Mariner, and in which it might be considered that a visit to Liverpool would be appropriate.’

The exceedingly courteous reply was ‘I very much regret…’

However, the guest speaker in Eaglet at the Anniversary Annual Dinner on 3rd November 1982 was Captain N.J. Barker, CBE, RN. It was an inspired choice. Captain Barker’s father was killed in 1940, whilst in command of HMS Ardent during an action against the German Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

Here is exactly what happened that night … more or less.

The passengers disembarking from the Euston to Lime Street Inter City Express gazed with interest and admiration at the gleaming open topped vintage, 1926, Blue Badge Bentley which awaited the arrival of a VIP at platform eight on a clear November afternoon, some five months after the Falklands War. Standing guard alongside this marvellous relic of a by-gone age were its owner, Lieutenant Matt Wright, TD, RNR, and Lieutenant-Commander Harry Harley, RN, a fellow Sea Urchin and Associate of the awaited VIP. They are responsible for this particular tale. A beaming smile above an immaculate Crombie overcoat heralded the arrival of Captain Nick Barker, RN, Commanding Officer of H.M.S. Endurance. With eagerness and an agility which belied his years, Captain Barker climbed into this unique ‘staff car’ and, sitting alongside Matt, he clearly enjoyed the sedate drive past many admiring onlookers as Matt navigated a circuitous route to the Atlantic Tower Hotel.

That evening after dinner at HMS Eaglet, Captain Barker delivered a truly remarkable speech to more than ninety enthralled Sea Urchins. After accepting the invitation, Captain Barker had asked Harry Harley if the ‘venue was suitable for the use of a slide projector’. That evening the Drill Deck had been duly prepared.

In response to President Matt Wright’s introduction, Captain Barker asked that any member of the ‘media world’ at the dinner treat his speech as being ‘off the record’. Walking from the top table he took up station alongside the projector and proceeded to reveal his first hand experiences when commanding HMS Endurance, before, during and after the Falklands War. Warming to his subject and clearly noting the vivid interest of the Sea Urchins, Barker ripped away the curtains of secrecy hiding political bungling, mismanaged diplomacy and extremely inept misreading of sound intelligence reports. A natural born mimic and raconteur, Nick Barker regaled the Sea Urchins with a series of colourful anecdotes, each one seemingly accompanied by an equally colourful slide. An example was Scott of the Antarctic … an accident prone Able Seaman Scott who lost control of his motorised snow mobile and plunged from a great height into the Antarctic Ocean. Against all odds he escaped death by hypothermia! And another story. The Commanding Officer of the Argentine Submarine Sante Fe, when questioned after being taken prisoner after the action at Grytviken on South Georgia, was asked why he had not torpedoed HMS Endurance just one week earlier. He had replied, “How could I do such a thing when you had entertained us at such a wonderful party last March!” Ministry officials, some 15,000 miles distant, had refused to accept Nick Barker’s appreciation of the situation whilst Endurance held ASDIC contact on the Sante Fe.

There were many, many more such revelations.

Captain Barker addressed the Sea Urchins for some 45 minutes and it passed all too swiftly. As he walked back to regain his top table seat the Liverpool Sea Urchins arose as one and displayed their appreciation with an unprecedented standing ovation. It was great night in Sea Urchin history.

Captain Nicholas Barker, having severely and courageously shaken the British Establishment to its self-righteous, invincibility-riddled roots, had noted how his successful Royal Navy career had been side tracked accordingly, and he finally resigned from the Royal Navy in 1988. Having survived the Falklands War, and the many bureaucratic battles that followed, he sadly lost his final fight with cancer and died in 1998.

The details of the birth of the Sea Urchins seem to be lost in time, but some memories remain. The president in 1927 was no light-weight. The lot fell upon Commodore Sir Bertram F. Hayes, KCMG, DSO, RD, RNR. At that time the Club met for weekly luncheons and boasted a membership of three hundred and nine. The outgoing president was Commander E.C. Roden and his parting words are recorded. “After the war, when I came ashore, I dug myself down on an office stool and forgot that I was a Royal Naval Reserve Officer, and it was the beginning of the Club that made me realise my responsibilities as an officer in the RNR. It is our duty to do all that we can to foster that brotherly feeling which had carried us through the war. That is the spirit that will carry this Club through to its high aims.”

To this day we have a fascinating centre-piece on the dining table. It was presented to the Club in January 1932 by Captain S.S. Richardson, OBE, RD, our first President. The case and base were made from the timber of War Dame (then Delambre), the steps made of timber from HMS Conway and HMS Eagle. Small guns were made from the Eagle and are enclosed by stanchions and chains made from a metal bolt of HMS Clarence (the bolt was rescued from the river when Clarence was burned out in 1899). The trophy was made by John Scoberg, a carpenter from the Lamport and Holt Line. The second presentation that night was the builder’s brass name-plate of the Cunard liner Carmania from Commander J.C. Barr, on behalf of the company. Captain G. Davey, the President, said that Captain Barr had also offered to present a framed plan or chart of the action in which the Carmania under his command had fought the Cap Trafalgar. That action was the first between two merchantmen for over one hundred years.

Cap Trafalgar was sunk after a battle of one hour and forty-six minutes. Carmania had been hit by seventy-nine shells and her deck was in ruins. Escorted by Cornwall and Macedonia the stricken vessel reached Gibraltar for repairs, but eight weeks later she was back on patrol off Lisbon. Commander ‘Smokey’ Barr was given a CB and invalided home. He went on to command the troopships Mauretania, Saxonia and Carpathia. Captain Barr retired as Senior Commodore of the Cunard Line in 1916 and died in 1937.

In 1933 the Club held its luncheons in the Liverpool Constitutional Club. The president was Captain C. Edwards, DSO, RD, RNR. Weekly lunches continued and membership was two hundred and seventy-five. It had been a busy year in spite of troubled times in the shipping industry. Shooting, golf, visits to ships, a presentation by the Ship Model Society, Remembrance Ceremonies of Zeebrugge, Nelson Day and Armistice Day, the Annual Ball at the Adelphi, reciprocal visits to Southampton Master Mariners’ Club (The Cachelots), the list was long. A Blue Ensign was presented to the Honorary Chaplain, Rev. S. Bradford, BA, RN, for his church during a ceremony and service held at Whiston Parish Church. The Sea Urchins were flourishing.

In the fifth year of the Second World War there was ample evidence of resilience. At the Club Annual Dinner, the loyal toast was followed by ‘Absent members, particularly those in enemy hands’. The possessions were all intact and the Club was ready with funds, equipment and organisation for any expansion which members, present and future, might decide upon, when Germany was defeated and some, at least, of the members now absent on active service were demobilised. The past year had, not only been a victorious one for the Allies, but a successful one for the Club.

It would be possible to continue with these ‘snap-shot’ nostalgic memories down the years to the present time.

Today there are monthly Club Luncheon Meetings on board HMS Eaglet, an Annual Dinner in Eaglet, and various other social activities. Times have certainly changed, but the aims remain … to foster the interests, prestige, status and traditions of the Royal Naval Reserves.