Skeat, William H.
Manuscript Travel Journal of British sailor, William H. Skeat, Bandsman 1st Class, of Wakefield, West Riding, Yorkshire, kept while serving on the HMS Inconstant while circumnavigating the world, 1880-1882

small quarto, 108 manuscript pp., dated 6 October 1880 to late October 1882, original ¼ cloth, marbled paper covered boards, spine and boards worn, inner hinges open, several leaves loose, pages numbered 1 to 107, lacks first two pages, includes an extra leaf between pages 24-25, and has one leaf at rear with a list of the “Places Visited by the Squadron,” that includes place, when arrived, when left, distance, and where situated. Inside front board has the ownership inscription: “William Skeat, West Riding, Wakefield.”

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While the first two pages of the journal are missing, there is plenty of internal evidence which determines that it was kept by William Skeat, of West Riding, Wakefield, while serving on board the HMS Inconstant. On the last page of the volume it includes a log of places visited by the ship, including: Portsmouth; Vigo (Spain); Madeira (Funchal an island in the Atlantic); St. Vincent (Cape De Verde Islands); Monte Video (South America up the River La Plata); Stanley (Falkland Islands S.E.C. of America); Simons Bay (South Africa); Melbourne (Victoria, Australia); Sidney (N.S. Wales, Australia); Brisbane (Queensland, Australia); Levuka (Fiji Islands, South Pacific); Yokohama (Japan); Kobe (Japan); Simonosaki (Japan, probably means Shimonoseki); Shanghai (China); Ningpo (Amory in China); Amoy (An island and British possession in China, Hong Kong); Hong Kong; Nagasaki (Japan); Hong Kong; Singapore (Malay Peninsula). These locations match the history of the HMS Inconstant’s circumnavigation of the world from 1880 to 1882.

William H. Skeat (1861-1928)

William Skeat was born 19 November 1861 in St. Blazey, Cornwall, England, the son of William Skeat and his wife Rachel. The senior Skeat was listed in the 1871 English Census as a “Mine Engineer.” The 1871 Census shows William enumerated with his parents at Cornwall. William, (the younger), was listed as a miner when he enlisted in military service. He enlisted on 2 February 1878 for a term of ten years. He played in the bands of the various ships he served on. These ships were the Impregnable (2 Feb. 1878- 19 Nov. 1879 – 21 Sept. 1880); the Inconstant (22 Sept. 1880 - 1 Dec. 1881 – 1 Dec. 1882; Duke of Wellington (2 Dec. 1882 – 4 Dec. 1882); Royal Adelaide (5 Dec. 1882 – 16 Oct. 1883), and the Revenge (16 Oct. 1883 – 13 Nov. 1884). He seems to have completed his military service after about six years. His military records show that he was regularly ranked “very good.” He started out ranked as “band boy,” and moved up to “band 2nd class” and then finally “band first class.”

The 1881 English Census enumerates William Skeat on the ship Inconstant along with his fellow sailors. He was listed as “bandsman 2nd class.” On the night the census was taken (3 April 1881) the ship, captained by Charles C. P. FitzGerald, was listed as being at Simon’s Bay, South Africa, which matches the present journal’s entry showing the Inconstant at Simon’s Bay from 16 February to 9 April 1881.

On the inside front board of this journal, Skeat signs his name, and underneath, the town in which he lived when he was not out on a voyage: “West Riding, Wakefield.” In the 19th Century Wakefield became the administrative center for West Riding, in Yorkshire, England. Skeat appears to have moved to Wakefield at some point. At the end of his service in the British Navy, Skeat immigrated to America, making his home in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne Co., Pennsylvania, where he spent the rest of his life. He died there on 23 January 1928 at the age of 67.


 In Wilkes-Barre, Skeat continued his musical interests. He was a charter member of “Alexander’s Band” under the leadership of Prof. J.I. Alexander and was a member of the band at the time of his death. He was affiliated with John Knox Commander, Knights of Malta, and the First M.E. Church. He worked for thirty-five years as a foreman at the sample department of the Wilkes-Barre Lace Company. At the time of his death in 1928, he was survived by his wife Alma A. Shiffer Skeat (1876-1955), of Wilkes-Barre, and a brother Charles, of South Africa. Skeat and his wife had no children.

HMS Inconstant (1866-1956)

Inconstant, the fifth ship of her name to serve in the Royal Navy, was laid down on 27 November 1866 at Pembroke Dockyard, Wales. The ship was launched on 25 March 1872 by Lady Muriel Campbell, daughter of John Campbell, 2nd Earl Cawdor. Inconstant was transferred to Portsmouth Dockyard to finish fitting out and was commissioned on 12 August 1869 by Captain Elphinstone D'Oyly D'Auvergne Aplin for duty with the Channel Squadron. He was relieved by Captain Charles Waddilove on 13 September 1870. The following year the ship was assigned to the Detached Squadron, commanded by Rear-Admiral Frederick Seymour, which visited ports in Scandinavia after Inconstant joined them at Gibraltar, finally arriving at Spithead on 11 October 1871. The ship was paid off in 1872 and spent the next eight years in reserve.

She was recommissioned in 1880 and was commanded by Captain Lord Walter Kerr from 5 February to 11 March. During this time, Inconstant served as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Seymour of the Mediterranean Fleet as she ferried replacement crews to that fleet. From August 1880 to October 1882, Inconstant was assigned to the reconstituted Detached Squadron, this time as the flagship, first of Rear-Admiral Richard Meade, 4th Earl of Clanwilliam until he became sick in Hong Kong, and then from 6 December 1881 to 17 October 1882 of Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Sullivan. Inconstant's captain at this time was Captain Charles Penrose-Fitzgerald. The Detached Squadron left Spithead on 17 October 1880 to circumnavigate the world and returned two years later. It is claimed that on 11 July 1881 (or 11 June 1881), Prince George of Wales (later King George V of England) sighted a phantom ship whilst aboard Inconstant between Melbourne and Sydney. Two other ships the Tourmaline and Cleopatra, also reported seeing the phantom ship. Just after arriving in the Falkand Islands, the squadron was ordered to Simonstown, South Africa, for possible service in the First Boer War of 1880–81, but hostilities had already ended by the time that it arrived. On the return voyage, the frigate caught fire; it was stopped by flooding all the after compartments. Shortly afterward, the squadron was diverted to Egypt after the start of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882; they arrived after the Bombardment of Alexandria on 11 July and some of Inconstant's crew were landed to participate in operations ashore.

The ship was reduced to reserve again after its return on 16 October 1882. She became an accommodation ship for the overflow from the barracks at Devonport in 1897. Inconstant was taken out of service in 1904 and became a gunnery training ship in June 1906, assigned to the boy's training establishment Impregnable. She was renamed Impregnable III in 1907, then Defiance IV in January 1922 after she was transferred to the torpedo training school at Plymouth, Defiance, and then Defiance II in December 1930. The ship was sold for scrap in September 1955 and arrived at the breaker's yard in Belgium on 4 April 1956 for demolition, when she was the second-to-last Welsh-built naval vessel afloat.


Sample Quotes from Journal

“page 6

…Vigo is a strange looking place after leaving England. The houses are all white washed outside & are built very low & when the sun shone on them they looked very pretty. The next day we went on shore to see the place & the people. Crowds of them came to the landing place and always remained expecting to see the young Princess land but they did not land until late in the evening. The first thing that took our attention was the females carrying water on their heads in large pots & they looked very handsome & attractive., we also found they are a very jealous lot of people, all the men were sitting a lounging about smoking their pipes & the women work to maintain them, they all carry short knives in their waist belts & don’t forget to use them in a quarrel, some of the sailors got drunk & began to quarrel among them & they drew their knives & the sailors got badly stabbed, but the rows was soon stopped by the police which is always on the alert when English sailors  are on shore…”

“Page 11

…Madeira is an Island in the Atlantic & is a Portuguese possession & inhabited by Portuguese, they are a small race of people & are always smoking cigars or cigarettes & blow the smoke through their noses. The houses are white washed & affords a good sight from the se it being elevated, fruit of almost every description can be obtained there, wine very plentiful, & good, & cheap. The town we visited was Funchal, which is the principal port. The Sunday after we arrived we went on shore to play, in the centre of the town is a square with beautiful trees all around & a bandstand in the centre, so we played on it, we had thousands there to listen to us, after we finished a Turkish band played on the same stand it was mostly composed of trumpets, bugles, & drums, it was rather amusing to hear them, but yet it seemed very nice. The day after we met with the first accident on board, a man named Quested & assisting to get on board a cask of wine & as the cask swayed in board it caught him & crushed his breast against the ship’s side, he died 2 days after, the same day as we left Madeira, it being the custom on board ship they lashed him up in his hammock & tied a shot at each end as they carried him from the stern to the gangway we played ‘Dead March in Saul,’ at the gangway the chaplain read the burial services, then the marines fired 3 volleys over his body, they then lowered him over the gangway down to his resting place at the bottom of the sea. He was a married man & resided at Portsmouth. A few days after some of the marines was hoisting a cask out of the hold & it fell on one man’s toes & cut 3 of them off…”

“Page 16

…It is the order that every ship has to go to General Quarters for action 2 nights a quarter so that night we went to Quarters we were turned out at 12 & finished at 2 o’clock. About 2 days after we crossed the line the Admiral hoisted the signal for all the ships to chase the Flagship (the Inconstant) to try the rate of sailing, & the watch was piped aft to make all possible sail, a young seaman went up to this station to set the Main Royal & he fell off the Royal yard down into the sea, about 160 feet, they lowered the life boat & the life buoy, the sea was very rough & he could not swim to the life buoy so before the life boat could get to him he sank, he was a single young man, he was only saying the day before his father was drowned at sea & he believed he would share the same fate & sure enough he died…”


“Page 17

…We arrived at Monte Video on the 22nd of Dec /80 after a passage of 32 days, it is in South America on the river La Plata it is a Republic of which Buenos Ayres is the capital, it is about 80 miles up the river…we had to go in a gunboat stationed there for the time for that purpose….I went to the soldiers barracks, it looked a dirty miserable place, they do police duty & are on duty 12 hours & off duty 12 hours, they wear very baggy trousers & go about very slovenly. I also went through the prison, it was really disgusting to see it especially the female quarters, when once any one gets in there they have a lot of trouble to get out, some are kept in months before they are tried & then don’t get satisfaction. I found most of the occupants were women, their charge mostly drunkenness…There are 2 plazas, or squares, in the town & a band plays in one or the other every night for the summer, so I had the opportunity of hearing them. They play very high-class music & seem to be very well up in it, we were talking to one of the bandmasters who was an Englishman. He told us they were very quick at learning music & seldom had to show them anything they was all black men & looked very nice in their uniform. The squares there are all full of chairs, & anyone can sit down & a waiter comes & can order any drinks they wish to have. The ladies are all dress & they look beautiful, they smoke cigarettes…”

“Page 21

…All went safe until we arrived at the Falkland Islands when we steamed up the harbor the ships looked beautiful, as we came to anchor all the people & the school children came down on the shore & sang hymns. They kept the day a holiday, it was strange for them to see so many ships of which they had never saw before in that harbor. We arrived on the Monday morning, of course our first object is always to try to obtain soft bread & fresh meat, we found that meat was very plentiful the beef being 1d & 2d per lb. & the mutton the same price. They do nothing but feed cattle on the islands which make the meat so cheap. On the following morning we arranged everything to land to have a review with all the seamen & marines of the Squadron, we got out all our boats ammunition & everything necessary, in the afternoon the “Swallow” a gunboat came in steaming as hard as she could with a Telegram from England for us, we was not much surprised when we heard what it was as we had heard of a war springing up with the Boars in Africa, so it was that we had to proceed to the Cape of God Hope with all dispatch, so everyone was disappointed in the Squadron & the same on shore as we anticipated a good days sport for the people on shore & for us as well, however we had to get in everything again & hoist the boats inboard & proceed to sea an hour afterwards, we left the “Garnet” there, but she was disappointed as she expected to have gone. We steamed most of the way & on the way we had a deal of practice in mustering our landing materials & drilling. I was stationed at the Gatling gun to carry away the dead & wounded. We each had a sword & pistol provided & had a plenty of drill with each of which we took a deal of interest in as we expected to have some use for them…We arrived at Simon’s Bay on the 16th Feb/81, we found that the Boers was still at war, at the same time we got a telegram to say we was to hold ourselves in readiness to land at a minute’s notice, so we had to be on the alert. The evening after we arrived we had news from the front to say most of the 68th Regt & 91st Regt had been killed. We heard nothing more until General Colley was killed & more men & officers, the Commander of the “Boadicea” which was on that station & whose ships company was at the war, some seamen was killed the same time, soon after our government gave in to the Boers which became a disgrace to England, especially after having so many of our troops killed for nothing. The Boers are all good shots, their wives & daughters & are equally as good as the men, they are always roaming about shooting. After it was over we got 48 hours leave. I went on shore in the morning & most of the band walked as far as Fisherman’s Bay 7 miles from Simon’s Bay & it was very hot we rode from there to Wineberg a beautiful little place on a bullock dray drawn by 12 bullocks, we took train from there for Cape Town after having refreshments we arrived in the afternoon, the first thing we did was to procure lodgings so we made that allright we had a good look around the town. I find it a very dirty town, some very nice buildings in it a beautiful cathedral a large barracks where the 91st & 68th Regiments are stationed, I also saw the old Castle the one [Cetshwayo] was kept in before he was took to England. We found that everything was very dear there especially eatables, after having a good night & spree we made for our lodgings we had procured we left a public house one leading the other feeling the way, so by one o’clock we managed to find the house & knocked to the door the first salute was they could not entertain any more with lodgings. I being sober stepped to the front & asked for an explanation so they told us they thought we had gone to such a street (not fit for anyone respectable to go to) & that we was not coming, by the time that was said we were all inside & took possession of the house & threatened to turn them all out if they did not make a place for us to sleep, so they got some straw & blankets & what we took off the beds in the bedrooms, we made a nice comfortable bed for ourselves, we were 15 of us at the time we cared for nothing or what happened so we all laid down side by side under 2 big tables & managed to get a bit of a snooze, but not for long some was very restless they having a lot of drink in them, so by the aid of soda’s and a little sleep they managed to get a bit sober. In the morning we all got up had some breakfast after that we got a bullock dray & went miles out towards Zulu land arriving back at 10 in the evening, we passed some beautiful country & saw many Zulus & Boers, they treated us with every kindness , we were not afraid of them without they came in a large as we had 8 pistols & a plenty of ammunition among the crowd after we arrived back we had another good spree before going to our lodgings that night we were better entertained all the most sober had a bed & the drunk ones shard the same beds as the night before. The next morning we left for Simon’s Bay going to Wineberg by train & rode from there to Simon’s Bay in a mail cart…”

“Page 26

…For a fortnight after we had a storm all the time & no one could go on deck without they was on duty, such as look out men, helmsmen, reelers, etc. It blew off the western coast of Australia, on the 12th we sailed 242 miles in the 24 hours, the most we done up to then & is considered extraordinary sailing but we did it in the gale, on the 14th the storm increased & we lost sight of the Bacchante which caused a consternation among us all on account of the young Prince being in that ship, the Admiral was greatly troubled & did not go below for days & nights running, we went in every direction searching for her & firing rockets every night until we sighted Cape Otway at the mouth of the river leading up to Melbourne when we got there we saw them trying to make a signal it was rather dark & we could not understand, so we sent in a boat but the breakers was so heavy they could not land anywhere. The next morning we brought the ship in near land as possible & we understood the signal as soon as it got good light, it was to the effect that the Bacchante had put in to Albany she had her rudder carried away & most of her masts & could not steer, they managed to steer in with the few sails they had left, it was a great relief to all of us, especially the Admiral…”

“Page 30

…On the 7th of June we played at the Governor’s house to a ball given in honor of the young Prince, while the band was having refreshments the Governor’s wife came in & thanked us all & said we was the nicest band she had heard in Melbourne, we rode down to the pier in buses, arriving on board about 3 o’clock after having a good night’s enjoyment. The following week we got a week’s engagement to play to a bazaar in the town hall, it was got up for the benefit of the hospitals & patronized by the richest lady in Victoria, it was the grandest they ever had in Melbourne, thousands of pounds worth in it, it was the grandest ever I saw or ever will see again, we were treated like gentlemen & thousands came expressly to hear the Band it being advertised in all the papers…”

“Page 38-40

…On August the 2nd we went on shore to play to the laying of the foundation stone to the memorial to the Queen, the young Prince performed the ceremony, there were several other bands present of which we took the lead being right behind the carriage conveying the Prince, the Governor & his wife…During our stay at Melbourne & Sidney we lost over 100 men from the squadron, mostly from the Inconstant most of them deserted & went up the country, the ‘Bacchante’ lost 3 of her best musicians out of the band & took their instruments with them which belonged to the ship, we got a good many of the sailors back again…”

“Page 56

…We got in 300 tons of coal & left for Hong Kong the same evening, it is surprising to see women coaling the ship of which I found it is a usual thing for them to do. Nagasaki is a great place for working up fancy things they make brooches, ear rings, watch guards, &c out of Tortoise shells & are very valuable…”

“Page 57-58

We arrived at Hong Kong on the 27th Jan & sailed up the harbor with head winds…The morning after we arrived we commenced to get in our guns again & finished by the evening & was considered quick work it being a difficult thing to do, all the midshipmen of the Fleet was on board to see it done, after the decks were clean the captain ‘spliced the main brace’ in other words each man had a ½ qilt of rum served out them. The next day we were all allowed leave to go on shore. I went & got real enjoyment, there is mostly those Indian Sikes policemen there & they carry a large mall & they beat the Chinese cruelly, of which they deserve if they can get an Englishman away in a secluded spot they will rob him & perhaps murder him after…”

“Page 74-75

…just after all the hands had turned in & the rounds had gone, a cry of ‘Fire, Fire, Fire,’ was sounded, 7 the fire bell rang fiercely, we all thought it was for practice but when we got out of our hammocks & saw the smoke issuing from the after hatchway it was then we realized our situation, as usual everyone rushed to their stations the band being stationed to a 7 inch pump in the ward room flat & just over where the fire broke out, it was first seen in the Captain’s store room beside the issuing room where all the provisions are kept, the hoses was soon got on the pumps & in a few minutes water was pouring on it from every pump in the ship, we could not remain long at our pump the smoke was so thick & would have suffocated us, when we made for the hatchway we found the hatch was up so we had to climb up by the hoses. The Admiral & Captain was on shore at the time but was soon on board they had heard the fire bell on shore, as soon as he got on board the signaled to all the other ships to send all their men on board to relieve  our men at the pumps, by this time the ship was full of smoke & men could not remain long at the pumps, we had a steam pump on board & during this time they got up steam & soon got it to throw tons of water on the fire, by one o’clock it got to look serious & the Admiral & Captain had a consultation as to the best means of saving the ship & they come to the conclusion that the best thing to do if it got much worse to tow the ship ashore & beach her, the ‘Carysfort’ go up steam & kept ahead of the ship in readiness to tow her ashore it they thought it necessary but lucky for us it did not come to that, b 2 o’clock the fire had got in the lining of the ship, & the ship was so full of water & weighed the ship down so deep that the water came in the after scuttles in to the wardroom where the officers volunteering to go down in a divers suit & shut them she would have gone down stern first, perhaps before they could have had time to tow her ashore, after she filled so much it quenched the fire & by ½ past 3 in the morning they lost all trace of any fire but smoke continued to pour up through the hatchway in clouds, by ½ past 4 all the smoke vanished, the captain spliced the main brace again & piped the hands to turn in & have some rest & was not long in obeying the pipe for they were all very weary after a nights hard work at the pumps & drawing water, in the meantime they sent the men from other ships to their respective ships & served out an extra allowance of rum to them which is always acceptable to ‘Jack,’ the officers were all obliged to go on shore their cabins that they sleep in was all full of water, at 6 the pump from the dockyard came to pump out the water, at 8 o’clock the hands was all turned out again & got their breakfast & commenced to help to get out the water as the Admiral was anxious to see the extent of the damage the fire had done…”

“Page 81-82

…During our stay a Russian Man-of-War came in & we was the first to tell them the Emperor was dead so as is the custom they dipped yards, on the day he was buried we played the ‘Dead March in Saul’ on the forecastle & fired a salute of 21 guns at every minute. We noticed they are very strict with their sailors, they told us a man had been hung at the yard-arm for striking an officer, when they are piped aloft to do anything there are men stationed at the bottom of the rigging with strong whips to flog the men if they don’t move smart, it does not matter who is last he is bound to get a plenty of the whip…”

“Page 90-95

The same morning, we got a telegram to say Admiral Seymour bombarded the forts at Alexandria, with the loss of a few men killed & wounded & very little damage done to the ships, which was a great surprise to us as we expected to have arrived there before anything was done. The Admiral & several officers was on shore, & some servants & the mob threw mud & stones at them & it got so bad as to kill an Engineer & the Admiral’s servant which caused the Admiral to take proceedings against them…We arrived at Limassol in Cyprus on the 17th, we commenced coaling as soon as we dropped anchor…the next morning we sailed for Alexandria & arrived on the 19th here we found all the ships of the Mediterranean Squadron & most of the ships of the Channel Squadron. The next thing our attention was directed to was the forts, they looked very sad our guns had torn them to pieces, guns & men &c. lay about in every direction, we also noticed the lighthouse had been knocked about, some shots had gone through it, the Khedive’s houses had also several shots through it but not much damage done to it, one or two of the forts had not been fired on. We were expecting to fire on the Aboukir forts as they would not fight, they want fight but was afraid, the ‘Inflexible’ was stationed off the fort to fire on them if they did attempt to fire on any of our ships, the remainder of the ships was laying outside the harbor, the gunboats was very busy laying mines & running messages. The ‘Carysfort’ & ‘Tourmaline’ arrived on the 20th, the next morning they left for Abuka Bay, the same night we expected a night attack & preparations was made on every side. On the 23rd the ‘Agincourt’ (Flagship of the Channel Squadron) left for Port said, in the afternoon 2 companies landed from the ‘Inconstant’ to guard Fort Mesa there being hundreds of Arabia troops outside trying to get in. On the 24th 10,000 troops landed & marched on towards Cairo. During this time Capt. Fisher of the ‘Inflexible’ organized an armor clad train & proved to be a great success in keeping the enemy from approaching anyway near us & killed many during the night attacks, it had on 6 ½ ton gun, 4 20 pounders, 4 Gatlings, 4 Nordenfelt, the engine was guarded by sand bags secured all around it, many attempts were made to upset it by shots from the enemy but they managed to escape any damages being done, on the 24th, 150 men landed & took 2, 6 ½ ton guns from Alexandria to Ramleigh & built a fort there, the enemy had got very strong there, they were continually making attacks at night but were always driven back with great losses. On the 29th we expected to bombard the forts & take them that had no been taken & all the marines were sent on board their own ships for that purpose but it did not come off as expected. ON the 2nd of August 50 of our marines landed again & were sent at Fort Mesa to strengthen the force there, on the 4th they had a battle at Ramleigh the guns under the command of Lieut Wrey of the ‘Inconstant’ were the first to fire on them, we had several killed & wounded & a great loss on the enemy’s side, at the finish the marines charged on them & took a lot of prisoners. On the 6th the “Euphrates’ arrived with 1700 troops & landed them, the Tamar came in the same day & was made a hospital ship. On the 8th 3 Turkish troop ships arrived from Suez with troops. Just after the ‘Sultan’ arrived from Port Said. On the 10th the ‘Orient’ arrived full of troops & provisions. On the 9th General Earle dined with Admiral on board. Different transports arriving every day with troops, provisions, & stores, etc.….On the 19th Sir garnet Wolseley & Admiral Seymour steamed out of harbor in the ‘Helicon’ the same afternoon all the ships left in company with transports each man-of-war having so many transports under their charge the sailed out independently, as they all made sail it presented the grandest sight ever I saw with so many ships, no one left with the knowledge of their destinations as they were under sealed orders it turned out to be after they were to go to Port said & take it, so on Sunday morning they arrived & landed & caught them all asleep & 9000 of the Egyptian troops surrendered without any fighting. On Saturday the enemy made another attack at Ramleigh they soon got the iron clad train in action & did a lot of damage, they fired a lot of shells at the train did not do any damage… [followed by a number of additional pages on the battles against Egypt].”