Cowichan’s John Gribble goes home

(Originally written in 2002 with the help of the late Nanaimo historian John Cass who graciously shared his copy of the Gribble journal.)

A 1924 photo by Allan C. Green of HMS Hood. Photo Restoration 1954 by Adam Cuerden.

A 1924 photo by Allan C. Green of HMS Hood. Photo Restoration 1954 by Adam Cuerden.

(Originally written in 2002 with the help of the late Nanaimo historian John Cass who graciously shared his copy of the Gribble journal.)

Seaman, stevedore, navvie and homesteader, John Gribble had worked hard to scrabble out a farm in Cedar, then East Wellington. His naval career, with its shipwreck, dishonourable discharge and sentence to hard labour for desertion, was long behind him by the 1920s when HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, arrived in B.C. waters to ‘show the flag.’

By 1924, he’d been widowed for two years. At the time of Catharine Grace’s death after a lengthy illness, John wrote of his partner in life for 35 years: “We went through thick and thin, more ups and downs, shoulder to shoulder…”

Troubled by insomnia, he decided to visit the Old Country for the first time in half a century. But before he left he learned that the Hood would be open to the public while anchored in English Bay. Having survived the sinking of the ill-starred HMS Capstan 54 years before, he resolved to see “what strides had been made” in warship design.

“My old friend Charlie Fiddick went with me. We were met by [Richard] Butler, who had been on…HMS Prince Consort in 1870. Butler told me not to plan anything for the rest of the day…” John was introduced to Mr. Connelly, chief steward on one of the Union steamships who’d been aboard the Capstan just an hour before her foundering as an oarsman in the admiral’s gig. John was struck by their chance encounter so many years later — “that we should meet and [have] an enjoyable evening in the home of Mr. Butler in Grandview”.

Next day, he and Fiddick looked about New Westminster, it having been arranged for them to return to stay with Butler, who’d acquired a special invitation through Bruce McKelvie of the Vancouver Province for them to visit the Hood. In North Vancouver John met Capt. Clement Boyd, another RN veteran who’d been there at the time of the Capstan’s sinking, and had a photo taken of them together.

On board the Hood, Gribble, Butler, Connelly and Boyd were told that the admiral couldn’t see them after all. “I was disappointed [and sent him] a message that I wished to have a photo of him for my Special Album, showing the crack ship of 1870 and the crack ship of 1924, under the title of ‘Past & Present’. The admiral sent me his photograph and his compliments and signature.”

He also had them shown about the ship, then “a beehive of activity” as its crew prepared to sail next morning. All in all, it was “a great day ended; we were all very tired but happy to have seen such a great ship of the Royal Navy. On the morning of July 5th we went to where we had a great view to see the ships of the fleet weigh anchor outbound for Esquimalt. My adventure had come to an end. I boarded the 10 a.m. steamer back to Nanaimo.”

His adventure made the press, complete with his photograph, when McKelvie wrote of the old salts’ “romantic” shipboard visit. He’d met John Gribble the year before when the East Wellington man visited the Province office — out of curiosity, it seems — to view its radio broadcast apparatus. At the time he mentioned being a survivor of the Capstan. It was through McKelvie that John met Butler; with their common bond they became fast friends, John often visiting Butler on the mainland.

When John fulfilled his desire to return to England, McKelvie wrote: “Passengers on an Atlantic liner were surprised to see…a little, broad-shoulder old man limp towards the rail of the vessel, throw a bottle with a message inside overboard, then stand bare-headed and in silent prayer as the vessel ploughed through the waves of the Bay of Biscay. The little white-haired man was John Gribble of East Wellington who had crossed more than 6,000 miles by land and sea in order [that] he might in this manner pay tribute to the memory of his shipmates.”

While in England he attempted to find others of the 18 who’d survived the Capstan, seven of whom were yet alive, but he was only able to meet Thomas Kernan. After a joyous reunion with his brother and sister he resolved to return to Wellington where memories of his Catharine weighed so heavily upon him, settle his affairs and retire to the Old Country.

There, he married a widow with two daughters, built a small cottage with garden and chickens, and enjoyed well-earned retirement. John Gribble died, aged 75, on May 31, 1928 after a short illness and was buried in hometown Romford. He left these words of wisdom, based upon the experiences of a rich and sometimes hazardous life:

“Do not expect too much of a new country. Have patience, persevere, prosperity will come. The plums have to be worked [for]…the fruits of labour are worth it.”

Cowichan Valley Citizen