Alfred ‘Boston’ Bale


I am indebted to Martyn Bale for this remarkable story of his grandfather, Alfred Bale

Born:   21st March 1878   Place of Birth: Newport, Mon        Died:   6th April 1969

He twice escaped dying from fever, once from drowning, and the last time from a rifle bullet fired in error by a “friend”.

Boston left school at the age of twelve (1890), joining a ship at Newport as a cabin boy.  “It was a sailing ship bound for South America with a cargo of coal.  In those days an able seaman was paid £3 a month and a cabin boy £1, and all one had to eat was hard dry biscuits and salted pork”

His first brush with death was in Rio in 1895, when he “went down” with a severe bout of yellow fever.  “Nineteen men on my ship died with it.  I was the twentieth to catch it and lived, though I felt ill for a long time.

Three years later, in 1898, while his ship was docked at Scranton, on the Mississippi, he had “a few words” with the skipper and was paid off.

He subsequently volunteered for the US Army.  “It was at the end of June 1898, that this happened.  Three months before on April 21, the Spanish-American war broke out.  I was hungry and did not have a penny to my name, when a man came up to me and asked if I would be a volunteer to fight for the Americans.  I told him I would like to join their navy, but he was from the army.  So after a few drinks I decided to enlist in the American army”.

On July 1st, 1898, Boston joined the 5th United States volunteer infantry – the only Englishman in the regiment.  It was while fighting the Spaniards in Cuba that he caught malaria.  “I had it very bad, but I was lucky to stay alive, for out of 950 men who went out to Cuba only 330 returned to the States, most of the others having died of the fever”.  After a spell in hospital he was invalided out of the army, on 3rd February 1899 from Josiah Simpson General Hospital, Phoebus, Norfolk, Virginia, and sent back to Britain.


Conflict between the USA and Spain that had its roots in Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, and in the US economic and imperialist ambitions.

In 1895 a major rebellion against the Spanish broke out in Cuba.  Lurid accounts of Spanish treatment of the rebels circulated in the US press, provoking American outrage.  Cuban agents in the USA were allowed to agitate for US intervention in Cuba.  The pressure for war grew, particularly among expansionists such as the future president Theodore ROOSEVELT, (1858-1919) who saw it as a chance to establish the USA as a world power.

In January 1898 loyalist Cubans rioted in Havana against the USA.  President William McKINLEY (1843-1901) sent the battleship Maine to protect American lives and property, but in February it was mysteriously blown up in Havana harbour.  US public opinion blamed Spain.  Congress authorised the use of force to expel the Spanish from Cuba, and on April 25 formally declared war.  By June 1, US forces had destroyed the Spanish navy in both the Philippines and Cuba.  In July, a US expeditionary force including Theodore Roosevelt and his ROUGH RIDERS - the 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.  A band of cowboys, miners and college students. - swept through Cuba.  Santiago surrendered on July 17, and on July 28 a third US force took Spanish-held Puerto Rico.  On August 12 a cease-fire was declared.  By the Peace of Paris in December, Cuba became a US protectorate.  Spain ceded Puerto Rico and the Pacific island of Guam to the USA, which also bought the Philippines for $20 million.  In 1899 the USA was forced to suppress a rising of Filipino nationalists.

Source: Family Encyclopedia of World History - Readers Digest.

Returning to Newport he found that life on land was not to his liking.  “As the Boer war had broken out (on 9th October 1899 and ended on 31st May 1902), I decided to join the Royal Navy as a stoker – a doctor had told me that it was the best way to sweat the fever out of my system”.  He enlisted with the Royal Navy on 22nd April 1899 with a twelve year commitment.  His RN number was 291992 and records show that he had dark brown hair, was 5’ 5½” tall, brown eyes, a dark complexion and a red mark on his left shoulder.  After sailing to Cape Town on a cruiser he went on to Australia.  “The Boxer Rising was then taking place, so we sailed up to China and I went to Peking”.  (The Chinese Boxer Rebellion started in 1900 in Shandong and reached Beging).

BOER WARS (1880-1; 1899-1902)

Two wars (also known as the South African Wars and the Anglo-Boer Wars) fought between Britain and the Boer republics in South Africa.


BOXER RISING (1899 - 1900)

Anti-Western rebellion in China.

During the 19th Century China suffered a series of natural and military disasters, which prompted many people to turn to semimystical secret societies as a means of restoring the national spirit.  One of these was the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists” or “Boxers” as Westerners called them, who practised a form of shadowboxing which they believed endowed them with supernatural powers, including immunity from bullets.  The movement was at first opposed to the Manchu rulers of China’s QING dynasty, - China’s last imperial dynasty, 1644-1912 - but its hostility was cleverly manipulated by the empress dowager CIXI and redirected against foreigners.  In late 1899 the Boxers began attacking Christian missions, and in June 1900 they rampaged through Beijing, murdering Chinese Christains and Westerners, and eventually laying seige to the capital’s foreign legations in their walled compound.  These were relieved in August by an international expeditionary force, which then looted Peking and the imperial FORBIDDEN CITY - private domain of China’s emperors within the inner city of Peking, now Beijing, from 1421 to 1911.  Hostilities were formally ended by the Boxer Protocol (1901), which imposed punitive reparations on China leading to the collapse of the Qing dynasty 11 years later.

RN records show involvement on the following:

·        Duke of Wellington II from 22 April 1899 as a stoker. (Shore station barracks/training in Portsmouth)

·        Porpoise from 16 February 1900

·        Porpoise from 26 July 1900 to 27 February 1901.

·        Royal Arthur from 28 February 1901 to 1 April 1901.  An Edgar class ship Built in Portsmouth between 1890 and March 1893.  It was sold for scrap in 1921.

·        SS ………….sailing from  …………. 29 October 1904 and was arriving in Boston 15 January 1905.

He worked on a ship to the United States and was on the waterfront at San Francisco harbour when the great earthquake shattered the city. (1906). “Everybody panicked.  I saw thousands of people running about frightened.”  Boston escaped unhurt and spent a number of years in America.  His varied occupations included merchant navy work at Bayonne, New Jersey, a job with an oil firm in Philadelphia, and banana picking and loading at Kingston, Jamaica.

Still the better side of thirty, he moved to Honolulu where he drove fire engines “just for something to do.”  Then he left to join a troop ship, and left it at Manila, where he drove military transport.  After a spell of “sundowning” in Australia, he found himself in China again.  “There was a bit of a rebellion where I was so I went down to Hong Kong.”  During his three months there, food was scarce and he and some companions would raid Happy Valley, where food was available.  “The Governor told us that he would not be responsible if we got killed.”  He returned to Philadelphia via the Russian war with Japan.  While in America, he saw red Indian chief Geronimo in Buffalo Bill’s circus.


Conflict between Russia and Japan over Manchuria and Korea

Once again ill-health forced Boston to “retire” from the sea, and once again he returned to Newport to recuperate.  After “spells” of working at the docks and periods of service in the merchant navy, he found himself “fit” enough to join the Royal Navy once again when the first world war broke out. (1914)  But it was not to be for long.  In 1915 he was invalided out.

He had married in 1909.  A chance meeting at a party, and a six months search to find the girl he had only seen once, led to the marriage on September 15th.

He then decided to join the merchant service and that was how he nearly lost his life for a third time.  “I joined the Glenart Castle, a hospital ship, at Newport, and I thought I was on to a good thing for the accommodation was good.  At seven o’clock on the evening of February 25, 1918, we sailed out into the Bristol Channel, but just before four a.m. the following morning when I was on deck waiting to go on watch, a torpedo from a German U-boat hit us twenty miles west of Lundy.  The ship sank within four minutes, so there was little time for anyone to escape.  All the nursing staff were fast asleep in their cabins at the time.  When the torpedo struck I jumped overboard and swam as fast as I could away from the stricken vessel to prevent myself from being sucked under as she went down”.

After swimming about for some time Boston managed to grab a piece of wood which kept him afloat until the following afternoon when he was picked up by an American destroyer, twenty-four hours after he had jumped in the water.  When Boston landed at Milford Haven he found out he was the only survivor out of the 192 officers, men and nurses on board the hospital ship.  “I gather that three men were found on one upturned boat and four picked up on another but all of them were dead.”

The Glenart Castle, previously known as the Galician, was Built in 1900 by Harland and Wolff

Once again he came home to work on shore.  Occasionally he went to sea, but not so often as he had before the war.  “I suppose I must have visited in my time nearly every country in the world with the exception of Switzerland.  I certainly got around.”

From 1926 onwards Boston remained at home at Newport docks.  When the second world war broke out he was watchman at the Tredegar dry dock.  It was then that he nearly met death for the fourth time.  “One winter’s night during the early days of the war I was returning to my office after completing my rounds, when a sentry, instead of challenging me, fired at me.  As the bullet whistled past my head I threw myself to the ground and shouted out to the sentry to let me pass, but he fired again.  It was a very near miss.”

Once again Boston volunteered for military service, this time as a member of the Home Guard.

He retired at 77 from the Mount Stuart Dry Docks, Newport.

Email 20th March 2008

Dear Owen

I have just come across the article received from Mr Howard Burt relating to the above.  He is the grand son of the Master of the Glenart Castle.

My grand father, Alfred Bale, was a greaser on the same ship when it was torpedoed.  Alfred was one of the few survivors who was picked up by the American destroyer.

Perhaps you could pass this e-mail on to Mr Burt.  I would be delighted to hear from him.  I am happy for my e-mail, name, address and telephone number to be made available.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely

Martyn Bale

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