Adventures of a Young British Seaman: Part One


His quest for Zion carried him into battle and around the world.

It was November, and for William Wood the walk home across the foggy English countryside was hard work—emotionally. The teenage butcher’s apprentice had just lost his job. And at a time when good jobs were hard to find! Inside he hurt—or maybe it was anger. Hadn’t he done a good job for Mr. Blaxall? Still, William was fired simply because he had become a Latter-day Saint. And as he walked on slowly he worried about his parents’ reaction to his changed circumstances.

Since William’s birth in 1837 his parents had raised him to be a committed Anglican. His mother, a devoted church member, enrolled him at a very young age in an “infants’ school” where, along with the alphabet, he learned “that there was a Savior who died for all men.” Years of Sunday school attendance taught the boy “a reverence for divine things,” as he called it.

William’s first contact with the Latter-day Saints evidently came when he was about age 13. While doing an errand for his father, he stopped at a window where some curious boys were peering in; a gentleman suddenly ushered him inside where a Mormon meeting was beginning.

“I took my seat in one corner of the room,” he recalled, and “thought it was a very funny place, and not suitable for administering the holy sacrament.” But the sacrament was passed, hymns were sung, and speakers preached. The last speaker was British convert Charles Penrose, who later served in the First Presidency. His discussion of the Godhead “upset all my confused ideas of God,” William noted. “If ever a sermon touched the heart, this did mine.”

Year by year the challenges to William’s childhood religious beliefs seemed to increase. At age 15 he left home to become a butcher’s apprentice, and his first landlord, religiously an Independent, tried unsuccessfully to convert the young Anglican boarder. That experience, William admitted, “unsettled my religious views very much.” He also discussed religious ideas with Catholic sisters while making regular meat deliveries to a nearby monastery.

During this troubled time William learned that his good friend John M. Bridge had joined the Latter-day Saints. William scolded John for converting because Mormons then “were held in such bad repute by all the good people of my town.” But after work one evening John explained some principles of the restored gospel to his former schoolmate. William felt that the teachings made sense so he agreed to attend a Latter-day Saints meeting of the Maldon, Essex, Branch. There the fellowship and doctrines impressed him.

Three weeks after John first discussed Mormonism with him, William asked traveling elders Joseph Silver and John Lindsay to baptize him. So in late April 1855 he was baptized at Maldon in the Blackwater River. A short time later he was ordained a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood.

But finding religious peace had its price: “It was soon reported that I had become a Mormon; and I was ridiculed and called old Joe Smith and old Brigham Young, and they were accused of many things as well as myself.” Friends, relatives, customers, and former Sunday school teachers tried to “show me my error.” During most of 1855 he accompanied another new priest (later to be his father-in-law), Samual Gentry, to conduct open-air preaching services in surrounding villages. William’s relatives sometimes attended these meetings to hear, as they said, “little Billy preach,” although Brother Gentry did the preaching and William assisted by giving prayers. Some relatives ridiculed him openly, but such treatment only made William “cling with a stronger tenacity to the principles of truth.”

Mr. Blaxall, whose family had shared their church pew with William on many Sundays, likewise tried to reconvert his young apprentice. Deep discussions, however, changed neither person. Finally, fearing loss of such important customers as the local parson, Mr. Blaxall gave William two choices: “Either quit Mormonism or find another job.”

“Sir,” answered the youth, “I will never give up my faith, but will leave your service.”

Jobless, the disappointed new convert now had to explain his new situation to his parents, who had recently move to Queensborough on the Isle of Sheppey in the mouth of the Thames River. His greatest desire now was to immigrate to Zion like many British converts had done, and along the way he tried to think of ways to earn enough money to reach Utah.

William was warmly welcomed by his parents to their new dwelling. But upon learning how he had lost his job, they pleaded with him to quit Mormonism and to return to Mr. Blaxall’s employment. “My dear mother was very sad,” William said. They worried about his loss of wages and found no comfort in his religious optimism. “I told them I was in the hands of God and inasmuch as I had obeyed His commands I had faith that I would obtain employment.”

Putting faith to work, William looked around the island for a job with his father’s help. He discovered that the Sheerness docks were extremely busy due to the war then raging in the Crimea (across the Black Sea from Turkey) where British, French, and Turkish forces battled Russian troops.

A butcher named Fillmore, with a contract to supply meat to British military units, thought William was too young and inexperienced to employ. But after watching the teenager demonstrate his meat-cutting skills, the butcher hired him. The wages? More than double the amount paid by Mr. Blaxall! “I believe to this,” William wrote 60 years later, “that the increases of wages … was a blessing from the Lord because I would not recant Mormonism and in answer to my prayers and for a fixed determination to gather to the valleys of the mountains.”

When William later hurt his back lifting a quarter beef, he took a laborer’s job in the dockyards at the same pay. Harbor activities intrigued him, and he carefully noticed the daily comings and goings of the many ships using the docks. One day he heard that a British naval vessel, the His Majesty’s Ship Eurotas, soon would sail for the South Pacific, and he immediately formulated a plan for reaching Zion. He enlisted in the British navy and joined the Eurotas’ crew as a butcher, hoping one day to go ashore in California and travel from there to Utah.

But once the “old twenty-eight gun sailing frigate, converted into a screw propellor ship” cleared port, his immigration hopes vanished. At a surprise meeting the commanding officer opened secret orders and announced to the crew: “My men, we are going to the Crimea, the seat of war!”

Because the ship operated with but half a crew, William soon learned various sailing skills. As he later wrote: “I not only had my work to perform as a butcher, but after it was done, I then had to assist the gunners’ crew in whatever they were doing. The gunners are almost invariably excellent seamen … I was therefore under very practical men and learned to do considerable sailor’s work which I have always found useful to me even in Utah.”

Lisbon, Portugal. Gibraltar. Algiers. Malta. Constantinople, Turkey. At each stop William went ashore to obtain meat for the crew. And all along the way they received “dreadful” war reports from the Crimea.

After cruising off the Crimean peninsula, the Eurotas docked near Sebastopol [Sevastopol], a city from which British and allied troops had driven Russian units at terrible cost to both sides. To William’s great joy he found that among the thousands of British servicemen camped in the area were enough Latter-day Saints for a “field church” (Church meetings conducted at the place where an army is camped rather than a church building) to be established. He eagerly participated.

When peace was declared, the Eurotas loaded up surplus war materials and sailed back to Sheerness. William visited briefly with his family who “were all surprised to find that the peculiar religion, as they called it, was still uppermost in my mind,” and with the local Saints. He then received reassignment for the next four years to the HMS Retribution, coming aboard with high recommendations for his skills as butcher and seaman.

“I had my regular duty to perform as butcher, and I had a nice little butcher shop which was entirely under my charge. Everything in it was inspected every day by the commander to see that it was in order and clean; in this little place I spent much of my time of four years and four months.”

The Retribution picked up Crimean War armaments in the Mediterranean. It located a vessel that had been lost in Arctic ice. Then in March 1857 orders came to travel halfway around the world to reinforce a China squadron, with a stop along the way to help calm a rebellion in Peru.

At Rio de Janeiro the seaman went to shore to help purchase poultry, meat,and fruit for the crew, conscious of being one of the first Latter-day Saints to set foot in Brazil.

On William’s 21st birthday, May 1, 1858, he and the crew received shore leave in Honolulu, Hawaii. William heard prior to leaving Britain that President Brigham Young had sent missionaries to the Pacific islands, so the young convert tried to locate some Saints “but could find no record of them.” Unknown to him the Church had called home its Pacific missionaries to help defend Zion, if necessary, against a United States army then marching towards Utah. Ironically, the last elders working in Hawaii left the islands the same day that William landed in Honolulu.

The seaman, an isolated Mormon cut off from contact with the Church, continued to nourish his faith by himself. He read and reread the “works of the Church” that he had brought along. A priest in the Aaronic Priesthood, he was “informed about the authority of the priest to administer the sacrament,” so he felt justified in holding his own private sacrament service in his “beef house” aboard ship. “I prayed often, to the Lord,” he said, “and asked Him to acknowledge me in the administration.” On Sundays, after the ship’s religions service, William returned to his room where “I would place the hardtack (ship’s bread) and water upon a table and then offer prayer, after which I would ask the blessing upon the bread and water and partake of it. In this way I received much spiritual strength.”

When the Retribution arrived at Hong Kong a few weeks later, France and Britain were at war with China. Joining the Cruiser, Furious, Lee, and Dove, the Retribution took part in hostilities for many months. The squadron helped terminate the war by sailing up the Yangtze River to Nanking, where it engaged in fierce battle, bombarding the city “till all their guns were silenced.” While shot at the next day, the Retribution received extensive damage, and William watched in terror when a mate’s leg was shot off and another sailor, rushing to help, had an arm shot off. The Retribution “poured in shot and shell and canister with big twenty-four pound rockets which set large buildings on fire and people fled by thousands.” Within days the Chinese government surrendered and the Retribution returned to British docks at Hong Kong.

Orders next came to escort a special yacht to Japan where it would be presented to the Japanese emperor as a gift from the British government. Japan had opened its harbors and commerce to Westerners only four years earlier, a result of United States Commodore Mathew C. Perry’s famous visit there in 1854. William, one of the first Europeans and probably the first Latter-day Saint to visit that land, was excited by his trips ashore. The Japanese people left a deep impression. “I discerned a remarkable spirit of reform in them, more so than any people I had met, and I felt a desire to preach the Gospel to them.” Many years later as a seventy in Utah, he often prayed to be called on a mission to Japan, but he was too old for such service when Elder Heber J. Grant opened the Church’s first mission there in 1901.

The Retribution continued its around-the-world patrol by joining the British East India squadron. The ship spent three months off the Ceylon [Sri Lanka] coast salvaging money, machinery, and other valuables from a sunken mail boat.

Soon after leaving Ceylon, the Retribution struck an uncharted coral reef that splintered the bottom of the ship. To block the dangerous leak, “we stretched a large tarpaulin under the ship and over the hole,” then they travelled full speed for port. But while the vessel was in British dry dock at Bombay, India for repairs for three months, the crew got cholera. “I was sick with it,” William noted, “and taken to the hospital ship. I prayed to the Lord to spare me.” He recovered and then helped nurse others among the stricken crew.

The repaired Retribution’s last major assignment was to help two large steamships lay the first underwater communication cable from India to the Red Sea—from Karachi, India (now Pakistan) to Aden. Then orders came in October 1860 to return home. William’s ship travelled southwest across the equator again, around the Cape of Good Hope, up the west coast of Africa, across the equator for a final time, and completed its three-year, around-the-world mission by docking in Portsmouth, England, on December 20. At that moment William Wood, young British seaman, became one of the first—if not the first—Latter-day Saint to have traveled completely around the world. With a medal for gallant service tucked in his pocket, he hurried home and surprised his family just as they sat down to eat Christmas dinner.

(To be continued)

[photo] William Wood

[illustration] William identified the ship second from the right in this engraving as the one which he served in the China Seas during the 1850’s.