In Part 15 of this series about the family of Polish captain Wladek Wagner (published on May 23), I described how three sailors from the Royal Navy ship HMS Triumph had brutally attacked Mr. Wagner in Trellis Bay on March 15, 1955. The trio’s ringleader had ordered the other two to “finish him off,” but Mr. Wagner had been able to drag himself free. If they had murdered him, we would not now be celebrating the Wagner family’s subsequent exploits, nor would hundreds of Polish people be joyfully flocking to Trellis Bay in his honour each year.

In view of the drunkenness which fuelled Mr. Wagner’s attackers, it seems ironic that the ship’s doctor, a Dr. Kerr, had come to ask him for rum for the daily issue to the ship’s crew, a longstanding tradition in the Royal Navy. (The Admiralty Board later decreed that there was no place for this tradition in a modern service, ending it on July 31, 1970.) Dr. Kerr was only chosen to ask for the rum because he had visited Tamarind House before, but a remarkable series of happenstances surrounded his visit. He became driven by an inexplicable urgency to reach Tamarind House, and when he saw Mr. Wagner’s wounds he had the professional expertise to treat them and knew where other needed material was stored onboard the ship.

Ms. Wagner had grabbed the kerosene lamp from the engine room, fearing that trying to turn on the generator would have made too much noise, but she had no way of calling for help. She later found that the men had disabled the generator by putting sand in it. Dr. Kerr used the lamp to signal his ship, and two other officers sent to look for him came straight to Tamarind House. The British Royal Navy officers had to learn morse code (now obsolete) long after its use was discontinued elsewhere.

Making amends

While the ship was docked on the other side of Beef Island, small groups of sailors came to play with the Wagners’ children, Michael and Suzanna, every day, trying to make amends for the incident. One young sailor offered the children his pet bird. Ms. Wagner was pleased to see how they enjoyed seeing it, but she wouldn’t deprive him of it.

On March 24, 1955, nine days after the assault, VI Commissioner H.A.C. Howard posted notices throughout the territory announcing that he had decided to ask the ship’s commanding officer to deal with the matter summarily under naval law. Accordingly, the culprits were court-martialled on HMS Triumph and awarded the following punishments after the ship returned to England.

  • Two men were to serve three months hard labour at the Detention Barracks in Portsmouth with loss of pay of £85 (the maximum punishment the commanding officer could award).
  • The other man would serve one month hard labour with loss of pay of £28.33.

The commanding officer expressed his deep regret that an incident at variance with the high tradition of the Royal Naval Training Squadron had marred its annual visit.

The lighter sentencer meted out to the youngest man probably reflected his apparently genuine remorse at his action and willingness to testify against the other sailors, but it might be questionable whether he muttered, “This has gone far enough” on account of their erstwhile victim’s head injuries or at the sight of the gun in Mr. Wagner’s hand (not knowing he had no bullets for it).

No lawsuit

The anxiety of the British authorities on land and at sea to put the embarrassing incident quickly behind them was shared by Mr. and Ms. Wagner, who rejected the advice of their lawyer in St. Thomas to sue the British Admiralty for not having military police on shore during the beach parties. They preferred to settle the matter expeditiously for their children’s sake, as a lawsuit might have dragged on, completely disrupting the family’s life and negatively impacting Mr. Wagner’s plans for Trellis Bay.

He made a quick recovery, apart from suffering violent headaches, and the yard attracted growing business, but Ms. Wagner’s open hospitality towards strangers had become more wary.

However, she had regularly corresponded with Ethel Moreton from Knoxville, Tennessee since they had met in 1952 while the Moreton family cruised around the VI. So she was delighted when her friend’s response to news of the assault was to promise to visit Trellis Bay as soon as possible. In fact, she came for two weeks that April.

A visit

The Wagner children enjoyed the novelty of a guest staying at Tamarind House. Ms. Moreton was very interested in the lessons at the home school and amazed at the progress in the busy boatyard. She readily shared a simpler way of life than that in the large house with modern amenities to which she was accustomed. The water supply relied on the rainfall and electricity on the availability of kerosene.

The kitchen at Tamarind House was equipped with a modern stove, but Ms. Wagner conserved the gas by baking bread on the veranda behind the kitchen on the kerosene stove taken from Rubicon, their yacht, when Mr. Wagner upgraded its facilities for taking passenger on cruises. He replaced the gas by a coal pot, fuelled by charcoal his men produced on site.

To continue “The Wagners of Trellis Bay,” click here.

To start from the beginning, click here.