Long read

What Does It Take To Be Chief Yeoman On HMS Belfast?

All five of our IWM branches have amazing locations, rare and important collections and fantastic stories to tell. But we rely on our dedicated Visitor Services team and volunteers to bring these stories to life and provide a helpful and friendly face to the museum.

One of our unique sites is HMS Belfast, one of only three remaining vessels from the bombardment fleet which supported the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, now moored at Tower Bridge Upper (TBU) between London and Tower Bridge on the south side of the river.

We caught up with Kevin Price – Chief Yeoman on HMS Belfast to find out how he got his unusual job and what it's like to have a warship for an office.

What is a Chief Yeoman and how long have you been doing it?

Although considered a nautical term, Yeoman actually comes from the medieval period and means 'a trusted person'. For example, a Yeoman of the Guard held the keys to the armoury and other important spaces. We use it purely as a nautical term for the people who look after the ship, instead of using Visitor Services Assistant (VSA) which is a term used for similar roles at our other sites. So I am the Chief Yeoman or the Visitor Services and Security Manager for HMS Belfast. I took up the post 31 March 2003.

What is your role on the ship?

I'm responsible for the safety and security of the ship, its staff and of course our visitors. I also ensure the welfare and wellbeing of my immediate team. The team and I also provide support to other departments where we can. I am also a volunteer supervisor for the Interactive Volunteer Team, who give up their free time to help bring the ship to life.

How many Yeoman are there on HMS Belfast?

There are 17 Yeoman currently working on HMS Belfast.

How did you get the role?

I had a phone call from the White Ensign Association (a charitable organisation based on HMS Belfast that helps ex-service and serving members of the Royal Navy). They had learnt that HMS Belfast was looking for someone to take over the role of Chief Yeoman. They needed to know how ships worked, their layout, rosters and routines, and have a knowledge of ceremonial procedures. The office manager at the Association was someone I'd served with at HMS President (Reserve Training Centre) so they knew I'd have that knowledge. I had the interview in the morning and was offered the job in the afternoon. 

How long did you serve in the Royal Navy for and which ships did you serve on?

I was in the Royal Navy for nearly 29 years and in that time I was on nine sea going ships, HMS Russell (frigate), HMS Yarmouth (frigate), HMS Mermaid (frigate), HMS Antrim (destroyer) HMS Cleopatra (frigate), HMS Naiad (frigate), HMS Ark Royal (aircraft carrier), HMS Cardiff (destroyer), HMS Liverpool (destroyer).

Any favorite memories?

Three really stick out for me. 

In 1977, when I was serving on HMS Antrim, we were on our way to Bermuda to meet up with the Royal Yacht. We were to act as a guard ship during the Queen's Silver Jubilee tour of the West Indies. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was up on deck for some fresh air. It was sunny and clear, not a cloud in the sky. An announcement was made that we were about to enter the Bermuda Triangle. Not long after that, huge flashes of lightning struck the ocean off of our starboard bow, three or four strikes but no thunder. Very, very strange given where we were and the stories surrounding the Triangle.

In 1996, we were on Patrol in the Arabian Gulf in the Middle East. We were relieved by another ship, and moved out of the theatre of operations for Rest and Relaxation (R and R) in Penang, Malaysia. I found just walking along and watching the wild monkeys playing and swinging through the trees in their natural habitat incredible to see.

That same year we pulled into Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, having suffered a fire onboard – no one was hurt. While we lay in harbour, we had an unexpected visitor from the deep. Through the clear water we could see a whale shark cruising down our port side without a care in the world. It was a great privilege seeing it that close, astounding.   

How does life for those in the Royal Navy today compare to when HMS Belfast was at sea?

There are certainly a lot more creature comforts today, mainly around sleeping and living arrangements. Long gone are the days of crew occupying small areas of space where they ate and slept. During long periods at sea, the highlight of the week would have been movie night with a projector, this was certainly the case during my early years as a sailor. Now DVDs can be transmitted round the ship to all messes on TV screens. Having news from home was always a big thing. Letters carrying sad, good or mundane news were often out of date, as they had to catch the ship up wherever it may be. If the ship's program changed then it took even longer. Now we have emails, mobiles, all sorts of ways to keep in touch more instantaneously.

What's your favorite place on HMS Belfast?

That's difficult, there are so many! For me I suppose it would have to be the turret. The very nature of a warship is to be able to get into a position to use its armament, whether this be a surface or air engagement, or providing bombardment for troops ashore, as HMS Belfast did for D-Day.  So people want to see the big guns and The Turret Experience provides a good insight in to what it was like to be part of the turret crew during a battle. That said, the boiler and engine rooms are amazing. How anyone knew what all the valves and gages did, and what they were for, is pretty mind blowing.

We've heard it's common for the crew to talk 'Jack Speak' when at sea. What does this mean and do you have any favourite examples?

In the Navy we have our own language, this is normally referred to as Jack Speak. Here are some of my favorites.

'Ickie and klebbies' describes the local currency wherever you are. One ickie equals a hundred klebbies. These are known collectively as dib dobs – money.

'Dhobey dust' is washing powder. If you don't rinse out your clothes enough to get rid of the soap, you tend to end up with a dhobey rash!

'Goffer' has a couple of meanings, the first being a wave or the sea washing on board. If you were caught by one you were offered (soaked). It also means any non-alcoholic cold drink.

You can meet Kevin and all our Yeoman on board HMS Belfast.