The Caird Library’s archive collection contains numerous captivating stories of naval service from letters written by famous Admirals to journals kept by ordinary seamen. One of the more unusual instances of this is “Just Nuisance”: Life story of an able seaman who leads a dog’s life written by Leslie M. Steyn (RMG ID: LIS/15/4).
By Jon Earle, Library Assistant
Just Nuisance was a Great Dane that served in HMS Afrikander, a shore establishment in Simon’s Town Africa between 1939 and 1944 and Steyn’s book provides insight into the peculiar but uplifting story of the only dog ever to be enlisted in the Royal Navy.
Born on 1 April 1937, Just Nuisance was only a year old when he was adopted by Benjamin Chaney, a man soon to be put in charge of the United Services Institute in Simon’s Town.
Chaney recounted to Steyn that it took only one evening for Nuisance to show then that he would not be a conventional pet:
‘The first night nuisance was in my home, I showed him round the place, including the kitchen. Standing next to the refrigerator, I pressed the handle down and told Nuisance that if he could do likewise he could help himself to two pounds of mutton inside. The following morning I missed the mutton. That incident showed me that I was the master of no ordinary dog’.
It was at the institute where Nuisance first came in contact with naval ratings. The sailors regularly fed and played with him so soon he considered anyone wearing a sailor’s uniform to be a friend. Having already demonstrated his aptitude for learning, Nuisance soon worked out that at certain times of the day sailors embarked on a train at Simon’s Town and travelled to Cape Town. Without too much encouragement Nuisance took to illegally catching the train alongside them. Whilst the sailors made efforts to conceal him they were seldom successful, and Nuisance would be ejected (always by more than one railway official). However, such failures did not deter Nuisance who, when removed from one train, would simply board another.
Unfortunately, this ingenuity came at a cost. Chaney began receiving letters stating that unless Nuisance was kept off railway property he would have to be put down. Desperate for a solution, and knowing that he was powerless to stop Nuisance’s wanderings, Chaney felt the only option was to sell him. Upon hearing this, many sailors and other locals wrote to the Navy pleading for them to find a solution.
‘Nuisance, the pal and mascot of thousands of sailors, would not be allowed to live in the home of a man who could buy his body while his heart would remain with the men of the seven seas.’
It was therefore decreed that Nuisance would be enlisted into the Royal Navy – which just so happened to mean that he would be entitled to free rail travel.
His Naval Career
Upon his entry to the Navy, Nuisance was issued a certificate of service. With ‘Nuisance’ listed as his surname, rather than leave his forename blank, he was bestowed the moniker ‘Just’. His trade was listed as ‘bone-crusher’, whilst his religious denomination was rather uncharitably given as ‘scrounger’.
While Just Nuisance never ventured out to sea during his service, he carried out several roles ashore. These included accompanying sailors on train journeys – Steyn highlights one occasion where Nuisance travelled 17 miles out of Cape Town to Belville to ensure the safe journey of one sailor. On other occasions he would wake up his travelling companions to ensure they didn’t miss their stop. Additionally, Nuisance’s popularity amongst the local community was such that he often participated in promotional events. One instance of this was his ‘marriage’ to another Great Dane, Adinda, for which proceeds were used to assist the war effort.
These actions would likely have been approved by the dog himself as he was anecdotally fiercely patriotic. According to Steyn, as soon as the national anthem began to play, regardless of whether he was asleep, Nuisance rose to his feet immediately, barking along in time to the music. Furthermore, an official of the Cape Town Customs department stated that he once saw Nuisance admonishing a man who had been ignoring a minute’s silence.
Nuisance could not, however, boast a completely exemplary record himself. He often clashed with mascots of ships that arrived in Simon’s Town, and his conduct sheet highlights several other offenses:
‘1. He did commit an act to the prejudice of commonsense and good humour, in that he did travel on the South African railways without a ticket. Punishment awarded: Confined to the banks of Froggy Pond, Lily Pool; all lamp posts removed.
2. Did sleep in an improper place, namely, in a bed in the Petty Officers’ dormitory at the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ home, Simon’s Town. Punishment awarded: Deprived of bones for seven days.
3. Did resist ejection from Sailors’ and Soldiers’ home, Simon’s Town. Punishment awarded: Nil.’
The End of his Story
Sadly, Nuisance was involved in a car accident in 1943, causing thrombosis which slowly paralysed him. He would be discharged from the Navy on 1 January 1944 in an effort to improve his condition but he only deteriorated and the decision was made on 1 April 1944 to put him to sleep.
In a move that showed the impact Nuisance had made during his short time in the Navy he was buried with full naval honours and with a Royal Naval White Ensign. At the sound of the gun salute, all sailors knew Nuisance was being placed in his grave. Steyn states: ‘They stopped work; lumps rose in their throats and they swallowed hard. The eyes of many were moist.’
Whilst many of the stories recounted by Steyn will certainly raise some eyebrows, what is clear is that Just Nuisance was an integral part of the contingent of the Royal Navy based in Simon’s Town and the local community as a whole. The reaction to his untimely death and how fondly he’s still remembered – a statue of Nuisance was erected in Simon’s Town in 1985, and since 2000 there has been an annual parade of Great Danes from which a look-a-like is chosen – demonstrates the lasting impact he made to Simon’s Town. Ultimately, it says a great deal about Nuisance that he remains the only dog ever enlisted into the Royal Navy. As Steyn explained it:
‘Several generous people have offered their dogs to the Navy to replace Nuisance. All these offers have been turned down, because the Navy feels that no animal, irrespective of how intelligent or lovable he might be, will ever replace dear old Nuisance – a dog, but a sailor at heart.’