Poetry of a Luton sailor

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The Luton News , 1st January 1970
Austin J. Small poems

As a person, seaman Austin J. Small seems something of an enigma. But as a poet he had a powerful way with words. He first appeared on the scene in his latter capacity with a poem entitled "Destroyers" which was published in The Luton News on March 15th, 1917. Fifteen months later his moving poem "That Little Wooden Cross" appeared in the newspaper. Both are reproduced above and transcribed below for ease of reading.

Austin James Small served in the Navy from 1913 to 1920, first on destroyers and later on a minesweeper, according to information printed with his poems.

Although in 1917 he is described as a son of "Tom Small, the old Herts and Beds cricketer," with the second poem his father is named as Mr G. H. Small. Gerald Howard Small and the late Amy Ellen (died 1906 at the age of 40) had a son Austin Major Small, whose birth is on record as having been registered in the third quarter of 1894. His Navy record, using the name Austin James Small, gives his date of birth as July 25th, 1893.

At the time of the 1901 Census, the Small family, including Austin M and three brothers and a sister, were living at 31 Brook Street, Luton. They later moved to live in Downs Road. Gilbert seems to disappear off the radar after the death of his wife, and by 1911 Austin is described as a butcher boarding at the home of tram driver John Allum at 30 Chapel Street. [Records suggest that Gilbert died in late 1922.]

Austin's Navy record first described him as a a kitchen porter. That was crossed out and "music hall artiste" substituted. Even if he perhaps considered himself a bit of a comedian at heart, there was nothing to laugh at about his poetry!



Battleships grey and dabs of black,

Wires and stays and guys,

Lines that are taut, and ropes that are slack,

Slewing away on the starboard tack,

Leaving a foaming, tumbling track,

Seeking a hidden prize.


Scurrying palls of inky smoke,

Roll and whirl in flight,

Engines that hum with every stroke,

Heat and the sons of men that choke,

Cursing the blazing fires they stoke,

And the enemy our of sight.


Ominous sounds and blobs of red,

Heartaches in between,

Knowing before a word was said,

Somewhere a soul or two had fled

Leaving its mangled, stricken dead -

Gift of a submarine.


Wireless calls in the dead of night,

Unseen calls for aid,

Vibrant hums in the keel so slight,

Tossing the spray in vengeful spite,

Cleaving a way with spitfire might,

Jealous and undismayed.


Gunners that stand by the open breach,

Waiting the 'Open fire,'

Holding the lesson they long to teach,

The lesson the German loves to preach,

Vomiting shells with a whistling screech,

Bow-waves lifting higher.


Gaining a track of the hidden foe,

Sighting the submarine,

Marking his progress, slinking, slow,

Merciless hounds on a rat they go,

Seeking a tyrant's overthrow,

Swift as a Tiger Queen.


Long ere the foe's unwinking eye,

Pivots and holds the view,

Death is at work with a hissing cry,

Flung from the gun-muzzles hot and dry,

Striving to cleanse and purify

The remnants of a crew.

[The Luton News: March 15th, 1917]



In the glorious fields of Flanders,

Where the sad sweet poppies wave,

And cornflowers keep their vigil

O'er many a lonely grave,

There stands a little emblem,

Rough hewn and void of gloss,

But it tells its own life story -

That little wooden cross.


It tells of a khaki laddie,

Brave in the joy of life,

Who sprang to freedom's banner

And joined in the mighty strife.

It whispers of life's great gamble,

And it tells who 'won the toss.'

It marks a life's ambition -

That little wooden cross.


It tells of an unknown hero

Who fell in the great onslaught,

Sacrificed on the altars

Of Mars and Juggernaut.

It tells of noble deeds unsung,

Oe'r field and floe and floss.

It closes life's great chapter -

That little wooden cross.


Many have won promotion,

Medals and honours great,

But many, many thousands

Have won to heaven's gate.

And there in the cornflower's kingdom

Nestling among the moss,

They have won the greatest gift of all -

A Little Wooden Cross.

[The Luton News: June 13th, 1918]


Austin J. Small poems

Author: Deejaya

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