William's naval career began on the 17th of July 1872 when he volunteered for service and became a Boy 2nd Class in the Royal Navy of Queen Victoria. He was just 15, the only son of Robert and Clara Jefford of Paignton. He had been born in Spring Garden's Cottage in an old part of the town called Preston on 21 April 1857 and his only other sibling was his sister Alice who was 3 years older.
The 15 year-old William was initially sent to HMS Implacable which was the Royal Navy's first training ship and was anchored at Devonport. Various ships were introduced around the country at this time, primarily to give training in naval skills and a sense of discipline to teenage boys. On entry a boy aged between 15 and 17 was rated, depending on his physical height and weight and medical fitness.
Having satisfied the surgeon and the chaplain as to their physical and mental fitness, each boy signed a contract, endorsed by a parent or guardian, agreeing to serve in the navy for 12 years (10 years when William joined) which commenced when he reached the age of 18. After this paperwork was completed, the boy was rowed out to Implacable where he took a bath and was fitted out with a complete set of clothes, a combined prayer and hymn book and what was known as a "ditty box" in which he could lock away his letters and personal trifles. This was followed by vaccination against smallpox.
For the first week or so, mature petty officers watched over the boys, for many suffered from home sickness. Most boys were very surprised to find their first instruction was to be taught to hold a needle in order to repair their clothing followed by instructions on how to put their clothes away neatly. They were taught to mark their kit and how to pack their belongings away into the long kit bag known to sailors as their "ditty bag" and which would accompany them in the future wherever they went.
When William joined the navy, it was not compulsory to be able to swim but he proudly stated in his initial interview that he could swim. By the 1890s all recruits received swimming instruction and before passing this stage of their training, had to be able to swim at least 40 yards (36 metres) fully clothed - before this, many young sailors had drowned falling off gang planks and other parts of the vessels on which they lived and worked.
On 31 December 1872, William was paid off as a Boy 2nd Class and on 1 January 1873 he was re-engaged as a Boy 1st Class. He had been rated as "Very Good" as to his character and skills as a seaman; in addition, he had continued his general education, studying reading, writing and arithmetic for at least two days a week with a schoolmaster employed by the Admiralty; this was to continue throughout his training. but as he grew older, the skills of a sailor grew more and more important. He learnt how to anchor a ship as well as how to get it underway. the art of tying knots, the management of sails and oars, the points of the compass, signalling, navigation, steering by the compass etc - all these skills were passed on to him and he was rated at least twice more, under more rigid conditions before he came to the final part of his training. On 24 September 1873, he was posted to HMS Cambridge, the navy's gunnery training ship at Devonport.