Samuel Ferreday, my mother’s grandfather seen here in the 1930s, was born in 1878 and was the last of my direct ancestors to be a coal miner, but before him there were generations and generations of miners.
The earliest ancestor from this branch of the family that I can prove was a miner was Allen Cope Feriday (the surname changes spelling four or five times over this history which is not really very surprising for barely literate mine workers) who was born in 1739 in Lawley, now a suburb of Telford.
He married in 1760 and his marriage certificate states his profession as “collier”. I would imagine his father and grandfather (both gloriously named Flora! – no I’m not kidding) were also miners but I have no concrete evidence for that.
But Allen Cope would have been mining in the second half of the 18th century just as the fledgling industrial revolution was ramping up the demand for coal. By that time, surface deposits of coal were pretty much exhausted so miners were being forced to go deeper to extract it.
By the early 19th century, Francis Fereday, born in 1804 and grandson of Allen Cope was living and working in Bilston, now a suburb of Dudley. He worked all his life in the local coal mines, presumably in one of the mines owned by the notorious Earl of Dudley, a man made the richest in England through ownership of very profitable but infamously lethal coal mines.
Francis died of “apoplexy”, a generic term in the 19th century for any sudden death but was most commonly associated with what we would now call a stroke. He died in 1865 in the Walsall Union Workhouse.
Francis’s eldest son, another Allen Cope Fereday, was born in 1825. He was also a miner and met a tragic end that was so depressingly common for the age. He was killed in a mining accident in October 1849 at the age of 24. The cause of death on his death certificate reads:
“Fracture of the neck from a quantity of coal and dirt falling upon him in a pit. Accidental instant death.”
(Note: doubly tragic for the family was that Allen’s death in the pit came exactly a month after the death of his youngest sibling, 10-week old Francis, who died of cholera at the end of September.)
Allen’s widow, Anne, moved back into the house of her parents together with her two young children, Phineas and Harriet. Anne’s experience seems to have been mirrored by her sister Lydia because the census of 1851 shows Lydia, also a widow, living in the same house as well… both sisters being mining widows at the age of 24 and 26 respectively. Lydia, aged 26 at the time of the 1851 census also had two children. The elder, Thomas, was aged 11 (implying Lydia gave birth to him when she was only 15) and his occupation at that young age is already listed as “Coal miner”.
Well, Anne remarried later in 1851 to an iron foundry worker called John Lewis and sometime in the next ten years the family moved to Derbyshire. By 1861 they were living in Whittington, now a suburb of Chesterfield. John Lewis stated his occupation was a puddler with Phineas being an apprentice at the foundry.
It is most likely they worked at the newly set-up Sheepbridge Iron Works which was less than a mile from where they lived.
Puddling was the first successful process for making malleable iron from pig iron without using charcoal. In a puddling furnace the iron was not in direct contact with the fuel, only with the hot gases from it. This helped reduce the amount of impurities in the finished iron but made the atmosphere toxic for the workers close by.
Puddling involved a great deal of skill, as well as strength. As the historian Richard Hayman puts it in his book ‘Ironmaking’ (2005), puddling “was a technique, not technology… the product of a puddling furnace depended upon a variety of factors, not least the skill and judgement of the workman.”
Puddlers were generally young men as the work required a lot of physical exertion. The production from a puddling furnace was essentially governed by how much weight a man could lift with a ball of puddled iron generally weighing about 250kg! Puddlers often had to retire and find other jobs due to injury. They frequently suffered eye problems from staring into the blazing furnace and their long term health was badly affected by the fumes generated by the furnace. Few puddlers lived beyond the age of 40!
By 1871, Phineas had married and on the census of that year stated his occupation as puddler, having completed his apprenticeship.
Sadly, as per many in his profession, Phineas died young in 1887. His death certificate cites his cause of death as “phthisis”, an archaic term for tuberculosis which was the biggest killer in the 19th century so it can’t be assumed his profession killed him, but it certainly would have contributed to complications from a lung disease.
Phineas’ wife, Sarah, remarried… surprise-surprise to yet another coal miner and so, inevitably Samuel, the youngest son of Phineas and Sarah (my great grandfather pictured at the beginning of this piece) also went down the pit, working all his life at Bolsover colliery. (Note: in just Sam’s life he has his surname spelled three different ways across five census returns!)
Sam’s second daughter was my grandmother. She had three younger brothers, two of whom went down the pit. The third, John, joined the army in the 1920s in an attempt to avoid coal mining and he was to serve through the Second World War in the Royal Artillery… but that’s another story.
Ellen Swatton was my grandfather’s cousin. In February 1908, she married a man from Jersey who had Irish ancestry called Patrick Murphy (I know, how much more Irish can you get!).
Together they had four sons, two of whom, James and George, joined the Royal Navy and served in WW2.
George, born in 1919, was the younger of the two and was the most junior rank of Electrical Artificer when he served aboard HMS Fiji, a light cruiser launched just prior to the war.
Fiji was assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet commanded by Admiral Andrew Cunningham.
British intelligence received information that the Germans would attack the island of Crete on 17 May and Admiral Cunningham ordered his ships to sea on the 15th. Fiji and the light cruiser Gloucester (designated Force B) were tasked to patrol west of the island. The Germans began landing paratroopers on 20 May when Force B was en route to rendezvous with the battleships Warspite and Valiant and their escorts west of Crete. The ships rendezvoused the following morning and German air attacks began a few hours later. They caused little damage but served to run down the ships’ anti-aircraft ammunition. That afternoon, Cunningham ordered the cruisers to disperse and search for any German troop convoys in the Aegean. The Germans spotted Force B shortly after dawn on 22 May as the cruisers were steaming south to rendezvous with the battleships again and re-commenced air attacks.
By 08:30 that day Fiji was down to only 30% of its anti-aircraft ammunition remaining.
But at 14:02 and 14:07 respectively, Fiji and Gloucester were detached to provide anti-aircraft support for the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston, the two destroyers having already been ordered to rescue the survivors of the destroyer Greyhound, which had been sunk at 13:50.
The Luftwaffe focused its attention on the four ships dispatched to Greyhound and they were under near-constant attack for several hours. By 15:30, Fiji had exhausted its supply of anti-aircraft ammunition but she closed on Gloucester at 15:50, right when that ship was struck by four bombs. Fiji dropped life rafts, but was forced to depart the area with the two destroyers. These ships fought on and shot down one attacker and severely damaged two others. The aerial attacks continued despite the heavy cloud cover; at 19:00 a German fighter bomber struck the Fiji amidships with a bomb. The forward boiler and engine rooms flooded and gave her a severe list. Despite this damage Fiji was able to maintain a speed of 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph) until she was hit by another bomb that increased her list to 30 degrees. Abandon ship was ordered in the face of the uncontrollable flooding and she capsized around 19:30. Her accompanying destroyers were unable to rescue any of the crew until after dark when almost all of them who had gone into the sea were recovered.
Sadly, 20 year old George Murphy was killed in the air attacks on his ship, one of 233 men who were killed in the sinking of the Fiji.
On 30 May 1941, in a letter to the First Sea Lord, Cunningham wrote, “The sending back of Gloucester and Fiji to Greyhound was another grave error and cost us those two ships. They were practically out of ammunition, but even had they been full up I think they would have gone. The Commanding Officer of Fiji told me that the air over Gloucester was black with planes.” Following the loss of both Fiji and Gloucester to air attacks after their anti-aircraft ammunition was exhausted, all British cruisers were instructed to not allow their anti-aircraft ammunition reserves to fall below 40%.
James Murphy, the elder brother, was a career sailor, having joined the service in 1928. He was also an Electrical Artificer and, by the middle of the war was a Chief EA aboard HMS Formidable, a 23,000 ton aircraft carrier.
At 740ft long and with a crew of 1300, Formidable was one of the biggest ships in the Royal Navy and, crucially as it was to turn out, had an armoured flight deck and hangar whereas the American carriers had wooden flights decks.
Note: the British design took into consideration that their carriers would generally be operating in more restricted sea space such as the North Sean and Mediterranean, therefore generally being within range of heavier land-based aircraft. Hence, they opted for defence and survivability against heavy bombing attacks whereas the Americans, operating mostly in the Pacific, assumed they would generally be under attack mostly from other carrier-based, lighter aircraft and could rely on their own combat air patrols to fend off those attacks.
When James Murphy joined Formidable she was in home waters and shortly afterwards was sent north to Norway to launch air attacks on the Tirpitz, at anchor in a remote Norwegian fjord. Formidable, in conjunction with Furious and Indefatigable launched three separate attacks on the huge German battleship but failed to inflict and serious damage. These attacks convinced the British to turn over future attacks on the Tirpitz to the RAF’s heavy bombers.
Meanwhile, Formidable was sent to the other side of the world to join the British Pacific Fleet. She arrived off the Sakishima Islands on 4th April 1945 and took part in operations to neutralise airfields on the islands as part of the preparation for landings on Okinawa.
After refuelling and re-arming in the Philippines the fleet returned to operations of the Sakishima Islands on 4th May. Vice-Admiral Rawlings, in command, detached his battleships away to bombard the islands thus removing the best anti-aircraft defence the carriers had and the Japanese sought to exploit this weakness.
At 11.31 on the morning of 4th May a Japanese zero fighter armed with a 500lb bomb on a Kamikaze mission got through the air defences and slammed into the flight deck of Formidable.
The detonation of the bomb and impact of the place caused a big dent in the armoured flight deck, twenty feet wide and two feet deep and the fireball on deck killed two men and wounded 55 other crewmen. However, the fires on the flight deck and in the hangar were extinguished by 11:55, and seven Avengers and a Corsair which were damaged beyond repair were dumped over the side. By 5pm that day the ship was once again fully operational. Air operations continued the following day then the carriers were withdrawn to refuel. Three days later on 8th May they were back on station continuing air operations. But the following day, 9th May Formidable was struck again by another Kamikaze attack. Pilot, Yoshinari Kurose, penetrated the combat air patrol at low altitude and crashed his plane into Formidable’s flight deck and deck park at 17:05. The impact did little damage to the ship, but caused an explosion and large fire that destroyed 18 of her aircraft. One crewman, Petty Officer George Hinkins, was killed and four were wounded but the carrier was able to resume flight operations just fifty minutes later.
After refitting in Sydney, Formidable with the rest of the British Pacific Fleet joined forces with the US Third Fleet to carry out operations off Osaka in the last two weeks of July. The fleet had been scheduled to withdraw after 10th August to prepare for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November, and the bulk of the force, including Formidable, departed for Papua New Guinea on 12 August. The Japanese surrender a few days later ended the war.
Thomas Ahearn was my first cousin, once removed; that is, the son of my grandfather’s sister.
Thomas was born in 1914 and joined the Royal Navy in 1929, aged just 15. After spending his first 18 months at the shore training establishment HMS Ganges, Thomas was transferred to his first ship and spent eight months on the battle cruiser HMS Renown before moving to the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk on 3rd September 1931 just in time for the Invergordon Mutiny that took place on the 15-16 September.
As part of its attempts to deal with the Great Depression, the government decided to implement cuts to public spending. In the Navy this translated into a 10% pay cut for officers, senior ratings, and for junior ratings on the “new rate” of pay, introduced for new entrants in 1925. Ratings below petty officer who had joined before 1925 would have their pay reduced to the same level, amounting to a 25% cut!
When the Atlantic Fleet arrived in Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth on 11th September the men got wind of the cuts through newspapers. On the night of 12th September a group of sailors met at a football field on land where they voted to organise a strike. Crews on the ships decided to carry out essential harbour duties only and not to put to sea.
On the morning of 16th September, Rear-Admiral Tomkinson, in command of the fleet reported to the Admiralty his belief that the mutiny would worsen unless an immediate concession was made. He suggested junior ratings on the old rate should remain on that rate with a cut of 10%. Shortly afterwards, he was informed by the Admiralty that the matter was being considered by the Cabinet, and communicated this to the Fleet.
The Cabinet accepted Tomkinson’s recommendation that ratings on the old rate of pay remain on that rate, with a 10% cut in line with the rest of the service. It was made clear that further acts of insurrection would be severely punished.
(As an aside to this, Len Wincott, an Able Seaman on HMS Norfolk was a leader of the mutiny and subsequently defected to the USSR in 1934. During World War II he survived the Siege of Leningrad but in 1946 he was sent to the Gulag after being accused of being a British spy; he was imprisoned for more than a decade. After his release in the 1950s, he became a friend of Donald MacLean in Moscow.)
In October 1932, Thomas Ahearn transferred to HMS Delhi, flagship of the 8th Cruiser Squadron on the West Indies station.
In 1936, Thomas transferred to a brand new ship, just commissioned, HMS Apollo, a cruiser that sailed to North America via Bermuda and then visited a number of ports in the US and Canada before sailing south to Brazil.
After a six month spell with HMS Diomede, Thomas was at a shore station when war broke out and he was transferred to HMS Ardent in November 1939.
HMS Ardent was a destroyer, working convoy protection from the beginning of the war until the spring of 1940.
After the German invasion of Norway on 9th April, she was transferred to the Home Fleet and on 13th April, the ship joined the escort of Convoy NP1, on passage to Norway with troops for the planned landings at Narvik.
The operations round Narvik ended in disaster and after six weeks the army was in need of evacuation. On 31st May, Ardent and the destroyers Acasta, Acheron, Highlander and Diana escorted the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious from the Clyde to the Norwegian coast to carry out air operations in support of the evacuation.
On 8th June, the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, having embarked fighters based at an airfield in Norway was detached from the main force with Ardent and Acasta as escorts to return home.
What happened next would turn out to be the Royal Navy’s worst single day in WW2. It would tell of heroism in the face of impossible odds, unflinching sacrifice and lastly, enduring controversy.
At 3.45pm, the lookout in the German pocket battleship Scharnhorst spotted the huge silhouette of the Glorious. The Scharnhorst was cruising with the pocket battleship Gneisenau to the north of the Glorious’s route back to the UK and, in tandem, they immediately began to close on the British aircraft carrier and its two small escorts destroyers.
At 4pm, Glorious finally having detected the two enemy battleships descending upon it, turned south east in an attempt to escape. But the carrier couldn’t outrun the German battleships and by 4.30pm the Scharnhorst was within range and began firing at the carrier with its main armament, nine 11” guns. Gneisenau was in range shortly after and similarly opened fire on the British carrier. With just her third salvo Scharnhorst hit Glorious which started a huge fire in the forward aircraft hangar that quickly got out of control.
With Glorious becoming a sitting duck the destroyers sought to buy time for the stricken carrier. They dropped back and sailed a crossing pattern behind the carrier, making smoke in an attempt to hide it from the German gun aimers.
Then HMS Ardent, commanded by Lt. Commander John Barker, burst through its own smoke screen to fire torpedoes at Scharnhorst, one of which passed just feet in front of the German battleship. Scharnhorst took evasive action then, with Gneisenau, caught Ardent in a withering crossfire from their secondary armaments. Within four minutes Ardent had been obliterated, sinking at 5.28pm with the loss of all hands except one. While Thomas Ahearn had been killed, the battle still had its deadly finale to play out.
Shortly after Ardent’s sinking, Glorious emerged from the smoke screen and again came under a hail of fire from the German battleships. By 5.40pm she was a burning wreck, being hit constantly by salvoes from the German ships and slowly sinking into the icy Norwegian sea.
HMS Acasta, the remaining destroyer, was still making smoke to the rear of Glorious and steaming directly away from the German battleships. On board, Commander Charles Glasfurd addressed his crew over the ship tannoy: “You may think we are running away from the enemy. We are not. Our chummy ship has sunk (Ardent was the sister ship of the Acasta), the Glorious is sinking. The least we can do is make a show. Good luck to you all.”
With that, the 1,350 tonne Acasta turned 180 degrees, steamed back through her own smoke screen and charged at the 33,000 tonne German battleships. Turning hard to port she got in a position to fire her torpedoes at Scharnhorst. One of the torpedoes struck Scharnhorst near her rear main turret, disabling it and blowing a hole in the side of the ship that shut down two of her three engine rooms. But that was to be Acasta’s last moment of glory. Quickly the German ships trained their guns on the destroyer and in five minutes had crippled it.
Glorious sank at 6.08pm and Acasta followed it at 6.16pm.
Leading Seaman Cyril Carter, the only crew member from Acasta to survive, would later recall: “…when I was in the water I saw the Captain leaning over the bridge, take a cigarette from a case and light it. We shouted to him to come on our raft. He waved and said, “Good-by and good luck.””
Of the 900 men who went into the water from the three ships, just 46 would be rescued by a Norwegian merchant ship two days later. In total, 1,531 sailors perished in the action. It was the worst British naval disaster of the war.
And controversy began almost immediately because of unanswered questions surrounding the disaster.
Why were Glorious and her escorts returning home independently of the main force from Norway?
Why was the Home Fleet unaware of the potential threat of a German battle group in the vicinity?
Could HMS Devonshire, a battle cruiser also making its way home independently and not far from the battle site, have gone to the assistance of the stricken ships?
Questions were asked in Parliament as early as 31st July 1940, culminating in a debate on 7th November but, given wartime exigencies, it wasn’t surprising no answers were forthcoming from the Admiralty.
All went quiet on the topic until 1946 when under more pressure the Admiralty released a statement that Glorious was short of fuel and had to return home early. The route chosen was expected to be safe and the ships were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The first to contradict this explanation of events was none other than Winston Churchill who described the fuel reason as “not convincing. The Glorious presumably had enough fuel to steam at the speed of the convoy. All should have kept together.” Nonetheless, the official story held for the next 30 years. It would be the Navy’s official historian, Captain Stephen Roskill, who finally lifted the lid on the controversy in his book “Churchill and the Admirals” in 1977 and in an explosive article for the Sunday Times in 1980.
Addressing the fuel explanation Roskill said “…the shortage of fuel theory is false.” Essentially backing up Churchill’s view, he stated that had Glorious remained with the main force she would have been steaming at a slower speed and would have consumed less fuel overall for the journey.
Since supported by other historians, Roskill painted a picture of Glorious as a desperately unhappy ship run by a captain whose First World War renown disguised incompetence, tyranny and questionable mental stability. Relations between senior officers had broken down to the extent that D’Oyly-Hughes, commander of the Glorious, had put his senior aviator, Captain J B Heath ashore at Scapa Flow pending a court marshal when the latter could not comply with impossible orders. Recent historians have claimed that D’Oyly-Hughes was so vindictive that the sole reason his ship was racing home independently, completely unready for combat, was in order to bring forward a court martial against his former officer.
Eminent historian Corelli Barnett described D’Oyly-Hughes as “…a throwback to the worst kind of arrogant, authoritarian and choleric Edwardian naval officer.”
Moving on to the issue of the lack of awareness of the German battleship threat, it seems that the Admiralty failed to pass on intelligence warnings to those in a position to react to events. Reports from Bletchley Park in the ten days prior to the battle gave strong indication that German main units were likely to proceed to Norwegian waters but none of this intelligence was passed on to the commander of Home Fleet let alone the ship commanders on the scene.
Lastly, the role, or lack of it played by HMS Devonshire. When Glorious spotted the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau she radioed for assistance twice. The nearest ship was the Devonshire who the Admiralty claimed heard one garbled message that made no sense. Therefore, they claimed, it was purely coincidence that Devonshire exercised her main armaments at 4.25pm, just minutes after Glorious sent its first message (one the Devonshire claimed was not received) and then increased speed from 26 knots to 30 knots for the only time in her voyage just after Glorious’ second signal.
The fact that HMS Devonshire was carrying the Norwegian royal family and government to exile in the UK presumably also had nothing to do with decisions taken by her captain that day.
Ultimately, we will never know the reason why Glorious was sailing home independently, or why she was so unprepared for attack because all those in decision making positions on the ships involved were killed.
As for Thomas Frederick Ahearn, he was just a tiny cog in a much bigger wheel and in true naval fashion his service record ends quite succinctly:
I have been doing some more family research and this is the rather depressing tale about one of the Bytheway branch of my family that lived around Dudley in the Black Country.
Joseph Danks married Lucy Bailey, the daughter of William Bailey and Esther Bytheway (my great-great-great-grandaunt), in 1890. Between then and 1910 they had seven children. Joseph was a chain maker, a hugely physical job but a very common occupation in the area around Netherton / Woodside. One of the local companies made the anchor chains for the Titanic.
The video below describes chain making in the area.
Things seemed normal in Joseph and Lucy’s marriage for thirty years until things suddenly seemed to go very wrong at the end of 1920 and into 1921.
In late 1920, Joseph lost his job. Maybe this triggered some kind of downward spiral of behaviour; we’ll never know.
But, on 23rd May 1921, Joseph was arrested for “maliciously wounding” his wife and on 1st June pleaded guilty to the offense and was sentenced to be “Bound over for 12 months in his own recognizance in £25 to come up for judgment when called”.
However, just two months later, the body of his wife, Lucy, was pulled out of the Dudley Canal on 14th August 1921 after Joseph had reported the previous night that she had fallen into the canal while they were on their way home from drinking in a couple of pubs, the Royal Exchange in Stourbridge and the Turk’s Head in Brierley Hill.
Injuries on the body led the jury at the coroner’s inquest to conclude she had been attacked and thrown into the canal. Joseph was arrested and committed to trial for murder. The trial was held on 22nd October that year before Mr Justice Roche at Worcester Assizes.
Joseph was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years penal servitude. I haven’t been able to track down yet where he served his sentence but it was probably Birmingham Prison at Winson Green, built in 1849.
Having served his time, Joseph was released and in the census of 1939 was recorded as still living in the local area, on Queen Street in Brierley Hill.
Some time ago I posted a short article about my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Owen, who was born in the early 1850s and lived and worked on narrow boats plying their trade on the Grand Union Canal. In his twenties he fell foul of the law and was sentenced to five years hard labour for assault in 1877.
Now, from recently digitised images of inmates of Pentonville Prison, I can put a face to the name and here is Joseph, (thanks to my cousin Jenny who found the pic):
According to his prison discharge record he was just 5 feet and a quarter inch tall, very short even for the time. But then again, of the ten people on the same page as Joseph’s discharge record just one is taller than 5 feet 4 inches. Generations of malnourishment throughout the early industrial revolution is known to have had a detrimental effect on the physique and average life-span of working class people so I guess his height shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
In the picture you’ll notice his hands are raised, holding the front of his prison uniform. This was a standard pose, adopted so that any tattoos on the backs of hands could be recorded.
When this photograph was made, Joseph was just two months into his sentence but when he was released, it was into the supervision of the RSADP, according to his discharge record. The RSADP was the Royal Society for the Assistance of Discharged Prisoners and was a charitable organisation set up to help reduce recidivism. They would assist ex-cons to find work and accommodation and help them manage what little money they left prison with. It would seem that Joseph was one of their successes as there is no record of him re-offending and he went on to become master of his own narrow boat on the Grand Union Canal.
It should come as no surprise to me that a family with such humble origins as mine (ok, poor) should comprise ancestors who spent time in “the workhouse”. One such was a younger brother of my great grandmother, a certain John Edward Hubsdell, born in 1865 in the Alverstoke district of Gosport in Hampshire.
The census of 1881 has him listed as a painter, renting a room in the Black Dog pub in Alverstoke but thereafter he disappears off the census record for reasons that are unclear, although the same can also be said for several relatives during the same period. So, perhaps the records for the area in which they lived have been lost.
John Hubsdell next shows up in 1905, by which time he had relocated to London but apparently fallen on hard times. In November of that year he was admitted into the Whitechapel Infirmary, formerly the Whitechapel Union Workhouse but redesignated in 1872 as an infirmary.
He was listed as “homeless” in the admission record and admitted suffering from rheumatism, a chronic complaint that seemed to dog him for much of his life. His stay was short, just 5 days, which was common enough; 90% of the people admitted with him were discharged before the end of the month. I get the feeling that as much as anything, being admitted to the infirmary was a chance to get some respite from living on the street.
It would seem John’s fortunes failed to improve as he got older because the next record of him is being admitted to Fulham Workhouse on 16th November 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War 1. Again, his stay was short, just 5 days, with him being discharged at his own request on 21st November. While the workhouses weren’t as horrific as they had been 50 to 60 years earlier there was still significant stigma attached to them so resorting to admission would be a last resort.
Eighteen months later John joined the army, volunteering for the Forage Section of the Army Service Corps in April 1916, somehow passing the medical, but lasting just 10 months in service in England before being discharged in April 1917, his service no longer being required.
Two more years pass before John again appears in the records. With the war recently over the army were desperate for men to volunteer for an appallingly gruesome job… grave exhumation.
Early in 1919 they were undertaking the gargantuan task of moving the remains of hastily buried soldiers to organised cemeteries. Presumably desperate for work, John Hubsdell volunteered for this and was duly recruited into the Labour Corps in May 1919, arriving in France the following month. He did this horrific job for 4 months until again he was discharged as being unfit due to his rheumatism.
He left the army in November 1919 and just three weeks later he is recorded being admitted into St Luke’s Workhouse in Islington. His admission record shows him being placed on the “Infirm” diet “Class 2” which was reserved for men too infirm to work. However, twelve days later he was discharged at his own request again, once more to fend for himself.
Once again he disappears from the record for fifteen years when, in 1935, back in his home town of Gosport he has been admitted to Gosport Public Assistance Institution (formerly the Alverstoke Workhouse) where he was to see out his days, dying there in late 1939.
My grand father’s elder sister, Bertha Sarah May Swatton, married a career sailor in 1912, a chap called Herbert Rogers, hence my great uncle by marriage. He was born on 28th November 1888 on Jersey in the Channel Islands and had served in the Royal Navy since 1908 when he was 18, when he stood a manly 4ft 11 and a half inches tall!
His service record card still exists, below, and there were two obvious items that stood out that I thought deserved a bit more investigation.
The first was the abbreviation “DD” on the last line of his service which I quickly discovered is the standard code used by the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines for being killed in service, the charming “Discharged Dead”. But I will come to that later.
The second was the note at the bottom of the page, “Rendered meritorious service at wreck of “Delhi” Dec 11”. It turns out this was a well-documented shipwreck because the SS Delhi was carrying royalty, Princesses Alexandra and Maud, granddaughters of King Edward VII. Again, I will return to that later but I will start with going back to the beginning of Herbert’s service and catalogue the ships in which he served.
HMS Hercules – 28 Mar 1904 to 8 July 1904
Launched in 1868, by the time Herbert joined her, the Hercules was an elderly ship serving as a depot ship on the south coast. Here, Herbert would have done his basic training.
HMS Caesar – 9 July 1904 to 6 March 1905
Herbert’s first real posting was to an altogether different kind of ship. HMS Caesar, commissioned in 1898, was a pre-Dreadnought battleship and was flagship of the Channel Fleet.
HMS Frequent – 7 Mar 1905 to 18 March 1905
It would appear Herbert hitched a brief ride on HMS Frequent to get to his next posting which would take him rather further afield.
HMS Powerful – 19 March 1905 to 21 Jan 1907
HMS Powerful, was a large cruiser, commissioned in 1897 and, by August 1905, five months after Herbert joined her, she was flagship of the Australia Station based at Freemantle Western Australia. During his service aboard Powerful, Herbert was promoted Ordinary Seaman.
HMS King Alfred – 22 Jan 1907 to 15 Jan 1908
Herbert’s next posting was to HMS King Alfred, an armoured cruiser commissioned in 1903, which was serving as flagship on the China Station. During his service aboard King Alfred, Herbert was promoted Able Seaman.
HMS Hawke – 16 Jan 1908 to 13 March 1908
It isn’t clear but I suspect the relatively short stay on HMS Hawke was for Herbert’s passage home from China because his next posting was at a shore station in England.
HMS Victory I & Vernon – 14 March 1908 to 19 Feb 1909
This was a training and education establishment which specialised in training naval staff in the management and deployment of mines and torpedoes. The accommodation and classroom facilities were housed in the hulls of three old 19th century warships, each connected to the next via wooden walkways.
HMS Enchantress – 20 Feb 1909 to 24 Feb 1910
Herbert’s next posting seems a little odd, because after spending a year at an establishment specialising in the technical training for mines and torpedoes, he was assigned to the steam yacht HMS Enchantress, the vessel made available for the personal use of the First Lord of the Admiralty.
At the time, the First Lord was Reginald McKenna and it was he who launched the Dreadnought arms race with Germany prior to World War 1.
HMS Albermarle – 25 Feb 1910 to 14 Dec 1910
After a year on what was essentially a glorified pleasure cruiser Herbert joined HMS Albermarle, a pre-Dreadnought battleship attached to the Channel Fleet and based in Portsmouth.
HMS Prince of Wales – 15 Dec 1910 to 2 Nov 1912
When Herbert transferred to the Prince of Wales she had just finished repairs after an explosion in one of her stokeholds in July of that year. Just as Herbert joined the ship, her command was taken over by Rear Admiral John Jellicoe, later commander of the Grand Fleet and First Sea Lord. Shortly after, she set sail for Gibraltar and in the spring of 1911 undertook a major refit there. She was still on the Gibraltar station when she responded to the distress calls of the P&O steam ship Delhi. The Delhi was en route to Bombay (Mumbai) carrying 100 passengers including the Duke and Duchess of Fife and their daughters Princesses Alexandra and Maud, granddaughters of King Edward VII. At about 1am on the morning of 13th Dec 1911 in thick fog and heavy seas the ship ran aground two miles south of Cape Spartel, just west of Tangier near the Strait of Gibraltar.
Three warships responded to the Delhi’s wireless distress calls, the French cruiser Friant, first on the scene, and HMS Duke of Edinburgh and HMS Prince of Wales.
Three crew of the Friant were drowned when their boat capsized as they tried to rescue passengers from the wreck.
When the Duke of Edinburgh arrived, its commanding officer Admiral Cradock took one of its lifeboats alongside the Delhi and attempted to take the royal party to shore but the small boat capsized in the heavy sea and the bedraggled royals were hauled from the sea by some of the sixty or so sailors sent on shore to assist the rescues.
Further attempts to take passengers off by boat were abandoned in favour of a breeches buoy, anchored at one end on the beach and fired by rocket across to the ship.
The accident was big news in the press at the time, I suspect solely because of the royal involvement, and the chance it offered to the press to describe princesses escaping from the sea half naked – even the press in 1911 couldn’t resist a bit of lurid titillation!
I think it’s great though that the press reported that “owing to having left the vessel with few clothes” the princesses were “confined to their beds, awaiting the arrival of luggages”… because they couldn’t possibly have borrowed some clothes! Obviously there is no account of a lowly seaman like Herbert but in order for him to have his “meritorious service” recorded I would guess he was one of the shore party that assisted in the rescues. Maybe he was even one of those who pulled a drowned rat princess or two from the sea.
HMS Vernon – 3 Nov 1912 to 13 Feb 1913
After two years with HMS Prince of Wales, Herbert was posted back to shore station HMS Vernon for more training. It was during his posting to Vernon that he married Bertha Swatton on Boxing Day 1912.
HMS Good Hope – 14 Feb 1913 to 30 June 1913
Two months after his wedding he was posted again, this time to HMS Good Hope, an armoured cruiser identical to the King Alfred on which he had served six years earlier. But his stay aboard was short, before he was transferred to a specialist minelayer ship where presumably he was to use his training at Vernon.
HMS Latona – 1 July 1913 to 8 March 1915
HMS Latona, launched in 1890 as a cruiser, was reclassified as a specialist mine-layer in 1910. In 1913 it was part of the mine-layer squadron attached to Second Fleet.
Aboard Latona, Herbert was promoted to Leading Seaman and then transferred for the last time.
HMS Princess Irene – 9 March 1915 to 27 May 1915
HMS Princess Irene was an ocean liner built in 1914 or the Canadian Pacific Railway and requisitioned by the Royal Navy on completion and converted to an auxiliary minelayer.
In May 1915, Princess Irene was moored on the Medway Estuary in Kent near Sheerness, being loaded with mines in preparation for deployment on a minelaying mission. At 11:14 GMT on 27 May, Princess Irene exploded and disintegrated. A column of smoke hung over the spot where Princess Irene had been, reaching to 1,200 feet (400 m). A total of 352 people were killed, including 273 officers and men, and 76 dockyard workers who were on board Princess Irene.
Wreckage was flung up to 20 miles (32 km) away, with people near Sittingbourne, 10 miles away, being injured by flying débris, and the Isle of Grain the other side of the Thames estuary being showered with body parts.
The official record of the disaster stated it was an accident probably due to faulty mines.
No part of Herbert’s body was ever found but his name is included on the naval memorial in Porstmouth.
In typical blunt fashion, his service record ends simply with “DD”… Discharged Dead.
My grandmother on my father’s side was Lottie Owen. Her father, Frederick and at least five generations of the Owen line before him were brought up on narrow boats, working up and down the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Those five generations were born in Brinklow, Aylesbury, Harefield and Paddington – all stops on the Grand Union Canal.
The first working narrow boats played a key part in the economic changes accompanying the British Industrial Revolution. They were wooden boats drawn by a horse walking on the canal towpath led by a crew member, often a child. Narrowboats were chiefly designed for carrying cargo, though there were some packet boats, carrying passengers, letters, and parcels.
Boatmen’s families originally lived ashore, but in the 1830s as canals started to feel competition from the new railways, families started to take up home afloat. This was partly because they could no longer afford rents, partly to provide extra hands to work the boats harder, faster and further, and partly to keep families together.
The rear portion of the boat became the cosy “boatman’s cabin”, familiar from picture postcards and museums, famous for its space-saving ingenuity and for its interior made attractive by a warm stove, a steaming kettle, gleaming brass, fancy lace, painted housewares, and decorated plates. Such descriptions though rarely consider the actual comfort and day-to-day living conditions of a large family working an extremely hard and long day, and sleeping in the one tiny cabin. Nonetheless it was impossible for such mobile families to send their children to school, and most boat people remained illiterate and ostracised by those living ‘on the bank’.
In the late 19th century there was estimated around 18,000 families working and living on canal boats. The transportation of goods was very much a family affair, with even the children growing up on the boats learning to help. As soon as the children were old enough they were expected to help out, there was no room for passengers on these trips and everyone had to pull their weight. Children soon learned how to operate the locks and lead the horses, playing an active part in working life. The work was hard and tough with some days lasting a gruelling 17 hours because the boat was paid on completion of a trip so the quicker the trip could be completed the sooner the boat was paid.
Many early boaters couldn’t read or write due to a lack of education – when Joseph Owen was married in 1851, he could sign his name (quite surprisingly) but neither his wife nor the two witnesses could and signed the certificate with their mark, an “x”.
The families’ place of work was also their home and with a lack of space, overcrowding, poor hygiene and limited conditions being just a few of the issues families faced every day on the boat. Life could be tough for all on-board. The boats cabin could be freezing in winter and boiling in the summer making their living accommodation anything but ideal.
The boating families made up a very strong community, having their own culture and way of life but this wasn’t necessarily any advantage. The Victorians grew suspicious of the boaters who rarely left the towpath and branded them; drinkers, criminals, scruffy and violent people – not unlike how the traveller communities today are viewed. Some of these labels were warranted as they did drink and their appearance wasn’t the cleanest due to the work and living conditions they were subjected too. Fights would sometimes break out, giving them the reputation of being violent people.
The story of Joseph Owen, my great-great-great grandfather serving five years in Pentonville for assault is perhaps an example of this… where there’s smoke, there’s fire and all that!
This short piece of family research concerns Tom Oxley, the father of my aunt Milly (wife of my father’s elder brother), born in Rotherham in 1889. His father variously worked in local foundries and steel works and Tom became a coal miner as so many did in that part of Yorkshire.
However, by the time he was 18 he was in trouble with the police and in January 1908 he was convicted for minor assault and given 14 days hard labour in HM Prison Wakefield.
After his release and sometime before the beginning of World War 1 he apparently joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The RNVR was created in 1903 and was the Navy’s equivalent of the Territorial Army and was open to civilians with no prior naval experience. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to trace his enlistment records and am assuming they were part of the many thousands that were destroyed when the archive was hit during the Blitz in WW2.
After the assassination of Crown Price Franz Ferdinand at the end of June 1914, people could see war approaching and Tom made another big change in his life, getting married in July of that year to Harriet Wootten.
And the following month war broke out, in August 1914.
On mobilisation, the popularity of the Navy and the strength of its reserves resulted in a large surplus of manpower, far more than were needed to adequately man the Fleet.
It was then that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, intervened in not one of his finest moments. He decided that the surplus men should be formed into infantry units – the Royal Naval Division. Not one to waste time, he duly sent a memo to the Secretary of the Admiralty and the First Sea Lord giving them a week to start making it happen!
By the end of the month a tented camp for 1st Brigade had been established at Walmer Downs near Dover comprising four battalions, each named after famous British Admirals – Drake, Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood.
Tom was assigned to 2nd (Hawke) Battalion.
There were over 7000 men in all, comprising men from the RNVR, ex-regulars from the Royal Naval Reserve and recalled retired officers and men.
I can’t help but think they were less than impressed being issued with rifles and being made into infantry rather than serving in the Fleet.
As it was, in the worst tradition of British military improvisation (yes, bungling), the only rifles available were outdated Lee-Metfords from the Boer War and as khaki was in short supply most men wore normal naval blue uniform. Eighty percent of the troops went to war without even basic equipment such as packs, mess tins or water bottles and the division had no artillery, Field Ambulances or other ancillary units.
After five weeks of basic training this improvised and still working-up division was sent to Belgium to join the Royal Marines already stationed there as the situation on the continent was fast deteriorating. The two Royal Naval Division brigades arrived to join the Marines around Antwerp on 6th October, taking positions interspersed between the semi-circle of eight old brick-built forts that surrounded the city.
At dawn, 8th October, the German infantry began a fresh assault on the old fortress line. Their 305mm and 420mm mortars had been moved up, and opened fire on the old brick forts. Even before dawn Forts 1, 2 and 4 were reported to have fallen.
The Royal Naval Division, positioned on the old fort line between Forts 2 and 7, were right in the middle of the German fire.
During the evening, the brigades of the Royal Naval Division were ordered to withdraw. Not all of the units received the orders, and there was wholesale confusion. One of the problems was the incredible congestion on the few roads heading north-west, as thousands of refugees moved in the same direction. It was impossible even for signal runners to move back and forth between headquarters and front line units. The 1st Naval Brigade suffered badly from confused orders and the chaotic condition of the roads.
As a result, the following day, 9th October, over 2400 men from Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood battalions were lost after being outflanked by the advancing Germans and cut off. 1479 troops managed to march north into neutral Holland where they were interned for the remainder of the war and 936 were captured by the Germans and would remain as prisoners of war until the end of hostilities.
Tom Oxley was one of these men.
His service record in the National Archives was unclear (literally), the lines referring to his capture virtually unreadable (second section below, dated 3.12.14 Officially reported prisoner of war):
But after some experts on a WW1 internet forum gave me some pointers, I managed to find Tom’s record with the International Red Cross who maintained a catalogue of all prisoners of war. This provided some more details:
It confirmed his capture on 9th Oct 1914 and interestingly identified the PoW Camp in which he was held – Lager Döberitz, which turned out to be north-west of Potsdam, near Berlin.
Tom Oxley was to spend the rest of the war in this camp, over 4 years.
The prisoners tried to make the best of things while they were held. Between their daily work schedules when they were often marched out of camp to undertake manual labour, they tried to entertain themselves as best they could. They had an orchestra, various sports teams, theatre and concert troupes and they produced a regular magazine – the Döberitz Gazette.
I guess for the PoWs the end of the war couldn’t come soon enough but it wasn’t until 13th December 1918 that Tom was repatriated.
The photograph below is of the last PoWs to leave Döberitz. The quality isn’t good enough to tell if one of those in navy uniform is Tom but it’s nice to think that it may be, and it shows they hadn’t lost their sense of humour, despite years of incarceration.
It has been a while since I posted anything on my family history but I have started doing more research recently and have something new to share.
Joseph Owen, born in 1853, was my great-great-great-grandfather. In his twenties he was a short man, just five feet and a quarter of an inch tall with a slender build, round face, fair complexion, brown hair and hazel eyes. But by that time he had picked up a fair few injuries, having scars on the side of his head, left eyelid, bottom of his back, right hip and the back of his left hand.
How can I know such detail? Well, from his prison discharge record when he was released from Pentonville Prison on 28th September 1881 and catalogued in the Metropolitan Police Record of Habitual Criminals! Joseph grew up on the Grand Union canal, his father and his father before him being masters of horse-drawn barges plying the route from London to Birmingham.
The events that led him to be incarcerated we know from his trial record which survives in the Old Bailey archives.
In September 1877 his barge was probably moored in Paddington Basin because on the night of Saturday 29th September he was in the Running Horse pub on the Harrow Road, just round the corner from the canal basin. At about 8.15pm he got into a drunken quarrel outside the pub with a dustman called James Whitmill. A passer-by, George Turner, intervened to break them up, whereupon Joseph turned on him and attacked him, biting a chunk out of his nose and cheek. Fortunately for George Turner, a policeman was nearby, a PC Higgins, who broke up the fight and arrested Joseph Owen. He took him to the local police station where he was charged with being drunk and disorderly, charges which were increased in severity once the injuries to George Turner were better understood and had been treated at St. Mary’s Hospital.
Joseph was ultimately tried at the Old Bailey on 22nd October 1877 for “Feloniously cutting and wounding George Turner, with intent to disfigure him, also to do him some grievous bodily harm”. It was an open and shut case for the prosecution and defendants who had no means were denied legal representation anyway. In the official transcript, the prisoner’s defence was solely: “I did not know what I was doing.”
He was duly found guilty and sentenced to five years’ Penal Servitude, prison with hard labour in layman’s terms, which he served in Pentonville Prison in Islington.
So what would a sentence of penal servitude in Pentonville have entailed?
Pentonville operated the “separate” system, designed to keep prisoners apart and in isolation as much as possible. The idea was to prevent “contamination” of more vulnerable prisoners by the hardened criminals in an attempt to reduce likelihood of re-offending – the actual result however was an increase in mental health issues.
The cells were 13” long by 7” wide by 9” high with a small window set high on the end wall which was not possible to look out of without standing on something (which was a punishable offense). The cells were reportedly intensely cold in winter. Prisoners under the age of 50 were not allowed a mattress for their bed but instead had bare planks. Oscar Wilde recalled that the plank bed “caused him to shiver all night long and that, as a consequence of its rigors, he had become an insomniac.”
The prisoners’ day began at 6.30am when they rose and for most of the day those sentenced to hard labour could look forward to seven and a half hours walking the dreaded treadmill.
The picture here is of the treadmill at Pentonville in 1895. Each treadmill had twenty-four steps, set 8ins apart. You did ten minutes on and five off, for eight hours, climbing the equivalent of over 8,000 feet in the process – that’s the equivalent of walking up the steps to the top of the Eiffel Tower three times one after the other.
Prison food was kept deliberately poor, consisting mainly of a potato-based gruel and bread. After work and dinner, all prisoners were returned to their cells when they had two hours of solitary “contemplation” time to sit and reflect on their situation or to read the Bible… not much use to Joseph as he seems not to have been much of a scholar.
Each prisoner was allowed a single visitor every six months.
And it was this regime that Joseph would have endured for his stupid, drunken crime.
When he was released in 1882 there is no evidence that he re-offended but returned to working on the narrow boats up and down the Grand Union Canal. On the year of his release he married the daughter of another boatman, Charlotte Bullock, with whom he went on to have four children.
By 1891 he was master of the barge “Thrifty and George” and continued working on the canal until his death in 1918.