The Wiatt Brothers… and an odd coincidence

Continuing the stories from the ancestral past of my friend Heidi Mellings, this time a set a four short pieces about brothers, the sons of William H Wiatt, the merchant and banker with Brazilian connections I wrote about a while ago.

These gentlemen were the siblings of Heidi’s great-grandmother, Helen. They all served in World War 1, three surviving, and the fourth having the oddest coincidence with my own family history.

Frank Helder Wiatt

Frank was born on 26th May 1876 in Liverpool. He was a career mariner in the merchant marine. Although I haven’t been able to trace his early career,  we know that he qualified as a 2nd Mate in 1897 and in 1905 he joined the Royal Naval reserve, the Navy’s equivalent of the Territorial Army, a part-time reserve force that could be called upon in time of war. This was a time, of course when the so-called “naval race” between Britain and Germany was just beginning, with the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, an international arms race that would culminate in world war in 1914.

Anyway, back to Frank’s merchant marine career. From his service card I found he had joined the “BISNC” which took a while to work out was the British and India Steam Navigation Company which was a merchant marine company primarily operating in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

However, he left them for a year in 1907 to become 3rd Mate on the Euphrates, a cargo ship operated by the Bucknall Steamship Line.

The Euphrates

In May 1908 he was back with the BISNC as 2nd Mate on the Purnea, a cargo ship working out of Calcutta, and operating between Australia and the Indian sub-continent. It was most likely on one of his visits to Australia that he met Annie Watts, a resident of Manly whom he married there in 1914.

The Purnea

Following his service on the Purnea, Frank was promoted to Chief Officer and held a shore posting, based in Calcutta which he retained until he was called into service in WW1 with the rank of Sub-Lieutenant as Chief Officer in HM Troopship Eastern, mostly operating in familiar waters for Frank, ferrying troops from Australia, India and South Africa.

At the end of the war, Frank settled in Australia, living in Warringah, a northern suburb of Sydney, encompassing what is now the uber-trendy area of the Northern Beaches, and was employed as a harbour pilot.

For whatever reason, the couple chose to move to England sometime in the 1920s, residing first in west London and then in Worthing in Sussex. Annie died in Worthing in 1939 and Frank died, also in Worthing in 1967, aged 90.

Harold Comber Wiatt

Harold was born on 11th March 1885 in Brazil, his father being employed by the London and Brazilian Bank and based in Rio de Janeiro. However, on the family’s return to England, Harold was sent to public school and boarded at St John’s College, Hurstpierpoint in Sussex.

Following school, Harold married almost immediately, at the age of just 18 to Mary Sellwood Pink, the 21-year old daughter of a green grocer from Acton and together they set up house in Acton near her parents.

Harold became a clerk and on the 1911 census is recorded as being a Cinematograph Clerk, presumably working for one of the very earliest “cinema” houses as the cinematograph itself had its very first public screening only in 1895.

When war broke out in 1914, Harold didn’t rush to volunteer but the following year, aged nearly 31, he enlisted and joined the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) Infantry. His enlistment papers are among those that survived the Blitz in WW2 so we know something of his physical description… he was 5’9” tall with a 38” chest measurement.

Initially, Harold was placed on reserve but was mobilized due to the escalating casualties in May 1917 and was posted to the HAC 1st Infantry Battalion which by then had been designated as a training unit. After three months he was then posted to 2nd Battalion and he joined that unit in France on 28th September preparing for the 3rd Battle of Ypres, what became known as Passchendaele. On 9th October, Harold would have “gone over the top” for the first time as the battalion was assigned to attack the German trenches in front of the village of Reutal. The objectives of the 2nd HAC that day were to “capture the village of Reutel and gain touch with the 5th Division about Juniper Cottage”, as per the battalion history.  The history goes on to say “the whole of the objectives of the attack were secured.”  The casualties were Officers: 8 killed & 7 wounded, Other Ranks: 49 Killed, 189 wounded and 42 missing. There is also a note that “Almost all the ‘missing’ were afterwards reported killed.”

Trench map of the Reutal region with the German trenches marked in red

In November 1917, Harold’s battalion were withdrawn from the line and were posted to northern Italy to support the Italian Army’s offensives against the Austrians.

However, Harold was to see no further action. On 31st December he was taken ill and treated at the 39th Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) at Istrana, north east of Venice. He was diagnosed with nephritis, inflammation of the kidneys. From 39 CCS he was evacuated to 38th Stationary Hospital at Genoa.

From there he was evacuated back to England on the Australian Hospital Ship Warilda, arriving back in England in early February 1918. (As a side note, there was worldwide outrage caused in August 1918 when the Warilda, carrying wounded home from France, was torpedoed by a German U-boat.)

Harold saw no more service and was discharged from the army as medically unfit on 26th July 1918.

Following his army discharge, Harold resumed his career as a clerk and living in Ealing. This seems to have been the case up to his retirement when he and his wife moved to Worthing in Sussex, (perhaps to be closer to his brother, Frank?) They lived there until both passing away within weeks of each other in the autumn of 1957.

Wilfred Thompson Wiatt

Wilfred Wiatt was born in Brazil on 28th May 1882. By the time the family had moved back to England, Wilfred, aged 18, on the 1901 census was recorded as being a clerk. In 1908 he married Elizabeth Rickards who was eight years his senior and was, as their marriage certificate states, the daughter of a “Gentleman” living in the well-to-do Mill Hill Park area of Acton in West London.

They had a daughter, Ethel, on 22nd March 1914.

When war broke out it isn’t clear when he enlisted as his attestation papers have been lost but we know he served with two separate units during and after the war, initially as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and, after gaining a commission, as 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC)… or as the rest of the army knew them, “Rob All My Comrades” and “Run Away Someone’s Coming”!

He first saw active service on the Western Front in France, posted there on 19th August 1917. Thereafter, I’m afraid the records seem to be lost, however it seems that he elected to stay on in the army at the end of the war for a few years, finally obtaining his discharge in 1923 whereupon he resumed his career as a bank clerk.

Wilfred’s wife, Elizabeth, died in 1936 and three years later he married again, to Edna Gale, the daughter of a butcher. They lived in Esher in Surrey until Wilfred’s retirement when they moved to Torbay in Devon where Wilfred died in 1978.

Charles Barrington Wiatt

The last of these short pieces concerns the eldest brother, Charles, born in Liverpool on 3rd April 1875. Like his younger brother, Frank, he was destined for a life at sea in the merchant marine but also like his brother he signed up for the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), enlisting in that service on 1st July 1892, the same year as he first went to sea as an apprentice for the Milton Stuart Ship Company of South Shields.

Four years later, Charles qualified as a Second Mate in the merchant marine on 9th January 1896 and gained regular promotions in the RNR – Sub-Lieutenant on 22nd February 1899 and Lieutenant on 29 May 1909. On his service record the standard phrase “With sobriety and attention” is used repeatedly to describe his conduct of his duties.

In 1903, Charles married Maria Sherman whose family, like Charles’, had South American connections, she herself being born in Lima, Peru. They had one child, Stuart Dudley Sherman Wiatt, born in 1905. Meanwhile, in his “day job” by 1909 Charles was employed by the Red Star Line as Chief Officer aboard the SS Marquette, a liner that operated between Antwerp and North America, usually New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

The SS Marquette

Charles remained with the SS Marquette until the outbreak of war on 4th August 1914 whereupon he was immediately drafted into the Royal Navy with a berth aboard HMS Latona which he joined on 28th August. The Latona was a cruiser that had been re-classified as a specialist mine-layer in 1910. In 1914 it was part of the mine-layer squadron attached to Second Fleet.

HMS Latona

It is an odd coincidence that a Leading Seaman on the Latona was my great-aunt’s husband Herbert Rogers who had been in the navy since he was a boy and slowly risen through the ranks.

Now, it’s quite possible that on a ship with a complement of 300 officers and men the two of them would have had very little to do with each other, if anything. However, on 8th March 1915, several of the officers and crew of the Latona were transferred to a newly commissioned mine-layer, a converted Canadian liner, called the Princess Irene. Among those transferred were both Charles Wiatt and Herbert Rogers, so I think they had to have known each other.

HMS Princess Irene – the door at the stern is the hatch through which mines were released.

Also transferred was the officer in command of the Latona, Commander Thomas Hector Molesworth Maurice, who became second-in-command of the Princess Irene. On 8th May 1915 the Princess Irene, together with another mine-layer laid a minefield northwest of Heligoland laying 472 mines. Each mine encompassed approximately 145kg of high explosive, usually TNT or amatol.

I mention this detail because of what happened next.

On 27th May 1915, Princess Irene was moored in Saltpan Reach, on the Medway Estuary in Kent, being loaded with mines in preparation for deployment on a another minelaying mission. At 11:14am, she exploded and disintegrated… nearly 70,000kg of high explosive going up. A column of flame 100m high was followed a few seconds later by another of similar height and a pall of smoke hung over the spot where she had been, reaching to 400m. A total of 352 people were killed, including 273 officers and men of the ship’s crew, and 76 dockyard workers who were on board Princess Irene assisting with the loading. On the Isle of Grain, 3km away, a girl of nine was killed by flying debris, and a farmhand died of shock. A collier ship 800m away had its crane blown off its mountings and a part of one of Princess Irene’s boilers weighing over 30kg landed on the ship killing a man who was working on deck.

Wreckage was flung up to 30 km away, with people in Sittingbourne being injured by flying debris. Gruesomely, severed heads were found at Hartlip 12 km away and on the Isle of Grain.

A Court of Inquiry was held into the loss of Princess Irene. Evidence was given that priming of the mines was being carried out hurriedly and by untrained personnel. A faulty primer was blamed for the explosion.

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