Category Archives: Shipwreck

Gone Fishing – Newton-by-the-Sea Past and Present

My recent holiday in Northumberland proved yet again that I can never totally switch off from research. I stayed in a Grade II Listed former fisherman’s cottage in the picturesque coastal village of Low Newton-by-the-Sea (historically known as Newton Seahouses). The cottage in which I stayed, according to Historic England, dates from the 18th century but was remodelled in the mid-19th century [1]. It is one of the whitewashed cottages which border three sides of the village green, owned by the National Trust [2]. The buildings on one side include the historic Ship Inn, parts of which are thought to date back to the 16th-17th century. The fourth side of the square leads directly to the beach and rocks of Newton, or St Mary’s, Haven.

It is a wonderfully relaxing location and the connection with the past is palpable. I felt compelled to delve into the history of the village and as a result discovered that the 19th century incarnation was a far cry from today’s holiday destination. It was a village very much shaped by the sea, and life for its inhabitants was decidedly tough.

Shipwrecks and death at sea were an occupational hazard, both for sailors transporting goods up and down the coast or across the North Sea to the continent, as well as for the locally-based fishermen. The predominant catches of these local fishermen were of turbot, lobster and herrings.

One early incident, reported in the local papers, occurred on 21 June 1833 [3]. William Cuthbertson’s sons William (age 22) and Robert, along with Ralph Archbold (age 19), the son or William Archbold, set off in a boat from Newton Sea Houses to Dunstanburgh Castle to gather sink stones for the brat nets [4].

Dunstanburgh Castle and the Cottages at Low Newton-by-the-Sea – Photo by Jane Roberts

On the return journey a heavy squall caught the sail and capsized the boat which sunk immediately due to the weight of the stones. Robert, who could swim a little, grabbed two of the oars and kept afloat until saved by some fishermen. The other two young men drowned, their bodies found the following day. Their burials on 24 June 1833 are recorded in the parish register of Holy Trinity, Embleton.

Back to the 21st century and hopefully those present-day holidaymakers savouring a thirst-quenching pint of one of the Ship Inn’s microbrewery offerings, or enjoying a delicious locally-sourced meal in the pub (turbot was on the menu for our visit) will not be put off by some of the 19th century activities which took place there. It was a convenient place to hold inquests, including for those whose bodies washed ashore. Some were foreign seafarers.

The Ship Inn – Photo by Jane Roberts

One such Ship Inn inquest took place before George Watson, coroner for North Northumberland, on Wednesday 26 February 1879. The body of 40-year-old Trieste seaman Francesco Carbone was discovered by labourer Thomas Anderson on rocks at Newton that Monday. He was one of the sailors on board the 542 tons Italian barque Stefano Padre, which foundered on the rocks just off Newton-by-the-Sea [5].

The barque, accompanied by a tug, set off from Aberdeen to North Shields in ballast [6] on Saturday 23 February. That night the sea started to get rough, and in the early hours of the following morning the barque struck the rocks. Although the tug managed to get a heaving rope to the vessel, it was unable to pull it free and abandoned the rescue attempt.

An attempt was made to launch the ship’s boat by those on the stricken craft. This ended in failure with most being forced to return to the Stefano Padre, whilst the four men on the front ended up in the sea. One of these did manage to cling on to the ship’s boat. When waves threw it clean on the rocks men from the Volunteer Life Company, comprised of coastguard and fishermen of Newton, managed to drag him to safety.

It was dangerous work with the men continually being washed off their feet. Not only was there the immediate danger of working in treacherous conditions, but the effects of the cold and exposure to the elements in undertaking what could be prolonged rescue efforts wreaked havoc on health. One of the coastguard men, Joseph Whiles, was completely drenched and blinded by the surf. He only reluctantly left the rescue scene after being advised to do so by Dr Magill.

Coastguards Cottages – Photo by Jane Roberts

Repeated attempts were made by the Coastguard to employ rockets to get a line to the barque and eventually this was successful, resulting in the rescue of the captain and six men.

The inquest jury returned a verdict of ‘accidentally drowned’ on Stefano Carbone. The courageous manner in which the coastguard and fishermen of Newton had endeavoured to save the lives of the crew in the face of great personal danger was acknowledged. William Pringle, a fish-curer who represented the fishermen at the inquest, and Mr Williams, the chief coastguard, were asked to inform those involved. The latter stated:

…a better class of men could not be found than those he had under his charge…

William Pringle was subsequently presented with an illuminated testimonial in vellum by the Board of Trade [7].

It seems the Ship Inn did not always sport this name. Though by time of the 1899 publication of the OS six-inch map of the area it was clearly marked as the Ship Inn [8], an earlier edition which was surveyed in 1860 and published in 1866 [9], shows its name as Smack Inn. And curiously, some newspapers reporting a Newton-by-the-Sea inquest in 1861 stated it took place in the Keelboat Inn. This was into the death of 59-year old Claas Foelders from Emden, Captain of the Hanoverian schooner Hortensia.

In stormy weather, heavy seas and thick rain the schooner, which was bound for Newcastle from Hamburg, lost its way in the darkness and struck the North Steel Rocks off Boulmer at around 8pm on the evening of Wednesday 27 March 1861. It being low tide the crew of the Boulmer lifeboat were able to walk out to the Hortensia, boarding at about 8.30pm. However, Foelders, who was described as tipsy, refused to leave. His crew of four also remained – some reports indicated that Foelders forced them to stay. With the tide on the turn, the lifeboat crew left the vessel and returned to shore at 10.30pm. By this time the captain was ‘dead drunk’. The sea quickly rose, the ship was driven further onto the rocks and began filling with water.

Now, in tricky conditions, the lifeboat was forced to launch. Despite all entreaties from his crew and the lifeboatmen, the captain once more obstinately refused to leave the Hortensia, holding on to the rails. With the situation becoming increasingly perilous the lifeboat returned to shore at 12.30 am, this time with the four crew members. The ship broke up entirely in the early hours of the morning of 28 March.

Later that morning, whilst out fishing about two miles off shore, Newton-by-the-Sea fisherman William Carss, and his two sons James and William, found the body of the captain floating head upwards dressed in drawers, stockings and a jacket. 

The inquest, held before the Coroner J. J. Hardy, on 30 March, returned a verdict that Foelders was found drowned. As mentioned some reports state it took place in Mr Jos Blair’s Keelboat Inn, Newton-by-the-Sea [10] and [11]. Others state it was the home of Newton-by-the-Sea innkeeper Mr James Blair [12] and [13].

Looking for alternative local inns, there was the Joiner’s Arms in Newton village (High Newton). Also, according to another OS map [14] there was one other public house in the vicinity, the Fisherman’s Arms. This is now a National Trust holiday cottage called Risemoor. The 1858 Kelly’s Post Office Directory of Northumberland and Durham does not help, its only listing being George Geggie’s Joiner’s Arms. However, the 1861 census was taken only days after the inquest on 7 April, so I checked this out.

There is no Joseph Blair in Newton-by-the-Sea (both the village itself of High Newton and Low Newton/Newton Seahouses). However, at ‘Newton Sea Houses Pub[lic] Ho[use].’ is ‘Fish[erman] and Inn Keeper’ James Blair, wife Hannah and five-year-old son James [15]. This seems to place him right in the square, where the Ship Inn is located. So it appears this was the inn in which the inquest of Claas Foelders took place. Perhaps the newspapers mistakenly called it the Keelboat Inn, or perhaps this briefly was its name. More work is needed to research this, probably more for archives than online, to enable a firm conclusion.

By 1871 [16] James and Hannah had moved in to Newton village itself (High Newton), and his sole occupation was fisherman. Skip forward to 1881 [17] and still in High Newton James now reverted to the dual occupation of fisherman and publican. But tragedy struck on 1 December 1883 when he too was claimed by the sea. He and John Patterson put out to Dunstanburgh haul in their lobster nets. A heavy wave hit their boat washing James and an oar overboard and knocking John over. With only one oar John could not control the boat and his attempts to reach James failed. John lost consciousness but fortunately his boat drifted to shore and he was found. James’ body was not discovered until 18 December on rocks near Dunstanburgh. His inquest the following day, ironically held at the Joiners Arms with which he knew well, returned a verdict of ‘accidentally drowned’ [18]. His son James took over the running of this pub, and is shown here with his family and widowed mother Hannah in the 1891 census [19].

Back to Low Newton, there is a gem of a description of it from a survey conducted by the Alnwick Rural Sanitary Authority which featured in the Alnwick Mercury of 18 October 1873. It paints a wonderful picture of life there in the latter half of the 19th century. It is such an evocative piece I’ve reproduced it in full.

NEWTON SEA HOUSES
This busy little fishing village lies close to the sea in the centre of “St. Mary’s,” or the rocky “Newton Haven.” It consists of fishermen’s cottages, a public house, and stable, forming three sides of a square (the fourth side being open to the haven), a couple of fish curing houses, and a fish curer’s – Mr Pringle’s – old and very damp house, together with coastguardsmen’s houses planted on the hill high above the village. The period of my inspection happened to be just when the herring fishing was coming to a close, and I had good opportunity of observing the peculiar requirements of the inhabitants in their houses and of noting where they were deficient or good. It appears that every fisher has three men to keep, called “Yarmouth men.” With the exception of the houses which are new, all of them consist of one room and a loft formed out of the high tiled roofs. The sleeping accommodation in these in the fishing season is, as one says, “Ourselves and three men have to pig in there,” and another “have to have a bed or two in the garret for the people to lie in that we have.” The interiors are made the most the space admits of, but they nearly all resemble the forecastle on board ship, they are so low, so crowded, so deficient in light, so like cabins and berths, and every sanitary contrivance. They look, indeed, like buildings made out of the materials of wrecks. “The couples [20] of this house is nothing particler, one of them’s broke.” “This is all the comfort poor people have; many nights I have to rise to put dishes to keep the rain coming in.” “It was a kind o’ blockit up, but it’s in very bad repair.” “Little or no back places, not a drain about the place.” “Our coals are piled up at the back of our beds.” “Only one privy for the whole of us, and that at the back door of the public house.” Such is the condition of the houses where there is an addition in the hot season of “three Yarmouth men.” At the present time the dark windowless lofts are being crowded with masts and sails (one for want of room was poked through the tiles), creel nets, covered with fish scales, festoons of bladders highly coloured in stripes and looking like Egyptian necklaces, tarpaulins, blocks, ropes, lanterns, and “all things useable at sea”, for, say the fishermen, “our fishing work gear takes a large garret.” In these cases, however, “the couples being nothing particular,” it is surprising how the things get packed over their heads, and a wonder that the whole loft does not come down upon them with a crash. A much better state of things appears, however, in the provision of these seafarers at the three new houses mentioned. Every careful thought has been bestowed in their erection, especially as to the provision of a large well lighted loft, where “the three Yarmouth men” and “all things useable at sea” can be alternately lodged; but here, alas! there is a deficiency of coal and washing-up places. In one of “these nice new houses” I saw one poor woman “possing”[21] in the pantry to keep, as she said, “the other places rid”; and in another they had secured a bargain of a winter’s supply of coals, and in the absence of a coal house have actually been obliged to pack them from floor to ceiling in the pantry. The central large and open place in front of the three-side square of houses is the common refuse heap, unwalled, and dependent upon the paternal care of Mr Dixon, the farmer tenant, to remove and keep it low. The owner of this property, Mr Mather, has a good opportunity to make this a model little fishing village, by rebuilding the older houses in the manner of the new. He should not, however, forget the provision of coal and washing-up places, and the usual sanitary conveniences. The well-to-do tenants would or should gladly pay a fair per centage on the outlay for the boon of good dwellings suitable to their occupation which they one and all sigh for. The coast guard houses are like all government buildings models of order. Smart with white and black wash, everything taut and in trim, they possess every sanitary contrivance, including the earth closet and commode. Water for all these places has to be brought a considerable distance from an arched cavern below some basalted rocks, which will require the care of your authority. [22] 

The Living Room and View, Unrecognisable from the 19th Century Description of the Cottages – Photo by Jane Roberts

The water supply was a persistent problem; and the village green where visitors now spread out picnic blankets, soak up the sun and smell the tang of the sea was far from a fragrant outside space back in 1873. And the situation had not improved by the start of the following decade as a damning report to the Rural Sanitary Authority on 28 January 1882 by the Alnwick Medical Officer illustrated. It stated:

….a mild case of small pox had appeared at Newton-by-the-Sea, contracted probably from the girl’s father who had just returned from a neighbourhood where the disease existed. Also that a rapidly fatal case of diphtheria had since occurred to a member of the same family in the same house. The house is very unfavourably situated in regard to a large midden ashpit occupying the centre of the village, which is built to form three sides of a square, the end towards the sea being open. The pit is capable of holding about sixty loads, and large accumulations are allowed to take place from which noxious effluvia arises. It was recommended to be paved at [the] bottom and the contents removed weekly [23].

The Square, Low Newton-by-The-Sea – Photo by Jane Roberts

The Low Newton of today would be unrecognisable to those late 19th century inhabitants. So, as you sit by the green sipping your beer, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring sea view and the picturesque cottages (you may even be holidaying in one), remember it was not always thus. And do spare a thought for those men, women and children who lived, worked and died here in centuries past.

Notes:

  • [1] Historic England – Nos 1 and 2 and Garage adjacent to Ship Inn, Newton Seahouses Square: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1041750
  • [2] Report No. 0058/6-09, Historic Environment Survey for the National Trust Properties on the Northumberland Coast, Newton – July 2009: https://www.aenvironment.co.uk/downloads/historic-landscape-characterisation/newton-coast-management-plan.pdf
  • [3] Newcastle Courant – 6 July 1833 and Durham County Advertiser – 12 July 1833.
  • [4] Brat-Nets was the name given in Northumberland for fixed drift-nets which hung in slack folds in order to entangle and strangle turbot. Brat was the local name for turbot
  • [5] Alnwick Mercury – 1 March 1879, Newcastle Courant – 28 February 1879, Shields Daily News – 28 February 1879 and Shields Daily Gazette – 2 December 1904
  • [6] Having no cargo, but carrying ballast for stability
  • [7] The Berwick Advertiser – 5 November 1880
  • [8] OS Six-Inch Map, Northumberland XXII.SE, Revised 1896, Published 1899
  • [9] OS Six-Inch Map, Northumberland XXII, Surveyed 1860, Published 1866
  • [10] Newcastle Journal – 3 April 1861
  • [11] Morpeth Herald – 6 April 1861
  • [12] Newcastle Daily Chronicle – 2 April 1861
  • [13] Newcastle Courant – 5 April 1861
  • [14] OS Six-Inch Map, Northumberland XXVII, Surveyed 1861, Published 1867
  • [15] 1861 Census England & Wales, Newton-by-the-Sea, RG09/13881/60/13
  • [16] 1871 Census England & Wales, Newton-by-the-Sea, RG10/5176/56/3
  • [17] 1881 Census England & Wales, Newton-by-the-Sea, RG11/5125/60/7
  • [18] Alnwick Mercury – 8 and 22 December 1883
  • [19] 1891 Census England & Wales, Newton-by-the-Sea, RG12/4265/127/4
  • [20] Rafters (pair of)
  • [21] A northern term for washing clothes by agitating them with a long pole or rod. Pounding of washing.
  • [22] Alnwick Mercury – 18 October 1873
  • [23] Alnwick Mercury – 4 February 1882

Additional Sources:

  • Aflalo, F. G. The Sea-Fishing Industry of England and Wales: A Popular Account of the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Ports of Those Countries. London, 1904.
  • Post Office Directory of Northumberland and Durham: With Map Engraved Expressly for the Work, and Corrected to the Time of Publication. London: Kelly and, 1858.

I did find some 19th century images but due to copyright doubts I’ve not reproduced them.

The Confessions of a Blogger: Review of 2018

I’ll start with an admission: My 2018 blogging year was not as prolific as usual. In fact it was nowhere near the efforts of previous years. But I’m far from downhearted. In fact I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope you have too.

Here are the details.

The Statistics. My blog saw a noticeable decline in output, with 25 posts during the year, down from 33 in 2017 and in excess of 60 in 2016. This was entirely due to other commitments such as completing my genealogy studies and publishing a book. Neither was it unexpected – I did forecast this in my 2017 blogging review post. And it is pretty much in line with what I promised: two posts a month.

However onto the positives. Despite the downturn in posts, my blog has grown from strength to strength numerically. Views increased from 20,649 in 2017 to well in excess of 21,000 in 2018. Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read my random family and local history outpourings.

My blog has now well and truly developed its character with core themes of my family history, interspersed with local history tales from Yorkshire, alongside news from – and my musings on – the genealogy world’s latest developments.

Most Popular Times? Monday proved my most popular blogging day, with 21% of views. And my golden hour shifted to the slightly earlier time of 6 pm. I suspect this shift is as much a result my blog posting times as anything more profound.

How Did They Find You? Search Engines took over as the key engagement route accounting for around 7,000 views.

Where Did They Come From? The global reach of WordPress never fails to amaze me. Going on for 100 countries are represented in my list of views. The UK accounted for well over 10,000 of these which was almost double the number of my next most popular country, the United States. Australia came third with over 1,000. But all corners of the globe feature with readers extending to Cambodia, Tonga, Peru and Tunisia. A huge thank you to you all! You’re what makes it worthwhile researching and writing these posts.

And it’s fantastic to receive so many comments either indirectly via Facebook and Twitter, or directly on my blog site. They’ve added new information, context and connections. Thank you for getting in touch.

Top Five Posts of 2018: Other than general home pages, archives and my ‘about’ page, these were:

General Register Office (GRO) Index – New & Free. This was actually posted in 2016 but, as in 2017, it continued to perform well in 2018 . This post was about a new free source for searching the GRO birth and death indexes (note not marriages) for certain years, one which gives additional search options. It also covered the initial £6 PDF trial, an alternative and cheaper source than buying a birth or death certificate. Note the PDF option, a copy of the register entry rather than a certificate, still continues. However the cost will rise to £7 on 16 February 2019. The cost of a certificate increases from £9.25 to £11.

Living DNA: I’m Not Who I Thought I Was. This was another 2017 post which continued to prove popular. It is testimony to the importance with which genetic genealogy is now seen. lt dealt with my shocking DNA results. I’m 100% from Great Britain and Ireland. No drama there. But it indicated that I’m not entirely the Yorkshire lass I thought – the ethnicity pointed to some genetic material from the dark side of the Pennines. I reckon this could be linked to a potential 5x great grandmother from Colne. I really do need to push on with my Abraham Marshall New Year’s Resolution.

Cold Case: The Huddersfield Tub Murder. Yet another 2017 offering, and in last year’s “one that got away” category as being one of my favourite posts which failed to reach the Top 5 that year. Well it proved immensely popular in 2018. It dealt with the unsolved murder in Huddersfield of a Dewsbury woman of ‘ill-repute’ whose tragic life and abusive relationships ultimately resulted in her death.

“Historical Vandalism” as more Archive Services Come Under Threat. Published in December 2018 its appearance in the Top 5 for the year shows the importance with which any threat to these vital services are seen. It covered some recent swingeing funding cuts to archives and corresponding proposed (and actual) major reductions to these services across the country. Some of the consultations, Surrey (4 January 2019) and Kent (29 January 2019), close imminently. So I would urge you to have your say.

Tripe Tales – Food Nostalgia. My childhood memories of food led me to focus on this particular northern ‘delicacy’, which was very popular when I was growing up. It covered some early 20th century local tripe stories including theft, death and prodigious eating feats, as well as recipes to try. I was also inundated via social media with suggestions of where I could still buy it. I’ve yet to confront once more this culinary challenge.

So yet again this was a mixed bag of popular posts, ranging from topical family history issues, to DNA and general history and local history tales – which sums up my blog perfectly.

The Ones that Got Away: These are a few of my favourite posts which didn’t make the top five:

Fur Coats Can Prevent Flu – The 1918/19 Pandemic looked at how to use various information sources to build up a picture of the impact of the Spanish Flu “plague” on local communities. In my example I focused on Batley.

How the Western Front Association WW1 Pension Ledgers May Have Solved another Family History Mystery. I used this newly available online record source to prove a family tale and discover more about my great uncle.

Irish DNA Breakthrough and Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue covered how DNA led to the demolition of one of my family history brick walls and helped me find out more about two of my Irish grandpa’s sisters who emigrated to the United States.

A Family Historian on Holiday: A Whitby Cemetery and WW1 Shipwreck was about the sinking of the Hospital Ship Rohilla off the Whitby coast in 1914. With links to the Titanic, heroic rescue attempts and a disputed will it illustrates how a family and local historian is never off duty, even on holiday!

Finally there was Published: The Greatest Sacrifice – Fallen Heroes of The Northern Union. This marked my greatest achievement of 2018 and the culmination of around two years’ work, the publication of my book co-authored with husband Chris. It has been described as the definitive book about those Rugby League players who fell in the Great War.

What Does 2019 Promise? Well, as in 2018, I aim to do two posts a month. These will be on the same type of themes as usual – family and local history tales, plus topical genealogy offerings when anything big hits the headlines. I will also be including some Aveyard One-Name Study stories.

I anticipate my major challenge this coming year, as ever, will be time. I also have the added concern of keeping things fresh and relevant. I now have two other writing roles to add to my blog. At the end of 2018 I took on the role of editor as the Huddersfield and District Family History Society quarterly Journal, the first edition of which came out in January. And I now write a regular family history column in Yorkshire nostalgia magazine “Down Your Way.” So clearly I want to ensure my blog posts are separate and distinct from my other writing commitments. However, my head is buzzing with ideas so I don’t think that will be too much of a creative dilemma.

But whatever direction my blogging year takes, thank you for reading, engaging and supporting.

Wishing you a happy, peaceful 2019 filled with family history fun!

The Rohilla Privileged Will Dispute

What may seem a straightforward document can be far more contentious than first appearances suggest. This proved the case with the will of a man who perished in the wreck of the Hospital Ship Rohilla in October 1914. It led to the High Court.

William Edward Anderson was one of the 15 Barnoldswick St John Ambulance Brigade men on board, serving as part of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve. Only three of these men came home.

Born in the then West Yorkshire town on 11 February 1891, he was the eldest child of Carleton-born cotton weaver Ralph Anderson and his wife Jane Elizabeth Wakefield, originally from Coventry. The couple married on 18 October 1890 in the parish church of St Mary le Gill, Barnoldswick. Their other children included Sarah, Walter, Florrie, George, Mary Ann and Ernest. An eighth child, Jane, died in 1905 aged three.

Like his father, William became a cotton weaver, cotton being the town’s predominant industry. His naval records describe him as being 5’6″ with light brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion.

William Edward Anderson

William was engaged to Edith Eliza Priscilla Downes. The daughter of joiner and builder James Downes and his wife Elizabeth, she was born on 22 July 1891 at Morton Banks near Keighley, and baptised St Mary’s Church, Riddlesden in September that year. The family address in the baptismal register was given as Barley-Cote, Riddlesden. Sometime between the 1901 and 1911 censuses the Downes family moved to Barnoldswick. In the latter census they were living at Gisburn Street and Edith had employment as a cotton spinner.

On 2 August 1914 John William Thompson, superintendent of the Barnoldswick Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade, received a telegram ordering the mobilisation of men, including William, in advance of any war declaration. The Brigade was a voluntary movement which the Army and Navy used as a recruitment source. It’s members knew they were liable to be called up for military service. Thompson contacted William and told him to hold himself in readiness. He was ordered to catch the 3 August 12.08pm train from Barnoldswick to Chatham.

3 August was Bank Holiday Monday. That morning, after finishing packing his kit at his family home alongside Edith, he made a soldier’s will leaving everything to his fiancée. He placed the will in an envelope with instructions for it to be opened one month after his death. He wanted Edith to take it for safe-keeping but she refused so he put it in a drawer saying to Edith “No one knows where this is, only you.” The will was made at 11am, just over an hour before his departure. Once he left Edith never saw him again.

William’s naval record shows him as a Senior Reserve Attendant, under Service Number M/10066, assigned to Pembroke I from 2 – 17 August 1914. This was the shore-based Royal Naval barracks at Chatham. From 18 August 1914 he was with the Rohilla. When she struck the rocks off Saltwick Nab it appears he was one of those who made it to the bridge, but subsequently lost his life attempting to swim to shore. His body was never recovered. He is commemorated in a number of locations including on the Chatham Naval Memorial, the Rohilla Memorial in Whitby’s Larpool Cemetery and on the Barnoldswick War Memorial.

His naval record includes the notation:

Papers dealing with an action in the High Court relating to this man’s will.

The case of Anderson v Downes was heard in the Probate Court in January 1916 before Mr Justice Bargrave Deane. The plaintiff Ralph Anderson, represented by Mr W.O. Willis, claimed his son had died intestate and he sought administration, being next-of-kin and heir-at-law. The defendant Miss Edith Downes, represented by Mr Pridham-Wippell and Mr Acton Pile denied this and counter-claimed William had made his last true will on 3 August 1914, it being made in accordance with the Section 11 of the 1837 Statute, namely William had been actively engaged in the service of the Crown on military and/or naval duties. In response Ralph claimed the will had not been executed according to the Statute.

Edith Downes

Those serving in the military had, for centuries, held a unique position in Probate law being entitled to make what was known as a Privileged Will. In 1914, Section 11 of the Wills Act 1837 specifically stated “that any soldier being in actual military service, or any mariner or seaman at sea, may dispose of his personal estate” without restrictions applicable to other wills. It meant they could dispose moveable goods, money, credits and leases without the restrictions which normally applied – the testator could be under 21, there was no need for witnesses to attest, for the testator’s signature, or even for it to be in writing. These privileges were conferred because of the unique nature of their employment. They could face the imminent danger if death; also because they were on service they may not have the same access to legal services as a civilian so would have less opportunity to make a properly executed will; and minors served in the armed forces.

The case of Anderson v Downes honed in on the key phrase “any mariner or seaman at sea.” Mr Mynett, supervising assistant clerk at the Admiralty was called to provide clarity. He produced William’s original engagement setting out he was to serve in the Navy for one year from 2 August 1914. He also had the original contract William made with the St John Ambulance. It was signed on 17 October 1914, but backdated to 2 August. Therefore it was dated from his mobilisation and covered his time at HMS Pembroke, the name by which the Admiralty recognised Chatham Barracks.

Staff-Surgeon Stewart RN also gave evidence stating when William arrived at Chatham he would be a naval rating, liable to serve from mobilisation for a period not exceeding one year, and he would be subject to the Naval Discipline Act for the year from 2 August 1914. Effectively he was on active service from the date of the mobilisation order. Under cross-examination he said William was qualified to serve when he left home.

A third Admiralty official, acting superintendent clerk Mr Drake, confirmed William was payed be the Admiralty from 2 August 1914.

Mr Willis held firm with his view that for the will to be valid in accordance with the Act, William needed to be at sea when he made it. Nothing else mattered. Mr Prichard-Wimpell differed in his view – he asserted that soldiers and sailors were treated in the same way in time of war for which mobilisation had taken place.

In summing up Mr Justice Bargrave Deane disagreed – the Act was not the same for soldiers and sailors. The will would have been perfectly good if made at sea. However he could not say in this case that William ever went to sea until he joined the Rohilla. He certainly had not joined any ship when he made the will. Whilst Mr Justice Bargrave Deane felt there was no doubt William’s wishes were that his sweetheart should have his money, regretfully the will did not hold good in law. In effect he died intestate and Administration was granted to William’s father. However the Judge decreed the costs of both parties should come out of the estate.

The entry in the National Probate Calendar for 1916 reads:

Anderson William Edward of 20 School-terrace Damhead-
road Barnoldswick Yorkshire died 30 October 1914 at sea
on H.M. Hospital Ship Rohilla Administration London 18
March to Ralph Anderson factory operative.
Effects £245 5s. 10d.

Interestingly, due to the sharp focus of war and the subtle changes in types of military service this brought, in February 1918 the law changed with the Wills (Soldiers and Sailors) Act 1918. It affirmed that:

“In order to remove doubts as to the construction of the Wills Act 1837, it is hereby declared and enacted that section eleven of that Act authorises and always has authorised any soldier being in actual military service, or any mariner or seaman being at sea, to dispose of his personal estate as he might have done before the passing of that Act, though under the age of 21”

Furthermore, the ability to make privileged will was judged to extend to any member of His Majesty’s naval or marine forces not only when he is at sea but also when he is so circumstanced that if he were a soldier he would be in actual military service within the meaning of that section. The Act was also extended to cover real estate, that is lands and buildings. And soldier included any member of the Air Force.

So what became of Ralph and Edith, the protagonists in this case? Ralph’s death, aged 62, is recorded in the Skipton Registration District (which covered Barnoldswick in this period) in the March Quarter of 1929. Edith’s marriage to Harry Whiteley is recorded in the Huddersfield Registration District. The 1939 Register shows the family living in the Colne Valley village of Linthwaite. She lived well into her 80s.

If you want to know more about the Rohilla sinking, please see my earlier blog post, here.

Sources:

  • 1939 Register – via FindMyPast
  • 1891-1911 Censuses – via Ancestry.co.uk and FindMyPast
  • Burnley Express and Advertiser – 4 November 1914 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley Express and Advertiser – 22 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley News – 4 November 1914 via FindMyPast
  • Burnley News – 22 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commissionhttps://www.cwgc.org/
  • Craven Herald – 6 November 1914, transcript via Craven’s Part in the Great War http://www.cpgw.org.uk/
  • Craven Herald – 21 January 1916, transcript via Craven’s Part in the Great War http://www.cpgw.org.uk/
  • GRO Indexes – via FindMyPast
  • Lancashire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1936 via Ancestry.co.uk (originals at Lancashire Archives)
  • Leeds Mercury – 21 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • National Probate Calendar – via FindMyPast
  • Privileged Wills: A Timely Reminder – Christopher Parker takes an in-depth look at the history of privileged wills and also reviews application of the law by C20th courts (taken from Issue No 21  – October 2002) http://www.tact.uk.net/review-index/privileged-wills-a-timely-reminder/
  • The Globe – 20 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • The Times – 21 January 1916 via The Times Digital Archive
  • The National Archives (TNA) Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services; Class: ADM 188; Piece: 1038 – via Ancestry.co.uk
  • TNA UK Royal Navy and Royal Marine War Graves Roll, 1914-1919 Class : ADM 242/7; Scan Number: 0082 – via Ancestry.co.uk
  • The Wills of our Ancestors – A Guide for Family & Local Historians – Stuart Raymond
  • Wills Acts of 1837 and 1918
  • Wills and Probate Records – A Guide for Family Historians 2nd Edition – Karen Grannum & Nigel Taylor
  • Yorkshire Evening Post – 20 January 1916 via FindMyPast
  • West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 via Ancestry.co.uk (originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England)

A Family Historian on Holiday: A Whitby Cemetery and WW1 Shipwreck

What does a family historian with an obsession with the Great War and local history do on holiday? Take a break isn’t the answer, as my recent Whitby visit illustrates.

I’ve no Whitby ancestry to hunt, so I didn’t intend doing anything history-related other than a few evenings working on my neglected One-Name Study. But a walk to Saltwick Bay put a halt to that. A scramble down the steep and unforgiving cliff path to the isolated beach and I was hooked. Apparently there is the wreck of a trawler, the Admiral Von Tromp. However the tide was too high for it to be visible, so I decided to revisit at low tide.

Before returning I decided to pinpoint the wreck location. In doing so I discovered it wasn’t the only shipwreck on that stretch of coastline: at around 4.10am on 30 October 1914 the Hospital Ship Rohilla ran aground on an area of rocks by Saltwick Nab with 229 people on board. That was it. I had to find out more.

The Scar and Saltwick Nab – photo by Jane Roberts

The SS Rohilla, launched in 1906, was owned by the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. Initially a passenger liner operating to India, by 1908 she was working as a troopship. Throughout, she was captained by David Landles Neilson, and he continued in post when, in August 1914, she was requisitioned by the government and converted to a hospital ship. Later that month she was on her way to the Scapa Flow to complete training in her new role. One of HMHS Rohilla’s first patients was Prince Albert, who developed appendicitis whilst on board the HMS Collingwood. At the end of the month the future King George VI was safely transported, along with around 43 other ill servicemen, to Aberdeen where he successfully underwent an appendectomy the following month.

Training complete, on Thursday 29 October 1914 the Rohilla left Leith on the Firth of Forth in late afternoon good weather tasked with her first France and Flanders hospital run, to pick up wounded soldiers from Dunkirk. Captain Neilson had to contend with an unfamiliar route and the threat of mines, using dead reckoning techniques because of the wartime restrictions around usual navigational aids: so no lighthouses, buoy lights and sounds, shore lights etc. As they reached St Abb’s Head, north of Berwick upon Tweed, the weather began to deteriorate. They passed the hazardous Farne Islands Longstones at a distance of seven miles according to the dead reckoning calculations. The ship’s course was altered at just after 10pm to clear minefields, and again at 1.50am. Depth soundings were taken at midnight showing the Rohilla was still on course. The next set were not taken until 4am, by which time the impending catastrophe was unfolding before the eyes of Albert James Jeffries in the Whitby Coastguard Station.

Coastline from Whitby to Saltwick Nab OS six inch to the mile, 1910-1911, Published 1919 – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

It was filthy weather with squally rain, the wind ranging between near gale to strong gale and a heavy sea when, at around 3-40am on Friday 30 October Jeffries saw the Rohilla. He realised she was heading for the rocks near Saltwick Nab, with no alert from the buoy bell muffled due to war, and no lights to warn her. He tried to contact her via the Morse Lamp and sounded the foghorn, but received no reply.

Back on board the Rohilla, the Morse had been seen but not decoded, the assumption being made that it was from another ship as those on board still thought they were way out at sea. The 4am sounding revealed the ship was far nearer shore than thought, but before anything could be fully reported to Captain Neilson and acted upon, there was an almighty shock as the ship struck something. Officers afterwards reported a lifting sensation, and Captain Neilson’s automatic response was “Mine, by God”. He immediately ordered the vessel to be driven full speed towards shore in a bid to get closer to land and rescuers. She ran aground on the Scar rocks by Saltwick Nab at around 4.10am. She was stuck only 500 or so yards away from the shore.Despite the Rohilla’s proximity to land, the severe weather conspired against the would-be rescuers, whose heroic attempts to save those stranded on board spanned three days and over 50 hours. Some of these efforts were captured on film. The dramatic British Pathé footage can be viewed here. The aftermath is shown in British Film Institute footage here.

Only one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats was launchable but, due to conditions, it proved impossible for her to bring a line ashore. Neither could the shore-based rocket brigades establish a viable line to the ship, thus ending any hope of setting up a breeches buoy by which to bring those aboard to safety one-by-one.

Rescue by Breeches Buoy, Popular Science Monthly Volume 15, 1879 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

So what about shore-based lifeboats? This was still an era predominated by the rowing-boat lifeboat. Petrol-powered motor vessels only just started to make an appearance from 1905. Six lifeboats tried valiantly to battle the elements in what Coxswain Langlands of the Whitby Lifeboat described as the hardest job he’d experienced in almost 40 years’ service. It was impossible to launch the heavier Number 1 Whitby Lifeboat, the Robert and Mary Ellis, due to the severity of the weather. That left the lighter Number 2 boat, the John Fielden. Again the weather meant it could not be rowed out of the harbour, so an alternative plan was successfully undertaken to lift and lower the craft over the breakwater, carry her under the East Pier Spa ladder and then drag her across the Scar, the rocks which run from Whitby to Saltwick Nab.

John Fielden rescue attempt on 30 October 1914

She was badly damaged in the process, but still managed two trips to the Rohilla rescuing 35 people before it was decided conditions were no longer safe and she was abandoned on shore to be smashed to pieces by the ferocious storm, no longer seaworthy.

Whitby Lifeboat Museum Rohilla Exhibition – by Jane Roberts

Amongst the first batch of those rescued were the five women aboard the ship: four nurses and the stewardess. The Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Services (QARRNS) nurses were 38-year-old Margaret Muriel Benington who had been a QARNNS nursing sister since June 1910; Mary Barbara Bennet, from Glass in Aberdeenshire, age 36, who joined as nursing sister in November 1910; Margaret Brand Paterson, age 34 whose seniority date as a nursing sister was 1 August 1911. She was known as Daisy and from Terrona, Langholm in Dumfriesshire; and Devon-born vicar’s daughter Mary Louisa Hocking, age 26, who joined as a probationary nursing sister in December 1913, who was only promoted to nursing sister in June 1914. The older three joined the Rohilla on 18 August 1914, whereas Mary Louisa only joined the ship on 23 October. Letters from two of the nurses appeared in the Whitby Gazette on 13 November 1914, and give a flavour of the help they received. These are as follows:

Muriel Benington: Dear Sir, Please allow me to thank through you, all the people of Whitby who did so much for me and the other survivors of the wreck of the Rohilla. I simply cannot express my gratitude for the kindness which was shown to us from beginning to end by everyone with whom we came in contact. I shall write to thank specially some of the ladies who supplied us with clothes and other things, but I do not know the names of the men who helped me along the shore, or of many who did things for me. Again thanking you for the help and sympathy of your townspeople.

And:

Mary B Bennet: Dear Sir, I shall be so glad if you will express my thanks and gratitude to the crew of the Whitby lifeboat. We sisters realise that they endangered their own lives to save ours, and we cannot be thankful enough to them for the excellent work they did. May I also thank you for the trouble you took over us? It was marvellous the prompt way in which we were fitted out with clothes. I shall never forget he kindness of the Whitby people during our short time there.

After their ordeal the nurses were granted 14 days leave, with Mary Hocking given an extension of seven days. The admirable conduct of all four was acknowledged. Sister Bennet received the Royal Red Cross, the decoration awarded to ladies for exceptional services in nursing the sick and wounded in the army and navy. She received her award from the King at Buckingham Palace in May 1915. That was not the only award she received in her nursing career. In 1920 she was presented with the O.B.E. by the Governor of Hong Kong.

Sister Mary Barbara Bennet

Of the others, Sister Paterson was granted the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1918 (by this stage the decoration could be either 1st or 2nd class) in part for her Rohilla efforts; and Sister Hocking was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1919.

The fifth woman was stewardess Mary Kezia Roberts. This was not her first shipwreck. In April 1912 she was one of those saved from the Titanic. She described her Rohilla experience as even more trying than when the great liner went down. Her trunk, which would have contained her belongings on the Rohilla, was discovered recently on eBay and is now on display at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) museum at Whitby. The museum is housed in Whitby’s former Number 2 lifeboat station.

Mary Kezia Roberts’ Trunk at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

In addition to the Whitby lifeboats, ones from other North East coast stations were asked to assist. In an echo of the John Fielden efforts, the Upgang lifeboat, the William Riley, over a mile away from Whitby, was brought overland and lowered more than 200 feet down the sheer cliffs on Friday afternoon. However, the ferocity of the weather prevented any launch until Saturday. Even then the weather was such that the rescue was aborted. The Scarborough lifeboat, towed by trawler to the vicinity, was similarly unable to get anywhere near. A trawler also assisted the Robert and Mary Ellis out of Whitby Harbour and to the wreck, but she too was unable to get close enough to affect a rescue. These were all rowing lifeboats.

Help from a couple of motor lifeboats further north was also sought. The Tees-mouth lifeboat, the Bradford, was prepared to set off on Friday, but the weather prevented her launch. She finally set off at around 7am on Saturday morning but broke down in the severe weather off the coast at Redcar shortly after departing her South Gare base. She had to be towed back to port by a fortuitously accompanying tug. That left the Tynemouth motor lifeboat, the Henry Vernon. She put to sea during the late afternoon of Saturday 31 October, arriving in Whitby around nine hours later. With a mind to safety, her rescue attempt was scheduled for daylight.

Throughout these various rescue attempts townsfolk were helping from shore, going into the freezing, swirling sea to assist the lifeboat crews and any survivors fortunate to be saved by them, or those souls attempting to swim from the stricken vessel. That Friday morning they had witnessed the horrific site of the stern breaking away from the Rohilla and disappearing under the waves, men still visible on it – some even strapped to the structure. This was followed by the bows being similarly swallowed by the merciless sea, leaving just the bridge section above water. By now bodies were washing ashore.

Hospital Ship Rohilla grounded at Whitby, Popular Mechanics Magazine January 1915 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

As time wore on conditions were becoming desperate for those left on what remained of the Rohilla, exposed to the elements with no food or water, and no immediate prospect of rescue. On Saturday morning, as the tide ebbed, Captain Neilson semaphored to prepare for swimmers. Men jumped – some made it, others were swept away and dashed on rocks. Makeshift rafts were also fashioned and men lashed themselves to them. By the evening of 1 November, 50 men remained on-board awaiting their fate. With the impending arrival of the Henry Vernon the signal went to them to hold fast, help was at hand.

At around 6.30am on Sunday 1 November the Henry Vernon, captained by 50-year-old Royal Engineer Herbert Edgar ‘Bert’ Burton, left Whitby harbour. As she approached the wreck she discharged oil on the swirling waves. It had the desired effect, temporarily calming the waters enabling the rescue of all 50 men in one journey. The last man off the Rohilla was its Captain, carrying the ship’s black cat, an action for which he was later awarded the Bronze Medal by the RSPCA. They returned to the haven of Whitby, wet, battered, bleeding, exhausted, bare-footed, ill-clad, some still in pyjamas given the timing of the wreck, but safe at last. In all they had endured over 50 hours of hell. The crew of the Henry Vernon returned home to a heroes’ welcome.

The inquest on the initial bodies of the victims concluded on 5 November 1914. As published in the Whitby Gazette the following day, the unanimous verdict of the jury was that:

“…..the steamship Rohilla undoubtedly struck something a little time before she grounded on the rock at Saltwick, and they think that in the stormy weather which prevailed, and in the absence of lights and all usual safeguards, and in view of the special risks of navigation in the North Sea since the war, the master navigated the ship with all reasonable care, and is entirely free from blame for her loss.”

Given the comparative ease with which the Henry Vernon completed the rescue, the inquest jury also recommended strongly that a motor-lifeboat be provided for Whitby. The Margaret Harker Smith was launched in June 1919.

The logical next step for me was to visit Whitby (Larpool) cemetery. What holiday for a family historian doesn’t include a sneaky cemetery visit? The ‘Rohilla Plot’ is a trench grave in which 33 victims, 19 of whom are unidentified, are buried.

One side of the ‘Rohilla Plot’ at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

At the centre of the trench is the Memorial. Erected by the ship owners, it is dedicated to the 91 officers and men who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Rohilla Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

Rohila Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

There is actually some confusion around the total number lost on the wreck. It seems to range between 83 to 92. The Rohilla Monument lists 91 but the actual number of names on it total 92. The final name etched in the Monument image above is that of F. Randell. Frederick Randell (or Randall) was a coastguard boatman based at H.M. Coastguard Station, Whitby who was killed whilst on duty during the German Naval bombardment of the town on 16 December 1914. He too is buried in the ‘Rohilla Plot’. I have covered the naval bombardment in a couple of other blog posts. Shrapnel and Shelletta looks at war-associated baby names, including George Shrapnel Griffin born during the bombardment of Whitby. The events of 16 December 1914 are covered in more detail in another post as they prompted my great grandfather to lie about his age and enlist on my grandma’s 8th birthday.

’92 LIVES LOST’ is also etched into the ship’s bell from the Rohilla which is on display at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum.

Rohilla Ship’s Bell at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

The loss impacted on communities from all corners of Britain. The then West Riding of Yorkshire (now Lancashire) town of Barnoldswick was particularly hard hit. 15 members of the Barnoldswick St John’s Ambulance Brigade were members of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve on board the vessel. Only three survived. Amongst the dead were brothers Thomas and Walter Horsfield.

One name which struck me on the Rohilla monument was that of a Catholic priest. The Very Rev. Canon Robert Basil Gwydir O.S.B. was born on 20 January 1867 in County Longford, but of a family with Welsh origins. Educated at Douai and ordained in 1891 he began his ministry at St Augustine’s, Liverpool before transferring to St David’s, Swansea. There he was prominent in religious, social and educational circles in the city. His work included being a member of the old Swansea School Board and the Board of Managers at Swansea General Hospital. He had also been admitted to the circle of Welsh Bards.

Canon Gwydir volunteered for service with the Fleet at the outbreak of war and was appointed to the Rohilla only a short time before the disaster. When she struck the rocks he ran below deck, towards danger but also to the assistance of the only patient aboard the vessel, a naval gunner with a fractured thigh. This was in the stern portion of the ship which was soon overwhelmed by the sea and subsequently broke off. Canon Gwydir’s body was washed ashore and recovered, being one of those identified in the initial inquest. He is buried at Belmont Abbey Churchyard, Herefordshire. There is a stained glass memorial window dedicated to him at St David’s Priory Catholic Church, Swansea. He was the first Chaplain of any faith or denomination in all the Allied services to be killed in the Great War.

My final visit on the Rohilla trail was the RNLI museum at Whitby. I was thrilled to discover an exhibition devoted to shipwreck and rescue. As mentioned earlier, exhibits included Mary Kezia Roberts’ trunk and the ship’s bell. But there were so many other artefacts and lots of information about those involved, including the incredibly brave lifeboat men whose efforts I have not done justice to in this post. The pair of oars (below) are from one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats. The museum is well wort a visit, and rounded off my Whitby holiday perfectly.

Part of the Rohilla Exhibition at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

For far more information about the Rohilla than I can convey here, this is a link to an excellent website devoted to its history.

Sources:

  • Benedictine Military Chaplains in the First World War – James H. Hagerty: http://www.monlib.org.uk/papers/ebch/1998hagerty.pdf
  • British Film Institute: http://www.bfi.org.uk/
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission: https://www.cwgc.org/
  • Craven’s Part in the Great War, John T Clayton, 1918 – e-book via Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52157
  • HMHS Rohilla Website: http://www.eskside.co.uk/ss_rohilla/index.htm
  • Ireland Civil Birth Indexes via FindMyPast
  • Ireland’s Own, Canon Gwydir – A Heroic Cleric of WW1, Margaret Smith https://www.irelandsown.ie/canon-gwydir-a-heroic-cleric-of-wwi/
  • National Library of Scotland Maps: https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • Newspapers via FindMyPast including: Burnley News 4 November 1914; Daily Record 31 August 1915; Dundee Evening Telegraph7 May 1915; Leeds Mercury 31 October 1914, 2 November 1913; Sheffield Daily Telegraph26 June 1919; Western Mail 7 May 1915; Whitby Gazette 6 and 13 November 1914; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 31 October 1914, 2 November 1914, 4 November 1914, 5 November 1914
  • RNLI, 1914-1918 The Great Warhttp://www.eskside.co.uk/ss_rohilla/rohilla_history.htm 
  • RNLI, Whitby Lifeboat Station, Station History: https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/lifeboat-stations/whitby-lifeboat-station/station-history-whitby
  • Teesmouth Lifeboat Supporters Association – History: http://www.teesmouthlifeboat.org.uk/html/history.html
  • The National Archives Reference ADM 104/161 Nursing Service Register 1894-1929
  • The Tablet 7 November 1914 via the Tablet Archive: http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/
  • The War on Hospital Ships 1914-1918, Pen and Sword Maritime 2008: Stephen McGreal
  • Whitby Lifeboat Museum https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/museums/whitby-lifeboat-museum
  • Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
  • Redcar.org past and present – People, Thompson James, Tees-Mouth Lifeboat http://www.redcar.org/thompson-james-tees-mouth-lifeboat/