Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Cornwall in the First World War

Today I’m pleased to feature a guest post written by Anne Chapman, who lives in Gorran Haven.  Many thanks for the piece, Anne. 

In Memory of Henry Chapman

On 26th November 1914 the UK suffered its second worst loss of life due to an explosion at sea, when HMS Bulwark was destroyed off the coast of Kent. The final death toll was 738 men, and this is the story of one of them ... my Great Grandfather Henry Chapman. He’s pictured above, with his wife Elizabeth.

Henry was born on 6th October 1869 in Higham, Strood, Kent, the son of Charles and Mahala Chapman. He had at least eight brothers and sisters. His family had been farmers in Kent and Sussex for many years, but Henry chose another path.

He became a coastguard and this profession led him to Gorran, Cornwall, where in 1896 he married Elizabeth Ann Lewarn Liddicoat. The Liddicoats are an old Gorran family; their roots there go back at least 200 years.

Henry’s career took the couple from Gorran to Kingswear, Devon, then to Charmouth in Dorset and finally to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. In each place they lived in coastguard cottages, some of which remain standing today.  As they moved around the country, the family grew. Henry and Elizabeth had eight children; Florence Eleanor, Mary Mahala, Ruby Audrey, George Henry, William Charles, Elsie May, Percy John and Charles Leslie.  Mary and Ruby sadly died young.

When war was declared in August 1914 Henry joined the Navy as a Petty Officer Stoker (Coastguard), number 147160, and embarked in HMS Bulwark along with many reservists from the Portsmouth area. His family left the Isle of Wight and moved back to Cornwall, where they lived at 2, Ledrah Villas, Ledrah Road, St Austell. Henry was 45 when he died and his youngest child was only two. 

Elizabeth remained in St Austell and raised her family there alone, under what was undoubtedly great hardship. They lived on St Austell’s west side, initially in Ledrah Road and later in the Gover Valley. Henry and Elizabeth’s surviving children prospered and many of their descendants can be found in the St Austell area today. Surnames of family members include Chapman, Giltjes-Vincent, Giltjes, Raymond, Bennett, Williams, Casson, Wellington, Webb, Evely, Kingdom, Laville, and Arrowsmith.

HMS Bulwark had a short career. One of three “London” class battleships, built in Devonport in 1902, amongst others she was commanded by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who later explored the Antarctic.  At the outbreak of War she joined the Channel Fleet, and early in November 1914 became the location for the court martial of a senior Naval Officer. 

On the morning of the disaster Bulwark was moored off Sheerness in the River Medway estuary and most of the crew were below decks at breakfast, hence the large loss of life. The huge explosion was felt in buildings on the Essex coast, and the sailors’ personal effects were later found scattered across the Kent countryside.

That afternoon the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, said in the House of Commons: “I regret to say that I have some bad news for the House.  The Bulwark battleship, which was lying in Sheerness this morning, blew up at 7.53 am. The Vice and Rear Admirals who were present have reported their conviction that it was an internal magazine explosion, which rent the ship asunder. The ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke cleared away.”

“The loss of the ship does not sensibly affect the military position, but I regret to say that the loss of life is very severe. Only twelve men were saved, and all the officers and rest of the crew, which, I suppose amounted to between 700 and 800 persons, have perished. I think the House would wish me to express on its behalf the deep sympathy and sorrow with which the House heard the news, and the sympathy it feels with those who have lost their relatives and friends.”

The subsequent enquiry found the explosion had been caused by the overheating of charges, which then set off the ammunition stored in the ship’s passageways. Despite the Coroner’s best efforts, the blast was so severe that many of the recovered bodies remained unidentified; they were buried under full military honours in the Naval Section of the Gillingham Cemetery.  Sadly, most of the crew were not recovered for burial. 

Today, the men who died are remembered at Chatham’s Naval Memorial and the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. The disaster’s centenary will be marked by remembrance services and events in Gillingham and Chatham.

As Henry spent so few years in Cornwall he is not remembered on any local memorials, but his legacy is alive in Cornwall today in the form of his many descendants.  He is not forgotten.  

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