The life of a stoker in the Royal Navy

The focus of many histories of the First World War is on the great land battles of the Western Front. The Royal Navy often gets overlooked because the Battle of Jutland was a seemingly inconclusive sea battle and many other actions did not involve fleets of ships. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project describes some experiences of Poole men who served as stokers in the Royal Navy.

John Matthews, formerly a goalkeeper of Longfleet St Mary’s FC and stroke with Poole Amateur Rowing Club, was on the HMS Armadale Coast which was off the German South West African coast. His letter of January 1915 said that they ‘have had a very trying time just lately’. He describes ‘coaling’. This involved working continuously day and night until 3,700 tons of coal had been transferred in sacks. His injury came about because he slipped and damaged a knee which he hoped ‘will not affect my knee in future’. His mates brought him oranges and apples while he was in hospital and he noted it was ‘the first rest’ he had had since leaving home. He was now on light duty but still in some pain. He hoped to be able to carry on playing football and rowing when he got back to Poole – so far it is not known whether he did.

Coaling at sea was a strenuous, difficult job. Sacks had to be filled on the coaling ship by shovel, winched across and then tipped into the bunkers. Everybody who was not assigned another role had to help. A midshipman would alternate between spending an hour holding sacks open for another rating to shovel coal into and then spending another hour winching across. Often they would work from 5.30 in the morning until 6pm in the evening. The stokers who manned the bunkers were covered in ‘indescribable clouds of dust’ that clogged their skin and lungs with the only light from a few Davy safety lamps. And when coaling was finished the ships had to be cleaned.

The shovelling of coal into the boilers was hard physical labour in very hot and dusty conditions. Stoking the boilers was also a highly skilled job. The ‘firebed’ in the boiler had to be even and any gaps filled with white hot coal. The stokers would wear blue-tinted glasses to protect their eyes from the intense glare whilst they were checking the ‘firebed’. Every time the ship’s gun fired the ship would lift, settle, and clouds of dust would fill the boiler room – the noise would also resound above the noise of the boilers. The men also worked in the knowledge that there was little chance of survival if the ship was hit. Watertight hatches were closed and there was a maze of routes to the upper decks. They rarely had time to do anything; HM Transport Arcadian sank in just three minutes after being torpedoed.

Coal was a serious business and anything that disrupted it could have devastating consequences. Poor quality coal could lead to the ship not maintaining speed at critical times. HMS Pathfinder was sunk because the lack of coal meant it could only maintain a speed of 5 knots. The German SMS Dresden had a rendezvous with a collier off the South American coast. It was spotted by HMS Kent before coaling took place and the Dresden had no option but to enter a river estuary where she was eventually scuttled.

Several Poole men served as stokers in the Royal Navy. Some had joined the navy before the war and were either in the reserve or were still sailors, others enlisted or were conscripted.

Fred G. Trowbridge was a Stoker on the battleship HMS Iron Duke. In December 1914 he sent a letter to his mother, who lived at 19 Market Street, to say he was well and enclosed a photograph of what he called the ‘Dorset Brigade’ who were on board. Trowbridge had joined the Royal Navy in 1912 and served on HMS Iron Duke from February 1914 until 1918. After the war ended, he stayed in the Royal Navy on various vessels and in shore-based installations before retiring in 1934.

Stoker Augustus Albert Ball, of Hamworthy, died when the battlecruiser HMS Invincible was sunk at the Battle of Jutland on May 31st 1916. It is believed that she was hit on one of her turrets and the flash fire went into the magazines. The explosion tore the ship in half and over a thousand men lost their lives. Six men survived – one of them recorded that he ‘remembered nothing about the explosion until he found himself in the water’. Ball’s first ship was the paddle steamer Brodick Castle which was part of a fleet of ships that sailed along the Dorset coast catering for the holiday trade. He joined as a fireman at a weekly wage of £1 8s 2d (£1.41), on July 3rd 1901 at the age of 20. He left on October 5th 1901 when the summer season ended.

Sidney James, of Newtown, Poole, was employed as a golf caddie before he joined the Royal Navy in 1909 as a Stoker 2nd Class. In 1910 he was promoted to Stoker 1st Class when he was on HMS Essex in 1910. He then served on many other ships until he joined the cruiser HMS Black Prince on April 21st 1914 as Stoker 1st Class. He was promoted to Leading Stoker in February 1916. He died when HMS Black Prince was sunk during the Battle of Jutland on May 31st 1916. It is believed that the German fleet was mistaken for the British fleet and they were only half a mile apart when the error was realised – the crew of HMS Black Prince stood no chance.

Thomas Foot of Poole worked in a wood factory before he joined the Royal Navy in 1906 as Stoker 2nd Class when he signed up for 5 years. He left the navy in 1911 as Stoker 1st Class and was transferred to the Royal Fleet Reserve. With the threat of war looming he was recalled to the navy and joined HMS Good Hope on July 31st 1914. He died when the ship was sunk at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile on November 1st 1914.

William Bradley of Poole (born 1896) worked as a greengrocer’s porter before joining the Royal Navy in 1914. He worked as a Stoker on several ships during the First World War and continued in the navy serving through the Second World War. In contrast, William Hedgecock, a general labourer from Poole, joined the Royal Navy on December 28th 1916. He was posted as Stoker 2nd Class to HMS Ariadne on March 21st 1917 and was killed only a few months later when the ship was torpedoed on July 26th 1917.

The Poole and East Dorset Herald reported in November 1914 that Mr Alfred Woodland of Hamworthy had five sons involved in the conflict. Albert Edward Woodland was a labourer from Hamworthy and had signed on with the Royal Navy for 12 years, initially as a Stoker 2nd class. He served on several ships and was promoted to Stoker 1st class while he was on HMS Dreadnought. In August 1914 he joined HMS Hermione which he left in March 1915. He had a spell on HMS Excellent before joining HMS Canada on which he served until March 1919 where he rose to first becoming a Leading Stoker and then Stoker Petty Officer. A few months after leaving HMS Canada he married Minnie Cox in Hamworthy. He survived the First World War. He served during the Second World War as Stoker Petty Officer on HMS Claverhouse, but died in August 1942 at the Royal Naval Hospital, South Queensferry from a kidney infection. He is buried in Hamworthy.

The local newspaper also reported that four of his brothers were serving in the Royal Marines. It said that John Woodland was a prisoner of war in October 1914 but says he was a Lance-Corporal – other records have him as a Private. It is believed he also survived the war and stayed in the Royal Marines dying of natural causes during the Second World War. Charles Woodland was a dental assistant at the RM base in Deal and also survived the First World War. Sadly, two other brothers died during the First World War. Sidney served in the Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI), but was drowned in a boating accident in Poole Harbour in 1915. Another brother, William, died during the Battle of Jutland while on HMS Southampton. It is possible that another brother, Frederick, also served in the RMLI but this not clear.

William Harold Hammond

By Ed Perkins

There are two heroes in the story of Poole man William Harold Hammond. One was the shell-shocked soldier, rescued unconscious after being buried alive on the Western Front. The other was his wife, Lillie, who would nurse him till he died.

Longfleet St Mary’s churchyard with William Hammond’s grave in the foreground.

Longfleet St Mary’s churchyard with William Hammond’s grave in the foreground.

William Hammond was born in 1878 and brought up in Kingston upon Thames. The son of a cooper and his schoolmistress wife, he would stay in touch with his family and friends in the Surrey town  for the rest of his life.

His father, Charles, would go on to become the manager of a brewery store and, when grown-up, William followed in his footsteps, moving to Poole to manage the Whitbread brewery store in the Dorset town.

It was while living in Poole, boarding at ‘Tivoli’, a young couple’s home in Parkstone Road, that he was to meet the woman who would become devoted to him.

Her name was Lillie Naomi Ince and she was born in 1881 in the City of London, her mother and father both being in the business of manufacturing umbrellas. Even as a child, Lillie would learn the hard facts of life, for her brother, Oliver, passed away when she was three and her father died when she was seven.

Lillie’s widowed mother moved to Winchester with her daughters and carried on making umbrellas for a living. Lillie grew up there and took a job working as a Post Office telegraphist.

By 1911, like her future husband, she had moved to Poole, boarding with a widow and her daughter in Wimborne Road and working as a clerk at the post office.

Lillie Ince and William Hammond met and fell in love and in that year of 1911, Lillie now 30, and William, 32, married.

The ceremony took place in London’s Hampstead where their marriage certificate shows she was then living, just around the corner from Swiss Cottage.

The newly-weds set up home in Poole in a semi-detached called The Creek in Sterte Esplanade, that had been built around 1906, just a few years before. In those days the Esplanade homes looked out directly over the waters of Holes Bay.

A Russian cannon, said to date back to the Crimean War, looking out over Holes Bay and positioned at Sterte Esplanade, where William and Lillie Hammond lived. Picture: Poole Museum

A Russian cannon, said to date back to the Crimean War, looking out over Holes Bay and positioned at Sterte Esplanade, where William and Lillie Hammond lived. Picture: Poole Museum

Within three years their family grew, for Lillie, on 18 March 1914, gave birth to their only child, a boy they named Harold Brooke Hammond. He was baptised in Parkstone that June.

William carried working as the brewery store manager and, when war broke out in 1914, became a member of what was to become the Dorset Volunteer Regiment. It was a defence unit for volunteers who trained at drill halls in Heckford Park and Weymouth Road, Parkstone,  and who guarded the coast and strategic places at Sandbanks, Hamworthy and other sites across the county, freeing artillery soldiers to be sent to the Front.

Conscription, introduced in January 1916, however, meant that men up to the age of 40 were liable to be called up. In the June of that year, William now 38, married and the father of a boy of just two, enlisted.

His Army record shows that he stood at 5ft 5ins, weighed 9st 4lbs had a 36ins chest and was classed fit for general service, despite his vision in both eyes being 6/9.

It would be more than a year before William was called up for active service with the Royal Field Artillery in June 1917. He was given the rank of Driver and the regimental number 239666.

Driver Hammond was to spend the rest of that year serving in Britain, qualifying as an Army telephonist, before being posted to France two days after Christmas. He disembarked at Le Havre and then went on to the Western Front.

He was in the field in France for the next five or so months. Then, in April 1918, something happened.

‘As a dispatch rider in France he was buried by a shell explosion,’ a note on his medical record explains.

‘Unconscious for a fortnight.’

We know that after being dug out from the shell-hole he was taken to a field hospital, probably in Rouen, suffering from shell shock.

‘He was in ‘a highly-confused state,’ a medical report stated. ‘He talks incessantly. Says his wife must be given £500.’ He was delusional but with ‘no grandiose ideas’.

Tragically, the horrific experience would trigger the re-activation of a disease that he had probably contracted as a much younger man before he married. It had been latent, probably for many years. Common at the time, before the invention of penicillin its final stage would lead to madness and death.

Driver Hammond’s case was ‘aggravated’ by his service, the Army admitted.

He was posted back to Britain for treatment, first to the Army clearing hospital, the Royal Victoria at Netley, near Southampton, where he arrived on 25 May. His Army Pension record shows that he was suffering from ‘confusional insanity’,

Hammond stayed at Netley for a single day before being sent up to Perth in Scotland for treatment at Murthly Military Hospital. He would remain there under treatment for the next five months.

‘On admission he was very confused. Since then there has been a gradual advance of physical symptoms,’ the record reveals.

Eventually, the Army decided he was ‘permanently unfit for was service of any kind’, granted him a weekly pension of 27 shillings and sixpence (£1.38p – worth about £40 a week today) and discharged him.

Before his discharge, his medical report states that the origin of his disability had occurred on 29 April that year in France – around the time he was buried alive.

Diseased, deeply confused and now discharged from the Army, who would look after the shell-shock victim now?

On 25 October 1918, Lillie Hammond took him home.

‘His wife brought him home, hoping that home influences would improve his condition,’ a hand-written note from his Poole doctor, Dr George Smith Small, records.

There, while bringing up their little son alone, Lillie lovingly nursed him through the coming months, over Christmas and deep into the new year.

Poor William’s condition, though, was terminal. Lillie had tenderly nursed him single-handed for 137 days.

As his life neared its end, however, he was finally sectioned and taken off the County Asylum near Dorchester as a ‘person of unsound mind’. Harry Brooks, a Poole JP, signed the admittance form.

He based his judgement on a certificate provided by Dr Small who wrote: ‘He lies in bed with eyes staring, refusing to speak or take notice of anything, hands twitching; keeps muttering to himself.

‘I have had him under supervision since October 1918. He has had three attacks of an epilepsiform nature and, since the last attack, his moods are uncertain and he is difficult to control.’

William’s wife, Lillie, added other facts: ‘He says he is full of disease and in consequence requests to be moved to an isolation hospital. He refuses to shake hands for fear of spreading the disease.

‘When offered food he says: ‘’What is the use ­– I have no mouth’’.

‘Lately he has threatened to lose himself on the sandbank in front of house. At times he has been violent, attempting to get to window.’

His very brief time at the Dorset County Asylum was paid for by the Poole Union, whose Relieving Officer, Harrie [sic] E. Shave understood that William would be placed there ‘with other service men.’

He added in his letter to the hospital: ‘It is a very sad case as they are very respectable people indeed.’

We know from the Dorchester asylum hospital records that, by then, dark-haired William was thin and in poor physical condition. He was not speaking and in a ‘stupitose’ state. It was ‘very difficult to arouse his attention which then ‘wandered’ and was ‘evanescent’.

The evening of the day after his admission, he had a major seizure followed by several other attacks. The next day, semi-conscious, the fits became more frequent and severe and he turned blueish.

In the early hours of 14 March 1919, he grew weaker and died. He was 40 years old.

William Harold Hammond, despite his disease and confusion – his death certificate confirms that the cause of death was what known in those days as General Paralysis of the Insane – had evidently tried his best during his deteriorating condition not to be a nuisance to his caring wife.

She had taken him home that previous October, though ‘it was unwise of her to do so,’ according to Poole Union officer Mr Shave.

‘She has been a faithful nurse and has done everything possible for her husband,’ the local medical man, Dr Small, wrote in his report.

Lillie would remain in the Poole area for the rest of her life. By 1939, she had moved away from The Creek, the house where she had nursed her suffering husband The Creek and now lived in Sheringham Road in Branksome, where she lived with her sister Rhoda, a private nurse, and her son, Harold, now working as an estate agent’s clerk and also an auxiliary fire officer. Harold would later marry and work, for a time at least, as a commercial driver.

Sterte Esplanade today.

Sterte Esplanade today.

Lillie Naomi Hammond passed away in Redhill Park, Bournemouth, in 1963 at the age of 79. The shell-shock that triggered the condition that led to her husband, William’s death, had changed her life.

After his death she had received a widow’s pension from the Army and her late husband was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the Silver Badge for his service on the Western Front.

His funeral service, on 20 March 1919, took place at St Mary’s, Longfleet, conducted by the vicar, the Rev Canon Okes Parish. The mourners included his brother Mr F. Hammond, his sister Mrs White, sister-in-law Miss Ince and two friends who came down from Kingston upon Thames where he had grown up.

They heard of how well-known William had been in Poole and the esteem in which he was held.

Poignantly, Lillie was unable to be at the funeral. She was unable to attend ‘through a sudden indisposition,’ the local paper, the Bournemouth Guardian reported.

‘The music included Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, which was the piece Mr Hammond had asked his wife to play shortly before his death.’

The Poole and East Dorset Herald reported that week that he ‘died following shell shock in France’.

William was buried in the churchyard outside. He was one of 80,000 men in the war to suffer from shell shock. For them, the trauma did not end when the guns ceased firing.

Today his grave is fittingly tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ensuring the soldier’s service for his country will not be forgotten.

The grave of Driver William Harold Hammond of the Royal Field Artillery.

The grave of Driver William Harold Hammond of the Royal Field Artillery.