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.

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