From the book "Filey - a Yorkshire fishing town" by Irene E Allen and Andrew A Todd
Naturally it was at sea that Filey men were most involved in the First World War. All Filey fishermen of military age were drafted into the Royal Naval Reserve. Fishing was left to the boys and old men. In the early years of the war, the German high seas fleet tried to bring the British Grand Fleet out into the open battle by bombarding English coastal towns. Scarborough was shelled on 16th December 1914, and at the same time, a dense minefield was laid close inshore between Scarborough and Filey.
The mines were moored to the sea bed, and the only way to clear them was to send trawlers in twos across the minefield with a line stretched between them. This would break the mooring line, and make the mine rise to the surface. Here it could be exploded by gunfire. The two trawlers would work 800 feet apart, with three pairs abreast. In this way, a lane of 2400 feet width would be cleared.
Unfortunately, as the tide went out, many mines would be within a trawler's draught, and the "minesweeper" would be blown up. Often, the whole crew of ten would die together. During the Great War, 214 minesweepers were lost off the British coast, and on average half the crews were killed. Captain Sydney Smith quoted an old Scarborough saying "one minesweeper lost for every mine swept".
Many boats that fished from Scarborough went to Aberdeen during the War, because of this minefield. Some, Filey men however, as we have seen, took the huge risks of going into these dangerous waters, and made good money because the fish population built itself up almost unmolested.
Mines continued to kill Filey men after the War ended. On the 15th April 1919, the steam drifter "Emulator" struck a mine, and all hands were killed. The members of "Jack Sled's" tragic family were amongst the dead: William Jenkinson (c1875-1919); his son Thomas Castle Jenkinson(1903-1919), only 15 at the time; and his nephew Richard Cammish Jenkinson (1893-1919) who had only recently returned from the Mediterranean where he had skippered a minesweeper. Tommy Flynn was on the steam drifter "Fear Not", about a quarter of a mile away, when the explosion occurred. Three drifters, the "Tryphena", The "Fear Not" and the "Emulator" were heading out of Scarborough to go line fishing.
About 26 miles off Flamborough Head, the "Emulator", which had been out on the port side of the "Fear Not", came round and cut in between her and the "Tryphena". At this point , she struck the mine. Tommy Flynn saw the explosion: "It shook the boat we were on... we thought it was really us. She just blew to pieces... we never saw anything - just maybe an odd basket or something - but no wreckage...everything went." 66 tons of boat completely vanished, along with all her crew.
Fishermen who continued to fish during the Great War ran the risk of being torpedoed by German U-boats. The crew would first be ordered to abandon ship in their corfe. Sometimes they might be taken on board the submarine for questioning. Bob Hunter, who lives on Queen Street Filey, can recall a well known story of how his elder brother managed, perhaps unwittingly, to smooth talk himself and the crew of a Filey herring coble out of an awkward situation! On Sunday 15th May 1917, a German U-Boat sank this coble, the "Edith Cavell", having first taken on the crew on board. This had been the last herring coble built from Scarborough, and belonged to George William Hunter and Thomas Ross. It had been registered less than a year earlier. The German Captain had
taken umbrage at the name of the coble, but was evidently pleased when he quizzed the boy of the crew asking him where he would have been that Sunday if he had not been at sea. "At Sunday School, sir", the boy replied. The Captain said, "I'll see you are there next sunday". The crew were eventually released off the Farne Islands, and they subsequently returned to a hero's welcome at Filey, where half the town turned out to meet them at the station![Scarborough Vessel: Yorkshire fishing fleets]
Many Filey men, of course, died on active service during the War, and their names are commemorated on a plaque in filey St Oswalds Church. Yet one of the biggest killers of the war was the influenza pandemic of 1918. Ironically, it struck most heavily at that very age group, 15-35, which had borne the brunt of the casualties during the previous four years. Mary Elizabeth Robinson related to us the sad circumstances of her brother Jack's death on 29th October 1918. He had been a deck hand on the "Carisford".
It was at breakfast time: A telegram arrived, asking next of kin to go to Granton Naval Hospital, near Edinburgh. It fell to jack's mother, Liz Ann, to make this daunting trip. "Scotland!" Mary Elizabeth remembers, "mother had never been further than Scarborough, maybe Leeds!" She was accompanied by her sister in law, Grace Jenkinson. They arrived on Sunday 27th October. Jack had "German flu". The nurse told Grace, "I'm afraid this young man won't get better. Where's his father?" Grace replied, "minesweeping". "Could you get him?" the nurse asked. "I'm afraid I don't know how to get him", Grace told her.
Jack had saved 17 or 18 shillings worth of threepenny bits, and he gave these to his mother. On Tuesday morning, when she visited him, the screens were up. She fainteed. Jack died that day. (This had been another sad family: Jack's sister, Mary Elizabeth, was told us the story, had lost her husband, John Roland Oxtoby, almost exactly a year before. On October 31st 1917, as the family gravestone records, he had "met with enemy action in the Mediterranean sea" at the age of 22. Five other of her brothers and sisters had died in infancy.