The trawler Doris Burton and battleship HMS Formidable

- Skipper John William Truefitt
- Deckhand Robert Jowsey
- First Mate Absolem Cave
- Deckhand Robert Jowsey
- Trimmer William Reynolds
- Cook Thomas Leslie Harwood
- Deckhand John Christopher Mansfield
- Petty Officer Henry Purcell Jacques
- Stoker Robert Smithson
- Private Charles Smithson

Ordinary Seaman Charles Frederick Smith

Throughout the war men and ships were lost almost on a daily basis. Not only had they died as a result of their natural enemy, the weather, but also to recently introduced adversaries such as sea mines and German submarines. The dangers of life at sea at that stage of the war had been highlighted in an article that had appeared in ‘The Scarborough Pictorial’ of Wednesday the 16th of December 1914.

‘Missing' This is a word of dread import to the families of seafarers who endure agonies of suspense when their kith and kin are placed in this category and the Great War now raging has added a new terror to it. If a seaman fails to turn up after a gale in the piping time of peace and the relatives eventually had to reconcile themselves to the loss of those dear to them, the bereavement was sorrowfully regarded as the toll of the sea, which someone had to pay. It had fallen their lot to give up someone to be ‘rocked in the cradle of the deep. But now those who now go down to the sea in ships have to face peril in rough and smooth waters. Men trained to read the weather portents may run for a place of refuge when indications point to an approaching storm, and if overtaken by a gale there are always chances of riding it out. But once a vessel comes into contact with a mine such as have been sown broadcast by the Germans in the North Sea the chances of escape are slender’

At the same time that this article had appeared in the local press the fishing community of Scarborough were becoming increasingly concerned for the safety for the crew of a trawler named ‘Doris Burton’, which had left Hartlepool almost a month earlier and had been never heard of, nor seen again.

At around a hundred and ninety tons in weight and over a hundred feet in length, the Doris Burton had been a brand new vessel having been completed during 1914 at Aberdeen by Hall, Russell & Co. Ltd., for the Hartlepool based steam trawler company of R.H. Davison & Co., the Doris Burton had been considered as a sound vessel as one could find and although registered and working out of Hartlepool, the ship had on board at the time of her disappearance four men [three of whom had been married men who between them were the fathers of eighteen children] and two boys from Scarborough.

Many in Scarborough had clung to hope that the ship had been captured by the German’s who had subsequently sunk her after taking the crew off and setting them adrift in the trawlers small boat, which had been the usual practice, or perhaps they had been taken off to Germany as prisoners of war. In the event the story had soon been eclipsed in the morning of Wednesday the sixteenth of December when the town had been extensively damaged and eighteen townspeople killed and many more injured by a bombardment from the sea by units of the German High Seas Fleet.

With enough problems on their plate following the bombardment of the town, the people of Scarborough had soon forgotten the Doris Burton, and the fate of the missing six Scarborough fishermen had paled in the light of so many casualties due to the recent bombardment, and nothing more had appeared in Scarborough’s newspapers concerning them. Nothing more was ever heard or seen of the Doris Burton and her crew, not a stick of debris from the ship had been found, neither had any bodies been washed ashore, the vessel eventually being officially listed as being ‘lost with all hands probably due to a mine explosion’, on Saturday the 21st of November 1914. Whether she had struck the mine or had caught it in her trawl and had subsequently detonated it when the net had been opened or come into contact with the ships side as it had been drawn alongside will never be known.

The missing men of Scarborough were; Skipper John William Truefitt. Born in Scarborough in 1873 John was the son of Mary Jane and fisherman, Burton Truefitt, who had lived for many years at No 61 Quay Street. Married in Scarborough during 1902 to Maria Jenkinson, John had also been the father of five children at the time of his death, all of whom had been living at No 27 Castlegate in 1914.

First Mate Absolem Cave. Born at Scarborough in 1866, Absolem had been the son of Dinah and ‘fishing Smack owner’ John Cave. Formerly of No 4 Princess Street, at the time of their son’s death, however, the couple had been living in Wheelhouse Dwellings in Dean Road. Married in Scarborough during 1891 at St Thomas’s Church to Lavinia Hodds, for a time the couple, along with their eight children had lived Scarborough at No 98 Longwestgate; however, at the time of Absolem’s disappearance his family had been residing in Hartlepool, at No 73 Cleveland Road. The name of Absalom Cave can be found commemorated on a weathered headstone in Dean Road Cemetery [Section H, Row 8, Grave 17] which bears the names of sisters Eliza, who ‘had fell asleep in the arms of Jesus’ on the 7th of December 1882 at the age of 20 years, and Mary, who had died on December 10th 1901 at the age of 42years. An adjacent stone [H.8.16] commemorates the names of his parents; born at Sherburn in 1838, John Cave had died on March 18th 1922 at the age of 84 years, whilst Dinah Cave [formally Coates], who had been born at Scarborough in 1839, had passed away on August 1st 1924 at the age of 85 years. [1]

Deckhand Robert Jowsey. Born in 1885 at Scarborough Robert was the eldest son of Eliza and fisherman James Jowsey who had lived for many years at No 3 Whitehead Hill in the ‘bottom end’ of town, however by 1914 Robert had been residing with sister Eliza in Parkin’s Lane. Robert Jowsey had sailed in the Doris Burton as a last minute replacement for a nephew who had chosen not to join the ship. Aged 29 years at the time of his disappearance, Bob was unmarried. His name is also commemorated on Middlesbrough’s War Memorial.

Trimmer William Reynolds. Also born in Scarborough, in 1875, William aged 39 years was the only son of Caroline and fisherman George Reynolds who had been living at No 18a Castlegate at the time of their son’s disappearance. Prior to ‘signing on’ in the Doris Burton William had worked on the South Beach at Scarborough as a ‘wheelman’ to the wheeled platforms which had ferried people out to the many pleasure boats which had worked from the beach in those days, thus enabling them to get into the boat without getting their feet wet. Married in Scarborough during 1897, William had been the husband of Elizabeth [formally Calpin] Reynolds and had lived at No 5 The Bolts in Sandside with their children, one of whom, his eldest son William [aged thirteen at the time] had had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of Queen Margaret’s Girl’s School on the south cliff during the morning of Wednesday the sixteenth of December 1914 when the building had been damaged by an exploding German shell during the bombardment of the town, a fragment of which had torn two of his toes off.

The Cook of the Doris Burton had been sixteen year old; Thomas Leslie Harwood. Born on the fourteenth of February 1898 at Scarborough, Thomas had been born out of wedlock at his grandparents home at No 1 Paradise Row to ‘Barmaid’, Sarah Jane Harwood, the eldest daughter [born at Scarborough in 1876] of Sarah Ann and bricklayer’s labourer John Harwood with whom Thomas had lived for all of his life as their own son at the cottage in Paradise Row, however by 1914 the family had been residing at No 5 Merchant’s Row. From the age of four Thomas had been a pupil of Friarage Infants and Junior School in Longwestgate and had eventually left the school, as children did in those days at the age of thirteen, to begin an ‘apprenticeship’ at the Home and Colonial Tea Stores which had been in Westborough, where he had remained until 1914when he had taken his first and last voyage in the Doris Burton.

Thomas’s mother had eventually married, and after the war had lived, according to the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Flat 22, Lochrin Buildings, Gilmore Place, in Edinburgh as Sarah Jane Watson.

Initially not included on the Oliver’s Mount Memorial, the name of Thomas Harwood has now been added to the Memorial, where it is rightly commemorated alongside those of the other men lost with the Doris Burton. Tom’s name can also be found on a headstone in Manor Road Cemetery [Plot M. Row 1. Grave 13] which commemorates his Grandparents John [born at Scarborough in 1845] who had passed away on the thirtieth of January 1929 at the age of eighty one years, and Sarah Ann Harwood [born at Scarborough in 1852] who had died on August 8th 1941 at the grand age of 90 years. Also included on the stone are the names of two of Thomas Leslie’s uncles who had also died whilst still young; John William ‘Jack’ Harwood who had died on the 26TH of August 1906 aged 23 years, and George Plummer Harwood who had passed away on June 6TH 1910 at the age of 24years.

The inscription on the headstone in Manor Road states that he was the son of John and Sarah Ann Harwood; I did have it in mind to state that this had not been the case, but then I would be wrong---he had been, to all intents and purposes, their son.

The sixth seaman from Scarborough to lose his life in the Doris Burton had also been aged sixteen years; Deckhand John Christopher Mansfield.

Born in 1898 in Scarborough, at No11 Friar’s Gardens, John had been the only son of Laura [nee Vasey] and Labourer John Canney Mansfield, who had been married at St Mary’s Parish Church on the third of August 1895 [a daughter, Clara Elizabeth had been born the following year], where John had been baptised on the 29TH of May 1898.

A former pupil of Friarage School, where he had been at the same time as Thomas Harwood, I unfortunately have no information regarding John Mansfield’s employment after he had left the school in 1912. John Christopher Mansfield’s parents are commemorated in Manor Road Cemetery on a headstone in Plot R. Row 21. Grave 2, which states that his Scarborough born Mother Laura, had died on the 24th of December 1952 at the age of seventy-nine years. His father John Canney Mansfield [also Scarborough born] had passed away at the age of 81 years on the 12th of April during the following year, sadly the name of the son who had ‘disappeared’ some thirty-eight years earlier is not included.

The names of the six lost Scarborough Fishermen are commemorated in London on the Tower Hill Memorial, which stands in the Garden of Trinity Square close to the Tower of London. The memorial commemorates over 12,000 Merchant Seamen and Fishermen who had lost their lives and have no known graves but the sea during the First World War, and a further 24,000 names of men who had suffered a similar fate during the Second World War. [2]

The article in the ‘Scarborough Pictorial’ had ended on an optimistic note;

‘If the Trawler returns to port, or the men return home without the vessel, the large number who have almost despaired of welcoming the crew again will find occasion for relief and thankfulness. Needless to say we should be profoundly glad if when this appears in print the half dozen Scarborians were know to be safe’…

To this day the fate of the Doris Burton is not known. Whether the vessel had foundered in bad weather or had fallen victim to a mine remains a mystery. Indeed, the ships name is not included in Lloyds Register of vessels lost or damaged during the war, nor is she included in ‘British Vessels lost at sea 1914-18 & 1939-45’ [Patrick Stephens 1988].

Whilst the families of the crew of the Doris Burton were still anxiously awaiting news of their missing menfolk an even bigger disaster had taken place in the English Channel that had claimed the lives of five hundred and forty seven officers and men of the Royal Navy, three of whom had also been natives of Scarborough.

The tragedy had begun in the early hours of Friday the first of January 1915 as the 15,000 tons veteran Battleship H.M.S. Formidable had been steaming on exercise and weathering a storm off Portland Bill. Five hundred of her ship’s company asleep on the messdecks when they had literally been throw out of their hammocks by a tremendous explosion on the warships starboard [right] side which had at first been attributed to the vessel hitting a mine.

‘The first order given out after the explosion [a survivor had later stated] was ‘All hands on the upper deck’. We knew this meant we had been done down, but everyone played the game. Men were stopping to salute their officers. They swarmed up, some dressed, some in pyjamas, and others with nothing on at all. Some gave their clothes to wrap around the middies. [16-year-old cadet officers known as Midshipmen] It was the middies first all the way, which accounts for such a large number being saved’

This first explosion had ripped a hole in the ships flank big enough to drive the proverbial bus through and had also put out of action the battleship’s dynamo room thereby robbing her of lighting and more importantly the ability to send out distress calls by wireless.

To prevent the ship’s boilers exploding in the by then flooding bowels of the vessel they had been shut down and with all motive power lost the battleship had wallowed in the huge waves which had buffeted the vessel remorselessly. With no hope of saving his ship Captain Arthur Noel Loxley had given the order to abandon ship. Efforts to launch the ships boats had however been hampered by a lack of steam to work the winches which had usually been used to get them into the water, it had therefore fallen to brute force by the ships crew to get the heavy boats into the mountainous sea’s.

After a superhuman effort on their part the men had subsequently managed to get three of the craft away. The first had capsized immediately tossing her twelve-man crew into the appalling sea that had whisked ten of them away into the darkness; two of the men had miraculously been swept back onto the ship albeit severely crushed. The second cutter to be launched had made a perilous journey around the stricken warship to her port side…‘Fifty men only! Now then, you fellows, play the game! shouted the Bo’ sun. The men made no violent rushes to the side. A sheer drop of 25ft lay between them and the frail craft. Down the side they swarmed, hanging on to ropes, blankets, and any article to hand, while others risked the jump. ‘No more’, shouts the Bo’sun. ‘Good luck boys!’...

The two boats between them had rescued just seventy men.

For the hundreds of men that had remained aboard the sinking ship life had looked very bleak. By this point in the drama the Formidable had had a severe list to starboard, making standing upright almost impossible. However, there then occurred a second explosion, this time on the port side, which had mercifully set the ship on an even keel giving the seamen clinging to dear life a few more moments of grace.

With very few life saving devices to hand, desperate measures had been taken to acquire anything that would float. A party of men led by a Royal Marines officer armed with a flashlight had bravely gone into the darkness of the creaking and groaning battleship in search of anything that would float, the ships carpenters had even begun to wrench up the deck planking, nevertheless, time was running out for the survivors.

Three hours after the initial explosion the dying battleship had been hit by three enormous waves in succession which had sealed her fate and at the same time had washed perhaps a hundred and fifty of her crew into the sea. Soon afterwards, with her Captain true to naval fashion still on her bridge the Formidable had slipped beneath the waves leaving scores of men floundering in the cold remorseless sea. One of the ship’s few survivors would tell of how…‘in the howling wind the strains of ‘Tipperary’ went up from the swimmers. The immortal words were meant to refer to the cruiser, a long, long way off for swimmer in a winter sea, but as events proved, in reality near enough to get to the exhausted men within ten minutes or so. The swimmers were hauled aboard with ropes, wrapped in blankets, and given brandy’

Out of the Formidable complement of seven hundred and eighty officers and men, two officers and sixty eight men had been picked up by a trawler after spending nearly twenty four hours adrift in the gale lashed English Channel, whilst a further hundred and sixty three men had been picked up by three BritshCruisers, H.M.S.’s Topaz, Diamond, and Tipperary.

The sinking of the battleship had inevitably become front-page news in the British press. On the same day that she had been sunk, ‘The Scarborough Mercury’ had proclaimed;

‘British Battleship Sunk - H.M.S. Formidable mined or torpedoed - Expected loss of 700 lives - Fears for Scarborough men - The Battleship Formidable was sunk this morning in the Channel. Whether by mine or submarine is not yet certain. Seventy survivors have been picked up by a British Light Cruiser, and it is possible that others will have been rescued by other vessels—Press Bureau----‘It is feared that at least two Scarborough men were on board the lost Battleship’

Scarborough’s casualties had been; 203908 [Chatham] First Class Petty Officer Henry Purcell Jaques.

Thirty two years old at the time of the disaster, Henry Jaques had been born in Scarborough on the 10th of December 1883 at No 11 Barwick Street and had been the only son of Mary and ‘fish salesman’s clerk’, George Jaques [George Jaques and Mary Purcell had been married at St Mary’s Parish Church on the 30th of March 1881]. In 1915 Henry’s widowed mother had been living at no 39 Sandside, which had once been the home of her parents, fisherman William and Jane Purcell.

A veteran of over fifteen years continuous service, Henry had joined the Royal Navy at Newcastle at the age of sixteen years in March 1899, at the time, according to his service record he had stood at five feet four inches and had had brown hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion. Beginning his naval career as the lowest of the low, Boy Second Class, on a wage of sixpence per day [2.5P] at the Chatham based training vessel H.M.S. Caledonia, on the 28th of March 1899, and had subsequently been promoted to Boy First Class on the first of February 1900, and eventually to Ordinary Seaman on the 10th of December 1900, [whilst serving in the Battleship Sans Pareil]. Further promoted to Able Seaman on the 1st of December 1902, [whilst serving in the 11,000 tons Cruiser Amphitrite] and Leading Seaman on the 14th of January 1905 [whilst at H.M.S. Pembroke, the Naval Barracks at Chatham], after sitting an examination, to the exalted rank of Petty Officer First Class on the seventh of March 1911, whilst serving in the Light Cruiser, H.M.S. Newcastle.

Jaques had joined the Formidable at Chatham on the 14th of January 1914. At the time the elderly 15,000 tons Battleship, [completed in 1901] with a main armament of four twelve inch guns and numerous secondary weapons had been serving with the 5th Battle Squadron of the Home Fleet. [4]

No remains of Henry Purcell Jaques had never been recovered, and his name had been included with those of more than 8, 500 other men of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines belonging to the Chatham Division who had lost their lives at sea between 1914 and 1918 [a further 10,000 names had been added at the end of the Second War], who have ‘no known graves except the sea’, that had been etched into a series of bronze panels which had eventually adorned the Chatham Naval Memorial. Henry’s name, along with his lost shipmates of the Formidable can be found on Panel Nine.

Petty Officer Jaques’s name is also commemorated on a gravestone in Dean Road Cemetery [Plot E. Row 27.Grave 25] which also bears the names of his father; Born in Scarborough during 1850, George Jaques had died at No 39 Sandside on Thursday the 18th of August 1908 at the age of 59 years. This memorial also contains the name of Henry’s mother; Also born in Scarborough, during 1855, Mary Jaques reportedly badly affected by the loss of her only son, had suffered from ill health for the remainder of her life, and had eventually died as a result of a ‘dilated heart and bronchitis’ at her home at No39 Sandside, on Saturday the 29TH of November 1924 at the age of 69 years.

Also included on this stone is the name of a younger brother, Edmund Jaques, who had reportedly ‘died in infancy’. The Petty Officer’s name can also be found in St Mary’s Parish Church in Scarborough’s Castle Road on the large ‘Roll of Honour’ which can be found on the north interior wall of the Church, and a smaller tablet which had originally been donated to St Thomas’s Church in East Sandgate by a Mr and Mrs H. Wright. [3]

K/6537 Stoker First Class Robert Smithson. ‘Bob’ Smithson had been born in Scarborough at No 46 Cambridge Street, on the 26TH of April 1892, and had been the fourth of six sons [he had also had two elder sisters] of Harriet and William Major Smithson, who in the Scarborough Street Directory of 1892 is listed as a ‘Bird Dealer and Woodcarver’ with a shop in Victoria Road, however, at the time of his sons death he had been employed as a ‘Milk Dealer’ of No 56 Tindall Street Scarborough. A former pupil of the Central Infant and Junior School [which had once stood on the corner of Trafalgar Street West and Melrose Street], Robert Smithson had also served in the pre war Royal Navy and had been serving in the Destroyer H.M.S. Wolverine prior to his transfer to the ill-fated Battleship in September 1915. Aged twenty-two years at the time of the disaster, Robert’s name can also be found on the Chatham Naval Memorial [Panel 12].

Commemorated on Scarborough’s Oliver’s Mount War Memorial, apart from that of Robert Smithson, the memorial also contains the name of Bob’s elder brother; 22250 Private Charles Smithson. Born at Scarborough during 1890 Charles had been serving with the 2ND Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment when he had been killed in action on Saturday the eighteenth of March 1916. Aged twenty six years he had been a married man [wife’s name Hilda] and living in Grangetown near Middlesborough where he had been working in a munitions factory prior to his enlistment into the Army [at Middlesborough] in 1915. Charles Smithson’s body had been buried near to where he had fallen in Northern France soon after he had been killed, and after the war his remains had been re-interred in a Military Cemetery known as ‘The Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard’ located near the village of Laventie, eleven kilometres to the south west of the city of Armentieres, where his grave can be found in Section 2, Row D, Grave 4.

The names of the two Smithson brothers are also commemorated on a ‘Roll of Honour’, which can be found in the entrance to the Wesleyan Church in Hoxton Road, Scarborough [in 2007 this chapel is no longer open].

Following the initial report of the loss of two seamen from the town with the sinking of the Formidable, it had later been found that a third son of Scarborough had been lost with the battleship; J/29915 Ordinary Seaman, Charles Frederick Smith.

Born in Scarborough on the 9TH of July 1896, at No 42 Princess Street, Charles had been the second of three sons and two daughters of Hannah Mary and Charles Anthony Smith, [parents C.A. Smith and H.A. Fawcett had been married at St Mary’s Parish Church on the 19TH of May 1890] who’s profession had been that of a ‘Carver and Guilder’. At the time of his son’s death however, Charles Smith, mentioned in the local newspaper as being an 'Artist’, had been living at ‘Sussex Cottage’ in Swan Hill Road. Aged twenty years at the time of his death, Charles had been in the Royal Navy barely ten months prior to his loss on that New Years Day in 1915.

Unlike Jaques and Smithson, Charles Smith’s ‘Home Port’ had been Plymouth, where his name can be found on Panel Six of the city’s Naval Memorial which commemorates over 7,000 officers and men from the port who were ‘lost’ in the Great War that stands on the Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound.

The question of whether the Formidable had been sunk by torpedo or mine had been answered on the third of January when the German Navy had released an official statement that had subsequently been reproduced in the British Press;

‘On Jan 1, at three a.m., one of our submarines, as it reports by wireless, torpedoed and sunk the English Battleship Formidable in the English Channel, not far from Plymouth. The submarine was pursued by destroyers, but was not damaged’

The submarine mentioned in the above communiqué had been the six hundred and seventy tons Patrol Submarine U-24 which had been commanded by Kapitan Leutnant Rudolph Schneider, who despite the terrible weather had slammed two torpedoes into the Formidable, for this action he had subsequently been awarded the ‘Pour Le Merite’ the German equivalent to the British Victoria Cross.

At the same time that the gallant U- Boat Captain and his crew were receiving their rewards, the British Admiralty had set up a court of inquiry to find who had been responsible for the loss of one of His Majesty’s warships. The axe had eventually fallen onto the neck of Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bailey, the commander of the 5th Battle Squadron, who had determined the straight course and slow speed of Formidable between the exercises he had been conducting. The Admiral had subsequently been disgraced when he had been stripped of his command by his Lordships; ‘For such hazarding of the Formidable and the disastrous consequence’

[1] The names of Absalom Cave’s children are Eliza, born 1893, William, 1895, Alice Elizabeth, 1896, Lavinia Mary, 1897, Doris, 1900, Elsie, 1902, Eric, 1907, Horace John 1909. All had been born in Scarborough.

[2] Also lost with the Doris Burton; Third Hand Jacob Grimes Cole. Reportedly born in the North Yorkshire village of Staithes, Jacob had been the twenty-two years old husband of Mrs Crooks [formally Cole], of No 2 Woodyard Cottages, Walton, Wakefield [he is also commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial]

[3] Despite an extensive search I have been unable to find any details regarding the demise of an Edmund Jaques. The only child that I can locate of that same surname that had died during this period had been born in Scarborough during 1887. Baptised as George Herbert Jaques at St Mary’s Parish Church on the 12th of September 1887, the infant had died shortly afterwards.

[4] The details of Henry Jacques’s service are extracted from his service record, which like all Royal Navy, Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Marines of the Great War are held at the Public Records Office at Kew under a file reference which is prefixed by ADM. Henry Jacques file number is, ADM 188/354. Also to be found at the PRO are ‘Medal Roll’s’ which record the Medals that the men, or their next of kin had received. The Roll that includes the name of Henry Jaques is ADM 171/106, which states that he had been entitled to the 1914 Star and also the British War and Victory Medals.

2017 ammendment from Jill Trylska:

My father and I visited your Heritage Centre back in October 2016 and found it very interesting as my late  mother’s family (on her mother’s side)  were fishermen. The family name is Cave. We talked to one of your volunteers who knew my dear Great Uncle Jack ( John) Cave who lived at 8 Church Street. He was my mother’s uncle .

I have read on your web page about Absolem Cave (Uncle Jack’s uncle) 

Some of the information about Absolem’s family was most interesting as I didn’t know about his wife and  family. However, the information about his children is incorrect.

William, Doris, Elsie ( my grandma) Eric and John Horace ( Uncle Jack) are  NOT his children. Their father was John Cave, 

( 1870 – 1/12/39) , Absolem’s brother. John was also a fisherman and married to Sarah Jane Weatherall . They lived at 8 Church Street.

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