The 5th Sept. 1914 is not a date that immediately leaps from the pages of the annals of the Great War, but it turns into a bad day for the Royal Navy and a portent of worse things to come.
Early in 1914 the home water bases of Scapa Flow, Loch Ewe and on the Firth of Forth were not well defended, there was a certain nervousness about the enemy threat. Admiral Jellicoe was to write, “The only possible action, in the event of an alarm being given of the presence of a submarine, was to take the fleet to sea”. Such an alarm had been raised four days earlier on 1st September after repeated sightings of what was thought to be a periscope at Scapa Flow. A similar alarm was raised a day later in the Forth of Forth. Unknown to the British, U20 was to penetrate the Firth of Forth as far as Fidra on 4th September, while U21 was close to May Island.
The U21 had attempted to enter the firth in the early hours of 5th. Coming to the surface some hours later to charge her batteries, off May Island, she sighted a cruiser to the south-east.
This was HMS Pathfinder, flotilla leader of the Forth Destroyer Patrol on patrol off St. Abb’s Head. On his second sighting at around 3.45pm Lt-Commander Otto Hersing gave the order to fire a single torpedo at her from a distance of 1,500 metres, this was roughly 10 miles south-east of May Island.
The fate of HMS Pathfinder is well documented elsewhere ( HMS pathfinder, a survivor’s account) tragically her magazine is ignited and a devastating secondary explosion gives the crew little chance of survival. It is thought of the 268 on board ship, only 18 were saved. Amongst those lost was Eli Francis Bright.
The name “BRIGHT E.F.” appears on the Mitcham War memorial and he is named as “Bright Eli F.” on the Roll in the nearby Christ Church. Eli was born into the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London in 1876 and spent his formative years in Battersea, in an area classed as poor to very poor on Charles Booth’s poverty map. By 1891, now aged about 15, Eli is one of six siblings and is working as a laundry assistant. His prospects appear limited. Just two years later Eli has made a life changing decision and joins the Royal Naval on 2nd October 1893 and gives his DOB as 2nd October 1875, signing on for 12 years. He resigns “to comp” on 2nd Oct 1905, by which time Eli Bright was a leading seaman. He passes for “gunner t” on 4/12/05 and reaches the pinnacle of his naval career when appointed “act gunner t”, a warrant officer, on 6th October 1909, almost 16 years to the day since he first joined.
Not long after he becomes a WO, Eli Bright feels secure enough to marry Annie Esther Sage in 1910, somewhere in Wandsworth. Annie had been living close to the Tooting border with Mitcham at the time. Their only child, Reginald Francis Bright, is born towards the end of 1911. Around the same time, Eli Bright’s widowed mother and other siblings are living with one of Eli’s married sisters in Colliers Wood.
Eli Bright serves on HMS Pathfinder from 4.12.09 to 13.2.11, followed by a year on the destroyer HMS Goldfinch and then spends 20 months on the Staff at the RN Torpedo School at Sheerness. Eli Bright is re-posted to the Pathfinder on 11.2.14. It is a supreme irony that he should loss his life to the very technology he had been trained to use.
Annie Bright never re-marries, she and her son continue to live in Mitcham for many years. Annie Bright passes away in 1959 aged 78 and is buried in London Road Cemetery, Mitcham, which is now in the London Borough of Merton.