On the morning of 26th November 1914 226977 Leading Stoker George Usher is about to resume his duties on board the battleship HMS bulwark which is moored within the Kethole Reach on the river Medway, upstream from the town of Sheerness. Some of the crew had been on leave the previous day, returning by 7am. The full compliment of officers and men were breakfasting below decks, the band was practising above deck and others were engaged in drills. George Thomas Goldsmith Usher was 27 years old, married and had been in the Navy since 1905. After years of dedicated hard work, George Usher had been made a “Leading Stoker” just a week ago. Like the rest of the crew, George Usher would have had no warning of the catastrophe that was about to strike …
George Usher was born on 14th April 1887 and baptised in 1890 when his parents George and Adelaide Emma (nee Swainn or Swan) where living at 66 Ascalon Street Battersea. A poor area of industrialised Victorian London, hemmed in by the Nine Elms railway viaducts, the Gas works, and the filter beds of Southwark and Vauxhall waterworks, close to the Thames (This would become the site for Battersea Power Station) .
George was the second child , and only son, of George and Adelaide Usher. They would have just three children: Cecilia, George and Lucy. At the age of five, George was sent to the school in Sleaford Street which had opened in 1874. By this time the family were living in nearby Tweed Street.
In 1901, now aged 13, George Usher was living in East London. His parents had returned to the area where they had been married in 1879 and his sister Cecilia had been born in 1882. The young George User was working as a “van guard”. His father described his work as “engineer’s handyman” and his mother worked as a “dry-scrubber” in a laundry. Just two years later George Usher had decided he could make a better life for himself by joining the Navy as a boy sailor.
George Usher enters his new world when he is posted to the school ship HMS Impregnable on 27th July 1903 as 226977 Boy 2nd Class. George continued his training on HMS Lion and HMS Boscawen II, a training ship at Portland. When he is eighteen, George Usher signs on for 12 years, and his first adult posting as an ordinary seaman is HMS Jupiter in 1905, a pre-dreadnought battleship seeing service in the home Channel Fleet. Over the next seven years George Usher will serve on a succession of home fleet ships as a stoker. ( HMS Prince George from Dec 08 to March 09, HMS King Edward VII March 09 to Aug 10 and HMS Revenge Sept. 10 to April 12 ).
In 1911 George Usher takes a new turn and marries Katherine Hines during shore leave. They first live close to the Portsmouth Naval Base in Arundel Street in the busy commerical Landport district of Portsmouth. Arundel Street has shops, the obligatory pubs and even a brand new Electric Cinema in 1911.
About a year early, George’s parents and sisters had settled in Mitcham, living in Grove Terrace London Road, close to the Kings Arms in the centre of Mitcham. His younger sister Lucy had married French born Gaston Ginard in 1910.
in April 1913 George is posted to HMS Black Prince. He is now acting leading stoke and has passed educationally for Petty Officer. When the Royal Naval is put on a war footing George Usher joins the crew of HMS Bulwark on 2nd August 1914, and he is made a leading stoker on 19th November 1914.
A few days before , on the 14th November, HMS Bulwark, as part of the 5th Battle Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Bernard Currey in H.M.S. Prince of Wales and Rear Admiral C.F. Thursby (2nd Flag) in H.M.S. Queen transferred to Sheerness, to guard against a possible German invasion of England. After completing exercises in the North Sea the 5th Battle Squadron returned to their anchorages off Sheerness in the estuary of the River Medway. HMS Bulwark was moored at buoy no. 17, other ships moored in line included HMS Implacable, HMS Formidable, HMS Queen, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Agamemnon.
Disaster struck at around 7.50am when a devastating internal explosion tore HMS Bulwark apart. Witnesses on the battleship Implacable, the next ship in line at the mooring, reported that:
“a huge pillar of black cloud belched upwards… From the depths of this writhing column flames appeared running down to sea level. The appearance of this dreadful phenomenon was followed by a thunderous roar. Then came a series of lesser detonations, and finally one vast explosion that shook the Implacable from mastheads to keel.”
The destruction of Bulwark was also witnessed on board HMS Formidable:
“when the dust and wreckage had finally settled a limp object was seen hanging from the wireless aerials upon which it had fallen. With difficulty the object was retrieved and found to be an officer’s uniform jacket with three gold bands on the sleeves and between them the purple cloth of an engineer officer. The garment’s former owner had been blasted into fragments.”
This photograph was taken from HMS Queen.
A shower of lighter debris fell on the streets of Sheerness, the explosion was said to rock the pier in Southend and was heard twenty miles away in Whitstable. Of the nearly 750 officers and men on board only 14 initial survivors were rescued, not all would live.
In the afternoon of 26th November Mr. Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, made the following grave statement in the house of commons:
“I regret to say that I have some bad news for the House. The Bulwark battleship, which was lying in Sheerness this morning blew up at 7.53 a.m. The Vice and Rear Admirals who were present have reported their conviction it was an internal magazine explosion, which rent the ship asunder. There was apparently no upheaval of water. The ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke cleared away. An enquiry will be held tomorrow, which may possibly throw more light on this occurrence. The loss of the ship does not sensibly affect the military position, but I regret to say that the loss of life in very severe. Only twelve men were saved, and all the officers and rest of the crew, which, I suppose amounted to between 700 and 800 persons have perished. I think the House would wish me to express on its behalf the deep sympathy and sorrow with which the House had heard the news, and the sympathy it feels with those who have lost their relatives and friends.”
News of the disaster was widely reported in the evening press across Great Britain. Many men onboard were from Porstmouth and when headlines appeared in the Portsmouth Evening News on 26th November 1914, distressed relatives gathered at the naval base seeking information, and in the vain hope that their loved ones had survived. George Usher’s wife, Kate would be among the grieving relatives.
His parents and sisters in Mitcham would soon learn of George’s fate as the London papers carried further news on the following day.
Kate Usher re-marries halfway through 1915 , and starts a new life. At the war’s end George’s name would be added to the Portsmouth Naval Memorial and his parents ensured his name appeared on both the main Mitcham memorial and on the “Roll of Honour “ in St.Marks Church. His parents, and sister Cecilia ,would remain in Mitcham until the end of their lives.
Footnote 1: Two days after the Bulwark was destroyed an Inquest was held on thirty of the victims at the Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham by the County Coroner Mr. C.B. Harris. He told the jury that they were to investigate the appalling disaster which occurred on H.M.S. Bulwark. Amonsg those giving evidence were Lieutenant B.G. Carroll, assistant coaling officer at Sheerness, and Rear Admiral Gaunt, who had been appointed president of the Admiralty Court of Enquiry into the loss of H.M.S Bulwark.
Lieutenant B.G. Carroll stated that on the 26th November he was proceeding down river in the steamer Eagle and passed H.M.S. Bulwark at about 0750 hours. There were four battleships at their moorings and he noticed that there no barges alongside the Bulwark. He saw the signal she had raised indicating the number of tons of coal she had on board, and then suddenly a large flame leapt up from behind the after barbette. Then the flame appeared to run from the after-turret forward and the whole ship rose in the air aflame followed by a terrific explosion. Lieutenant Carroll turned his vessel around to render assistance and from amongst the debris his crew picked up six of the crew – all dead. It was Lieutenant Carroll opinion that one of her eleven magazines had blown up.
When questioned by the Coroner, Rear Admiral Gaunt stated that no ammunition was being loaded that morning and those eye witnesses who had told the press that three barges were alongside the ship were mistaken. He found no evidence to suggest that the explosion was external and nor was it caused by an act of treachery. It had been established that it was common practice to store ammunition for the ships 6-inch guns in the cross-passageways which connected with her eleven magazines and the Bulwark had been on exercises in the North Sea prior to arriving at Sheerness. Contrary to regulation 275 6-inch shells may have been left in the passageways after the exercise and placed together most touching each other and some touching the bulkhead of the magazine. One or more of those shells could have been damaged and weakened the fusing mechanism causing it to become ‘live’. A blow to the shell through being dropped point down could have set off a chain reaction of explosions amongst the other shells in the cross-passageways sufficient to detonate the ships magazines. Many of the sailors on board were reservists and perhaps the strict rules concerning movements of ammunition had not been fully observed.
After hearing this, and other evidence, the jury returned a verdict of “accidental death”.
Footnote 2: 61 victims from HMS Bulwark, whose bodies were located, and could be identified, are buried in Gillingham (Woodlands) Cemetery (photograph below).
TO THE HONOURED MEMORY OF SEVENTY SAILORS OF HMS BULWARK TEN OF HMS PRINCESS IRENE AND BERTIE CLARY A SKILLED LABOURER OF HM DOCKYARD ALL OF WHOM LOST THEIR LIVES THROUGH INTERNAL EXPLOSION OF THE TWO SHIPS OFF SHEERNESS AND LIE BURIED HERE
HMS Princess Irene, which is mentioned on the memorial in Gillingham Cemetery, was a converted mine layer that exploded just five months after the Bulwark disaster.
Footnote 3 : The War Memorial opposite Sheerness Railway Station mentions the 1070 Officers and Men who died in the wrecks of HMS Bulwark & HMS Princess Irene, but does not name them.