William Wheelhouse

 

Submitted by Ian Cooper.

George was Ian's great grand uncle

Early Life

William Wheelhouse was born on 22 January 1890 in the inner city St.Paul's area of Sheffield.

His father died when he was only three years old, leaving his mother and three older brothers to take care of him as best they could.
When he was seven, his older brother Harry died of consumption at Fir Vale Workhouse. Even with two of William's brothers (John and Frederick)
of working age and with his mother also working,the family found it hard to make ends meet - so much so that William was selected to be taught at
the Sheffield District Boys Charity School - a free boarding school supported by voluntary contributions for boys whose families were very poor.
After school it seems he worked as a caker in the steel smelting industry.

Royal Navy  

William joined the Royal Navy in 1910 at the age of 20. His service number was K/7846 and he is described on his service record form as being 5ft 4 3/8" tall with a 38 1/2" chest, a fair complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair. The form also reports two large scars on his shoulder blade - perhaps burns sustained at his previous job.   William's first assignment was to HMS Victory II for three weeks from 11 August 1910 until 3 September 1910. Victory II was not a ship - it was the Division at Portsmouth that accounted for Engine Room Artificers and Stokers. Here it seems William received basic training and passed his induction test to be a stoker.

A stoker is a man employed in stoking the furnaces of a ship. On coal fired ships he is required to shovel coal into the furnace and to distribute the coal in the furnace in order to get the optimal energy to heat the ship's boilers. The stoker must also be aware of the ventilation of the furnace in order to prevent 'flash back' (if the ventilation is wrong, fire can be blown out through the stoker's hole and burn - or kill - the stoker). On oil fired ships, the stoker operates the fuel oil sprayers. The stoker is also trained as a boiler mechanic and has knowledge of how a steam engine works. At the time when William Wheelhouse worked as a stoker, the job was tough, dirty and hot, requiring high levels of strength and endurance. Stokers worked in an environment that has been described as "as close to hell as one can imagine". Stokers also underwent firearms drill and fieldcraft as a part of their basic training and had to demonstrate proficiency in these tasks prior to being promoted to Stoker 1st Class.

HMS Renown 

From 4 September 1910 to 15 October 1910 William was assigned to HMS Renown, again as a Stoker. Renown was a coal fired pre-dreadnought battleship and was completed in January 1897.  From Nov. 1909 HMS Renown was a stoker's training ship.     After training on Renown, William went back to Victory II and stayed there for about 7 weeks, from 16 October 1910 to 6 December 1910. Here he passed his proficiency test that put him on the track to be a stoker petty officer. On his service record, William's commanding officer listed his ability as 'superior'.

HMS Eclipse

From 7 December 1910 William was assigned, still as a stoker, to HMS Eclipse. Launched in 1894, Eclipse was a fuel-oil fired Eclipse class cruiser. During the periods William Wheelhouse served on her, HMS Eclipse was a sea-going training ship for naval cadets. The 1911 census shows William in a naval barracks in Portsmouth. Life in a Navy barracks must have reminded him of his childhood in the Boy's Charity School, so perhaps he had an easier time adjusting to life away from home than some of the other cadets.

HMS Weymouth  

On 31 October 1911, William joined the crew of HMS Weymouth. Weymouth was a brand new, fuel-oil fired ship, the first of her own class of light cruiser.William was a member of Weymouth's first crew and this was his first assignment out of training.HMS Weymouth and her sister ship, HMS Dartmouth were the attached cruisers to the Third Battle Squadron, First Fleet of the Home Fleet between 1911-1913. This squadron consisted of the Battleships Africa, Britannia, Commonwealth, Dominion, Hibernia, Hindustan, King Edward VII and Zealandia.  

In November 1911 HMS Weymouth paid a visit to the town of Weymouth - the ship's company was entertained and the wardroom presented with a large piece of silver for the table. In December Weymouth stood by and assisted at the wreck of the P & O liner Delhi wrecked near Cape Spartel (near Tangier) with a Royal party onboard. In February 1912, Weymouth visited Ferrol, Spain and in May she took part in the Fleet Review at Spithead. Between June and July 1912 she took part in major fleet exercises in the Channel and the Western Approaches.

In September 1912, Weymouth deployed to the Mediterranean, initially to Malta. In October and November she deployed to the eastern Mediterranean during period of high tension between Greece and Turkey. While there she spent time at Suda Bay, Crete and in the Aegean. In November she anchored at Constantinople (Istanbul) where she landed parties of seamen to mount armed guard at the British Embassy and British property. Stokers were often called upon to perform landing party duties, so William may well have found himself guarding the Embassy.  

In early 1913, HMS Weymouth returned to the U.K.   On 27 June 1913, William was reassigned back to Victory II. It was during his time here that William would have received word that his mother had died on 30 December 1913 at the age of 65.

HMS Drake

William's next assignment, on 1 August 1914, was to HMS Drake, again as a stoker. Launched in 1901, HMS Drake was a coal fired Drake class armoured cruiser.  By 1914 she had been decommissioned, but with tensions between England and the Central Powers rising she was recommissioned, just in time for test mobilisation and the Fleet Review. 

At the outbreak of the Great War She was attached to the 6th Cruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow, and given escort duties. Her first escort run was taking the Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic into Liverpool after the Olympic had travelled from New York. In October she escorted the merchant cruiser Mantua to Archangel in Russia. During his assignment to Drake, William's ability was again remarked upon as 'superior'.

On 8 April 1915 William was once more assigned to Victory II. By this time, Victory II had been moved from Portsmouth to Crystal Palace in London. Now known as HMS Crystal Palace, this was also the training depot for the Royal Naval Division.   On 22 February 1916, William was ordered to return to HMS Drake. On 1 June he was promoted to Acting Leading Stoker and on 1 December he was again promoted, this time to Leading Stoker.  
Between 1916 and 1917 Drake was assigned to the North America & West Indies station, based at Bermuda. On October 2nd 1917 HMS Drake was near Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland, having just finished escorting convoy HH24 from America. The convoy had dispersed at 8:03 am. Just over an hour later HMS Drake was torpedoed by U-79 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Rohrbeck. The torpedo struck the ship under the second funnel. Drake's number two boiler room flooded instantly, killing everyone present except one man who was blown onto the upper deck and landed there unhurt, and another who climbed up through the stokehold hatch.

The crewman who blown from the boiler room, acting engine room artificer Bridson, immediately reported for duty in the number three boiler room where he remained until the ship was abandoned. HMS Drake's commander, Captain S.H. Radcliffe, initially thought he might be able to take the stricken vessel into Belfast where the ship could be repaired at the Harland and Wolff Shipyards, but after discussing the situation with his engineer, he realised that this was impossible, so he decided instead to make for the nearest anchorage at Church Bay on Rathlin Island. Drake had lost the use of its steam steering gear in the attack and had to steer using only propellers until repairs could be made.

Drake's manoeuvrability was virtually zero at this point and as she tried to get to safety she collided with the cargo ship Mendip Range at 10:37 am. HMS Drake did not receive much damage from the collision, but the Mendip Range was forced to beach at Ballycastle Bay on the mainland. HMS Drake managed to anchor in Church Bay by 11:46 am. Most of the men on board were taken off on launches from the destroyers and sloops that were laying a submarine screen around the ship.

Captain Radcliffe now hoped to keep the ship afloat until salvage vessels could arrive, but the list of the ship continued to increase. At this point HMS Martin and HMS Delphinium came alongside to remove the remaining crew. The ship was abandoned at 2:05 pm. Despite efforts to save her, the ship finally capsized at 2:35 pm.   Eight days after the sinking of HMS Drake, William returned to Victory II. Here he spent nearly four months waiting for his next assignment.

 

HMS Pincher

On 9 February 1918, William was assigned to the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla at Buncrana, County Donegal, Ireland. The ship that William would be sailing on was HMSPincher, commanded by Lieutenant Patrick W.R. Weir. Pincher, launched in 1910, was a coal fired Beagle class destroyer, quite a change from the battleships and cruisers William was used to. Lt. Weir was 28 years old, a year younger than Leading Stoker Wheelhouse.

While off-duty, William would stay on HMS Hecla - 2nd Flotilla's depot ship, used as a place for sailors who were working on smaller ships such as destroyers or minesweepers to relax when off-duty.  

On 1 March 1918 William was promoted to Stoker Petty Officer. A petty officer is the equivalent of an army sergeant. The stoker petty officer is in charge of the stokers. He must be fully proficient in the workingsof the furnaces and the boiler and is responsible for their maintenance and efficiency. He is required to adjust the oil pump speed, the supply of water to the boiler, and the furnace fans. The stoker petty officer would also watch the state of the exhaust gases, by a system of lights and mirrors across the uptakes from where he stands.

As a stoker petty officer, William must have felt that he'd finally escaped the poverty that his family had suffered throughout his childhood. Although the work was hot, dirty and hard, he was now in charge of men, he had a bed to sleep in every night and three square meals per day. His career had taken him as far as the Arctic Circle in the north, Constantinople in the east and Bermuda in the west - he had seen a quarter of the globe. He had even survived a torpedo attack and seen a ship he served on sink. His childhood in the Sheffield slums must have seemed far away.

HMS Pincher

HMS Pincher Crew

 

On 15 May 1918, Pincher was reassigned to the 4th Destroyer Flotilla at Devonport. Here crew used the depot ship HMS Apollo - a muchsmaller ship than Hecla. Sometime before 23 July 1918, Pincher had been, along with her sister ship HMS Scorpion, assigned to escort the Standard oil tanker War Hostage from Plymouth to Scotland. The ships steamed out of Devonport on the evening of the 23rd. The evening was foggy and Lt. Weir had ordered a course that brought Pincher dangerously close to Seven Stones Reef. Errors in navigation due to the fog compounded the error and in the early hours of the next morning, Wednesday the 24 July 1918, Pincher struck the reef at high speed. The impact tore open her hull and she sank at 3:33 am.  After the accident, Petty Officer Wheelhouse was listed as one of thirteen men who drowned.   An inquiry was held and the commander was subjected to a court-martial. Lt. Weir was found guilty of steering an unsafe course and and sentenced to be reprimanded.

William's conduct throughout his service was 'Very Good' and his ability was never said to be less than satisfactory.   William's body was carried north-east on the tide.  Exactly two weeks after the accident, on 7 August 1918, the body was found on Gwithianbeach near the village of Gwithian, between St. Ives and St. Agnes on the west coast of Cornwall.  The coroner found the cause of death to be a fractured skull. William's gravesite is in the north part of Gwithian (St. Gothian) churchyard. The gravestone still exists and is in good condition. William's relatives added to the base of the grave marker the inscription "Ever in our thoughts"  

So far I know of thirteen deaths caused by the accident on HMS Pincher on 24 July 1918. They are:

Stoker 1st class Albert Ernest Bartholomew.
Able Seaman William James Beddoe.
Leading Seaman William Charles Victor Butler.
Petty Officer William Harry Cottell.
Stoker 1st class Charles Fearn.
Stoker 1st class Daniel Greenwell.
Stoker 1st class John William Halliday.
Stoker 1st class William Harris.
Officer's Steward 1st Class G. Marmara.
Stoker 1st class Alexander McCullock.
Stoker 1st class George Wauchope Stewart Noble.
Leading Stoker George William Tilley.
Stoker Petty Officer William Wheelhouse.  

There is a final ironic twist in the story.  St. Gwithian is the patron saint of good fortune on the sea!

Medal Entitlement 

William Wheelhouse is entitled to the following medals:   1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal.  The inscription on the medals would read:   K/7846 S.P.O. W.WHEELHOUSE. R.N.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 


 

 

 

 

 

© Copyright 2010 - 2016 Dean Hill and Stuart Reeves