Second tragedy in the history of three ships named Birtley

The memorial in Bombay, India.
The memorial in Bombay, India.

THE winter of 1917-18 was marked, as in previous years, by a lessening of the toll on land as the year began.

However, there was now no optimism that the First World War would be brought to a conclusion in the coming year.

At home the population had even begun to lose interest in the conduct of the conflict, reserving their opinion for complaints about their own inconveniences engendered by the war and its seemingly fruitless continuation.

But at sea the shipping losses continued, and for port towns such as Tynemouth the daily risks faced by the men needed to supply vital materials across the sea to France meant regular notice of yet another ship sent to the bottom by a torpedo or mine.

One such ship was ss Birtley, a collier returning from Dunkirk, which was lost a few miles off the Yorkshire coast after being attacked by a submarine.

The ship was the second of three named Birtley, which was to prove less than auspicious.

All were lost in North Sea coastal waters en route to or from the Tyne.

Built at the same shipyard by Wood, Skinner and Company, of Bill Quay, Gateshead, they were operated by the Burnett Shipping Company of Newcastle.

The first and third ships were lost in unfortunate circumstances.

The first in 1905 by wreck and the latter, built in 1923 – two years before the Wood Skinner yard went into liquidation – was also lost by enemy action in 1941.

The second ship of that name was sunk on January 4, 1918, with a crew which included four men from North Shields – see casualty list.

All the crew are remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London except the two crew members who were regarded as part of the Indian Merchant Navy service.

They are remembered on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial in Mumbai (Bombay) where all crew members from the Indian sub-continent, south Arabian Peninsular and East Africa are remembered.

The tradition of employing crew from the tropical climates who could withstand the extreme temperatures of the engine room and hard physical labour feeding the boiler furnaces with coal had of course led to the establishment of the community of Yemeni seamen in South Shields, and similarly men known as Lascars were recruited from the Indian sub-continent.

The ethnic diversity of North Shields was probably greater during this period than at any time in its history.

The ship-repairing industry brought vessels with international crews and the streets of the low town from the New Quay to the Fish Quay were a melting pot of nationalities, with Greek and Maltese shopkeepers, and other nations represented in the lanes and narrow staircases leading up to the new town centre, above the steep bank sides.

The crews of such ships represented their own miniature ‘united nations’ in the dangerous task of maintaining the military effort of a war which would appear to them to seemingly have no end in sight.

Anyone who has any information about men included on this week’s casualty list or who wishes to learn more about the project is welcome visit the workroom at the Linskill Community Centre – Mondays to Fridays from 10am to 4pm – or visit the project website.

Anyone who wants to get involved or has material they think should be included in the project, should also get in touch.

The next open forum for project volunteers and members of the public will be held at 7pm on Tuesday, 27th .March, 2012 at Linskill Community Centre, Linskill Terrace – further details of this event will be given in coming weeks.

THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men who were killed or died in January 1918.

Carmichael, William, age 63, first engineer, MN, 5 Brannen Street, son of the late Thomas and Mary, husband of the late Isabella (nee Mowatt).

Hails, Matthew Errington, age 49, second engineer, MN, son of the late Thomas Dixon Hails and June Hall (nee Errington).

Mills, Lewis Anderson Peak, age 18, AB, MN, 7 North King Street, son of Alexander and Rebecca.

Robson, Albert, age 24, second mate, MN, Lovaine Place, son of Thomas Michael Henry Robson and Isabella (nee Abrams).

All the above commemorated at Tower Hill Memorial.

Other casualties

Cuthbert, Alexander, age 39, Master, MN, ss Ethelinda, LAS, 29th, 18 Grosvenor Place, son of the late David and Maria, husband of Florence May.

Emmerson, Andrew Rutherford, age 33, trooper 1st Life Guards, Household Cavalry, died from effects of war service, 20th, 44 Elsdon Terrace.

Jefferson, Robert Taylor, Lance Corporal, 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, KIA, 18th, 26 Upper Reed Street, husband of Mrs J Jefferson.

McVay, Francis, age 26, private, 20th Battalion NF, KIA, 4th, 64 Barrasford Street, East Howdon, husband of Ellen, of 7 Plessey Road, Blyth.

Myers, Thomas Hall, age 23, Petty Officer, RNVR, HMS Raglan, LAS, 20th., son of Richard, 16 Dock Road, and Georgina, of 38 Coronation Street.

Richardson, Thomas, MN, ss Master, lost in collision, 13th, 3 Dockwray Square. Details needed.

Saint, Cuthbert, age 42, private, 27th Battalion NF, DOW, 7th, 40 Church Way, son of Thomas and Margaret, husband of Mary Ann, born Washington, County Durham.

Scurr, William Gordon, age 26, second engineer, ss Trocas (London) LAS, 19th, 44 Seymour Street, son of George Henry and Mary Alice (nee Pilmer)

Smith, Ralph Philip, deck hand, HM trawler Gambri, blown up, 18th, 22 Dockwray Square Noted on the Dover Patrol record of those killed.


KIA – killed in action

DOW – died of wounds

LAS – lost at sea

NF – Northumberland Fusiliers

DLI – Durham Light Infantry

RND – Royal Naval Division

RNR – Royal Naval Reserve

RFA – Royal Field Artillery

n Anyone with information on this week’s list or who wants to find out more about the project, should visit, e-mail or write to Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project, c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.