Went to The National Archives at Kew yesterday to look for my granddad, James Scott.
He’s the one who said he fell off the Mauretania in New York. I had forgotten, in these days of being able to sit in front of a computer and find stuff at the click of a mouse, what a monumentally tedious task it is to search through original records. Plus, I had a bit of a hangover.
Took me bloody ages to get to Kew, and it was a blazingly hot, beautiful day, and there were several moments when I wondered if I was several twigs short of the full tree.
Granddad, according to my mum and my aunt, worked on the Mauretania, the fastest ship on the Atlantic for 20 years until 1929, and he was a steward or a waiter. My auntie had his registration book, but mysteriously, all the pages had been torn out of it.
My first bit of digging put me in touch with some specialists in the merchant marine who gave me the file names of the records I would need to search. I am absolutely certain they told me that each folder would be thin little thing containing about three bits of paper. I’d be through them in no time.
So you’re not going to be surprised when I tell you that the archivist at Kew took me to a enormous trolley overloaded with 34 hefty box files and smirked, she definitely smirked, as she waved her hand at them and said, ‘All yours.’
I sat down and began. Each log was about three inches thick, on stiff expensive paper, sewn together; gritty and grimy round the edges.
They were utterly fascinating. There were about 550 crew on each voyage, all dedicated to getting the 800 or so passengers (and mail) from Liverpool to New York in about three days and in as luxurious a manner as possible. There were 300 or more firemen, who spent all day stoking the boilers, 200 trimmers, who (I think) just broke up the coal, pages of cooks (a special Jewish cook, a confectioner, vegetable cooks, pastry chefs, sous chefs) and stewards and linen mistresses and waiters and barbers, and musicians and an interpreter and ships’ engineers, and a ship’s surgeon and, oh yes, all the sailors.
The captain’s notes were terse but illuminating. Flynn, O’Halloran, and Smith confined to quarters on being found too drunk to work. Hawker, fireman, on feeling ill, made his way to sick bay where he collapsed. Ship’s surgeon examined him and found him dead from heart disease. Upon inquiry I have found no further grounds to investigate. A short service was held and his body committed to the deep. His possessions included a pair of boots, three pairs of overalls, a good suit and a pair of silk socks. A woman in steerage was delivered of a male child this morning. Ship’s surgeon in attendance.
And there, on July 5, 1911, New York, 8 am, is the note, the following men deserted the ship taking with them their effects: James Scott, Frank Moran, Joseph Pendere, Henry O’Neil, James Nolan, Wm Lynch, Wm Hogan and Patk Branagan, firemen
Hard to tell if it was the James Scott who is my granddad, (I didn’t get through all the files, I couldn’t verify the address, and the age isn’t right) but falling off a ship is as good a way as any of telling your daughter you jumped ship, and conditions were appalling. About five to ten men, especially firemen left the ship at New York on every voyage. And there were plenty waiting to take their place. It paid £6 a week, which was an enormous amount of money. Of course the irony is, that the harder the men worked, and the faster the ship went, the less they got paid.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he did jump ship. It would explain why he tore all the pages out of his registration book, which would mean he could then sign back on, on another ship in a job (as, say, a waiter) with better conditions.
But to make certain, I’d need to go back to Kew, and finish off the trolley. At 6pm yesterday after getting through 10 of the 34 files, I jumped ship. I’m not sure if I want to go back.
Pictures courtesy of creative commons:
Remember I told you about my grandad, the one who went to New York and fell off the Mauretania? Now I want to tell you what happened to him when he joined the army in 1914. Partly because it’s interesting, and partly because there is no memorial to the regiment that he served with; which when you think of what they went through, is nothing short of shameful.
James had four brothers and two sisters. His brothers Bob, Alexander (Sandy) and Arthur all signed up. I’m not sure what the youngest son George did, but their parents must have found life hard with four sons on the Western Front. Bob was 30 and married. His wife Peg gave birth to their third child in November 1914, and he joined the Scots Guards in January 1915. At first everything went pretty well, the army kept him in England and trained him to shoe horses. But in 1917 he was posted to the Somme and in March 1918, when the Germans mounted a counter attack he was shot in the shoulder and died the next day. Here is the list of personal effects that were sent back to Peg, on August 3, 1918: photographs, cards, a poem, two discs, letters, religious book, a handkerchief, 11 buttons, a purse, scissors, a French dictionary, two badges, a wallet and a broken brooch.
Sandy, two years younger, was a driver in the Royal Artillery. This meant riding a horse in a team of six pulling a gun carriage, and making sure that they got to the front line without stampeding or turning the gun over. Bit like his farm job, I suppose, except that nobody shoots at you in Fife. Amazingly, he survived and went to Canada, where he had a rather extraordinary and ultimately tragic end (but more about that another time). Arthur was 21. He too was in the Scots Guards, and was shot in the knee and invalided out.
And now we come to James. He was 26, and, as I said, he joined the Army Service Corps. He might have been assigned to the regiment because he was one of the very few people at that time who could drive. This was probably because of his apprenticeship to a grocer, but I don’t know. He signed up on November 17, 1914 and was sent to France on December 23. When his daughter asked him what he did, he simply said he delivered stores to the front line. As was quite common in those days, he gave no descriptions at all. We do know that he was promoted to corporal and based at No 2 GHQ Reserve Motor Company in Calais.
The Army Service Corps wasn’t a glamorous regiment. It didn’t get its Royal prefix until after the war was over, and the men in it called themselves Ally Sloper’s Cavalry (after a cartoon drunk and rent dodger). There were only a few hundred motor vehicles worldwide in the regiment in 1914, but there were 105,000 at the time of the Armistice. What I found strange was that there were also 650 former civilian buses on the Western Front, used to transport troops and stores. It must have seemed like the blackest of humour to be sent up to the front line at say, Ypres or Arras or Paschaendale, on a Number 32. (I think my granddad drove one of these; he was certainly a bus driver for a time after the war.)
Historians have paid so little attention to this regiment and the part that its men played in the war, that it is extremely difficult to get any details about specific units and what they did. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realise how terrifying his job must have been. You can’t drive and shoot at the same time. You just have to keep driving. When James was demobbed on May 27, 1919, his discharge papers noted that he was a ‘very good driver, thoroughly reliable’.
The German artillery definitely liked to target the supply trucks and depots. And when casualties mounted among front line troops, the soldiers of the ASC were routinely given a gun and sent to the front. According to the Western Front Association it is rare to find a British War Memorial without the name of a soldier in the ASC. Two members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross. Some of the bravest men in the war, those who drove the field ambulances, were in the ASC. This year marks the centennial of the start of the First War, and yet, according to Army history site The Long, Long Trail, the regiment, so vital to the army, merits just four mentions in the Official History of the war. There is no memorial to it.
As I said. Shameful.
This is my granddad, James Scott, in a photo taken at his village school nearly 120 years ago. He’s aged about ten or 11 here, I think, and he’s staring into the camera with a good deal of scepticism. Of course, he’s been done up like a dog’s dinner by his mother with an outsize bow-tie but there is also the fact that, at this time (about 1900), photography, especially in the wilds of Fife, where he lived, must have been a pretty rare thing. Photographers in those days had a camera on a tripod and they disappeared under a big black cloth to change the plate. Then, when everything was ready, they held up a big tray of magnesium and applied a match. Flash bang wallop, what a picture. I like the way the teachers are all dressed up, too, in their tailcoats. God knows how they kept order with that lot.
James’s father, and his father’s father, in fact all his ancestors back to 1620 were ploughmen in Fife, and none of them ever did anything different. Until James came along. After he left school, probably not long after this picture was taken, he was apprenticed to a grocer in his home town of Newburgh. Nothing really exciting. But then, out of the blue, when he is about 19, he packs everything in and travels 500 miles to Southampton to sign on as a ship’s steward, bound for New York.
He doesn’t sign on with just any old ship, mark you, he gets a job on the Mauretania, (sister ship of Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915). It is the most prestigious ship on the Atlantic, packed with the kind of people you’d never normally see from behind a horse’s arse in Fife. On a voyage during December 1910 Prince Albert and Prince Radziwell (who he? ed) were amongst the passengers.
So there he is, on the Mauretania, the fastest ship on the Atlantic steaming into New York past the Statue of Liberty, and what happens?
Aye, weel, as my relatives would say that is a moot point. My mother says he fell off. My auntie says he did no such thing. The only record we have is his Board of Trade employment book and that has had all its pages torn out. He certainly survived, and when he came back he signed up in 1914 for a new, rather more terrible adventure, as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was driving a grocer’s van once more, but this time he was taking supplies to the trenches on the Western Front.