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Roll of Honour

Hartlepool seafarers lost at sea

Thompson, William Henry

Able Seaman

Lost when HMS Active was wrecked at Granton, Firth of Forth, on November 13th, 1901.

William Henry Thompson was born on November 6th, 1878, in Hartlepool. His parents were William Thompson, a bricklayer, and his wife Jane (nee Danielson); they had married at St Hilda’s, Hartlepool, on January 25th, 1876.

William was baptised at private ceremony in St Hilda’s on 25th June, 1879, and their address is given as Bird’s Passage. By 1881 the family lived on the Town Wall and there was a younger brother James.

In 1891 the census showed the family at 5, John Street North, Hartlepool and a further son, Charles Magnus, was a baby. The name Magnus was that of William’s maternal grandfather, Magnus Danielson, who was a seaman from Northmavine, Shetland. His wife was Miriam Hewitt from Stockton and they married in March 1854, at St Thomas’ Church Stockton although Miriam was living in Hartlepool as a lodger and dressmaker at Victoria Dock, Hartlepool. It can be assumed that this is how she met Magnus Danielson the sailor from Shetland.

William’s father and William Henry’s grandfather, also William, was a stone mason born in Alnwick and was married before 1841 to Ellen who had been born in Catterick. North Yorkshire. In 1841 they were both in Hartlepool. Paternal grandparents William and Ellen died with six days of each other in 1895 at 77 and 75 years and are buried at Spion Kop Cemetery, Hartlepool.

Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Thursday November 14th, 1901:
During the gale which prevailed on Tuesday night his Majesty's Revenue cruiser Active was dashed to pieces on Granton Breakwater, in the Firth of Forth, and all on board, except five, were lost. Official information of the disaster was received from the Admiralty last night in the following terms:
The Secretary of the Admiralty regrets to report that the following telegram has been received from the District Captain at Queensferry:
Mate of cruiser Active reports that Active was lost during night on Granton Breakwater. Captain and nineteen hands drowned, five saved, namely—Donovan, mate; Wakemen, quartermaster; Travers, Pearce and Dady, ordinaries.
Am sending Cockchafer to Granton with my steam boat launch and divers. Am also proceeding myself at once to Granton to make inquiries and ascertain what further steps to take to salve the ship and recover bodies.
Names of officer and men who formed the crew and are not accounted for are:—Chief Officer Charles Culley, Carpenter's Mate Williams No. 340753, Able Seamen Thompson 186551, Farrow 157772 (187772?), Randall 182665 (183665?), Chief Quartermaster Donovan 142204, Petty Officer Second-Class Weller 182524, Able Seamen Gregory 180118, Pearson 156787, Barton? 156259, Plummer 167904 (167984?), Ordinary Seamen Temple 202891 (203891?), Walker 205812, Boys Banham 207566, Melling 207571, P Rynn (Prynn?) 207544, Ordinary Seamen Buttons 188786, Lyall 208116, Boy Mulvaney 206473.
The Active was a two-masted cutter of 135 tons, and must not be confused with the second-class cruiser of the same name. The cutter had during the summer been cruising round Shetland protecting the fishing, and had come into the Firth of Forth for instructional purposes. She anchored about a mile and half to the northeast of Granton Pier, and on Monday night two of her crew of 25 men—the mate, John Donovan, and the quartermaster, William Wakemen, both residing in Leith —were granted leave of absence They were under orders to return to the boat at eight o'clock on Tuesday morning. At that hour half a gale from the north-east was blowing and a dirty sea running, and the men were unable to get on board. The two men waited on Newhaven Pier all day in the hope of the wind moderating, but towards evening it increased in force, with intermittent squalls of hurricane strength. It was then impossible to reach their ship that night, and the two men returned to Leith.
They had watched the Active all day, and when they took their last look at her she seemed to be standing the strain remarkably well. A trawler hurrying to port for shelter passed the Active later in the night, and there was no sign of anything amiss, the vessel riding at anchor. This was the last seen of the ill-fated craft until the dock officials appalled by seeing her rising above the breakwater on the crest of the billows.
The men about the harbour immediately made for the breakwater, and crawled along to the point of destruction. When about two hundred yards along they met man attired only in his shirt. He was bleeding and bruised, and crawling half unconsciously to the lights on the shore. There is no lifeboat at Granton, but even if there had been no attempt would have been made to launch it. So there was nothing for it but wait for daylight breaking. In the meantime two more men were picked up. They stated that the moment vessel struck they had jumped for it, and a wash had sent them over the breakwater. One man was dashed against the Swedish steamer Bede, and the second mate, noticing something the water, made for it, and pulled him out. The other man, Trevors, made a great effort for life, and swimming with wind and tide he struck the slip. He felt himself that would never get up, the water washing him from his hold many times, but he finally got clear of the swirl, and a railway porter found him a terrible state. He was one hour in the water.
The three survivors recovered considerably during the day, and one them, named Pearce said that when the majority of the crew were endeavouring to get some sleep they were all warned on deck the captain. The ship was not lying far enough out in the Forth to receive any shelter from the fortified island of Inchkeith.
There were three anchors out, but a hurricane was blowing and a tremendous sea running, and the ship was dragging her anchors and the decks were being swept every moment. The tiller was smashed, and the spare one was brought from below. The foresail was ordered to be set, that they might sail up to the anchors and see what was the matter with them. They could not, however, get the ship's nose round to the wind, and signals of distress were sent up, but there was no response from the shore.
Then, said Pearce, the captain saw how serious matters were, and advised the men to climb the rigging, adding that was no use trying to launch the boats. Some of the men made attempts to get life-jackets, but they were waist deep in water, and they scrambled in the rigging. Of what happened subsequently Pearce has but faint and hazy idea. The cables, it would appear, parted, and the Active was carried before the hurricane to the breakwater.
The captain, who has had charge of the Active for the past three years, leaves a wife and six children, the eldest of whom is a girl 17. A pathetic feature is that the captain went down almost at his own door. His wife watched his vessel all day from her window, and she was startled when day broke see no signs of the ship. Soon afterwards the police officials arrived bearing the sad intelligence that the vessel was lost.
Yesterday morning the body of seaman was found in the harbour, and search was made for the bodies of the other victims of the disaster. Hardly a vestige of the wreck remained at the breakwater, but parts of the hull, rigging, and gear were washed ashore in large quantities in the neighbourhood of Granton.
The Active was built in1867 in a Kent shipbuilding yard. She was first-stationed at Hull, but for the last 20 years has been on the Scotch coast.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Wednesday, December 4th, 1901:
The loss of H.M.S. Active on Granton breakwater formed the subject of a naval court-martial at Chatham yesterday. The prisoners, against whom there were no charges, were four of the five survivors out of the crew 25, viz., the second mate, John Donovan, Quartermaster William Walsenham, and two ordinary seamen. The other man is still in hospital.
According to Captain Fisher, who gave Culley, the chief officer of the Active, sailing instructions on or about October 26th, the Active was to be used for the instruction of young seamen of H.M.S. Anson when not otherwise engaged. Witness showed the best portions on the chart for anchoring, but the position in which the Active anchored, prior to being wrecked, was not one of those indicated. Twelve young seamen were among the complement of 27, and he thought two were left behind in the Anson.
Lieut. Carver, of the latter vessel, who was present when these instructions were given, said they could not find an anchorage to suit all winds, and Culley was told to use his discretion. Captain Fisher, recalled, expressed himself satisfied with the fitness of the Active for the work on which she was engaged, and the capacity of her commander.
The next witness, Donovan, considered that the Active could have slipped and run for shelter at the height of the gale but for the seasickness of a portion of the crew, through the jumping of the vessel at her cables, which precluded their being of use for working the ship in an emergency.
Quartermaster Walsenham agreed with this evidence, and Seaman Travis also stated very nearly all the crew were seasick. No tugs or vessels offered assistance, contrary to rumour. Walsenham, recalled, admitted that he saw tugs out, but denied that any came near the ship. The Court found that the vessel was lost through an endeavour to ride out the heavy gale, and expressed the opinion that the officer command would have shown better judgment had he either weighed or slipped and run for safety. After it was too late he appeared to have maintained discipline, and done all possible to save life. The Court also acquitted the survivors from all blame.

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