hartlepool history logo

The Loss of HMS Char

The Loss of HMS Char – the Story

The North Eastern Railway Company’s tug Stranton was a twin-screw vessel built by Messrs. Charles Rennoldson & Co. at South Shields in 1899. Her dimensions were: Length, 105 ft. 4 in.; beam, 22 ft. 1 in.; depth, 9 ft. 7 in. Her engines developed 98 horse-power. The tug served the company well, both in port and at sea.

On January 11th, 1913, the steamship Coronation ran aground on the rocks at Ravenscar on the North Yorkshire Coast. The following appeared in the North Eastern Railway Magazine:
“The salvage work, which was undertaken by the firm of Lindsay, Swan, Hunter & Co., of Sunderland, abounded in difficulties. The vessel (3,700 tons), was beached some 5ft above water level, and at the foot of a cliff towering 600ft above her. The boulders… had to be blasted away and the vessel drawn gradually into the deep water, the total distance moved being 400ft. The conditions faced by the workmen who had to crawl up and down the cliff side, which was often rain-sodden and dangerous, increase the merit of the achievement.

The tribulations of the Coronation were not to end, however, with her arrival at the port and happy haven of the Hartlepools, for, after she had been in dry dock, a fire broke out on board on October 7th, the petrol used for the powerful salvage pumps having become ignited. What flood had failed to accomplish, fire was not to achieve, and at the time of writing the patient, although she is reported as having a ‘list of about 25°’ and her holds well filled with water, seems well on the way to recovery, the tugs Stranton and Seaton having promptly rendered first aid.”

1913 was clearly a very busy year for the Stranton, as she featured in another NER Magazine article:
“Exciting scenes were witnessed at West Hartlepool on the night of May 8th, when the Swedish barquentine Meda, bound from Vastervik with a cargo of pit-props, broke her tow rope and, drifting towards the south pier, grounded to become a total wreck. The vessel has since been dismantled and her cargo sold.

The tug-boat engaged was the Stranton, belonging to the N.E.R. Company, the crew of which made a gallant effort to throw another rope to the helpless sailing ship. Ere this could be done however, another mishap occurred. The Stranton’s twin propellors coming into contact with some obstacle were almost stripped and rendered useless. It was now the Stranton’s turn to drift and it also stranded, about 600 yards from the Middleton beach. The crews of both vessels were taken off by lifeboat, but a second visit had to be paid to the Stranton before the men could be induced to leave and then they only did so on the advice of Captain Standing, Assistant Dockmaster, who accompanied the lifeboat.

Captain J. Whales of the Stranton elected to remain on board and did so despite the danger. The Hartlepool Life-Saving Brigade took up a position on the Middleton pier and fired a rocket across the ttug-boat but happily their services were not required. The Stranton drifted further on to the beach and when the tide receded next day was left “high and dry”. It has since been refloated and at the time of writing is undergoing repairs at Newcastle.”

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Stranton was one of a number of North Eastern Railway tugs requisitioned by the Admiralty for war work.
Her eight-man civilian crew all volunteered to stay with their ship and were duly enrolled in the Mercantile Marine Reserve.

Re-named HMS Char, she entered Naval service on November the 17th, 1914, as an un-armed Boarding Vessel, based at Ramsgate in Kent, as part of the Downs Boarding Flotilla. Her main role was to check all the ships passing through the Downs, a dangerous stretch of water between the Kent coast and the Goodwin Sands. Only two months later, however, disaster struck. The events were described in an article in the Hartlepool newspaper The Northern Daily Mail on Monday the 18th January 1915.

“The loss of a patrol boat – details of the disaster. The Press Bureau at 11:15 last night issued the following :
The Secretary of the Admiralty makes the following statement : H.M. Tug Char was sunk in collision with the steamship Frivan early on the morning of 16th January. It is feared that the whole of the crew have been lost.”

Further details of the disaster show that during the terrific gale which prevailed in the Downs on that Saturday morning, the Char was endeavouring to get alongside a steamship to examine her when she fouled the vessel’s bows and was cut below the waterline. The wind and sea at the time were terrific. Cries for help could be heard from the Char’s crew as she rapidly filled and drifted away in the dark. No assistance could be given from those on board the steamer as no boats could be lowered. It is stated that the Char carried a crew of from 12 to 14.

The captain of the steamship reports that after she struck, the tugboat drifted away and nothing more was seen of her. He was powerless to render assistance as great walls of water swept over their vessel. He sent up rockets for assistance. With great difficulty the Deal lifeboat was launched, but the gale was so fierce that the men had to hold on to save themselves from being washed overboard, while they had to reel their sail down to the bottom notch.

For hours the lifeboat men searched in vain for the boat and any signs of her crew, all of whom have now been given up for lost. It is believed that the force of the hurricane blew the tugboat on to the Goodwins. The lifeboat men came back and stood by the steamer all night.

When coming ashore next morning, they were sent back to the Goodwins as another vessel was observed stranded there, but when the lifeboat men reached the sands the vessel had disappeared. The lifeboat men returned at 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon, having been out 12 hours in terrible weather.”


The North Eastern Railway Magazine also featured this disaster:

“TOWARDS the end of last year the N.E.R. Company's tugboat Stranton was transformed into H.M.S. Char and left the Hartlepools for patrol duty in the English Channel. In the December number the writer of a short article, entitled "The Call to Arms," mentioned that the Stranton’s crew volunteered to a man to go with their boat wherever Admiralty orders took her. With profound regret it has now to be recorded that Captain Whale and his gallant men will never return to "the haven under the hill." Early on the morning of January 16 the Char was preparing to examine a large steamer off Deal when she was driven by a heavy sea against the vessel's bows and sank with all on board. We can readily appreciate the bravery of our fighting men, on shore and afloat, but perhaps it is not so easy to see the heroic side of the duties performed by our patrol boats. The naval correspondent of The Times describes the work on which such vessels are engaged as "severe, comfortless and perilous," a condition of things which has been accentuated by the recent gales. "The task of the crews," he adds, "always a highly responsible one, is made exceedingly hazardous in rough weather " and " can hardly be said to have received the attention at the hands of the public which it deserves."

The names of the Stranton's crew will be found in our "Roll of Honour." Though they are gone, the force of their example will not be lost. They did not shun their duty to their native land and, so long as the country breeds such men, we may join in the poet's song:

"England, none that is born thy son, and lives, by
grace of thy glory free.
Lives and yearns not at heart and burns with hope, to
serve as he worships thee."

The following N.E.R. men were lost in the tug Stranton, which, as H.M.S. Char, was sunk in collision while on patrol duty on January 16 : Mr. J. P. Whale, master, who had been given the rank of lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, was nearly 59 years of age and had a very wide and varied experience of the sea. He was the son of the late Mr. Archibald Whale, tug owner, of South Shields, who was a very well-known man in the Tyne, and who, we understand, contracted for the removal of the dredgings from the constructional works at Tyne Dock. Another branch of the family has supplied three tug masters to the company at Tyne Dock, so that the family has a claim to special interest on the part of our readers. Mr. Whale joined the company's service in 1903, coming as a tug master from the Tyne to take charge of the Stranton. He had been in command of passenger steamers running from pleasure resorts in the south, and, in addition to the ordinary master's certificate, he held a master's certificate as a deep-sea fisherman. One of his great pleasures was the making of models of various descriptions, in which art he was an expert. In Mr. Whale the company have lost a valuable servant, and the loss is the country's, too, as a man of such excellent qualities and wide experience must have been exceedingly useful on patrol service.

Mr. Ralph Fergus, who was 36 years of age, joined the company in 1906, as a dock gateman, and was made mate of the Stranton a few months later. He was a most reliable man and acted as tug master for several years whenever relief was required for the regular men. He leaves a widow and two sons, aged seven and eight respectively.

Mr. William Booth, who was 58 years of age, joined as an engineer in 1871 and was made first engineer in 1900. He was an old and trusted servant, and leaves a widow and large family, most of whom are grown up, but there is one little girl of 12.

Mr. George Nossiter was 49 years old and had served the company since 1883, with the exception of a period of five years from 1886 to 1891. He was made second engineer in 1907, and was in that position when the Stranton foundered. Mr. Nossiter was well known in the Hartlepools, in consequence of his long connection with the Neptune Boat Club and the Porpoise Swimming Club. He leaves a widow and three sons, 19, 16 and 9 and a little daughter 2 years old.

Mr. Edward Booth, who was 22 years old, joined the company as a deck hand in 1911, and was appointed fireman soon afterwards. He was the son of Mr. William Booth, the Chief Engineer, who is mentioned above, and was unmarried.

Mr. J. E. Hunter was aged 25, and joined theservice as a deck hand in 1905, being advanced to a fireman's position in 1907. He leaves a widow and a baby a few weeks old.

Mr. William Hatch, aged 20, joined the company as a lad deck hand in 1907, was made a dock gateman in April, 1914, and fireman two months later. He was unmarried.

Mr. M. Hastings, who was 21 years of age, joined the company as a deck hand in 1911, and was in that position on the Stranton when she foundered. He was single.

Lives lost January 1915:

(Former Stranton crew)

Booth, Edward, Fireman, 22, Dover Street, West Hartlepool
Booth, William, 1st Engineer, 58, Dover Street, West Hartlepool
Fergus, Ralph, Mate, Dent Street, West Hartlepool
Hastings, Matthew, Deck Hand, 20, Wells Yard, Hartlepool
Hatch, William, Fireman, 24, Alma Street, West Hartlepool
Hunter, John E, Fireman, Sheriff Street, West Hartlepool
Nossiter, George, 2nd Engineer, 48, Wolviston
Whale, Lieutenant John Peacock, Master, South Shields

(Royal Navy crew)
Darch, Alfred Percy, Private, 23, Taunton, Somerset
Dodd, John, Wireless Telegraph Operator, 30, Manchester
Duchemin, Camille Alfred, Seaman, 26, Jersey
Melsome, Lieutentant Robert Percy, 28, b. Hursley, Hants.
Park, James, Stoker, 31, South Shields
Powell, Clement Arthur, Officer’s Steward 3rd class, 19, Woodford, London
Robinson, William Henry, Corporal, 34, Plympton, South Devon
Stephens, Charles Wesley, Wireless Telegraph Operator, 32, Manchester
Thomson, Gordon, Seaman, 22, Aberdeen
Whittle, Lieutenant Harold Worsley, 26, Edinburgh

Related items :