Escaping Blackburn for a Life at Sea – Researching Royal Navy Service: 1902-1934

Escaping Blackburn for a Life at Sea – Researching Royal Navy Service: 1902-1934

Before my mum married and became a Rimmer in 1963, she was a Thompson.  As far as she was aware the Thompsons had been Lancashire born and bred since time out of mind, but to me there was something slightly exotic about them.  My grandad, Frank Thompson, had died when I was a baby so, sadly, I never knew him, but some of his brothers and sisters still lived in Blackburn and we were frequent visitors to them.  My grandma Mary Whiteside and her best friend since childhood, Alice Whittle, had married Frank and his bother Vern Thompson in Blackburn in the 1930s, so it was natural that the 2 families were close.

Uncle Vern became the closest link I had to my grandad.  Whenever we met up, I would study him to see what my grandad would have been like. They were of similar age (Uncle Vern was a couple of years younger) and, from the photos they looked alike.  They were both handsome chaps, would tan very quickly at the merest hint of sunshine, and were never short of a story to tell.  Uncle Vern also had a rich twang to his accent that I could listen to for hours; it sounded unusual among the broad flat vowels of the Lancashire accent that I was surrounded with.  When I later moved away and did a bit of travelling myself, I realised that he had a Portsmouth accent – and presumed that my grandad must have had the same.

James Thompson – Old Sailor

As the eldest Thompson child in her generation of the family, my mum had come into possession of a number of items from her grandfather – Frank and Vern’s father.  There was a Royal Navy service record set on stiff, waxed paper; a long, heavy wooden framed photograph of a group of sailors taken on board a ship; a large brown book containing neatly transcribed letters; and a set of 4 war medals.  Mum recalls that her sailor grandfather, James Thompson, was not a person to get on the wrong side of.  When Frank and Vern were growing up with their numerous brothers and sisters, their father, when he was not at sea, would run the household like it was a ship.  Even when he was an old man, he was to be feared if any of them stepped out of line.  During the Second World War all of his sons and daughters were either in the Forces or on war work.  When his youngest son, John, came back to Blackburn on shore leave from the Navy, he made the mistake of wearing a mix of civilian clothes and navy uniform in his rush to get his first beer in at their local pub.  Unluckily for him, his father was in there and packed him off home with a massive rollocking about ‘mixing dress’.

My mum also recalls that her grandad he had an aversion to holding any of his many grandchildren when they were babies.  But as she was the eldest, he made a rare exception in her case.  That’s why she is particularly fond of this photo (taken with her mother on hand in case he drops her) in his backyard in Blackburn in 1943:

Mary, Barbara and James Thompson - Blackburn 1943
Mary, Barbara and James Thompson – Blackburn 1943

Researching Old Navy Records

When I recently decided to do some research on the Thompsons I was a bit irked to discover that James’ old service record had not survived one of the many clearouts over the years.  I wonder how many precious old family documents accidentally go this way?  All was not lost, however, as I found that I was able to download his record of service from the National Archives as a PDF file for the princely sum of £3.50.  You can rely on the Royal Navy to keep meticulous records, and with dates of all the ships or units he served, including promotions, training and conduct awards, it is possible, along with other sources, to map out a sailor’s life over the years.

RN Service Record - James Thompson
RN Service Record – James Thompson

image source – National Archives Registers of Seamen’s Services (series ADM 188)

Joining the Edwardian Navy

James Thompson was born on 27 February 1885 in Blackburn, Lancashire.  He was the 5th of 9 children born to Joseph Thompson and Alice Duckworth.  The Thompsons had been rooted in Blackburn for at least the previous 100 years that I have been able to trace and all of his ancestors had been involved in the cotton industry.  James’ civilian occupation was also a weaver, but it obviously wasn’t for him and he appears to have been the first in his family to have run away to sea.

He made the 264 mile journey by rail from Blackburn to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy on 27 October 1902, at the age of 17.  He lied about his date of birth, recorded as 10 August 1884, to appear to be 18.  He signed on for a 12 year engagement.  He was 5 feet 3⅝ inches tall, with a fresh complexion, light brown hair and brown eyes.

By naming the ships and units he served on in chronological order it is possible to cross refer them with Wikipedia, which uses a variety of named sources, to find out roughly where he was and what he was doing.

As a Stoker 2nd Class, he was first sent to HMS Duke of Wellington II which was a shore training establishment at Portsmouth and the receiving ship for Stokers.  At that time he would have been accommodated in an old wooden hulk (old ship no longer in service) in the dockyard.  A Stoker tended the fires for the engines of steamships.  It was a thankless job.  It consisted of hard physical labour, mainly shoveling coal into the engine’s boiler.  The conditions in which stokers worked were hot, dusty and dangerous, in the bowels of the ship beneath the waterline.

Mediterranean Fleet – 1903-06

James’ first posting at sea came in June 1903 on the newly commissioned battleship, HMS Exmouth.  It was one of the lightly armoured fast ships built to deter a combined Russian and French naval threat for dominance in the Mediterranean.  This meant that James would have become familiar with the ports at Malta, Gibraltar, Port Said, Alexandria, Suez and Lemnos.  He was promoted to Stoker in August 1903 and returned to Portsmouth after almost a year away in May 1904.

His next posting saw an immediate return to the Mediterranean Fleet with the newly commissioned HMS Prince of Wales. He served on board for 2 years.  An accident towards the end of this tour highlighted the dangers of life as a stoker below decks.  On 17th April 1906 there was an accident in the engine room of the Prince of Wales when a machinery explosion during high-speed trials killed 3 men and injured another 4.  One of the dead was a Stoker named Southall, aged 23. He was buried in Kalkara Naval Cemetery, Malta.  On 28 May 1906, James ended his second Mediterranean tour when the Prince of Wales went in for a refit at Portsmouth Dockyard.

James’ promotion to Stoker 1st Class was confirmed while in training at Portsmouth, before his next posting to the battleship HMS Revenge in September 1906. Revenge was being used as a gunnery training ship at Portsmouth.  He was promoted again in July 1907 to Leading Stoker.  It was during this period in home waters that he met a Portsmouth girl named Ellen Purchess.

Marrying a Portsmouth Girl – 1907

James and Ellen were married on Christmas Day 1907 in Portsmouth.  James was 22 and Ellen was 20.  I ordered their marriage certificate through the online certificate ordering service of the General Register Office for England and Wales, with the reference details for the certificate via FreeBMD.  They set up home at 40 Bedford Road, Southsea and within 3 months, Ellen gave birth to a son named James Samuel.  Sadly, the baby died a month later on 18 April 1908.  The death certificate revealed that the baby was born premature at 7 months and was too weak to survive.  Ellen registered the death on 21 April, which suggests that James wasn’t in a position to because of his duties.  Being a local girl she at least had her family nearby for support, particularly as a posting to HMS Blenheim (a depot ship used to supply destroyers) took James off to the Mediterranean Fleet again on 17 May 1908.

James returned home after 6 months away.  After a spell at HMS Fisgard, a shore establishment used to train artificers (skilled mechanics), he was posted to HMS Achilles in May 1909, which was based with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron in the Home Fleet.  This was the start of a period of relative domestic stability for James and Ellen in Portsmouth.  A daughter, Dorothy Ellen, was born on 5 Aug 1909.  In January 1910 James was promoted to Stoker Petty Officer.  A year later my grandad, Frank Victor, was born on 28 January 1911.

I logged on to the 1911 Census for England and Wales at  When I found the record for the Thompsons in Portsmouth, I registered and bought credits to view and save an image of the original handwritten page.  On the night of 2 April 1911, James was on board ship.  Ellen (aged 23), Dorothy (aged 2) and Frank (aged 2 months) were now living at 49 Yorke Street, Southsea, Portsmouth.  This address was not far from Ellen’s parents, William and Mary Ann Purchess, at 18 Brunswick St.  As a requirement of the census, Ellen declared that she had given birth to 3 children and that 1 had died.

In November 1911 James began a 2 year posting at HMS Fisgard as an instructor.  A second daughter, Beatrice May, was born on 24 May 1912.  Uncle Vern, christened Vernon Joseph, arrived swiftly after on 6 Oct 1913.

First World War – 1914-18

In December 1913 James was back at sea on board HMS Woolwich, a destroyer depot ship.  The First World War broke out in August 1914, just as James was coming to the end of his original 12 year engagement.  There was no question of his leaving the Navy at this point, so on 27 October 1914 he signed on to complete a total engagement of 22 years, which would make him eligible for a pension.  His record also notes that he had grown slightly over the previous 12 years and was now 5 feet 5 inches.  In early 1915 the Woolwich went up to Rosyth Dockyard on the Firth of Forth, Scotland, in support of the Grand Fleet’s stand off with the Imperial German Navy in the North Sea.  Before James went, he left Ellen with another family member on the way – Evelyn Agnes was born on 21 Sep 1915.

By March 1916 James was back in Portsmouth on a shore based appointment and on 1 October 1916 he was made Acting Chief Stoker Petty Officer.  A seventh child, Charles Edward, arrived in March 1917.

In April 1917 James was posted to HMS Idaho, an Auxiliary Patrol base at Milford Haven, Wales (it took its name from a requisitioned steam yacht fitted with a machine gun for use as a patrol vessel).  Their mission was to maintain a surface barrage across the southern entrance to the Irish Sea to deny it to enemy submarines; it was successful in destroying a number of them.  Milford Haven also organised and protected a large number of valuable mercantile convoys.

By August 1917 James was back on shore duties in Portsmouth and his substantive promotion to Chief Stoker Petty Officer was confirmed on 1 October 1917.  He also qualified for his Long Service & Good Conduct Medal later the same month, following 15 qualifying years’ service.  In August 1918 he was posted to HMS Achilles which had been refitted to become a stoker’s training ship at Chatham.  As the war drew to a close, James was back in Portsmouth.

Transatlantic Convoys 1919-20

On 1 February 1919 he was back at sea on HMS Cumberland.  The Cumberland was an armoured cruiser used to escort transatlantic convoys from Nova Scotia and New York to the United Kingdom, a duty which occupied her even after the First World War ended.  The long, heavy wooden framed group photograph that my mum inherited was taken on board the Cumberland.  It shows James as part of the Cumberland’s Engineering Department and was taken in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It now has pride of place in my dining room.

Engineering Department of HMS Cumberland - Halifax, Nova Scotia 1919
Engineering Department of HMS Cumberland – Halifax, Nova Scotia 1919
James Thompson - HMS Cumberland - Halifax, Nova Scotia 1919
James Thompson in centre of picture

Two months into James’ tour on the Cumberland, Ellen gave birth to their eighth child, Albert Alfred, on 6 April 1919.  On his return in April 1920, James spent the next 3½ years in Portsmouth.  Their final child to be born there, Arthur Leonard, arrived on 16 July 1922.

Returning to Blackburn – 1924

James’ final stint at sea was on board HMS Heather from October 1923.  The Heather was a sloop employed on mine sweeping duties.  By June 1924 he was back in Portsmouth and preparing for his departure from regular service.  He had taken the decision to move his, by now very large, family back to Blackburn.  Ellen gave birth to the final addition to the family there – twins, Joyce Alice and John Henry, on 4 September 1924.  They settled on London Road in Blackburn, which was to become the home of the Thompson family for the next 60 years.

James completed his 22 year pensionable engagement with the Royal Navy on 26 October 1924, at the age of 39.  He cannily supplemented his pension by joining the Royal Fleet Reserve (RFR) the day after he left regular service.  RFR service was also beneficial to the Navy as it retained experience, particularly that of SNCOs like James in well-trained specialisations like Stoker that could be immediately recalled in a national emergency.

As a Life Pensioner, James was a Class A Reservist and would become eligible to receive a Reserve Pension at the age of 50 in addition to his life pension – which he duly did.  In his 10 years in the RFR, James was required to present himself annually at Portsmouth to begin a week’s training on a Monday morning at 8 am through to noon on Saturday.  For that week, he was paid in his substantive regular rank of Chief Petty Officer.  Given that he was also paid travelling expenses for the return journey from Blackburn to Portsmouth, I suspect that they also became a subsidised opportunity for Ellen to see her family.

As James’ naval career was nearing its end, his eldest son Frank’s began in 1932 and would take him through to the end of World War 2 (alongside all of his brothers, who joined all 3 services).  Ellen was used to seeing James off to sea for long periods and no doubt worry the whole time he was away.  Now both James and Ellen would experience the tension of their sons being caught up in a second global conflict which, for the seamen of the Royal Navy, would prove to be far more dangerous than the first  (Blackburn Brothers Missing at Sea – Researching Royal Navy Service: 1932-1945).

Ellen Thompson died in Blackburn in 1956, aged 69.  James Thompson died in Blackburn a year later, aged 72.


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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015