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Tracing a 'Royal Navy' boy


Adèle had now idea who this boy in naval uniform was, but pitted her wits to try to find out more. © Adèle Emm

In her book, Tracing your Trade and Craftsmen Ancestors, Adéle Emm looked at all sorts of occupations. This blog is about a your Navy boy who did not make it into her book for several reasons, but it's certainly a postcard to pique your curiosity. Adèle explains why...

For the past two years, I have volunteered for one morning a week in a wonderful charity bookshop and it was here I found the postcard of a young man wearing HMS Drake cap, military metal buttons and a miserable expression. Before the customer left the shop, I drew her attention to it in case it was family memorabilia she had overlooked but didn’t want to lose.  ‘Not mine,’ she said so I popped 50p in the donations box and snaffled the card for the button making entry.

I needed to date the photo. There have been HMS Drakes from 1653 named after Tudor seafarer Sir Francis Drake and from one of the many excellent shipping websites I learn that, during the First World War, HMS Drake was an armoured cruiser.  Completed in 1903, one of the boiler rooms was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat on 2 October 1917 with the loss of 18 crew members. It could have been so much worse. The ship was off the coast of Northern Ireland and the captain set sail for Rathlin Island but unfortunately collided with a merchant ship, SS Mendip Range. Although HMS Drake’s surviving crew were rescued safely, SS Mendip Range had to beach to prevent it, too, sinking. The site of Drake’s wreck is still a popular diving site as it lies mere 20 metres deep.  HMS Drake is now the name given for the naval base at Devonport so the tally can still be seen on naval hats.

I wanted to know more so contacted The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth; my young man’s photo could have been taken at any time between 1903-1917.  Was his father one of the victims? The NMRN replied by email within a day or two and made several suggestions; the boy’s father may never have been on board HMS Drake but might have been drafted to another ship.  More importantly, I learnt about ‘tallies’ (the ship’s name on the cap) which were issued to a sailor when he joined the ship.  In December 1914, however, the Admiral of Patrols ordered tallies not to be worn ashore presumably for security reasons (index 24387 and 24403/2 Admiralty Correspondence).  By June 1915, men on leave from any warship, were ordered to wear cap ribbons of their depots not their ship.  Photographs taken aboard ships, however, show the sailors wearing ships’ tallies.

Sadly, for several reasons, the Drake boy never made it into the book. I hesitated including someone about whom I was ignorant of family and history. What if his father had died on HMS Drake?  What if the boy himself came to a ‘sticky end’ of which I was unaware and a descendant spotted him in my book?  The photo quality wasn’t the best and I reluctantly decided to use another picture. If anyone out there does know the identity of this young man or the fate of his father, please, get in touch. Please email me on adele_emm@uklinux.net.

Adèle Emm's book, Tracing your Trade and Craftsmen Ancestors will be published by Pen-and-Sword.co.uk on 30 April 2015. And on 30 May 2015 Adèle will be holding a half day course at the Society of Genealogists: http://www.sog.org.uk/books-courses/events-courses/tracing-your-trade-and-craftsman-ancestors.


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