Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Rail Crash at Ufton Nervet 2004

The village of Ufton Nervet lies six miles from the town of Reading and for many years was a very quiet area with empty roads and only the sound of the odd car or train passing through that would disturb the silence.

On 6th November 2004 the level crossing was visited by 48 year old hotel chef Bryan Drysdale. After driving down the country road he slowed down at the crossing until his car came to a complete stop on the railway tracks where he turned off the engine and sat waiting for the next train to come. His intention was to commit suicide.

He had become tormented by his own thoughts, convinced he had HIV and was becoming more and more mentally unstable, struggling with his sexuality. Today he was going to end all this for good. But what he didn’t take into account was what the impact of a high speed train hitting a car would do and just how much damage his action would be responsible for.

With almost 200 passengers on board, the 1735 from London Paddington bound for Plymouth sped down the line, the driver seeing the car and taking the correct actions to try and stop the train in time, but it was impossible to not collide at that speed. At 1812 that evening the front of the train slammed into Drysdales car and immediately derailed all eight coaches.

Calls immediately went out to the emergency services with 20 ambulances, 14 fire engines and a host of police and other rescuers flooding the scene. The wreckage of the train resembled a child’s toy thrown to the other side of the level crossing and left in a heap.

Drysdale died instantly, the driver of the train was dead as were five of his passengers (one of whom died in the hospital later). Another 66 others were injured, a dozen of them seriously. It was a miracle that so many others were uninjured physically.

The official investigation blamed the car driver for the crash, returning a verdict of suicide for Drysdale and unlawful killing for the six train victims.

Over the years there were four more fatalities at the crossing causing locals to push for a bridge to be built over the crossing, this was made a reality and opened in December 2016.

At the site of the disaster a simple memorial which I visited in 2013 pays tribute to those who died. This has since been turned into a memorial garden with a circular bench as an Area of Reflection, a place where those who want to remember the victims of both the rail crash and the subsequent deaths can do without the interruptions of traffic.

Ufton Nervet is now once again a peaceful place.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Holland I – The Wreck of the First Royal Navy Submarine

The start of the 20th Century saw an arms race like never before, with the building of the new Dreadnought style battleships not only in Britain but in Germany and America and new weapons that seemed too complicated at first glance. The idea of a boat that could go underwater had been toyed with for years, the successful sinking of the USS Housatonic by the Confederate submarine Hunley during the American Civil War showed that it was possible to defeat an enemy in complete secrecy – despite both the target and the submarine sinking during the attack.

The Holland Class submarines were constructed in absolute secrecy but only after the USA had announced their own Holland boat based on the same design, forcing the Royal Navy to hurry their own vessels through the production process. The result was the Holland I and would closely be followed by II, III, IV and V.

By 1902 the tiny sub had arrived in Portsmouth and was officially part of the navy’s first submarine flotilla, complete with a tender and one other Holland boat that had also been completed. At just less than 64ft long, this steel contraption consisted of a petrol engine that turned the single propeller a speed of just 7 knots. Eight crew could fit inside but working in comfort was something the occupants could only dream about. She could dive to a maximum depth of around 100ft and could carry up to three torpedoes to fire out of her single forward tube.

She was activated to chase the Russians after the infamous Dogger Bank Incident of 1904 when warships sank a fleet of trawlers in the North Sea but by the time the Hollands and their squad of A-Class subs left port the Russians were long gone.

Although these submarines were experimental they were plagued with problems. They did not venture far from land before breaking down and having to head back and in one incident on Holland I in 1903, an explosion injured four people.

With no real use for the Hollands they were decommissioned and sold for scrap. Holland I was towed away and encountered bad weather, flooding and sinking just over a mile from Eddystone Lighthouse, Cornwall.

The sub was forgotten about until historian Michael Pearn located the wreck in 1981 and began plans to salvage her, gaining permission and getting a crew together within a year. When she was finally out of the water in 1982 a long process of restoration began which involved coating her in chemicals and later having to be completely submerged in a tank of sodium carbonate solution.

One amazing fact was that the subs batteries, once restored and cleaned, still worked when recharged!

Today the Holland I has been completely restored and is now on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire. Visitors can go on board and see for themselves the cramped conditions that the crew would have had to endure and touch the controls which had sent this boat to sea a century before and learn about this incredibly experimental craft and how it led to the permanent introduction of submarines as a part of the Royal Navy today.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Tragedies at the Fords Theatre

The American Civil War had been raging for four years and had cost the lives of thousands of soldiers, sailors and civilians on both the Union and Confederate sides. When the conflict was finally over and a Union victory announced, the President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, could finally pat himself on the back for a job well done. Only six days after the official ending, he decided to go and see the play Our American Cousin at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC.

With him on the evening of 14th April 1865 was his wife Mary and guests Major Henry Rathbone together with the Majors fiancĂ©e  when they settled to enjoy the play. Unbeknown to any of them was the presence of a man who was hell bent on kidnapping or even killing Lincoln in order to give the Confederates another chance, believing the war was still winnable.

John Wilkes Booth was a 26 year old actor who had waited for a chance like this to come, getting close to the President and showing the world that the fight was still ongoing. He approached the private theatre box where the small group were watching the beginning of the final act, pulled out a gun and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. As the sudden chaos erupted, Major Rathbone attempted to tackle Booth and was stabbed for his efforts.

Booth leapt over the box opening onto the stage below brandishing his knife, shouting out to the audience “Sic simper tyrannis” – Latin for Thus always to tyrants. With the theatre in shock and the two victims being tended to immediately, Booth made his getaway into the night.

Abraham Lincoln suffered immediate blood loss and was carried out of Fords Theatre and over the road to the home of William Petersen, a tailor. There he was placed on a bed and despite efforts to save him, the President died the following morning.

John Wilkes Booth was cornered on 26th April 1865 in a farmers barn where a shootout with pursuing soldiers later that day killed him. With the absence of a trial the final truth of what was going through his head will now never be known. 

Fords Theatre was infamous from that moment on as the place where the 16th President of the USA was murdered, but the story of the theatre does not end there.

At the time of the assassination it had only been open two years but now it was prohibited by the US Government to be used as a place for entertainment and was instead taken over by the military to be used as a records department.

On 9 June 1893, while 490 people were working in the building, a large section of the internal structure collapsed during work on the foundations. The disaster killed 22 people and injuring another 68.

The building was later repaired and used as a warehouse, but in 1932 it was finally decided that the whole area was to be used as a museum dedicated to Lincoln and so ownership would be transferred to the National Park Service the following year.

Today this iconic structure is again used as a theatre, although the presidential box is never used. Instead it is set out much the same way as it was in 1865 with a picture overhanging the place where Lincoln himself looked over to see the stage. Artefacts from the time are on display in the museum below including the gun that was used in the murder. Across the road Peterson’s house is also a museum so that the full story of one of the most famous assassinations in history can be told.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Burning of the Bianca C

The Caribbean island of Grenada is a paradise for those tourists who are looking to relax and have a good time on holiday, the countless cruise ships bringing visitors all year round and the local diving clubs giving you the opportunity to experience one of the top ten wreck dives in the world.

Known as the Titanic of the Caribbean, the liner Bianca C was a passenger ship that plied her route around South America and the West Indies in the newly established tourist cruise line industry. It was getting obvious that passenger liners were becoming a thing of the past with the introduction of jet airliners so the ships around the world were refitted out as floating hotels for visitors to explore the world on holidays.

At around 600ft long, she was built during the Second World War in France but as she was being completed in 1944 she was scuttled by the retreating Germans to prevent allied hands getting hold of her. Salvaged and eventually completed in 1949 she went through a host of name changes before the cruise line Costa acquired her in 1959 and renamed her Bianca C.

On 22nd October 1961 an explosion in the engine room off Grenada killed a crew member and injured several others. She had only the previous day departed from Venezuela with over 700 people on board, all of whom now were evacuating the ship into the tiny fishing craft that had raced from St Georges Harbour nearby to assist.

Despite the raging inferno below decks, incredibly everybody got off the ship alive (except for the initial victim of the explosion) but an attempt by the warship HMS Londonderry failed after a boarding party were sent on board to try and save the vessel. She slowly took on water and listed further over until, when only a mile from the beach Bianca C sank on 24th October watched by locals lining the coast.

A statue of Christ of the Abyss was donated to the people of Grenada by the owners of Bianca C in gratitude of the assistance showed when the people were evacuating their ship. That statue today stands at the harbour looking out to sea.

The wreck settled upright on the seabed and is considered one of the top ten wreck dives in the world with the top being just 30m from the surface. With the incredible depth down to the seabed it is a magnet for both inexperienced divers and technical divers alike to enjoy. Although the propellers are long gone (salvaged in the 1970s), the visitor can still hover over the upper deck where the funnel once stood, swim over the pool that once had sun beds surrounding it full of passengers enjoying the sea breeze and hot Caribbean sun.

In 2002, as an Advanced Open Water Diver, I was able to take a trip to this amazing wreck from a small inflatable dive boat. The local guide directed me to some of the sites on the wreck while we were at the surface and although it was an incredible experience, it seemed to be over as soon as it had begun. The clear blue water and the image of a wall of steel coming towards you reminded me of Robert Ballard’s account of his first discovery of the Titanic, it is an experience I will never forget and I hope if I get the chance to revisit this wreck it will be at the top of my list of things to do.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Memorials to the RMS Titanic (Part 1) – Southampton

When the grandest ship in the world became the most shocking sea disaster of her time it was obvious that the shock of this event would reverberate across the globe but nobody could ever guess just how much so even over a century later.

The major cities of the UK and USA had been key players in the life of the Titanic – the crews came from Belfast, Liverpool, Southampton and London whereby the passengers came from all around Ireland, France, various European countries all heading to New York, some of them to make a better life for themselves, others returning to their homeland.

So it would be inevitable that memorials to the 1500 victims of this shocking disaster would spring up across both sides of the Atlantic and I have had the privilege of visiting many of these over the last 20 years.

I will start in the place that is very close to my heart – Southampton. At the very south of England this maritime city has seen liners depart from it for as long as can be remembered. The famous names of Majestic, Olympic, Queen Mary are just a few of those that stir up memories, but all anybody ever links this with is the tragic Titanic. There are few cities around the world that can share the link with this famous liner - Belfast, Cherbourg and Cobh are the only other places where the ship visited in her short time on the worlds stage. 

 I made my first visit to Southampton when I attended the 1997 British Titanic Society Convention and continued to visit throughout the years until I eventually got married to a local girl and now I can say that my favourite city is my home! In a rare entry into the dockyard, I visited the exact spot where Titanic sailed from and propped myself up close to where the famous photo was taken a century ago of another unknown man doing the exact same thing. 

With over 700 crew members living here it would be the hardest hit when it came to death toll. The map of the streets were lined with houses that were in mourning, the offices of the White Star Line today (right) look abandoned, nothing like the day the news was broken on 15th April 1912 to announce the loss of this magnificent liner and most of her occupants. Crowds gathered for news here and lists were pinned up of names of survivors, tears of relief were mixed with sadness as one by one the relatives of those on board would know the truth.

Just across the road from Canute Chambers is an apartment complex known as South Western House (left). Back in 1912 this was a hotel that the 1st Class passengers stayed with it being so close to the entrance to the dockyard and within sight of the Titanic at her berth. Although the memories of this hotel are long gone, a plaque nearby on the pathway commemorates the fact that she sailed from here never to return.

Up towards the city stand the remains of Holy Rood Church. Bombed during the Second World War it was left a ruin to serve as a memorial to sailors of the Merchant Navy that have been lost at sea throughout the years. Behind bars underneath the clock tower is a stone memorial to the crew of the Titanic, an etching of the ship slowly fading with time but still there for all to see. The monument is lit up at night and visible from both inside and on the outside, having been moved from a previous location due to vandalism.

A tiled wall on a nearby block of flats is the next stop, commemorating the dockyard workers, others nearby show the Queen Mary and several other maritime links to Southampton.

At the very top of the town at East Park is the largest of the memorials (left), this one is to the engineers who fought bravely till the end to keep the lights going and the last ditch attempts to summon help. Their actions no doubt saved countless lives but tragically none of them were to live to tell the tale. A huge angel now looks over two of the “black gang” working hard to give every minute more while they still have the strength to do so.
At the junction less than 100 feet away on the wall of the solicitors Paris Smith is another plaque. This is the second of such, the first one being destroyed during the last war, to the musicians. The 8-man band played their instruments till the end in an attempt to calm the passengers evacuating the sinking ship on that freezing cold night and showed no attempt to save themselves. Their bravery went down in history to be told in almost every film ever made about the sinking.

A less remembered one lies at St Mary’s Church close to the football stadium. In here a  brass plaque is once again dedicated to the band and the links with the Titanic. Even less frequently visited is the table in St Josephs Church on Bugle Street, just opposite the Tudor House Museum. This table was donated to the church and dedicated to the restaurant staff of Titanic (below) and it is very rare that this church is open to the public. 

Around the town there has been a recent surge in plaques on the houses where Titanic crew lived. This one (above) on Oxford Street commemorates steward Cuthbert Taylor, and there are plans for HUNDREDS more over the next few years.

But its not just memorials that you can visit here that have connections with the world’s most famous ship. A pub a short distance further up from St Josephs Church called The Titanic is full of memorabilia as is the nearby gift shop known as Oceans. Selling a host of tourist souvenirs and liner/Titanic items this is one place for any enthusiast to head to.

If you want to head a little further out of the way you will find Cobwebs on Northam Road (near the St Marys memorial) which is dedicated to ocean liners and things that you wouldn’t normally find in your average antique shop. Both Oceans and Cobwebs are worth a visit but do take plenty of cash with you….buying items from these shops can be quite addictive for any serious collector!

Finally it wouldn’t be right to finish this blog entry without mentioning the SeaCity Museum behind the City Hall (which itself has a plaque inside shown below to the lost postal workers). Telling the story of the city from it’s very early years (very top of the page is photo of the Titanic exhibition area), this museum has a giant builders model of the Queen Mary, a dedicated Titanic exhibition and a memorial just outside the entrance to the final survivor Millvina Dean who died in 2009.

These places are very much worth a visit and it’s incredible just how much there is to see in between if you are a lover of history and ships. Other plaques and monuments to Jane Austen, The Mayflower, wreck of the Stella and the Second World War give this city the badge of being the Mecca to any shipping enthusiast and still remains so today.

With the worlds largest cruise ships visiting here several times a week you will not have to wait long for names such as Independence of the Seas, Queen Victoria or Queen Mary 2 (below) to make an appearance. It is good to see that despite the huge loss of such a headline-making liner, the city recovered and has continued to go from strength to strength.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Yorkshire Coast Shipwrecks – Falmouth and Fairy

A previous blog entry of mine has shown just how many sunken German U-boats litter the seabed off the Yorkshire Coast but it was the victims of these steel sharks that took the biggest toll. In the years of both World Wars you could not go a day without a major attack on shipping somewhere in the world and what better place to prowl and hunt for unsuspecting victims but just a few miles from the land. A great many of these ships would hug the coast and use the landmarks for navigation, their own lights being extinguished so as to remain unseen.

HMS Fairy was a 21 year old destroyer which was small by the usual standards and spent many a day patrolling the coasts and protecting convoys. On 31 May 1918, when, off Flamborough Head,  the submarine UC-75 was sighted by a convoy and rammed it was damaged enough to come to the surface where the Fairy turned towards her and delivered the final blow using her bow. The impact did the job but this also spelled death for the Fairy. Two of the submarine crew leapt on board the warship during the collision and survived. From that moment though the Fairy was unable to be saved and she joined the U-boat on the seabed not long after.

The wreck of Fairy was located and various artefacts taken from her by divers. A recovered gun stood on Bridlington Harbour on the south side in front of Rags Restaurant for many years before it was removed and placed in storage.

Another warship sunk nearby was the light cruiser HMS Falmouth. Only six years old she had already seen action in the Battle of Jutland and now found herself just a few miles from Bridlington suffering from a torpedo strike from a submarine. It was 20th August 1916 and the fight to save the ship from sinking had taken its toll with one crew member dead and the order to abandon ship given. As the ship went down one of her boats floated free and drifted off out to sea, being picked up two days later.

Falmouth was a popular dive site for many years but today she is very broken up on the seabed. 
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking a 3D online model was constructed showing what the vessel looked like today compared with when she was in her heyday. Historic England made this vessel the first of many shipwrecks around the UK that would be recorded in this way to help preserve the history of these wartime relics so that we can remember what happened even after the ship itself is long gone.

On 20 August 2016 the members of Bridlington Royal Naval Association led a short memorial ceremony to remember the loss of Falmouth and to splice the main-brace in tribute to all those lost at sea off the coast. A minutes silence and the ringing of the bell salvaged from HMS Speedy ensured that the passing of the centenary did not go amiss.

The boat that floated free from the sinking Falmouth is today in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in the huge sheds where tourists can walk in and see the collection of different small vessels being worked on to help preserve them and to tell the story of what happened to this particular boat over a century ago. Having the ability to not only see this vessel but to have taken part in the centenary memorial is not only a privilege but an honour. We can only hope that the stories of these warships will be told in the future long after the memories of the centenary have faded away.