The Explosive Misfortunes of Emily Dracup

This Dracup family history post records the mostly unfortunate life experiences of Emily Dracup (1857-1919), my first cousin, three times removed.

From a very early age she earned her living as a piano teacher, managing to avoid throughout her life the unremitting toil of service or manual labour. 

But she seems never to have performed on stage, at least not to the notice of local newspapers.

She was resident first in Bedford and then in Portsmouth, where she was a contemporary of her cousin, the Singing Sergeant Major Ernest Dracup (2021).

Emily herself seems to have led a largely uneventful life – or at least we know very little about it – but she had the great misfortune to attract great misfortune.

And her special misfortune was repeatedly to lose her close male relatives to explosions, the majority of them at sea in wartime.

  • Her first husband, Charles Paxton, died following a gunpowder explosion at the premises of the Bedford gunsmith where he was apprenticed. It happened soon after they were married, in 1877, leaving her a 20 year-old widow with a baby girl.
  • Her son-in-law, Stephen Fitzgerald, was married to Clytie, her eldest daughter by her second husband, the sometime criminal William Stone Pearson. Fitzgerald was Chief Stoker aboard HMS Bulwark, which exploded in the Medway Estuary in November 1914. Clytie died soon afterwards, leaving an orphaned daughter born several months after her father’s death.
  • Her eldest son, William Bailey Pearson, a steward, died in September 1916 when HM Yacht Conqueror II was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat off Fair Isle, Scotland.

Even after Emily’s own death in 1919, these mishaps continued. Stephen and Clytie’s orphaned daughter, Hilda Stefanie Vera Fitzgerald, later married cook Percival Thomas Robinson, who died in May 1941 when HMS Hood exploded and sank in the Denmark Strait after being hit by enemy shells.

Four men from three generations of the same family were blown up.

But Emily did have some good fortune. Her three remaining daughters all married men who remained intact, though one husband died young from other causes before the Great War was out. The eldest, Florence Emily Paxton, escaped poverty by marrying considerably ‘above her station’, into the Scottish land-owning gentry.

The Piano Lesson (1871) by George Goodwin Kilburne

Emily Dracup’s Pedigree

Emily was the firstborn child of Jonathan Dracup (1832-78) and Mary Mitchell (1833-75).

Her parents were both born in Bradford, Yorkshire, and married there in February 1855. Jonathan was a power loom overlooker; Mary a worsted weaver.

They left Bradford shortly afterwards and, alongside his brothers Ephraim and Eli (my great great grandfather), Jonathan established the Dracup surname in the south of England.

I described their collective experiences in Dracups Head South (2016)

Jonathan, Mary and Eli settled initially at Wickham Market in Suffolk. Jonathan and Mary were already living there by the first quarter of 1857, when Emily was born.

By the time of the 1861 Census, Jonathan and his young family occupied a house on Middle Street. There were now three small children – Emily, Edmund and Rose Melinda – and Eli lived there too. The employment of both men was described as ‘mechanic turner’.

We know that Jonathan, Mary and their growing family left Wickham Market between May 1863 and February 1865 because a daughter, Laura Helena, was born in Wickham Market on the first date, but sadly died in Bedford on the second.

Jonathan continued to work as a turner when he first arrived in Bedford. But, by 1871, the family was living at 61 Well Street – most likely what is now 61 Midland Road – and the family lived above the shop from which Jonathan, now aged 38, sold boots and shoes.

Emily, though only 14, was already working as a music teacher. Brother Edmund and sister Rose Melinda were both still at school and there was a baby, Jesse Lund, aged one.

Another daughter, Priscilla, born in February 1866, had died in October 1867. So, by the age of 10, Emily had lost two of her three younger sisters.

One further son, Albert Eli, was born to Jonathan and Mary in 1872, so five of their seven children survived into adulthood.

But Mary herself died in October 1875, aged 42, when Emily was only 18 years old. The two youngest children – Jesse Lund and Albert Eli – were just five and three respectively. Emily must have become their substitute mother.

Emily’s First Marriage

Then, in July 1876, nine months after her mother’s death, Emily married Charles Clark Paxton, a 19 year-old from Taunton, Somerset, whose family had been resident in Bedford for some years.

Before he died in 1869, Charles’s father had been a printer compositor, while his mother, Emma, had worked as a stay-maker. They had lived in a property a little further along Midland Road.

Charles, the eldest son, began work as an errand boy but was soon apprenticed to Henry Adkin, a gun-maker living above his shop on Bedford High Street. The 1871 Census indicates that he employed two men, three apprentices and one lad.

A child, Florence Emily Paxton, was born to Emily and Charles before the end of 1876, so Emily was already pregnant at the time of her marriage. They had recently moved to rooms on Harpur Street.

But, less than a year later, in the afternoon of Tuesday 28 August 1877, the Town was rocked by a loud explosion.

The Bedfordshire Mercury relates:

‘Between three and four on Tuesday afternoon the inhabitants of the High Street and the neighbourhood were startled by a very loud noise as of a heavy clap of thunder or the falling of a house. The presence of a large volume of smoke, however, proclaimed it to have been an explosion, and considerable excitement was caused by two persons rushing all blackened and burning from the premises of Mr Adkin, gunsmith, into the street, and further apprehensions were caused by the uncertainty as to whether another and more serious explosion might not immediately follow as it was known that there was a considerable quantity of gunpowder on the premises.

This did not, however, prevent immediate attention to the two injured persons, and their burning clothes, such as had not been destroyed by the explosion, were torn from them and extinguished. One was taken into the Lion Hotel, and another to Mr Sergeant’s shop, but they were so blackened and burnt as to be perfectly unrecognisable. Fortunately Mr W G Johnson, surgeon, happened to be near at hand, and temporary remedies were at once applied, while a vehicle was being horsed to take them to the Infirmary.

The noise and smoke of the explosion soon collected a considerable number of persons, among whom were members of the Fire Brigade who, with commendable promptitude and bravery, rushed into the building in which the explosion took place to ascertain whether further danger was to be apprehended, and extinguished, by the aid of a few lengths of hose and the water from a hydrant, the fire which had been caused in the immediate vicinity of the explosion.

The two persons injured, who were discovered to be two apprentices, named Charles Paxton, aged 20, and William Norris, aged 16, were conveyed as quickly as possible to the Infirmary, where their wounds were properly dressed. It was found that they were most injured about the head, neck, and arms, but there were burns on their legs and various parts of their persons, and both had received a very severe shock.

Norris appeared to be slightly less injured than his companion, and was the first to recover from the shock. Paxton was not so fortunate, and on the following day was still delirious and suffered from great prostration. The danger lay not in the length, but in the extent of their burns, and the fears which were expressed were only too well grounded, as on Wednesday evening Paxton expired of shock, without having wholly regained consciousness.’

The site of the accident was 57 High Street Bedford, most recently a Subway sandwich outlet. The building carries a blue plaque:

‘John Usher 1822-1904 Bedford architect designed this building in 1871 for Henry Adkin, gunmaker.’

There is no memorial to Charles.

Bedford High Street in the late 1860s (Number 57, arrowed, was rebuilt for Adkin by 1871)


The Mercury reported that the two apprentices had been filling gun cartridges from a canister of gunpowder. They were working in a small wooden workshop located in the yard of the main building. The workshop was blown apart by the force of the blast, which shattered most of the windows of the dwelling above the main shop.

The Borough Coroner, Dr Prior, opened an inquest on the Friday following the accident, having sworn in a jury. He explained that, under the terms of the Explosives Act 1875, a Government Inspector would be present for part of the proceedings.

The jury began by visiting the mortuary to view Charles’s body.

Another paper, the Bedford Record, reported:

‘The body presented a shocking appearance, the face – such part of it as was not covered with lint – was blackened and burnt; the chest, neck and beneath each arms scorched and streaked with the burnt clothing. From the right hand and wrist the skin appeared to be stripped away. There were also injuries to the abdomen and other parts of the body.’

They also heard from Mr Hacon, the house-surgeon at the Infirmary. He told them that Charles had been delirious with shock for 24 hours. He had been given an ‘anodyne draught’ to reduce pain and promote sleep. Eventually he became quieter but, rather than sleeping, he ‘sank suddenly’.

We know that Emily and his mother Emma were both with him when he died.

Mr Hacon said the other apprentice, Norris, might be able to answer a question or two in a few days, but it would be a couple of months before he could give full evidence.

The jury went on to Adkin’s premises, to inspect the site of the explosion.

The Inquest reassembled a few days later, with the Government Inspector, Major Ford, now present.

A Henry Adkin advertisement from 1877

Mr Adkin gave evidence, remembering that his two apprentices had begun to make cartridges in the shed at around 11AM.

Major Ford questioned him on whether he was meeting the terms of the Explosives Act. Adkin explained that he judged it necessary to have a separate building for cartridge-making and purchased the shed for that purpose. He had asked the Town Council to approve its use as a temporary measure while he located other premises.

The Mayor retorted that the Town Council had told him it could not grant such permission. Any use of the shed for this purpose would be at his own risk, but the Council would not interfere if he sought and obtained his neighbours’ consent.

That had been a year ago.

Adkin said he had intended to remove his workshop to a field, well away from habitation, but he had been ‘done out of it’ – someone else had taken ownership before he could.

American workers making cartridges the very year of the accident

Under cross-examination he said he forbade his employees from using more than 5lb of gunpowder. On the morning of the accident he had seen his boy delivering two 5lb canisters of gunpowder to the workshop and had rushed down to stop him.

There were no written safety instructions, but he told the men to sweep up any gunpowder dust after every 100 cartridges had been filled, and never to carry matches.

He conceded that they had worn their ordinary clothes, and boots which might contain iron nails. He now thought it might have been safer had they worn ‘list shoes’.

The men were paid their regular wages rather than piece work rates, but he always gave them something extra ‘as I know it is a job no-one covets’.

He revealed that there had been two other explosions. Three years previously, his son had been filling pin cartridges and dropped one, which ignited a small amount of powder lying on the floor. And, just six weeks earlier, a pin cartridge had exploded in the boy’s hand.

Adkin said that ‘Paxton was a very sober, steady man and an expert workman.’ He was highly experienced – his time would have expired that coming November. He had made thousands of cartridges and was his best man.

After lunch, the Chief Constable, Captain Verey, was examined. When the Explosives Act had come into force on 1 January 1876 he had been asked if he would be the authorised officer for Bedford and had accepted, though he complained that he had not been paid.

Captain Charles Verey (1838-98)

Verey seemed uncertain of his responsibilities under the Act and did not apparently know how many premises in the Town were registered for the sale of gunpowder. The Town Clerk’s Office produced the register which listed 11 premises. There were at this point only two renewals for 1877.

It became apparent that Adkin believed he had been registered for ‘mixed explosives’ but that he was registered for gunpowder only.

Arthur George Buck, a journeyman working for Adkin, was then examined. He had looked into the shed minutes before the accident. He observed Paxton using the cartridge machine and Norris filling a wad-board with shot wads. Both were standing at the work bench. He observed nothing unusual.

The Coroner planned to adjourn the Inquest for a fortnight, in the hope that Norris might then be well enough to give evidence, but at that point he too died, having survived eight days.

A second inquest was opened. The Coroner decided to roll them together but first the jury attended the mortuary to view the second body which also:

‘…presented a shocking appearance. The left arm dreadfully burnt, as well as the face, head, neck, and even the legs. No one could have recognised the inanimate form as the good-looking but somewhat delicate youth William Norris.’

Charles Paxton’s funeral took place the following Monday morning in heavy rain. He had been a member of the 1st Bedfordshire Rifle Volunteers, so forty of his comrades and a band accompanied the funeral procession. Adkin and his son followed the hearse.

A week later, Adkin and three colleagues established a benevolent fund. Their published letter says that Charles had been employed at the gunsmith since the age of twelve and his bereaved widow and child ‘were totally unprovided for’. A list of subscribers follows. Adkin himself contributed £5.

On 19 September the Inquest resumed. Buck was further questioned and then the boy, Johnson, who had delivered the gunpowder to the shed.

He revealed that, exceptionally, Paxton and Norris had asked him to bring them two 5lb canisters of gunpowder at once. He was asked to show his boots, which also contained large nails.

Inspector Haynes was called. He confirmed that Norris wore low shoes with iron plates on the heels, while Paxton wore laced shoes with large nails on the soles and iron plates on the heels. He said that the floor of the shed was also fastened down with iron nails.

Major Ford then addressed the jury. He said he thought Adkin had observed the legal requirements in relation to registration, although his renewal in 1877 was late. He had complied with some of the requirements for safety in the room where the work was carried out, but not by insisting on appropriate clothing and footwear.

He listed the possible causes of the accident. He thought it unlikely that it was caused by a spark from a nearby chimney, or any other cause outside the shed.

Then he discussed the possibility that it was ignited by the workmen’s boots:

‘The heat generated by a man treading upon a piece of grit lying between the iron heel of a boot and an iron nail in the floor is quite sufficient to fire powder without any spark.’

Or there might have been a match in a pocket, or a dropped cartridge might have caused the powder to ignite. He admitted that grit being swept up into the powder might have caused the explosion.

But he considered the most likely cause was that Charles was pressing wads into the cartridges too firmly.

Summing up, the Coroner steered the jury away from finding criminal negligence:

‘There had been some degree of negligence, but not more than was attributable to human infirmity and to the peculiar circumstances of the case, the Act not being known, and the nature of the explosives imperfectly understood by the workmen engaged on the premises. He, therefore, thought the jury would be justified in returning a verdict of accidental death.’

The jury retired for half-an-hour and delivered the following verdict:

‘The jury find that Charles Paxton and William Norris came by their death through injuries received by the accidental explosion of gunpowder on the premises of Mr Henry Adkin, on the 28th of August, but how such explosion occurred there is not sufficient evidence to show. The said jury are further of opinion that the occupier of the premises has failed to enforce the necessary precautions against accidents, and that efficient supervision has not been kept by the Local Authority, through their inspecting officer. We wish also to state that the storage of large quantities of powder and the manufacture of cartridges in such a locality is perilous to the public.’

Towards the end of October, the Bedford Record published Major Ford’s Report to the Home Secretary.

In December, the local papers recorded that £100 6s 1d had been collected in the Paxton Fund, from which his mother had received £47 10s and Emily £48, the remainder being used to meet funeral expenses.

Marguerite Gachet at the Piano (1891) by Van Gogh

Emily moves to Portsmouth

In December 1877 Jonathan’s boot and shoe business was advertised as transferring imminently from 61 Well Street to 49 Well Street, the later advertisements announcing that the entire stock would be sold if possible.

This might suggest that the business was in trouble, or perhaps Jonathan was already unwell and so unable to manage his business any longer.

The family was probably living at 49 Well Street when Jonathan died on 13 July 1878, aged 46. Probate was handled by his brother Eli and son Edmund and records his personal estate as worth less than £200.

Once debts had been settled the proceeds were distributed between the children. The orphaned family left behind consisted of Emily, now 21, Edmund (20), Rose Melinda (18), Jesse Lund (8) and Albert Eli (6).

Edmund remained in Bedford, marrying Louisa Dennis in August 1879. By 1881 they were living in a terraced house at 11 St Leonard’s Street and already had their own first child.

Edmund seemingly contributed little practical support to the remainder of his family, even if he made a financial contribution.

Rose Melinda went into service, moving to the south coast. By 1881 she was working for Richard King and his wife Eliza at 9 Great Southsea Street, in Portsea, Portsmouth.

It seems likely that Emily followed Rose Melinda rather than vice versa.

By 1881 she was living close by, at 5 Diamond Street, Portsea. The Census describes her as a visitor, rather than a lodger, in the house of Henry Herbert Sivill, a deaf and dumb carpenter, his wife Annie and two small children. There was no obvious family connection between Emily and Sivill or his wife.

She was accompanied by her daughter Florence Emily, aged 4, and her two brothers, Jessie Lund and Albert Eli, now aged 11 and 9 respectively. She gave her employment as ‘pianist’.

Emily was most probably in Portsmouth by October 1879 at the latest because, in June 1880, she gave birth to a second daughter, Annie Clytie Paxton.

Location of Great Southsea Street and Diamond Street (ringed)

Emily’s second marriage

Although the child took her married surname, the father was William Stone Pearson, a 24 year-old unemployed joiner from Kent who, at the time of the Census, was living at 96 West Street with his family. His father, William Bailey Pearson, was a confectioner.

The whereabouts of baby Annie during the Census is unclear.

Some family trees published online record, though without substantiating evidence, that Pearson had already fathered a child by one Elizabeth Ann Gauntlett.

Ada May Louise Gauntlett was born on 22 February 1879, the year before Elizabeth married Cyrus Symons, a tobacconist, who adopted Ada.

Pearson was included for a while on lists of army deserters published by the Police Gazette, having absented himself from the Royal Engineers at Chatham, Kent, on 9 September 1879.

He was described as 5 feet 8 inches tall, with dark brown eyes, brown hair and a fresh complexion. A reward of between five and twenty shillings was offered for the apprehension of the men listed, but it seems that William escaped detection.

He must have headed immediately to Portsea to join his family, and to sire Emily’s child. It seems likely that it was he who arranged Emily’s residence at the home of fellow carpenter Sivill.

William had been born in Canterbury, Kent in 1857, but by 1861 he was living with his family in Folkestone, remaining there in 1871, by which time he had been apprenticed to a cabinet maker.

He eventually married Emily in Portsea towards the end of 1881, and she bore him three further children: William Bailey Pearson junior in 1883, Mabel Kate Pearson in 1884 and Nellie Rose Pearson in 1889.

But Pearson also acquired a criminal record during this period.

In July 1885 he was charged with robbery from three different Southsea properties and receiving stolen goods. Two of the three cases went to prosecution and he was sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour in Winchester Prison.

He was back in court in May 1889, giving his address as the Lord Raglan Arms on Raglan Street, Southsea.

He was charged with breaking and entering an unoccupied house in Southsea late in December 1888, stealing some property and using part of the proceeds to pay the landlady of his former lodgings in Mary Street where he had been ‘living with a woman who passed as his wife’.

This was clearly not Emily, so the relationship seems to have broken down before the birth of their youngest daughter.

Albert Eli Dracup (mistakenly called Alfred in the newspaper report) gave evidence, confirming his address as 39 East Street, Southsea. He said the prisoner was his brother-in-law and he lived with the prisoner’s wife.

William had been away from home between 26 December 1888 and 4 February 1889, returned for a fortnight and then left home again. Afterwards he, Albert Eli, had found the remains of a portmanteau under the floorboards of the coal-house.

On this occasion William served 12 months’ hard labour in Kingston Prison.

One of the newspaper reports of the trial says that Pearson was ‘grey headed and of respectable appearance’ but a policeman, giving evidence, adds:

‘He was addicted to drink…He had a wife and children, but was living with another woman when arrested.’

The 1891 Census confirms the separation of Emily and William. She was now living at 21 Hyde Park Road in Southsea, alongside Albert Eli (19), her son Willie (7) and her daughters Florence (14), Clytie (10), Mabel (6) and Nellie (2).

But Emily still records herself as married and her employment as ‘Music Pianist’.

Emily’s sister Rose Melinda continued as a servant in the employ of King’s widow Eliza, the 1891 Census finding them at 26 Castle Street in Portsea, but brother Jessie Lund had now removed to Enfield where he was an ironmonger’s assistant.

Meanwhile, Emily’s husband William was living at 31 Rivers Street, a few hundred yards away. He is described as a widower, but shares the property with Elizabeth Cotton (44) a widow, his ‘housekeeper’, and her daughter Rose (19), a boarder, who is a general domestic servant, presumably working elsewhere.

Elizabeth Cotton had been born Elizabeth Hyslop in 1842, so was actually 49. She was the widow of John Cotton, a shipwright who had died in 1886.

In December 1892 William and a companion were charged with stealing wood from the Artillery Barracks at Aldershot and ‘after a prior conviction in Portsmouth’ was taken into account, he was sentenced to six weeks’ hard labour.

Thereafter he seems to have returned to Kent and avoided further imprisonment.

A newspaper advertisement places him in Folkestone as early as 1894. Online family trees indicate that he fathered another child – Thomas William Pearson Bourne – with Elizabeth Abigail Bourne, a hotel maid, in Folkestone in June 1898.

He was still there in 1901 and 1911, boarding with the family of another carpenter, Richard Wakefield. In 1901 he gave his marital status as ‘single’ but in 1911 he conceded that he was married, had been for 29 years and had three children. Emily seems never to have divorced him.

Online family trees suggest that in 1910, aged 54, he may have sired another son, George Wilfred Wakefield, born on 24 December to Edith Rebecca Wakefield, Richard’s 20 year-old daughter.

But, in the 1911 Census, George is described as a ‘nurse child’ and is living with the Wise family, elsewhere in Folkestone. He later assumed the surname ‘Wise’.

In 1918 Edith Wakefield married Albert William Dore and they emigrated to Canada, George presumably remaining with the Wise family.

William himself seems to have died in 1930 in Tonbridge, Kent, aged 74.

Emily’s profession

The 1871 Census described the 14 year-old Emily as a ‘Teacher of Music’. In 1881 and 1891 she was simply described as ‘Pianist’, and in 1901 ‘Pianist Music’. In 1911 she had no declared employment.

I can find no record of any public performances by Emily in contemporary local newspapers, so it seems likely that she made her living mostly as a teacher.

This advertisement was published in the Portsmouth Evening News of 22 February 1890:

‘Anyone wishing to Learn to Play the following instruments by ear:- Piano, organ, violin, banjo, occerina [sic], flageolet, flute, piccolo, zither, accordion, &c. Lessons given on the above instruments at 6d. per hour. Address, A. E. Dracup, 5 Belmont-street, Green-road, Southsea. Testimonials upon application.’

That is presumably Emily’s brother Albert Eli, then aged 18. It seems likely that, for a time at least, he proposed joining Emily in a family music teaching business.

Some years later, in 1909, Albert placed a second advertisement in the same paper:

‘PIANIST – Engagements wanted for private parties or smoking concerts: moderate terms’

showing that he too was proficient on that instrument – and there are one or two brief references to his playing in public at such events. Not so Emily.

Piano playing was widespread during Emily’s lifetime, largely because of the popularity of accompanied singing as a form of domestic and social entertainment.

It has been estimated that there were some 23,000 pianos manufactured annually in Britain by 1850. Sixty years later, in 1910, this figure had increased to 75,000, and there were 175 piano factories in London alone.

The piano also became a household status symbol, demonstrating a family’s social position, and playing the piano came to be regarded as almost an essential accomplishment for the well-bred young lady.

Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, even shopkeepers like Jonathan Dracup aspired for their children – particularly their daughters – to acquire some familiarity with the instrument.

This was one of few fields in which Victorian women could achieve a degree of independence through self-employment: by 1861, some 60% of London piano teachers were female, their students drawn predominantly from their own class and background.

By the turn of the century many working class homes aspired to own a piano and teachers – often with few qualifications – offered to instruct others for only 6d per lesson, or even less. There was no regulation of piano teaching at this time. Lessons were mostly given in the teacher’s own home.

Although Albert Eli’s advertisement offers cheap tuition, it is noteworthy that it also proposes teaching by ear: by this stage many less qualified teachers were relying heavily on published tutorials and technical exercises.

Mrs Curwen’s Pianoforte Method (first published in 1886 but here in a later edition) exemplifies the approach.

Florence Emily Paxton and James George Constable

The 1901 Census recorded Emily living at 25 Nessus Street, in the Landport area of Portsmouth. She now called herself a widow.

Two of her children were already married, but their fortunes contrasted sharply.

Location of Nessue Street (circled)

Florence’s husband was James George Constable, born in 1870 into the Scottish gentry, the second son of a wealthy Perthshire landowner who fathered 11 children altogether.

James joined the army and, in 1891, was commissioned a Lieutenant with the 4th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment.

His service record suggests that his wedding with Florence took place on 21 November 1894, but it was actually two years later.

This falsehood was no doubt designed to mask the fact that Florence had given birth to a son, James Donald, out of wedlock on 28 February 1896.

Extract from James George Constable’s service record

So the baby must have been conceived in mid-1895 when Florence was 19, a full year-and-a-half before their marriage. James junior was born in Malta, where James senior was stationed from September 1895 until March 1897. He was now a Lieutenant with the King’s Own Lancaster Regiment.

His father had died six months before the wedding, leaving an estate worth some £30,000.

It did not take place in Malta but in Dover, Kent, so the young family returned to the UK, albeit briefly, for the service to be conducted.

James had clearly ‘done the right thing’ by marrying Florence. One wonders whether Emily had to exert any pressure for the wedding to take place in the UK, or even to take place at all. Embarrassment over Florence’s pregnancy might have explained why it was not conducted in Portsmouth or Perthshire.

The service record gives Florence’s address as ‘Troutbeck, Windermere’, which suggests that they briefly relocated to the vicinity of Lancaster on their return from Malta.

In March 1899 a second child was born – Marjorie Florence Eileen. But the Armed Forces Register of Baptisms now gave their address as 13 Gaines Road, Portsmouth.

James had been promoted to Captain and seconded to the Army Pay Department. He was appointed Paymaster on 25 January 1899 and stationed at Aldershot.

And by 1901, they were residing in an imposing five-storey terraced house at 48 Nightingale Road, Portsmouth. No servants were living with the family, though there was a 17 year-old ‘nursery governess’ to look after James junior and Marjorie.

48 Nightingale Street

James made his career with the Army Pay Department. From 1905 to the end of 1909 he served as a ‘First Class Assistant Accountant’. In 1911, while still a Captain, he was stationed at Perth in Scotland, but I have been unable to find the family in the 1911 Census.

In January 1912 he was promoted to Major and became a Staff Paymaster, and this was his role on the outbreak of the Great War. In January 1917 he was further promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and he closed out the War in that rank

In November 1918, just after war had ended, James was posted to the Malay Straits leaving Florence behind. The address now given for her is ‘Seilyaria, Blairgowrie, Perthshire’.

They lived thereafter as gentlemen farmers in Soilarzie, a few miles to the north of Blairgowrie. (Seilyaria may be a corruption of ‘Soilarzie’.) James bred horses and helped to organise local agricultural shows; Florence seems to have kept a low profile.

Then, in their latter years, husband and wife relocated to Edinburgh. They appear in the electoral rolls between 1928 and 1936, when Florence died, aged 59.

Her funeral was held on 29 April at the Steps of Cally, near their old Perthshire home. The value of her estate was £450 – surprisingly little given the apparent wealth of her husband.

He died in November 1943, the size of his estate unspecified.

Annie Clytie Pearson and Stephen Fitzgerald

It seems likely that Florence would have given her mother, her half-brother and sisters some degree of financial assistance, but the others nevertheless remained engaged in fairly menial work.

Returning to the 1901 Census, Emily’s four other children were still with her at 25 Nessus Street.

Clytie lived there, despite being married, along with her two year-old son William. She worked as a stay machinist. Willie (18) was employed as a ‘naval domestic’, Mabel (16) was a ‘mother’s help’ and Nellie (12) was at ‘board school’.

Elsewhere, Emily’s sister Rose Melinda remained in service with Eliza King, now widowed and living in Lewisham, London. Albert Eli was also in Lewisham, married with two small children, while Jesse Lund was elsewhere in London, married with a baby daughter. Ironically, both seem to have been employed selling Life Assurance.

Stephen Fitzgerald

Annie had married Stephen Vincent Fitzgerald on 9 August 1898, at the Portsea Registry Office. She was 18, he seven years her senior, originally a wheelwright, but had joined the Royal Navy in 1892 where he served as a stoker.

At the time of their wedding he was attached to HMS Vernon, a group of vessels located in Portchester Creek which served as the Navy’s Torpedo School.

Their son, William Vincent Fitzgerald, was born on 6 January 1899 so, like her mother, Annie was pregnant at the time of her wedding. Stephen was now based at HMS Victory II, a training centre for stokers and artificers located in Portsmouth, and subsequently at Duke of Wellington II, another shore training establishment.

But then he began a series of postings on seagoing ships and, by the time of the 1901 Census, was serving on HMS Indefatigable, in Barbados.

Indefatigable was an Apollo class protected cruiser launched in 1891. She had a complement of up to 300 hundred officers and men and was, at this time, attached to the Navy’s North America and West Indies Station.

HMS Indefatigable

Further children were born in 1903 (Florence Annie who lived only three months), 1905 (Irene Mabel) and 1915 (Hilda Stefanie Vera).

By the time of ther 1911 Census, Steven and Clytie had taken over part of 25 Nessus Street. Annie, now 30, was still working as a corset-maker at a stay factory while her children, aged 12 and 5, were at school. Stephen was once more absent aboard dhip.

The rent books survive, showing that they were paying 5 shillings a week to their landlady, Clytie’s mother Emily Pearson, for three rooms – two upstairs and one down – unfurnished.

Emily and the rest of her family occupied the remainder of the house – also three rooms.

She was now aged 54 and seems now to have given up teaching music. Willie, aged 27, was employed as a carter at a mineral water factory, Mabel (20) was a domestic but no employment is recorded for Nellie, aged 22.

It seems that Emily had managed to buy 25 Nessus Street by this point, unless she was sub-letting to Clytie and Stephen. Was she perhaps given some capital by her wealthy daughter Florence?

By 1911 her sister Rose Melinda was also back in Portsmouth, now working as a servant to Rhoda Clements in Margate Road Southsea. She was to die unmarried in 1924.

Stokers at work during WW1

Stephen’s life and death

The life of a stoker was brutally hard, especially for a man approaching middle age.

The basic task, on coal-fired ships, was to stoke the ship’s furnaces with sufficient coal for them to ‘get up steam’ and then to keep a steady supply of coal feeding the furnaces so that a constant speed could be maintained.

A heavy battleship might require 500 tons of coal to ‘get up steam’ and consume up to 40 tons an hour to maintain top speed. This required a large number of stokers – on a big ship they might constitute up to one third of the crew.

Men generally worked two four-hour shifts every twenty-four hours. They toiled in stifling conditions – temperatures might reach 40 degrees centigrade in the furnace rooms on the lowest decks of the ship. Fresh air was often limited because of the effect on the furnace fires. Stokers were vulnerable to lung damage from coal dust, heat exhaustion and back injuries.

In wartime they were particularly exposed to attack by torpedoes and mines, which struck below the water-line. They often shared their deck with the ship’s magazine.

Stephen’s service record shows that he had qualified as a chief stoker by 1903 but seems not to have served as such until 1909. Thereafter he always shipped as chief stoker.

This was a petty officer role: the chief oversaw the firing of the furnaces and was responsible for the discipline and welfare of all the stokers on board. Hopefully Stephen was no longer called upon to shovel coal himself.

On 21 May 1914 he joined the Royal Fleet Reserve, seemingly about to retire to civilian life but, with the outbreak of war, he found himself serving once more, as Chief Stoker aboard HMS Bulwark.

Bulwark was a London Class battleship of about 16,000 tons, commissioned in 1898 and completed in 1902. She was powered by two three-cylinder steam engines, each fired by 20 Belleville boilers. Top speed was around 18 knots and Bulwark could carry sufficient coal to give a range of 5,550 nautical miles at a speed of 10 knots.

HMS Bulwark

As Britain prepared for war, Bulwark was assigned to the 5th Battle Squadron of the Second Fleet. She was involved in the transfer of the British Expeditionary Force to France, then subsequently based first at Portsmouth and then at Portland.

In November she transferred to Sheerness, in readiness for a feared German invasion.

On the morning of 26 November she was moored in the Medway Estuary, roughly five miles west of Sheerness. At 07:53, a huge explosion ripped through the ship killing 796 men, Stephen amongst them. Just fourteen survived the initial explosion, and five of those later succumbed to their injuries.

A naval court of enquiry found that the magazines for the ship’s six inch guns were being stowed afresh that morning. When the ship’s company went to breakfast at 07:45, some 30 cordite charges were left in cross-passages between the magazines, alongside hundreds of shells also stowed there.

Unfortunately the charges were close to one of the bulkheads of a boiler room where Stephen’s stokers were busy firing up the furnace. As the temperature increased the charges ignited, detonating nearby shells and subsequently those in the magazines.

A memorial to the men lost in this incident and in another explosion aboard a minelayer, the Princess Irene, was placed in at the Dockyard Church, Sheerness in 1921.

Most of Bulwark’s crew came from Portsmouth. On the following day the Portsmouth Evening News carried eyewitness accounts:

‘When I got on deck I soon saw that something awful had happened. The water and sky were obscured by dense volumes of smoke. We were at once ordered to the scene of the disaster to render what assistance we could. At first we could see nothing, but when the smoke cleared a bit we were horrified to find that the battleship Bulwark had gone.

She seemed to have entirely vanished from sight, but a little later we detected a portion of the huge vessel showing about 4ft. above water. We kept a vigilant lookout for the unfortunate crew, but only saw two men. I do not know whether other boats rescued any. One of the men was dead. The poor fellow was terribly mutilated. His clothing was in shreds. The other man was alive, but unconscious. He had a terrible wound in his forehead.’

Clytie must have been overwhelmed, freshly pregnant as she was with the couple’s final child.

Hilda was born on 12 July 1915, several months after her father’s death. Then, on 17 August, Clytie also died, aged just 35. Her death was linked to Hilda’s birth: the death certificate refers to a placental polyp, hemorrhage and heart failure.

Pensions records reveal that baby Hilda and her 10 year-old sister Irene were placed in the care of their aunt, Clytie’s sister, Nellie Rose. Now aged 26, she had married Frederick Searle, a tram car cleaner, a few years earlier. They had taken over Clytie and Stephen’s rooms in 25 Nessus Street, so the girls remained in their previous home.

However Frederick died in May 1917, when Irene was 12 and Hilda just two. Nellie Rose, now widowed, seems to have had no children of her own. It seems that she cared for her nieces instead.

In later years Hilda repeated the pattern set by her grandmother and her mother before her.

Her first husband, Percival Thomas Robinson, a cook, was killed aboard HMS Hood when its magazine exploded on 24 May 1941 killing all but three of the men on board.

Hilda and Percy had a six year-old daughter, Stephanie. There was no orphaned baby on this occasion: Hilda had given birth to a daughter, Lynda Clytie Robinson in January 1941, but she died a month or so before her father perished.

Portsea as it was when Emily lived there

William Bailey Pearson

We have seen that, in 1901, aged 18, Willie had been employed as a ‘Naval domestic’. Records show that he had worked from 1899 to 1901 on a ship called Seahorse, a Royal Navy deep-sea tug based at Portsmouth.

At the time his previous employment was listed as ‘printer’.

He was five feet tall with dark brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion.

By 1911 he had swapped the navy for a shore life at the mineral water factory. In October 1912, he married Mabel Clare Tout, a 26 year-old domestic, and they made their home at 22 College Street.

A daughter, Nora Mabel, was born in October 1914, shortly after the outbreak of War.

Around that time the Admiralty had begun to gather steam yachts, motor boats and trawlers into inshore naval units, giving them responsibility for preventing mine-laying and spotting submarines.

Some owners leased their yachts to the Admiralty, which undertook initially to meet all running costs. After three months’ reliable service they chartered the yachts. Owners were often invited to retain command and given commissions as Lieutenants in the Royal Naval Reserve.

Yachts were armed with guns fore and aft, given suitable wireless equipment and painted grey, usually at either Portsmouth or Devonport.

By February 1915 the Admiralty was advertising for volunteers to join HM Yacht Patrol. Able seamen were offered wages and allowances worth 40 shillings a week, carpenters were offered 45 shillings and assistant cooks 35 shillings. They were expected to sign on ‘for the duration of the war’.

The terms include ‘pensions in the event of injury or permanent disablement’ and ‘pensions to dependents or widows’. Men were invited to apply providing details of their experience on board ship.

By September 1916, Willie was serving as Assistant Steward aboard HM Yacht Conqueror II.

Conqueror II

Built in 1889, she was a 526-ton steam yacht, 188 feet in length, most recently owned by William Montagu, the Duke of Manchester. She had a complement of 36 officers and men, led by Commander Thomas Roland Agassiz.

The Admiralty had hired her in February 1915, equipping her with two six-inch guns. She was assigned to a group of vessels patrolling the waters around Orkney, Shetland and Fair Isle, based at Scapa Flow.

On 26 September 1916, Conqueror was patrolling the waters between Fair Isle and Shetland with HM Trawler Sarah Alice when they were ordered to stop a steamship that did not seem to be flying the correct ‘flag of the day’. This was the SS St Gothard.

Having checked the vessel, Commander Agassiz gave the order to St Gothard to proceed at around 17:00, at which point a torpedo hit the Sarah Alice, causing her to sink immediately.

As Conqueror moved to rescue survivors, she too was blown up by a torpedo and quickly sank.

St Gothard launched a boat to pick up survivors but, seeing a periscope, the Captain ordered his crew to abandon ship using the second boat.

A few minutes later St Gothard was hit and also sank.

The U-boat surfaced, taking on board a seriously injured man and another found in the water. These were transferred to one of the boats. The U-boat commander fired flares to attract rescuers and instructed the lifeboats to head east towards a nearby trawler. The U-boat then departed.

The lifeboat containing the crew of the St Gothard headed instead for the west coast of Shetland, landing there next morning.

The lifeboat containing survivors of Conqueror picked up others from the water, finding a man clinging to a box and seven more aboard a raft. She was found shortly after midnight by the destroyer HMS Sylvia.

The trawler signaled by the U-boat, HMT Horace Stroud, approached to within three miles and then saw what they thought were three U-boats – actually one U-boat and two lifeboats – so, instead of rescuing the men, it headed instead to St Ninian Bay, Shetland, where the sighting was reported.

Hans Walther

The U-boat was U-52, commanded by Kapitan Hans Walther, just a few months younger than William. He survived the War and even served for a while in the Second War as commander of a military district with the rank of rear-admiral. He died in 1950.

Walther’s report of the sinkings

Seventeen men from Conqueror, including the captain and Willie, were unaccounted for. Sixteen men were also lost aboard the Sarah Alice.

For Emily that must have been the final straw. She died of a stroke less than three years later.


Emily’s misfortunes were grave and considerable.

She lost two sisters while still a child and, aged just 18 years of age, she had to care for her younger siblings following her mother’s death.

Her father died soon afterwards. She married quickly but, within a year, was widowed with a baby daughter.

By the time of her own death in 1919, at the age of 62, she had lost her first husband Charles, her only son William and her son-in-law Stephen, all to explosions.

Emily herself, her daughter Clytie and (after Emily’s death) her grand-daughter Hilda were all three widowed by explosions.

Emily had also lost her second daughter and another son-in-law.

Her second husband, who had been in and out of prison while her children were born, had apparently abandoned her soon after the birth of the last.

To survive all this she must have been incredibly strong.


January 2022

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