Joseph Clarence Henry Brightwell was born in Greenwich, Kent, on 4th August 1894. He was one of eight children to Norfolk-born Charles Brightwell and his wife, Ellen. Charles was originally a builder in the nearby Woolwich Dockyard. The 1911 census, however, shows that he had changed career completely, and was working as a hotel cook.
The same document records that only the three youngest children of the family – Joseph included – remained living in the family home; the youngest, Rosetta, was still at school. Joseph, the next oldest, was employed as a milk boy, while his older brother, Edward, was working as a butcher’s boy.
Joseph was set on a life of adventure. By the next year, he had found work as a kitchen hand – possibly in the same hotel as his father – but, like Charles, a different career beckoned.
On 9th September 1912, Joseph enlisted as a Stoker 2nd Class in the Royal Navy. His service records show that he enlisted for the standard twelve-year term. He stood 5ft 2ins (1.57m) tall, had brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion.
Stoker Brightwell was primarily based at HMS Pembroke, the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, Kent. After his initial four-months’ training period, he was assigned to his first ship, the battlecruiser HMS Indomitable. He spent three years aboard, reaching the rank of Stoker 1st Class, before returning to Chatham and transferring to HMS Africa. Joseph spent nine months on board the battleship, which ploughed the waters of the South Atlantic, protecting the convoys.
By the spring of 1917, Stoker Brightwell was back at HMS Pembroke, and it was here that he spent the summer. The base was a particularly busy place at that point in the war and temporary accommodation was set up. Joseph found himself billeted at Chatham Drill Hall, away from the main barracks.
On the night of 3rd September 1917, Chatham suddenly found itself in the firing line, as the German Air Force launched a bombing raid. One of the bombs landed squarely on the Drill Hall, and Stoker Brightwell was killed. He was just 23 years old.
Ninety-eight servicemen perished during the Chatham Air Raid that night. They were buried in a mass funeral at the Woodlands Cemetery in nearby Gillingham. This, too, is where Joseph Clarence Henry Brightwell was laid to rest.