CWG: Deck Hand William Clark

Deck Hand William Clark

William Henry Clark was born in Whitby, North Yorkshire, on 15th March 1884 and was the younger of two children to James and Fanny Clark. Fisherman James drowned in September 1885, when the boat owned by his brothers-in-law – Robert and Mark Dryden – capsized.

Fanny and her children moved in with her Robert and her widowed mother, Martha, who was a lodging house keeper. In the spring of 1892, she married quarry labourer William Bennison. Her and James’ two children remained living with their grandmother; she went on to have three children with her new husband.

The 1901 census recorded young William working as a rivet heater in the local iron shipyard. He progressed in his work and, by the next census in 1911, remained living with his grandmother and uncle, but was working as a boilermaker in the shipyard.

When war broke out, William was called upon to play his part. While he had done engineering work, he also worked with his Uncle Robert on his fishing boat; this meant he was placed on reserve in the Royal Navy, and was not formally called upon as a Deck Hand until November 1915. Full details of his service are not available, but it is clear that he was based at HMS Pembroke – the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, Kent – by the summer of 1917.

HMS Pembroke was a generally bustling place, but by the summer of 1917, it had exceeded capacity to the point where temporary accommodation was set up. William found himself billeted at The 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 Deck Hand Clark was killed. He was 33 years of age.

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 is where William Henry Clark was also laid to rest.

Deck Hand William Clark

A local newspaper had reported on William’s father’s death:


We append the personal account of Robert Dryden, who was capsized along with his two comrades, James Clark and Mark Dryden, in the fishing coble Ann Maria… off Robin Hood’s Bay, on the morning of Saturday, the 19th inst. The tale tells of the marvellous escape of the narrator and of the sad drowning of his two mates, who each leave a widow and two children. The survivor, who is a stout and healthy fellow, had his left leg amputated some years ago, and a wooden support substituted. The following is his account:

“We were coming in from the fishing grounds on Saturday morning in our coble under a three-reefed sail, with two hundred herrings. There was a stiff breeze blowing form the south-east, with occasional squalls, and it was very dark. We should be, I reckon, about two miles from land… I had just gone into her head to see how she was coming for the land, leaving Mark at the helm, when a puff of wind took her on the starboard quarter and sent her over. We were floated out, and she sank directly, each of us catching hold of an oar.

“Just then a steamer passed us, and we shouted, but could not get their attention, and we all swam about, talking to each other, and I told them to keep their hearts up. We all had knee boots on, and, poor Jim, I think he must have been caught by the cold, for about twenty minutes after he sank. He was a fine fellow, as fine a fellow as you would meet in the streets.

“Shortly after he had gone, poor fellow, a tug boat passed us with a black and flesh-coloured funnel. I was too exhausted to shout much, and had to swim across her bows to keep clear. When she had passed, poor Mark had disappeared. I could then see the land, and with the sea beating on my left shoulder I set out for it…

“I was very disheartened after losing my mates, and all I had – for the coble belonged half to me and half to my brother – nets, money, and, all together, about ¬£60 had gone…

“After a long swim, I neared the shore, and swam for the Blue Rock, because I could not swim further to a calm spot. I found myself on the rock after being, I think, knocked senseless by the seas. I climbed the cliff – it’s a bad coast about here – and walked for about two miles before I met anyone…

“I was several times almost in despair when in the water, and was much distressed at having to return with such a sad tale… It’s a great loss to me. Jim was my brother-in-law, and was 29 years of age, and Mark was my cousin, and 23 years old. It’s thirteen years since I had my other narrow escape, and I would sooner go to the poor-house than go through such another time of it.”

By this melancholy accident, two families have been plunged into deep grief and dire poverty, and deserve the sympathy and practical support of all kind and well-to-do-people.

Whitby Gazette: Sunday 26th September 1885

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s