The 1914 Sea Scout tragedy at Somerleyton

In 1914, the 1st Carlton (St Mark’s) Seas Scouts had spent Whitsun week under canvas, encamped in a field beside the Dukes Head Hotel at Somerleyton. The troop were in good spirits and fine voice as they set off along the River Waveney to return home, but the trip was to end with the tragic loss of six lives as disaster struck just a short way into their journey.

The group had arrived at Somerleyton at the beginning of the week in a small sailing boat which had recently been presented to the troop. On Monday 1st June, having packed away their camping gear, stowed it on board and prepared the boat, they set sail for the return journey to Oulton Broad at around 8.30am. On board were Lowestoft Solicitor and Scoutmaster Thornton Lory, the 34 year old, ex-Naval Scout Instructor James Lewington and five teenage Sea Scouts. Having dropped the mast to pass beneath Somerleyton rail bridge, they sang heartily as they pulled on the oars:

Pull for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore
Heed not the rolling waves, but bend to the oar
Safe in the lifeboat, sailor, cling to self no more
Leave the poor old stranded wreck and pull for the shore

Once safely beyond the bridge, the crew began to hoist the sail again, but a sudden gust of wind caught them and the boat capsized, sinking head first into the river in an instant, trapping all but one of the party under the sail as it went. Seventeen year old Stanley Wood was on board and managed to scramble free from the boat, swimming to the safety of the shore. He stood there shaking and helpless, watching in vain for signs of the rest of the crew surfacing, but no one did. Three gentlemen, holidaying on the pleasure wherry Rambler, were rowing along the river when they noticed debris from the capsized boat floating back downstream. Rushing to the scene, they found a distressed Stanley on the riverbank shouting that his friends were all drowned. Help was summoned from the Dukes Head Hotel and they began to drag the river immediately. A telegraph was dispatched to summon Dr J. Boswell from Lowestoft.

The first body was pulled from the river about half an hour after the incident. Attempts were made to resuscitate him but to no avail. The doctor soon arrived and he too attempted to revive the victims as they were retrieved from the water. Sadly, all were lost. The six men were laid out side by side in a stable at the Dukes Head, their bodies covered with the Union Jack. Alongside Lory and Lewington were; Reginald Middleton, aged fourteen, of Lowestoft, Sidney E. Searle, aged eighteen, Arthur Beare, aged fourteen, and Sidney Thrower, aged sixteen, all of Oulton Broad. News of the incident spread quickly and hundreds of people gathered at the scene to mourn the loss of the men in such tragic circumstances.

Light in the darkness, sailor, day is at hand
See, o’er the foaming billows, fair heaven’s land
Drear was the voyage, sailor, now almost o’er
Safe within the lifeboat, sailor, pull for the shore

The inquest was held at Somerleyton soon after the event, the jury viewing the bodies of the men in their coffins at the Dukes Head before it commenced. Mark Joseph Carver, a waterman from Oulton Broad, was called as a witness. He had been skippering the holiday party on the wherry Rambler which had been moored near to the scouts sailing boat before it set off. He had watched as Lewington got the boat ready and put a reef in the sail. Challenging him as to whether the method he used was adequate for the strong north easterly winds which were blowing at the time, Lewington had replied that he knew how. The remaining scouts brought the  camping equipment down and loaded it all into the front of the small boat, all the weight was forward. Carver had also noticed that the head of the boom had been stuck fast in the mud at the bottom of the river after the boat capsized.  Alcord Jackson, who lived on a nearby houseboat, local boatman George Rushmore and Mark Calver had dragged the river and recovered the bodies. It was noted at the inquest that, apart from Lewington, the remaining Sea Scouts had been “indifferent swimmers.” The sole survivor, Stanley Wood, had been too ill to attend the proceedings.

“Take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is

Scoutmaster Thornton Lory had been deemed a good amateur sailor but the outcome of the inquest judged that the boat had been overloaded and not well stowed. The “un-workmanlike” reef in the sail and the fact that the group had attempted to hoist the sail head on to the wind  when it was “blowing half a gale” may also have been contributory factors. The funeral was held at St. Mark’s Church, 300 scouts lined the route to the cemetery at Carlton Colville, 40 mourning coaches followed the horse drawn hearses and over 200 wreathes were laid at the grave. A local photographer produced a series of postcards of the funeral, one of which can be seen on the right. It seems rather morbid to us these days, but it was commonplace to document tragedies and disasters in this way at the time.  A memorial was erected at the cemetery, six individual headstones commemorate each of the six victims whilst the central cross remembers the tragic events of that day.

Memorial to the victims of the 1914 tragedy at Carlton Colville cemetery – picture courtesy of Peter Waller

The story ends with a double tragedy, as the fate of sole survivor Stanley Wood was set just two years later on the battlefields of northern France. Stanley enlisted, becoming a Lance Corporal with the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, but was tragically killed on the 19th of July 1916 during the Battle of Fromelles. His body was never found, but it is believed that he may have been one of the unidentified British troops who were buried at Pheasant Wood. An appeal was made locally in 2009 for relatives to provide DNA to help identify those buried at Fromelles, but it seems no one came forward for Stanley. His military records listed him as being the son of Thomas Wood of Ivy Cottage, Beccles Road, Oulton Broad. Early research by another contact indicates that the family came from the north of England and that their associations with Suffolk may have been short lived, which could account for the lack of response. I hope that one day his family will be found and some sort of closure will be brought to Stanley Wood’s sad story.

Trust in the lifeboat, sailor, all else will fail
Stronger the surges dash, and fiercer the gale
Heed not the stormy winds, though louder they roar
Watch the “Bright Morning Star” and pull for the shore

Update 02/06/2014:

Shortly after writing this post, I received the news that Stanley Wood’s nephew had been found. My sincere thanks to Alan Smith for doing this and for allowing me to share that correspondence on here. Tony Browne believes that he is probably Stanley’s only living relative and has kindly provided some background information about the family. Tony is also in possession of a rather haunting artifact relating the Sea Scout tragedy of 1914. Below is a drawing done by Stanley himself, showing the events of that fateful day. It shows four pictures of the same boat, at different stages of the disaster. Rowing away from the bridge, sail going up, sail up, the capsize. All the crew members positions are shown. Having immersed myself in the story again over the last few days, it was actually quite an emotional moment when I first saw this. A real lump in the throat job. That Stanley drew this in the first place, that it has survived in such incredible condition for 100 years, is just astonishing. It was mentioned that Stanley was too ill to attend the inquest; it must have been an unimaginably traumatic experience for him. Tony believes that this was actually drawn for that inquest, Stanley’s evidence if you like. It’s an incredible piece of history, such a very real, and human glimpse into the tragedy.

Stanley’s father was Tom Wood, who was born in Wigton, Cumberland in 1864. He studied architecture as a young man and, in 1887, sailed to Australia acting as chaperone to his future wife’s sister. Returning to Britain in 1891, Tom married Isabella (Belle) Gott and they had three children – Doris (1895), Stanley (1897) and the youngest Nora (1902) who was Tony Browne’s mother. All three were born in Kendall and it’s not known exactly when the family moved to Oulton Broad, but the 1911 census returns show that Tom Wood was in residence at Beccles Road where he is described as being an “Inspector of Nuisance, Workshop, Cowshed and Dairies, Canal Boats.” It’s a fantastic job description, but it translates to the less glamorous role of sanitary inspector in today’s terms. Nora married Robert Browne in Liverpool in 1931 – Stanley’s father, Tom, died there in 1937 but Belle lived until 1954. There is another local connection with Robert Browne, whose family were of “Suffolk Stock” according to Tony, who said “His grandfather and great grandfather were both in the fish trade, his grandfather as an auctioneer- he lived in Denmark Street, Lowestoft  His father was William Barkham Browne (an engraver and printer) and married a Florence Gray. I remember Florence (my Gran) well as a youngster as she had a lovely Suffolk accent (and so did her budgerigar!)

The events leading up to Stanley’s death during the Battle of Fromelles are well documented elsewhere online and I mentioned that it had previously been thought that he may have been one of the fallen who were buried at the Pheasant Wood cemetery. Tony says: “In 2013 I was contacted by the MOD with a request to give DNA to try and identify his body as victim of the battle of Fromelles.  This I did, but as far as I know it did not yield any result. I was not too surprised, as the information the family had from officers in his platoon was that he was buried behind British lines.  The bodies being exhumed from the mass grave at Pheasant Wood were buried by the Germans.

Sadly, it seems that Stanley is still out there somewhere, yet to be found and identified. In a cruel, double twist of fate, Tony has recently discovered that Stanley’s cousin, Leslie Holmes, (the son of the sister-in-law chaperoned by Tom Wood to Australia in 1887) was also killed during the Battle of Fromelles whilst serving with the Australian army, and has been contacted by researchers in Australia with a view to providing DNA again. I believe that there were over 170 Australian men buried at Pheasant Wood, maybe Leslie will eventually be identified amongst them. There is a memorial to Stanley Wood at the Carlton Colville cemetery and he is also one of 20,000 soldiers with no known graves who are commemorated on the Loos Memorial in France.

Once again, my thanks go to Alan Smith and Tony Browne for filling in the gaps in this story. Thanks must also go to Peter Waller for sparking that initial interest in the tragedy too.

The Wood Family photo gallery – new blog post 20/06/2014

Sources & further information:
New Zealand Herald 18th July 1914
“Pull for the Shore” written by Philip Paul Bliss
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