A Remarkable Find in a Cormorant’s Nest

Fred Rotchell and the work of family and local historians to uncover the untold stories

In the winter of 1918 188 men lost their lives when HMS Opal and HMS Narborough ran onto rocks in Orkney during an horrendous storm. We Will Remember Them in the pages of the Orkney News recounts the work of Orkney researchers, Brian Budge and Andrew Hollinrake to uncover more of the story and to update the names of those lost.

To mark their sacrifice there will be a wreath laying at Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay where the 1993 memorial is on the 12th of January. Only invited guests will be able to attend due to the size of the parking area. It will be followed by a further commemoration at the Cromarty Hall, St Margaret’s Hope to which all are invited.

Another remarkable discovery was found by chance in the unlikely surroundings of a nest on nearby cliffs of one of the men serving aboard the Opal.

Fredrick James Rotchell the Opal

Fredrick James Rotchell credit:http://www.kbrady.com/opal.html

Fred Rotchell, a cabinet maker had recently joined the Opal, and was aged 19 when he died. The young sailor was the great-uncle of Jane Brady, from Frodsham, near Chester, whose husband Kieran has looked into Fred’s story.

During Kieran’s research he was put in touch with Willie Budge, from South Ronaldsay, who told Mr Brady:

“(The late) John George Halcro was clambering over the cliffs on one occasion and came across the nest of a cormorant. They scavenge bits of metal – lead and cordite from the wreck, to line their nests with. But in this particular nest was something glinting – it was a piece of brass. On closer inspection, it turned out to be the brass name plate from a ship’s ditty box – bearing the name F. Rotchell.”

The name plate and photographs of Fred can be seen on the website Mr Brady has created in memory of his wife’s great-uncle and all the other sailors lost in the Opal-Narborough tragedy: www.kbrady.com/opal.html

Frederick James Rotchell  from the Opal

Frederick James Rotchell credit:http://www.kbrady.com/opal.html

“Fred was the older brother of my wife’s grandfather Charles,” he said. They were very close and Charles suffered more than anyone after Fred was lost.

“There’s a poignant message on the rear of a portrait of Fred in his uniform:

‘To Charlie from Mum and Dad. In Memory of Dear Brother Fred’.”

Mr Brady added:

“Like most of the men, Fred was never recovered and like many of them, he was very young when he died. It is so important that they are not forgotten – I am very pleased that they will be remembered at the events taking place in Orkney to mark the centenary.”

Information about the only survivor, William Sissons, can also be found on the website. This includes a first-hand account written on Admiralty paper by Sissons himself. It was discovered by his grandson, the late Bob Sissons, who kindly passed on a copy to Mr Brady.

william sissons - Orkney Library and Archive

William Sissons – Orkney Library and Archive

William Sissons describes how he found himself in one of the Opal’s funnels. When this began to tilt, as the ship broke up, he jumped for safety and found himself ‘at the mercy of the sea’.

Buffeted by wreckage and fuel oil he somehow clambered ashore and found some shelter in a small cave. He survived two bitterly cold nights, using snow for water during the day, and was finally rescued by the crew from a fishing boat.

He ends his account: “I was the sole survivor of the two destroyers and the only one that knows what the ordeal was like.”

A ring was discovered by divers in 2007 belonging to Stanley Cubiss who served in the engine room aboard HMS Opal and saw action at the Battle of Jutland.

He had been married for less than a year when he lost his life on 12th January 1918. The ring, an engagement present, bears the inscription ‘To Stanley from Flo – 6 March 1916’. 

At the commemoration lunch on the 12th of January in the Cromarty Hall, St Margaret’s Hope, there will be a small information display and a short presentation by local historian Brian Budge who will tell the story of the ships and their crews.


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