Often when we study history, especially military history, the people become forgotten as we concentrate on dates and numbers. The personal stories of individuals is what interests me. Not the great leaders, the movers and shakers, but the ordinary folk that get caught up in events. These are the people I consider to be heroes.
One such person was William Porter who was born in the Friern Barnet area of North London on 11th of December 1896. It was an area which was growing rapidly in population. The coming of the railways and later of electric trams encouraged its growth.
When he was just 7 years old William’s father, George, died leaving his wife , Bertha, with 9 children to bring up. Already a struggling working class family even with the help of the older children, Bertha could not cope with bringing them up.
William and his 3 brothers were put into the care of Dr Barnardo’s in 1904. By this time Dr Barnardo’s had 96 homes. It was well established as an organisation which would care for children.
The boys were put to Leopold House, 199 Burdett Road, Limehouse, London. It could accommodate up to 450 boys. By the 18th of July 1905 they were entered into the Watts Naval Training School at North Elmham, near East Dereham in Norfolk. This school was operated by Dr Barnardo’s. It was used to train boys for a life in the Royal Navy or Mercantile Marine.
The boys were woken at 6.30am, after which they attended morning prayers before having breakfast at 7.30am. At 9.00am they would go to the central hall and fall in for inspection by the Captain, before marching off for lessons and drill. Dinner was served at 12.30pm, with the boys falling in for more school and drill at 2.00pm. At 4.00pm they had a half-hour’s special drill training. Tea was served at 5.30pm, with evening prayers and bed two hours later. (Watts Naval School Wikipeida)
William joined the Royal Navy on the 14th of May 1913 and for 6 months he was training at HMS Ganges, Shotley, Suffolk. It was known for its harsh training regime.
From 1905 until 1976 HMS Ganges was an uncompromising training establishment for the Royal Navy, designed to turn Boys into Men fit to serve in His/Her Majestys Fleet (HMS Ganges Museum)
William’s first sea duty started on 13 November 1913 on board the Edgar-Class cruiser HMS Hawke. [This was part of a training group of vessels. ] His character was rated at very good and his ability as superior, so his sea career was off to a good start. (Brian Budge)
So far this story of William Porter has not been unusual. In the early 20th Century when there was no welfare state this was the case for children born into poor working class families who lost one or both parents. Dr Barnardo’s took care of them and trained them for a future working life – in William’s case with the Royal Navy.
But with the hindsight of history we know that young men of William’s generation were about to enter the most horrific conflict the world had yet to experience.
By the 15th of April 1914, William Porter was at HMS Vivid, the navy barracks at Devonport. After his few weeks at Devonport, William joined the crew of the pre-Dreadnought battleship, HMS London.
On the 4th of August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany and entered what was to become the First World War.
While she spent the first few months of the Great War in the Channel Fleet, William spent 14 days in the cells for a misdemeanour which has not been detailed.
William was wounded when HMS London took part in the Dardanelles campaign providing fire support for the landings at Anzac and thereafter for the troops ashore.
William was promoted to Able Seaman on 2 February 1916, but was not at the Battle of Jutland. He spent most of the summer back at the Devonport base, before joining the new destroyer HMS Pheasant with most of its crew on 29 November 1916. (Brian Budge)
On his last leave home William handed over his silver watch to his oldest sister. The watch had been given to him by Mrs Watts when he passed out of the Watts Naval Training School with honour. It was clearly a precious object for him and as he put it into his sister’s hands he said “I don’t think I will be coming back”.
On the 1st of March 1917, William Porter lost his life along with his 88 fellow crewmen when HMS Pheasant struck a German laid mine just off Hoy, Orkney.
I am grateful to Denis Christian-Prince for permitting me to recount some of the story of his great uncle William Porter. A young man who never had an easy life but who worked hard and overcame the incredible obstacles in his life. That is why to me he is a hero.
“I lived with my gran, his oldest sister, until I was 8 years old, and every now and again she would get a bundle of stuff out of the cupboard and show me and tell me the same story – there was his waxed war records and memorial penny and his silver watch (given to him by Mrs Watts on passing into the Royal Navy with honour) – she would say that William gave her his watch on his last leave with the words “I don’t think I will be coming back”, and he didn’t – that sort of thing sticks with you for life.”
Many thanks also to Brian Budge for his research into William Porter’s Naval Record.
The Orkney News aims to make a documentary about the lives of those men who were lost when HMS Pheasant sank. You can read about that here:
If you are family or have information on any of the men who lost their lives on HMS Pheasant and you would like to share their story please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Reporter: Fiona Grahame