By Fiona Grahame with Photographs and Painting by Martin Laird
In the early hours of the 1st of March 1917, whilst on regular patrol, HMS Pheasant struck a mine at Rora Head, Hoy, Orkney. All 89 members of the crew lost their lives that day. Only one body was ever recovered, that of Midshipman Reginald Cotter, who was still alive when pulled from the water.
Although miniscule compared to the millions who died in the slaughter of World War 1, for the men’s families, the loss of their loved ones was devastating.
What happened to HMS Pheasant, an M class destroyer which was only launched on 23rd of October 1916 was virtually forgotten until a maritime survey conducted by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and SULA Diving located its remains.Discovering the Last Resting Place of HMS Pheasant (1917)
The wreck is protected as a designated vessel under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 and Midshipman Cotter is buried in the Lyness Naval Cemetery.
There is no memorial in Orkney to the 89 men, as yet, but a group of volunteers wishes to change that and to open a Book of Remembrance.
After publishing an article about the wreck of HMS Pheasant being located, The Orkney News was contacted by a descendant of Able Seaman William Porter, a London lad who lost his life that day.
William Porter was born in the Friern Barnet area of North London on 11th of December 1896. When he was only 7 years old his father, George, died leaving his mother, Bertha, with a family of 9 children to bring up. The family was poor so William and 3 of his brothers were taken in by Dr Barnardo’s in 1904. This was a time with no welfare state and Dr Barnardo’s provided the care William’s mother was unable to. By the 18th of July 1905 the brothers 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. William joined the Royal Navy on the 14th of May 1913. Able Seaman William Porter: Hero – HMS Pheasant
The background of the ship’s crew is a slice of early 20th Century society in Britain. The men came from all walks of life from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
The youngest was 16 year old Frederick Twyman from Grimsby- a boy telegraphist who had only joined the Royal Navy a year earlier on 20th of January 1916.
Able Seaman Percy Searle, 20, who had survived the sinking of HMS Formidable on 1st of January 1915 when 547 men died, was to lose his life on HMS Pheasant.
Twelve of the men took part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 where 2 of them, Cyril Grebbell and Ernest Marks, were severely injured. 8,500 men were killed in that battle – 6,000 of them in the Royal Navy.
Some of the men were not the only ones in their families to be killed in World War 1, Stoker Charles Neale’s brother Herbert served with the 7th Btn Norfolk Regiment and died in the killing fields of France on 10th of January ,1916.
Two boyhood friends who joined the Royal Navy on the same day, Ivor Weaver and Harry Martin who were Welsh miners, died together, when HMS Pheasant exploded.
In the study of history, particularly that which features war, it is far too easy to forget the individual lives of those who are killed and injured. The 89 men who died that day in March in the cold waters of Scapa Flow are listed on the Plymouth Naval Memorial but many of them have been forgotten in their own communities. Even descendants have no idea of what happened to that uncle, brother, father, who never came home from Orkney.
Martin Laird and myself decided to tell the story of these men and the families they left bereaved. In 2019 we successfully produced an animation about the untold story of The Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Movement: A Gude Cause Maks A Strong Erm. The animation is being shown at several film festivals and won in the most creative/original category at the Scottish Short Film Festival.
HMS Pheasant 1917 is another story which has captured our imagination and we will be making a 45 minute documentary about the 89 men who lost their lives that day. At the moment it is unfunded but as we make progress with the research and filming we are hopeful of attracting financial backers and sponsors. It will have an original music score and a narration in the Orcadian dialect.
The research we have done will also form an exhibition in the Northlight Gallery Stromness as part of St Andrews Fair Saturday starting on November 30th. This can then go on show elsewhere, hopefully in Hoy.
There will be a public talk on Saturday 23rd of November at 2.30pm in the MacGillvery Room at the Orkney Library and Archives in Kirkwall.
Stromness Writing Group will also be involved and they will bring to the project a creative mix of diverse styles. Throughout the UK and Ireland, individuals, librarians, local history societies and family members are helping to piece together the men’s stories.
Making a documentary is a considerable task but both Martin and myself think it is the least we can do to remember the men of HMS Pheasant.
To find out more visit the Facebook Page: HMS Pheasant 1917
This article was first published in Issue 55 of iScot Magazine