By Fiona Grahame
Harry Sultan was born in Hull on the 21st of February 1893 into a hard working family. His father, Solomon Sultan was a labourer, a job Harry was also to do for a time.
I don’t have a photo of Harry but I am researching his life as part of a collaborative project with the Orkney artist Martin Laird where we tell his story and of his HMS Pheasant shipmates.
HMS Pheasant an M-Class Destroyer struck a German laid mine on 1st of March 1917 off Rora Head, Hoy. There were no survivors.
Like all the men on HMS Pheasant, Harry’s life and that of his family is fascinating.
Harry’s paternal grandparents were migrants. His grandfather, Israel Sultan and his grandmother Mary were from Eastern Europe. Jews came to the UK in the later half of the 19th Century driven from their homelands by poverty and antisemitism. After the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881 the number of Jews fleeing persecution increased.
I don’t know why Israel and Mary left their homeland to travel to the UK but they settled, had a large family and were very much part of the community. Israel was a tailor in both Hull and London. These two places were where many Jews fleeing persecution set up homes.
For women in the late 19th and early 20th C life was even harsher as pregnancy and having children brought its complications. Harry’s mother, Mary Jane had a least 11 children with 5 of them not surviving infancy. The grief of a mother losing a child is not lessened because it happened in the 19thC. I cannot possibly imagine how that must have affected her.
Harry joined the Royal Navy in 1910. This was not an unusual occupation for him living in Hull where seafaring was the choice of many. He already had an uncle in the merchant navy. Harry signed on for the standard 12 years. He was just over 17 years of age.
As I mentioned at the start of this article I do not (yet) have a photo of Harry but I try and picture him from the small details I do have. He was 5 ft 5 with dark brown hair and on his arms he sported two tattoos: a pierced heart and an anchor.
Harry was a good seaman and proceeded from Boy through Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman to Leading Seaman in 6 years.
Britain declared war on Germany on 4th of August 1914 and Harry was pitched into many theatres of action. One of the earliest he took part in took place on 28th of August 1914 at Heligo Bight. By the end of this battle 3 German light cruisers were sunk, 1,200 German officers and men killed or captured. There were 35 British seaman killed with 40 wounded.
Harry was also serving on board HMS Defender at the Battle of Jutland which raged from 31st May – 1st June 1916. A shell went through the side of Defender but failed to explode. The shell knocked out the boiler room. What happened next was described by the author Rudyard Kipling in Sea Warfare ‘Towing Under Difficulties.’
Also serving on HMS Defender at this time were Able Seaman John Hamilton from Cork, Able Seaman Joseph Randall from Bath, Leading Seaman Cyril Grebbell from Devonport and Able Seaman Tom Howarth from Burnley .
They were all to lose their lives with Harry on HMS Pheasant.
Harry was 24 when he was killed. His family inserted memorial notices of their much loved brother and son for decades after his death.
Martin Laird and myself feel the stories of these men should be told to remember them as the men they were – not as a casualty number. We have launched a crowdfund so the we can mount a quality exhibition telling the lives of the men of HMS Pheasant. Click on this link to access the Crowdfund: HMS Pheasant 1917
The pull up banners will be available for other groups and organisations to use. Our exhibition HMS Pheasant 1917 starts on Saturday 30th of November as part of St Andrew’s Fair Day.
I will also be giving a talk in the MacGillivray Room at the Orkney Library and Archives on Saturday 23rd of November from 2.30 to 3.30pm. All are welcome and I hope you can join me.
Click on this link to access the Facebook page: HMS Pheasant 1917
Here is a wee video explaining what we are doing and why