Friday, March 25, 2016

HMS Waterwitch

The survey vessel HMS Waterwitch, during steam trial, Stokes Bay [Portsmouth], June 1894 Source Hume Family Collection, UQ Fryer Library 10, Album 11, Page 23 Copyright expired

My father is currently cruising around the South and East China Sea and it reminded me that 115 years ago, his grandfather was also sailing in that general area on a very different kind of boat.   Edwin Conner was on board the HMS Waterwitch.  

Wikipedia records several incarnations of the HMS Waterwitch.  This one is the one that fits my ancestor's timeline.  Edwin Conner's service record shows him being on board from 12 March 1910 to 4 April 1911.  I have spent much of today trying to determine what HMS Waterwitch was up to at that time.

But first, a bit of background.

According to this meaty little article found on Trove, HMS Waterwitch was purchased by the Royal Navy from the Messrs James in 1893 for £10,000 and re-fitted and altered to suit her new purpose - hydrographic surveying.  She made her way to the Australian station from Portsmouth in August 1894 and reached Hobart in early 1895.

In 1898 she was transferred to the China Station.  

Edwin was on board when the 1911 Census was taken on 2nd April.  The HMS Waterwitch was moored alongside the wharf HM Dockyard, Hong Kong.  It was under the command of Lieutenant and Commander Reginald Lionel Hancock. Hancock was quite young I think, if these website biographies here and here are accurate - just 30 years old.  In fact, my great-grandfather was the oldest person on board at the age of 41. The average age was 26.  

The census shows that there were 78 men on board HMS Waterwitch, including nine Chinese and two from Hong Kong.  Three of the latter were stokers and the rest were servants for the Officers - stewards, cooks and a musician.  The musician Ah Yek was the same age as my great-grandfather.  I wonder what instrument he played.  There was only one Australian on board Richard Blakey James aged 28 from Melbourne.  There were three Scots and the rest were English.  

My great-grandfather listed his religion as Wesleyan, of which there were eight.  There were three Roman Catholics, three Presbyterians, one United Free Church of Scotland and one Salvationist. The rest were Church of England with the exception of the men from China and Hong Kong who did not have their religion recorded.

Married men like my great-grandfather were in the minority - 23 out of the 78.

I cheerfully confess not to being an authority on the hierarchy of the Royal Navy, but looking at the census taken on that day, I like to think that my great-grandfather was probably pretty much in charge of the lower deck as Chief Engine Room Artificer, 1st class.  There were two Engine Room Artificers-2nd class listed beneath him on the census form as well as a Stoker, Petty Officer, five Stokers - 1st class, a Leading Stoker, a Blacksmith, a Carpenter's Mate and a Leading Shipwright as well as an Armourer's mate.  There were also seven staff of the Royal Marine Light Infantry or RMLI.

According to this site, Engine Room Artificers were introduced by Order of Council in March 1868.  My great-grandfather's career in the Royal Navy didn't commence until 4 December 1890 when he was just shy of 21 years of age.  He is described on his record as a fitter and turner.  There seems to have been quite a strict hierarchical system in the Navy and while Admiral Fisher talked about the "one Navy" and breaking down social barriers, An Illustrated History of the Royal Navy alludes to a supposed exchange between two cadets at the Royal Naval College, where the potential officer says to the potential engineer "I don't care what the Admiralty says, my Mama would not have your Mama to tea."  You can lead a horse to water and all that.....The rank of Artificer was phased out recently according to this article.

Edwin Conner

You can read about the kind of uniform my great-grandfather would have worn here. Chief Engine Room Artificers only wore three buttons on the cuff. Edwin would have been earning about £118 per annum or about £12, 500 today. Engine Room Artificers also ate in a separate mess hall by themselves..."Nobody wanted oily overalls in the wardroom." (Winton, p. 103)

There is some very interesting information about the examinations of candidates for engineering in the Navy here.  Edwin would have had to know about arithmetic, orthography, French, Euclid, geography, algebra, trigonometry, hydrostatics, mechanics, dynamics, chemistry and the properties of steam, amongst other things.  I'm ashamed to say I didn't know what orthography was. The definition is here.

But - back to HMS Waterwitch.  If you search The London Gazette for the HMS Waterwitch you will find reference to a couple of Hydrographic Notes from 1910.  One is Hydrographic Note 3 about a shoal ridge south westward of Alligator Island in the Singapore Main Strait of the China Sea.  You can see it here.  The other is Hydrographic Note 4 and is about a shoal at Salat Sinki on the Western approach to Singapore in the China Sea.  You can see the note here.

Searching the 19th Century British Newspapers collection (which, by the way, has a coverage til 1950) using my National Library of Australia membership card, I found in the Courier & Argus (Dundee) under the headline Movements of Warships the following records of the HMS Waterwitch

5 May 1910 Waterwitch left Camrauh (I think this must mean Cam Ranh Bay)
3 December 1910 Waterwitch left Singapore
23 December 1910 Waterwitch at Hong Kong
30 May Waterwitch 1911 left Hong Kong for Singapore (by this time my great-grandfather had boarded Victory II)

Here is a map so you can get an idea of the area I am talking about.

I know that HMS Waterwitch doesn't really look like a warship but of course she was doing very important work for the Navy.  Knowing the waters you were sailing in and having good charts was a distinct advantage in warfare.  The Royal Navy was going through a challenging time.  Other countries were building their fleets - U.S.A., Japan, France, Russia and of course Germany.  

Paul Kennedy notes that 
"in 1883 the number of British battleships almost equalled the total of all the other powers combinedn (thirty-eght to forty); by 1897 this comfortable ratio had shrivelled away (sixty-two to ninety-six)." (Kennedy, p.209)
The policy of 'splendid isolation' was dropped in favour of an alliance with Japan in 1902 and renewed in 1911.

The stations around the world were becoming increasingly difficult to supply in the face of perceived threats at home and the colonialists more nervous about the Navy's capacity to defend their shores. Australians wanted their own Navy and were chary of paying for one that they couldn't control as they pleased. (Kennedy, p. 221) (Bach, p.190)

Back to the Waterwitch!  Other articles which helped in my research were obtained from the National Library of Singapore, once again accessed through my National Library of Australia account and has a digital archive of newspapers published between 1831 and 2009.  

From the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser we learn that Lieutenant and Commander Hancock had been on surveying duties for the past three or four years on the Fantome before taking command of the Waterwitch.  

The Vessels in Port column from The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser on 31 May 1910 shows that HMS Waterwitch had arrived in port on 24 May.  

The Straits Times reported her stuck near Sultan Shoal on 7 November 1910 but she came off before noon the next day.  

As noted previously, my great-grandfather left HMS Waterwitch 10 July 1911. He and his family moved to Melbourne in 1912 and he joined the R.A.N. 9 March, serving on the Penguin.  It was just as well really because HMS Waterwitch was rammed and sunk by the Governor's yacht Sea Mew in Singapore Harbour on 1 September 1912.  (Colledge, p. 377) 

The description of the accident bears a remarkable resemblance to the Greycliffe disaster in Sydney Harbour in 1927 in which Edwin finally lost his life. 

HMS Waterwitch was run down on the port-side just before midday and sank shortly after.  She was salvaged and put up for sale by the Navy the following month. Two men died as a result of the accident on HMS Waterwitch - a Royal Marine called Daniel Sturgess R.M.L.I. No. (Plymouth) 9,465 and a Chinese officer's steward, 2nd class.  (I have tried to find the latter's name but to no avail so far).  It is thought the latter went back to the boatswain's cabin to fetch something and drowned. Surviving crew were taken home on the Prometheus and Pegasus 9 October.  

If you want to read about the Greycliffe disaster on my blog go here.  Steve Brew's book is also worth reading.

Things to follow up:  Ian Nicholson's Log of Logs refers to a Log of HMS Waterwitch for 1912 in the Australian Archives Sydney.  

And to link this post loosely to the Sepia Saturday theme this week, I say to you  - Battleships!  But seriously, if you want to see what Sailors might have played on board ship, check out this site here. (Language warning for the more sensitive souls) I've never heard of Uckers, have you?.  I think marbles would be too tricky on deck.  I think singing would be easier.  Here's a ditty that my father taught me when I was young.  My mother was deeply suspicious of it and thought it not quite proper.

   Is he an Aussie 
              Is he an Aussie Lizzie is he?
          Is he an Aussie Lizzie eh?
          Is it because he is an Aussie, that he keeps you busy Lizzie?
          Has he jazzy wazzy ways that make you go all fuzzy wuzzy?
          Got you dizzy, has he Lizzie?
          Is he an Aussie Lizzie eh?

Oh and look what I found on the wunnerful web. This and the you tube video below so you know how it's sung.


Bach, John The Australia Station - A History of the Royal Navy in the South West Pacific 1821-1913 NSW University Press, Kensington, 1986

Brew, S, Greycliffe - Stolen Lives, Navarine Publishing, Woden, 2006.

Colledge, J.J., Ships of the Royal Navy - The Complete Record of all Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Call Num M3 5 2 at QFHS Library

Movements of Warships
The Courier and Argus (Dundee, Scotland), Monday, May 09, 1910; pg. 4; Issue 17754. British Newspapers, Part IV: 1780-1950. 

Movements of Warships and Torpedo Boats . 

The Courier and Argus (Dundee, Scotland), Wednesday, December 07, 1910; pg. 7; Issue 17936. British Newspapers, Part IV: 1780-1950. 

Movements of Warships . 

The Courier and Argus (Dundee, Scotland), Monday, December 26, 1910; pg. 2; Issue 17952. British Newspapers, Part IV: 1780-1950.

Movements of Warships and Torpedo Boats . 

The Courier and Argus (Dundee, Scotland), Saturday, June 03, 1911; pg. 6; Issue 18089. British Newspapers, Part IV: 1780-1950. 

Kennedy, Paul The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Penguin, 2001w Current Topics
Launceston Examiner, Tuesday 19 July 1898, page 4 Retrieved March 25, 2016 from

National Archives of Australia CONNER EDWIN : Service Number - 2103 : Date of birth - 25 Dec 1869 : Place of birth - PORTSMOUTH ENGLAND : Place of enlistment - Unknown : Next of Kin - CONNER ELEONOR Series A6770 Barcode 4409385

The National Archives (U.K.) Admiralty: Royal Navy Registers of Seamen's Services- ADM/188/222/153861

Nicholson, Ian Log of Logs, page 579 Call no. A3 5 8 Vol 1 at QFHS Library

Page 8 Advertisements Column 2, 
The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942) 12 October 1912, page 8 Retrieved March 25, 2016  National Library Board Singapore

Sinking of H.M.S. Waterwitch
The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 5 September 1912, page 156 Retrieved March 25, 2016 National Library board Singapore

The Waterwitch Wreck
The Straits Times, 3 September 1912, page 7 Retrieved March 25, 2016 National Library Board Signapore.

The Straits Times, 10 October 1912, p.8, Retrieved March 25, 2016 National Library Board Singapore

ARRIVAL OF H.M.S. WATERWITCH. (1895, April 13). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), , p. 8. Retrieved March 20, 2016, from

British War Vessel Sunk

The Times (London, England), Monday, Sep 02, 1912, pg. 8 Issue 39993

Winton, John, An Illustrated History of the Royal Navy, Conway Maritime Press, London, 2005


Karen S. said...

Amazing photo, and such an interesting topic, thanks for sharing.

Jill Ball said...

Super research Alex - an interesting story.

Alex Daw said...

Thank you Jill. You are very kind. I've added a bit more. Can't resist. Think I've borrowed every book on the Navy from the Library. Staggered home. You know how it is.

Alex Daw said...

Thank you Karen. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

diane b said...

A fascinating story of your great grandfather. You have an amazing talent in researching and writing these histories.

Alex Daw said...

Thank you Diane. You are very kind. I confess to having a kind of obsession and being a dead bore at home when I am fascinated by a particular subject.

Alan Burnett said...

What a fascinating account. As I read it I am waiting for our cousins to arrive who are staying overnight before flying off on their own tour of the South China Seas. I shall print them off a copy of your post to take with them.

Jo Featherston said...

A fascinating and very comprehensive post. I love the ship's name.

Alex Daw said...

Thank you for your kind comments Alan and Jo. Can you tell that I am surrounded by books on the Royal Navy and Chinese history? It was all happening at that time - that's for sure! I hope that the Waterwitch's hydrographic surveying ensures your friends's safety Alan :)

La Nightingail said...

Love the song! And the rest of the post is rather interesting!

Alex Daw said...

I'm so glad you like the song La Nightingail. It gave us many hours of enjoyment on long car trips !

Little Nell said...

That's a mammoth piece of research there Alex, well done. I think I remember Barry Humphries singing that song on his TV show.

Tattered and Lost said...

I hate to say it, but I can remember this same sort of arrogance among children of officers. When I was a child there was a girl who lived on my street who would have nothing to do with a very nice friend of mine who lived a couple streets away because her father was enlisted. This utter nonsense had to have come from her mother, or perhaps her father. They enforced the pecking order. I thought it all nonsense.

Alex Daw said...

Dear Tattered and Lost - I find that the nicest people are the ones who aren't afraid of giving anything away. I have found this particularly in professional terms. Those who are at the top of their game are enormously generous helping those coming up behind. Perhaps those who enforce the "barriers" are those who fear most losing what they have or fear of being found out that they're not that smart. We all progress if we all share. Now I sound like a real leftie don't I?

Alex Daw said...

Thanks Little Nell. Ah...if Barry Humphries sang it then that would have made my mother even more nervous! ;)

Wendy said...

Wow Alex, what a busy Aussie blogger you've been. Fantastic story and enjoyable in the telling.

Alex Daw said...

Hi Wendy....tee hee ...very witty. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. I was a bit worried that it was waaayyy too long but there was so much to tell!

Crissouli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Daw said...

Thank you Chris - oh here is your comment! I got my posts mixed up :)

Crissouli said...

Alex, that one had the wrong link... this is the correct one...

Your great story was listed in Interesting Blogs on That Moment in Time.

My error...sorry.