Officer Stoker K/7846, H.M.S. Pincher, Royal Navy. Died 24 July
1918. Aged 28. Son of the late Frederick and Sarah Ann Wheelhouse.
Buried in GWITHIAN (ST. GOTHIAN) CHURCHYARD, Cornwall.
by Ian Cooper:
Wheelhouse was born on 22 January 1890 in the inner city St. Paul's
area of Sheffield. His father died when he was only three years
old, leaving his mother and three older brothers to take care of
him as best they could. When he was seven, his older brother Harry
died of consumption at Fir Vale Workhouse. Even with two of William's
brothers (John and Frederick) of working age and with his mother
also working, the family found it hard to make ends meet - so much
so that William was selected to be taught at the Sheffield District
Boys Charity School - a free boarding school supported by voluntary
contributions for boys whose families were very poor. After school
it seems he worked as a caker in the steel smelting industry.
joined the Royal Navy in 1910 at the age of 20. His service number
was K/7846 and he is described on his service record form as being
5ft 43/8" tall with a 38 1/2" chest,
a fair complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair. The form also
reports two large scars on his shoulder blade - perhaps burns sustained
at his previous job.
first assignment was to HMS Victory II for three weeks from 11 August
1910 until 3 September 1910. Victory II was not a ship - it was
the Division at Portsmouth that accounted for Engine Room Artificers
and Stokers. Here it seems William received basic training and passed
his induction test to be a stoker.
stoker is a man employed in stoking the furnaces of a ship. On coal
fired ships he is required to shovel coal into the furnace and to
distribute the coal in the furnace in order to get the optimal energy
to heat the ship's boilers. The stoker must also be aware of the
ventilation of the furnace in order to prevent 'flash back' (if
the ventilation is wrong, fire can be blown out through the stoker's
hole and burn - or kill - the stoker). On oil fired ships, the stoker
operates the fuel oil sprayers. The stoker is also trained as a
boiler mechanic and has knowledge of how a steam engine works. At
the time when William Wheelhouse worked as a stoker, the job was
tough, dirty and hot, requiring high levels of strength and endurance.
Stokers worked in an environment that has been described as "as
close to hell as one can imagine". Stokers also underwent firearms
drill and fieldcraft as a part of their basic training and had to
demonstrate proficiency in these tasks prior to being promoted to
Stoker 1st Class.
4 September 1910 to 15 October 1910 William was assigned to HMS
Renown, again as a Stoker. Renown was a coal fired pre-dreadnought
battleship and was completed in January 1897. From Nov. 1909 HMS
Renown was a stoker's training ship.
training on Renown, William went back to Victory II and stayed there
for about 7 weeks, from 16 October 1910 to 6 December 1910. Here
he passed his proficiency test that put him on the track to be a
stoker petty officer. On his service record, William's commanding
officer listed his ability as 'superior'.
7 December 1910 William was assigned, still as a stoker, to HMS
Eclipse. Launched in 1894, Eclipse was a fuel-oil fired Eclipse
class cruiser. During the periods William Wheelhouse served on her,
HMS Eclipse was a sea-going training ship for naval cadets. The
1911 census shows William in a naval barracks in Portsmouth. Life
in a Navy barracks must have reminded him of his childhood in the
Boy's Charity School, so perhaps he had an easier time adjusting
to life away from home than some of the other cadets.
31 October 1911, William joined the crew of HMS Weymouth. Weymouth
was a brand new, fuel-oil fired ship, the first of her own class
of light cruiser. William was a member of Weymouth's first crew
and this was his first assignment out of training. HMS Weymouth
and her sister ship, HMS Dartmouth were the attached cruisers to
the Third Battle Squadron, First Fleet of the Home Fleet between
1911-1913. This squadron consisted of the Battleships Africa, Britannia,
Commonwealth, Dominion, Hibernia, Hindustan, King Edward VII and
November 1911 HMS Weymouth paid a visit to the town of Weymouth
- the ship's company was entertained and the wardroom presented
with a large piece of silver for the table. In December Weymouth
stood by and assisted at the wreck of the P & O liner Delhi
wrecked near Cape Spartel (near Tangier) with a Royal party onboard.
In February 1912, Weymouth visited Ferrol, Spain and in May she
took part in the Fleet Review at Spithead. Between June and July
1912 she took part in major fleet exercises in the Channel and the
September 1912, Weymouth deployed to the Mediterranean, initially
to Malta. In October and November she deployed to the eastern Mediterranean
during period of high tension between Greece and Turkey. While there
she spent time at Suda Bay, Crete and in the Aegean. In November
she anchored at Constantinople (Istanbul) where she landed parties
of seamen to mount armed guard at the British Embassy and British
property. Stokers were often called upon to perform landing party
duties, so William may well have found himself guarding the Embassy.
early 1913, HMS Weymouth returned to the U.K.
27 June 1913, William was reassigned back to Victory II. It was
during his time here that William would have received word that
his mother had died on 30 December 1913 at the age of 65.
next assignment, on 1 August 1914, was to HMS Drake, again as a
stoker. Launched in 1901, HMS Drake was a coal fired Drake class
armoured cruiser. By 1914 she had been decommissioned, but with
tensions between England and the Central Powers rising she was recommissioned,
just in time for test mobilisation and the Fleet Review. At the
outbreak of the Great War She was attached to the 6th Cruiser Squadron
of the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow, and given escort duties.
Her first escort run was taking the Olympic, sister ship of the
Titanic into Liverpool after the Olympic had travelled from New
York. In October she escorted the merchant cruiser Mantua to Archangel
in Russia. During his assignment to Drake, William's ability was
again remarked upon as 'superior'.
8 April 1915 William was once more assigned to Victory II. By this
time, Victory II had been moved from Portsmouth to Crystal Palace
in London. Now known as HMS Crystal Palace, this was also the training
depot for the Royal Naval Division.
22 February 1916, William was ordered to return to HMS Drake. On
1 June he was promoted to Acting Leading Stoker and on 1 December
he was again promoted, this time to Leading Stoker.
1916 and 1917 Drake was assigned to the North America & West
Indies station, based at Bermuda. On October 2nd 1917 HMS Drake
was near Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland, having just
finished escorting convoy HH24 from America. The convoy had dispersed
at 8:03 am. Just over an hour later HMS Drake was torpedoed by U-79
under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Rohrbeck. The torpedo
struck the ship under the second funnel. Drake's number two boiler
room flooded instantly, killing everyone present except one man
who was blown onto the upper deck and landed there unhurt, and another
who climbed up through the stokehold hatch. The crewman who blown
from the boiler room, acting engine room artificer Bridson, immediately
reported for duty in the number three boiler room where he remained
until the ship was abandoned.
Drake's commander, Captain S.H. Radcliffe, initially thought he
might be able to take the stricken vessel into Belfast where the
ship could be repaired at the Harland and Wolff Shipyards, but after
discussing the situation with his engineer, he realised that this
was impossible, so he decided instead to make for the nearest anchorage
at Church Bay on Rathlin Island. Drake had lost the use of its steam
steering gear in the attack and had to steer using only propellers
until repairs could be made. Drake's manoeuvrability was virtually
zero at this point and as she tried to get to safety she collided
with the cargo ship Mendip Range at 10:37 am. HMS Drake did not
receive much damage from the collision, but the Mendip Range was
forced to beach at Ballycastle Bay on the mainland.
Drake managed to anchor in Church Bay by 11:46 am. Most of the men
on board were taken off on launches from the destroyers and sloops
that were laying a submarine screen around the ship. Captain Radcliffe
now hoped to keep the ship afloat until salvage vessels could arrive,
but the list of the ship continued to increase. At this point HMS
Martin and HMS Delphinium came alongside to remove the remaining
The ship was abandoned at 2:05 pm. Despite efforts to save her,
the ship finally capsized at 2:35 pm.
days after the sinking of HMS Drake, William returned to Victory
II. Here he spent nearly four months waiting for his next assignment.
9 February 1918, William was assigned to the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla
at Buncrana, County Donegal, Ireland. The ship that William would
be sailing on was HMS Pincher, commanded by Lieutenant Patrick W.R.
Pincher, launched in 1910, was a coal fired Beagle class destroyer,
quite a change from the battleships and cruisers William was used
Lt. Weir was 28 years old, a year younger than Leading Stoker Wheelhouse.
While off-duty, William would stay on HMS Hecla - 2nd Flotilla's
depot ship, used as a place for sailors who were working on smaller
ships such as destroyers or minesweepers to relax when off-duty.
1 March 1918 William was promoted to Stoker Petty Officer. A petty
officer is the equivalent of an army sergeant. The stoker petty
officer is in charge of the stokers. He must be fully proficient
in the workings of the furnaces and the boiler and is responsible
for their maintenance and efficiency. He is required to adjust the
oil pump speed, the supply of water to the boiler, and the furnace
The stoker petty officer would also watch the state of the exhaust
gases, by a system of lights and mirrors across the uptakes from
where he stands.
a stoker petty officer, William must have felt that he'd finally
escaped the poverty that his family had suffered throughout his
childhood. Although the work was hot, dirty and hard, he was now
in charge of men, he had a bed to sleep in every night and three
square meals per day. His career had taken him as far as the Arctic
Circle in the north, Constantinople in the east and Bermuda in the
west - he had seen a quarter of the globe. He had even survived
a torpedo attack and seen a ship he served on sink. His childhood
in the Sheffield slums must have seemed far away.
15 May 1918, Pincher was reassigned to the 4th Destroyer Flotilla
at Devonport. Here crew used the depot ship HMS Apollo - a much
smaller ship than Hecla. Sometime before 23 July 1918, Pincher had
been, along with her sister ship HMS Scorpion, assigned to escort
the Standard oil tanker War Hostage from Plymouth to Scotland. The
ships steamed out of Devonport on the evening of the 23rd. The evening
was foggy and Lt. Weir had ordered a course that brought Pincher
dangerously close to Seven Stones Reef. Errors in navigation due
to the fog compounded the error and in the early hours of the next
morning, Wednesday the 24 July 1918, Pincher struck the reef at
high speed. The impact tore open her hull and she sank at 3:33 am.
After the accident, Petty Officer Wheelhouse was listed as one of
thirteen men who drowned. An inquiry was held and the commander
was subjected to a court-martial. Lt. Weir was found guilty of steering
an unsafe course and and sentenced to be reprimanded.
conduct throughout his service was 'Very Good' and his ability was
never said to be less than satisfactory.
body was carried north-east on the tide. Exactly two weeks after
the accident, on 7 August 1918, the body was found on Gwithian beach
near the village of Gwithian, between St. Ives and St. Agnes on
the west coast of Cornwall. The coroner found the cause of death
to be a fractured skull. William's gravesite is in the north part
of Gwithian (St. Gothian) churchyard. The gravestone still exists
and is in good condition. William's relatives added to the base
of the grave marker the inscription "Ever in our thoughts".
far I know of thirteen deaths caused by the accident on HMS Pincher
on 24 July 1918. They are:
1st class Albert Ernest Bartholomew.
Able Seaman William James Beddoe.
Leading Seaman William Charles Victor Butler.
Petty Officer William Harry Cottell.
Stoker 1st class Charles Fearn.
Stoker 1st class Daniel Greenwell.
Stoker 1st class John William Halliday.
Stoker 1st class William Harris.
Officer's Steward 1st Class G. Marmara.
Stoker 1st class Alexander McCullock.
Stoker 1st class George Wauchope Stewart Noble.
Leading Stoker George William Tilley.
Stoker Petty Officer William Wheelhouse.
is a final ironic twist in the story. St. Gwithian is the patron
saint of good fortune on the sea!