Thomas Purcell and the Sinking of the Llandovery Castle

Victory Bonds (Llandovery Castle)
This victory bond poster, published in English and French, depicts the sinking and uses it to reinforce support in Canada for the war effort and to promote the sale of victory bonds.

Thomas James Purcell, was born in Liverpool on the 7th May 1886, the Son of Rose Anne Purcell.  Rose Anne married William Mitchell three years later in 1889 and the 1891 census finds Thomas living with his Mother, William, step brother William James and step sister Elizabeth.  Two more step sisters would join the family Esther and Margaret.

By 1901, the 14 year old  Thomas was working as a Railway Carter, probably in Docks near the family home at 1 Mark Street, Everton.   Thomas seems to have a change of career, as when he marries Ada Anne Taubman in February 1911,  he is listed as a “Trimmer”,  a trimmer was one of the heavy and dirty jobs aboard a steam ship,  and involved managing the coal stores aboard ship to ensure the weight remained evenly distributed across the ship to prevent listing and to move coal down to the stokers to feed the boilers.

The 1911 Census finds Thomas among the large crew of the S.S Tunisian, a passenger liner sailing between Liverpool and Canada, in port in the Kirkdale area,  while Ada is living on her own at 6 Slade Street.  It’s not long though before Thomas and Anne have a daughter Rose Anne (June 1912), a son William James (December 1913) who sadly dies before his first birthday and Esther who was born on April fools day 1916.

Thomas is still working on the ships as a trimmer and June of 1918 finds him working on the HMHS Llandovery Castle.  The “Llandovery Castle” was built in 1914 as a passenger liner and sailed between England and East Africa,  but was requisitioned for service as a hospital ship for the Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1916.

Hospital Ships should have been protected from attack under international law and German standing orders,  but during the First World War many were torpedoed and some sunk by mines.  The Llandovery Castle had already had several lucky escapes, but when on June 27th 1918 she encountered SM U-86, her luck ran out.  Torpedoed and confirmed sinking the crew and medical personnel abandoned ship in to the life boats, but the captain of the U-86Helmut Brümmer-Patzig, sought to destroy the evidence of torpedoing the ship. When the crew took to the lifeboats, U-86, surfaced, ran down all the lifeboats and machine-gunned the survivors remaining in the water and on the lifeboats. Only 24 people in one remaining lifeboat survived to tell the tale.  The loses included 16 nursing sisters one of whom, Margaret Marjory (Pearl) Fraser from Nova Scotia was the daughter of Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Duncan Cameron Fraser), this meant there was a huge public outcry especially in Canada and the sinking was the subject of the Victory Bond poster seen here.

Tower Hill Memorial
To the glory of God and to the honour
of twelve thousand of the merchant navy and fishing fleets
who have no grave but the sea

Thomas was not lucky enough to be one of the 24 people rescued and is listed among the 234 people lost that day.  He is commemorated on the “Tower Hill Memorial” along with 35766 other merchant seamen killed in both wars who have no known grave. As such he is listed on the Commonwealth War Graves site.

After the war, in 1921, the captain of U-86,Lieutenant Helmut Patzig , and two of his lieutenants, Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt, were arraigned for trial in Germany on war crimes. The case became famous as one of the “Leipzig trials“. Patzig left the country and avoided extradition; and though Dithmar and Boldt were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, they both escaped. At the Court of Appeal, both lieutenants were acquitted on the grounds that the captain was solely responsible.

Mean while Ada is at home at 6 Slade Street off the Vauxhall Road,  with two small girls to support and no income.  So she has to start the long slow process of claiming compensation from the Government and the shipping company. . .  to be continued.

For more details of the Sinking of the Llandovery Castle please see Wikipedia

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