MEMORY LANE: ‘Back-from-dead’ sailor was among victims of wartime tragedy

WORK HORSE: The tug Stranton which later became HMS Char.
WORK HORSE: The tug Stranton which later became HMS Char.

A SAILOR who was mistakenly reported dead from fever in 1901 went on to serve at sea during World War One - before losing his life in a shipping tragedy.

Ralph Fergus - a petty officer aboard patrol and inspection tug HMS Char - was killed when heavy seas drove it into a tanker in 1915. Sixteen others also died.

LOST HERO: Ralph Fergus.

LOST HERO: Ralph Fergus.

“The tragic story of Char and her lost sailors came to light as part of our Hartlepool Heroism and Heartbreak maritime project,” said manager Gary Green.

“We compiled a short history on Ralph from information kindly received from Janet Clark-Gardiner, Susan Scott, Gillian Smith and other members of his family.”

Ralph was born to shipwright James Clarkson Fergus and his wife Betsey Adamson in the spring of 1879 - spending his early years at Blandford Street, Throston.

It is believed he went to sea as a boy and in November 1901, when Ralph was 22, the Whitby Gazette carried a curious - and highly inaccurate - report about him:

A large sea drove Char across the tanker’s bows. The collision holed the tug and she quickly sank with loss of all life.

Gary Green, Hartlepool Heroism and Heartbreak project

“Ralph Fergus, riveter of 67 Blandford Street, East Hartlepool, and late of the Imperial Hotel, Whitby, has died of a fever at Santos, Brazil,” it stated.

Clearly, this was not the case - as 27-year-old Ralph married his West Hartlepool sweetheart Ada Rowley in 1906 and went on to have two sons, Ralph and Edward.

“Ada’s father, Watson Rowley, was a guard on Hartlepool railway. Watson married three times and was father to 20 children and five step-children,” said Gary.

Ralph, Ada and their children - including Ada’s son John Rowley from a previous relationship - were living at 91 Dent Street by 1911, but later moved to No. 95.

TRAGIC SAILOR: Matthew Hastings.

TRAGIC SAILOR: Matthew Hastings.

The storm clouds of conflict were, however, gathering over Europe and when war broke out Ralph was working as a mate on the North Eastern Railway tug Stranton.

“Stranton was requisitioned by the Admiralty and renamed Char. In order to stay with the vessel, Ralph and his comrades enrolled in the Royal Navy,” said Gary.

“Char operated off the Kent coast and, on January 16, 1915 - in a strong gale and heavy seas - she went to the assistance of a Belgian tanker in distress.

“On approaching the Frivan, however, a large sea drove Char across the tanker’s bows. The collision holed the tug and she quickly sank with loss of all life.”

Ralph left £102-3s-8d in his will to Ada. She married again, in 1916, to William Lodge - a widower with three children from Windermere Road, West Hartlepool.

At one time Ada owned property in Berwick Street, West Hartlepool, but also lived in a bungalow at Owton Manor Lane at some point - where she bred budgerigars.

“Ralph and Ada’s son Ralph clearly had the sea in his blood - as he worked as a navigation officer in the merchant navy before his death in 1977,” said Gary.

“He later moved to Essex - where he captained the ferry Prince of Wales, running between Harwich and The Hague. His mother Ada died down in Essex in 1948.”

Son of rescuer was lost at sea

MATTHEW Hastings was born to seek adventures at sea - although his mother tried to persuade him otherwise.

“He hailed from a long line of fishermen, having been born in 1894 into a family which can trace its Hartlepool roots back to the 1500s,” said Gary.

“He was one of six surviving children born to fisherman and lifeboat crew member Matthew Hastings and his Sunderland wife Elizabeth Ann Lumley Cook.

“Matthew senior was one of the first of the Hartlepool fishermen to convert from sail to engine power - with his motor fishing boat Constance.”

But, although Elizabeth also had ties to the sea - her brother being nicknamed The Stormy Petrel for his many brave rescues - she didn’t want her sons to become fishermen.

Instead, she insisted the boys learn a trade and become shipwrights. Then, if they were really set on going to sea, they could sail as ship’s carpenters and earn higher wages.

Young Matthew did as he was told and, after finishing his apprenticeship, found work with the North Eastern Railway company. He was serving aboard their tug Stranton when war broke out.

Tragically, he was to lose his life alongside Ralph Fergus and 15 others during the tragedy of January 16, 1915 - when the tug sank between Deal and Goodwin Sands, near the Goodwin buoy.

Matthew’s obituary in the Mail stated: “I left my home in perfect health, I little thought of death so nigh, but God thought fit to call me home, and with His will I must reply.”

“It is possible Matthew volunteered for HMS Char because his cousin, Matthew Swales, was killed during the German naval bombardment of the town,” said Gary.

* To find out more about the Heroism and Heartbreak project log on to: http://www.hhtandn.org/venues/2915/heroism-and-heartbreak-talking-histories