Hartlepool’s Kaiser cousins left behind World War One mystery

Martin Kaiser is pictured left, with a mystery man in the middle and his cousin John Kaiser on the right. But why are these navy men wearing army uniforms?
Martin Kaiser is pictured left, with a mystery man in the middle and his cousin John Kaiser on the right. But why are these navy men wearing army uniforms?

The Kaisers are the focus of a wartime mystery.

Hartlepool-born cousins Martin and John Kaiser served King and Country in the Royal Navy during World War One.

Martin Kaiser in his Naval uniform.

Martin Kaiser in his Naval uniform.

But one of the only photos their descendent Liz Harrison has of them together shows the pair in army rather than naval uniform.

“It really is a mystery,” said Liz, who is Martin’s great-niece. “I can find no records of them being in the army at all.

“Perhaps someone might recognise their uniform, or indeed the man in the middle of the photo. I’d like to know who he was too.”

The founder of Hartlepool’s Kaiser “dynasty” was German-born Martin Kaiser, a mariner who settled in the town in the 1850s.

After marrying fishwife Elizabeth Smith in 1857, the couple set up home in John Street South and had nine surviving children.

“Only two of the children were boys, Henry and Martin, but between them they produced a long line of Kaisers,” said Liz.

“The Kaiser family were very well known on the Headland – prominent in the church, local choirs, concerts and sports teams.

“Although their surname was Germanic, it didn’t really cause them any problems in World War One as most were Hartlepool born and bred.

“Apparently Martin junior did attempt to declare himself as an alien, as his father was German, but nothing ever came of it.”

The outbreak of war in 1914 prompted at least two of the Kaiser clan to step forward to fight – cousins John and Martin.

Martin, from 5 Trinity Street, was the son of marine boilermaker Henry and his wife Mary Ann, and well known for his singing performances.

John, from 11 Montague Street, was the son of blacksmith and chapel preacher Martin and his wife Mary, and played rugby for Hartlepool Rovers.

“There are several Martins in the family, so it can get confusing. But both boys were the grandsons of the original Martin,” said Liz.

Young Martin, who was born in Hartlepool in 1896, served as a turbine fitter in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve until demob in 1919.

He subsequently joined the merchant navy as an engineer, sailing on SS Barrymore, before marrying and moving to Middlesex.

John was born a year later, in 1897, and worked as a fitter before joining the navy – where he served at the training base Vivid II.

His naval record also states he served on “Greenwich (Somme)”– which could mean HMS Greenwich and HMS Somme, but is also rather a mystery.

A job in the merchant navy after demob also followed for John and, after leaving the sea, he enjoyed a successful career as an engineer.

“I would love to know more about what John and Martin did in the war, but there seem to be very few details available,” said Liz.

“Any information about them would be appreciated – and hopefully we can clear up the mystery of the army uniforms too.”

Stowaway sought new life abroad, according to legend

The head of the Kaiser family in Hartlepool had seemingly tragic beginnings – but found a new life and new hope in the town.

Martin Kaiser was born in Schleswig Holstein, then under the ruling of Denmark, in 1834 and had a brother and sister.

However, their parents died when they were young – and the orphans were taken in by friends of the family called Kaiser.

“Martin and his siblings took on the name of Kaiser, but the original name of the family is today a mystery,” said Liz.

“After a few years, moves were made by Germany to take over Schleswig Holstein and Martin apparently didn’t like that set-up.

“I’ve been told the brother went to Australia, the sister to America and Martin ended up in Hartlepool as a stowaway.”

Family legend has it that a member of the crew who found him, Henry Smith, took pity on young Martin and took him back in his own house.

Martin went on to marry Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, known as Betty, and from then on the Hartlepool Kaiser clan was established.

“This rather romantic story became the basis of my interest in the history of my family, and set me off on lengthy research,” said Liz.

“While I’ve not exactly proved the story true, I’ve found nothing to suggest it isn’t. Census information corroborates this, at least in part.

“It can’t be proved Martin was a stowaway, but his father-in-law Henry was a coal trimmer and could’ve been a crew member of the boat Martin travelled in.”