HMS Barham

When I saw that one of the Summerstown182 sailors had been killed on HMS Barham, the name of the ship rang a distant bell and I recalled a television programme about it a few years ago. It relates to the Second World War and is an almost unbelievable story involving a cover-up of the ship’s sinking and the trial and conviction of a middle-aged spritualist for ‘witchcraft’. But back in 1914-18, HMS Barham was one of 250 ships which came into contact off the coast of Denmark, just before 6pm on the last day of May, 1916. This was the Battle of Jutland, the head-to-head between the great fleets of Britain and Germany. Five of the Summerstown182 perished in this terrible sea battle; Reginald Cooper and George Rudge on HMS Invincible, Percy Newman on HMS Defence, Ernest Seagar on HMS Shark and Henry Briggs on HMS Barham. It cost 8,500 lives, 6,000 of them were British sailors, over 1,200 of whom were drowned on HMS Queen Mary. The Germans sank more ships but never really engaged the British fleet in conflict again, relying instead on the U-boat threat. Both sides claimed victory. HMS Barham survived the battle but was struck six times by ‘large calibre projectiles’ killing 4 officers and 22 men. It was at dawn and close to the end of the battle when the last of these hits caused many casualties and wrecked her wireless equipment. It is most likely in this assault that Henry Briggs, the 20 year old Sick Berth Attendant from Summerstown was mortally wounded. His body was never recovered but his name is on a memorial in Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery on the island of Hoy in the Orkneys. There are twenty three names on this memorial, five men are buried in the cemetery, the rest at sea. Eight of those lost at sea are indicated as ‘boys’, most of them aged sixteen. Unbelievably this is not quite the most northerly Summerstown182 memorial in the British Isles. That honour belongs to Arthur Preston of 5 Hazelhurst Road who is buried in Lerwick on the Shetlands. Going right to the other end of the county, Henry Briggs’ name is also on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. Henry was the son of Frederick and Annie Briggs living at No 2, Elton’s Cottages, Garratt Green. These homes no longer exist. It was one of four cottages behind Huntspill Street, built by a Captain Elton for the workers of the ‘More Close Bleach & Dye Works’. Close to Garratt Green, a pleasant communal gathering spot, removed from the main Summerstown drag and nestling on the edge of the last remaining agricultural cluster close to Springfield and Burntwood Farms. Seventy five years before that, if the cottages had been around, they would have afforded a splendid view of the action at Robert Sadler’s Copenhagen Running Ground. Get your hands on a copy of Kevin Kelly’s excellent book about that. Now the location is part of a housing development dating from about 2000 called Hopwood Close. Born on 22nd August 1894 in Earlsfield, and previously working as a warehouseman, Henry joined the navy on 29th April 1914. He was five foot seven and had a scar from a burn on his right arm and one on the right side of his neck. HMS Barham may have survived Jutland and indeed the entire First World War but it wasn’t quite so fortunate in the Second World War. On 25th November 1941, off the North African coast, she was hit by three torpedoes from a U-boat. As the ship turned over and capsized she split apart in an almighty explosion which was famously captured on film. Over two thirds of her crew, 841 lives were lost. The submarine did not realise it had sunk the Barham and in an effort to conceal the sinking, the Admiralty suppressed the news of the ship’s destruction so as not to shake public morale. Relatives were notified but ordered to keep the story to themselves. Christmas cards ‘from the ship’ were even sent out and it wasn’t until 27th January 1942 that the news was made public. The film of the the explosion was never aired until after the war. A few days after the disaster, at a seance in Portsmouth, a spiritualist called Helen Duncan reportedly summoned the spirit of a sailor. HMS Barham and the fact it had sunk were mentioned. She was accused of leaking military secrets and eventually arrested in 1944 and charged with violating the 1735 Witchcraft Act. She spent nine months in Holloway prison. It is believed the authorities were fearful that the scottish-born mother of nine would reveal the date of the forthcoming D-Day landings. There is a permanent memorial and Book of Remembrance to all who lost their lives on HMS Barham in Westminster Abbey and a special service in their memory is held each November.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s