How seamen fared during First World War

CALL TO ARMS ... William Crawford, left, and fellow officers of the Forestmoor.
CALL TO ARMS ... William Crawford, left, and fellow officers of the Forestmoor.

DON’T they look a right bunch of pirates?!

There is something gleeful about this picture of officers of the Forestmoor armed to the teeth with rifles and pistols.

The darker side of the coin, however, is that such weaponry would not ultimately save the ship.

The merchantman would not survive the First World War. She was one of 18 vessels lost by just one Tyneside shipping company alone during the conflict.

All three of these men were never seen by their families again.

The Home of Heroes exhibition at South Shields Museum, which celebrates the borough’s contribution to the Great War, has quite justifiably been nominated for a Hudson’s Heritage Award in the best World War One event category.

There is still time to catch it before it finishes this weekend. More than 20,000 visitors to the museum have seen and enjoyed the exhibition since it opened in the summer.

But it has also encouraged local families to share their own World War One stories with the museum – too late to feature in the event but still much valued.

Which was how the story of the Forestmoor here came to light.

The man on the left is William Crawford, who was chief engineer of the Forestmoor and whose grandson has donated copies of pictures and other memorabilia associated with his grandfather and the ship to the museum.

In the centre of the picture is the ship’s master, FJ Rumbellow, who lived with his wife, Georgina, in Blagdon Avenue in Shields. On the right, is the first mate, JA Dyer.

William Crawford had been born in 1882, the son of a clothier. He and his wife Constance Elfrida, the daughter of a schoolmaster, married in 1911 and made their home in St Vincent Street in the town.

The Forestmoor was a relatively new ship when the war broke out, built in 1910 by John Blumer and Co on the Wear.

She made headlines on an early voyage when, late in the same year, her steward was shot during an affray on board the ship while she lay at Albert Dock, Hull.

The pictures here were taken on her in 1915. It seems to have been a family day out – it’s not easy to make out, for example, but William Crawford’s small son is peeking out of the porthole behind.

Two years later, in the autumn of 1917, the Forestmoor was in passage from Huelva in south west Spain, bound for Dublin with a cargo of copper ore.

On October 5, she was attacked and sunk off the North African coast by the German submarine UB-51, and went down with the loss of 22 lives.

As well as documenting the tragedy of the Forestmoor, however, these pictures also highlight the huge sacrifices that were made by Tyne-based shipping companies and their crews during the First World War.

She was just one of a tragic roll call of ships – almost half its fleet – which were lost by the Newcastle-based Moor Line.

Others included vessels such as the Westmoor here, which had been built by Readhead’s in Shields in 1911.

In the summer of 1918, she was torpedoed while in ballast from Gibraltar to Buenos Aires, and sank north-west of Casablanca with the loss of 21 crew.

Moor Line had its origins in Shields, with Walter Runciman who founded the South Shields Shipping Company in 1889.

In 1892, the company re-located to Newcastle and five years later changed its name to Moor Line Ltd.

Runciman was created a baronet in 1906 and served as Liberal MP for Hartlepool during the First World War.

The 18 ships lost by the company and the 66 officers, crew and other employees who died – the majority at sea but a small number also on the Western Front – were afterwards remembered on a roll of honour which was put up in Moor Line’s offices in Pilgrim Street in Newcastle.

It was unveiled on November 9, 1925, by Lord Jellicoe, who was President of the British Legion.

In the mid-1960s, the shipping company moved its headquarters to Glasgow.

Today, the roll of honour is believed lost.