‘Disaster needs lasting tribute’ – relative calls for HMS Viknor memorial

Gillian Henderson and her mother Joan whose grandfather Harry Milliken was on board HMS Viknor which sunk in January 1915
Gillian Henderson and her mother Joan whose grandfather Harry Milliken was on board HMS Viknor which sunk in January 1915

A SOUTH Tyneside mum whose great grandfather was one of over 50 men from the borough killed in a shipping disaster a century ago is leading calls for a lasting tribute to those who lost their lives.

HMS Viknor sank in the Atlantic, north-west of Ireland, on January 13, 1915, with the loss of the entire ship’s 295-strong crew, with at least 52 believed to be from South Tyneside.

Harry Milliken was on board HMS Viknor which sunk in January 1915

Harry Milliken was on board HMS Viknor which sunk in January 1915

Gillian Henderson, 50, whose naval seaman great grandfather Henry ‘Harry’ Milliken was among those who died, is calling for a lasting legacy to those killed to be created in the borough

Ms Henderson, from Ashley Road, South Shields, said: “There is nothing to remember those who died from South Tyneside anywhere in the borough.

“I would like to see a permanent plaque at a place of prominence in South Shields.

“These were hard-working men who lost their lives.

“Harry had a wife and six children, including twin girls who had been born in October 1914, just a few weeks before he died. One of the twins was my grand mother, Emily Dawson.

“We should also remember the women who were left behind. They showed such strength when a lot of people today would crumble. They were made of sterner stuff back then. They were so resilient.”

Ms Henderson added: “We have never had anywhere we could go to pay our respects. It would be incredible to have something like that.”

Mother-of-two Ms Henderson’s plea is echoed by Gazette reader Peter Hoy.

He wrote to the Gazette calling for their lives to be commemorated - much like residents in the Dorset town of Lyme Regis have following a shipping tragedy in their area later in the same year.

He said: “It will never be known whether HMS Viknor struck a mine or foundered during rough seas. The vast majority of these men have no known grave and are commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, Memorial Reference 9.

The HMS Formidable was torpedoed by a U-boat, with the loss of 547 lives. The ship was brought to Lyme Regis and six were buried there. Every year since, civic dignitaries, the Royal British Legion and members of the public have assembled to remember the loss of the Formidable and honour these six men, none of whom were from Dorset but have become ‘adopted sons’.

“Compare and contrast this with the deafening silence greeting the loss of the Viknor in South Tyneside.”

Coun Ed Malcolm, South Tyneside’s Armed Forces Champion, said: “We understand how important it is for local people to remember all those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedoms we enjoy today.

“This is why every year we hold a series of special services and commemorative events to pay tribute to our fallen heroes. This includes events like Anzac Day and Remembrance Sunday.

“In addition, we mark Armed Forces Day with a parade, cavalcade and family fun day to raise awareness of the enormous contribution our Armed Services make.

“We are also recognising all those who lost their lives during World War One as part of the special celebrations to mark the centenary of the conflict.

“This includes the men from South Tyneside who were on board HMS Viknor on that tragic day 100 years ago.”

Cause of tragedy still a mystery

HMS Viknor was lost in the North Atlantic, north-west of Ireland, with the loss of the entire ship’s complement of 22 officers and 273 ratings, most of whom were Royal Naval Reserve ratings.

At least 52 of the men were from the towns and villages that now comprise South Tyneside.

Families of the men aboard gathered at Mill Dam, keeping a sombre vigil until it was announced that the ship had been given up as lost.

The 5,386-ton Viknor had been built at Govan in 1888, as the Atrato, for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. In 1912, she was bought by the Viking Cruising Company, who renamed her.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914, she was taken over by the Admiralty.

She subsequently lay at Hebburn, while it was debated whether she should be turned over the United States government, to take American refugees, stranded in Europe by the outbreak of war, back across the Atlantic.

In the event, three days after Christmas 1914 she left the Tyne on naval patrol.

It has never been established whether HMS Viknor was simply overwhelmed by the heavy seas which, during that week in January 1915, were crashing onto the Atlantic coast of Ireland or if she struck a mine.

Whatever happened when she sank on January 13 off the coast of County Donegal, it was so sudden that there was no distress signal.

Over subsequent days, bodies began to wash up on the Irish coast and, eventually, even in the Hebrides.

Seven men, six of them unidentifiable, were buried in the small cemetery on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.

The bodies of a further three were washed ashore on the Hebridean island of Colonsay.

For the vast majority of the Viknor’s crew, however, there is no known grave.

They are commemorated on the naval memorial at Plymouth.

Of the 52 South Tyneside men aboard, the body of only one was recovered and identified.

He was greaser Lewis Ogle, who was able to be named from his tattoos, and who is buried at Larne in Northern Ireland.