This was written for the archives of the Live Bait Squadron Society.
John Duncan Stubbs (always known as Duncan) was born on 24 June 1899 at Coatham on the North Yorkshire coast.
When he was eight years old, his family moved inland to the rural hamlet of Nunthorpe Station, south of the industrial town of Middlesbrough where his father was in practice as a solicitor. Coatham remained a familiar place; his grandparents lived there and in May 1909, when he was nearly ten years old, Duncan left the care of the governess who had taught him at home with his younger brother and became one of eleven pupils boarding at Coatham Grammar School.
By that time he had already decided that he wanted to join the Navy.
Duncan’s parents could live very comfortably on his father’s professional income – this was a time when food was cheap and domestic staff plentiful – but their finances needed careful management. His father, Thomas Duncan Henlock Stubbs (also always known as Duncan), and mother, Margaret Isobel Buchannan (“Madge”), herself the daughter of a solicitor, had three children. Duncan was their eldest. His brother Hugh was nineteen months his junior, born a week before the death of old Queen Victoria, and their sister Katharine was born in 1905. Duncan and Madge were anxious to do their best for the children. They must have found little Duncan’s ambition a source of pride and some relief; fees for the Royal Naval Colleges were subsidised by the government and were not as high as those charged by the public schools. This would be an ideal way of educating the boy and providing him with a career. His younger brother’s future would have to depend on getting scholarships.
|Madge & Duncan Stubbs|
with Duncan, Katharine & Hugh
After two years at Coatham Grammar School, Duncan was sent in January 1911 to Pembroke Lodge, a preparatory school at Southbourne on the south coast. His parents probably thought this would better prepare him for the Selection Committee and the entrance examination for the Royal Navy College Osborne. He passed these hurdles in February 1912; after his death the private secretary to the First Sea Lord wrote that Duncan
“was quite one of the best boys that ever came before the Selection Committee for Osborne & his progress at the two Colleges had only confirmed the good opinion we had formed of him.”
|Duncan Stubbs c1914|
Duncan was a confident, lively boy, much liked, good at his schoolwork and excellent at sports. At home, he led his brother and sister in fun and mischief in their rather hazardous games in the ponds and woods beside their home. He loved the family dogs and country sports, and he and his brother and their friends were to develop a passion for motorbikes, after having been allowed to borrow the one owned by Gerald Cochrane, a close family friend.
He entered RNC Osborne in May 1912. At the end of his first year he was one of the four boys, out of seventy, to be promoted cadet captain. At the end of his second year he came out head of the list, being presented with the prize for the highest aggregate of marks, including seamanship and engineering.
|Centre: Duncan Stubbs|
Right: Geoffrey Gore-Brown
That winter his parents found the money to send him on a holiday to Switzerland; he had evidently been invited to join friends in winter sports at Klosters. He enjoyed it enormously, sending a postcard to Gerald Cochrane asking him to persuade his father to let him have a go on the bob run:
“It is absolutely safe on the run we use but the people I am staying with will not take the responsibility. [Added at the top of the postcard] You might put it v. gently”
He entered RNC Dartmouth in May 1914, a few weeks before his fifteenth birthday. His grandmother sent him a postal order (“I will give your mother another five shillings to keep till you may require it later on”) and his father wrote,
“I hope you will have a happy day and many happy and useful years. You are beginning to get to an age not far removed from early manhood and you will meet new troubles and difficulties but if you face these squarely and are determined to stick to the right you will pull through alright.”
Duncan expected to go home on leave in early August and was longing to try out the motorbike that his father had recently bought. The family expected him back on the 6th, but on 4 August they received a postcard from the college saying that Duncan had been sent to his war station at Chatham. That evening, his father, an officer in the Territorial Army, received his own order to mobilise. He and his Battery (the Northumbrian North Riding Heavy Battery) were posted to Tyneside, where he would be joined by Madge and the younger children within a few days, and he was promoted Major.
Within a day or two, the family heard from Duncan. The order to mobilise had arrived during a game of cricket, but everything was packed and down to the station in a very short time and, he being placed in charge of nine other boys, they had travelled through the night to Chatham where he joined HMS Aboukir as senior acting midshipman. Duncan wrote to Gerald Cochrane,
“I say you might sort of reassure my mother and tell ’em that it is nothing serious as I think Mother will start to fret. I would be very grateful if you would. I am in the ‘Aboukir’ cruiser and we will not probably see service unless there is a real set to. I am sorry that I won’t be back yet to ride the bike. Do you realise that 1915 Douglases have 3 speed gears? Well I hope I will meet you again and until then, adieu … [written in a corner of the postcard] I have an idea we will meet sometime and have a gorgeous time on our Bikes”
Duncan evidently wrote home when he could, but the letters have not survived. He wrote in a postcard to Gerald Cochrane dated 25 August,
“We are having a very fine time. After the days work we go & do gym on the quarter-deck to keep us in training. I am writing a PC [postcard] which gets through the GPO & censure [censor] quickest. I am keeping a diary. I wonder how the works are standing the strain. Will they hold out? [Cochrane was an ironmaster] I wonder what the Daily Mail’s accounts of the War looks like? All headlines I suppose. We get our news by wireless & then get the stale papers which are about our only form of literature.”
On 21 September, the day before the disaster, his parents received an account of him from the mother of another midshipman. This was Mrs Wilson, mother of Alisdair, and she wrote because HMS Aboukir had been at Chatham recoaling and repairing for four days in mid-September, and she had gone to visit her son. She had invited Duncan to join them; later she was to tell Madge that in his letter of thanks to her for her kindness, Duncan had written, “Next time I shall hope to have my Mother but she is so far away in Newcastle.” Mrs Wilson reported that, all the boys being promoted midshipmen, there had been much competition amongst them to be the first in having the midshipman’s patches put on their uniforms. Duncan, she told his parents, was as full of life and spirits as a boy could be. Indeed, it’s clear that Duncan enjoyed every moment of his time on board ship. It was, for him, the most enormous adventure and he excelled at his work.
The gunnery lieutenant, John Bernard Hughes, wrote to Duncan and Madge on 24 September from his father’s rectory at Tarporley in Cheshire, when Duncan was still posted missing and hope remained that he might yet be found among the survivors,
“He was a very great friend of mine. So absolutely straight and upright, so thoroughly keen at any work or game, always cheerful no matter at what hour of the night or day or how rough the sea was. He was my special assistant, and always worked with me. As you probably know, he was the senior midshipman, and as I was the officer in charge of them I had much to do there, and could not have done without him. He will be a great loss to the service, and was bound to have done well. I only hope that he may still be alive to do so now”
On 2 October, with Duncan’s death confirmed and after appearing before the inquiry at Chatham, Lt Hughes set off for Newcastle to talk to the parents. Major Stubbs recorded in his diary:
“He spoke so nicely of Duncan and found some difficulty in speaking sometimes. He said Duncan was extraordinarily quick and capable, able to pick up things in a day or less that an ordinary person would take a week over, he was known and liked by all the men and was quite capable of managing his battery of 12 p[ounde]r guns entirely by himself. Hughes could leave him alone in charge of the battery and at the foretop, Duncan’s station, knowing the work would be done properly. He said it was impossible for Duncan to tell a lie and that he was a long way the most capable of the midshipmen. Duncan had never mentioned to Hughes that he had passed out top from Osborne and Hughes did not know it until I told him, but D had often talked about us and Nunthorpe to him. Duncan and the gunner Mr Shrubsall were great friends and took the watch together, Hughes wanted to change Duncan’s watch for some reason but Mr Shrubsall would not hear of it, he liked to hear Duncan talk at night and would not have any other midshipman with him. Hughes said that when he was in his hammock he could hear the two talking on watch and Duncan’s laugh could be heard all over the ship. Duncan had been perfectly happy at sea the whole time, was never sick and always cheerful, the night before the disaster Hughes had spent a long time with Duncan and said he was in splendid spirits”
|Duncan & Gunner Shrubsall|
It was from Lt Hughes that Duncan and Madge at last learned something of the movements of HMS Aboukir and Duncan’s part in them:
“Ever since the War began these cruisers had been engaged in patrolling the North Sea off the German coast preventing mine laying the only time when they were withdrawn for a few days the Germans came out and laid mines. Also they had taken marines to Ostend when fighting was expected there, Duncan begging Hughes to let him go with the landing party”
Lt Hughes wrote a few days later from the Royal Naval Barracks at Devonport to Gerald Cochrane,
“He was always so cheerful. Everyone who had anything to do with him liked him. I know the men did. He had charge of one of the 12 pdr: batteries & took charge of it splendidly. He drilled the guns’ crews before he had been more than a few days on board, – they were nearly all reservists – men of 30 to 40. He had the knack of taking charge. As he told me one day, “the men didn’t seem to take much notice of what he told them, but he didn’t want to ‘run them in’ as they always did it.”
We had some very rough weather a few days before the disaster, but he was not the least seasick, though I admit I was pretty bad. He was the senior midshipman and as such took charge of the remainder splendidly. I was in charge of them all, but left it nearly all to him. I have never met anyone so quick at picking up anything. He seldom wanted telling twice. He made great friends with the Gunner – an excellent man – and they used to keep watch together at night on the guns manned for defence against torpedo attack. I used to sleep in a hammock close alongside and I shall never forget his hearty laugh (which was usually the last thing I heard before I went to sleep & the first thing I heard when I woke) at the Gunner’s rather tall yarns.”
Later he told Cochrane:
“As senior midshipman, and as there was no sublieutenant in the gunroom, I frequently had to call on him in matters concerning the discipline of the gunroom, which he said, made him feel rather like a policeman. I asked him what the others thought about it and he said “That doesn’t matter; I can punch all their heads except Gore Browne, and he and I get on all right.” He started a “temperance league” as he called it, which meant refraining from throwing food, etc, about the gunroom, and really the Gunroom was remarkably well behaved as gunrooms go”
With Lt Hughes’ help and through the letters and telegrams that flew between the midshipmen’s mothers, Duncan and Madge began to piece together some idea of the sequence of events. It had been a scene of terrible confusion and it took some time for details to emerge.
The Aboukir was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine at 6.20 am on the morning of Tuesday 22 September. Duncan, the senior midshipman, went below to wake Midshipman Herbert Riley, who had slept through the explosion. Riley (who did not survive the disaster) told Lt Hughes this himself, when they were in a boat together. “It required some pluck to do that, with the ship heeling over and liable to go at any moment,” commented Hughes.
The Aboukir’s midshipmen then went into the water and swam for the Hogue; she herself was hit and went under at 7.05 am. Before they reached her, Duncan and Midshipman Kit Wykeham-Musgrave had together tried to save a drowning marine.
Duncan’s parents learned of this from Kit’s mother. She described their attempt to keep the man afloat and their success in reaching the Cressy shortly before she too was hit at 7.30 am. Mrs Wykeham-Musgrave’s letter does not survive, but is paraphrased by Major Stubbs in a letter written on 17 October to Gerald Cochrane:
Duncan & her boy after leaving the Aboukir swam towards the Hogue but before they reached her they saw a drowning marine they got hold of him & held him up for a long time, telling him how to help himself by floating, the marine could not swim, but they could not keep him afloat any longer & he was drowned. They then swam towards the Hogue but she sank before they reached her so they got to the Cressy where they had cocoa & were sitting together on the quarter deck when the Cressy was struck the second time. They both went into the sea again & after that Musgrave never saw Duncan again.
Later, Kit seems to have given a fuller account of events, in which he described Duncan’s death; it must have been hard for the boy to speak of the deaths of his friends.
Duncan was last seen clinging to an oar with his close friend Geoffrey Gore-Browne. They took the oar to the aid of a drowning man, but his desperate grip took all three of them under the water and they were lost.
The disaster happened so early in the War that, although it came as a terrible, dismaying shock, early enthusiasm and patriotic idealism remained untouched. This can be seen in Lt Hughes’ second letter to Gerald Cochrane, who was by then trying to join the Army (“I hope you will have no difficulty in getting to the front”, Hughes wrote). Of Duncan, Hughes said,
“What a glorious death & what a hero the boy was. Dying hardly seems to matter if one can die like that. It makes me feel quite ashamed of myself, to think of him risking his life 3 times in as many hours to save others.”
In Newcastle, Tuesday 22 September had passed very pleasantly:
“we were all so jolly and happy, little did we think that our dear Duncan had that morning given his
life for his country”
T D H Stubbs
wrote Major Stubbs in his diary. At about 5 o’clock he went to the house where his wife and daughter were staying, intending to take them out for a walk. As he entered the gate he saw Mr Bell, the owner of the house, with a newspaper in his hand:
“he was very white and looked much distressed when he saw me. I guessed in a moment, he asked me to go into the house and then asked the name of the ship our boy was on. I told him. He shewed me the paper in which the stop press news stated in a couple of lines that the Aboukir had been struck by a torpedo. Nothing further. I wired the Admiralty for news and he very kindly took the telegram.”
Major Stubbs then went out in the hope of discovering more information before telling his wife. He found another newspaper which carried an official report that the three vessels had been struck and that lists of the saved – “a considerable number” – would be published as soon as possible.
As he waited in the camp for more details to come through, Mr Bell came to tell him that Madge had received a telegram from her sister asking whether they had news of the Aboukir; he went to her immediately. Meanwhile, in the chaos, their nine-year-old daughter had picked up the newspaper and learned of the fate of her brother’s ship for herself.
“That night”, wrote Major Stubbs
“I wired Mrs Wilson the mother of one of the other boys asking if she had news and stayed that night at St Georges Terrace. Neither of us slept and the suspense was too terrible, Mrs Wilson wired about 1.30 am to say she had no news yet.”
The next day they heard by telegram from the Admiralty that Duncan was not among the saved.
Major Stubbs’ diary entry for the following day begins,
“Another terrible day. I don’t know how we got through it. Many letters from friends but awful.”
Their younger son Hugh had by then started at his public school, Sherborne. The news of his brother’s death was broken to him by his housemaster. It took the man two attempts; on his first, he was unable to bring himself to do it.
Letters of sympathy were pouring in; the family received more than a hundred within the first five days. A memorial service was arranged for Friday 2 October at St Cuthbert’s, Ormesby, where the family worshipped. “The church was full of people,” wrote Major Stubbs,
“Everyone loved our little Duncan and they are very touched at his death. Neither the choir nor bellringers would accept payment so I thanked them all, Metcalfe the leader of the ringers said, ‘That is the very least we could do Sir’”
Major Stubbs soon learned that bodies were washing up on the Dutch coast and he approached the Dutch authorities. On the 6 October, General Snijders, Commander in Chief of the Dutch armed forces, wrote to his officers saying that he had been asked to cooperate in the search for the body of Cadet Duncan Stubbs so that it might be returned to his family. He described Duncan as a slight boy of fifteen, blond, with delicate features and blue eyes.
We know from Major Stubbs’ diary of one result of this appeal. On Wednesday 14 October he was sent details by the British Vice Consul at Ymuiden of the body of a boy of about seventeen, together with a photograph. He could not identify the face but thought the hands were similar to Duncan’s. He telegraphed the Vice Consul asking him to look for identification marks “especially the teeth and to take a cast if possible”, but the boy was not Duncan.
A recent discovery among papers relating to the town council of Heemskerk reveals that they thought that a beachcomber in their employ had found Duncan’s body on 12 November, but it is not known whether an identification was made. As far as the family was concerned, Duncan’s body was never found.
In mid-October Major Stubbs heard that Duncan’s sea chest was still at Chatham and would be sent home. He wrote to Gerald Cochrane, who was a near neighbour, and who was of great assistance to the family at this time,
“I wonder if you could possibly take it in, it is a big thing but there may be things in it which should be kept, it is probably locked & the key will be lost with the ship but I believe they are all numbered & probably a duplicate key can be obtained. The chest could of course be taken to our house & put in his bedroom, when I could see it next time I am over probably this would be the best & it is very big & heavy – I want to keep it though, he was so proud of it.”
The chest has not survived the years, but its contents included Duncan's lettercase, in which were found the letters that he had received on his birthday.
Duncan was commemorated by his friends and family on a brass plaque in Ormesby church and, together with his cousin 2nd Lieut. Jock Richardson who died a few months later, on a plaque in Guisborough parish church. His name is inscribed on the Nunthorpe War Memorial and on the memorial erected by Coatham Grammar School.
In the years that followed, the family’s grief was embodied in a sadly lasting form in the lifelong depression that afflicted Duncan’s mother. In the 1920s she was admitted on at least two occasions for treatment in an institution, and her bitter distress was manifested until her death in 1958 in difficult and often unkind behaviour towards her family and those nearest to her.
When Henk van der Linden appealed in the Navy News for contact from the families of men of HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, I replied on behalf of my family to tell him of Duncan’s life and of the diary entries made by Major Stubbs during those terrible weeks. By a curious coincidence, Henk at this point had received only two other replies, and one was from the family of Gunner William Shrubsall, whose name appeared in Major Stubbs’ diary. This was all the more striking because on the publication of the Dutch edition of his book Henk had recieved a letter enclosing the request from General Snijders to his officers regarding the body of Cadet Duncan Stubbs.
We were very moved to learn from Henk that the site of the wrecks had become a vital ecological resource, a nature reserve for marine life. We were honoured and delighted to be present at the launch of the English edition of his book on 22 September 2012 and at the centennial commemoration of the disaster in Chatham and The Hague. We were frankly amazed to find ourselves part of the film made by Klaudie Bartelink and her team.
We had never forgotten the blight caused by the loss of a boy so loved and full of promise, but at the book launch in 2012 we met families on whom the disaster had brought the extra burden of dire financial need, with emotional and economic consequences to a man’s widow and children that cascaded down the generations. The implications of the lasting social dislocation caused by war was brought home to us fully for the first time; I know that realisation was shared by others there, historians and families. The ability to share stories with the other families in 2012, the pleasure of meeting the family of Gunner Shrubsall, and the moving experience of meeting the family of Otto Weddigen in 2014 have left a lasting imprint on our minds.
At the book launch at Chatham in 2012, Duncan Barrigan, great-grandson of Duncan Stubbs’ brother Hugh, was fired with enthusiasm by the presentations by divers Klaudie Bartelink and Robert Witham. On 4 August 2013, with Klaudie and her team of diver-filmmakers, he dived the wreck of the ships that his great-great-uncle had known, in the North Sea waters where little Duncan Stubbs had died nearly a hundred years before.
Related blog posts
There are quite a few posts on this blog that relate to young Duncan Stubbs, so I have rounded up a few of them here:
The loss of HMS Aboukir, Hogue & Cressy
Major Duncan Stubbs' diary entry for 23 September 1914
Major Duncan Stubbs' diary entry for 27 September 1914
Major Duncan Stubbs' diary entry for 1 October 1914
Major Duncan Stubbs' diary entry for 2 October 1914
Major Duncan Stubbs' diary entry for 5 October 1914
Major Duncan Stubbs' diary entry for 14 October 1914
Major Duncan Stubbs' diary entry for 16 October 1914
The wrecks of HMS Aboukir, Hogue & Cressy
Nunthorpe-in-Cleveland War Memorial - this includes the Order of Service for the unveiling of the memorial in 1921
War Horse - Major Stubbs' horse Jess
Klaudie Bartelink's documentary
A Boroughbridge Boyhood in the 1850s - this begins a series of posts on John Duncan Stubbs' grandfather, John Richard Stubbs
Days of plenty in Redcar - a middle class household before the First World War - these are recollections of meals at her grandparents' house, recorded by Katharine Isobel Ellis Stubbs, but it begins with her vivid memory of the beginning of the War
Nunthorpe in the early 20th century
War begins - Nunthorpe, 1914
The Live Bait Squadron 1914: survivors from Whitby
The War Memorial to the 50th (Northumbrian) Division