Peasants to Puddles
My Family History - By Nicky Rowberry

Alfred Charles Rowberry - Petty Officer 293134

This page is dedicated to the memory of Alfred Charles Rowberry who died on 22nd September 1914 when the HMS Cressy was sunk in the North Sea.

Alfred Charles Rowberry died on 22nd September 1914 in the North Sea when the ship he was on was torpedoed by a German submarine. He was unfortunately one of the early casualties amongst the millions of men who lost their lives in World War 1. It seemed sad for him to have died and all but these bare facts remembered, so I've tried to find out at least a little about his life before his untimely death aged just 34.

Alfred was born on 6th April 1880 in Sudbury, Derbyshire, the only known child of Stephen George Rowberry and his first wife Sarah Blackshaw. His father Stephen was a gardener who had been born in Herefordshire. In 1881 the family can be found living in the Staines area. Sarah Blackshaw was Stephen's first wife - sadly she was to die when young Alfred was only 2 years old. By 1891 Stephen had married his second wife and had 2 more children. The family were living in Bromley and Stephen had been promoted to head gardener, but young Alfred was not with them. Possibly because his widowed father had been unable to care for him alone, he had moved back to his father's home village of Stoke Edith in Herefordshire and was living with his grandmother and aunts.

By 1901 Alfred was already in the Royal Navy having enlisted aged 19 in 1899. The 1901 census has him recorded as Albert C Rowberry, but all other details are correct (including the name of the ship) so I'm pretty sure it's him. He had been a warehouseman when he joined up, but as far as I can see he remained with the Navy at least until 1911. Records indicate that he resigned from the Navy about this point but remained a reservist, hence being called up at the beginning of the war.

Fortunately many Royal Navy service records are now available online. A search revealed a very informative record for Alfred. It shows that throughout his career, his character was considered "Very Good" by his commanding officers. His record shows that he was initially graded as a Stoker Second Class, but within a couple of years he had been promoted to Stoker and eventually Petty Officer Stoker. It also of course lists all the ships he served on. The first one listed is HMS Pembroke, which I gather was actually the name given to the shore base at Chatham. His first "proper" ship was HMS Sappho between 1900 and 1901. Sappho was a troop ship in the Boer War during this period, until she ran aground and had to return to Britain for repairs.

The records show he served on a variety of ships over the next few years with periods spent back in the UK at Chatham. He must have been on land at least at the end of 1905 as he married Ada Roberts in Lambeth just before Christmas. Alfred and Ada had just one son born in 1906 and Ada may well have spent most of their married life living with her parents - that's where she was at least on the 1911 census.

Alfred's final ship was of course HMS Cressy - his service record notes this with the line "Lost in North Sea when HMS Cressy was sunk by a German submarine". HMS Cressy was an armoured cruiser, built around 1900. At the start of the war she was assigned to the 7th Cruiser Squadron which patrolled the North Sea to help protect the English Channel. On the 22nd September the Cressy was patrolling near Ostend, with 2 of her sister ships, HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue. Early in the morning HMS Aboukir was torpedoed by a German submarine U-9. Initially the Aboukir Captain thought he'd hit a mine, so asked for the other 2 ships to come in close to help survivors. Only then did they realise it had been a submarine attack, but by then it was too late and first the Hogue and then the Cressy were torpedoed too. All three British ships were lost. Sadly Alfred Charles Rowberry was one of the 1,397 enlisted men who died that day.

Alfred Charles Rowberry's body was never recovered, so there is no cemetery for him. Instead he is commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website confirms that he was a Petty Officer Stoker in the Royal Navy aboard the HMS Cressy. I can't reproduce the CWGC photo of the cemetery, but to see his page please click here

The sinking of the Aboukir, Cressy & Hogue was widely reported in the newspapers of the time. Because so many of the bodies were never recovered, this made the job of accurately listing the casualties a difficult one. So initially a lot of the lists in the newspapers were the details of those men lucky enough to have been rescued. By the beginning of October though, it could be assumed that anyone not reported as rescued had perished and newspapers carried lists of men with the explanation that "in the absence of any evidence to the contrary it is feared they must be regarded as having lost their lives". For Alfred, the local newspapers initially reported that he had been on the Cressy, then that he was missing, then that his wife still had had no news of him. I don't know at what point the Navy confirmed his death, but it must have been a heartbreaking wait for Ada. None of the old newspapers online so far carry a photo of him, but I did find these articles from the local newspaper. (Images Johnston Press plc. Images created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. Images reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). Click www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk to see a full page from the newspaper.

I particularly like the final newspaper cutting above, describing Alfred as "a fine manly fellow, highly respected". The newspapers also indicate his job outside of the navy reserves - attendant at the local swimming baths and waterworks. One other newspaper report (not shown) indicates he was perhaps an animal lover too, as he had puppies for sale earlier in 1914 before the war began. The newspapers are pretty much the only source of snippets of information like this, that give clues to the character beyond the bare facts of his life.

The photo below show HMS Cressy, the final ship for Alfred Charles Rowberry. (Image DC Thomson & Co Ltd. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). Click www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk to see the full page from the newspaper.

As well as being commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial, Alfred is remembered on the war memorial plaque in his own village of Husborne Crawley.

Although unfortunately I haven't found a photo of Alfred yet, we do have a bit of a description of him from his service record. He was said to be 5 foot 9 and a half inches tall, with brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. It would be much nicer though to complete Alfred's story by finding a photo of him, so if anyone has one, please do get in touch. n.rowberry@btinternet.com

In researching Alfred's final days, several sites have been invaluable, so I've included links to some of them here.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission:

The National Archives at Kew:

The British Newspaper Archive:


If any of the above is of further interest, please feel free to contact me at: n.rowberry@btinternet.com

Nicky Rowberry 2016

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Peasants to Puddles - My Family History. By Nicky Rowberry