Violent storms, underwater mines and espionage: uncovering the mystery of my great uncle’s death
Plus: Paulette Hamilton's 'blatant nimbyism' and stargazing in Birmingham
Good morning readers and welcome to Tuesday’s edition of The Dispatch.
As well as our usual Brum in Brief we also have a moving story to mark Remembrance Sunday. Bewdley-born journalist Chris Bishop spent years unravelling the mystery of his great uncle’s death during WW1. He grew up hearing the story of how great uncle Jack lied about his age to join the Royal Navy but was tragically lost at sea in 1914. As an adult, Chris researched tirelessly to find out what happened. That story is below.
But before that, our Brum in Brief leads with a brilliant interview with a star playwright who was raised in Birmingham but whose career has taken her to the West End and Broadway. We’ve also shared links to a few other local stories and recommended a couple of great things to do this week.
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Brum in Brief
⛅ Cloudy with bright spells and scattered showers.
🎭 Acclaimed playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, who adapted Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet for the stage, has given a fascinating interview. She spoke to the Daily Mail about her upbringing, which straddled the Midlands and Kolkata in India, and about falling in love with acting while at school. “The roots of her tenacity and talent lie in her background. Chakrabarti was born in Hull and raised in Birmingham as the younger daughter of Bengali Hindu parents: her father, now in his 90s, is an orthopaedic surgeon; her mother, who died in 2016, was a housewife.”
🚧 Erdington MP Paulette Hamilton has come under fire for objecting to a planning application to convert a property into five self-contained flats for people with learning disabilities. Writing in the i, Ian Birrell described the move as “blatant nimbyism” and the MP’s tweet went semi-viral on Twitter/X, with lots of people telling her she should be ashamed of herself. Hamilton regularly campaigns against houses of multiple occupation in Erdington which she has said is already “overconcentrated” with such housing.
🚨 A man has been sentenced to six years in prison for causing a crash that left a five-year-old boy with a brain injury. David Poultan, 41, crashed into a family car carrying five people while at the wheel of a stolen vehicle. Police officer Sargeant Richard Adams said: “It was pure luck that he or other people weren't killed. Thankfully the family involved are all making good recoveries.”
👑 This week is your last opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Empress which closes on Saturday. The play follows nursemaid Rani, who meets a sailor and a politician on the boat from India to England in 1887. “Spanning 13 years over the ‘Golden Era’ of Empire, this story blends the experiences of Indian ayahs and lascars who worked on the ships carrying trade goods, alongside the first Indian politician to be elected as a member of parliament. This epic story reveals how socially diverse the Asian presence was in nineteenth century Britain.”
🔭 Astronomy in the City is a public stargazing event hosted by the Astrophysics and Space research group at Birmingham University. The event will feature live exhibits, presentations, a science talk, and a Q&A. It takes place tomorrow from 5.30-8pm, at the Poynting building on the university’s Edgbaston campus.
The mystery of missing WW1 sailor Jack Bishop
As a child, Chris Bishop’s grandfather told him the story of his great uncle Jack who was lost at sea during WW1. As an adult, Chris unraveled the mystery of Jack’s death.
The rainy Remembrance Sunday in Bewdley, Worcestershire, on the banks of the swelling River Severn, was sweet and dignified. You could hear a pin drop as more than 400 people stood for the two-minute silence. As the rain fell like gentle tears, a group of schoolchildren from Bewdley Primary laid a wreath to my great uncle Jack Bishop, a child who fought a man’s war and paid with his life.
“We will remember you, “ it said, simply.
Those words moved me. I had always wanted youngsters to carry his memory forward. For two years I had given talks about Jack’s short life as part of the Remembrance project at the school — now the circle was complete.
I was at primary school when my late grandfather, Eric Bishop, took my hand and walked me from his home in Kidderminster to the war memorial in Bewdley. We stood while he told me of his long-lost brother, a tale passed down the family like a half-forgotten nursery rhyme. What struck me, even then, is that my family knew almost nothing about the loss of one of their youngest and brightest.
When I grew up to be a journalist, I resolved to find out by seeking out documents and newspaper clippings. In 1913, fresh-faced and fleet-of-foot Jack Bishop gave up his job as an errand boy for a Bewdley butcher and lied about his age to join the Royal Navy. He was 14. His brother, Tom, had quit his job in a carpet factory, the year before, to join up and had done well.
In July 1914, Jack was one of the first to head to war. He was 15 years old and had less than five months to live. The Royal Navy called him early from leave, in Bewdley, to join a battlecruiser at Portsmouth headed for Scapa Flow. On August 4, the first day of the war, he was steaming the North Sea aboard HMS Edgar. The 10th Cruiser Squadron was a barrier of guns and steel across the North Sea to try to stop food, supplies, and soldiers from making it to Germany.
For month after freezing month, Jack and his shipmates boarded vessels on rough seas in snow, high winds, and driving rain. Once, he clung to the deck for grim death in a violent storm. To make matters harder, in December 1914 Jack was assigned to HMS Viknor — an underpowered, poorly armed former cruise ship. Months earlier it had chugged through the Norwegian Fjords carrying tourists. The Navy was running out of ships. These hasty replacements were ramshackle sitting ducks.
With vulnerability came the foul weather of January 1915. Yet amid the cold and misery, came a warming success, just off the Faroe Islands. Acting on a tip from Naval intelligence, HMS Viknor captured a ship from New York carrying German spymaster Hans Adam von Wedel, who had been smuggling soldiers home to the fatherland with false passports. The admiral of the Grand Fleet sent congratulations. Jack and his shipmates celebrated with rum. By nightfall, they would all be dead.
At dusk, the ship telegraphed Liverpool to say it was in the Irish Sea and would dock on the morrow. Then nothing. The cruel sea washed up scores of bodies along the Irish Coast; no one knew why. My investigations show Jack’s ship hit a stray mine in the dark depths of a filthy storm. A few crew members had time to put on lifebelts, but nearly 300 perished under the high cold waves.
A few days later a clergyman and Naval officer tapped on the door of 44 Lax Lane, Bewdley. My great grandfather, a father of 13; a tanner as tough as a long, hard, working life could make you, wept for hours. The worst part of it was that he knew Jack was legally too young to be at sea, but he had never exercised his father’s right to bring him home.
“Lost at sea,” they said; holding out false hope that Jack may have escaped the sinking. If blood and pain are the price of freedom, my family paid in full. We yearn for peace and mourn our lost son like we did in Bewdley this weekend.
Like millions, my family had no body to bury. It was as if Jack disappeared off the face of the earth just seven weeks after his sixteenth birthday. The youngest of the 76 Bewdley men who perished in the First World War. Every night for the rest of his life, my great-grandfather left the back door open, just in case Jack came home.