Monthly Archives: September 2022

The Sinking of the Cobra: a Heaton maritime disaster

When, on 18 September 1901, HMS Cobra sank on its maiden voyage on route from Newcastle to Portsmouth, it was a huge shock for the country and a particular tragedy for the north-east, but nowhere was the loss felt more keenly than in Heaton.

Steam

Only four years earlier, Charles Parsons had amazed onlookers by gatecrashing Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review and racing his yacht, Turbinia, between the lines of the officially invited vessels at speeds of up to 34 knots.

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons (1919) by Walter Stoneman
(National Portrait Gallery)

Turbinia was powered by marine steam turbines invented at C A Parsons and Co in Heaton by Parsons himself alongside other great engineers such as Gerard Stoney, whose home, as well as his office, was in Heaton and Robert Barnard, who worshipped at Heaton Congregational Church.

Turbinia

Turbinia’s spectacular demonstration of speed prompted local armaments and shipping firm Armstrong Whitworth to build a torpedo destroyer to be fitted with a turbine engine, confident that a buyer would quickly be found. The ship’s design was based on those of two other vessels built at Elswick and it was launched on 28 June 1899. Six months later the ship was offered to the Admiralty.  However, the turbine machinery on board was much heavier than the machinery on the earlier ships (183 v 110 tons) and 30 tons more than expected. Despite the assurances of the designer, Philip Watts, who was head of the Elswick shipyard and the firm’s chief naval architect, that the weight was within tolerance limits, the prospective purchaser expressed a number of concerns including about the  strength of the upper deck. 

Viper

While what was to become HMS Cobra was being modified on the quay at Elswick, a collier ship accidentally collided with her, delaying completion by another seven months. This misfortune allowed a sister ship, HMS Viper, ordered by the Admiralty from another Charles Parsons company, Parsons Marine (who subcontracted the building of the hull to a third local firm, Hawthorn Leslie) to become the world’s first turbine-driven warship. Sadly on 3 August 1901,  HMS Viper was grounded on rocks during naval exercises in fog off Alderney in the Channel Islands. The crew were forced to abandon ship as she sank.

HMS Viper

Disaster

Less than seven weeks later, at 5.00pm on 17 September 1901, HMS Cobra was deemed ready to leave Newcastle for Portsmouth, where she was to be armed and commissioned. On board were 79 men, 24 of whom were from the north-east, mainly employees of Armstrong Whitworth, the shipbuilders,  and Parsons, the turbine builders. 

HMS Cobra

As the weather deteriorated and the ship began to roll, the thoughts of many of those on board must have turned to the recent demise of the Viper, a ship well-known to the Parsons contingent in particular. Conditions, however, began to improve at first light until a sudden shock was felt throughout the Cobra. Within seconds, the ship had broken in two. There wasn’t time to launch any of Its five lifeboats but twelve men, including the ship’s chief engineer, John J G G Percy, were able to scramble into a small dinghy. They were the only survivors. Sixty seven men lost their lives, twenty three of them from ‘contractors’, mainly Parsons.

Local

Among those known to have Heaton connections were:

John Abel

John originated in Brighton, Sussex and, aged 28, worked for Parsons as a ‘steam engine maker and fitter’. His daughter had been born in Portsea, Hampshire in December 1899 so it’s possible that the family hadn’t been in Newcastle long. At the time of the 1901 census, they were living at 12 Morley Street but by the time John lost his life on the Cobra, they were at 44 Denmark Street.

Robert Barnard

The Essex born marine engineer was the senior Parsons Turbine representative aboard the Cobra. He was manager of Parsons Turbine Works, Newcastle and Wallsend. He had assisted in the design of Turbinia and superintended its construction. During its trials, he usually acted as steersman alongside Gerard Stoney and Parsons himself.

Barnard had also superintended the erection of the works at Wallsend and supervised the building and engineering of the Viper and the King Edward as well as the Cobra. Aged 38, he had been ‘associated with the development of the modern steam turbine from the very first. No one next to Mr Parsons believed more in the possibilities’. He was also, until shortly before his death,  treasurer of Heaton Congregational Church. He is buried in Preston Cemetery, North Shields with his wife, Mary.

Alfred Bryans

Alfred’s was one of the first six bodies to be found and it was formally identified in Grimsby Hospital mortuary by the coroner’s jury three days after the disaster. An envelope addressed to him at his home address of 25 Meldon Terrace, Heaton was found on him. Alfred was born and raised in Co Durham but in 1901, aged 25, was living in Heaton with his widowed mother. He described himself as a ‘steam engine maker and fitter’.Regarded as an exceedingly promising and capable young man’, he had worked as an electrical engineer at Parsons for five years and was previously on board the Viper ‘superintending work in connection with the dynamos’ when it sank. 

He had then been sent to Stockport to be in charge of the dynamos of the new electric car system there and had just returned to Tyneside to travel to Portsmouth aboard the Cobra ‘in the same capacity as he had worked on the Viper’. He had three brothers, one of whom was a doctor at the Middlesbrough hospital where some of the survivors of the Cobra disaster were taken. His older brothers were also engineers, one in London, and the other on a railway in South America. Alfred was among the first to be buried. His funeral took place at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. Among the mourners at his funeral were Gerard Stoney, John Barker, manager of Parsons Turbine, and Sir Richard Williams who, in 1889, had moved from Clarke and Chapman with Parsons to help him set up his own company.

Edward Lee

Edward was a foreman fitter from C A Parsons and Co. He lived at 21 Morley Street.

George McGregor

Aged only 17, George was the youngest of the Heaton victims. He lived with his widowed mother, younger brother  and  two sisters at 69 Molyneux Street and was an apprentice fitter at Parsons. His older married brother, David McGregor, aged 29, who lived nearby at 33 Algernon Road was also a fitter at the firm.

John W Webb

John, a 32 year old Parsons fitter, lived at 9 Fifth Avenue with his wife, said to be ‘of delicate health’ and his sister in law. He was reported to be ‘well known and highly respected in the eastern part of the town’,  a member of Bainbridge Memorial Wesleyan Church and superintendent of the Sunday school.

Aftermath

Among the first announcements after the disaster was one the following day from the Admiralty declaring that they would ‘cease naming vessels after  the snake tribe – first the Serpent, next the Viper and now the Cobra’ (HMS Serpent had run aground and sank in a storm off Galicia in Spain  in November 1890, less than two years after going into service. 173 of her 176 crew lost their lives).

Locally, Charles Parsons headed to London immediately and the whole Parsons workforce was given the rest of the week off. There were reports of ’the horrors of scalding steam’ adding to the other dangers experienced by those on board. ‘The Evening Chronicle’ reported that Charles Parsons had foreseen this risk and insisted that the steam pipes on the Viper (on which no escape of steam was reported) were fixed as flexibly as possible. However, on the Cobra, the Parsons Company, as engine builders ‘were bound to follow specifications and these provided that the steam pipes should be as rigidly fixed as possible.’ The war of words between the various interested parties had begun.

The Admiralty immediately absolved the ship’s captain of any blame or navigational error, reporting that the ship was in deep, clear water when it sank. It conceded that it could have struck a wreck or some floating obstruction. A Captain Smith of a Yarmouth herring drifter which was the first vessel on the scene said that he might have seen a shark’s tail but it was impossible to know. A wounded whale, seen in the area, was also implicated until it was discovered that it had been landed a week earlier. The inquest jury expressed  ‘an informal opinion that the Cobra was too lightly built and hoped the government would build stronger destroyers’.

Meanwhile a special memorial service was held at Heaton Congregational Church on Sunday 22nd, led by the Reverend William Glover.

Appeal

And on Saturday 21st, a public meeting was announced by Councillor Thomas Cairns, to be held at the Victoria Hotel on Heaton Road ‘with a view to forming a committee to give assistance where necessary to the families deprived of their bread-winners by the loss of HMS Cobra’. The meeting was said to be crowded. Letters of support had been received from the Mayor, the Sheriff, MP Mr Crawford Smith, eminent trades unionist and Heaton resident Alexander Wilkie and the Reverend J Robertson of St Gabriel’s Church among others. Councillor Cairns made a stirring speech which concluded by assuring listeners that the organisers wished to alleviate distress only where it existed and so prompt enquiries into the circumstances of every case would be made. It was stated that the appeal would only be on behalf of the bereaved of the ‘Tyneside district’. A committee was elected and a further meeting convened.

However, a few days later it was announced that a national relief fund had been opened in Portsmouth. When Councillor Cairns contacted the mayor to ask that the Heaton committee be left to support its own bereaved as they better understood individual needs and appealed for the national fund not to appeal for donations for Parsons’ families, he was told the 600 letters had already been sent to national and local newspapers and that the fund would be for the widows and orphans of all those lost, not just the naval men. Cairns responded that Newcastle wouldn’t have dreamt of setting up a national fund. ‘If it had been set up in London, that would be different’. An agreement was soon made for the Heaton executive committee to be broadened to include the mayors of all the Tyneside boroughs. Mr Alfred Howson of 8 Heaton Road was appointed secretary and local councillor Thomas Cairns, treasurer.

Armstrong Whitworth contributed £1,000 to the Tyneside fund.

Court Martial

On 10 October 1901, the naval enquiry or court martial opened at Portsmouth. The Hon Charles Parsons was in court to hear his company absolved of any blame for the accident but Philip Watts, the designer of the ship for Armstrong Whitworth, endured lengthy questioning about the strength of the vessel and what might have caused it to sink. Watts said that he believed that wave action alone could not have sunk the Cobra because of where the ship broke and he maintained that the disaster could not have been caused by striking a rock as the shock felt by those on board would have been greater still. His best guess was that the destroyer had struck some drifting wreckage perhaps with an iron mast attached. He believed that if the aft half of the boat, which was still missing, were to be found, the likely damage would show this to be the case.

Parsons then gave evidence to the court. Perhaps undiplomatically, he said that he believed destroyers like the Cobra were intended to be ‘fine weather vessels but that gradually, having been found to survive heavy seas , they were not taken the same care of as they were originally.’ He clarified that he meant that they were designed to shelter in bad weather. When pressed on the fact that heavy seas were to be expected around the British Isles, he confirmed it ‘would become a necessity to ensure that the strength of these vessels is sufficient to stand any stress they may be likely to come across.’

He confirmed that the turbine machinery installed exceeded the original estimate of 155-160 tons, being 183 tons.

The enquiry concluded that Cobra didn’t meet with any obstruction and that there was no navigation error but ‘the loss was attributable to the structural weakness of the ship’. The court also found that the ‘Cobra was weaker than other destroyers and, in view of that fact, it is to be regretted that she was purchased into his Majesty’s service.’

Defence

Armstrong Whitworth immediately contested the court martial’s findings. The company pointed out that similar boats had sailed to Australia and Japan without incident.

Asked about Parsons’ comments the following day, an Armstrong Whitworth representative said that Parsons had meant that destroyers fitted with the turbine system of propulsion were constructed essentially for their high speed and this high speed could only be obtained in smooth water.

The company authorised Philip Watts, the ship’s designer, to conduct a search operation to try to restore its and his damaged reputations.  However, the missing aft section, which could have provided evidence of a collision and exonerated both Watts and the firm, wasn’t found.

Tutor

However, Armstrong Whitworth was invited to submit an article to a literary and current affairs magazine ‘The Monthly Review’. It commissioned John Meade Falkner, the English novelist best known for ‘Moonfleet’, the classic children’s story of shipwrecks and smuggling, written just a few years earlier, to write the piece. 

Why him? Well, soon after the Wiltshire born, Marlborough educated Falkner had graduated in history with a third class degree from Hertford College Oxford in 1882, he was introduced to an Eton schoolboy who was struggling to prepare for his Oxford University entrance examination. The boy was John Noble, son of Sir Andrew Noble, physicist, ballistics expert and partner of Sir William Armstrong.

John Meade Falkner

Falkner came to Newcastle to be a tutor both to John and to Sir Andrew Noble’s other children. You can see the 32 year old listed among the large extended household living in Jesmond Dene House on the 1891 census, even though by this time the youngest of the Noble children at home was 20 year old Philip who was recorded as being at Balliol College. 

Falkner’s occupation then appears to read ‘MA Oxon Secretary’. There is a second census entry for him as a lodger in Elswick and ‘secretary to engineering company’. He had become company secretary to Armstrong Mitchell in 1888. ‘Moonfleet’ was published in 1896.

By the time of the Cobra disaster in 1901, Falkner was living in Divinity House, Palace Green, Durham and described as a ‘mechanical engineer’  and an ‘employer’. At some point during that year, he became a director of what was now Armstrong Whitworth. His persuasive writing skills were undoubtedly a reason for him being chosen to pen the piece.

Like the naval enquiry, Falkner, in his article, quickly exonerated Parsons and the turbines but questioned the credibility of the court by drawing readers’ attentions to its members’ lack of knowledge of marine engineering. He went on to cast doubt on the competence of the naval divers who had dragged the wreck into deeper waters, searched in poor visibility and, in one case, ‘a foreigner, and his evidence, which seemed naturally vague, was rendered still more obscure by difficulties of interpretation.’

Falkner called for a ‘properly qualified tribunal’ … ‘which will command respect, and the country will accept nothing less’. The  truth would then be uncovered ‘on better authority than the verdict of a casual court-martial.’

His words fell on deaf ears but Armstrong Whitworth survived the blow to its reputation and, like Parsons’ turbine business, went from strength to strength in the following decades. Falkner succeeded Sir Andrew Noble as Chairman of Armstrong Vickers in 1915. He later became Honorary Reader in Paleography at the University of Durham and Honorary Librarian to the Dean and Chapter Library of Durham Cathedral. 

Sixty seven men, including twenty four from Parsons and at least six who lived in Heaton, weren’t so fortunate.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

Can You Help?

If you know any more about the people named in this article or the sinking of HMS Cobra, we’d love to hear from you.You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

Ancestry

British Newspaper Archive

‘The Cobra Trail’ / George Robson and Kenneth Hillier in ‘The John Meade Falkner Society Journal’ no 9, July 2008

‘Down Elswick Slipways: Armstrong’s Ships and People 1884-1918’/ Dick Keys and Ken Smith; Newcastle City Libraries, 1996

‘From Galaxies to Turbines: science, technology and the Parsons family’ / W Garrett Scaife; Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000

www.rjbw.net/JMFalkner.html

Other online sources

CHANGE Northumberland Hussars 1939-1945 CHANGE

Wednesday 23 November 2022 7.30pm

In a late change to the originally advertised talk, Dave Weatherstone will give a talk on the Northumberland Hussars in World War 2.

This replaces the talk below but the venue and time remain the same (see below). No need to book on this occasion.

We hope to reschedule Bill Griffiths’ talk for a later date.

———————————————————————

To Study the Monument: a history of research into Hadrian’s Wall

Wednesday 23 November 2022 7.30pm Open for Booking – members and non-members

It is only in the last 150 or so years that we have realised that Hadiran’s Wall was built by Hadrian, and new discoveries continue to astound even today in the 1900th anniversary year of the monument. For our November talk,  Bill Griffiths, will explore the research carried out on the frontier since the Roman administration in Britain. collapsed in the early fifth century AD.

William Stukeley’s 18C engraving of Hadrian’s Wall, looking down what is now Shields Road to Newcastle.

Our Speaker

Bill Griffiths is Head of Programmes and Collections at Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives. He also leads the Arts Council England funded Culture Bridge North East and Museum Development North East Sector Support Organisations that TWAM delivers for the region, is a member of the Hadrian’s Wall Management Plan Board, and chairs the Children and Young People’s working group for the North East Cultural Partnership.

Booking and Venue

The event will take place on Wednesday 23 November 2022 at Heaton Baptist Church, Heaton Road, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne NE6 5HN at 7.30pm.

We use the Mundella Terrace entrance. There is on street parking nearby and a car park about five minutes walk away off Jesmond Vale Lane in Heaton Park. If you have mobility needs which mean that you you would require access to the very limited parking by the door of the venue, please request this when you book.

The nearest bus stop is that of the number 1 on Second Avenue near the junction with Seventh Avenue. From there it’s a two minute walk to the church. It is about a twelve minute walk from the Coast Road bus stops near the Corner House.

The closest Metro station is Chillingham Road, about twelve minutes walk away.

The doors open at 7.00pm.  All welcome. FREE for Heaton History Group members. £2.50 for non-members. Members have a priority booking window. Please book your place by contacting maria-graham@live.co.uk / 07443 594154

Arrangements

There is ample room for social distancing at Heaton Baptist Church. The building has very high ceilings and  good ventilation. There is even a gallery in which anyone who would prefer to be further apart can sit. Tea and coffee (with biscuits!) is normally available for £1 per cup.

We look forward to seeing old friends and welcoming new members and visitors.

This talk forms part of Heaton History Group’s contribution to Hadrian’s Wall 1900, a year long festival to commemorate the 1900th anniversary of the building of Hadrian’s Wall.

BBC at 100 and a Heaton choir boy at 14

Before her recent death at the age of 105, Lilian, the wife of St Gabriel’s parishioner Herbert Dixon (‘Dix’) Hodgson, shared some memories of her husband. Among the stories about Dix’s short but eventful life was one about a solo performance by him being broadcast on the opening night of Newcastle’s first BBC radio station. She also said that, as a young girl, she was taken to a neighbour’s house to listen to the historic launch. What she said she didn’t realise was that, among the voices she heard seemingly magically beamed across the Tyne into her neighbour’s living room in Whickham, was that of her future husband.

Dix and Lilian, March 1940 aboard SS Kirriemoor (Lilian borrowed one of the Mate’s uniforms and the captain’s cap!)

Chorister

Herbert Dixon Hodgson was born in October 1908.  Records show that in 1911 he was living at 41 Tosson Terrace, Heaton with his father William, mother Margaret and his four year old sister Hilda Annie. Another sister, Nellie Blue (Blue was a family name) came later.

Young Dix became a member of the choir at St Gabriel’s Church. He was soon recognised as having an excellent voice and starred as a soloist at church concerts. This seems to have led, as we have heard from his wife’s account, to him being selected to sing solo to mark a momentous occasion, the opening night of Newcastle’s first radio station.

There are, however, a number of unanswered questions around Dix’s involvement. We wondered whether his performance was live. And when and where did it take place? How old was Dix? And the listening Lilian? What do the historical records tell us about the occasion?

5NO

Newcastle’s first radio station was known as 5NO, its call sign. According to the BBC, its opening broadcast was a hundred years ago this year, on Christmas Eve 1922, so Dix would have been 14 years old. Incredibly the British Broadcasting Company had been in existence for only a couple of months. It had been set up by a consortium of wireless manufacturers, including Marconi, General Electric and Metropolitan Vickers, primarily in the hope of a commercial bonanza from the sale of radio equipment, although very few people at that time saw its full potential to ‘inform, educate, entertain’ as its first director, John (later Lord) Reith later put it.

Newcastle was just the 4th BBC station to open behind London, Manchester and Birmingham, set up by Marconi, Metrovick and General Electric respectively, all of which were a matter of months or weeks old. In fact, it was the first to be established by the BBC itself: the other three had been put in place before the national broadcasting company’s formation. The British Broadcasting Company had been set up on 18 October and BBC broadcasting had officially begun on 14 November. John Reith had been appointed General Manager on 14 December and hadn’t even started work that Christmas Eve. In fact he was to visit Newcastle on 29 December en route from Scotland, where he had spent Christmas, to London to take up his appointment.

The station Reith visited was set to become the first radio station to operate from new premises, independent of their parent wirelesss manufacturing company. They were in Eldon Square and had been kitted out by a small group of enthusiasts. However, there were technical problems on the 23rd, the night of the promised ‘before Christmas’ opening and so a decision was made to conduct proceedings as close as possible to the newly constructed transmitter on a tower at the Cooperative Society buildings on West Blandford Street. So, the opening broadcast of Newcastle’s first radio station was from a ‘donkey cart’ in a stable yard. Very Chrismassy! And perhaps not surprising that the BBC chose to ignore this first broadcast in its official records.

The station manager was a man called Tom Payne. Tom was born in South Shields in 1882 and was an accomplished musician. But he was most famous for his feats during a competitive walking career which began in 1906. By 1916, he had broken world records for 12 and 24 hour duration feats and won three London to Brighton and six Manchester to Blackpool races. In the meantime, he had found time in 1910 to  open Morpeth’s first cinema, ‘The Avenue’, and then set up a business on Gallowgate as a wireless dealer and a music promoter.  It was because he recognised the potential for his business that Tom got involved with 5NO and, at least according to Tom himself, financed the arrival of broadcasting in the city out of his own pocket. (You can hear him tell the tale on the podcast mentioned below this article.)

Programme

It isn’t easy to tell whether later references to the opening night referred to 23rd or 24th December. But we know it was scheduled to last just one hour. There were live acts including Tom himself playing violin and a Mr W Griffiths playing cello. Miss May Osbourne sang ‘Annie Laurie’ but she couldn’t be accompanied in the stable yard as intended by pianist, W A Crosse, because the piano Payne had borrowed for the occasion wouldn’t fit on the cart. There may have been  recorded music on both occasions, as well as other live acts whose names aren’t recorded. There were no listings in the press ahead of the event. The first we have found date from the first week of 1923 but, as you’ll see if you scroll right at the bottom of the image below, they weren’t exactly comprehensive in Newcastle’s case. The Radio Times didn’t appear until 28 September 1923.

In the event, on that very first night a barking dog in the stable yard reportedly forced proceedings to end early.

It was because of these difficulties that John Reith was asked to break his journey from Scotland a few days later. Reith was unlikely to be of much help to Tom. He admitted that he knew nothing about broadcasting, he didn’t own a radio set and, unlike Lilian, aged 5, hadn’t even listened to a BBC broadcast. His diary entry for the day reads:

‘Newcastle at 12.30. Here I really began my BBC responsibility. Saw transmitting station and studio place and landlords. It was very interesting. Away at 4.28, London at 10.10, bed at 12.00. I am trying to keep in close touch with Christ in all I do and pray he may keep close to me. I have a great work to do.’

Dix’s Debut

So where did Dix’s solo fit in? The truth is we don’t know. It has been suggested that the full St Gabriel’s Choir performed and that the concert took place in Newcastle Cathedral. Both are unlikely.

There certainly was no outside broadcast from Newcastle Cathedral. The first music outside broadcast nationally did not take place until January 1923 and was a high profile performance of ‘The Magic Flute’ from Covent Garden.

If St Gabriel’s choir had performed on the very first night, it would have had to have been in the Co-op stable yard. Ensembles did perform in those early days but, even in a proper studio, a full choir would have posed enormous problems for the equipment and space available in Newcastle at the time. It certainly wouldn’t have fitted onto a donkey cart!

Perhaps the choir had been recorded on a previous occasion and played on a gramophone on the opening night. But recording music was still an expensive and laborious process. In the early 1920s, the quality of the live music broadcast would be far superior to any recordings used. A search through the St Gabriel’s parish magazine from that period yielded nothing.

This suggests that, if Dix did perform on that opening night, it was as a solo, probably unaccompanied, voice. Achieving the right balance between a singer and an accompanist or multiple voices had not been fully mastered at that point even if there hadn’t been the issue with the borrowed piano. 

What did Dix sing? Given the time of year, one could imagine him singing carols but the above poster for a St Gabriel’s concert just a few weeks later on 13 February 1923 suggests another possibility. Then, Master Hodgson sang Handel’s‘ Rejoice greatly’ and ‘Angels ever bright and fair’ . There may not have been a dry eye either in the Coop stable yard or that Whickham living room.

Lilian

Lilian would have been one of a select few listening to that first north-east broadcast. There were apparently only about 100 potential listeners in the Newcastle area at that time and only those within about 15 miles of Newcastle were expected to be able to hear 5NO, although a ship’s radio as far away as Gibraltar reportedly picked up the signal. At home, many of the radio hams who had crystal sets or early valve radios at that time were ex-servicemen who had learnt how to use radio during the war.

However, there had been a huge advertising campaign for sets ahead of that Christmas. They weren’t cheap (from about £4) but the audience was set to expand quickly.

Petition

Tom Payne did not last long at 5NO. There are conflicting accounts about his departure sometime in 1923. One account says that he was heard to swear on air and was fired, another that his quirky presentation didn’t fit with the more formal style favoured by Reith. A petition to have him reinstated was unsuccessful.

But Tom’s walking exploits continued to keep him in the public eye. Indeed on 15 November 1926, he delivered a lecture on athletics to members of Heaton Harriers at their headquarters in Armstrong Park Refreshment Rooms.

The headline of a local newspaper report of his death at Walkergate Hospital in 1966 said ‘Champion walker dies’ rather than the ‘Broadcasting pioneer’.

Master Mariner

Two years after Newcastle’s first BBC broadcast, aged 16, Dix signed indentures and became an apprentice to the Moor Line, the merchant fleet operated by Walter Runciman and Co. He attended college to gain qualifications, including, to obtain his Master’s Certificate in 1936, at Nellist’s Nautical College.

Shields Daily Gazette, 7 Nov 1936

Between 1931 and 1938, Dix’s name appears on the Newcastle electoral register. He is still living with his father and mother but now at 31 Tosson Terrace, a few doors away from where he grew up. In 1938 and ‘39, a Leonard and Wilhelmina Runciman are registered at his childhood home at number 41. A coincidence? Were they part of the Runciman shipping dynasty and were they known to the Hodgsons? By 1939, the Hodgson family is registered  at 305 Chillingham Road.

We don’t know when and where Dix eventually met Lilian Mary Spittle. They lived on opposite sides of the Tyne but we know that Lilian had trained as a fever nurse and the Newcastle Upon Tyne Infectious Diseases Hospital was situated at Walkergate just up the road from Heaton.

Dix and Lilian were married in spring 1939, sixteen and a half years after that first broadcast, and Andrew their first son was born in late 1940. Douglas came along soon after.

By now, Dix was a master mariner, the highest rank in the merchant navy and what is usually referred to as a ship’s captain.

Tragedy

But on 21 May 1942, he was in charge of the SS Zurichmoor as it left Halifax, Nova Scotia in ballast bound for St Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

SS Zurichmoor

Three days later while 400 miles east of Philadelphia, it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank within 90 seconds. Dix, his crew of 38 and six naval gunners were lost. Many of them were, like Dix, from north-east families.

Tower Hill Memorial Panel 121

They are all remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial, London, a war memorial to ‘merchant seamen with no grave but the sea’.

Runciman and Co Moor Line Book of Remberance 1939-40

In Tyne & Wear Archives there is a Book of Remembrance commissioned by the directors of Walter Runciman and Company, owners of the Moor Line.

Angels ever bright and fair, take o take them to your care.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Robin Long of Heaton History Group with additional material from Chris Jackson; thank you to Andrew and Douglas Hodgson for their help and for the photograph of Dix and Lilian.

Can You Help?

If you know any more about the people named in this article or about the launch of the BBC in Newcastle or the sinking of SS Zurichmoor especially as they relate to Heaton, we’d love to hear from you.You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

Ancestry

‘The Birth of Broadcasting 1896-1927’ by Asa Briggs; OUP, 1961

‘British Broadcasting Century with Paul Kerensa’ podcast series

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-british-broadcasting-century-with-paul-kerensa/id1516471271especially Season 1 Episode 20 ‘The First BBC Christmas’ and Episode 34 ‘Newcastle’s Christmas Launch: Let it 5NO, Let it 5NO, Let it 5NO’.

British Newspaper Archive

‘Into the Wind’ / by Lord Reith, 1966

Other online sources