Dartmouth's Great War Fallen
Researching the Dartmouth men who died in the First World War

William James Burton


William James Clark Burton was not a native of Dartmouth but was born in St Helier, Jersey, on 21st May 1882, and baptised there on 4th October 1882. He was the second of four boys born to Frederick Albert Burton and Louisa Shepherd, both of whom had been born on Jersey. Frederick and Louisa moved to England some time between 1882 and 1887 and settled in Southampton, where Frederick worked as a labourer in the docks. In 1891 the family were recorded living in Vincent's Passage, a narrow alley leading to the buildings at the rear of Vincent's Walk in the centre of Southampton (which have now been demolished).

Some time between the 1891 and 1901 Census, Louisa died (we have not been able to find the entry in the death registration index). The rest of the family remained in Southampton, where in 1901 they were recorded at 10 Albert Road.

In 1910, William (who by this time was pursuing a career in the Navy, see below) married Mary Grace Knapman, in Southampton, and it seems that Mary Grace was William's connection with Dartmouth.

Mary Grace was born in Dartmouth in 1883. She was the youngest daughter of John Crimp Knapman and his wife Grace Grant. John Knapman worked as a "farm labourer" (1891) and "general labourer" (1901). The family lived in Clarence Street, next door to William Blank and his wife Maria, and their son William John Henry Blank (who is also on our database).

By 1901 Mary Grace had left Dartmouth and was working as a domestic servant in East Teignmouth, in the house of Benjamin Morgan and his wife Sophia, at 2 Barnpark Terrace. When, or how, Mary and William met is not known. After they married they lived at 49 Testwood Road, Millbrook, Southampton; and Mary was recorded after William's death as living at 4 Mill Farm Cottage, Shirley, Southampton. However, John Knapman, Mary's father, still lived in Dartmouth, with Mary's elder sister Clara, and her husband Henry Long, who was a valet to the cadets at the Royal Naval College.


William joined the Navy as a Boy 2nd Class on 22nd November 1899, ostensibly at the age of 15½, for a twelve year engagement to commence at age 18. Unusually, he seems to have understated his age - his naval service record has his date of birth as 21st May 1884. Perhaps he was able to do this because he was small for his age  - his naval record gives his height as 5' 0 ½" - the benefit to him would have been that he had secure employment for two years longer. He had dark brown hair, grey eyes, and fair hair. His previous occupation was brickmaker.

William received his training as a Boy Seaman at HMS St Vincent (a first rate ship of the line laid down in 1810, which was a training ship permanently moored at Haslar from 1870-1905) and HMS Agincourt, an armoured frigate built during the 1860s which, as Boscawen III, became a training ship at Portland from 1893. His first posting afloat was to HMS Majestic, in 1901, a pre-dreadnought battleship serving with the Channel Fleet. While serving on Majestic he was rated Ordinary Seaman on 21st May 1902, which the Navy thought was his eighteenth birthday, and Able Seaman on 1st April 1903.

His specialism was that of Torpedoman and he had three periods of appointment to HMS Vernon, the centre of mine and torpedo training. In view of his subsequent wartime role, this may have included a particular focus on minewarfare. His specialist training was interspersed with postings at sea. From November 1904 to May 1906, he served on HMS Sutlej, which was recommissioned on 19th November 1904 to serve on the China Station. A log of this service is available online.

As this shows, on this voyage William travelled by way of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean to Singapore and Hong Kong. His time on station there included a visit to Japan and a visit to the Russian deep naval port, Port Arthur, which had been beseiged by Japan and surrendered in January 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War.

From December 1908 to March 1909 William was appointed to HMS Prince George, a Majestic-class pre-dreadnought battleship, part of the Home Fleet, and from March 1909 to July 1911 he served on HMS King Edward VII, the flagship of the Vice Admiral Home Fleet. His final posting, in August 1911, was once again to HMS Vernon. He achieved Leading Seaman rank on 15th November 1911.

On 20th May 1914 he was "discharged shore" as his continuous service engagement had come to an end. Evidently he had decided not to continue in the Navy by voluntarily extending his engagement. However, he did join the Royal Fleet Reserve - a reserve commitment begun in 1901 whereby Royal Naval ratings of good character who had completed their service accepted the liability for return to service in time of emergency, in return for the annual payment of a retainer.

Only three months later, there was just such an emergency. William was called up on 2nd August 1914 and allocated to HMS Halcyon on 11th August 1914.


In 1907 Lord Charles Beresford, while Commander in Chief Home Fleet, was the first to recommend the use of trawlers for minesweeping duties. He wrote: "Fishermen, by virtue of their calling, are adept in the handling and towing of wires and trawls, more so than are naval ratings". Fleet minesweepers were to precede the main body of ships at sea, whilst trawlers, being slower, were tasked to keep defended naval ports' outer "War Channels" free for warship movements.

 In 1910, the Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section) (RNR(T)) was formed to recruit and train fishermen for wartime service as minesweepers. The Trawler Reserve had approval for 100 trawlers to be mobilised in an emergency and for the immediate enrolment of 1000 officers and ratings to man these vessels. Typically, a trawler would be taken up complete with its Skipper and crew. By 1912 the Trawler Section consisted of 142 trawlers manned by 1279 personnel. During this period there was continuing experiment into minesweeping methods and equipment, as well as training of personnel.

Within the first week of war, 94 trawlers were allocated for minesweeping duties in priority areas around the coast, from Cromarty and the Firth of Forth, through the Tyne, Humber, Harwich, Sheerness, Dover, Portsmouth and Portland to Plymouth. The groups were commanded by local "senior naval officers" who had received training in minesweeping. To help with naval discipline, Royal Fleet Reserve and pensioner petty officers and experienced ratings, like William Burton, were distributed among the vessels.

HMS Halcyon, to which William was appointed, was a "Dryad-class" torpedo gunboat, which became in 1914 the ship of the Senior Naval Officer North Sea Fisheries, having previously served in the Fishery Protection Service.  She was located at Yarmouth, coordinating minesweeping operations in a coastal channel off the east coast, between the South Goodwin Sands and a channel called the "Outer Dowsing". Notwithstanding the pre-war experimentation and training, minesweeping resources in the early part of the war were immediately under pressure as Germany began the mining war. Regrettably, there were several casualties amongst the minesweeping trawler fleet in the early months of the war, as experience and learning of the most effective way to operate was acquired largely by trial and error.

The circumstances of William's death were preceded by an extraordinary occasion on which it seemed briefly as if a German invasion might be underway. On 2nd November 1914, German light cruisers were ordered to lay mines off Yarmouth and Lowestoft in order to disrupt the shipping channel, while battle cruisers under Admiral Franz Hipper bombarded Yarmouth. Approaching the coast at 6.30am the following morning, Admiral Hipper's squadron encountered Halcyon, looking for drifting mines, and opened fire. So many large shell splashes smothered the small ship that she could not be seen as a target, and was able to escape. HMS Lively, a destroyer on patrol nearby, was then able to provide further protection by laying down a smoke screen between Halcyon and the enemy.

At 7.40am Admiral Hipper ceased fire and turned to go back out to sea. His battle cruisers fired briefly at Yarmouth but struck only the beach. Halcyon got back to Yarmouth by 8.30am and raised a general alarm - however, by the time the Grand Fleet was mobilised in Britain's defence, Admiral Hipper was well on the way back to Germany. Meanwhile, however, the light cruiser Stralsund had been laying mines in the Smith's Knoll passage.

Two days later, on 5th November, Admiralty Trawler no 361 "Mary" went out to clear Smith's Knoll channel, struck a mine, and was lost. She had a crew of fourteen; 8 were killed, including the Skipper, William Stephen Greenway, and William Burton, Leading Seaman. Two were wounded, four were saved.

In the early part of the war, several new systems of protection from mines were trialled. "Mary" was fitted with a form of minecatching gear at the bow, named after its inventor Ellison. To rig it and operate it, an extra four deckhands were required - that is, eight, rather than the normal four. However, on 5th November, because of the wind and sea, the gear had not been rigged. The trawler was therefore without the protection of the new gear but still carrying the larger number of crew, thereby increasing the casualties when the ship struck a mine.

Also destroyed as a result of the mining raid was submarine D5, which was based in Yarmouth and struck a mine when setting off in pursuit of Admiral Hipper's squadron.


William James Burton does not appear on any memorial in Dartmouth but was commemorated in an obituary in the Dartmouth Chronicle on 10th November 1916:

In memoriam

Burton - In loving memory of William, the dearly beloved husband of Mary Burton, who lost his life through the sinking of HM Trawler Mary, November 5th 1914.
We miss him most who loved him best.

He is also commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial and is included on Jersey's Great War Roll of Honour.


In the Dartmouth Chronicle of February 19th 1915, the following announcement appeared:

Births: Burton, February 14th, at 37 Clarence Street, Mrs W J Burton, of a son, posthumous.

He was named William James Burton, for his father.


William James Burton's naval service record is available for download from the National Archives (fee payable) reference ADM 188/361/207072.

Information on the RNR Trawler Section and Minesweeping operations, including the Trawler Mary, from the following websites:

Minewarfare and Clearance Diving Officers' Association: The RN Minewarfare Branch

"Trial and Error": The Royal Navy and Mine Countermeasures 1904-1914

Harry Tates Navy: The Royal Naval Patrol Service

World War 1: The War at Sea: Drifters and Trawlers in RN Service, includes brief reference to Court of Enquiry record into the loss of HM Trawler "Mary".

General: Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, Robert K Massie, publ Vintage 2007

Information Held on Database

Forenames:William James
Rank:Leading Seaman RN
Service Number:207072 (RFR Po B/6850)
Military Unit:HM Trawler Mary (minesweeper)
Date of Death:05 Nov 1914
Age at Death:32
Cause of Death:Killed in action
Action Resulting in Death:Mine explosion
Place of Death:off Yarmouth
Place of Burial:Commemorated Portsmouth Naval Memorial
Born or Lived in Dartmouth?No
On Dartmouth War Memorial?No
On St Saviour's Memorials?No
On St Petrox Memorials?No
On Flavel Church Memorials?No
In Longcross Cemetery?No
In St Clement's Churchyard?No
On a Private Memorial?No
On Another Memorial?Yes
Name of Other Memorial:Dartmouth Chronicle Obituary

This information was last updated on Friday 13 March 2015 at 16:09:44.