Beatrice Crocker is (so far) the only woman on our database. She was not a member of any branch of the armed forces but lost her life when the P&O passenger ship Maloja, on which she was travelling, struck a mine. Although she was born in Devonport, her death was reported at some length in the Dartmouth Chronicle because her husband, Francis Thomas Crocker, came from Dartmouth, and many of his family lived in the town.
Beatrice Crocker was born Beatrice Skedgel in 1889 in Stoke Damerel, Devonport. She was the seventh surviving daughter of Isaac Peter Skedgel and his wife Emma Blampey. Isaac was born in Dittisham, Devon, just up the river from Dartmouth, on 20th November 1843. He had worked as a seaman but by 1871 was a ship's carpenter. Around 1874 he took those skills to Devonport where subsequently he worked as a shipwright in the Dockyard. By the 1891 Census the family had made their home at 79 Alexandra Road, Devonport, where they remained for many years - the 1911 Census recorded Isaac, Emma, and Beatrice still living there. No occupation was recorded for Beatrice at that date.
In 1913 she married Francis Thomas Crocker, born in Dartmouth on 10th June 1888, and baptised at St Petrox, along with his younger brother James, on 16th March 1890. Francis was the fourth of nine children of Thomas Francis Crocker and his wife Annie Wyatt. Thomas was a Trinity House pilot who worked in Dartmouth Harbour for many years. In 1893 he had narrowly escaped from drowning when acting as pilot for a German ship, the Thekla. He had transferred from the Thekla to a gig to get to the Pilot Cutter, Gwendoline. The Dartmouth Chronicle reported that:
In the wild sea the gig was thrown onto [the Gwendoline's] bowsprit and overturned throwing all into the raging sea. Only pilot Crocker was hauled aboard the cutter, while pilots Kelland and Gurney launched the cutter's boat and searched for their comrades [aboard the gig] in vain. Pilot Maycock with the exhausted Crocker aboard managed to sail the cutter back ... with the broken gig suspended from the bowsprit, which brought down the topmast ...
Francis Thomas did not follow his father to sea but instead turned to shipbuilding and became a boilermaker. By the time of the 1911 Census he was working in the Naval Dockyard at Devonport. The Census shows him and his younger brother, James, living with his sister Elizabeth Amelia Pinhey and her husband Charles, in Devonport. Shortly after, on 24th April 1911, he joined the Boilermakers and Iron Shipbuilders Trade Union.
Beatrice and Francis presumably met in Devonport - perhaps Francis worked with her father. The couple married there in 1913.
Francis' father Thomas died suddenly of a heart attack on board the Pilot Cutter Rose early in 1914, on 18th February. He was taken to the Cottage Hospital but nothing could be done for him.
It seems that following the outbreak of war Francis was sent to the Dockyard at Gibraltar. The Dockyard at Gibraltar was opened in 1704 to service the Fleet overseas and from 1889 had been much expanded and modernised, becoming the base for the Atlantic Fleet. Although the major part of the Fleet had been based at Rosyth and Scapa Flow from the outbreak of war, Gibraltar was still essential to maintaining effective operations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
On Saturday 26th February 1916 the SS Maloja, the largest ship in the P&O fleet, sailed from Tilbury for Bombay carrying around 450 passengers and crew, including Beatrice, on her way to join Francis at Gibraltar. The passengers included some military and government personnel, as well as other women and children. The ship was armed with deck guns, but for defensive purposes only.
The Dartmouth Chronicle of 3rd March 1916 reported what happened:
P&O Steamer Sunk: Wife of Dartmothian drowned
On Sunday last the P&S Steamer Maloja was sunk off Dover, and unfortunately the loss of life was heavy. The Maloja left London on Saturday for Bombay with His Majesty's mails, and at 10.30am on Sunday, when the ship was midway between Dover and Folkestone, she was struck by a mine, the afterpart of the ship being blown up by the explosion. There was a high sea running at the time, and the captain, seeing the extensive damage which the ship had sustained, tried to beach her, but was unsuccessful, the engine room being full of water.
Owing to the damage, the vessel sank in about half an hour. There were 119 passengers on board who had embarked in London, and a large number were rescued from the water and from the ships' boats by torpedo boats and other craft, and landed at Dover, and their wants attended to at the Lord Warden Hotel and on the hospital ship St Davids.
The passengers included Mrs Crocker, wife of Mr F T Crocker of Devonport, son of the late Pilot T Crocker and Mrs Crocker, of Dartmouth. She intended proceeding to Gibraltar, where her husband is employed as a boilermaker.
The body of Mrs Crocker has been recovered, and will probably be interred at Devonport on Sunday.
The paper also reported that a survivor, Mrs Wilkins, of Devonport, also travelling out to her husband, an electrical engineer at Gibraltar, said that passengers had been told to have their lifebelts with them at all times, which she had. When the ship had been hit she jumped into the water, owing to delay in lowering a boat. She swam until she was exhausted, and was rescued by a minesweeper. According to Mrs Wilkins, Beatrice Crocker was also rescued from the water, but died from shock and exposure before she could be got ashore.
The mines had been laid in the Straits of Dover by German Submarine UC6, launched in June 1915. Enemy submarines were very active in the Straits of Dover and during January and February several ships fell victim to them. According to the Official Naval History, the Maloja was struck within half a mile of the entrance to Dover harbour, and the Canadian cargo ship Empress of Fort William was mined in going to her assistance. She also sank, though her crew were saved. The following day, two trawlers were also lost in locating the new field.
Maloja had been steaming with her lifeboats already swung out, in case of emergency, but when the ship was struck she developed a steep list to starboard which prevented many of them being launched. Further, flooding in the engine room prevented the engines being stopped, so she continued to steam. This also made it impossible to launch the lifeboats, and, additionally, rescue vessels were unable to get alongside. Many passengers could only jump overboard and try to swim clear, but many deaths, like Beatrice, were from hypothermia. Contemporary accounts say that the sea was quite high. 122 lives were lost, including several dockyard workers, and women and children.
Many of those lost were buried in one large grave in Dover but Beatrice was returned to Devonport. The Dartmouth Chronicle of 10th March carried the family's announcement of Beatrice's death and the account of her funeral in Devonport:
Crocker - Feb 27th on the ill fated SS Maloja, Beatrice, the darling wife of Frank Crocker (Gibraltar) age 26
Funeral of a Maloja victim
Amid manifestations of sorrow the funeral of the late Mrs Beatrice Crocker, of Alexandra Road, Ford, wife of Mr F T Crocker, (son of the late Pilot T Crocker, of Dartmouth) who lost her life through the sinking of the liner Maloja took place on Sunday afternoon at Weston Mill Cemetery, in the presence of a large congregation. Mrs Crocker, who was twenty six years of age, was on route to Gibraltar to join her husband when the disaster occurred. The coffin was borne by workmates of deceased's husband at Devonport, assisted by neighbours.
History of the Great War, Naval Operations, Volume III, by Sir Julian S Corbett, Longmans, London 1923, second edition 1940
SS Maloja page on Coastal Heritage website
Information Held on Database
|Surname:||Crocker nee Skedgel|
|Date of Death:||27 Feb 1916|
|Age at Death:||26|
|Cause of Death:||Shock and exposure|
|Action Resulting in Death:|
|Place of Death:||Off Dover|
|Place of Burial:||Weston Mill Cemetery, Plymouth|
|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?||Yes|
|Name of Private Memorial:||Obituary in Dartmouth Chronicle|
|On Another Memorial?||No|