The last voyage of Sidney Wodehouse Upcher

PUBLISHED: 06:18 12 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:11 14 July 2017

Sub-lieutenant Sidney Upcher

Sub-lieutenant Sidney Upcher


One hundred years ago, Vanessa Whinney’s great-uncle lost his life in one of the worst, but least-known, naval disasters of the First World War. This is the story of Sidney Wodehouse Upcher, a Norfolk sailor with a brilliant future, cruelly snuffed out.

HMS Vanguard: The mighty dreadnought battleship was ripped apart by a series of massive explosions which killed all but two of the 845 crew.HMS Vanguard: The mighty dreadnought battleship was ripped apart by a series of massive explosions which killed all but two of the 845 crew.

I’m looking at a black and white photograph of a handsome, smiling young man. He stands in his dress uniform, holding his cocked hat under his arm, his left hand resting on a ceremonial sword, evidently delighted to be wearing this smart uniform with its braided epaulettes.

He is the great uncle I never knew and wish I had.

Sidney was a naval officer who, in the early years of the 20th century, served on some of the Royal Navy’s most iconic battleships, and he was evidently very good at his job. I have a copy of his service record, and without fail his commanders praise him as ‘smart, reliable... intelligent and promising’, ‘has much initiative, quick in apprehension and execution. An ideal officer of the watch and has the best division in the ship, universally liked and respected’. He was evidently heading for a stellar career.

Tragically this was not to be. On July 9 1917, Sidney was serving on HMS Vanguard, a Royal Navy dreadnought battleship, which was moored at Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands, the base for the British Grand Fleet.

The memorial to Sidney in Hingham Church.The memorial to Sidney in Hingham Church.

Shortly before midnight, Vanguard suffered a series of munitions explosions. She sank almost instantly, with the loss of 843 of the 845 men on board.

Sidney was of course one of millions of bright and brilliant young men who died in the First World War. He had survived the Battle of Jutland only to die in home waters. The incident was an accident rather than the result of enemy action; no succour there for his grieving family.

Sidney, born in November 1889, was the fourth child and second son of the Rev Canon Arthur Upcher and his wife Margaret. Canon Upcher was the rector of Hingham for 37 years, from 1887 to 1924.

The name ‘Upcher’ is of course associated with Sheringham Hall, the estate of which is now run by the National Trust. Tom Upcher, the last Upcher to live at the hall, was son of Sir Henry Edward Sparke Upcher. He was a distant cousin of Sydney.

Sidney as a baby in Hingham with Canon Upcher and his wife Margaret, and their other children Alice, Sybil and Cecil.Sidney as a baby in Hingham with Canon Upcher and his wife Margaret, and their other children Alice, Sybil and Cecil.

His middle name, ‘Wodehouse’, comes from his grandmother Isabella Jane Wodehouse, a member of another famous Norfolk family.

Arthur and Margaret’s first three children were born at Barnham Broom, Canon Upcher’s previous living, but Sidney was the first of the subsequent three to be born at Hingham. The siblings were close and wrote to each other throughout their lives.

An early photo of Sidney shows him, appropriately, in a sailor’s suit – though this was not unusual for a child of the times (his older brother Cecil shows up in similar garb as a toddler). All the pictures show him smartly dressed as a young adult in uniform, and only once, on leave in December 1916, six months before he died, is he seen in mufti, wearing plus fours, relaxing at home with his family – he is greeting a ‘visitor’ to the rectory, in reality his brother Cecil, and the family beyond are all giggling...

The Upcher offspring evidently had an idyllic childhood, with extensive rectory gardens at Hingham to play in and local lakes to explore, at Scoulton and Sea Mere. Boating must have been a favourite pastime, as his personal photo album for the years 1904-1906 reveals, with family and friends crammed into rowing boats. He was a creative photographer and some of those he took on his ships show considerable talent.

He attended Aldenham school in Hertfordshire, which was founded in 1597, one of the oldest schools in the world. It had an excellent reputation for academics and sport, became a public school in the 1890s, and, as an Anglican establishment, would have been an appropriate choice for the son of a clergyman.

We know from his school records that he was at the Navigation School at Portsmouth, and they also mention service on a Torpedo-Boat Destroyer for China Station. HMS Highflier (a training ship), features in his photo album.

His service log details his career as a naval officer from September 1 1905, when he served on HMS battleship Hindustan. He was there for nearly four years until August 19 1909. He took many pictures of this ship, including details of Hindustan’s propellers and prow while it was in dry dock in 1906. He photographed other ships in the fleet and fellow service men, including the ‘coaling group’, who were evidently having a well-earned breather in the fresh air. The ship took him to Tetuan (Morocco), Lagos, Gibraltar and Funchal (Madeira).

He served on six other ships before being transferred to Vanguard in 1914. He was on HMS Superb in 1911 when it took part in the Coronation Fleet Review at Spithead on June 1911 and he kept a detailed plan of the placement of all the ships, including his, of course. But his war was spent on Vanguard and he saw action at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. The ship was refitted in Rosyth in December 2016.

On July 9 1917, Vanguard was anchored along with the rest of the fleet in Scapa Flow and - without any warning - was rocked by a series of huge explosions which sank the ship immediately. The reason for the explosion was inconclusive, but likely to have been out-of-date cordite which overheated.

The tragically long list of men lost on the Vanguard is evidence of the immense manpower required to service a warship in 1917. The job of each one is listed, for instance there were 206 stokers out of over 800 men on board. Stokers did not just shovel coal, they were also knowledgeable about the engineering of the ship, but it was a hard, hot job below deck, with no doubt high levels of dust, dirt and oil fumes to inhale.

When coaling the ship (loading coal on board), not just stokers were needed, but every available man on the ship was pressed to help, and at the end the whole ship had to be hosed down to clean it. Such a large crew was essential to service those massive boilers and steam-driven turbines and of course the weaponry.

The great weight of all this would have contributed to Vanguard’s swift sinking. It was armour-plated on deck and on all sides and of course fitted with massive guns of various descriptions. Sadly, all this defence from external attack was no protection from an explosion within.

At Lyness on Orkney there is a dedicated graveyard for the remains of the officers who were recovered, and a memorial cross of Celtic-style design – very different from the memorials by Lutyens which became standard for First World War cemeteries. Sidney, sadly, has no land grave but the wreck is an official designated war grave. There is a touching memorial to him in Hingham church, the town where he was born, placed there by his parents.

His older brother Cecil served in the Royal Norfolk Regiment during that war, and his letters home vividly describe life on the front, including sketches of his billets and dugouts, some of which have been translated into dioramas in the Castle Museum.

Cecil survived the war and devoted his architectural skills to designing housing for wounded veterans. His eldest sister, Alice, was my grandmother. Sidney’s short life of service - he died aged just 27 - is yet another reminder of the sacrifice of the Great War.

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