The Unsinkable Stoker

RMS Olympic in New York
Bain News Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For many sailing and in particular cruising are enjoyable pastimes, leisurely time spent in remote places, the nature, tranquility, new things to see and do almost every day. For others it’s a different story. and this story concerns Arthur John Priest.

Born in Southampton 31/8/1887 into a working class  family, one of twelve siblings, Arthur was never destined to become a capt or officer, instead signing up to become a Stoker/firemen otherwise known as the black gang because of their work shovelling coal.

Following his training, in 1911 Arthur was taken on the ocean liner RMS Olympic, back breaking work in 50 degree heat to produce the steam to power the massive turbines which gave the vessel its legendary speed. During one voyage the Capt. decided to show off to a Royal Navy vessel HMS Hawk by cutting them up and playing chicken, unfortunately the capt had misjudged the speed of the Hawk which  crashed into the side of the Olympic with a shattering bang, temporary repairs were made and the ship limped into port where Shorade buffed out the dent.

In 1912 Arthur got a plum job aboard another ocean liner the Olympic’s sister ship, slightly larger than the Olympic and a bit swifter she was known as the unsinkable or to give her full name, White Star line RMS Titanic.

Now you might think that this was an unlucky omen but at least Arthur knew at least one person on board, his old friend the Captain of his last ship the Olympic, Edward Smith was given the brand new Titanic to command. After brief stops in  France and Ireland, consuming 35 tons of coal per hour in its 159 boilers shovelled by 250 stokers, this pride of the White Star line headed out into the Atlantic ocean.

Shortly before midnight, during his rest break in his dormitory in the bowels of the ship, far far below the first class cabins, luxury dining rooms and fancy ballrooms, Arthur was woken by another sickening thud.

Experience told him immediately that his old friend Capt Smith had probably fucked things up again, the ship began to list almost immediately and being far below the waterline Arthur could tell things weren’t looking good, so he began to climb, and climb, and climb.

Eventually coming out on deck Arthur could see all the lifeboats had been launched, many only half filled notwithstanding the ship had too few for the numbers of passengers and crew on board, the ship began to list even more and i would imagine most on board knew what was about to happen. Arthur certainly did, bid his old friend Capt Smith Adieu and leapt over the side to his fate, which was almost certain death. The water was -2 degrees and anyone in the water would be unconscious in a few minutes and probably dead in 20.

Arthurs ‘luck’ hadn’t run out though, this was not his day to go to Davey Jones locker and a sharp eyed passenger in one of the lifeboats spotted him, the two crewmen rowed to him and he was brought aboard, freezing, with an injured leg he lived to sink another day, and sink he did.

Little is known about Arthurs sailing exploits between the Titanic and the outbreak of war in 1914, but it’s safe to assume Arthur hadn’t abandoned the sea life although he was now married and had started a family.

In 1915 the RMS Alcantara was acquisitioned by the admiralty and converted to an armed merchant cruiser performing coastal patrols and protecting other merchant shipping in the Atlantic and North sea, Arthur was on board shovelling coal for the King. She was due to return to port on the 1st March 2016 but on the 29th February encountered the German merchant raider Grieff disguised as a Norwegian vessel.

The Capt of the Alcantara ordered to Grieff to halt which it did, as a cutter was lowered from the Alcantara to go aboard, at 2000 yards, the Grief sped up and opened fire hitting the Alcantara bridge and damaging her steering, by this time several other British vessels were steaming towards them. By 0940 the Grief was severely damaged and life boats were launched, sadly for Arthur his ship wasn’t faring much better having been holed by a torpedo below the waterline, the engine room and bunkers flooding Arthur knew exactly what to do.

230 sailors perished aboard the Grief and 68 from the Alcantara but not Arthur.

The next ship in this story,HMHS Britannica coincidentally also built by Harland and Wolf in Belfast and another former white star line acquisitioned by the admiralty , having learnt lessons from the sinking of the pride of their fleet the Titanic was sent to serve in the warmer, iceberg free waters of the Mediterranean as a hospital ship treating the injured from the Dardanelles campaign. It’s not known whether Arthur was in the boiler room or his bunk this time but on the morning of the 21st November 1916 Arthur heard the familiar sound of an impending swim, the ship had hit a German mine, sinking 50 minutes later, 1035 of the 1065 on board were saved including our hero.

It was the largest merchant ship ever to be sunk in  war, its wreck discovered by Jacques Cousteau in 1975.

Arthur proved beyond all doubt he was not a quitter, in March 1917 he was aboard another converted white star line ship HMHS Asturias, carrying 1000 wounded from France to Devon the Asturias when that old familiar sound alerted Arthur, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, the engine rooms flooding the Capt gave the order to stop, however either the controls were broken, there was no communication to the engine room, or most likely, Arthur had warned his mates what was likely to happen and they had all fucked off.

Realising the ship was still under way the capt ordered the medical staff, a few crew and walking wounded into the life rafts, the ship managed to beach in Salcombe a few hours later and the rest of the wounded and crew made it to shore, although too badly damaged to return to service until after the war.

Arthur must have been grateful that his next ship was not one of the ill fated white star , Belfast built ships that had previously brought him such bad luck, he had joined the crew of the SS Donegal alongside his old comrade Archie Jewel who had also had bad experiences with white star being a fellow survivor of the Titanic. The SS Donegal was built as a ferry operating between Heysham and Belfast, but like the others was needed for the war effort so was converted to an ambulance to ferry the injured from France to Blighty.

Unmarked as a hospital ship due the Bosch targeting them, on the morning of the 17th April 1917 Donegal was steaming from Le Havre to Southampton 19 miles south of the Dean light vessel when Arthur heard an uncomfortably familiar sound, the ship had been torpedoed by a German submarine. 580 wounded soldiers and 58 crew survived being picked up by a Navy escort, around 40 lives were lost, but once again not Arthur.

In 1917 Arthur was awarded the mercantile marine ribbon for his war service, the Donegal was his final ship and he left the merchant marine claiming no-one wanted to sail with him any longer. Despite his phenomenal record of beating the odds, Arthur was not destined for a long life. He died at home from pneumonia in 1937 aged 49 and is buried in his home town of Southampton.

© Wycombewanderer 2022