‘All at Sea’ - remembering the war widows of the Battle of Jutland

How did lives change for families of the men who lost their lives at the Battle of Jutland? What support could 'war widows' draw on, and how did they cope financially and emotionally? Curator Jeremy Michell delves into the National Maritime Museum archives to learn more.

As well as honouring those men who lost their lives at sea, Remembrance Sunday is also an opportunity for us to commemorate the people left behind.

Over 8,600 men died at the battle of Jutland, fought between the Royal Navy and the German High Sea Fleet on 31 May 1916. In both countries, the lives of families across the social spectrum would change forever. 

That uncertainty is illustrated by the queues of naval wives and mothers that formed outside the British Admiralty offices, waiting desperately for news.

Lina, Lady Arbuthnot, was the wife of Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot. She hosted the wives of a number of captains in the days immediately after the battle as a way of providing support during a time of uncertainty and conflicting news about the battle.

What she didn't know at the time was that her own husband had died when his ship HMS Defence exploded during the main part of the battle.

A formal photographic portrait of Lina, Lady Arbuthnot in mourning dress (Battle of Jutland war widows)
A formal photographic portrait of Lina, Lady Arbuthnot in mourning dress (© National Maritime Museum)

Lina's diary shows that it was not until 3 June 1916 that she learned the truth. She then had the task of informing their 10-year old daughter. The entry reads:

‘Captain Hall soon confirmed [the] awful news and gave me no hope that Robert might be saved… Broke the terrible news to Rosalind about 9.30. She cried, seemed shocked but cannot realise.’

The Arbuthnots were a wealthy family, and they remained comfortable after Sir Robert’s death within a network of close family and friends. This was not the case for many other widows.

Chief Engine Room Artificer Albert Edward Jew was one of the 1026 sailors who died when the battlecruiser HMS Invincible sunk at Jutland.

He and his wife Isabella had been married for 12 years and had one daughter, Doris.

A formal portrait of Albert Jew with his wife Isabella and daughter Doris (Battle of Jutland war widows blog)
A formal portrait of Albert Jew with his wife Isabella and daughter Doris. He is wearing a good conduct medal awarded in 1913

In October 1917, just over a year after the battle, Isabella had remarried.

The fact that Isabella remarried raises questions about whether she was fortunate to find someone else, or whether there had been a financial imperative behind the match.

Whatever the reason, Albert's family continued to remember him. The National Maritime Museum has a number of delicately made items that he created while in the Navy, which were donated to the Museum by his daughter. These objects are a tangible reminder of both national and personal commemoration.

Turned brass candlesticks made by Albert Jew while in naval service (Battle of Jutland War Widows blog)
Turned brass candlesticks made by Albert Jew while in naval service (AAA0065, © National Maritime Museum)

The Museum also holds an invaluable record of the suffering that sailors’ families went through after the loss of the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary. 1,260 officers and men died when the ship exploded and sank during the battle.

Lady Beatty, the wife of Admiral Sir David Beatty who had commanded the Battlecruiser Squadron at Jutland, set up a fund to support the families. The register includes details of their circumstances, from the number of children to the illnesses affecting them, as well as how the fund supported them.

Builder’s model of the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary (1913) (Battle of Jutland war widows blog)
Builder’s model of the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary (1913) (SLR1408, © National Maritime Museum))

For instance, Hannah Burns applied to the fund six months after the battle, as she was unable to support her family financially. The fund sent her £2 (about £72 today) immediately, as well as toys and money for warm clothes for her four children.

Yet Hannah was suffering from tuberculosis; she died in March 1917.

The Fund arranged for the four children to be moved to an orphanage and paid the fees until September 1918. The youngest child, David, was adopted at four months old in April 1917.

A page from the Lady Beatty Jutland Fund ledger for HMS Queen Mary (Battle of Jutland war widows blog)
A page from the Lady Beatty Jutland Fund ledger for HMS Queen Mary (© National Maritime Museum)

Another example from the ledger is Mrs Guiseppa Coster, who was Maltese and still living in Malta. She was the widow of Albert, Ward Room Messman. They had three children: Thomas, Edgar and Carmania.

After Albert’s death, his brother John wrote to Lady Beatty explaining that his sister-in-law spoke, read and wrote very little English, and had to seek help with English correspondence. A letter from the Fund requesting particulars about the family had gone unanswered.

He asked that the Fund help with the education of the children, especially to learn English and attend an English-speaking school. The oldest boy, 14-year-old Thomas, wanted to be an apprentice at Malta Dockyard so he could join the Royal Navy with a trade.

The Fund even supported widows to emigrate. Ann Hatton, the widow of Edward who had been an Armourer on Queen Mary, was described by her vicar as ‘a very respectable woman and in every way deserving of help’.

She received 16 shillings per month after the battle, reduced to 10 shillings from June 1917. A letter in the ledger from Ann to Lady Beatty dated February 1920 gave thanks for the cheque of £10 to help towards the travel expenses to emigrate to Tasmania.

Ann departed with her baby daughter Joan on 24 March 1924 aboard the passenger liner Berrima (1913) for Melbourne, before travelling onwards to Hobart. Ann Hatton was still living in Tasmania in 1954.

The passenger liner Berrima underway on trials. This was the ship Ann Hatton took to Australia in 1920 (Battle of Jutland war widows blog)
The passenger liner Berrima underway on trials. This was the ship Ann Hatton took to Australia in 1920 (© National Maritime Museum)

The wide range of experiences from this one battle still have relevance today, especially as families research their ancestors who fought in the many wars Britain has been involved in.

Reflecting on the widows who had to continue to make a life, we can appreciate that they had to be resourceful by taking advantage of the informal and formal support available for them and their families. In some cases, their new life was in Britain. Others looked to start again abroad. But always, it seems, they hoped for a better future for them and their children.