Photograph albums of Lieutenant Commander Charles Douglas Simmons RNR DSO (1881-1918)

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This Item of the Month is some photograph albums showing life at sea in the merchant service in the eve of the First World War

I have selected the photograph albums numbered JOD/186/2 and JOD/186/3 in the Archive Catalogue.

As the centennial commemoration of the events of the First World War approaches, the Manuscripts team has been evaluating our holdings relating to this conflict. The anticipated public interest in the First World War during the coming months will place demands on our provision of access to relevant resources in the Caird Library. More significantly, in partnership with other departments at the NMM, we hope to showcase some material that has come into the collection in recent years and not been catalogued in detail.

Some personal collections feel particularly poignant because they relate to individuals who were killed on active service. One example is JOD/186, consisting of the journal and photograph albums of Charles Douglas Simmons.  Simmons was drowned whilst serving in the Royal Naval Reserve just a few weeks before the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in November 1918.  He was 37. He is remembered on the Naval Memorial at Chatham, a memorial in the High Street at Penge in the London borough of Bromley, and in the roll of honour for cadets from the training ship HMS Worcester (1860).

Simmons began his photo album (JOD/186/2) in 1906, but the arrangement of images becomes muddled and he left few captions, suggesting that it may have been completed after his death.  Album JOD/186/3 mysteriously has the name of his father-in-law A.W. Pottinger on the cover.  Despite their modest size and sometimes poor quality, the photographs document a broad range of experiences at sea and portray a multitude of people who featured in Simmons’s life.  After being drawn to these photographs, I was quickly absorbed by the detective work required to place them in an accurate narrative.  This became much easier with access to details of Simmons’s career in Admiralty and Board of Trade records (see below).  

Simmons was born at Dover in 1881 and was a cadet on HMS Worcester on the River Thames at Greenhithe in 1896-98.  At the end of this training, he gained second place in the annual King’s Gold Medal competition and was one of the batch of leavers to be appointed by the Admiralty as a midshipman in the RNR.  He then went to sea as an apprentice on sailing and steam vessels owned by the New Zealand Shipping Co Ltd and worked towards his qualification as a master in the Merchant Navy.  

Simmons also had episodes of training as an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve.  JOD/186/1 is the handwritten journal he made as a sub lieutenant on the battleship HMS Goliath (1898) in the Channel Fleet between September 1906 and August 1907.  At the start of this journal he states that his endeavour is to describe everyday life in the British navy from his own point of view, and this he does with references to previous experiences in the merchant service. 

The albums have a good number of images from the period 1910-11 when Simmons was second mate on the Atlantic Transport Line passenger/cargo liner Minnewaska (1909).  Photographs of deck scenes with passengers and liners alongside piers at New York harbour indicate that he witnessed some of the glamour of the North Atlantic route.  In contrast, Simmons was then engaged as first mate on the refrigerated cargo vessels Brodstone (1896), Brodmore (1890) and Brodmount (1899), belonging to the recently formed Blue Star Line and mostly employed in the River Plate frozen meat trade.

From March 1915 onwards Simmons found himself at sea as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, first on the armed merchant cruiser HMS Ophir (1891) as part of the Ninth Cruiser Squadron.  This period of two years consisted of routine patrols around the islands off Portugal and northwest Africa, punctuated by coaling visits to Funchal in Madeira.  The crew was engaged in boarding the ships of neutral nations, examining cargoes and claiming as prizes any vessels that were deemed to be part of the German war effort.  This complimented the naval blockade undertaken by British warships in the busier approaches to European ports between Scotland and Iceland, in the English Channel and the North Sea.

In 1917 the entry of the USA into the conflict and the threat posed by German submarine warfare resulted in armed merchant cruisers and RNR personnel being transferred to convoy escort duties.  In June 1917 Simmons became first lieutenant on HMS Moldavia (1903).  He was on this vessel when she formed part of convoy HC1 from Halifax in Nova Scotia and was torpedoed in the English Channel off Beachy Head on 23 May 1918.  It is believed Simmons was responsible for supervising the lowering of boats prior to the ship sinking.  The casualties were limited to 56 American soldiers who had been caught in the immediate vicinity of the explosion.

On 6 October 1918 disaster struck when the troopship HMS Otranto (1909) dragged her anchor and went ashore on the island of Islay. This followed a collision with HMS Kashmir (1915) in poor visibility as the convoy HX50 approached the west coast of Scotland.  By this time, Simmons had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander and already been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in recognition of his service on vessels employed on patrol and escort duties. Simmons was one of 431 lives lost, most of them American soldiers.

To view Simmons’s RNR service record online, see the reference ADM 340/124/36 in The National Archives catalogue: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/

Documents relating to Simmons’s qualification as Second Mate can be found filed under certificate number 036649 in Board of Trade Masters and Mate’s certificates at the NMM, see the UK and Ireland, Masters and Mates Certificates, 1850-1927 resource on the Ancestry website: http://www.ancestry.co.uk/

Details from the log books of HMS Ophir in the period 1915-17 from the ADM 53 series at The National Archives can be found on the naval-history.net website: http://www.naval-history.net/

Whilst in some ways incidental and anecdotal, these records and many others like them serve to give a flavour of the reality of working life for so many of our sea going ancestors in this period, and how it was affected by the coming of war.

Graham, Archives Assistant

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