400 lives lost due to faulty cordite in ship disaster

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AN open day at South Shields Library tomorrow will launch commemorative events, locally, to mark next year’s centenary of the commencement of the First World War.

The programme includes talks, readings of poems and stories, displays on Victoria Cross holders such as Shields man Henry Robson and historical interpretation group, Time Bandits.

We are already becoming familiar in Cookson Country with the remarkable, often poignant stories of local men which the impending centenary is bringing to light.

One to reach me recently has been that of Danny Bigley, as told by his great-nephew, Robert Edwards.

Danny’s name appears on the war memorial at Palmer Hospital in Jarrow, where the family lived in Buddle Street.

He enlisted in the Tynemouth Royal Garrison Artillery Company as a gunner in May 1914, aged 22.

After barely a year, however, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) – possibly because his older brother Robert, who was in the same regiment, had been posted missing, presumed killed.

I hope to be able to tell you Robert’s story another day.

Either way, by the autumn of 1915, Danny had been promoted able seaman, and had joined the Warrior-class armoured cruiser HMS Natal.

The decision was to cost him his life.

On December 31, 1915, as the ship lay moored in the Cromarty Firth, the crew were enjoying a New Year’s Eve party when there was an explosion in the ship’s magazine.

There were suggestions that a German submarine had covertly entered the harbour and attacked the vessel, but the conclusion of an inquiry – subsequently supported by evidence found by divers – was that the blast had been caused by faulty cordite, which should have been removed from the ship months before.

The ship sank with the loss of more than 400 lives, Danny among them.

l Tomorrow’s events start at 10am at the library. Among those taking part are the Customs House, the Durham Light Infantry, the North East War memorials project, Northumberland and Durham Family History Society, Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives and the Durham Western Front Association.

You will also be able to find out about your Great War relatives through the James Hoy Archive, which contains information, records and images of 5,000 men from South Tyneside who served.

Among the speakers will be Dr Dan Jackson, visiting Fellow at Northumbria University, on Understanding The Rush To Join-Up: The Military Traditions of North-East England.

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