Imagine a pile of clothing on a sea shore. A middle-aged man enters the water and swims out to sea until he disappears. Alternatively, the same man is in a small boat being rowed from one ship to another and in poor visibility is somehow capsizes and occupants are presumed drowned. My grandfather, Will Jenner, however believed this man had faked suicide and gone abroad…
These are two of the three family stories that attempt to explain the century-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of Thomas Henry Flight, father of my grandmother, Charlotte Amy Flight. Will (my grandfather) knew him well. They were both from Gillingham in Kent and held the same rank of Chief Engine Room Artificer in the Royal Navy.
Tom joined the Royal Navy in July 1887 at the age of twenty-two. His service certificate describes his previous occupation as that of a boilermaker. He had almost certainly learned his trade at Chatham Dockyard as an apprentice in this branch of engineering, thereby enabling him to join the Engine room Artificer branch of the Navy. He began as an Acting Engine Room Artificer 4th class, a Petty Officer.
Tom progressed steadily through the ranks of the Engine Room Artificers branch with a seemingly unblemished record and maintained ‘Very Good’ for character throughout his career. He was shore-based at Chatham barracks with little time at sea until spending three years with the Pacific Fleet, possibly based at Esquimalt, British Columbia, Canada. Thereafter, he was back at Chatham from 1891-95.
Tom was a talented musician. Not only could he play several instruments but he composed music for them, some of which was published. He opened a music shop with his wife during a lengthy time ashore at Chatham. He wrote and distributed ‘Flight’s Banjo Magazine’. A surviving front cover advertises a music competition called ‘The American Breakdown for banjo with accompaniment for 2nd banjo and pianoforte.’ The British Library Archives reveal that Tom patented ‘An improvement in or relating to Banjos and other like Instruments’ in 1893. The patent describes dished circular metal plate almost as large as the banjo’s soundbox itself, that is positioned just under the playing surface inside the soundbox and bolted to the rear panel by a metal bracket, the whole thing able to vibrate.
In 1897, Tom was posted to Ascension Island, which was categorised by the navy as a warship; therefore counting as sea service for naval personnel. We know that he also visited the island of St Helena as, not only do we have a photo of the only town on the island, but also one of a member of the Zulu royal family who had been exiled to the St Helena by the British following the 1879 Zulu War.
Tom enjoyed life on Ascension, especially when he was invited by senior officers to organise musical concerts to maintain morale among the naval personnel and civilians alike. His wife and growing family joined him. My future grandmother, Charlotte Ada (always known as Ada) was the eldest child and in her early teens. She looked after the younger children when her mother took to drink and was apt to cause embarrassment in public. They all returned to England in 1899.
From about 1899 my grandfather, William JENNER boarded with the Flight family. There was turmoil in the household. Ada pleaded with Will to marry her and take her away from her family. He finally agreed, the wedding taking place in 1900 when Ada was 15 and my grandfather 30 though the marriage certificate increases Ada’s age to 18 and reduces my grandfather’s to 27!
Late in 1901 Tom was posted to HMS Terpsichore, a 2nd class cruiser which was stationed at Simons Bay, South Africa, during the latter part of the 2nd South African (Boer) War, its main task being to transport British troops and supplies.
Once on shore in Chatham in 1904 Tom published a musical march under the title of ‘Terpsichorean Kaffir March – Banjo Solo with Accompaniments for 2nd Banjo and Pianoforte’. The publishers were F Pitman Hart & Co Ltd (1905). By the following year, Tom had the letters LCOB and MIUM, London after his name when the marriage of his second daughter was reported in the Daily Mail. I do not know what these letters stand for, but would like to find out!
Tom requested a posting back to Ascension Island, which was grante, but he was there only a few months before being posted home to Chatham, only to join HMS Lancaster, an armoured cruiser for 3 years in the Mediterranean. His naval service certificate shows that he left the Lancaster in Malta in January 1908 but there is no decipherable note of what became of him thereafter. He would have been eligible for a naval pension from July 1909.
Fast forward more than a century, to November 2010
For no apparent reason my thoughts focused for the umpteenth time on what had really happened to my great grandfather. I decided to purchase a 4-week subscription to Ancestry.co.au, which would give me more access to UK as well as Australian shipping and other records, which I required for several investigations. I popped in Tom’s name and nothing came up, as I expected. However, I turned to Electoral Rolls for the year 1910 and there was his full name, with his occupation stated as ‘boilermaker’ and an address at 150 Bennett Street in Perth, Western Australia, as well as an Annie Flight, stated as his wife. There is a motel at this address today. However, further late night investigations revealed a third wife in a 1911 marriage to Lucy Grey Wearmouth. ‘Tom’ became ‘Harry’ and remained so until his original name was restored for his funeral, nearly 50 years later. I have been unable to find a marriage or death for Annie.
I then ‘Googled’ the ‘West Australia Genealogy Society’, know as ‘WAGS’ and sent them an email outlining my quest. I had a prompt reply and several days later they passed on some interesting information that confirmed what I had discovered in the meantime. Looking at Karrakatta Cemetery records I entered Tom’s full name and up came a 1960 entry for his funeral. He had lived to the age of 95 which tallied with his birth year in England. There were several tributes to this ‘gentleman’.
I now decided to look at past issues of the West Australian newspaper for which there is a search facility online. Harry’s name appears several times advertising his music shop, ‘Wearmouth & Co’, situated at 188 Albany Highway, Victoria Park. He not only sold musical instruments but taught how to play them. He became a prominent musician in Perth and founded ‘The Perth Banjo Bank’. Further research revealed that Harry and Lucy had two children, Shirley and Harry, born in 1917 and 1926 respectively.
A ‘little Ross’, Shirley’s son had been mentioned at Harry’s funeral, who, as an adult had a mention in the West Australian for a cricket match in the 1969/70 season with a record partnership in Grade 4, playing for the Melville Cricket Club. I managed to contact this club in an attempt to trace Ross. The secretary was very friendly and undertook to contact her predecessor who knew a great deal about the club history. Meanwhile I had a look on the social networking website Facebook and there was Ross! I sent him a message and received an almost immediate reply. He told me that his initial reaction had been ‘disbelief and noplussed’ It was known that Harry had been chief engineer in the Royal Navy and Harry told Ross as a young boy that he had been a pioneer on Royal Navy steamships. I had already discovered from Chatham Dockyard Museum that HMS Monarch had just completed an extensive 7-year refit in 1897 with sails and rigging being removed and the vessel being generally modernised. Tom/Harry was on board for its first voyage after the refit, bound for South Africa, St Helena and Ascension Island as mentioned earlier.
I look forward to further contact with Ross and bringing together the two halves of my great grandfather and Ross grandfathers’ long life.
There are still questions to be answered…
- How did Tom travel to Western Australia? Did he work his passage?
- Did he ever know what happened to his children of his first wife? How could he have left them?
- Did he receive his naval pension?
- Who exactly was Annie Flight, his 2nd wife)?
- Eldest child, my grandmother, died in an air raid in 1941
- Eldest son stayed in Kent, worked in a paper mill, one granddaughter and family emigrated to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
- Another daughter and her husband went to Bangalore, India about 1912. Left about 1947 to retire to the UK, but instead settled in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), finally South Africa.
- Youngest son, born on Ascension Island, joined the Royal Navy under-age, died with 800 shipmates when HMS Vanguard blew up at Scapa Flow in 1917.