HMS BULWARK, laid down 1899

HMS BULWARK, laid down 1899

HMS BULWARK. There have been seven warships with this name, and the Amphibious Assault Ship that  is the current HMS Bulwark is the flagship of the Royal Navy. The fifth HMS Bulwark was a Formidable class battleship laid down in 1899 in Devonport. She was commissioned in 1902 and served with the Mediterranean Fleet for five years. In 1907 she was withdrawn from service for a refit and on completion was transferred to the Home Fleet. In 1908 she was commanded by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, later to achieve lasting fame as Scott of the Antarctic. She had another refit in 1912 and re-entered service as part of the 5th Battle Squadron. She had a crew of 750 men.

Anne  Marie Rutter was my great grandfather William Rutter’s eldest child. She was born in 1859, shortly after he had moved to the baker’s shop in Stradbroke in Suffolk (this shop is still there and it is still a baker’s). He had been married a year earlier in Bloomsbury to Annie Hurry. Although Annie Hurry was a Londoner she came from East Anglian stock and her father came from Norwich; her husband William Rutter had been born in Suffolk.

At the age of 21 my great aunt Anne was helping her father in the shop but there was not enough work in Stradbroke for all his children and many moved away as they grew up. Anne followed her younger brother Alfred to the midlands and by the age of 31 she was living in Burton-Upon-Trent and helping out there in a confectioner’s shop. It was in that shop that she met the young man William Astley who was a native of Burton. When the couple were married in 1897 he was 25 and she was 38. In view of the wife’s age they only had one child, a son William, who was born in 1898. By then they had moved to Birmingham where Alfred was now the proprietor of a baker’s shop, and William and Anne Astley’s son was born in Edgbaston. Alfred Rutter gathered other members of his family around him in Birmingham including his half-brother Frank, but he retired to his birth-place home in Suffolk and ended his days there in 1950.

Young William Astley junior had only recently left school when the First World War broke out and he immediately signed  up to serve in the Royal Navy. He was assigned the rank of Boy, First Class and was sent to serve on the battleship HMS Bulwark. On the outbreak of war the 5th Battle Squadron had been given the task of guarding the Channel ports and in November 1914 she was lying at Sheerness on the mouth of the river Medway in north Kent.

Cordite was smokeless propellant, a development of gunpowder and was the explosive used in naval guns as well as in .303 rifle shells. In HMS Bulwark it was stored near a boiler-room bulkhead, and the heat led to a devastating explosion which destroyed the ship. Of the crew only fourteen were pulled from the water alive and two of these later died of their injuries. The bodies of most of the dead were never recovered and among these was  that of cousin William Astley. He was just 16 years old.

To lose your only son at so young an age would have been unimaginably awful for his parents but life went on. Anne died in Birmingham at the age of 82 in 1942, two years after the death of her husband.

William Astley 18 February 1898 – 26 November 1914.




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