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By Simon Batchelor on

Railway marine staff among first prisoners of war

Simon Batchelor, Assistant Curator of Collections, looks at the internment of railway marine staff at the outbreak of the First World War. 

When Britain entered a state of war on August 4 1914 there were still a large number of British citizens living and working in Germany, amongst them were the continental agents of several railway companies and the crews of ships owned by the railways.

In an attempt to prevent the Admiralty requisitioning them, the internment of British ships became a priority for German port authorities. Both the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway (L&Y) and the Great Central Railway (GCR) had regular services running to Hamburg and each had ships in the port at the end of July 1914.

Poster produced for the Great Central Railway to promote their route from Grimsby to The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark. © National Railway Museum / SSPL
Poster produced for the Great Central Railway to promote their route from Grimsby to The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark.
© National Railway Museum / SSPL

Despite German attempts to prevent them, two of the L&Y vessels managed to leave Hamburg in ballast before the 4th August deadline but the “Dearne” and the “Equity” had not finished discharging their cargoes and were therefore unable to join them.

The three Great Central ships, “City of Leeds”, “City of Bradford” and “Bury”, were according to Dow[1], “… seized by the Germans. Homeward bound, before the expiry of the British ultimatum, they were stopped by German patrol vessels at the mouth of the Elbe and ordered to return to Hamburg.”

Initially it appears that the crews were interned aboard their vessels and the captains of the ships were allowed ashore to purchase supplies but as the mood of the German populace changed they were confined with their crews. Both the GCR and the L&Y had agencies in Hamburg and subsequently supplies were purchased through them. The crews were visited by the American Consul and through his intervention the three female stewards serving on the GCR ships were repatriated, arriving back in Grimsby on 24th September.[2]

On 9th September German authorities transferred approximately forty British “suspects” to Ruhleben civilian detention camp, a racecourse at Spandau, a further draught of around forty, described as the crews of three small ships, were transferred on 6th October.[3] This latter group may have been the crews of the GCR vessels as the stewardesses had reported they were still aboard their own ships when they were released.

The ships were eventually taken over by the Imperial German Navy. “City of Leeds” became a minelayer and depot ship, it was returned to the GCR after the war.[4] “City of Bradford” was renamed “Donau” and became a floating workshop and then a mother ship for coastal forces, it was returned to the GCR after the war[5]. “Bury” became an accommodation ship for naval pilots and was returned to the GCR after the war[6]. “Equity” shipped war supplies from Finland to Germany before being returned to the L&Y at the end of the war[7]. “Dearne” was sunk in German service.[8]

National Railway Museum SS Dearne
SS Dearne at Holyhead docks 1911
© National Railway Museum / SSPL

The majority of the crews remained at Ruhleben until the end of the war but a number were released on compassionate grounds. Unfortunately there were also fatalities; these affected the crew of “Bury” the most as they lost both of their senior officers; Master Mariner E. Russell (Captain) and W. Jackson (Chief Engineer).

To learn more about the Ruhbelin Internment Camp and the men held there the following websites will be of use.

I hope to put up further posts about the railway marine service in the near future.

[1] Dow. G., 1965. “Great Central” Volume 3, p280.

[2] “G.C.R. Steamers interned at Hamburg” in Great Central Railway Journal, November 1914, pp128-129.

2 comments on “Railway marine staff among first prisoners of war

  1. There was a very very senior railway employee interned, as well …
    J.A. F. Aspinall …
    He, though aged 63, was temporarily interned, then sent to Munsterlager on 25th August.
    He remained there until 21st Sept 1914 – & reached Folkestone on 24th Sept, via Hannover, Den Hague & Vlissingen

  2. s.s.Dearne at Holyhead 1911 photo. Would it be possible to E-Mail me the image please.

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