History 4: The Last Crew of the A7
Lt. Gilbert Molesworth Welman
The Commanding Officer of the A7 was Gilbert Welman, known as ‘Gibby’ to his family. Born on 16 September 1888 in Newquay as the eldest of eight children, Welman joined the Navy at the end of 1903 and became one of the last cadets to train in the wooden warship Britannia. Welman was made a midshipman by February 1905 and an acting Sub-Lieutenant in April 1908. That year he applied to join the Submarine Service and was accepted. His service record notes that Welman was ‘a good practical officer; a good hardworking and zealous officer’. Submarine training started in January 1910 with a promotion to Lieutenant in December that year. Welman was assigned to HMS Forth in July 1913 and was made commander of A7 on 13th November 1913. Welman (26) was described by his sister as a great charmer, lively, amusing, talkative and a favourite with everyone; he had recently became engaged to Miss Enid Russell Brown and they were soon to be married.
Sub. Lt. Robert Herman Grant Morrison
Sub Lieutenant Robert Morrison was the second captain, 1st Lieutenant and executive officer on A7. Morrison was the second son of Lt. Col. R.H. Morrison and his wife Louise of Johnstown House, Cabinteely, Dublin, born on 11th May 1891. Morrison joined the Navy on 15th May 1904 and was made acting Sub-Lieutenant in May 1912, but a failed navigation certificate in January 1912 delayed promotion for four months. Morrison also failed Engine Room training in June 1913 and was noted on record that he was not capable of performing duties as an Junior Engineering Officer, but no further training was necessary if he was to be sent to submarines. A transfer to Dolphin in June 1913 started his submarine training with a move to Forth and the depot ship Onyx in Devonport on 4th December 1913.
Morrison (23) was a keen rugby player and was due to play as full back for the Devonport United Services in a match the day after the A7 was lost. Morrison’s father wrote an impassioned letter to the press about the dangers of this ‘worn out class of submarines’ which included a story his son had told him about A7 being stuck on the seabed for an hour before Christmas, a story denied in parliament by Churchill. There is a memorial in the Kill o’ the Grange Church in Dublin to Morrison and his brother, Acting Major Richard Fielding Morrison, lost in action in Belgium in 1918.
Small card printed in 1914 as a memorial to the crew lost in the disaster
P. O. John Francis Crowley (ON 210582)
The coxswain and chief non-commissioned officer on board A7 was Petty Officer John Crowley. The coxswain held the most responsible job on board as he was tasked with controlling the submarine at sea.
Crowley was born on 8th April 1884 in Ballyheigue, County Kerry, in Ireland, joining the Navy in April 1902. In December 1906 he was transferred to Forth for submarine service where he stayed until June 1911 when he moved between other vessels and establishments including Vivid, Crescent, Flora, Tamar, Defence and Alacrity. In June 1913 he was stationed at the Devonport training establishment Impregnable and from there he moved back to Forth on 14th January 1914. The 29 year old Crowley joined Forth just two days before the A7 was lost and it was only his second time on board the boat.
E.R.A. 1st Class Richard Venning (ON 269321)
Engine Room Artificer Richard Venning was one of the replacement crew on board on the day A7 was lost. Born 16 April 1870 in Devonport, Venning was an engine smith before joining the navy on 21st March 1898. Venning joined Forth and the submarine service in July 1913 after fifteen years in surface ships including Royal Oak and the Empress of India. Venning was a crewman assigned to the smithy aboard the Onyx but joined the crew of the A7 as illness cover for another seaman. The 45 year old Venning lived with his parents in Trelawney Terrace, Torpoint, along with his wife and four children aged between 4 and 17.
E.R.A. 2nd Class Robert William Nagle (ON 270745)
Born in March 1879 in New South Wales, Australia, Robert Nagle came to England with his parents at the age of 13. Nagle was apprenticed in the engineering department at Lairds in Birkenhead as an engine fitter, and after completing his apprenticeship he joined the Navy in August 1902. After spending time in surface ships including the Royal Oak and Cornwall he volunteered for submarine service in 1911, joining Forth from Vivid on 17 June.
The 35 year old Nagle lived with his wife in Onslow Terrace, Plymouth
Acting Ldg. Stoker John Northam (ON 304857)
John Northam was born on 22nd January 1882 in Stonehouse, Plymouth. Joining the Navy in August 1903 he served in surface ships until transferred to Forth in October 1910, staying there for 10 months. By August 1912 Northam was on the Cormorant before transferring back to Forth on 17th September 1913.
Northam (32) lived in Stonehouse and was married with two children, one 3 years old and the other 8 months. In an interview with the press, John Northam’s widow confirmed the statement made by Morrison’s father that the A7 had been stuck on the seabed for an hour one day before Christmas.
Acting Ldg. Stoker Lancelot Wagstaff (ON K13882 [SS107841, K13856])
The fabulously named Lancelot Wagstaff was born in Manchester on 24th October 1889 and was employed as a carter on leaving school. Wagstaff joined the Navy as a Stoker 2nd Class at Vivid II (Devonport) on a short service engagement on 31st July 1908. Transferred to submarines in January 1911, Wagstaff joined Forth in Devonport and was rated Acting Leading Stoker on 15th October 1913.
Wagstaff (25) was married to Florence Langdon, living in James St., Plymouth. They had one child aged 14 months and at the time he was lost she was pregnant with her second. Reports in the press noted that Wagstaff was a fair boxer known as the ‘Lancashire Lad’ and only a fortnight before had taken on ‘Black Bob’ of Stonehouse. The press interviewed his widow who said that Wagstaff had joined the submarine service for the better rate of pay. Florence also mentioned that the A7 had previously been stuck on the seabed; ‘Some time before Christmas when the submarine was exercising in Cawsand Bay the vessel took a dive and could not be brought to the surface for over an hour owing to a failure of the apparatus’, adding ‘On another occasion he was ‘gasolined’ and Wagstaff was brought home in a cab in an unconscious condition’ .
AB Ernest Frederick Dyer (ON 239725)
Able Seaman Earnest Dyer was born in Bedford on 26th June 1891 joining the Navy at the Chatham Division in June 1909, initially to serve in surface ships. Transferring to submarine depot ships Thames in April 1912 and Bonaventure in October 1912, Dyer was moved to Cormorant in November 1912 before going back to Bonaventure in September 1913. By 22nd October 1913 he was allocated to Forth in Devonport. Single and aged 23 his address was given as Ware in Hertfordshire.
AB Frank Charles Harris (ON 234433)
Able Seaman Charles Harris was from Leeds; born in December 1888 he joined the Navy at the age of 18. Harris was in surface ships until January 1911 transferring to the submarine depot ship Forth for seven months, then to Egmont and Eclipse before returning to Forth on 5th November 1914. Harris lodged with a Mrs. Atkins of Coombe St. in Exeter, who is quoted as saying, ‘should the bodies of the crew be recovered, it is Mrs. Atkins’ intention to have her adopted son buried in Exeter’.
AB Frederick Jewell (ON 238164)
Able Seaman Frederick ‘Nat’ Jewell was another of the crew on Friday 16th who was not a ‘regular’ as on that day he had taken the place of his friend Leonard Lutley. Jewell was born in Clovelly, North Devon, on 10th December 1890, joined Impregnable as a Boy, 2nd Class, in February 1907 having previously been a fisherman. On 2nd February 1912 Jewell transferred to Forth from Blake. The 24 year old Nat Jewell was single.
AB Charles Edward James Russell (ON 233337)
Able Seaman Charles Russell was from Cheltenham, born on 16th June 1887. Russell joined the Navy in June 1905 after previously being a golf ball maker. Russell had between four and five years in submarines, joining Forth in December 1908 to January 1910 then back to Forth in April 1912 with time on Dundee depot ship Vulcan and tender Hebe in between. Russell lived with his wife and family at 11 King St., Devonport.
Memorial postcard for the crew of A7
Harry Cotterill (ON Unknown)
In the February 2000 edition of the Navy News was an article by P. Taylor which he had been inspired to write by the articles published previously about thefts of items from the A7 submarine. The article briefly recounts the story of a chap called Harry Cotterill who is described as the signalman on the A7. On the day of her loss, Cotterill headed off to the dockside toilet before boarding the boat; whilst there the Flotilla Commanding Officer (CO) arrived at the boat demanding to know why the A7 was late in leaving. When told she was waiting for her signalman, the CO told Lt. Welman to leave at once and the signalman would be brought out to her by the next boat. Cotterill arrived back at the dock, got a dressing down from the CO and was shipped out on the next submarine to leave; this lost sight of A7 so he never made it on board. No Harry Cotterill, or variations of that name, have yet been traced.
Leonard Lutley (ON 233528)
Leonard Lutley should have been on board A7 on the day she was lost, but he had swapped jobs with his friend Fred ‘Nat’ Jewell. Lutley was born on 25th September 1889 in Plymouth, joining the Navy in June 1907 transferring to the submarine service and Forth in January 1912.The A7 having been lost in January 1914, the 25 year old Lutley soon transferred to surface ships moving to Vivid in August then to Devonshire in November that same year. In an interview with Lutley’s daughter, Margaret Screech, she said:
‘ He never spoke very much about this submarine, but when January came around he use to sometimes think about ‘ Nat’ down at the bottom of the sea. ‘
‘He joined at 15 or 16, quite young, so they had to put his age back, his birthday was in September, but the recruiting officer said we’ll put it for June. So his Naval birthday was always the 25th of June, where his proper birthday was the 25th of September 1889.’
The most interesting comment was about a potential cause for the loss of A7:
‘On the day of the fatal dive he always said that his chum Fred "Nat" Jewell asked to swap duties and so he sailed and not my father. Dad always said that the helm was reversed so that when the boat got into difficulties instead of forward she buried herself rearwards into the sand. Father always said the steering gear, not the coxswain, he never said anyone else… or that they all knew... it was wired backwards, but I think that in those days when there was so few of them they all mucked in and did various jobs. But he always said that why she buried herself in so much was because it was the wrong way round.
It is not clear if this refers to the mechanical linkage to the rudder or hydroplanes that is reversed or the electrical control for the electric motor.