Dennis Bill's Family History
Skeletons - and other stories
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When Denise HOFFMEISTER (nee WISEMAN) contacted me through this web site just over a year ago she told me of a story handed down in her family about a WISEMAN coming to a sticky end whilst serving on HMS Victory. According to her family legend he was murdered in an argument over a card game and his body thrown overboard. I must admit I was sceptical, it sounded like one of those stories that circulate in families with the object of linking them to famous people, places or events, like the one my mother used to tell of her Uncle Charlie claiming we were all related to Cardinal WISEMAN. Well now, after considerable digging at The National Archives, I must admit there was a story but the full truth remains elusive. The following story comes from the official sources and newspaper reports.
Frank Wiseman (born 1888) had been working as a Milk Boy when, on 2 Jun 1905 shortly after his seventeenth birthday, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and started as a Boy Domestic 3rd Class on HMS Victory. At the time HMS Victory was permanently moored in Portsmouth Harbour, off the Gunwharf, now the shopping outlet known as Gunwharf Quay. On the morning of 5 March 1906 Frank had just returned to the ship after a spot of leave and was at his post by seven o'clock. The peace aboard the ship was soon broken by some Dockyard workers who began rivetting on the upper deck and making a terrible din. At eight-thirty Frank served the officer's breakfast and went back to the galley to fetch the coffee. By eight-forty the officers were getting restless for their coffee and the senior officer, Chief Gunner Henry BERRY, asked Frank's colleague Henry CANSDALE why the coffee had not been served. CANSDALE went off in search of Frank but he was not to be found. BERRY ordered a search of all decks and when the result was negative sent Chief Gunner DELANEY in a dingy to search around the ship. When this also proved negative two steam launches were sent to search the harbour. With no result from these searches Frank's disappearance was reported and within three days a Navy Court of Inquiry had been instigated.
This was convened on 10 March. It was established that no boats, other than that bringing the officers aboard, had come to or left the ship, so there was no way that Frank could have 'jumped ship'. Frank's inquisitiveness was noted along with his being short-sighted and the fact that he often climbed into the pantry port (window) to get a better view of what was going on in the Harbour. On the day of Frank's disappearance the Irish merchant steamer, SS Lady Kinahan, was moored just 100 yards from HMS Victory and at the time when Frank was serving breakfast she was making steam and preparing to get underway. This must have been too much of a temptation for Frank and he went into the pantry and climbed into the port so that he could get a better view of what was going on, perhaps forgetting for the moment that the officers would shortly be waiting for their coffee. What happened next no one really knows but somehow he must have slipped and fell into the water. Like many of his fellow sailors, he was unable to swim and must have cried-out and struggled to keep himself afloat but, with the noise of the riveters, neither the Corporal or Signalman of the Watch nor a marine who was cleaning a dingy on deck heard his cries. The Court found that Frank had fallen from the pantry port and had drowned.
In the first week of May 1906 a body was found floating off the Sussex coast near Goring. The body was headless and the hands were missing. The only possible identification was the name 'F. Wiseman' that was written inside the jacket. The local surgeon stated that the body was of a full-grown man and that, due to the badly decomposed state, it must have been in the water for some weeks. In the circumstances he could not say if death was due to drowning. At a subsequent Coroner's Inquiry the jury found a verdict of "Found dead in the sea".
Following a report in the Worthing Gazette, Frank's grandfather wrote to the Goring police to claim the body as his grandson. According to Frank's Navy Service Record he was then buried in St Margaret's, the Goring parish church, on 6 Jun 1906 but I have been unable to get confirmation of this from the church.
So what about
the murder story? There is nothing in the official records that shows
that this was possible unless there was collusion and a cover-up, perhaps
between the cook, Private Cox, and Frank's colleague Henry Cansdale. But
to dispose of a body through the port in broad daylight was a very risky
strategy, any number of people on HMS Victory or other adjacent ships
could have seen it. And how did his family learn about the body at Goring,
it wasn't reported in the Portsmouth press? Some things we shall never
This is a document I found in The Morant Family Papers at Hampshire Record Office. It is the official manor court record of the trial of John WISEMAN (1800-1882), my great great grandfather, for salmon poaching. The trial was held at the Crown Inn, Ringwood on 26 January 1857. The long hand-written record includes evidence given by Thomas HURDLE, Morant's water bailiff, and his son Thomas James. In his defence John Wiseman claimed that he was after a jack (pike) not a salmon. After hearing the lengthy but inconclusive evidence the magistrate, W C D Esdail Esq., declared that John WISEMAN was "innocent, but morally guilty" !!
My great aunt, Annie Georgina WISEMAN, married James George MILLS on 31 August 1890. Between then and 1903 they had five children, but one morning in 1903 James George left home as usual to pursue his work as a blindmaker but was never seen again. After seven years he was officially declared dead and Annie Georgina subsequently married a second time to Joseph FOSTER (see the Gun-running story below) , having a further two children by him. To her dying day she never knew what happened to her first husband. I hope to find time to investigate what might have become of him including a search of emigration records to see if he left the country, but if you recognise his photo please contact me!
My paternal great grandfather was James BILL. He was born in Belfast in 1848 and after leaving school he worked as a flax dresser in the once famous Belfast linen industry. Presumably it was the lure of adventure and a better life that made him enlist in the Army. He joined the 28th Regiment of Foot (aka The Somerset Regiment) on 15 June1868 and within six months was in Gibraltar, followed by spells in Malta, Strait Settlements (Singapore) and Hong Kong. He did not return to Irish soil until 1877, a nine-year odyssey that must have been quite an adventure for a young Belfast lad. He certainly furthered his 'education' whilst in Malta as his medical records show that he spent 48 days in the sick bay with gonorrhoea!! No doubt the result of one visit too many to Straight Street (also known as The Gut), Valetta's infamous red-light district.
John Bennett is my maternal g-g-g-g-g-g-grandfather and I found his will in the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office at Trowbridge. There is actually a package of documents that includes not only the will itself but also probate documents, inventories and accounts. These papers have a number of interesting points including the lovely archaic preamble to the will in which he states that he is "very sick and weak of body but of perfect mind and memory". His executor is his youngest son, Thomas, who was only 15 at the time and so wife Mary and eldest son John are appointed as trustees. Amazingly they have to stand one thousand pounds surety to The Archdeacon until Thomas comes of age, a huge sum of money in 1746. But what really brings the will to life are the inventories of the farm and farmhouse. These detail all the livestock and equipment and everything "within doors" down to the saucepans and napkins, and all are valued to a total of £416. To see images of the will documents click here. Or for my transcriptions click here.
My great aunt, Annie Georgina Wiseman, was married twice. Her first marriage ended in mystery - see the story of The Vanishing Blindmaker above. Her second husband was Joseph Foster (no relation to her mother's family who were also Fosters) who was born in 1870 and at the time of their marriage was her lodger (?!). He was a Navy man having joined straight from school at the age of 15. At 18 he signed-on for 12 years and by 1900 had risen to Leading Seaman and was posted to HMS Terrible. Terrible and its sister ship Powerful were state-of-the-art cruisers, the largest built at the time, and a match for any Navy. But it wasn't fighting a Navy foe that brought them fame. In 1901 HMS Terrible was sent to South Africa, and HMS Powerful re-directed on its return journey from China, to assist the British Army in the South African War. Things were going badly and the garrison town of Ladysmith had been beseiged by the Boers using their "Long Tom" gun, which had a range that made them untouchable by the British Artillery. The Captain of HMS Terrible was Percy Scott, later to become Admiral Sir Percy Scott. Scott was a gunnery specialist and a bit of a genius. On arrival at Durban he was asked to make plans to dismount the 4.7-inch guns from the Terrible and devise a carriage to get them across country. He produced the plans in ten hours and 48 hours later, having raided the Dockyard blacksmith's shop had produced a wheeled 4.7 -inch gun that was better in range and accuracy than anything the Boers had. He manufactured other portable guns after dismounting them from the ships and a Naval Brigade contingent from the two ships set off by rail for Ladysmith. The final part of the journey used oxen and a fair bit of man-handling by the gun crews using drag ropes. They eventually opened up on the Long Tom from 6000 yards range and Ladysmith was eventually relieved and the rest is history. It was this action that inspired the Royal Navy Field Gun competitions that were the highlight of the Royal Tournament for over fifty years; the competition still takes place at a Navy shore station near Portsmouth each year. The crews from HMS Terrible and HMS Powerful were feted on their return home and were allowed to march through the streets of Portsmouth and London with colours flying, they even had tea with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. Joseph Foster was a Petty Officer (Rigger) on board HMS Terrible and took part in these celebrations but the evidence suggests that he was not part of the land actions but remained with the crew on board ship guarding Durban whilst the Naval Brigades were ashore.
In the middle of the 19th century Portsmouth was a boom town and residential development could hardly keep pace. As the Southsea area began to expand there was a serious lack of churches to serve the rapidly growing community. It was to fill this gap that a strange timber building was erected in 1858 on a circular plot of land in Outram Road. It was a twenty-sided building, 22 metres in diameter and 18 metres high, with its open-space interior lit by a great chandelier comprised of 36 lights - the design was originally intended as a field hospital for the Crimea War (but see below). It wasn't only its shape that astonished local residents - the timber building was erected in only 28 days. It served the community as an offshoot of St James's church for three years until the completion of a permanent stone-built church (St Bartholomew's). That was not the end though as the timber building was then dismantled and re-erected in Waverley Road, again in 28 days, to serve as a temporary St Simon's . Four years later it was surplus to requirements again as a brick-built St Simon's was completed; but this was still not the end of the story as the Crinoline Church, as it had become known, was taken down and re-erected once more in St George's Road, Eastney, as St Andrew's the chapel for the Royal Marines Barracks. It served in this role for nearly forty years until it was demolished in 1905 following the completion of a new St Andrew's.
News - I am in the process of transcribing St Andrew's Royal Marines Church baptisms for the period 1866-1905. Please contact me for any 'look-ups' (free) prior to publication. I am also researching the history of the building and it looks as though the Crimea story is an urban myth! If you have any prime source evidence about the history of this building please let me know.
When I first started work at Ordnance Survey in 1962 I was befriended by John Pitt, the son of a work colleague of my father. We met on the train on my first morning, John having started three months before me. John was interested in rifle shooting and when he found that Ordnance Survey had its own rifle club and indoor range he persuaded me to join with him. I began to shoot in the Southampton small-bore league and then later joined Fareham Rifle Club, being near my home. I shot for them for several seasons in the Portsmouth league before I found that the strain of the close work I was engaged in at Ordnance Survey was having an effect on my 'evening eyesight' and so gave it up, supposedly temporarily but I was never to return to it. During these years my brother, who was in the RAF, was also introduced to the sport by our cousin who was a member of the MG rifle club in Abingdon, Berks. My brother went on to shoot in RAF competitions and the two of us took part in the Bisley week championships on several occassions - I still have the badges!
Some 40 years on when I started to research my family history I was lucky to find my grandfather's army records at The National Archives in Kew. This supplied me with a lot of information about his life that I didn't know - he and my father had become estranged after the death of my father's mother and grandfather's subsequent remarriage. This meant that I knew very little about grandfather although I did know him vaguely as a child. His army records show that he joined the Leinster Regiment (Prince of Wales' Royal Canadian Leinster Regiment) in Birr, County Offally, Ireland in 1899. In June 1905 he qualified at the School of Musketry in Hythe, Kent and was subsequently promoted to sergeant. He returned to Hythe to qualify in advanced musketry in 1908 and eventually became Colour Sergeant Instructor of Musketry to the end of his 21 years service. Quite a coincidence.
© Dennis Bill 2009
Both the above excerpts by kind permission of the Worthing Herald.
My Bisley badges