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William James Aldridge

Stoker Petty Officer P/311664 W J Aldridge, Royal Navy

 

William was born on Christmas Day 1884, the eldest son, of William Aldridge, a stone sawyer, and his wife, Martha Jane (née Ayers).  The family moved around the town living, amongst other places, in Wilton Cottages (a yard off Northbrook Street), 58 Bartholomew Street, Albert Villa, 19 Albert Road.  Of these only 58 Bartholomew Street has survived, where the Aldridges lived from 1898 to 1911.

 

After completing his schooling aged 12 or 13 William will probably have found employment somewhere in the town, but no record has been found to show where.  The 1901 census finds him in the Oxford Road Barracks in Reading; perhaps he signed up for the Army in a fit of patriotic fervour following the call for volunteers to serve the Empire in South Africa? He lied about his age adding two years to his real age of 16 in order to qualify for service overseas (boy soldiers were recruited but would not be sent to a theatre of war). Although he signed up with the Royal Berkshire Regiment on 4 January 1901, he was soon posted to the Royal Engineers as a driver. At that date a ‘driver’ was a driver of horses, often riding the lead horse of a team hauling a waggon; his rapid transfer to this rôle suggests that he had experience in this sort of work, maybe working for a local carrier or farmer.

 

The war in South Africa (2nd Boer War) was over by May 1902, which was soon followed by evidence of William’s wavering commitment to an Army career. From November 1902 his record is that of a persistent deserter; he served several terms of ‘IHL’ (Imprisonment with Hard Labour) for his absences. The length of the sentences gradually increased 14 days, then 42, another 42, and 112. Finally he was sentenced to 2 years IHL and then to be discharged from the army ‘with ignominy’. It appears that he only had to serve half of his two year sentence and was discharged on 8 November 1905.

 

With a record like this it is surprising that he then opts for another military career.  On 24 May 1907 he signed up for the Navy.  At his attestation he gave his previous employment as ‘indoor servant’, leading to visions of Downton Abbey (filmed at Highclere Castle near Newbury).  His physical examinations on joining the Army and the Navy show that he grew three inches between the two (from 5’ 5½” to 5’ 8½”).


The Navy evidently suited William, his service record is one of exemplary if undistinguished performance and promotion, reaching Petty Officer in 1915. His service certainly seems to have marked William, a list of tattoos fills the box available for ‘distinguishing marks’ on his service record.


He served with a number of ships notably HMS Swiftsure (Oct ’08 to May ’10) and HMS Superb (May ‘13 to Sep ’15).  Between these he spent over a year at HMS Vernon (Aug ’10 to Nov ’12),  a shore based torpedo training school in Portsmouth; while there he married Lilian Jones and was able to set up house with her at 49 Queen’s Street, Portsea. The couple had two children William (Willie) in 1911 and Dorothy (Babs) in 1912.
After leaving HMS Superb he spent a few months on HMS Mohawk, a destroyer in the Dover Patrol before moving on again, after a few months shore based training to serve on the Q Ships.  These were a variety of vessels, either naval vessels capable of passing for merchantmen, or heavily armed merchantmen that would present themselves as defenceless targets to U-boats. The hope was that the U-boat would surface to attack with its deck gun in order to save torpedoes for more dangerous targets.  Once the U-boat had committed to such an attack the Q-ship would show its true nature and engage the U-boat with its concealed armament. On 25 March 1917 William was posted to Q10 (HMS Begonia), a Flower Class Sloop masquerading as the SS Dolcis Jessop.

 

Reports of the Begonia’s demise are confused, some attribute the loss to hostile action, crediting U151 with torpedoing or even ramming the Begonia. However, it seems more likely that the U151 was involved with HMS Parthian an M Class Destroyer launched in 1916.  HMS Begonia was lost at some stage of her voyage, which began on 3 September 1917 it may have been the result of enemy action; three U-boats are known to have been in the area at that time (U101, UB32 & UC21) which also failed to return to port. As a result their log books have been lost, perhaps one reported the sinking of the Begonia; perhaps the Begonia rammed one resulting in both vessels sinking. Unless the wreck of the Begonia is found (very unlikely) the story of her end will remain a mystery.

 

The news soon reached Newbury:

 

Newbury Weekly News, 18 October 1917, p8  – Local War Notes
On Tuesday morning the sad news was received by Mr and Mrs W Aldridge, of Albert-villa, Albert-road, Newbury, from the Admiralty, that their eldest son, Petty Officer William Aldridge, had gone down with his boat, HMS Begonia, all hands having been lost. The missing seaman was the eldest of seven [sic] sons. His brother, Alfred John, 16th Royal Warwicks, was killed in France last year in the Battle of the Somme. Only one brother, the youngest, now survives. Deceased joined the Navy in 1906, and was for several years on HMS Superb, 1st Battle Squadron. He leaves a widow and two young children. They are at Portsmouth.

 

The number of sons appears to have confused this family, despite there being only three boys (and six girls) William is described as one of seven sons and, in a similar item, his brother Alfred is described as the ‘fifth son’ (he was actually the sixth child, second son).

 

The following week his family placed an announcement in the same paper:

 

Newbury Weekly News, 25 October 1917, p5  – Killed in Action
Lost on HMS Begonia, date unknown, 1st Class Petty Officer William James Aldridge, the eldest dearly loved son of William and M J Aldridge, Albert-villa, Albert Road, Newbury, Berks, aged 35 years. – Deeply mourned by his sorrowing Mother, Father, Sisters and Brother, and his sorrowing Wife and Children, Willie and Babs.

 

William Aldridge's name on Newbury War Memorial

William Aldridge's name on Newbury War Memorial (upper right)

Unsurprisingly William’s body was never recovered; his name is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial on the seafront at Clarence Esplanade in Southsea.

 

Locally he is remembered on Panel 8 of the Newbury Town War Memorial and on both the memorial board and the roll of honour in St Nicolas’ Church, Newbury.


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 Died this day:
28 June 1920
A Seward
Newbury

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