On 8 January 1914, eight serving members of the armed forces gathered at St Mary’s, Gillingham, in order to make the first attempt to ring a peal by an all armed forces band. A feat that was recently commemorated a century on by members of the present armed forces guilds of bellringers. The following series of eight posts will examine the lives of those eight ringers in greater detail. Though this is a slight diversion from the main thrust of this blog, we’ll see that they were not entirely without Surrey connections.
The first man was the oldest, and the highest ranking, as he was also ringing the treble bell, there seemed little choice but to research him first.
Shipwright Lieutenant William Austin Cooke (27 January 1870-10 February 1938). Served 2 July 1894-12 August 1922.Cooke was born in Gillingham on 27 January 1870. However, it has proved impossible to trace him in the 1871 or 1881 censuses – it is possible that his father was also in the armed services. In 1891 he was lodging at 2 Station Road, Gillingham, with Harriet Johnson (30), married, but husband not present, and her daughter Elsie (3). Harriet’s husband was perhaps another naval man. Cooke is listed as a joiner. Cooke married Amelia Alice G Preston in early 1894. He had already learnt to ring under the tutelage of Gabriel Lindoff (who was then serving in the Royal Engineers), ringing in the first peals of Cambridge and Superlative to be rung in Kent. He joined the Royal Navy on 2 July 1894. He was described as being 5’4”, with light brown hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion. His civilian skills were obviously taken into account, as he was immediately rated leading carpenter crew. He served ashore in Chatham until January 1895 when he was posted to HMS Dryad, a torpedo gunboat. A daughter, Gladys, was born later in 1895. Three years later he was briefly transferred to HMS Hibernia, an old wooden ship-of-the-line, serving as the depot ship in Malta, before returning to Dryad after just a month.
Cooke came back ashore at Chatham on 29 April 1898. Over the next two years he was re-rated as shipwright, and then promoted to leading shipwright. He was posted to the battleship HMS Repulse on 11 January 1900, and was aboard her on the night of the 1901 census. His wife and daughter were living with her father, a widower, George Preston (70), a pensioned engine fitter, at 72 Duncan Road, Gillingham. His rating was changed again in July 1901, possibly back to carpenter, but the admiralty clerk appears to have taken lessons form a doctor writing prescriptions! He was posted to HMS Jupiter on 9 July 1901 and was still serving on her when she took part in the Fleet Review at Spithead which marked the Coronation of Edward VII in August the following year. He came ashore to Chatham again on 3 July 1903, and was then posted to the brand new battleship, HMS Albemarle, on 12 November 1903.
Cooke was given an acting warrant on 15 December 1904, and confirmed in the rank of warrant shipwright on 22 December 1905. It is not quite clear if he was serving ashore during this point, or if he remained on Albemarle. He was posted to the cruiser HMS Blenheim on 8 February 1906, serving on her for just under a year. He then joined another cruiser, HMS Sappho on 21 February 1907, and then her sister ship, HMS Brilliant on 1 May 1908. She paid off on 10 December 1909 and he was without a ship until 18 February 1910 when he joined the battleship HMS Charybdis. He was aboard her on the night of the 1911 census. His wife and daughter were again at 72 Duncan Road, their nephew Victor Preston Rowland (23), an engine fitter was also living there. The census return shows (as expected) that they had been married 17 years, but also that they had had two other children who had died – it has not yet been possible to identify these. He transferred to the scout cruiser HMS Foresight (based at Dover) on 4 May 1911, and then the battleship HMS Albion on 10 October 1912. She was initially based at the Nore, so Cooke presumably managed to get ashore to ring quite often, but by the time of the peal was actually stationed at Pembroke Dock, so presumably he had to obtain leave to take part.
On 27 April 1914 Cooke was posted back to HMS Blenheim in Malta. He remained there until 23 February 1917 when he returned to the UK. He was then posted to Illustrious, a former battleship now downgraded to a munitions storeship, on 23 May. She was based on the Tyne, and while serving on her Cooke managed various visits to towers in Newcastle and the surrounding area, including ringing at Newcastle Cathedral for a royal visit over the weekend of 17-18 June. Illustrious was moved to Portsmouth in November 1917, and it seems Cooke went with her as he was nominally transferred to the books of HMS Ganges, a shore establishment at Shotley. He saw out the war there. Cooke was in Harwich on 8 July 1919 when he took part in a peal attempt to mark the funeral of Charles Fryatt. Fryatt had become a cause célèbre during the war, a merchant marine captain, he had rammed a German submarine with his vessel and sunk it. He was captured on a subsequent occasion, and once the Germans realised who he was, he was court martialled and executed for his earlier actions. The Germans held that as he was not a combatant, his actions had been illegal. His death provoked almost as much outrage in the British press as the execution of Edith Cavell. Fryatt had attended school in Harwich before going to sea. The peal attempt failed (Cooke was conducting, Parker’s 12 part peal of Grandsire, but something went one wrong just before the end of the first part). There wasn’t time to restart, so one of the other ringers then started to call a Quarter Peal of Bob Major, but sadly that also came to grief when the muffle of the 6th slipped.
Cooke was then posted to HMS Raleigh on 19 August. She was still under construction, launched on 22 August, but not brought into commission until 1921. She was then assigned as flagship on the North American station. He left her on 26 July 1922 in order to come home and retire. Through the negligence of her captain, she was run aground on 8 August 1922 in thick fog, leading to the deaths of 11 crew. She was a total loss. On 10 August 1922, Cooke was placed on the retired list with the rank of shipwright lieutenant. He then settled in Rainham, joining the band there, and becoming church warden. He was also a freemason and member of TocH. It may well not be a coincidence that Rainham was the hometown of George Gilbert (one of the other ringers in the peal), and his family ran a building firm there, who could have made use of Cooke’s carpentry skills. Cooke died on 12 August 1922. He was known to have rung a fair number of peals, but had kept no record. He was a member of the Kent County Association and the College Youths (1890).