BORN NORTH FERRIBY, 02/07/1894. SON OF GEORGE & MARY ANN SPROWSON, OF STATION ROAD, NORTH FERRIBY. SECOND OF EIGHT CHILDREN. EMPLOYED AS A YOUNG FARM LAD (1911 CENSUS). HE ENLISTED IN THE ROYAL NAVY, ON 10/01/1913. DIED ON THE HMS BULWARK EXPLOSION, ON 26/11/1914, AGED 21.
HMS Bulwark was part of the 5th Battle Squadron and at the outbreak of the war was based at Sheerness in order to protect the South East of England from the threat of a German invasion.
On Thursday 26 November 1914, she was moored in the Medway Estuary approximately between East Hoo Creek and Stoke Creek when, at 7.50am a massive explosion ripped through the vessel. The Times reported
“The band was playing and some of the men were drilling on deck when the explosion occurred. A great sheet of flame and quantities of debris shot upwards, and the huge bulk of the vessel lifted and sank, shattered, torn, and twisted, with officers and men aboard…”
Boats of all kinds were launched from the nearby ships and shore to pick up survivors and the dead. Work was hampered by the amount of debris which included hammocks, furniture, boxes and hundreds of mutilated bodies. Fragments of personal items showered down in the streets of Sheerness. Initially 14 men survived the disaster, but some died later from their injuries. One of the survivors, an able seaman, had a miraculous escape. He said he was on the deck of the Bulwark when the explosion occurred. He was blown into the air, fell clear of the debris and managed to swim to wreckage and keep himself afloat until he was rescued. His injuries were slight.
The CWGC database names 788 men from HMS Bulwark as having lost their lives in this explosion. There were only 14 survivors.
Of the fourteen men to survive, most were seriously injured. Miraculously there were a very few who came through this without injury, having been blown out of an open hatch. One of these survivors, Able Seaman Marshall described feeling a “colossal draught” and, as he flew through the air, seeing the Bulwark’s masts shaking. Other witnesses were on the battleship HMS Implacable, which was moored next to Bulwark, they described
…a huge pillar of black cloud belched upwards… was followed by a thunderous roar. Then came a series of lesser detonations, and finally one vast explosion that shook the Implacable from mastheads to keel.
Among those killed were six 15 year old sailors: Midshipman, William Ellice (who had earned ‘blues’ at Osborne in Rugby, Cricket and Hockey); Signal Boy, Benjamin Spencer; Midshipman Evelyn Williamson, Bugler, Philip Bullen, Royal Marines; Boy 1st Class William Kellow and Midshipman Charles Wilson.