Langley’s World War I naval hero

BoltonStokerPicThe scene in the engine room aboard HMS Indomitable on the morning of 24 January 1915 was frantic.

During what became known as the Battle of Dogger Bank, Admiral Beatty ordered his slowest ship Indomitable – and Leading Stoker George Bolton of Langley – to make all practicable speed to catch the Germans before they could escape. Indomitable managed to exceed 26 knots (48 km/h; 30 mph) and Beatty recognised her performance, for which surely we must be allowed to give partial credit to Stoker Bolton, with a signal at 08.55: ‘Well done, Indomitable.’

George Bolton was a ploughboy from Standlake who went away to sea aged 21. He enlisted at the shore establishment HMS Pembroke II at Eastchurch near Sheppey in Kent, a Naval training school. His rank was stoker, second class. Stokers did more than just shovel coal; they became experienced mechanics managing complicated boiler systems which regulated the speed of a ship according to orders coming down from the bridge. During his initial period of twelve years’ service, George rose to stoker, first class, serving on a variety of ships and saw far-flung parts of the world under British influence.

On his return from his first ship HMS Cossack in 1903, George married Sarah Pratley of Langley near Shipton under Wychwood. Before her marriage, Sarah was in service in the Marriott household in High Street, Witney.

The Marriotts had business interests in the coal trade, blanket manufacture and farming. Marriott, of course, is a name familiar to frequenters of the modern Marriotts Walk shopping centre to the west of the High Street in Witney. During his years at sea before the war, George served on a variety of craft from battleships to torpedo cruisers, and visited destinations as widely spread as Canada, Bermuda, Ceylon and China. He spent two years on HMS Woodcock, a river gunboat patrolling the Yangtze river. Having completed his twelve-year engagement in 1911, George was transferred to the Royal Fleet Reserve, a reserve body of ratings and petty officers of the Royal Navy obliged to undertake a week’s training at sea every year.

In August 1914 many hundreds of stokers were recalled to service from the Royal Fleet Reserve to form the naval battalions of the Royal Naval Division. George joined HMS Indomitable, the world’s first battlecruiser.

George was invalided out in July 1918 due to an aortic aneurysm, probably as a result of years of breathing in coal dust and very likely smoking too, like most sailors. His death was registered in Chipping Norton in 1919, twenty years after he originally enlisted in the Navy. He was 40 years old.

Our Boys 1914–1918: who were the fallen of one Oxfordshire valley? by Julie Ann Godson, available now on Amazon £10.99

February – March 2019