Posted by Kristen Hyde on October 4, 2018 in Collections, Research, United Kingdom

David Tattersfield, trustee from The Western Front Association, introduces the WWI Pension Ledgers to Ancestry, and explains the specific value of the Merchant Marine Cards by way of two key events from WWI history. 

Most British First World War historians focus their attention on the battles fought by the British and Commonwealth Armies in France and Flanders. The losses in the trenches have resonated down the decades and even today – one hundred years after the guns fell silent on the western front – families are discovering ancestors who fought on the Somme and at Passchendaele.

There is, however, a much under-researched side to the Great War. The country needed not only to fight the war on an industrial scale but also feed its population. Before the war, the British merchant fleet was the largest in the world. Britain and its dominions owned and operated 43% of the world’s shipping – a total of 20 million gross tons.  This shipping provided a lifeline to not only the UK but all the allied armies embroiled in trench warfare on the western front. It was therefore inevitable that Germany would seek to damage or destroy this supply of food and raw materials into Britain’s ports.

Very little attention has been paid to Merchant seamen who were lost in the Great War. Only a couple of incidents are really well known – the case of Captain Fryatt who attempted to ram a German submarine, the U-33, which was about to torpedo his vessel (the SS Brussels) in March 1915, and the loss of RMS Lusitania in 1915.

Through the Merchant Marine cards within the WWI Pension Ledgers, archives saved by The Western Front Association and now available on Ancestry, we can learn a little more about these two incidents which played significant roles in Britain’s war effort.

Fryatt and the SS Brussels

© Imperial War Museum:

Captains of Merchant Ships had been ordered by the British admiralty to try to ram German submarines (indeed prosecution was likely for any who willingly surrendered their ships to German U-boats). Charles Fryatt had already done well in the war by managing to out-run a German submarine when attacked, but he went a step further on 28 March 1915 and turned his merchant ship, the SS Brussels, onto the attacking German u-boat.


Although the submarine (the U-33) escaped by undertaking a crash dive, Fryatt was rewarded for his efforts by being presented with a gold watch, which was inscribed as follows:

Presented by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to Chas. Algernon Fryatt Master of the S.S. ‘Brussels’ in recognition of the example set by that vessel when attacked by a German submarine on March 28th, 1915. 

Fryatt’s daring action was to make him famous, but this was to prove to be the cause of his death.

Later in the war, Fryatt’s vessel was captured and the crew sent to the civilian internment camp at Ruhleben near Berlin. Whilst there, he was identified and charged with sinking U-33 (which was at the time on active service with the German navy). The watch in his possession was clearly not helpful in his defence – even though the charges brought by the Germans were false. The court-martial took place at Bruges in Belgium, he was found guilty and was subsequently shot by firing squad. The following notice was published by the Germans.

NOTICE. The English captain of a merchant ship, Charles Fryatt, of Southampton, though he did not belong to the armed forces of the enemy, attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine by running it down. For this he has been condemned to death by judgment this day of the Field Court Martial of the Naval Corps, and has been executed. A ruthless deed has thus been avenged, belatedly but just. Signed VON SCHRÖDER, Admiral Commandant of the Naval Corps, Bruges, July 27th, 1916. 

For the first time, we can see a bit more about Fryatt through the records available within the new WWI Pension Ledgers.

This card (and the reverse) gives a number of addresses for Fryatt – this type of information is incredibly valuable, and is indicative of the type details family researchers can uncover about their own ancestors.

Whilst not all the cards contain such addresses, others do contain a wealth of information about the death or injury to the seamen named on these cards.

For example, Richard Tovell (presumably captured with Fryatt) came back from his period of interment with “generally broken health through internment” as can be seen in the below record card.

Loss of the Lusitania

As mentioned above, the sinking of the Lusitania was a well-publicised act, not least because it propelled the USA closer to war (although their entry to the war was not going to be for another two years). The ship was sunk just off the southern coast of Ireland after being identified and torpedoed by a German u-boat, U-22, and sunk in just 18 minutes. The sinking of the Lusitania caused the deaths of 1,198 of the 1,959 passengers and crew.

A total of 82 cards for men (and at least one woman) who served on the Lusitania have been preserved in the WWI Pension Ledgers. In this instance, the records can help researchers identify not only additional family members (Name of Dependent, and Relationship), but also details around the person’s death, or the nature of the injuries they sustained during the sinking.

Among them are:

Adolph Nussbaum from Switzerland, a soup cook who served in the Steward’s Department and drowned at the age of 30. His card identifies his wife Joanna as his ‘Name of Dependent’, and the balance of his wages after the ship’s last voyage.

Stanley Rourke, from Liverpool, a lift attendant. Stanley joined the ship only five days before it set sail for the last time, and actually survived the sinking. His card identifies that he suffered from shock and exposure.

Cornelius Horrigan, a bell boy and also from Liverpool. Cornelius survived the sinking but suffered an injury to his ankle. Despite only being a teenager, he was one of the first witnesses to be called at the inquest.

George Hutchinson worked on board as an electrician. While he survived, his card points to suffering a number of serious injuries in the process, including damage to his left leg and back, as well as nervous shock from the experience.

Identify your serving ancestors, and their family members, in the WWI Pension Records on Ancestry and learn more about their experiences of WWI.


  1. This is a huge source for me right now as I am searching for my ancestors to create a decent genealogical tree. The only thing I know I that my grand-grandparents were in Florida making small business with buns and bread and I really hope to find how they happened there and who were their parents. I feel like this is important to tell my kids about the family history

  2. Jeanette Shepherd

    I wondered if my grandfather Herbert Henry Hall might have been among the names in the ledgers, but he is not thee. My grandfather was a stoker on the Port Kembla when she was sunk by a German mine that was laid by the Wolf just off Farewell Spit which is at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. There was no loss of life. For many years I have searched for descendants of other crew remember but have never found any.

  3. Anna

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