Diary of the War: February 1918

HMS Brown Mouse

If ever there was a name that sounds most unlikely for a warship, this is it. The Brown Mouse was no Dreadnought, Implacable or Dauntless . . .

Yet she went to war and what better cover could there be than such an innocuous-sounding name? All of 42 tons, she was built as a Brixham trawler, and launched in February 1908, official no.125110, a detail which might seem trivial or boring, but I’ve included it for a reason. (1)

In her original register entry Brown Mouse was described as a trawler, and assigned a fishing number of BM 276, but from the outset it seems that she was owned by the same man who later operated her as a yacht, Evelyn Pearson. (2) At least one other example of a yacht built on Brixham trawler lines still survives on the National Register of Historic Vessels. This vessel is the Golden Vanity, which was built in the same year at the same yard, Sanders & Co. of Galmpton, for the marine artist Arthur Briscoe, and this vessel was assigned the very next official number in the sequence. (3)

She appears to have fished locally at least in 1909, since during that year she was crewed by four or five men, with William Kingdom of Brixham as skipper. (4)

She was then fitted with an auxiliary steam engine by Simpson, Strickland & Co. of Dartmouth in 1910, whereupon she was re-registered, again at Brixham, due to the ‘material alterations’. She was no longer described as a trawler in the new registry, and it may be at this point that Evelyn Pearson and Brown Mouse became “regular” visitors to Brixham. (5) 

Then the war came and Evelyn Pearson joined up in September 1914, becoming a captain in the 12th Battalion, King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. He would have been about 39, but he had previous soldiering experience in the Lancashire Fusiliers in the 1890s. (6)

In the meantime, the development of the Q-Ships as, effectively, fisheries protection vessels, had begun during 1915, as fishing smacks were targeted off the east coast, as described in our July 1915 post. Similar attacks took place thereafter on a fairly regular basis on the North Sea and Channel coasts, with enemy activity intensifying at intervals.

Protection against mass sinkings of the fishing smacks came from among their own: one vessel from each fleet would be commissioned as a ‘Special Service’ vessel to guard their fellows engaged in fishing. Their diminutive size inevitably led to their designation as ‘Q-smacks’, but they were no less ‘Special Service’ vessels for that. Some even engaged U-boats directly, as Inverlyon had done in defending the Lowestoft smacks, covered by one of our past blog posts for August 1915.

Sadly Captain Pearson was killed in action in Flanders on 8 January 1916, at the age of 41. (7) The next phase of his yacht’s history is slightly unclear. Her registry at Brixham was closed on 27 November 1916 ‘in consequence of material alterations’, with her prior ownership stated as Captain Pearson, Thomas Kirkland Rylands, and the Hon. Earl Stanhope, and on the same day her ownership is recorded as transferred to H F Eastick of Great Yarmouth. (8) Eastick had already lost other vessels during the war, such as the Copious in 1914. Brown Mouse would not have been the first or last Brixham trawler to have transferred to the Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth fleets. 

It seems, however, that she would remain within her familiar waters in and around Brixham, rather than in service with Eastick, for one month later she was a ‘Special Service’ vessel. Perhaps Earl Stanhope, who was involved in the War Cabinet, had drawn official attention to her as a suitable vessel for the purpose.

Despite Inverlyon‘s success, it wasn’t always possible for the Q-smacks to defend their charges. On 8 June 1917, another sailing Q-smack, the Prevalent, was unable to assist when four Brixham smacks were sunk in the fishing grounds off south Devon, in full view of Start Point. One of those vessels was the Onward, built in 1907, and assigned an official number of 125101. Other vessels also assigned numbers from the same batch of official numbers allocated to Brixham, all built locally at around the same time as Brown Mouse and Golden Vanity, had also fallen victim to German submarine attacks: Markum on 17 April 1917, Boy Denis on 26 April, and Rupee on 4 October 1917.

One contemporary writer suggested that the Prevalent incident prompted the retrofitting of an auxiliary motor engine aboard Brown Mouse. (9) With her existing engine it is more likely that she was identified as a suitable candidate capable of speeding to the site of any trouble with enemy submarines, and replaced the Prevalent on the Brixham station.

However her participation as a Q-smack locally came about, the circumstances of her loss suggest that Brown Mouse was out on patrol with the Brixham trawlers on 28 February 1918. Unlike the other vessels with whom she was registered, however, she was not a war loss and so is not mentioned in many of the standard sources. Details of what happened next were given by the skipper of another local trawler, the Leonora Minnie, who had a narrow escape when the Brown Mouse caught fire and seemed headed for his vessel, the worst nightmare for any skipper of a wooden vessel, but, fortunately, she cleared the Leonora Minnie’s bows. Brown Mouse was subsequently ‘lost by fire off Berry Head’, with the local RNLI being called out to assist, a service which cost them £24. Fortunately, it seems that no lives were lost on this occasion. (10)

Trawler, yacht, and Q-Ship: small, as her name implied, Brown Mouse was sufficiently versatile to operate in all three roles, and to do so locally in every case. Her story highlights a mini-landscape of war off Brixham, in which fishing vessels came under attack, leisure cruising ceased, and small ships took on a modern enemy.

With many thanks to John and Sandie of Brixham in Pictures for their kind assistance with this article.

Black and white photograph of the interior of a boat, with a fisherman landing baskets of fish.
A fisherman landing his catch from a Brixham trawler in the 1950s. The photographer, John Gay, was interested in recording traditional working lifestyles that were heading towards obsolescence. AA087818. Copyright Historic England

 

(1) Her tonnage is variously cited, dependent on source: see, for example, British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1914-18, Section I, p26 (HMSO, 1919) stating 42 tons, following the vessel’s register books, whereas other source state 43 tons, such as the Brixham Heritage Sailing Trawlers Archive

(2) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Sea-Fishing Boats, 1902-1979 DSR/BRI/2/1; Registry of Shipping and Seamen, Cardiff, MNL Appropriation Books, Official Nos. 125101-125150, accessed via the Crew List Index Project

(3) Description of her build as on sailing trawler lines, from The Marine Engineer and Naval Architect, Vol. XXXIII, August 1910, p24; National Register of Historic Vessels, Golden Vanity, as another such vessel

(4) Devon Archives and Local Studies, transcripts of crew lists, 20 May to 30 November 1909, List A3, and 1 July to 31 December 1909, List D, both referenced to 1976/BROWN MOUSE/125110, and both accessed via the Crew List Index Project

(5) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Shipping 1894-1917 DSR/BRI/1/4; The Marine Engineer and Naval Architect, Vol. XXXIII, August 1910, p24; Western Times, 27 January 1916, No.20,771, p3

(6) Gloucestershire Echo, 18 January 1916, [no issue number] p2; London Gazette, 11 August 1893, No.26,431, p4577; London Gazette, 8 June 1897, No.26,860, p3201

(7) Commonwealth War Graves Commission record for Captain E H M Pearson; Western Times, 27 January 1916, No.20,771, p3

(8) Devon Heritage Centre, Register of Shipping 1894-1917 DSR/BRI/1/4; Brixham Sailing Trawlers Heritage Archive

(9) Keble Chatterton, E. 1922 Q-Ships and their Story. London: Sidgwick and Jackson

(10) Brixham Heritage Sailing Trawlers Archive; Western Times, 4 February 1919, No.21,170, p5

 

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