Thomas William Normandale


Ashville Cenotaph: NORMANDALE T W

Ashville Memorial Hall: According to the Wharfedale Family History Society listing, T W Normandale is not honoured in the Memorial Hall and there may be a good reason for that.

He was listed in the 1921 Elmfield College Roll of Honour.

His name was Thomas William Normandale and he was born on 15th February 1877 in Swaffham, Norfolk. His father was the Reverend John William Normandale (1847-1931), a Primitive Methodist Minister who has a page devoted to him on the MPMA website. Thomas definitely attended Elmfield College as he appeared, aged 14, on the 1891 census return for the College. In attending Elmfield College he was following in his father’s footsteps.

Thomas had two elder sisters and an elder brother. His mother (Emma Rebekah Rous) died when he was only 3 years old and the same year his father remarried and produced a further 5 half siblings for Thomas, so he would not have been short of people to write letters home to whilst he was at Elmfield. His stepmother, Emma Rotherford, died in 1917 during the Great War but his father lived to be 84.

After leaving Elmfield, Thomas became a fitter and then joined the Royal Navy in May 1900. He worked as an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) tending the engines and boilers and served on 9 different warships – HMS Diadem, HMS Firequeen, HMS Sutlej, HMS Hermione, HMS Forte, HMS Pelorus, HMS Natal & HMS Inflexible. They were all armoured Cruisers (second only to Battleships in size and firepower) except for the Firequeen which was a Steam Yacht but he only spent a month aboard her. During his just over 14 years of pre-war service he spent almost exactly half of his time at sea. The rest was spent at shore establishments, mainly HMS Pembroke II, the name given to the shore barracks at Chatham. So it is not surprising that both the 1901 and 1911 censuses find him ashore and living in neighbouring Gillingham, Kent.

In 1901, aboard HMS Diadem, after helping to refit her, Thomas would have escorted the Royal Yacht from St Vincent to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Three years later aboard HMS Sutlej, named after a river in India, he would have seen service in the seas off China. In February 1905 he sailed to the Mediterranean on HMS Hermione where he joined HMS Forte. For the next two years he helped patrol the seas off Africa mainly on the Forte but also with a short spell aboard HMS Pelorus. After only five weeks ashore at Chatham he was off to sea again for his longest assignment, approaching 3 years, aboard HMS Natal.

When Thomas joined HMS Natal in July 1907, she had just been refitted, and was part of the Home Fleet working out of Chatham, so probably for the next year and a half Thomas would have managed several visits to his family in Gillingham. However, in February 1909 the frequency of home visits would have reduced when the Natal was transferred to the Atlantic Fleet. In May 1910 Thomas left the Natal and spent two and a half years ashore, mainly at Chatham but with the middle six months at Portsmouth.

Before moving on to Thomas’s last and most famous ship it was interesting to research HMS Natal’s subsequent infamous history. On 5 June 1913 she collided in fog with a fishing vessel. A court of inquiry convened to investigate the collision concluded that Natal’s speed of 10 knots (11.5 mph) was excessive for the foggy conditions, but the Admiralty declined to endorse this finding. On New Year’s Eve 1915, the Natal was lying in the Firth of Cromarty with the Captain hosting an onboard party to which he had invited the wives and children of his officers and a few other civilians. Shortly after 15:25, and without warning, a series of violent explosions tore through the rear part of the ship and she capsized five minutes later. Examination of the wreckage revealed that the explosions were internal and the Admiralty court-martial concluded that they were caused by exploding faulty ammunition. The Admiralty issued a list of the dead and missing that totalled 390 but it did not include the women and children on board that day.

Thomas joined HMS Inflexible on the 5th November 1912. The Inflexible had been launched about 5 years earlier and was one of the Invincible Class of Battlecruisers which were a significant step up in terms of firepower and armour from the previous classes of Cruiser he had served on. At the time Thomas joined she was part of the Home Fleet but by the start of the Great War she was the Flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet. The day before we declared war on Germany, HMS Inflexible and her sister ship HMS Indefatigable were pursuing two German Cruisers, who had just shelled a French Algerian port, when they both developed temporary boiler problems and lost contact. By the next day the German Cruisers had entered neutral Italian waters and the Admiralty ordered them to call off the pursuit.

In November 1914 the Inflexible & Invincible were ordered to the Falkland Islands, which they reached on 7th December and on the following day engaged with the German East Asia Squadron commanded by Admiral Graf von Spee. So, after nearly 15 years of service in the Royal Navy, Thomas finally experienced action.  After 5 hours of manoeuvres, during which the Inflexible fired 661 shells, the German ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were sunk. The Inflexible & Invincible between them only had one crew member killed and five wounded and they managed to save 176 of the Gneisenau’s 760 crew from drowning. None of the Scharnhorst’s 840 crew members survived!

After repair and refitting at Gibraltar the Inflexible again took over as flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet on 24th January 1915. Here she was involved in shelling the Turkish on-shore fortifications during the Battle of Gallipoli but to little effect and suffered significant damage. On one occasion she caught fire and had to withdraw from battle to deal with the fire before the crew choked to death. Finally she hit a mine creating a large hole in her starboard bow and resulting in 39 crew members being drowned. She was beached to prevent her sinking and to allow temporary repairs to be carried out. She then limped to Malta for further repairs before returning to Chatham on 19th June 1915. On the 27th July 1915 Thomas was discharged sick from HMS Inflexible and never went to sea again. He spent the next two years attached to the shore establishment, HMS Pembroke II at Chatham, and was discharged from the Royal Navy on 26th July 1917 suffering from “Pulmonary Tuberculosis”.

HMS Inflexible next saw action during the Battle of Jutland. Although the Invincible & Indefatigable were both sunk, the Inflexible survived. After that she spent her time patrolling home waters but saw no further offensive action as the German Fleet remained in port for the rest of the Great War. Inflexible and Thomas had played their part in ensuring Britannia continued to “Rule the Waves”. In 1919 Inflexible was mothballed and in 1920 was decommissioned before being sold for scrap in 1921.

In spite of all the time he spent at sea Thomas had managed to meet a young lady, marry her and raise a family of four children – Sydney (b 1903), Harold (b 1905), Ruth (b 1908) & Thomas (b 1910). His wife was called Sophia Ruth Priest and lived in Redditch, Worcestershire which is about as far from the sea as you can get in England. They married in Redditch in 1901 and moved there after Thomas left the Royal Navy.

Thomas passed away prematurely, aged 43, in the last quarter of 1920. Presumably he died from tuberculosis and whether he should be included on a war memorial is debatable. The pertinent point being,  whether he contracted the disease as a result of his war service. I will leave the reader to make up their own mind.

Sophia never remarried and lived to be 80, passing away on 21st February 1961 and leaving an estate of £4,019 (worth £88k in today’s money) with her eldest son, Sydney, as the executor. Her second son, Harold had already died in 1940 but apparently not as a result of WWII.

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