Add New Content

Please log in or register to add new content.


Report Inaccuracies

Charles Fitzgerald Sowerby (1866-1916)

Career sailor from Wycliffe captain of HMS Indefatigable which was lost at the Battle of Jutland

Charles Fitzgerald Sowerby was born on 31 July 1886 at Wycliffe Hall. His father was Thomas Charles Johnson Sowerby (1839-1890) who was originally from Ketton, Rutland. Thomas Sowerby served as a Lieutenant in the South Durham Militia and was described in census records as a landowner and magistrate. Charles’ mother was Julian Cecilia Sowerby nee Wilson (1841-1898) herself the daughter of a landowner and born at Cliffe Hall, Manfield, Yorkshire.

Charles’ parents married in 1865 in Darlington and had a family of five sons and three daughters. In 1871 Charles was living at home which was at Snow Hall, Gainford. His career led to significant travel but his home base remained one of Snow Hall, the Manor House at Rushyford and Blackwell Grange in Darlington.

Charles enrolled in the Royal Navy on 15 January 1880 at the age of 13 as a midshipman. He spent his entire career in the Royal Navy rising from midshipman, the lowest rank of officer in the navy, to captain over a period of 36 years. His progression was through the following ranks; ensign, sub-lieutenant, lieutenant, commander and captain. He served on a wide variety of ships from HMS Martin a wooden sailing brig to HMS Indefatigable a battlecruiser and lead ship of her class. The first ship he captained, commencing 3 June 1905, was HMS Isis an eclipse-class protected cruiser. The Isis was posted as tender to HMS Britannia, the cadet training ship at Dartmouth where Charles had previously served as commander.

As befits a career sailor, Charles travelled widely. In the 1881 census he is recorded as being on board HMS Vernon in Portsmouth harbour. In the 1901 census he is shown on board HMS Victorious in Malta. In 1907 he was temporarily assigned to the Naval Intelligence Department which was followed by a four year posting to the British Embassy in Washington DC USA as Naval Attaché. He travelled to this posting first class from Liverpool to New York on board the Campania on 31 November 1908.

Charles returned to the United Kingdom and took command of HMS Indefatigable on 24 February 1913. When the First World War began, Indefatigable was serving with the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron (BCS) in the Mediterranean. The ship bombarded Ottoman fortifications defending the Dardanelles on 3 November 1914, then, following a refit in Malta, returned to the United Kingdom in February where she rejoined the 2nd BCS. In April 1915 Charles was awarded a good service pension of £150 per year. The Royal Navy at the time awarded 12 of these pensions each year to captains who merited them for distinguished service at sea.

Indefatigable was sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the war. Part of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s battlecruiser fleet, she was hit several times in the first minutes of the opening phase of the action. Shells from the German battlecruiser Von der Tann caused one explosion that ripped a hole in her hull while a second explosion hurled large pieces of the ship in the air. Only two of the crew of 1,019 survived. Stories at the time related that the two survivors, Able Seaman Elliott and Leading Signalman Falmer, tried to support Captain Sowerby in the water but he was too badly wounded to survive.

Charles lost his life at the age of 49 and it was not possible to recover his body for burial. He is remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.

Civil Parish: Barnard Castle

Birth date: 31-Jul-1866

Death date: 31-May-1916

Armed force/civilian: Navy

Residence: Wycliffe Hall, Yorkshire, England (1866 birthplace)
Snow Hall, Gainford (1871 census)
HMS Vernon, Portsmouth Harbour, Hampshire (1891 census)
HMS Victorious, Malta (1901 census)
Washington DC, USA (1908 navy list)
Blackwell Grange, Darlington (1916 probate record)

Employment: Captain, Royal Navy

Family: Parents: Thomas Charles Johnson Sowerby, Juliana Cecilia Sowerby nee Wilson
Siblings: Mabel Frances Sowerby, Edith Mary Sowerby, Mary Gertrude Sowerby, William Bassett Sowerby, Edward Chaytor Sowerby, Maurice Eden Sowerby, Gerald Sowerby

Military service:

Royal Navy
Sub-lieutenant, 22 September 1886
Lieutenant, 22 September 1888
Commander, 30 June 1900
Captain, 01 January 1905
HMS Martin, 1888
HMS Orwell, 1888
HMS Vernon, 1889
HMS Collingwood, 1893
HMS Renown, 1897
HMS Victorious, 1901
HMS Britannia, 1903
HMS Isis, 1905 (Captain)
Naval Intelligence Department, 1907
Naval Attaché, Washington DC, USA, 1908
HMS Indefatigable, 1913 (Captain)
Battle of Jutland 31 May 1916 (killed in action)

Medal(s): Star
Victory Medal
British War Medal
Mentioned in despatches (London Gazette, 6 July 1916)

Memorial(s): Plymouth Naval Memorial
Battle of Jutland Memorial, St Michael’s Church, in Grounds of Brooksby Agricultural College, Melton, Leicestershire
Sowerby Family Memorial, All Saints Church, Manfield, North Yorkshire

Gender: Male

Contributed by David D, Stanley, Co Durham