The Albert Medal (AM) was instituted in 1866 and awarded for saving life at sea. Before being combined with the Edward Medal in 1971 to become the equivalent of the George Cross, only 216 bronze Albert Medals had been awarded. Morris Richard Ellis of Holyhead was awarded his postumously. It was presented to his family by Queen Elizabeth II at an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 27 February 1952.
Morris Richard Ellis was born in Preston on 18 July 1926. His father, Samuel Hugh Ellis, was from Holyhead and had served with the Cheshire Regiment during WW1. He married Annie Miller from Preston in 1922. Sadly Morris Richard’s mother died during his birth and he was then brought up by his paternal grandparents, Hugh and Ellen Ellis, at 1 Arthur Street, Holyhead. From that time he was known locally as Richie. His older sister, Catherine Megan (b. 1924) went to live with her maternal grandmother in Preston.
Richie went to school at Holyhead, Kingsland Primary and Cybi Secondary. He left school in 1943 and was employed in the Post Office in Holyhead. He had been a member of the Holyhead Sea Cadets and in 1944 joined the Merchant Navy. By 1950 he was an Able Seaman serving on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Oil Tanker, Wave Commander.
The Wave Commander was on a voyage from Heysham to the Persian Gulf. On 4 July 1950 the vessel was off the coast of Portugal when during tank cleaning the Bosun entered the tank to complete the cleaning by hose. The nozzle dropped from the hose into the tank and the Bosun descended to try and locate it. He was three-quarters of the way up the ladder when he was overcome by gas.
Able Seaman Ellis went to his assistance and managed to lash the Bosun to the ladder with a rope passed down to him. In doing this he must have been well aware of the danger and risk to his own life. Unfortunately he was overcome by the gas and having lost his grip on the ladder, fell to the bottom of the tank and was killed.
The vessel put in to Gibraltar and his body was taken ashore. He was buried on 6 July 1950 in the North Front Cemetery in Gibraltar. The grave in Gibraltar has been tended by members of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary for many years whenever their vessels were in Gibraltar. Members of Richie’s family in Preston visited the Cemetery in 2012, and arranged for a plaque to be added to the grave. They also placed some stones collected from Rhoscolyn beach, as the Ellis family can be traced to that area.
As regards the medal – In 2002 the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Association Historical Society made enquiries through the local press in Anglesey to see if any of the family were living locally. No useful information came to light at this time although the Medal itself was in the care of relatives of Richie in Holyhead. Further enquiries were made by Chris White of the RFA Historical Society in the Preston area in 2005. This drew a response from family members of Catherine Megan Swarbrick (nee Ellis), Richie’s sister. They in turn made contact with the relatives in Holyhead and the Medal was rightly handed to them as his sister, although by then deceased, was the actual next of kin. The medal is now in the care of this side of the family.
Officially Frederick Neville Riley was born at Holyhead on 24 March 1896. However another source suggests that he was actually born on a Sailing Barque at Antwerp, his father Alfred Thomas Riley being Master of the vessel.
Neville Riley was brought up at Sunrise Terrace, Gors, Holyhead and in 1909 was a member of the fledgling 1st Holyhead Scout Troop. On a Saturday afternoon in June of that year, and dressed in his new Scout uniform, he went to the aid of a 10 year old boy, Richard Robert Jones, who had fallen into the water off Mackenzie Pier whilst fishing. The rescue was witnessed by a number of people and a recommendation was made for recognition of this brave act to the Chief Scout, Major-General Robert Baden-Powell. As a result Neville Riley was awarded the Scout Silver Medal for Saving Life. He was presented with the medal in the grounds of Llys Y Gwynt at Holyhead by Colonel Pilkington.
By 1913 Neville Riley was serving as a 17 year old Cadet on the Blue Star ship SS Broderick. We know this from a postcard sent from his mother, Mirriam. The photograph was taken by his father, probably at Penrhos.
By 1915 Neville Riley had qualified as Second Mate and by 1917 as First Mate. In 1919 he gained his Master’s Certificate for Ocean Going Vessels. He was at sea throughout World War 1 and for this he was awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal and British War Medal. His brother Ronald was employed on the clerical staff of the LNWR Marine Department when war broke out and was selected by Commander Holland to serve in the recently formed Inland Water Transport section of the Royal Engineers. He ended the war as Captain.
By the time of WW2 Captain Riley had obtained his own command and in 1942 was Master of the Blue Star vessel SS Brisbane Star. This vessel, together with her sister ship Melbourne Star, were selected to be part of the relief convoy to the besieged island of Malta under the code name Operation Pedestal. Both ships were fast and ideal for a quick passage through the Gibralter Strait. In all the convoy consisted of 50 ships with 14 merchantmen heavily loaded with essential supplies the island needed to resist the Axis onslaught. The convoy set off from Scotland in early August and passed through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar on the 10th August. The Brisbane Star‘s cargo included high octane aviation fuel in cans, torpedoes, bombs, gun barrels and other materials of war. On the 13th August she was hit by a torpedo in the bow, which resulted in a large gaping hole causing the vessel to significantly reduce speed.
Captain Riley decided to run for the shelter of the Tunisian coast and eventually anchored off the Tunisian port of Sousse. Here the French harbour authorities declared the Brisbane Star unseaworthy and tried their utmost to detain her, but since the ship had not actually entered the harbour they were unable to enforce their declaration about the state of the ship. It has also been reported that Captain Riley had helped persuade the French Authorities not to intern his ship with ample servings of good Scotch Whisky. With Malta about 200 miles away the Brisbane Star moved away from the coast under cover of darkness, later picking up an escort of Spitfires in order to hopefully complete the last leg of the journey with some sort of protection. Valetta was reached with her cargo intact on the 14th August, the day after her sister ship, the Melbourne Star had arrived. Only 5 of the 14 merchant ships managed to reach Malta but the war materials they carried allowed Malta to continue to survive.
Captain Riley was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), one of the first officers of the Merchant Navy to receive this honour for ‘seamanship, fortitude and endurance in taking merchantmen through to Malta in the face of relentless attacks by day and night from enemy submarines, aircraft and surface forces’.
Captain Riley married Jean Nicolina Ralston in 1937 and when he retired in 1962 they moved to live in Sydney, Australia. He died there in September 1979. His wife passed away in February 1992.
Contributed by Barry Hillier and Mark Bertorelli whose postcard was the starting point for finding out more about Neville Riley
During the 19th Century there were many attempts to discover a navigable trade route to Asia via the Arctic Ocean of Northern Canada. This became known as the search for the Northwest Passage.
In 1845 an expedition led by Captain Sir John Franklin departed the UK aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to traverse the last unnavigated sections of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The expedition met with disaster after both ships and their crews, a total of 129 officers and men, became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island. After being icebound for more than a year, Erebus and Terror were abandoned in April 1848, by which point Franklin and nearly two dozen men had died. The survivors, now led by Franklin’s deputy Francis Crozier and Erebus‘ captain James Fitzjames, set out for the Canadian mainland. They disappeared into the arctic wasteland.
Much later in 1981 the frozen bodies of three crew members were found. Laboratory tests determined high concentrations of lead in the bodies, probably from the lead sealed tins of food that the expedition carried. Strangely evidence was also found on the bones of others that suggested that the last of the surviving crew resorted to cannibalism of deceased members in an effort to survive.
The fate of Sir John Franklin’s voyage of discovery to search for a Northwest Passage through Canada’s frozen north, became one of history’s greatest mysteries. Over 30 expeditionswere made in attempts to unravel the enigma. The mystery perpetuated for well over 160 years before the wrecks of Franklin’s vessels, the Erebusand Terror, were finally found. The two sites are currently under investigation and a number of artifacts have been discovered, including the bell from HMS Erebus – https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/hms-erebus-and-terror
Two Holyhead sailors were among the 67 crew of the Erebus – George Williams and William Mark.
George Williams was from the Holyhead/Rhoscolyn area of Anglesey. He was familier with Arctic waters and had previously sailed with Edward Parry on board the Heclain 1824. He had been invalided out of the navy in about 1841 due to ill health but managed to re-enlist as a Seaman on the Erebus four years later, aged 35. Williams married Margaret Wade Jennings on Christmas day 1843 at St. Augustine’s Church, Bermondsey. His father’s name was given as Thomas Williams, a farmer, presumably from Holyhead.
William Mark was the son of Humphrey and Catherine Mark of Summer Hill, Holyhead, born about 1824. He was also a Seaman aboard the Erebus. As Mark was a bachelor, the residue of his effects passed to his sister, Elizabeth Porter of 3, Lower Well Street, Holyhead. A metal certificate case belonging to Mark was one of a number of artifacts recovered during later expeditions attempting to solve the mystery.
Their bodies were never found.
These were not the only sailors with links to Holyhead to have sailed as part of the valiant search for the Northwest Passage.
Samgar-Nebo Samuel Wilkes was born at Westminster in 1794, the son of James Wilkes, a gunsmith residing at James Street, Westminster. It is not surprising that being brought up in such an environment that the young Wilkes followed a sea career as an armourer. In 1819 Wilkes joined the Hudson Bay Company vessel Prince of Wales and set out from Gravesend on the 23rd of May 1819 bound for Canada. He was to be part of an overland expedition to explore and chart the area around the Coppermine River. One of the leaders of the expedition was Lt. John Franklin. Wilkes, due to ill health, did not complete the voyagebut returned to Britain in the spring of the following year, carrying dispatches from the expedition. Disastrously of the 20 men who formed the expedition, 11 perished.
Within months Wilkes signed on his second Arctic expedition under the command of Captains William Edward Parry RN and George Francis Lyon RN. The two vessels, Heclaand Furyset sail in early 1821 with Wilkes accepted as the Armourer’s Mate (Petty Officer rank) aboard the Hecla, then under the command of Captain Lyon. The expedition returned to Britain in November 1823.
In June 1824 and just 16 days after marrying his first wife, Mary Jane Doggett, at London, Wilkes set sail on his final Arctic voyage aboard HMS Griperaccompanied by the survey vessel Snap. Their mission was to support Hecla andFury which had set sail a month earlier. Well into the voyage, at the end of August, and after being severely damaged in bad weather, the vessel was almost lost. She managed to limp into Hudson Bay before returning to Britain in December. Her commander, George Francis Lyon, abandoned his naval career the following year.
It was at the same time that Wilkes also abandoned his sea going career to take up a position at the new Packet Yard at Holyhead. He married the widow Elizabeth Watkins, nee Morris (his third wife) at Holyhead in 1835, living for most of the rest of his life at 14 Millbank Gardens, Holyhead. He descibed himself at various times as an Engineer, Boilermaker, Brazier and Coppersmith and became a very colourful character around the town. He was father to seven children – four sons and three daughters. He died in 1872 and was buried in St Seiriol’s Church Cemetery. It is believed that he was one of the original founders of the Hibernia, later St. Cybi, Masonic Lodge at Holyhead, as evidenced by the ensignia on his gravestone.
Although only supposition it is difficult to resist the thought that Wilkes may have had some influence in Williams and Mark signing up for Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845.
Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts
This is part of a collection of posts telling the sometimes overlooked stories of some of Holyhead’s brave heroes.
“The Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus and Terror“- John Horton
The photograph of Samgarnebo Samuel Wilkes is from the book ‘Holyhead – People, Prosperity and Poverty’ by John Rowland OBE. Originally published with permission of the St. Cybi Lodge of Freemasons, Holyhead.