The Iolaire Disaster 1919
The Iolaire Disaster 1919
On 1 January 1919 HMY ‘Iolaire’, carrying around 284 crew and naval personnel, ran onto the rocks known as 'The Beast' at Holm Point, in the approach to Stornoway Harbour, in the Island of Lewis. Records in NRS provide evidence of the lives of many of the 201 men who lost their lives in the wreck, and the impact the tragedy had on the community.
The Admiralty yacht HMY Iolaire under the name 'Amalthaea' (Ness Historical Society [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
In December 1918 Iolaire was a lightly-armed steam-powered yacht in the Royal Navy’s Auxiliary Patrol force. It had been hired in 1915 by the Admiralty (pennant no. 065) to augment the thousands of small vessels that served in home and foreign waters. It was built as a private yacht in 1881 at Ramage and Ferguson’s shipyard in Leith. In November 1918 it was renamed Iolaire, having previously carried the name Amalthaea, and before that, Iolanthe and Mione.
Among the scattered records in NRS that relate to the Iolaire disaster, the testaments reveal the financial means of some of the victims, and a small group of sheriff court papers provide precious evidence of appeals against conscription during the First World War. They highlight social conditions on Lewis that shaped the lives of some of those who perished in the wreck.
Some islanders' stories
Details of inventory of estate of Donald Campbell, RNR, who died on the Iolaire (National Records of Scotland, SC25/44/31, p.685)
Leading Seaman 2058/C Donald Campbell served in the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), listed as on the strength of HMS Pembroke, the shore establishment. He was married to Catherine Campbell. Donald Campbell’s testament contains a revealing inventory listing his unpaid wages, the value of his possessions, the ‘war gratuity’ payable to his widow and the RNR gratuity for his service, a total of £133.7s.11d (equivalent to purchasing power of about £5,250 in 2018). His younger brother Alexander Campbell, who lived nearby at 8 Vatisker, also died in the disaster on 1 January 1919, aged 42, but his body was never recovered. He was a Leading Seaman, 2999/C, on HMS ‘Victory’, married to Jessie Graham.
Another of the dead was Angus Macdonald, who lived at 42 Leurbost, Lochs, Lewis, with his wife Mary. A Royal Naval Reservist, no 1830/D, nominally attached to HMS Imperieuse, a receiving ship from which personnel were posted. On his death at the age of 45, his Post Office savings account was found to be worth £402 (equivalent to purchasing power of about £18,600 in 2018).
In the pre-war years a labourer named Malcolm Martin left Lewis in search of a better life, eventually finding work as a shepherd at Punta Arenas in Southern Chile. Why he left is unclear, but in October 1906 he and another man were fined three guineas at Stornoway Sheriff Court for breach of the peace and malicious mischief. In a dispute possibly connected to elections to the Balallan School Board, they had hurled peats, smashed windows and broken into the schoolhouse, whose occupants they frightened. (British Newspaper Archive, ‘Inverness Courier’, 12 October 1906; petition for bail, 1906, NRS, SC33/37/1906/52)
Martin was back home on a visit when war broke out in 1914. Unable to return to South America, he was living in his parents’ house at 21 Balallan and helping his father Donald’s croft. In 1916, like many other young men in the district, he appealed against conscription. He claimed that he had set himself up in South America with horses and land, and needed to return to look after them. Read about his appeal case in the ScotlandsPeople website.
After the local tribunal rejected his appeal Martin joined the Royal Naval Reserve. He is listed on the strength of HMS Pembroke, the shore establishment at Portsmouth, but like other RNR personnel from Lewis, probably served on auxiliary naval vessels. And like other Lewismen serving in the RNR, he boarded the Iolaire for the voyage home on 31 December 1918. He died in the wreck, and his body was buried at Laxey Cemetery, Lochs. His death is recorded both in the register for Stornoway registration district and the Extracts from Navy Returns of Deaths (Minor Records vol. 146 in ScotlandsPeople).
Malcolm Martin’s death entry in 1919 Deaths, no 269.
In common with the rest of Scotland, and particularly with people involved in agriculture, a typical reason for Lewis men to object to being conscripted was the hardship that would be caused to their families by their absence on military service. The tribunal might postpone their call-up date to allow them time to arrange for assistance on their croft. Many eligible men living on crofts at Balallan appealed against conscription, and were generally refused.
In 1916 Malcolm MacIver appealed against conscription From no. at 40 Breasclet, Stornoway. A remarkable letter of support was written by his father Neil and sixteen neighbours from Breasclet on 21 May 1917, highlighting the precariousness of the crofters’ existence. They requested that Malcolm be granted condition exemption because of his mother’s age (72) and poor health, the mental incapacity of his sister, ‘who has constantly to be under close supervision’, and the absence in France of his brother. If Malcolm were called away from home ‘the usual annual supply of peats are uncut, and will remain so’, and ‘croft-work, cattle and sheep shall go unattended – in fact home and croft shall soon become vacant.’ (SC33/62/1/90)
Another islander who was conscripted and subsequently died on active service was Evander Mackenzie (or McKenzie), a mason and crofter of 13 Branahuie, by Stornoway, who joined 2nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, and died in France on 10 May 1917. His conscription appeal papers are in NRS (ref SC33/62/1/37).
Learn more about Military Service Appeals Tribunal records.
Registering the deaths
The huge loss of life on the Iolaire posed a challenge for the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages for Stornoway District, George Macleod, and his assistant, Peggy MacRitchie.
The status of the servicemen on board, and the fact that the bodies of several men were never found, complicated the task of registering their deaths. Twenty officers and crewmen of the Iolaire perished, but seven survived. Twelve of the deaths were registered soon after the disaster, on 5 January 1919, on information supplied by the Captain of the Naval Depot at Stornoway (Britain’s largest Royal Naval Reserve base). These twelve deaths were registered to help the families of the dead. Almost all of them lived in England, and the bodies were despatched there on 4 January.
Telegram from the Registrar at Stornoway to the Registrar General, requesting guidance on registering deaths of men whose bodies were being sent to England 4 January 1919 (National Records of Scotland, GRO5/1076)
On 10 February 1919, concerned that only twelve registered deaths were reported in the monthly returns, the RG asked the Registrar how registration of the deaths was progressing.
In other marine disasters involving fatalities the Procurator Fiscal examined the available evidence regarding the deaths of British subjects and submitted a Report of Precognition to the relevant Registrar. Soon after the ‘Iolaire’ disaster the Procurator Fiscal in Stornoway indicated to the Registrar that he would not be supplying such reports. Nevertheless a Fatal Accident Inquiry was convened on 10 February. Among its findings was the inadequate response of the boat’s crew to the initial impact, the insufficient number of life- belts, boats and rafts, and the delay in deploying life-saving apparatus on the shore.
Report of the FAI findings (National Records of Scotland, GRO5/1076)
Following the verdict of the FAI, the cause of death by ‘drowning’, which had been entered for the twelve deaths registered to date, was corrected on 31 March 1919 to ‘suffocation due to submersion’. This cause of death became the standard for all the other ‘Iolaire’ deaths that were registered, starting with more than 100 between late March and late May 1919. They were mostly seamen like Malcolm Martin who were serving in the Royal Naval Reserve. Some deaths were not registered until after bodies were recovered when the wreck was raised. The deaths of another 80 or so RNR and RNVR men were not registered until the period 29 November - 29 December 1919. The delay probably added to the anguish of the families involved. The work was stressful for the Registrar and his assistant. Peggy MacRitchie resigned in 1920 ‘because she felt the work too heavy for her’.
The Iolaire Disaster Fund
In response to the disaster, on 6 January an all-male committee was formed ‘to provide assistance for the dependants of men who lost their lives in the wreck of His Majesty’s yacht ‘Iolaire’ at the entrance of Stornoway Harbour’. The Iolaire Disaster Fund was quickly constituted and opened to public subscription. The first registered donation was £1,000 from Lord Leverhulme, who owned Lewis and Harris. Other donations and fundraising concerts during 1919 gathered a total of £29,116. 7s.
Payments to families who had lost fathers, brothers or sons typically ranged from £7 to £9. 10s per year. In 1919 payments to dependants amounted to £2,198. 11s. 4d., and they supported 201 families by the time the final payments in January 1938, when the last children of the dependants turned 18 years old.
This article draws on various records held in National Records of Scotland.
National Records of Scotland, File on deaths at sea, 1914-1926 (GRO5/1076)
National Records of Scotland, Examiners’ reports on registers in 1919 (GRO1/65, p.85)
National Records of Scotland, Inland Revenue file on Iolaire Disaster Fund (IRS21/1338)
Hebridean Connections, Iolaire Disaster Fund: volumes and papers
John Macleod, ‘When I heard the bell: the Loss of the Iolaire’ (Birlinn, 2009)
Naval-History.net, An Index to "British Warships 1914-1919" by F. J. Dittmar & J. J. Colledge
National Records of Scotland, Open Book, The Sinking of the Tuscania, 1918