Bedales 1904 – 1909 Lieutenant R.N.V.R. formerly Mate then Master, Mercantile Marine

Alexander was the eldest of the four children of James Alexander Allan and his wife Mabel née Young; all four came to Bedales School.  I’m a little uncertain about the family background and would appreciate any confirmation or correction.

It appears that Alexander’s great grandfather was another Alexander, a shoemaker, he turned first to being a ships’ carpenter and then a merchant seaman.  He made his fortune initially with a government contract for his brig “Hero” to transport troops and supply Wellesley’s army in the Peninsular War.  In 1819, as captain of a new ship named for his wife Jean, he sailed for Quebec and this was the founding voyage of the Allan Shipping Line.  Alexander and Jean’s five sons all played a part in the running of the company but the most important was their second son, Hugh, who emigrated to Canada to run the North American side of the business.  The youngest son, Alexander (II) born in 1825 joined his eldest brother James in managing the Glasgow end.

In 1854 Alexander married Jane, the daughter of Robert Smith, another Glasgow Ship owner.  Their eldest son Robert Smith Allan, born in 1857, went on to extend the family interests into Africa later in the century.  James Alexander, their second son born in 1862, also took to the sea.  It seems a little surprising that the son of what was now quite a wealthy family should go to sea just before his fourteenth birthday but according to his application for certificates of competence that is what James Alexander did.  However, it was only a voyage of twelve days – perhaps it was a test to ascertain whether he could follow in the footsteps of his grandfather.  From the 28th July 1877 he was at sea almost continuously to 28th July 1881 and for the last 16 months was serving as Third Mate.  James resumed sailing in June 1882 but for shorter periods, averaging about a month, back and forth to Portland in Maine, until 24th January 1883 when he applied for a Certificate of Competence as a Second Mate, claiming experience of a total of 4 years, 6 months and 28 days at sea.  Over the next three years he applied successfully for Certificates of Competence as First Mate and finally as Master which he achieved on 17th August 1885.

It wasn’t until 10th February 1892 that James Alexander Allan, now described as a ship owner, in Hillhead, Kelvingrove parish church, married Mabel Nora Young, the daughter of the Professor of Natural History at Glasgow University, a very distinguished scholar.  Their first child, named Alexander for his grandfather and great grandfather, was born on 12th January 1893.

By census day 1901 (when the enumerator made a mistake about his mother’s name), Alexander had two younger brothers, Hamish born on 29th January 1896 and John (always known as Jack) born on 4th November 1900.  The family, and James’s younger sister Jane, were living at Westerton House, Strathblane with a German governess, a Lady’s maid, a nurse and under nurse, a cook and a kitchen maid, two housemaids and a table maid.  This complement of female domestics was accompanied by a live-in male “helper to coachman”; he, with his family, was living in the village.  The Butler and his family were living in Westerton Lodge.  From this lavish background, when Alexander arrived at Bedales in September 1904 he must have experienced something of a shock.

I haven’t observed any comments on “Sandy’s” academic prowess but he was clearly a very active member of the community.  From the first publication of The Bedales Chronicle on 6th October 1907 his name frequently appears.  In that edition he is listed as one of the captains of a team in the Junior Football League but he is more frequently associated with individual sports.  Perhaps it should be expected that as a Scot he would be a keen and proficient golfer.  At this time golf was increasingly popular and the school had created its own nine-hole course.  In October 1907 he was one of the players classified as “high”, meaning in matches he had to concede a stroke a hole to a rival listed as “low”.  In the Junior competition he won all three of his matches but I think poor weather prevented the tournament from being completed.  The following year the conventional form of handicapping was introduced and Sandy was a “scratch” player.  He was also a Captain in the newly introduced Junior Fives League.  In April 1909 with Smithells (the best player in the School and the singles champion) he won the Doubles Competition.

A lot of his time and effort went into two of the School’s most prestigious groups.  When The Chronicle was first published he was already a member of the Fire Brigade and remained so for the rest of his time at school.  He was also very active in The Corps (a group based loosely on Baden Powell’s scouting plans), taking part in exciting “battles” around the school estate and beyond.  The patrols competed to see who could bring despatches safely into school without being caught by the opposition.  Some of these exercises lasted from 10am to 5pm and were enjoyed enormously by the participants.  Signalling of different sorts also formed a regular exercise.  In July 1908, when several members of the school cycled to Winchester to watch the pageant and have a picnic on St Catherine’s Hill, Sandy was one of the Corps members who formed the “Breakdown Gang”.  Their role was to plan the route and make sure that people didn’t get lost, shift supplies for the picnic and help out with the inevitable punctures.  A great day was had by all and they eventually got to bed at 1.30am.

By contrast, Sandy also played the violin.  In the Junior Concert in November 1907 he was leader of the 2nd violins and, with Oswald Horsley and another violinist, accompanied on the piano by Frank Best, played in a Quartet (these three were all to die in WW1).  By March 1908 he was leader of the 1st violins in the Junior Orchestra and also played a violin solo, accompanied by Frank.  Remaining leader in the Junior orchestra he also appeared amongst the 2nd violins in the School Orchestra and in his final performance in April 1909 had graduated to the 1st violins.

Sandy’s younger brother Hamish had joined him at Bedales in September 1906 and, as befitted a future medical practitioner, was gaining notice academically.  However, Sandy was much respected.  The editor of The Chronicle, composing his obituary in December 1917, wrote, “The regret we all felt at his leaving school just when we realised what a helper he would be was partly counterbalanced by the thought that he was a sailor born and that the sea was the place for him.”  At the end of the Spring Term 1909 Sandy left Bedales and joined the Training ship “Mersey” as an Apprentice.  She was a sailing ship which took long voyages to train its young crew led by experienced officers. 

On 7th February 1911 Sandy wrote from Australia to his old school friends Vyv Trubshawe and Oswald Horsley who were still at Bedales.  “We have had a very exciting time coming round from Melbourne.  We got among a lot of islands and some we only just missed by about 3 or 4 hundred yards.  Blowing hard all the time too.  We were reported as lost two or three times in Sydney for we took 14 days to do 500 miles. … The wireless came in very useful on our way round.  Tell Bug and Tom that we have wireless aboard and have signalled over 400 miles with it already.  I got the job of operator coming round and had a great time.”  He must have been recollecting “Wavy Lodge” at Bedales.

By March 1913 Sandy’s apprenticeship was over and for his last three months on “Mersey” he was a qualified Able Seaman.  Consequently, on return to Scotland, he applied for certification as a Second Mate.  The application records the fact that he was 5 feet 9 inches tall, with brown eyes, black hair and a fresh complexion; somewhere on his travels he had acquired a fish tattoo on his right forearm!  In his application, apart from the standard exams, he applied to take the Voluntary Exam in Signalling.  All that practice with the Bedales Corps came in very useful and he passed with flying colours and his Certificate of Competence was endorsed with that fact on 28th June.  Sandy then sailed as 2nd Mate on the “Hougomont”, a four masted barque of 2239 tons, between 4th August 1913 and 1st August 1914 when he applied for certification as a First Mate.  Having passed the required exams by 18th September he received his new Certificate of Competence on 30th September and returned to the “Hougomont”, taking up his new position on 15th November.

Sandy had applied to transfer to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve following the outbreak of war but he was ordered to remain with his ship.  James Alexander, his father, died on 17th April 1916 so did not live to congratulate his son on becoming a Master Mariner.  Leaving the “Hougomont” on 16th July Sandy took and passed the necessary exams on 11th August and received his Certificate as a Master on 12th August 1916.

Following this success Sandy was accepted into the R.N.V.R as a Lieutenant and became the commanding officer of the Motor Trawler “Morococala” and its normal skipper and crew, all of whom became part of the Royal Naval Reserve.  Built for and sailed by John Lewis and sons of Aberdeen, she had been commandeered by the Navy in April 1915.  A 125ft. steel vessel of 264.5 tons, from June 1917 she was employed as a minesweeper in area 21 of the Queenstown command off Cork, presumably to keep open the shipping lanes for vessels making the transatlantic crossing towards Liverpool. She was armed with a 6lb Hotchkiss quickfire gun and two depth charges.

On 19th November 1917, working in conjunction with the “Indian Empire” one and a half miles south of the Daunt Rock Lightship, “Morococala” struck a mine laid by U-boat 31 captained by Kurt Siewert.   “Lieutenant Allan and Signalman William Bellman were seen scrambling on top of the trawler’s wheelhouse. but another explosion followed quickly, hurling them off the roof into the smoke and flames and clouds of steam and coal dust.  They were never seen again.” (Secret Victory: Ireland and the War at Sea 1914 – 1918 by Liam & John Nolan. Mercia Press Ltd.)  The trawler sank within six seconds with the loss of all the crew apart from the trawler’s skipper Duthie who wasn’t aboard that day.

I hope to read the full account of the trawler’s loss next time I go to The National Archives.  The remains of the trawler, deteriorating after so many years but some parts still recognisable, lie at a depth of about 40 metres and it is a popular site for divers and also local fishermen.  Lieutenant Alexander Allan, along with most of the rest of the crew, is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.  His name is in the Reference Bay in the Bedales Memorial Library.

Hamish Allan was studying at MIT in the U.S.A on the outbreak of war but returned in 1915 to work with the Red Cross in Italy.  After qualifying as a doctor he later served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War Two.  Jack was a pupil at Bedales throughout the war.  Both brothers married fellow Bedalians though Hamish’s marriage ended in divorce.  Jack returned to teach at Bedales and he and his wife Gwyneth (née Jones) lived in the last-built Arts and Crafts house in Steep for many years.  Their son Hugh Alexander also was a pupil at Bedales.  In 1921 their sister Margaret came to Bedales – another example of a family's commitment to the school though I haven’t discovered how they came to choose it in the first place.

Sources: The Bedales Archives: several genealogical sites: www.wrecksite.eu: www.irelandgreatdivesites.com: www.irishwrecksonline.net