678400 Merchant Marine Reserve

Benjamin was a member of the Bedales Community but not a pupil at the School.  He had been born in Steep on 23rd October 1890 (according to his initial entry at Steep School).  He was the second son of Thomas and Annie Vidler whose families came from nearby villages.  On census day 1891, when Benjamin was 5 months old, the small family was living in a Cottage “near the Church” and his father was a General Labourer.  At the age of three and seven months he would have had only a short walk across the road on his first day at School on 29th May 1894.

On 23rd April 1901 the Steep Schoolmaster recorded that Benjamin had left the school as the family had left the parish.  In fact, on census day earlier that month, they were recorded at Jones Cottages in Langrish; Thomas Vidler was now a Bricklayer’s Labourer.  Thomas died in the following year and his widow Annie survived him by only five years. I cannot trace his elder brother William but in April 1911 Benjamin’s sister Mary was living with her maternal aunt and younger brother George was with his maternal uncle in East Meon.  Benjamin, now aged 20, was a domestic servant at Bedales School.  Unfortunately no records of the duties of the domestic staff survive.  Benjamin was living in the house we now call Dunhill Ports with three other servants, one aged 14, another 19 and the third, Arthur Millington Dodd, also aged 20.  In charge of this small group was Arthur Girdlestone, the Farm Manager, who also taught Games and played ’cello and double bass in the School Orchestra.

The second gap in knowledge of Benjamin’s later life is caused by the destruction of records relating to Merchant Seaman for the years 1913 to 1919.  It is possible he had left Bedales for the potentially more interesting life as steward on a cargo and passenger ship.  The Steam Ship Clan McNaughton had been built in the Govan Shipyards in 1911 for transport chiefly to India. She returned to her home base at Tilbury in November 1914 and was commandeered for service as an armed merchant cruiser.  After refitting with heavy guns she sailed from Liverpool before Christmas in 1914 as part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron, patrolling the Atlantic waters.  Number 678400 Merchant Marine Reserve Benjamin Vidler sailed as a Steward.

The fate of HMS Clan McNaughton is unclear.  At 6am on 3rd February 1915 her Captain, Robert Jeffries, radioed that the ship was in “terrible weather” and that was the last heard of her.  About two weeks later some wreckage was found near the likely site of her sinking but it wasn’t identified positively.  The Admiralty finally published news of her loss on 23rd February stating that all 20 officers and 261 crew had perished.  The possible causes of her sinking mirror the loss of the Mary Rose in 1545.  She had been adapted, by the addition of heavy guns on an upper deck, possibly dangerously affecting her stability, and had put back to Liverpool twice in the preceding weeks with some unspecified problem.  The captain and some officers and ratings were experienced serving Royal Navy men and the engineers were professionals from the Merchant Marine but the majority of the crew were recent recruits including a group of Canadians who had just arrived from Newfoundland and 50 boys straight from Naval training school, unknown to each other and unfamiliar with the ship. In a severe Atlantic storm it is easy to see that panic and inexperience could contribute to disaster.

Benjamin Vidler is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, the War Memorial in Church Road, Steep and on the plaque in All Saints’ Church.  Now he will be remembered, alongside pupils who died, in our small exhibition in the Memorial Library.

I am indebted to Frances Box for pointing me to the Steep School Register: information and conjecture about the ship derives from assorted sites on ancestry.co.uk.