Frederick James Elms (1873-1941): What One Picture Taught Me About My Family & the Battle of Jutland

Frederick James Elms

I was recently given a number of old black and white family photos by my mother, who is in the process of moving to a smaller home.  For anyone with an interest in family history, receiving a collection of old pictures is always a bit of a thrill.  While I had seen most of them before, I appreciated the opportunity to study the old images more closely.  You never know, there is always the chance you might find something that had previously escaped your notice!

Surprisingly, the item that caught my attention didn’t turn out to be a picture.  I was intrigued by a small booklet recording the death of Frederick James Elms, who had died on September 25, 1941.  It seems like the kind of thing that is given out as a memento at a funeral.  While I immediately recognized the Elms surname, I was less clear as to who Frederick James was.  This item must have held special meaning for someone, and I decided to try to learn more about Frederick’s identity.

In Affectionate Remembrance

Who Was Frederick James Elms?

The booklet above indicates that Frederick James Elms was 67 years old when he died in 1941, giving him a birth date of about 1874.  A search of my family tree revealed that Frederick was the sixth of seven children born to Nathaniel Elms and Susan St. Pierre.  This same couple had helped to raise my Great Grandmother, Emily Violet May Wickens, after the sudden death of her father in 1900.  It turns out that Frederick James Elms was actually my Great Grandmother’s uncle.  Had the booklet above belonged to her?  She seemed the most likely candidate as her mother and only sister had remained in England and had not immigrated to Canada.

Given what I already knew about Frederick, it was relatively easy to obtain his birth record which can be seen below.  Frederick James Elms was born on October 13, 1874 in a district of southwest London in the borough of Wandsworth. Frederick’s father was an Omnibus Conductor and the Elm’s family had been living at 64 Crescent Road in Clapham.  Frederick was baptized soon after on March 22, 1874 in the Parish of St. James, Clapham in the County of Surrey.

Birth of Frederick James Elms

Birth of Frederick James Elms

Royal Navy

I was surprised to find that by 1891, at the age of only 16, Frederick was living in Dorset, England where he was serving with the Royal Navy, as a Boy, 2nd Class.  His name appeared alongside 19 other boys, the youngest of which was only 15 years of age!  How had Frederick come to be in the Royal Navy at such a young age?  Was he a difficult child who had been sent to the navy to learn some discipline?  Maybe the Elms family was so poor that they had no other choice.  Whatever the reason, Frederick would spend his entire career serving in Great Britain’s Royal Navy.

According to the Royal Navy’s Registers of Seaman’s Services (1848-1939) Frederick James Elms had brown hair and brown eyes with a ruddy complexion.  He was only 5 feet 2 1/2 inches tall when he joined the navy as a 16 year old boy, and as an adult his height was recorded as being 5 feet 8 inches tall.  Frederick’s service number was 156266, and over the course of his long career he served on over 20 different ships, some of them more than once.  These ships had names that included Britannia, Victory, Goliath and Vernon.  Suddenly I remembered having previously seen the name Vernon in an old picture, which I have included below.

Uncle Fred
Uncle Fred

According to Wikipedia, HMS Vernon was a shore establishment or ‘stone frigate’ of the Royal Navy and served as a torpedo school.  Interestingly, the subject of the picture on the right appears to be a Petty Officer of that same torpedo school.  Although the image is faded, you can still make out the patches on both arms of the sailor’s uniform.

Frederick’s service records indicate that he had served on the Vernon four different times, although only once with the rank of Petty Officer.  This means this picture was likely taken between August and November of 1914.  Frederick would have been about 41 years old.

In 1914, Emily Violet May Wickens was 14 years old, and her Uncle Frederick probably seemed larger than life.  As a veteran sailor in the Royal Navy, he would have had his fair share of interesting stories to tell.  Entering into the Great War, Britain was intensely proud of its navy, and Emily Violet May may have shared a similar sense of pride, and concern, in her uncle’s service to his country.  Written in the bottom right of the photo you can just make out the words, Uncle Fred.

Battle of Jutland

Frederick’s service records indicate that he had served on the Arethusa-class light cruiser HMS Galatea between November 1914 and July 1919.  This is significant as Galatea was part of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet that participated in the Battle of Jutland on May 31 and June 1, 1916.

At about 2:20 pm on the afternoon of May 31, 1916 HMS Galatea was the first member of Britain’s Grand Fleet to report the presence of German ships in the North Sea.  The following is a first hand account from one of Galatea’s crew:

They put a shell through our ship’s side, through our dispensary, through another bulkhead, and finally made a dimple in the other side of the ship, but luckily for us it did not explode, as it was right over the 4″ magazine chamber and I don’t think it necessary to state here what would have happened.  – Engine Room Rating T. Farquhar, HMS Galatea, 1st Light Cruiser Squadron

The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval conflict of the Great War in which approximately 8,000 British and German sailors lost their lives.  I had never heard of this particular naval battle before, and cannot imagine what is must have been like for those who were involved.  It is very likely that Frederick would have known sailors who lost their lives in that battle.  If you are not familiar with what happened at Jutland, I would encourage you to click on one of the links above.  A very readable account of this battle is Nigel Steel and Peter Hart’s Jutland 1916 Death in the Grey Wastes which is also the source for the quote of the Galatea crew member above.

HMS Galatea
Frederick James Elms Served on HMS Galatea (the ship was struck by a German shell that did not explode)
Emily Sarah Wickens (nee Elms) about 1900, with daughter Emily Violet May on her knee.

Family Resemblance?

As a point of interest, I have included a picture of my Great Great Grandmother, Emily Sarah Wickens (nee Elms), pictured with her daughters Emily Violet May (on knee) and Louisa Ruth Caroline (standing beside).  Emily Sarah was an older sister to Frederick James Elms, and in my opinion, the two seemed to have shared a family resemblance.  I thought the eyes and mouth seemed especially similar.  Do you see a similarity?  Feel free to disagree!

Later Life

I was able to find the death record of Frederick James Elms, which is pictured below.  Frederick was recorded as being a Naval Pensioner at the time of his death in September 1941, and had been living at 6 Heslop Road in Battersea.

Many of the sailors of Frederick’s day would have smoked a pipe which would have been viewed as a kind of comfort.  The effects of tobacco wouldn’t have been known then, and this habit may explain Frederick’s cause of death, which was carcinoma of the tongue.

The name of Frederick’s wife was simply recorded as A.M.M. Elms, and I have not been able to find a marriage record for the couple or learn whether they had any children.  The online records of the Morden Cemetery, now known as the New Battersea Cemetery, show that an Alice Maud Elms was buried there in September 1961.  I think it’s likely this would have been the widow of Frederick James Elms.


Death of Frederick James Elms

Death of Frederick James Elms

Final Thoughts

Other family members have shared with me that the picture of the sailor above is that of Frederick Albert Sebra Harris, who was an older brother to my Great Grandfather, Sidney Harris.  Frederick Harris was born in 1894, in Tulse Hill, Lambeth, and would have been 20 years younger than the subject of this blog post.  While Frederick may have very well served in the Great War, he would only have been about 24 years old by the time the war ended.  This picture seems to have been of a British sailor during the Great War (1914-1918) who was older than 24.

I have not been able to find a naval service record for Frederick Harris or any indication that he was a Petty Officer at H.M.S. Vernon.  If he was, those records no longer seem to exist.  Maybe we will never know for certain.  Regardless of whether this is a picture of Frederick James Elms, he certainly lived a fascinating life!

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2 thoughts on “Frederick James Elms (1873-1941): What One Picture Taught Me About My Family & the Battle of Jutland

  1. Loved it! Keep them coming Chris! I know Mom told me Nan Harris wrote “Uncle Fred” on his picture.
    Love Mom
    Ps I have many treasures yet to give you in the future to investigate!
    M xo

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