Tombstone Tuesday: war dead remembered

The Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial in Lowestoft, to members of the service who have no known resting place - including my great grand uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden. Died 9 March 1942 in the sinking of HMT Shera in the Barents Sea.

The Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial in Lowestoft. To members of the service who have no known resting place,  including my great grand uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden. Died 9 March 1942 in the sinking of HMT Shera in the Barents Sea. Photo credit: Royal Naval Patrol Service

The Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial commemorates the 2385 servicemen and women from the RNPS who lost their lives 1939-46 and who have no known grave. Most of these, like my great grand uncle Stewart Cruden, died at sea.

Kirkcaldy War Memorial; Stewart Cruden's name appears here.

Kirkcaldy War Memorial; Stewart Cruden’s name appears here. Photo: Su Leslie 2013.

Stewart Cruden is also remembered on the Kirkcaldy War Memorial.

The fate of HMT Shera: “Closed Until 1972”

Strolling ... Stewart Cruden and his mother with an unknown (to me) couple

Strolling … Stewart Cameron Cruden with his mother and an unknown couple.

Growing up, I often heard my mother talk about her great uncle “Sanky” who had died “in the war.” The bare bones of the story were that he drowned while serving on the Arctic Convoys, but like most family stories, it sat at the back of my mind, unexamined and half-forgotten.

When I first began researching my family history, mum sent me the photo above of her Uncle Sanky – whose real name was Stewart Cameron Cruden.  My mum doesn’t know when or where the photo was taken, or who the other people were, but that image of a confident young man walking nonchalantly towards the photographer somehow made him real to me and it became important to understand more about his life and death.

Life …

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On growing old together

When, last week, I posted a photo of my great grandparents at their 55th wedding anniversary, both Pacific Paratrooper and theamateurcamera commented on the longevity of their marriage.

Fifty five years married; my great grandparents, Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black.

Fifty fifth wedding anniversary; my great grandparents, Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black.

This reminded me that Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black were actually married for 62 years – until my great grandad died in 1970.

These great grandparents are particularly special to me; mainly perhaps because I knew them and have very fond memories of their presence in my life. When I was little and living in Kirkcaldy, they lived near by. My mother was especially close to her grandad, so I think we spent quite a lot of time with them. My memories are very much a child’s; the smell of the peppermints that great grandad kept a bag of tucked down the side of his chair; the slight buzz of his hearing aid, and the tortoiseshell Alice band my great grandmother wore to keep her wispy white hair off her face.

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

My great grandparents were married on the 27 March, 1908 in Kirkcaldy, Fife. He was seventeen, she was eighteen. Six weeks later, they became parents when my grandmother was born. Two years later they had another child – my great uncle Stewart. Three more children were to follow – all boys – but not until my great grandfather had returned wounded from serving in WWI. Indeed my great grandmother bore her last child George, within months of her only daughter (my grandmother) giving birth for the first time, to my uncle David Ramsay.

Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden with children Stewart and Margaret. Circa 1912.

Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden with children Stewart and Margaret. Circa 1912.

My mum recently gave me several photos of my grandmother and her brother Stewart. These are studio portraits showing the two young children in a variety of costumes. I don’t know much about the cost of photography in those days, but it seems to me that the family must have been quite comfortably off.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait from around 1915 perhaps?

When they married, my great grandfather was a coal miner. Three years later, in the 1911 census, his occupation is shown as carter.

Later in his life he was the publican of the Fife Arms Hotel in Milton of Balgonie, Fife, and the family also owned a dairy, a chip shop and perhaps also an icecream business – although this is something I have to investigate a bit more as my mother’s story about the icecream shop has always sounded a bit mysterious!

I know that my great grandfather served in the British Army in WWI – and that he was wounded, probably in France, and had his lower leg amputated. My mother thinks that he was a Gordon Highlander, but I cannot find any record of his military service. I know that over 50 percent of the personnel records of WWI British servicemen were lost in the Blitz, and can only assume his records were amongst them.

I do know that as a result of his injury, he spent time in Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. My mother remembers visiting him there in the 1940’s when she was a child, so I assume he continued to go for some sort of respite care.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors, probably in the 1920's.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors, probably in the 1920’s. Alexander Cruden is in the front row, third from the left.

Some records from Edenhall Hospital have been transferred to the Lothian Health Services Archive, but unfortunately, not records relating to the period of time my great grandad would have been there, so that is a dead end also.

It’s frustrating not to know more about my great grandfather’s military service. While he was only one of millions of men worldwide who served and suffered, the impact of his injury must have continued throughout his life. I remember his prosthetic limb – my great grandmother used to hide it when he annoyed her, while he would turn off his hearing aid and ignore whatever she was saying.

Of course it was not only my great grandfather who bore the impact of service. My great grandmother was left with two small children to raise alone, not knowing when – or if – her husband would return.

As a child I found my great gran a bit intimidating, but she was also an amazing woman. Her own mother apparently died when Catherine was a child, although I’ve not been able to find a record of this.

Alexander Cruden and Katherine (nee Black); my great grandparents with my at my christening.

Alexander and Catherine at my christening.

My mum talks about her gran travelling daily from home to work in the chip shop as pillion passenger on a friend’s motorbike, and of being unafraid to deal on the black market during the war to make sure family and friends were provided for.

She sounds like an astute businesswoman and someone who fiercely protected and looked after her family – raising a grandson when the boy’s parent’s marriage broke down, and looking after my mother and her siblings at times as well.

On the face of it, my great grandparents’ marriage sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Pregnant teenagers – parents before the ink was dry on the marriage license, separated for several years by war, a permanently disabled husband, five children spread over 11 years, the stress of another war in which three of their sons were in military service … any one of these would be considered sufficient for divorce these days. But instead they stuck together for sixty two years – eventually dying within months of each other.

su and tony

I know times were different then – divorce was expensive and difficult to obtain. But I’d like to think that Alec and Cath were happy; that their sixty two years were about more than endurance.

I like to think that not just for their sakes, but because it gives me hope for my own 27 year relationship with the Big T.

Nine weeks, two days, seven hours … and yes, obviously I am counting

arctic convoy exhib

Planning for my UK trip is getting quite advanced.

As well as organising to spend time at the Kirkcaldy Library and Fife Archives, I’ve discovered this exhibition at the National War Museum in Edinburgh. My mum’s great uncle Stewart Cruden served on the Arctic Convoys and died aboard the HM Shera in the Barents Sea in March 1942. His ship – a converted whaler – capsized because of ice. There was an official enquiry into the sinking, a copy of which is held at the National Archives in Kew. I hope to get to there to read this report too.

Seeing the world with new eyes


I’ve walked along Wellington’s waterfront past Frank Kitts Park dozens of times, and often stopped to read the plaques commemorating various naval events; shipwrecks, landings, etc.

Yet today was the first time I’d ever seen this memorial to the New Zealanders who took part in the Arctic Convoys of World War II. These delivered vital supplies to the USSR during a time when the Nazis controlled much of the territory around that vast country.

I was really touched by the memorial because my great uncle, Stewart Cruden, also sailed on the Arctic Convoys, losing his life in 1942 when his ship, a converted whaler called the Shera, capsized in atrocious, icy conditions in the Barents Sea with the loss of nineteen lives.

My great uncle’s death is commemorated on a memorial to members of the Royal Naval Reserve in Lowestoft, England. From that memorial I know that the sailors who died on the Shera were Scottish, English and Norwegian. There were no New Zealanders; but obviously, amongst the many hundreds of boats in the convoys, Kiwis did serve.

I’m glad they have been remembered.

Not a kiss … but another celebration of marriage

David Ramsay and Margaret Cruden celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

My maternal grandparents celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in 1951.

The last couple of “kiss” photos I posted got me thinking about the couples in my family, and actually how few photographs I have. None of my parents (without the kids) and only this one of my maternal grandparents.

David Skinner Ramsay and Margaret Simpson Bissett Cruden  were married in on 21 December 1926. Grandad was 25, Gran was 18. He was a coalminer, she a shop assistant. Both lived in Dysart, Fife, Scotland. They raised six children and remained married for 47 years, until my grandad’s death in 1973.

When my grandmother was widowed, she started travelling – to New Zealand to visit us, then Australia to see her brother and his family. She went to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to visit her only son, and back to Australia. In the last 15 or so years of her life she mainly stayed in Europe, but still managed to clock up an impressive number of miles for a woman who had never left the UK until she was in her mid 60s.

My gran died in 2006 – a week short of her 98th birthday. By that stage she had 17 grandchildren, 26(ish) great grandchildren, and a couple of great, great grandchildren.

She’s the grandparent I knew best and the only one I spent time with when I was an adult. Thinking back on all the hours we spent drinking tea and scoffing coffee meringues (her favourite), I wonder why I never asked her all the questions I now have about her life – her childhood, marriage, parents. Back then I just wasn’t that “into” family.

Now, a mother myself, I’m determined that my son will know more about his ancestry than I do about mine, and in particular the stories of lives and loves and death that make the past alive for us.

When the telegram came

Strolling ... Stewart Cruden and his mother with an unknown (to me) couple

Strolling … Stewart Cruden and his mother with an unknown (to me) couple

My mother sent me this photo recently. The young man in front is her great uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden, who died on 9 March 1942 aboard the HMT Shera in the Berants Sea. The ship was a Norwegian whaling boat which had been requisitioned by the British Navy as a minesweeper to protect the Arctic Convoys delivering supplies to Russia. It was en-route to Murmansk on loan to the Soviet government when high seas and pack ice caused the ship to ice up and capsize, with the loss of seventeen lives.

Mum remembers quite vividly hearing of her great uncle’s death. She said that when the telegram came, her parents were at the cinema in Kirkcaldy and that the management stopped the film to deliver the message that they were to go home immediately. Mum wasn’t sure who had sent the message – probably one of her older sisters – but the reason was that they were needed to comfort my great, great grandmother who was ill and living with my mother’s family at the time.

It seems an odd thing to do, but I guess that, in wartime, it was probably quite common. I also occurred to me that for my grandmother, hearing her name called out in the cinema must have been truly awful since my uncle David, her only son, was also serving in the navy and it must surely have gone through her mind that she was being sent home to a telegram announcing his death.

I like this photo. Stewart looks like a confident young man, striding out with an attractive woman at his side. My mum doesn’t know who the young woman in the photo is – or for that matter, the man at the back. The older woman walking behind is Stewart’s mother, Isabella Wallace.

Isabella Wallace, seated, with my grandmother standing beside her. Probably taken around 1933-1934.

Isabella Wallace, seated.

I don’t know when or where this photo was taken but I’m working on the assumption that it was in the late 1930s; based on the younger woman’s clothes, and also the fact that I have this photo of Isabella Wallace (sitting, with my grandmother beside her) in which she looks much younger, and I know that photo was taken after 1932 when she returned from the United States, having spent seven years living in New Jersey.

Anyone with knowledge of 1930s fashion who could help me date this more accurately – all suggestions welcome!

In Lowestoft, Suffolk, there is a memorial to the 2385 members of the Royal Naval Patrol Service who died during World War II who have no known grave. My great grand uncle is amongst them. lowestoft memorial cruden

My plan for 2013; a trip to the UK to, (amongst other family history objectives) take my mum to see this memorial.