Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

10 posts from August 2023

03 August 2023

Reginald Bult and Operation ZO

Nunhead is one of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries.  It may not have the famous residents of Highgate or Kensal Green, but in among the graves and tombs of local worthies lies that of a sailor who took part in one of the most daring naval raids of World War One.

Reginald Bult’s grave  Nunhead cemeteryReginald Bult’s grave, Nunhead cemetery, © Sarndra Lees, New Zealand, 2015.

Reginald Bult was born in Bermondsey in 1896 and grew up in Peckham, the seventh of nine children of Henry, a railway weighbridge clerk, and Jane.  He worked as a Post Office telegraph messenger and a lift attendant before joining the Royal Navy on his eighteenth birthday, just two months before the start of hostilities.  Within a year he had advanced to Able Seaman and in April 1918 he took part in Operation ZO.  The brainchild of Vice Admiral (later Admiral of the Fleet) Roger Keyes, the plan was to sink obsolete cruisers simultaneously in the harbours at Zeebrugge and Ostend thus preventing German U-boats entering the North Sea from their pens at Bruges.

The operation began on the eve of St George’s Day with Keyes’s signal ‘St George for England’ (to which Capt. Carpenter, commanding HMS Vindictive, replied, ‘May we give the dragon’s tail a damn good twist’).  Reginald was onboard HMS Iris II (a requisitioned Mersey ferry) whose task was to create a diversion by landing Royal Marines and sailors on the mole at Zeebrugge to destroy German guns and cause as much damage as possible.  Iris came under intense fire and most of the raiding party was killed before they even got off the ship.

Reginald Bult’s name in the register of participants in Operation ZOReginald Bult’s name in the register of participants in Operation ZO, Add MS 82500 C.

The operation was only a partial success.  Neither blockship at Ostend obstructed the harbour , and while all three were sunk at Zeebrugge, they were not in the right positions.  The harbour was only out of action for a couple of days.  The Germans simply dredged new channels, allowing naval movements at high tide.

The cost was huge.  Of the 1780 men who took part something like 227 died and 400 were wounded.  Exact figures are difficult to determine as there is no consistency of approach in whether to include the missing among the dead and whether to combine casualties from both sites.  Whichever source one uses, the ratio of casualties to participants was around 1:3. 

Sadly, Reginald is numbered among the dead, dying of his wounds in Dover Military Hospital, his Royal Navy service record marked, poignantly, ‘DD’ – discharged dead.  He was mentioned in dispatches and he was included in the ballot for a Victoria Cross to be awarded to the non-officer ranks in action at the mole – the warrant for the VC allows recipients to be chosen in this way where a body of men is deemed equally brave.

Reginald Bult’s service record
Reginald Bult’s service record, The National Archives ADM 188/691/22432, © Crown copyright, 1908, licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Reginald Bult’s mention in dispatches  London Gazette  19 July 1918Reginald Bult’s mention in dispatches, London Gazette, 19 July 1918, Add MS 82503, © Crown copyright, 1918, licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Reginald was not chosen. Instead it was fellow Bermondsian Albert McKenzie who was selected, one of eight VCs awarded for the operation.  McKenzie, only nineteen at the time of Operation ZO, was severely wounded in the action.  He recovered but did not live to see peace, succumbing to the 1918 flu pandemic just eight days before the armistice.  He is commemorated with a statue on Tower Bridge Road, a stone’s throw from where he was born, and is buried just a mile from Reginald, in Camberwell Old Cemetery.

Michael St John-Mcalister
Manuscripts Catalogue and Process Manager

Further reading
The Keyes Papers, Add MS 82499-82507
E. C. Coleman, No Pyrrhic Victories: The 1918 Raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend, A Radical Reappraisal (Stroud, 2014)
Christopher Sandford, Zeebrugge: The Greatest Raid of All (Oxford, 2018)
Philip Warner, The Zeebrugge Raid (Barnsley, 2008)


01 August 2023

Catherine Shillcock in Agra Fort

In my recent post about Charles Daniels, an ex-soldier sent adrift upon the world, I asked if anyone could help me find what happened to his wife Catherine after the death of her second husband Sergeant John Shillcock in 1855.  One of our readers has pointed me in the direction of the Agra Fort Directory of 1857 where a widow ‘Mrs C Shilcock’ is listed.

Agra Fort Directory 1857 - front cover

Agra Fort Directory 1857 - explanation of abbreviations used and the first page of names beginning with AAgra Fort Directory 1857 - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur D385 

The directory was based on a census taken by Assistant Surgeon James Pattison Walker of 5,845 people sleeping in the Fort on 27 July 1857 .  They were seeking refuge from the Indian Uprising.  Nearly 2,000 Europeans are named - soldiers, civil servants, surgeons, teachers, priests, nuns, railway employees, merchants, craftsmen, bankers, indigo planters, and wives, widows, and children.  There were also 1542 ‘East Indians’, 858 ‘Native Christians’, 1157 ‘Hindoos’, and 229 ‘Mahomedans’, but no names are recorded for these groups.

Numbers of people sleeping in Agra Fort 26-27 July 1857

Numbers of people sleeping in Agra Fort 26-27 July 1857

Mrs Shillcock was living in Block F of the Fort.  A fellow resident was twenty-year-old Rosa Mary Coopland. Her husband, chaplain George William Coopland, had been killed at Gwalior in June 1857.  Their son George Bertram Philpott was born in Agra Fort on 8 August.

Agra Fort Directory 1857 -two pages of names begiinning with S  including Mrs C Shilcock Agra Fort Directory showing entry for Mrs C Shilcock

In 1859 Rosa Mary Coopland published a memoir of her escape from Gwalior and life in Agra Fort,.  She described life in the Fort – the noise and confusion of people settling into their quarters; the staff of sweepers paid by the authorities to keep the interior clean; the butchers, bakers and laundrymen carrying on their trades within the walls; the laying-out of gardens; the making of coffins.

Agra Fort - garrison orders 1 July 1857Agra Fort - garrison orders 1 July 1857 - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur D385 

The Agra civil servants had comparatively comfortable quarters in the gardens.  A large marble hall there was used as a business office and as a church on Sundays.  The military officers and their families lived in tents, as did the Roman Catholic Archbishop and his clergy.  The highest military ranks occupied a row of small houses, and their soldiers lived in barracks.  Nuns created a school and a chapel in the place where the gun carriages had stood.  Shopkeepers and merchants made small thatched huts, and ‘every available place was crammed’, with people ‘almost as closely packed as bees in a hive’.

The memoir also told the story of a woman killed at Gwalior.  Mrs Coopland couldn’t remember the woman's name, but she was the widow of a conductor in the commissariat who had risen from the ranks and saved a great deal of money.  He had died shortly before the Uprising and his widow had buried his boxes of treasure for safety.  Apparently some sepoys demanded the treasure and shot the woman when she refused to show them the hiding place.

The dead woman was Catherine Shillcock’s elder sister Maria.  She had married Andrew Burrows, a private in HM 87th Foot, on 22 October 1821 at Fort William. They had at least seven children, with three dying as infants.

By 1857 Andrew was Deputy Commissary of Ordnance attached to the Gwalior Magazine.  He died on 14 May 1857.  His will made in 1843 left everything to Maria, but did not name an executor. As Maria was dead, the estate was settled by the Administrator General in Bengal.

On 31 July 1858 a funeral service was read at Gwalior over the remains of those who died there in June 1857, including those of George William Coopland and Maria Burrows.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Mss Eur D385 Agra Fort Directory 1857 and Garrison Orders I July 1857 in Charles Lamont Robertson Glasfurd papers.
R M Coopland, A lady’s escape from Gwalior and life in the Fort of Agra during the mutinies of 1857 (London 1859).
IOR/N/1/8 f.186 Baptism of Maria Griffiths 10 August 1809.
IOR/N/1/11 f.566 Marriage of Maria Griffiths to Andrew Burrows 22 October 1821.
IOR/N/1/94 p.140 Funeral service read at Gwalior on 31 July 1858 over remains, including those of George William Coopland, died 15 June 1857, and Maria Burrows, who died 14 June 1857.
Will and estate papers of Andrew Burrows IOR/L/AG/34/29/100 pp.210-214 & 534-535; IOR/L/AG/34/27/165 p.266; IOR/L/AG/34/27/169 p.285.