Harry William Downing: Lost at Sea

Harry William Downing  1876-1915

Painter and Sailor of Southend-on-Sea and Bristol, and my third great uncle

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Photo of Harry from Southend Standard.

Harry was the third child of Henry and Harriet Downing, brother to Emily, Joseph and my great great grandmother Annie.  He was born in Steeple, Essex, in 1876.   I am pleased to say that Harry was not a bigamist or otherwise bad egg, other than a mention in the Southend Standard in 1888 where, along with another boy, he was caught stealing wood, he seems to have been a well behaved and respectable young man.  His obituary states that Harry was “much respected and esteemed by all who knew him”.  Like his father, Henry, Harry worked as a painter and decorator.  This was no doubt a booming business at the turn of the century in Southend – the resort was growing quickly and many new homes were being built (some by my other Southend ancestors, the rich Allen family).  On 13th February 1899, Harry married Edith Emily Blakely Brown at St John the Baptist church in Southend.  They had seven children, four of which survived infancy: Harry, Leslie, Rowland and Gladys.  Around 1909, Harry joined the Orient shipping company as a steward.  Shipping records show him sailing to Australia on multiple occasions. He was also a gunner in the 1st Essex RGA Volunteers (Southend Company).  In 1914, Harry and his family moved to Horfield, near Bristol.

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St John the Baptist church, where Harry got married. Many of the Downings were members of the congregation.

In July 1915, the Canadian passenger ship HMS Royal Edward was commissioned to transport troops to Gallipoli.  Harry was part of the crew – the first pantryman.  On 28th July, the ship set sail from Avonmouth with 1,367 people on board.

Harry was never to return from that fateful journey.  Two weeks later, the Royal Edward was passing the tiny Greek island of Kandelioussa, near Kos, when it was spotted by the crew of a German submarine.  The crew had just finished the boat drill, and many were below deck stowing their equipment at the time.  The submarine fired one torpedo at the Royal Edward, hitting it squarely on the stern.  The effect was devastating.  The entire ship had sunk without a trace within six minutes, taking Harry and his comrades with it.  Less than a third of them were rescued from the water; Harry was not among the lucky ones.  His body was never found.

Harry is commemorated on the Merchant Navy memorial in Tower Hill, London.  He is also named on the roll of honour in the excellent book Fastest to Canada, which gives a detailed account of the sinking of the ship.

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Harry’s name is the second from the top and it was very hard to get a decent photo of it!

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