Lost at sea, my uncle John Messenger – ERA HMAS AE1

John Messenger - Photo Courtesy Vera Ryan

Photo – courtesy Vera Ryan

My uncle John Messenger, known as Jack, was born in Ballarat, Victoria. He became a fitter and turner and studied to be a draughtsman. He was the eldest son, with six siblings. My father Albert was the second youngest. Jack was 20 when he was born.

Jack moved to Melbourne and enlisted in the Royal Navy as a crew member on the Australian Station in 1909.

Photograph of Jack in naval uniform.

Photograph of Jack in naval uniform.

He was posted to HMS Pyramus as an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) 4th class for two years and in 1912 joined the newly formed Royal Australian Navy as an ERA 3rd Class. He was drafted to the Australian Navy London Depot via HMS Challenger and then to Submarines, to HMAS AE1. It was commissioned as an RAN submarine on 28 February before undertaking its maiden voyage to Australia 2 March 1914.

These details, recently gleaned from a copy of Jack’s enlistment papers, rather put paid to the family myth about how my uncle joined the service. We thought that he had been involved in a pub brawl in which his opponent was so badly beaten that it was feared that he might die. In order to prevent Jack being charged an uncle took him to Melbourne docks to sign up on a ship to London. From this disreputable beginning he allegedly joined the Royal Navy as a way of returning to Australia.

My father had a very vague memory of Jack, whom as a child he referred to as Uncle Jacky John, not really understanding that Jack was his brother. My father’s main memory of Jack involved him being sent to sit in the parlour when naughty in front of a large photo of Jack looking down from the mantelpiece.

In her excellent book The Mystery AE1 Australia’s Lost Submarine and Her Crew, Kathryn Spurling lists Jack’s personal belongings which would have been left behind in his sea chest. This included his bible, a chronometer, a box of compasses, a drawing book of sketches, a wooden boat and assorted books.

I find this a rather poignant assortment of ‘Messenger type’ articles: our family have always treasured books; my father would have valued a chronometer and always had a set of geometry instruments; one of Jack’s great nephews and his daughter have sketch books; my father made wooden toys, whilst my son is a conservator and furniture restorer. I am not so sure about the bible left behind however I wonder if he actually had a Masonic Bible with him. (As a Hospital Chaplain for many years I recall that most bibles familiar to patients were Masonic Bibles).

The book Dinkum Oil: Letters Published in The Ballarat Courier during the Great War, by Amanda Taylor, 2006 includes this extract reporting on Jack’s death:

The  Freemasons  Lodge at  Gosport,  England contacted the family of ERA John MESSENGER with this message of support after it was learned that the Ballarat-born submariner had been lost at sea. Messenger, a  career sailor, was onboard  the Australian  submarine AEl  when it disappeared without trace on 14 September 1914.  The war in Europe was in its infancy but the loss of such a vessel – at that time the worst submarine disaster in the world – passed with barely a flicker in Ballarat. As the years passed, and the heartbreaking  death toll for local families continued to mount, the name of John Messenger stood at the head of the list as the first casualty of the Great War from the Golden City:

‘Your son was a companion with us, and we deeply deplore his death, and offer our sincere sympathy to you who were nearest and dearest to him. I feel sure it would assist you to bear the loss if you could have heard the expressions of companions over here, who were very friendly with him. Not only ourselves grieve with you, but the whole nation is deeply sorry at the loss of such gallant men.
We pray that you may be sustained in your grief, and take comfort in the knowledge that your son was held in great esteem by his companions in England, and hope you will  accept this vote of condolence and sympathy passed at our meeting…’

I cannot accept the description of the loss of AE1 in Ballarat as having passed with barely a flicker. Papers all over Australia carried articles and the Ballarat papers certainly did. My grandmother was interviewed by the Melbourne Herald:

Many messages of Sympathy have been received … by the relatives of the 5 Victorians who lost their lives in the Australian Submarine AE1. News of the disaster … reached Mrs Messenger, mother of John Messenger, engine room artificer, early on Saturday afternoon … Mrs Messenger received a message of condolence from Clyde Smith, of Sydney, a former shipmate of John Messenger, who stated that “Jack” had left with him his personal effects and a knowledge of his private affairs prior to leaving on service, and that he would be pleased to act on his mother’s behalf.

Mrs Messenger said that she had been greatly shocked at the news as three years had passed since her boy had left home. They were looking forward to seeing him when the war broke out and altered his arrangements.

A photograph of Jack in civilian clothing. Possibly the last image he sent his Mother.

A photograph of Jack in civilian clothing. Possibly the last image he sent his Mother.

He was a native of Ballarat East, and was educated at the Golden Point State School, and at the Technical School, and had qualified as a draughtsman. He served on HMS Pyramus and HMS Challenger, and went to England in the latter, where he joined AE1 when it was commissioned in England. He reached Sydney last May. He sent his photograph from Paris, and recently wrote to his mother. He said that he was still in the land of the living, and hoped soon to see all the relatives.

This was a naval tragedy never before experienced in Australia. The next year there would be thousands of sons and brothers killed overseas in war and the Australian community set in place a recognised mourning ritual. However for the families of AE1 this was an isolating experience; their communities felt helpless. The new RAN had also not encountered a loss such as this.

An old tradition in the Navy was for clothes to be sold to other sailors to raise money for the family left behind. Following this tradition the families were contacted.
My grandmother answered, Would you be kind enough to forward remaining articles belonging to my son, John Messenger to me as soon as possible as we do not wish any of his belongings to be sold. She added that she would be extremely obliged if you referred to him as Engine Room Artificer.

Money was collected for the families of the crew, (the first collection was immediately following the loss of AE1:  members of the Australian Military and Naval Expeditionary Force contributed generously to a fund for the support of the families of their lost comrades). Ministers were sent to scrutinise the suitability of families receiving donated funds. The Church of England Rector appointed to visit the Messenger family stated that the deceased lad appears to have been very devoted to his mother and the ERA had provided his family with financial assistance.  These words held a wealth of meaning within our family, as my grandmother never recovered from her grief over the death of her son.

My grandmother and other mothers and their families grieved alone. Crew members came from all over Australia, from New Zealand and the UK. One mother attempted to create a support community by sending a photo of her son to each of the mothers she could contact, asking for a photo of their son in return and suggesting that each of the mothers might also like to exchange photo. My aunt, Ruth Messenger had these photos mounted in a collage.

Photo collage of sailors and the teddy bear mascot mounted in an album

Sailors (L to R from top) Robert Smail, Jack Jarman, James Fettes, John Messenger Jack Bray R. Reardon Fred Waddilove.

R. Reardon is interesting, as his name was John, however his family nickname was Rosy as he had rosy cheeks. This followed him into the navy.
It is also interesting that there is a photo of a mascot, as there is no other reference to this. Was it perhaps a parting gift from a small child in England to a father or was there a pub visited by some crew members later missing a pub mascot? Present day submariners have opted for the latter.

The plaque in front of Jack's memorial tree at Ballarat.

The old plaque in front of Jack’s memorial tree at Ballarat.

Following the war Ruth Messenger was one of the Lucas Girls (women who worked at the Lucas Clothing Factory) who established a tree-lined avenue of honour in Ballarat. A tree in memory of Jack was planted in the Navy section. It’s plaque has recently been replaced with the acknowledgement of AE1 added to the inscription.

Vera Ryan, AE1 Descendant Families’ Association