Engineer Sub Lieutenant Peter Caton, Royal Naval Reserve, was born at 7, Carpenter’s Row, Oxton Village, Birkenhead, in 1876. He was one of nine children born to Peter and Jane Caton. Peter Caton senior died on February 17th 1902, aged 68 and his wife Jane, the Oxton Village midwife, died on January 28th 1911, aged 71.
Peter Caton received his education at St. Saviours School, Oxton Village and on leaving school he started an apprenticeship as a boilermaker at the Laird’s Shipbuilding Yard, Birkenhead. On April 4th 1897, he married Emily Bancroft at St Nicolas Church, Liverpool. Peter and Emily went on to have six children.
Peter joined the White Star Line shortly after his marriage, serving as a boilermaker. According to his records the first ship he served on was the Athenic, from June 20th 1904 until May 12th 1905. He then moved to the Cunard Line’s Ivernia before returning to the White Star Line and joining the crew of the Republic.
The Republic was lost at sea in a collision in January 1909 near the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts. The Republic spent the winter and spring months running on White Star’s Mediterranean-New York service. The ship left New York on January 22nd 1909, bound for the Mediterranean. Early the following morning, in thick fog, she was rammed by Lloyd Italiano liner Florida. The Republic, equipped with a new Marconi wireless telegraphy transmitter, issued a C. Q. D. signal (All stations: distress) to another White Star liner, Baltic, resulting in the saving of around 1,700 lives. This was the first important marine rescue made possible by radio and brought worldwide attention to this new technology.
The saloon passengers of the Baltic and the Republic subscribed to a fund to provide medals to the crews of the Republic, Baltic and Florida for their contribution to the rescue effort. Peter Caton was the recipient of one of these medals.
On his return to England, he was transferred to the newest of the White Star Liners, Laurentic, which had been delivered by Harland and Wolff (Belfast), just prior to Peter Caton joining the crew, on April 29th 1909. He received his commission in the Royal Naval Reserve nearly four months after the outbreak of the war, on November 30th 1914, and went on to serve on board the Laurentic until the ship was lost.
In December, 1916, having returned from service off the east coast of Canada, the Laurentic docked at Birkenhead, and the crew were given shore leave. Peter Caton’s last visit to his family was a tragic one as his eldest daughter, Alice Maud, died of illness, aged 19, on January 10th 1917. By the evening of January 24th 1917, he was once again on-board the Laurentic, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Peter Caton did make it to a lifeboat and was able to get away from the sinking ship but didn’t survive that long night spent drifting about on the rough sea. In bitterly cold, strong winds at the mouth of Lough Swilly, he died as a result of exposure before his lifeboat was recovered.
Peter Caton was buried in the mass grave at St Mura’s churchyard, Fahan, near Buncrana. He is commemorated on Birkenhead Town War Memorial; on the family tombstone in Holy Cross Churchyard, Woodchurch, Wirral and on the War Memorial inside St. Saviours Church, Oxton, Birkenhead.
Liverpool Echo, February 1st 1917
John Burke’s story is based on original research by Peter Threlfall, World War 1 historian.
Additional information from:-
The British Newspaper Archive