Petty Officer Ralph Cuthbert was born in Stanwick, Northampton, on the 20th of March 1878. He was the youngest son of Joseph Cuthbert, a boot and shoemaker, and his second wife Betsy. Joseph and Betsy, both from Stanwick, married in 1866 after the death of Joseph’s first wife, Emma, the previous year, when she was only 23 years of age.
In 1871 the couple were living at 27 Back Lane, Stanwick with Joseph’s two daughters from his first marriage, Ada and Clara Ellen, and Joseph and Betsy’s children Edward, Emma, and Edith. Joseph was working as a shoemaker and Betsy was a lace maker.
By the spring of 1878 the couple had four more children:Margaret, Anne Maria, Owen, and Ralph. Betsy died in 1879, when Ralph was only a year old, leaving Joseph to manage nine children on his own, but in 1882 he married for a third time to Elizabeth Peach. She took care of Joseph’s younger children, and went on to have three boys of her own: Ernest, Frederick and Herbert. By 1891 the family had moved to Kingsthorpe. Elizabeth died there in 1893, and three years later Ralph’s father remarried. His fourth wife, Lydia Howlett, née Willett, had children of her own, but had no children with Joseph. In the 1901 Census Joseph and Lydia were living at Top End, Stanwick, with Lydia’s son Frederick, and Joseph’s two youngest sons, Frederick and Herbert.
Ralph Cuthbert entered the Navy, joining HMS Impregnable as a Boy 2nd Class on 14th September 1893 when he was 15 years old. He had previously worked in his father’s trade as a bootmaker. On his eighteenth birthday, he signed on for a twelve-year engagement, and was rated as Ordinary Seaman. He joined HMS Calypso, part of the Sail Training Squadron, on 10th October 1895.
Ralph then joined the HMS Amphion on the 7th of January 1897, when the ship was commissioned for three years of service on the Pacific station. While he was serving on the Amphion, Ralph was rated Able Seaman and became a “trained man”. The Amphion returned to the UK in February 1900.
From May to October 1900, Ralph undertook gunnery training at HMS Cambridge, the gunnery training ship moored in Devonport, qualifying as Seaman Gunner 2nd Class. He was then appointed to HMS Britannia as Able Seaman in February 1901.
Work had started on the new training college for Naval Officer cadets at Dartmouth in 1898, but at the time of Ralph’s appointment, training was still carried on in the old sailing ships, Britannia and Hindostan, moored in the Dart.
While he was living in Dartmouth Ralph married Edith Maude Millman, on 5th March 1902, at St Saviours. Edith was a local girl, the second daughter of William and Mary Millman.
Ralph and Edith’s first child, Dorothy Nellie Maud, was born in July 1902 and baptised at St Saviours, just across the road from the family’s home in St Saviours Square, Dartmouth. Ralph’s appointment to HMS Britannia ended soon after on 3rd September 1902 so he didn’t have much time with his new daughter.
In December 1902 Ralph was back at HMS Cambridge for more training, after which he was posted to HMS Royal Oak from June to November 1903. Royal Oak was a pre-dreadnought battleship, at that time serving in the Home Fleet.
Then followed two and a half years on HMS Bonaventure during which he was promoted to Leading Seaman in November 1904 and Petty Officer 2nd Class in November 1905. For most of this time the Bonaventure was at the Pacific Station, arriving at Esquimault, Canada at the end of March 1904 and not returning to England until May 1906.
On his return, Ralph was sent for a third time to HMS Cambridge. His naval service record notes that he was “to be examined as to his fitness for rating of Gun Layer”. Instead, he qualified as a sightsetter, the person who keeps a settable gun sight set to the range and deflection required to find the angles to place shells on target. He spent six months at HMS Cambridge during the second half of 1906.
Ralph and Edith had another daughter, Barbara Evelyn Beryl, born March 1907, in Dartmouth. By this time, Ralph was serving once again on HMS Royal Oak, while the ship was in reserve at Devonport. In June 1907, he transferred to Royal Oak’s sister ship HMS Ramillies, part of the Home Fleet. Ralph’s naval career was going well. Although it must have been difficult to be away from home for such long periods, the job did offer security. In 1908, he signed up for another ten years service to complete the term required for a pension.
He then moved to the Devonport Division of the Home Fleet, serving on HMS Caesar from June 1908 to May 1909, and her fellow Majestic-class battleship, HMS Mars, from May 1909 to April 1910. Ralph and Edith had a third daughter,Viven Margery, born January 1910.
Shortly after Vivien’s birth, Ralph was appointed to HMS Vivid I, the name used for the naval base at Devonport. The appointment last for a year from April 1910-April 1911. Ralph was promoted to Petty Officer 1st Class in December 1910. Around this time the family moved from Dartmouth to Devonport, where the 1911 Census recorded Ralph, Edith and the three girls living at 9 Wake Street, Pennycomequick.
Ralph joined HMS Collingwood, a dreadnought battleship, in May 1911. His only son Basil Morris Gordon was born seven months later, in November 1911.
Ralph was still serving in Collingwood at the outbreak of war, and found himself part of the Grand Fleet, in Scapa Flow. Collingwood was at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 so it’s likely that Ralph was there too. Ralph left HMS Collingwood on the 13th of November 1916 and was appointed the following day to HMS Vivid I “for Laurentic”.
Ralph did not join the Laurentic immediately on leaving Collingwood, as the ship was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time, and didn’t return to Liverpool till the 6th of December. Leave was given to the ship’s company until 22nd December 1916; 114 more ratings joined the ship on Christmas Day 1916, probably including Ralph.
We do not know whether Ralph Cuthbert managed to get to a lifeboat but we do know that his body was never recovered from the sea. He is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.
Census Returns of England & Wales, 1871, ’81, ’91, 1911. The National Archives of the UK
HMS Laurentic, by Robert Cuthrie, North Irish Roots, North of Ireland Family History Society 2002