London and The Battle of Jutland

London and The Battle of Jutland

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31st May sees the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. Although the Battle was fought far out in the North Sea, it left its mark on London.

HMS Thunderer Fitting Out at Dagenham Dock by Joseph Furnell 1911 (c) Valence House Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

HMS Thunderer Fitting Out at Dagenham Dock by Joseph Furnell 1911 (c) Valence House Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of World War One, the long anticipated clash between the battleships that Germany and Britain had been building in a naval arms race preceding the war.

Over two days, 250 combat ships fought each other out in the North Sea. At the end of the battle 8,645 sailors were dead and 23 ships lay at the bottom of the sea. Although London isn’t so obviously associated with the Royal Navy, the battle involved sailors from London, was controlled from London and featured the last and biggest battleship built on the Thames.

In 1909 the Admiralty proposed the construction of six new Super Dreadnought ships –  fast, heavily armoured warships with powerful guns but the Treasury, desperate to cut the expenditure of the navy, only signed off four ships. This led MP George Wyndham to demand more ships be built under the rallying cry “We want eight and we won’t wait”.

Building eight huge battleships meant that all the shipyard capacity around the country had to be utilised, including the largest shipbuilder in London, the Thames Ironworks, which was located just south of Canning Town station. HMS Thunderer was such a large ship she dominated the Thames Ironworks, so that the companies usual products – paddle steamers, iron bridges and even early motor cars, could not be produced at the same time.

This led to the Thames Ironworks going bankrupt after Thunderer was launched in 1911. Even then the ship was not finished – there was no space to put in place the ships huge gun turrets and so work was completed at Dagenham Dock, where she became something of an attraction as you can see from Joseph Furnell’s striking picture above. There is still a Thunderer Road at Dagenham Dock, which commemorates the ship.

HMS Thunderer included a number of cutting edge features. It was equipped with a Dreyer fire control system – effectively an early form of computer and had radio masts that meant it could communicate with the Admiralty and other ships, rather than rely on flag signals.

During the battle Thunderer only played a minor role, firing and missing at a German ship, then, luckily, firing and missing at a British ship. She returned home from the battle unscathed and was scrapped in 1926.

The Admiralty

The Old Admiralty

Ships with powerful radio like HMS Thunderer meant that a naval battle could be controlled from the Admiralty building in London. You can see the buildings today from Horse Guards Parade (From 2017 they will house the Department of Education), and they are usually open as part of London Open House weekend.

In the old part of this building Room 40 held the codebreaking team, which had been assembled at the start of the war to crack German naval signals.

By 1916, unaware to the Germans, Room 40 had cracked the code and the German plans to lure the British fleet to destruction at Jutland had been intercepted, meaning that an ambush of British ships was avoided.

Room 40 in London thus played a key part in the battle and preventing a German naval blockade starving Britain into submission.

Despite the heavy loss of life and ships at Jutland, it was far from a decisive battle.

Neither the British or German Fleet was wiped out. The German Fleet was prevented from taking to the seas again for the rest of the war but that wasn’t the “Trafalgar-like” victory that the British press, and to a certain extent, the British public were hoping for.

The British commanders Sir John Jellicoe and Sir David Beatty were criticised for being over-cautious and it was not until after their death that their part in the battle was recognised.

Jellicoe died in 1935 and it’s possible Beattie’s own death was hastened by acting as pallbearer at Jellicoe’s funeral, despite having suffered a heart attack and being ill with flu.

You will definitely have seen their memorial though – the fountains in Trafalgar Square.

Fountain Trafalgar Square

Memorial Fountain to John Jellicoe in Trafalgar Square

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin proposed memorials to the two men – it was assumed these would be statues, but the suggestion that they should replace the statues of General Havelock and Napier on plinths flanking Nelson was rejected.

Then came the innovative suggestion that the memorials should take the form of fountains due to the “dearth of good sites now remaining in London and … the superfluity of statues in the metropolis.”

Lutyens’ original design for the fountains (to replace those already in the square) included an obelisk in the centre supported on a rectangular plinth containing a bust of each Admiral but this was rejected as too funereal.

So smaller busts of them were set in the wall near the fountain. Busts unveiled and fountains turned on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1948. There’s a Pathe news video of unveiling by Duke of Gloucester here:

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Busts of Beatty, Jellicoe and a well-worn tablet remembering their role in the Battle of Jutland

Four Victoria Crosses were awarded after the battle.

The youngest and most famous recipient was Jack Cornwell, who was from Leyton and was aged just 16.

kitchener memorial st botolphs

Memorial to dead of World War One at St Botolph Bishopsgate which includes a dedication to Jack Cornwell

He was serving aboard HMS Chester which came under heavy fire during the battle. Cornwell was part of a crew of a 5.5 inch gun that was not protected by an armoured turret  so when the gun took a direct hit all the crew were killed apart from young Cornwell. Despite the severity of his injuries he as found still at his position at the end of the battle.

He was taken to hospital but died shortly afterwards, and buried in Manor Park Cemetery, where you can see his grave today.  He was given a posthumous VC later in 1916 and became a national hero.

The 5.5 inch gun he crewed is still on display at the Imperial War Museum as is his VC. A road in Ilford is named after him and Newham has a Jack Cornwell Community Centre to remember him. The memorial outside St Botolph’s in Bishopsgate also bears a dedication to him.

The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich is holding a small exhibition on the Battle of Jutland in one of the  galleries on the ground floor Neptune Court  at present.

The exhibition includes a poppy flower-shaped casket filled with message from visitors to the exhibition which is due to be removed on 26th May.

This giant poppy complete with its messages inside will be loaded onto a Royal Navy warship and taken out to the Jutland battle site where it will be ceremoniously ‘buried at sea”, a fitting way to remember the connection between London and this battle fought far out at sea.


Rob Smith, Jen Pedler, Neil Sinclair, Robin Rowles, and Dave Brown all contributed text and pictures to this article. Look out for Jen’s new walk about World War I statues later in the year. Rob will be visiting Thunderer Road in September as part of his Industrial History of Dagenham Dock walk.

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